Are Publishers Fit for Purpose in a Digital Age?

courtesy MacMillan blog

The opening day seminar debate last week at the London Book Fair asked the provocative question: ‘Will publishers in the digital age soon be irrelevant?’ It was always a debate destined to be a little heated. It isn’t just provocative but also suggests there is an alternative destiny for the book publishing industry to the one envisaged by many commercial publishing houses.

The debate was hosted by Susan Danziger, CEO of DailyLit and organizer of the Publishing Point, and moderated by Michael Healy, executive director of the Book Rights Registry. Richard Charkin, executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing and Andrew Franklin, founder and MD of independent publisher Profile Books were arguing against the motion. Supporting the motion were Cory Doctorow, bestselling author, activist and Publishers Weekly columnist, and UK technology author and publisher James Bridle.
Andrew Franklin presided over one of the great British publishing industry success stories after spending eleven years at Penguin UK in a career that began in bookselling. In the 1990’s he co-founded Profile Books, which later took over Serpent’s Tail and grew a tremendously strong list of authors. That’s a mark of experience and should command a degree of respect to any comment he makes on the publishing industry. Seeing Franklin’s name on a list of debating speakers always guarantees that you will you will hear that experience in publishing delivered with sharp wit and forthright opinion.
Cory Doctorow began the debate and cited his editor at Tor Books:

“A publisher is an institution that identifies a work, identifies an audience, and takes such steps as necessary to connect them.”

This is book publishing boiled down to its simplest terms, but the essential part of what a publisher should be. For me, I can distil that down to a pure mantra that must define all publishers going forward in the digital age:


Right now, many publishers work in their own self-imposed vacuum of reversed marketing and profit. Here is how it currently works:



The above might—just might—work in four years time if you can turn a book around from submission to publication in six months, but as a business strategy and long-term model, it’s dead in the water when that model of production requires a turnaround of 12 months on average. Simply put—if you are going to react to what sells well at a given time and placate and fill the market with similarly trended books—you must have a business model that can react as quickly to changing trends and tastes. You don’t get that information by looking at the P+L reports provided by the sales department every month. You get it by CONNECTING WITH THE READER, and only then are you a publisher in a position to place the author at the top of the publishing evolutionary chain. In the digital age information travels quicker and modern readers have access to information through multiple mediums and networks.
Richard Charkin of Bloomsbury conceded that the time taken to move a book from acquisition to point of sale is one of the fundamental things publishers need to address. He said marketing needed to become 24/7, and while I agree with him, this should not be pushed solely on to the author to do it outside of 9-5.

“The average speed of getting a manuscript, and publishing it, is 12 months, and if I have to pick one thing to get better at, it would be that.”

He also spoke about the more traditional approach publishers had to marketing and questioned its relevance and value in the digital age of publishing.

“It used to be that publishers launched things, and had big parties, and hoped they caught on.”

I wondered if Charkin did actually mean that parties caught on rather than the books they promoted!
Charkin and Franklin firmly believe there is a place and relevance for publishers in the future, but that there must be changes. What bothers me most is how much they are willing to admit that this viewpoint has been almost reluctantly accepted by publishers rather than be embraced as a real defining opportunity to develop digital platforms and reconnect meaningfully with readers and authors. In the new digital age the reader wants access, freedom and choice and Franklin’s description of what a publisher is didn’t exactly fill me with the confidence that publishers have the required innovation to fully grasp the challenges of digitalization and think outside the proverbial publishing box:

“The job of publishers is to persuade readers that they should part with money to read an author’s work.”

Hmmm, while I accept publishing is a business, this isn’t exactly inspiring or about to light up the world of any author or reader.
Doctorow cemented his argument by saying the web had changed the whole proposition of publishing and future publishers might well be small entities focused on solving 21st-century problems and probably won’t look anything like the publishers we have today.
During the discussion, Franklin expressed his views on self-publishing in light of the digital era. He pulled no punches and laid his colours to the mast. In the wider global field of publishing, he considered self-publishing as pretty irrelevant in light of the debate. He expanded on his argument and remarked that while digital publishing brought many great challenges to publishers, it had also resulted in self-publishing becoming ‘easy’.

