As Senior vice president, publisher and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam's Sons, how would you describe the current state of the publishing industry? The news all seems pretty grim from where some of us sit--book sales down, advances drying up, booksellers disappearing, industry layoffs, etc. In your view, where are we now, and where are we likely to be in five years, say?

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Thanks for the quick and thoughtful response, Neil. Are you in the mood for a followup?

We'll have a greater digital mix than we do now -- ereaders will have advanced considerably by then, there'll be a lot more downloads.

This goes to another worry that many of us have, which is that the publishing industry is essentially following the recording industry into file-sharing oblivion. Where there are downloads of digital files, can file sharing a la BitTorrent, etc., be far behind? If so, doesn't that put us all pretty much out of business?
Sorry to take the mic from you, Neil. I'll give it back in a sec.

Don't fear the reaper, Jon. Here's how the rosy thoughts of e-books get me to sleep at night:

1) Even if a file-sharing hellstorm descends upon the industry, it won't be a whole heck of a lot different from now. Currently, I can pay for a book, read it and give it to my friend Biff. Biff can read it for free. This hasn't been a problem. Of course, the technology now could distribute it to thousands of Biffs. That's a good thing because...

2) More people reading you equals more exposure. Yes, some might not pay for it. It shouldn't be too much of a problem, however, because...

3) People do not and cannot consume books the same way they do music. I can listen to a song in three minutes. A book will take me a weekend. File sharing thousands of books doesn't mean those books are being consumed. In fact, most won't read them at all. The ones who do read them...

4) Are the same ones most likely to buy your book. They'll probably want it in e-book form, too. Which is why...

5) E-books are not a threat. In a SWOT analysis, I'd put them as an opportunity.

Besides being an opportunity, e-books are also the future.
I'm not so sanguine, Benjamin, although I wish I was. What's happening in publishing now has a lot of ominous echoes for those of us who were around to watch the recording industry bearing down on the iceberg in the mid-'90s. They believed their format was secure, that PCs would never come standard with CD-readers/recorders, that the internet was no big deal, and ultimately that customers' annoyance at inflated CD prices could be safely ignored. Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again--goodbye recording industry as we know it. As for the "giving your stuff away for free is good for sales" business model--tell it to the newspaper industry, which is also swirling the bowl. I don't mean to be the voice of doom, or to contradict you out of hand, but I'm enough of a luddite to feel that ebooks should be fiercely resisted by those of us who have creative skin in the game.
I'm not advocating giving books away for free. I'm saying e-books can still build you a new garage. There's plenty of opportunity in that medium. I think you'll be convinced in the future.

Embrace new mediums before you miss the boat. If not, you'll end up on the shoreline with the other wreckage.
I agree. After all, TV didn't kill radio. The VCR didn't destroy TV. The formats change, but the industry isn't replaced. Maybe it seems more dramatic for books since books have changed so little over the years.
You're right on with that one, John. New technologies are always met with a healthy dose of apprehension. Given time, they are also embraced.

The market is like the wind. It's better if it has your back.
Hi, I've read through a couple of dozen replies and mostly they make sense from most aspects. Now, my first book was published in South Africa by a very small publisher who deals only with South African based writers, and even then on a small scale, and it hasn't helped me at all when trying to get into the big markets (UK, USA) and I am making very little money. So, I think to my self, 'let's go ebook publishing and see if that get's the book known in these markets' but as much as I search ebook sites, I can't get a handle on how one goes about doing this, (yes I'm not particually computer literate, I know) but if anyone has the name of a site that will actually make sense to me, please let me?)
Just on the point of ebooks, I can see that there will be a large problem, how do I get exposure for the book once it is available in ebook form? Since this is where, to my mind, the publisher really earns his money - marketing - and he is now out of the equation, how do we go about it?

Aha. I wondered about BitTorrent. They grabbed one of my books. And when I tried to investigate, I landed on a porno page. Talk about adding insult to injury.
I agree with Neil's advice that writers should focus on writing, but if you are in writing as a business as well as a creative pursuit, ignoring what's going on right now doesn't seem wise to me.

And with all due respect to Neil, I'm not ready to accept whatever he says as wisdom just because of his position within the industry. In fact, his position within the industry makes me more cynical and guarded about what he says. No one was being so deferential to Neil earlier before it was made clear (not that it was a secret before) that he was high up in a major publishing company. The responses so far sound more like attempts to cultivate a connection within the industry than trying to probe for real perspective from the other side.

Neil's response to me sounds like he is trying to convince us our house isn't on fire even though we can all smell the smoke. Jon's original questions remains unanswered: what is the current state of the publishing industry. I'm surprised people are willing to accept so readily "things are bad everywhere" as a good response.

What are publishers thinking? We ask that kind of stuff all the time when Neil isn't around. I think it's folly to change our tune now. Why do publishers insist on relying so much on creating a bestseller? Why was "kinda liking it" ever good enough? Has anyone at these publishing houses stopped to think that maybe accepting something they kind of liked is a big part of the problem? Why is the industry so slow to change? What do publishers think this massive consolidation is going to achieve? What are their future plans with regards ebooks and how do they think the internet will affect the industry? What do publishers in America think about the trends in other nations, such as cellphone novels gaining ground in Japan, such as Giddens and Hiyawu, to two Taiwanese writers who became bestsellers after publishing their novels on the internet. The former is only 30 years old yet has published 51 books. How much is the internet going to change the industry?

The industry is changing; everyone admits that. So why should writers keep their head down and keep doing what they've been doing? The cynic in me is unwilling to ignore the interest Neil has in calming the waters, to assure everyone that the industry is going through a cycle. It makes sense. If the industry really is heading for changes, then there is the possibility that the major publishing houses may become less relevant in the future. Obviously they don't want that. And I'm certainly not willing to just accept that what's going on is just part of a cycle. Everyone took the financial mess lightly until it was impossible to ignore or cover up. The Japanese government tried hard during WWII to convince its people they were winning the war. It was pretty hard to keep that up when half your capital city is wiped out in one night by fire bombs. How close is the publishing industry to that point?

I'm not saying that Neil is trying to cover anything up or be dishonest in anyway. I'm just saying writers should be careful about accepting whatever someone high up says as gold just because of their position. The current financial mess has shown what folly that can be.
John--I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm actually interested enough in what Neil has to say that I'm willing to be polite and let him say it. I have other questions, still, about how he sees the writer's end of things going forward (are we witnessing the demise of the professional writer with the advent of ebooks/file-sharing and the gradual phasing out of the book advance?), but I can be patient and let the man answer when/as he sees fit. He's not on trial here. And really, can you not see that you might be going a little off the reservation--even for you--in comparing a publishing executive to Imperial Japan?
The hard part about gauging where publishing stands is the economic mess. I think John's and Jon's questions can be answered better when the economy stabilizes and everything gets back to par.

I don't blame Neil for seeking to "calm the waters." It's hard to adapt to market demands when your main concern is keeping the lights on. That goes for everyone in any media.
My impulse is actually to sit it out for the time being--I have a couple of proposals for books I'd like to write, but I'm inclined to wait a bit before submitting them until things settle down and publishers are ready to start writing actual checks again. My agent, wise woman that she is, concurs. It's a crappy time to try to sell a project--it's not that there aren't takers, but the offers really suck at the moment. I'm not doing this because I need the ego strokes--I'm doing it because we need a new garage.


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