Gini Dietrich

The Death of Traditional Book Publishing

By: Gini Dietrich | August 25, 2010 | 

On Sunday afternoon, because of a comedy of errors that included Joe Thornley pouring himself a glass of scotch and wondering what he was getting ready for (and not remembering what it was until Monday) and my being so tired after the big ride with my dad in Oregon that I was asleep at 5:00, we had to reschedule our InsidePR recording for this afternoon.

Getting ready to get on Skype with Joe and Martin Waxman, I tweeted, “Hmmm…about to record @Inside_PR. What should we discuss this week?”

My friend Petya Georgieva suggested Seth Godin’s decision to give up on traditional book publishing.

Great idea, Petya! The problem is, we STILL haven’t recorded episode 2.18 because we all got on Skype and my sound wasn’t working. So Joe and Martin were talking to me and I was typing back to them. Really, really funny (maybe you had to be there), but it definitely does not work for a podcast.

So, I figured I’d blog about it instead. How’s that for burying the lead??

If you haven’t read Seth’s blog post about ditching his publisher and editors in favor of working directly with his readers, click here and go read it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

All good?

I think Seth is freaking brilliant. I also think engaging your customers, where they are already participating online, is what every one of us should be doing. But… I wonder what giving up the traditional book does for one’s reputation?

Through my travels and speaking, I see way too many people who still value the hard cover book, the printed newspaper, and the glossy, four-color magazine. Not to say there isn’t major room for other options (we are, after all, having this discussion on a blog), and we all know traditional media is dying very quickly, but being a published author, and a New York Times best seller, still has cache.

I use to carry my Kindle around everywhere and now I read everything on the iPad. But I still love a book. I love the feel and the smell of them. I have a library in my house. If I read a book on my iPad that I love, I then buy it for my library (the Steig Larrson books? Own all of them, though I read them all electronically). The book world is actually making more money on me now. You can take the girl out of university, but you can’t take the English degree away from her.

Perhaps Seth can pull this off because he has 12 best sellers under his belt. But I want to get at least one under mine before traditional book publishing goes away and every Tom, Dick, and Harry can publish their own books. I want the cache of someone else saying I’m brilliant enough to publish me…and I want the New York Times to concur. Guess I’d better get to it!

What do you think? The death of traditional book publishing: Brilliant or short-sighted?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Hi Gini!

    Traditional book publishing needs to evolve like traditional media. Technology is paving the way for new ways to get content out to people (on their terms)…your iPad for example. However, you still like books and want to fill your library at home. What I find fascinating is how technology is making our lives simpler and putting “traditional” methods of thinking on notice.

    Death of traditional book publishing? I say brilliant because as technology continues to find its way into our lives nothing remains traditional.

  • The idea is both brilliant AND short-sighted. Brilliant because the approach Seth outlines is exactly what every publisher should be doing for its authors, and exactly what authors should be doing. Short-sighted for something you already wrote “You can take the girl out of university, but you can’t take the English degree away from her.” Hear hear. I may follow and read about the adventures of my favorite authors online, and I may have started my interactive career by helping a newspaper create its Prodigy site (yeah, way back then), but I still don’t own a Kindle or an iPad or a Nook. There’s nothing quite like the feel of the pages in my hands or the sound of the page turning. I’ve made the transition to getting most of my news online, but I’m on the computer all day, every day, doing pretty intensive reading and writing and project plan manipulation, so when I relax at the end of the day it’s the tactile paper experience of books that does it for me. And I don’t think I’m alone in that – I haven’t yet had the experience of walking into an empty book store, getting to the book I want without tripping over or doing the “which way are you going” dance with at least three people, or getting said book(s) without having to wait in line to purchase. And you can be darn sure I’m teaching my son about the tactile joys of reading – he loves little more than to grab a pile of books, curl up with Mommy or Daddy, and read. For hours. I think the truth lies between the brilliance and the short-sightedness. Will publishing continue to suffer? Yes, if they keep operating under the grip of fear. But the opportunity to forge new ground and create new readers – both of the digital AND the print variety – is huge and unless they conquer that fear someone else will decide their fate for them.