“If you self-publish on the internet, you might as well not bother, you will be silent. Free is far too much to pay for the overwhelming majority of books self-published‚ you can’t even give them away.”

Franklin’s comments got me thinking about Garrison Keillor’s opinion piece in the New York Times just before last year’s Book Expo America. Is Franklin saying that the rise and ‘ease’ of self-publishing is seen only from the platform of digital publishing? In other words—in respect of print self-publishing—when Franklin leans over the front seat of the car on the motorway and asks; ‘are you all right in the back there, Lads?’ – is he addressing solely the established print publishing fraternity? Is he saying that self-published authors are in the majority a distant and shoddy camp on the sidelines of the motorway holding up signs bearing the motif – ‘Serious Publisher – 20000 miles?’ Garrison Keillor was equally disparaging about the ease to which self-published authors in the digital age have it now, while reminiscing on a bygone age when authors pushed thick manuscripts into padded envelopes and sent them off in the hope of a New York publishing deal.

For me, this debate reflected a couple of observations and frustrations. Remember, the London Book Fair is a trade show for the publishing industry, and like any trade show like the Frankfurt Book Fair or Book Expo America, debate is always going to be at the sharp end of what is challenging or changing in the industry. A count was taken at the start of this debate about those who were for the motion and those against it. At a trade show people tend to drift in and out of seminars and I believe there was also a question mark on who should and shouldn’t be counted in the vote. It turned out that there were more votes at the end than at the beginning, maybe re-enforcing the attraction of the sharp and heated debate going on at this particular seminar.

My main observation was why we were even having such a debate. There is a duality at trade shows like this. On the one hand booksellers, publishers and agents are meeting up and lots of deals are being struck. This trade show proved to be a real generator of deals between publishers and agents. On the other hand, it is also a chance to take stock of where the industry is, just as long as the balance is right between constructive discussion and analysis and not a descent into outright naval-gazing.
We all know publishing is changing and publishers must adapt to change or go bust and we didn’t need this debate to tell us that. There were frustrations from attendees as to why the subject of self-publishing and arguments for and against it arise at every ‘damn’ trade show. One attendee confided that for years he could put up with the PublishAmerica, Lulu and Vantage Press stalls at these events, but he was sick to death of why the ‘sons of bitches were now trying to ‘vanitize’ digital publishing’. His comment amused me, but no more than Andrew Franklin’s comments amused me about how he seemed to inadvertently place some of the publishing industry ills and challenges at the door of self-publishing or used it as some pointless distraction. I would rather hear more of how publishers are actually addressing the challenges facing the industry. Too often trade show debates like this become a ‘commercial publishing versus self-publishing’ boxing session. This was a trade show and the whole premise of asking an audience of people working in the publishing trade if they felt their industry and livelihood was ‘irrelevant’ was a bit like quaintly tapping a rafter of turkeys on the shoulder and enquiring as to how they might like to spend this Christmas.
Doctorow worked himself up a few times in the debate and asked pointedly:

“Why do we need publishers to simply pay a bunch of other companies to do work on behalf of an author?”

Doctorow was reflecting on his view that publishers were farming out so much marketing work on authors that the question of whether an author actually needed a publisher should at least be considered, and that some authors where better placed to extract the maximum from their work by going it alone.
Franklin went for the kill, made his remark about self-publishing being ‘easy’ now with digital, and self-published authors were making the mistake of thinking they could replicate the work a publisher did.

“All of the tasks publishers do, you can do yourself. Equally, if you have an ailment, you can do that yourself, including operating on yourself, but I don’t recommend trying it at home – exactly the same is true of publishing.”

