In fact, Shatzkin in this week’s Kindle Chronicles interview identified a total of five black swans that could disrupt publishing as much as the Kindle’s debut in 2007 or the demise of Borders in 2011. To wit:
- Amazon buys a Big Five publisher. That’s not a crazy possibility, Shatzkin said, “because their valuations are going to suffer over the next few years, because the other four are fighting Penguin Random House as well as the overall circumstances.” Amazon’s ownership of a Big Five publisher “would stop in its tracks the notion that Barnes and Noble and the indies can boycott Amazon books,” he added. “It would be pretty hard for them to boycott a Big Five list.”
- Barnes & Noble’s slow attrition becomes a dramatically faster decline. Shatzkin says B&N probably accounts for between 10 and 15 percent of most publishers’ trade book sales. Borders represented about 10 percent when it folded in 2011, he said.
- Amazon launches a very rapid rollout of its bricks-and-mortar Amazon Books stores. If Amazon opens three stores a year they will learn from them and be more powerful than they would be without them, Shatzkin said. “But if they come up with a formula where they say, ‘Wow, it’s so cheap for us to open up these stores, because we have this supply chain that gets the books right to them, then we can just open dozens per month.’ If suddenly they’re on a course to open 200 a year, 300 a year, well that changes the world.”
- James Patterson and eight or 10 other authors of note create their own author-based publishing house, a move that Shatzkin said would recall the 1919 creation of United Artists by leading actors who thereby wrested control of their interests from the major film studios. “That would drastically change life for the Big Five,” he added.
- Amazon Publishing signs the next generation of best-selling authors, because it is selling books by emerging authors at attractive prices that other publishers don’t find practical. “I think that it’s possible that we’re going to wake up in three years and say ‘We’ve just had another black-swan event,” Shatzkin said, “which is that all of the big authors that have been developed over the last five years, a big share of them are Amazon authors, because they had the runway to do that and the way things shook out, the publishers didn’t.’”
Mike Shatzkin, whose father Leonard Shatzkin was a publishing visionary in his own era, has been a pioneer in ebook adoption through his own reading and his work with publishers. He told me he has been surprised at how ebook adoption has plateaued in recent years, and he attributed this to the powerful appeal of paper, not just for books.
“For example,” he said, “I’m in a baseball pool. I play with 10 other guys, and we all have teams, and at the end of each week there is a tally sheet that’s delivered to me by Excel—and I always print it. I like to have a printed version of that scorecard in my hand to make notes on.”
This helped me to understand resistance to ebooks better than anything I’ve seen or heard in a long time, and I realize I always print out my interview questions for exactly the same reason: I just like having them on paper. Some people just like reading books on paper, too.
“The idea that you’re going to get to 70, 80, 90 percent digital except in certain genres now seems like a pretty distant idea,” Shatzkin said. “Five years ago I would have thought it was much more likely.”
Shatzkin programmed content for the Digital Book World conference for the past seven years, starting with DBW’s debut in 2010. “It has been harder and harder over the past couple of years to find the big strategic questions the industry needs answers to,” he wrote in a post on July 20, 2016.
That’s partly why he will no longer be programming the DBW event, but as he approaches his 70th birthday next year he expects to keep blogging at The Shatzkin Files and to continue to serve longtime clients. He also will pursue some interesting new projects that he is not quite ready to talk about yet.
Shatzkin’s specialty has always been change.
In preparing for the interview, I found a speech he gave in 1995, nearly six years before the launch of Wikipedia, in which he foresaw “a concept of an encyclopedia that is dynamic, interactive, and perpetually being updated, by organizing modern online tools.” At that time, only 10 percent of adults in the U.S. had ever used the Internet.
If sometime during the next few years we encounter one or more of the five black swans described by Shatzkin in this week’s visit to the Kindle Chronicles, it will be further evidence of why he has become such a respected observer and participant in the publishing industry over the past five decades.