  • Rick

    I applaud Seth for trying this out. But I really don’t think traditional book publishing is dying. If anything it’s gearing up for a format battle. Aren’t people buying more books than ever? Maybe I’m imagining that stat…

    But I do agree traditional book publishing isn’t enough.

    I just wonder what Seth will tell his readers when they ask him “where can I get the paper copy too?”

    • Kent

      Sorry Rick. I read today in 4 separate Wall Street Journal stories that Barnes and Noble had a 10% decline in print book sales this last quarter and a 250% increase in e-book sales. Amazon reported that e-book sales have passed hardcover sales for the first time.

      In India, the government has backed an R&D effort to develop an inexpensive electronic think pad (similar in size to Apple’s i-pad. Their finished product costs $35.00 (that’s not a misprint) and they hope to get it down to $10.00 with the backing of a “undisclosed” business partner. This device was created for third world countries and their school populations. It surfs the internet, sends and receives e-mails and has a simple word processor. It doesn’t have a hard drive, but has a thumb-drive for storage of memory.

      Our own public schools are on the verge of going digital for study materials, as well as gaming programs designed to educate and the days of print text are coming to an end. Not a matter of if…simply when.

      When $35 think-pads are available, the culture will adapt to electronic readers the same way we have adopted cell phones and texting as the new norm.

      I like the feel of paper myself, but this change is not just on the horizon, it’s zooming past the gate where we’re standing.

      • Hi Kent,
        Thanks for the reply. Looks like e-books are hitting their tipping point this summer.

        I had read a few place, maybe 6-8 months ago, that print sales were up. But that’s clearly changing quickly as more people get digital readers.

  • Erin Adler

    I have always enjoyed reading and feel having a book in my hand is way better than my eyes on a computer screen all day.

    I know many universities are starting to give students iPad and Kindles with their semester textbooks on them, and testing to see the result. This could have an impact on textbook publishing and in turn traditional. How many young kids will one day turn on a Kindle for their summer and classroom reading and continue that habit as adults?

    Personally I would have felt better about saving some trees, money, and backpack space by having an iPad with all my textbooks. I then wonder if this would have changed my reading habits. Traditional publishing could be greatly affected depending on the next generation’s reading habits.

  • I work with a small publisher to promote books on the internet. We are, indeed, moving towards electronic publishing. However, it’s still publishing in the sense that it includes all of the editing, marketing, and other costs required to make a good book.

    Printing and distribution can be saved by going with new technology, but there is no substitute for the team that it takes to produce a well polished work. That, sadly, is being thrown out along with the printing costs as traditional publishing dies off.

    For my own part I am trying an experiment called “Mythnology”, which can be found at Without this team of editors, what is a writer to do? I suggest leaving the process of refining a work up to the audience as well, turning novel writing into a kind of performance art that echoes the ancient art of storytelling practiced around a campfire or in a Pub.

    It is true that traditional publishing houses are dying, and that their one hope is electronic publishing. Be careful about how you feel about that, because publishers do far, far more than kill trees. The team of people it takes to produce a book cannot easily be replaced – unless we either become used to a much lower standard of quality or start to use our imagination a bit better.

    But please visit if you’d like to learn more. I discuss this at length there. Thank you.

  • Wonder what studies there are on reading comprehension book vs electronic device. (No “search” in a book except breain power…)

    • Of course I meant “brain” power.

    • Kent

      About 7-10% slower with an e-reader according to a Barnes and Nobles study this past year…attributed it to people getting used to using the readers and the occasional glare on the screen.

  • Gini: It’s brilliant, not short-sighted. You’re pining away for a bestseller is completely understandable – – I want one too! But our wants are irrelevant in the larger context. You’re right that Seth can withdraw, but that’s really irrelevant also. He’s saying there are bigger/better ways to make a difference and reach an audience. You are doing it everyday – soon you’ll on the the NYT best-selling SM list. 🙂

    Hang in there. Though, on second thought, heels dug into the ground while the future pulls you forward can be tough on the ankles! 🙂


  • I like books too, for the same reason you described. All the options work for me. I’m an editor, in the publishing business, and it’s really about using everything that’s available out there, and using it well!

  • Just like anything, while there’s a market for books, they’ll remain to be published the “traditional way”.

    Think of countries where e-readers have little to no pick-up. Think of countries where blogs are meaningless.