Therein lies the Franklin Fault Line. Yes, cheers, Dr Franklin, authors can do what publishers do, but the savvy and successful ones do it by hiring professionals— editors, designers and marketers. He is right, though—many self-publishers don’t and make a complete publishing shit-house of it, but the subtle innuendo is that self-publishing is akin to an ‘ailment’ – a disease, the publishing industry is best left without. Clearly, Franklin is a big fan of Jackass and its warning:


Firing indiscriminate pot-shots at the self-publishing fraternity in the safe environment of a trade publishing debate may have simply been Franklin’s way of driving home his points to defend his industry in a difficult time, as well as cranking up the heat in the spirit of a great debate, but his comments clearly irked some in the audience.

“The reason there are lots of slightly forlorn authors clutching manuscripts at this fair is because they have tried it themselves and it hasn’t worked.”

The reason there are ‘lots of slightly forlorn authors clutching manuscripts at this fair’ perhaps says more about the publishing industry as a whole than self-publishing, and the disdain some within the industry hold for the common author. It was a particularly below-the-belt shot at authors and one that I felt underlined some publishers disdain for sharing trade space with authors. Again, the innuendo was so subtle, but made a devastating point on where some publishers really are.
So now the self-publishers had been kicked into touch, it was time to round on the authors. In writing this article I happened to come across this piece written by Andrew Franklin in The Independent entitled, The Real Reason Publishers Miss Good Books. In it, Franklin writes insightfully and sharply on authors and publishers.

“The sort of person who lies awake worrying about the books that they are not publishing is not cut out for the job and should confine themselves to running a cosy literary society.”

And on the real reason why publishers miss good books:

“It is the numbers game – the sheer volumes of paper (and now, worse still, the email attachments), that cross our desk every day. Every year 200,000 books are published. This is far too many, and really the first duty of every publisher should be to publish fewer, rather than more, new titles.”

Ah, it’s Dr. Franklin below, again!

“Apparently GPs give their patients an average of six minutes before they are shown the door of the surgery. The average author sending an unsolicited script certainly gets much less. No one can be surprised to learn that not every manuscript gets the careful attention it deserves. It should not come as a shock that many manuscripts are returned unread to the sender. We need to clear our desks in order to look after the authors whom we do sign up, and the unsolicited manuscripts are often a chore to be dealt with at the end of the day by an overworked intern.
Publishers now rely on specialists – agents, in fact (think of them as the consultants of the publishing profession) – to supply them with novels, though we all still buy some non-fiction directly from authors.”
And on those pesky authors who send unsolicited manuscripts to publishers:

“A terrifying proportion of these manuscripts come from people writing in green ink on scraps of Basildon Bond – surely its only use now. And if they aren’t in green ink, the manuscripts arrive handwritten in capital letters, or from prison, or from a secure mental hospital. Of course there may be lost masterpieces lurking in the mad rantings of the sad, the bad and the dangerous to know (to plagiarise again), but publishers are not social workers.”

Franklin is certainly right to stress that if an author wants to be taken seriously by a publishing house today, they simply must submit through a literary agent. But to suggest, or even imply, authors sending unsolicited manuscripts are ‘sad’, ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ is pretty preposterous and insulting [inset depressed, insane or criminals]. At the start of the article, Franklin questions why publishers are seen as a ‘whipping post’. There are probably several good reasons in the above paragraphs why publishers become ‘whipping posts’ and why so many authors decide to self-publish without even considering the established route. Remember and consider how I spoke earlier about CONNECTING WITH THE AUTHOR? This is how it shouldn’t be done.
For a technology expert, James Bridle actually has a very simple and concise way of delivering his message. He disagreed with Richard Charkin’s view that the lively debate they were all having (audience included during the Q&A) was proof that publishing was in a healthy state. Indeed, it takes more than debate to change an industry which has essentially stood still for hundreds of years. For Bridle, using an example of advertising, he saw publishers focus on the book as a singular product to sell, whereas, he countered, Apple’s advertising shows people reading and interacting with content.

“It isn’t about selling an object; it’s about the process.”

