The future is now...ish

This is a neat article in the New York Times about a fellow named John Paton who is trying to save newspapers by removing the whole "paper" end of the business.

Newspapers have this fabulous infrastructure--they can print up a solid ton of papers and distribute them all over a city in no time flat. It's pretty amazing, but nowadays there's an even faster method to distribute information that doesn't use paper at all: the Internet. That remarkable infrastructure newspapers have that lets them move a solid ton of paper also happens to be really, really expensive, and to support it, newspapers have to make another solid ton of money.

Web sites and the like make less than a solid ton of money. The article notes, "Mr. Paton has heard all about how choosing digital revenue over print revenue is like choosing dimes over dollars. He points out that the print dollars have dropped by more than half in the last five years and perhaps it is time to start 'stacking the dimes.'"

In other words, newspapers don't have the revenue to support this paper-moving infrastructure anymore. If they want to stay in business, they'll have to shed the expensive infrastructure (not an easy thing to do because they usually own printing presses and delivery fleets and all that). If they manage to do that, they have a shot of remaining profitable even if their revenues are lower.

If they become newspapers in name only, they will have the reporters and the editors and the news--but they won't have the paper. Instead, they will function just like a Web news site, adding features like reader blogs that they never had before.

Along those lines, Dean Wesley Smith notes that Penguin has a new agreement with a print-on-demand publisher to provide POD services for all of Penguin's imprints. In the past, POD was expensive, but it's become cheaper at the same time that ordinary printing runs are getting smaller and more expensive. So, voila, here's a traditional publisher suddenly looking a lot more like an upstart small press or self-publisher--eliminating expensive infrastructure and bringing down costs so that they can profit even as revenues shrink.

I think another aspect of the business that is going to be drastically altered is acquisitions. I've said this before, but I just don't see why you would bother trying to guess which books are going to be best-sellers when you can just look at the Amazon rankings and see who is already a best-seller.

I'm not the only one thinking this way: If you read the comments on Hodges' scary agency contract story, you'll see that the agent basically mass-solicited indie authors with good sales records. This kind of mass-solicitation isn't inherently unethical, and we'll probably see more of it (hopefully with better deals for authors) because it is so efficient.

So, I think just as newspapers will become news sites, traditional publishers will become much more like the POD/e-book-reliant indies. Just as newspapers will incorporate things like reader blogs, traditional publishers will figure out how to incorporate and monetize self-publishing. And just as the newspapers that don't do these things will vanish, never to be heard from again...yeah.