    While e-publishing is growing, there’s still a huge market for hard covers. Until that disappears, we’ll still see bookstores.

  • I think hardcover books will still have a following. Danny’s right, we’re in a tech bubble. Many countries don’t have e-readers and computer access yet. Also, I don’t really have any evidence to support this, but isn’t reading something on a computer/e-reader more straining on the eyes as well?

    One more thing. In this age books are actually a welcome distraction from all of our OTHER distractions. If I’m reading a book on an iPad, I know I’m not going to be able to resist checking twitter, surfing the internet, or satisfying any of the other tech habits I have. You can’t check Twitter on a hardcover book, which is very relaxing.


  • Great conversation today, Gini. Glad you blogged ;)! Danny–I have to agree, but there aren’t just countries where blogs are meaningless, they are meaningless in the majority (I so want to be able to boldface that!) of U.S. households. And world wide: less than 90 percent of humankind has access to a computer. I think we have to be sure to double check our perspectives so we serve our customers via the medium that best fits their needs rather than projecting our own preferences.

  • bjtheone

    I think the situation is very analogous to what happened in the music and movie business (duh). Think of how long that has been going on and how entrenched many of the larger content producers are.

    I am interested in the electronic movement for a couple of reasons… It allows a new author to “publish” without having to convince a traditional publisher to take a chance on an unknown. It also allows a smart publisher to “publish” said unknown electronically without having to commit to the marketing, and printing/distribution run a hard copy entails. I fully acknowledge that the publishing team does far more than physically print the book, but I think that many publishers are paying fast and loose with the cost accounting, and claiming there is no cost savings for epublishing versus traditional hard copy in an attempt to justify the same or higher prices for ebooks, versus paperbacks.

    The Grantville Gazette series “published” by Baen is a superb example of this in action. New and almost unknown authors are getting a chance to be published in a series that sells well. Some have gone on to get publish “regular” books. Baen is also a great example of a publishing house that “gets” epublishing. Heck they even sell advance reader copies at a premium, before the hardcopy is published. (Ebooks are typically $6 and released when the first paper version is released, hardcover or paperback, advance reader ebooks are $15 and typically released 3 months before). For all the authors I follow, I happily buy the advance copies to get them as soon as possible… 🙂

    I think the impact is going to be even larger and faster to news/magazine publishers than traditional book publishers. I don’t care any where near as much about the tactile pleasures when reading the news as curling up with a book. However, I have pretty much switched from hard copy to to ebooks due to the costs, the access (earlier than paperback in many cases) and the volume issues… I have 5000+ books already and space was starting to be an issue. I have over 300 ebooks on an ereader, consuming part of a 8 GB memory card. With an ereader on my phone I always have my latest book with me and can read whenever the mood strikes me or I have an unplanned preiod of free time.

    When I started I expected ereading to form a small percentage of my reading time. Now less than 2 years later I am reading several books a week on them and have not bought a new hard copy book in months.

  • Mitch Joel had a good post on this, pointing out that just because Seth Godin is doing it doesn’t mean everyone will or can. Of course publishing has needed a new business model for decades, but it’s not going to disappear overnight just because one successful author is looking for a different way to publish.

  • I agree there is nothing quite like the written bound book to relax and rejuvinate.

  • The only thing constant is change (I didn’t just make that up). I still love a printed book. Ginny, I think that you better get to it!

  • Libraries and bookstores, large-chain and independently-owned, are still crowded with adults and children when my children and I visit, which is often.

    The literary genius, I agree, could be obtained from reading either a traditional or electronic form of a book. But there’s so much more to engagement.

    Where would we all go to be able to simply walk through a doorway and be able to lose ourselves in the rapture of a myriad of touchable, literary works of art in all sizes and shapes, from the most incredible to the simplest piece of cover art, photos so compelling that you want to jump into them, not to mention the endless variations of fonts used to create the type? How could we ever replace the feeling of those cool, smooth pages under our palms, some as delicate as butterfly wings, or the intoxicating smell of a book, new or old, so heady that it can make you giddy with delight?

    At last, there’s the weight of the book itself in your arms, not to mention the gush of excitement that’s felt while standing in the long line at the register, giving you the opportunity to discreetly peer at the titles of other’s books, wanting nothing more than to shout “comrade!”

