About ten years ago I worked for a startup that launched a social media site for published authors. This was the first place where I really started to meet writers and come in contact with people in the industry. In the spring of 2008 one of the topics being bantered about on our website was the question of self-publishing. Specifically, did the rise of it spell tragedy for good literature everywhere?
Nearly a decade later I can’t believe how worked up people got about it, and how worked up some people still are today. Because the fact of the matter is that self-publishing is here to stay, and it’s probably the best thing that’s happened to writers since the invention of computers.
So in the spirit of progress, and in my belief that evolution only moves one way, here are my three predictions for the way I think things in the book industry will change in the next 20 years.
Bookstores Will Become Community Centers
Way back in September 1998 it was the first day of my junior year in college, and I was sitting in one of four literature classes I had signed up for that semester. My professor asked if anyone wanted to add any remarks to the discussion before the end of class and one random guy raised his hand. “Yeah,” he said, turning to face all of us. “Have you guys ever heard of this website, Amazon.com?”
Ironically enough, my school was located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of Borders Bookstores. I have since wondered what would have happened if the CEO of Borders had been in class with me that day and seen the overwhelming excitement of 30 students who just learned they could buy textbooks at HALF the price AND get them delivered to their door. Maybe Borders would have realized exactly what Amazon was bringing to the table and adjusted accordingly.
Sadly, Borders never came close to adjusting accordingly. The good news is that many small, independently-owned bookstores not only came close, but soared above and beyond. Successful indie bookstores in this current day and age know that it’s not just about the books, it’s about the connections that are made through those books. I fully expect this trend to continue.
In 20 years I predict small indie bookstores will have blossomed into thriving community centers that offer classes for continuing education, invite people to participate in community-based art projects, and work hand-in-glove with self-published writers to get books moving out the door. Many will offer live music, and some will double as a performance space for dance and theater, or galleries for experimental art. In the future artists will really get the fact that we are stronger when we work together. The bookstore will be a place where all creative types are welcome to come fill their wells.
Agents Will Be the Ones in Pursuit of Authors
I might get some blow-back from this one, just because it’s so difficult to imagine this scenario when what we’re used to is the current agent-author framework. But trust me. Like I said, self-publishing isn’t going away and my personal feeling is that it’s just going to get better and better, finding its way inevitably to a reality where emerging writers routinely harness the power of social media combined with creative entrepreneurship to form one kick-ass mojo machine.
In the future, hungry agents will scour the online world for writers who show promise and then put together pitches and packages in the hopes of enticing them to sign a contract. The weird thing is, I don’t think most writers will be interested—hence the hungry agents. By the time two more decades have passed the writers in this brave new world will have grown up with self-publishing. They will have childhoods steeped in memories of playing video games put out by indie producers, watching movies and shows made by indie online streaming services…and reading books by self-published indie writers. Their parents will be Millenials. The internet won’t be the first place they go for books, it will be the only place.
Writers of the future will understand all of this, and they will capitalize on it. Big name publishers and literary agencies are going to have to shift in a direction that forces them to pay out many more benefits to writers and other creative folk if they want any chance of representing them.
Print Books Will Still Be Beloved
Surprised you with this one, didn’t I? You thought I was going to say that in 20 years we’ll all have chips implanted in our heads that will project a hologram of our Kindle right in front of our eyes with the push of button. Well, maybe. But I still don’t think print books will be obsolete. The thing is people like pleasurable physical experiences. And reading a real, paper book IS a pleasurable physical experience for book nuts. I don’t think this is because our generation grew up with paper. On the contrary, I think the act of reading a real book has enough power to carry across generations.
However—I still predict that the game will change in this area. No one will order books to be delivered anymore. Instead, everyone will have a 3-D printer (it’ll probably be as common as having a microwave in the kitchen) and they’ll print books on demand whenever they want them. This will spell even more freedom for indie writers and small presses (yup, I think those will still be flourishing in the future too) and will provide even more motivation for new fans to press the “buy now” button because no one will have to deal with shipping costs.
Seriously, if people are now 3-D printing things like light switches and bottle openers at home, how long do you really think it’s going to be before printing books becomes the usual thing to do?
Those are my three predictions for the future of books over the next 20 years. What are yours? I’d love to hear about them. Leave your predictions in the comments or tweet at me!