Bridle also made a critical point that publishers are already ceding the next generation of readers to companies like Amazon. But what seemed to irk Bridle most was the ease and willingness of publishers to let this happen. I often wonder if in wrestling off the shackles of old traditions and habits, publishers as a whole are quickly learning that the remaining vessel they are sailing in may not be very seaworthy and not actually up to the task of embracing the digital waves ahead. The debate posed whether or not publishers would become irrelevant in the digital age. A more appropriate question to ask might be:

Are Publishers Fit for Purpose in a Digital Age?

If there is the least wavering or hesitation in answering that question, then we may be dangerously close to the tipping point where our best authors follow the lead of some self-published authors and acknowledge the vessel they need to be in is the one being developed by Amazon and Apple. If the future of publishing is disintermediation and readers reside in community-based clouds, then publishing as we know it may become an unnecessary and meaningless sideshow.

There are currently two solid bolts keeping the current status quo in publishing. The primary bolt is published authors. You can talk up self-publishing all you want, but the reality remains that the vast majority of authors want to write books—not become publishers or get involved in the day-to-day sales and marketing of their books. They are happy to let their agents cut the best deals and keep most of the paperwork off their writing desks. That might change if publishers continue to push more and more of the marketing and networking promotion onto authors.
The secondary bolt is the growth in ebook sales and how committed publishers really are to the ebook. It’s estimated that ebooks are at about 10% of overall sales in the USA (about 5% in the UK). Many within the industry concede that ebooks will outstrip mass paperback sales (2015, maybe even earlier). By then, companies like Amazon, Google and Apple will be in greater control of the book market, reader trending and the cloud community. If they haven’t already won the pockets of the publishers, they will certainly own every road that leads to the mighty publishing castle. Right now, publishers appear to see ebooks purely as a new and growing revenue stream to support print publication and not the central spoke and opportunity to embrace digital change and develop a business strategy that engages with readers on a community level.
For small publishers, I can understand a reluctance to invest much needed capital and energy into something which generates 5% of sales (UK), but big publishing is about seeing the bigger and longer-term picture and not giving up control easily. The agency agreement was partly an attempt to arrest back some of that control on pricing and discounts, but the ordinary reader doesn’t think one iota about who the publisher is of a book. The brand will always be the author or the subject of the book. James Bridle said that the ordinary reader sees publishers as the people who charge excessively for ebooks and prevents them from loaning what they have bought to their friends, and concluded:

“If publishers are not yet irrelevant, if they don’t act soon, they will be.”

Wherever we are going, it’s hard to see publishers playing anything like the role they play now in the not too distant future. I’m inclined to feel we may see a much splintered industry in the future with books reaching readers through a multitude of different sales platforms and formats and the greatest Achilles’ heel will be a lack of standardization.
It may seem a strange thing to say, but I actually believe publishers can still do all the things needed to change and survive. I think Richard Charkin (Bloomsbury) and Andrew Franklin (Profile) are right to highlight the fact that there is a great deal of vitality and resolve amongst publishers at the moment. Both publishers are great success stories of the past fifteen years and engage and embrace digital publishing fully. While Franklin may hold to his view about self-publishing, I think his view more reflects self-publishing from the 1970’s and 1980’s when it really was vanity driven. If anything, self-published authors utilising digital print advances and social networking have actually shown how a publisher can best use it to connect with readers in a more direct way and even make a profit doing it. Because it is executed well by a fraction of self-published authors doesn’t make it any less worthy of what can be achieved and provide in its own way a blueprint of what is required by all authors and publishers for the future.
How we comprehend and view ‘The Book’ in five to ten years time may completely change. Publishers will transform into content providers and literary agents will also have to re-align their business models and become purely author and rights managers, rather than the conduit and gatekeeper role they currently adopt for publishers. In the future, literary agents may operate businesses more like modelling agencies. It will be a universe where the author and agent will have more of a business partnership than just a PR one. In some ways, because of the splintering and disintermediation in the publishing world, agents may play an even greater role in developing academies and workshops.
For the most important people in the publishing industry—the readers—they may inherit a great deal of choice and variety, but where content is king, quality may have to settle for being queen.
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