    I felt exactly like this when I purchased one of Mr. Godin’s books. Isn’t that just another form of engagement, one with long-lasting effects?

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  • ed gruber

    Many good points here re: the printed medium and the electronic medium. As a senior citizen who, when a kid, trudged five miles through slush and rain and heat and cold to the library – lugging 4-5 books each visit each way, I’d hate to see the printed version of books disappear. Certainly, younger folks are the main users of electronics. But there is still nothing like holding a printed book in your hands… nothing, whatever your age.

    As an unpublished author, it would be personally difficult to market my own vanity publication(s), not to mention the expense. That’s where a publisher is worth his/her weight; with all the resources to effectively and successfully get a book printed, into bookstores, and support it with experienced marketing strategies.

    I’d say that each medium has its place and time… and both can/should co-exist to satisfy the needs and pleasures of our diverse corps of readers.

    As for me; give me a good book anytime!

  • Katie Reynolds

    So I’m an MA in English Literature, and of course I love books! Like you Gini, I love the feel of them, the smell of them, turning the page, the art on the covers….all of it. And I love the way they look in a home! A home looks sterile without books present. A person’s library tells you everything about them. I have never read a book on a Kindle, and I hope I never have to. I honestly don’t like looking at a computer screen more than I have to, and I love to shut it all down at the end of a longggg workday, and just pull out a book.

    Books last! We have books from hundreds of years ago that tell us about the art, culture, etc. There’s something beautiful about the evolution of print, and bookmaking, about giving a book that you’ve read to someone, who hands it off to someone else, about reading over the crinkled pages of a book you’ve read many times….

    Okay so I get it. It’s cheaper to go the Kindle route, for publishers. But I don’t think that books are going away completely. They’ll be printed in smaller quantities, and they’ll be more expensive. On the green note, I’m not sure that creating millions of Kindles that break in two years and end up in a landfill that because they can’t be recycled is more green than books printed on recyclable paper…but I get it.

    As for me, I look at my computer screen all day long for work, recipes, booking travel, shopping, and many other things…but when it comes to reading books, I cuddle up, with an actual, physical, book.

  • PR: I think where we have the disconnect is that if the NY Times bestseller authors begin self-publishing in an electronic format (which I agree should evolve), then classic books, that you can put in your personal library, begin to die. I do think traditional publishers need to evolve, but books don’t need to die.

    Amy: Bravo! You just summed up exactly what I think! It’s a mix between brilliance and short-sightedness.

    Rick and Kent: I think the stat is that people are buying more books than ever, but it’s not in the traditional book stores. It’s online and electronically. I just saw an article today that newspapers will stop printing by 2022 and will completely go digital. I suppose our beloved books aren’t far behind.

    Erin: I LOVE the idea of not having to carry around, or sell back, text books.

    Erik: You may be right about the death of the true editors. It’s scary to think any Tom, Dick, or Harry can now be an author. I like the cache a publisher offers someone.

    Caroline: I like “breain!” 🙂 Kent, do you know if, once people get used to the reader, they begin reading faster/more? I know I read a ton more on the iPad.

    Robert: You have an opinion?? Is there a NY Times SM best-selling list?! I’m going for that.

    Arya: You’re in the publishing business! You’re the best person to describe to my dear readers what’s happening in your world!

    Danny: I have nothing sarcastic to say to you. I think this is a first.

    Tom: Really good point about multi-tasking while reading on the iPad. I was doing that in the doctor’s office this morning. No wonder it takes me so long to read a chapter!

    Mimi: Smarty pants!!

    BJ: Really smart comment about where things are going. So you concur that Seth Godin is brilliant by forgoing the traditional methods in favor of connecting more with his audience?

    Sallie: Totally agree that Seth can do some crazy things not everyone can do – he does have 12 best sellers under his belt.

    Patti: You can’t really take an eReader into the bathtub, either!

    Joe: I think I’d better get to it, too!

    Barbara: So, when Seth publishes his next book, but you can’t buy it in a store, will you still read it?

    Ed: I agree that both should be able to exist together. We’ll see what happens!

    Katie: YAY for English degrees! Really interesting thought that no one has mentioned: The idea that books provide history, culture, and perspective for many generations.

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