Inverted Publishing Funnel

Nathan Bransford’s June 10 HuffPo post, “The Rejection Letter of the Future Will Be Silence (And Why This is a Good Thing)” expresses the optimism that I share about the democratization of the publishing industry. His Neil Postman-esque reflection doesn’t flinch from the downside of the Post-Gutenberg Paradigm, but the tenor is undeniably positive: “the very nature of commercial viability in the publishing world is changing quickly with the transition to e-books, and I think it’s ultimately a change for the better.” The agents and publishers who recognize that this publishing funnel inversion will thrive, profit and help redefine the future. Those who hesitate, resist or cling to the Gutenberg Paradigm will struggle to survive.

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, notes that we’re moving from an era where we filtered and then published to one where we’ll publish and then filter. And no one would be happier than me to hand the filtering reins over to the reading public, who will surely be better at judging which books should rise to the top than the best guesses of a handful of publishing professionals.

I don’t see this transition as the demise of traditional publishing or agenting. Roles will change, but there are still some fundamental elements that will remain. There’s more that goes into a book than just writing it, and publishers will be the best-equipped to maintain the editorial quality, production value, and marketing heft that will still be necessary for the biggest books. Authors will still need experienced advocates to navigate this landscape, place subsidiary rights (i.e. translation, film, audio, etc.), and negotiate on their behalf.

What’s changing is that the funnel is in the process of inverting – from a top down publishing process to one that’s bottom up.

Yes, many (if not most) of the books that will see publication in the new era will only be read by a handful of people. Rather than a rejection letter from an agent, authors will be met with the silence of a trickle of sales. And that’s okay!! Even if a book is only purchased by a few friends and family members — what’s the harm?

Meanwhile, the public will have the ultimate, unlimited ability to find the books they want to read, will be unconstrained by the tastes of the publishing industry and past standards of commercial viability, and whether you want to read experimental literary fiction or a potboiler mystery: you’ll be able to find it. Out of the vastness of books published the best books will emerge, driven to popularity by passionate readers. (Bransford, Nathan.”The Rejection Letter of the Future Will Be Silence(And Why This is a Good Thing).” The Huffington Post. 6/10/2010)

Update: Several colleagues and friends get their feathers ruffled each time I pronounce this vision, and I expect this post will be no exception. But it’s worth noting that I do believe books have a long and exciting future. They are valuable, enjoyable and luxurious. They will continue to be. Perhaps moreso as the publishing world evolves in and increasingly digital, decreasingly paper-based direction. Specialty book publishing is likely to endure for these reasons, and because certain content lends itself to print far better than digital formats. But, bibliophile leanings notwithstanding, I’m quite comfortable with the transition from print to digital for most content distribution including fiction, non-fiction, literature, education, etc. In fact, the transition excites me enormously. I believe that digital storytelling will reignite innovation among writers, artists, designers and publishers. New genres will emerge as a result, and debates will rage over what is/isn’t literature. It will be exciting! And there will be less silo-ing, less manipulation of markets and information, less “clubbiness” in the publishing world. This may not last forever, but even for a while these will be positive changes.

Read Nathan Bransford’s full post at The Huffington Post.


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