Is There a Future for Books?

At Wharton School’s Future of Publishing Conference, insiders debated what the future may hold for the publishing industry.

By Steven Kurutz

Here’s a riddle for the publishing industry: if someone were to write a book about the future of books, what would the result look like?

Published between covers or an e-book? Released by a traditional house or self-published? Promoted through traditional channels or social media? Sold at Barnes & Noble or uploaded to the Kindle or iPad?

The currently amorphous answers are being debated in editorial offices, corporate boardrooms and, increasingly, in public, as though the industry, facing the digital revolution and wary of a misstep, wants to test new concepts. Three separate panels were held over the span of a week in April in New York to discuss the book’s future. The most prominent took place during the Wharton’s Future of Publishing Conference, a kind of Apalachin Meeting for the media in which high-ranking emissaries from the industry came together at the Marriott Marquis to plot a course forward. Days earlier at the New School, the London Review of Books pondered the “Author in the Age of the Internet,” and two days after Wharton’s event, at the PEN World Voices Festival, another talk covered similar ground.

In attending these events, two things became clear: Gutenberg’s name hasn’t been invoked this much since the 15th century—as in, “Not since Gutenberg invented the printing press”—and, while theories abound, no one knows what book publishing will resemble even two years from now. “People have presented interesting pieces but I haven’t seen anybody put the whole picture together,” says Brendan Cahill, C’96, WG’98. Formerly an editor at Gotham Books, Cahill left traditional publishing and went to Wharton to get his MBA. Now he’s looking to “crack the code,” as he put it, and create a new business model for the 21st century as Vice President of e-book publisher Open Road.

Cahill was one of the panelists at the Wharton conference, which was sponsored by the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative (WIMI), Knowledge@Wharton and Wharton School Publishing. Peter Fader, Wharton’s Frances and Pei-Yuan Chia Professor and co-director of WIMI, said the idea was “to get folks together and, instead of navel gazing, rely on data.” Not that navel gazing didn’t take place. What follows are some thoughts on the future of the book from participants of the Wharton and London Review panels. In their conflicting mix of optimism, anxiety, measured concern and humor, the comments illustrate the diverse range of thought at this critical and unsure moment in the history of the published word.

JASON EPSTEIN, founder, On Demand Books: “The fragility of content in digital form is something to worry about…It’s very, very important that we keep physical inventories…Because that’s all we have between ourselves and chaos.”

JOHN LANCHESTER, British writer, novelist: “When I picked up my felt tip pen, I was hoping to write books. I wasn’t expecting to live through a moment of cultural and technological ferment.”

BRENDAN CAHILL: “E-books are the future, and it’s going to be here faster than anyone thinks.”

JAMES WOOD, New Yorker magazine: “I bumped into Andrew Sullivan a couple of weeks ago in Washington, DC. Some of you know he made a switch from print journalism to blogging at the Atlantic. I said how are you doing? He said, not so well. I was thinking he was going to talk about his physical health. It was really his mental health he talked about. He does 300 posts a week. As you might imagine, it has completely interfered with his ability to concentrate on anything longer than a few paragraphs.”

ELLEN ARCHER, president/publisher of Hyperion: “The beauty of a book for me has been about the writing and storytelling. I don’t feel the need to hold a physical book in my hand.”

STEVE WILSON, co-founder, Fast Pencil: “In 2009, traditional publishing remained stagnant, and self-publishing grew by almost 200%. Just like you see on TV—it’s reality shows, individuals being themselves.”

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