Musings on POD Publishers & The Music Business

I’m heading off on holidays for a week and I will be checking in here on and off. I’ll be some posting some articles I’ve posted over the past year that drew considerable interest and comment. This one – “Musings on POD Publishers & Music Business” was first published as a two-part piece, but here it is in full.
About fifteen or more years ago, I set up a music band management and promotions business with a work colleague. It just struck me recently about the similarities between publishing now and what we did then. With the advent of digital Print-on-demand publishing, it seems to be that in the past 8 years, so many more authors are following the trend followed by many musical artists years ago.
Let us be clear, POD and subsidy/vanity publishing, whatever you wish to call it, and there is considerable debate about what actually differentiates the terms, effectively means, the author, (read musical artist), contributes in a financial capacity, as well as a marketing capacity, to the production and promotion of their book (read artistic work). While the traditional and Independent publishing world argue the toss over the credibility and acceptability of the artistic output (read product) in the consumer world, time and technology march effortlessly on.
So where exactly are we? Why is it acceptable that a recording artist can go into a studio, without a recording contract, invest in a producer/sound engineer, produce a digital format of an album of songs and go to a professional press-production label, without the promise of a “contract” and, yet, be accepted as a legitimate musical artist. While the argument might be that the band/artist is effectively “self-publishing” by printing their own musical performance posters, submitting themselves to radio stations/tv stations, without formal representation, they are still taken seriously by the high street retailer.
I have worked in the music promotions business, and I can only speak of Ireland and the uk, where a band/artist can present a finished studio product to a distributor (read book wholesaler) and they will gladly fulfill the product to stores without little question. I can vouch for both retailers and logistical distribution, as I have also worked for many years as a manager in both environments and that this is a natural and practical understanding of the product flow of musical artistic endeavours.
My company took bands from a launching point and did everything from booking studio time, looking after the production and presentation of a demo for radio/tv stations, or record labels, gig bookings, as well as general consultation for artists. Our brief and task was to take a band or artist to a stage where they were presented professionally.
When I compare the publishing world and the music world, it seems there is at least a 10 to 15 year development gap between the two. In POD publishing, its the small unknown writer who is challenging and doing things differently, looking for independence, and prepared to financially invest at risk of failure. This is the way it was musically 15 years ago. So if we can look at music and see a direct thread as to where the future is going, it looks pretty interesting.
Forget about the small guy in music, Radiohead, and other so-called stadium rock bands are now releasing download only albums. The biggest selling single last year 2006-7 was Gnarls Barkley, Crazy, originally released as a download only single. More and more musical artist are being only signed up by big record labels, sometimes long after they have come to widespread prominence by their own promotional endeavours. The reality is that most musical artists have a huge personal prominence long before the ever sign to a major musical label. There’s little work for the label to do other than expand across continents and make the letters bigger on the billboards.
So what does the future hold for the writer in the changing publishing world?
Let’s first look at the person at the end of this line, from the writer’s first thoughts of putting pen to paper, through the publishing process, whether it be traditional or the POD/Subsidy channel, all the way to the buying reader browsing a bookshop or the Internet on-line sites. It seems, perhaps, it is the reader who is often lost or forgotten in the food chain of the book world. There may be many who would consider the reader at the bottom of the chain, by virtue of consumption, and sheer numbers of people who say they are avid readers. I think this is the nub of the change for the reader and how they are viewed in the vast literary chain. Print-on-Demand, hmm…Demand, the word takes on much more meaning when you look closely at the buying and reading consumer. There was a time when radio, books, but predominantly newspapers, were the forums the general public used. A time, when without the advent of modern technology, literacy was considered an added bonus, not a necessity to actually survive, as it is now. The advent of TV and the Internet has very much changed how people receive the information and stimulation they want. Effectively, the process and format of how people receive information has greatly changed.
Demand, let’s look at that word again. It says something about what we as people want in the time we live in. The writer demands the recognition they think their work deserves, and you might also argue, that they deserve. The printers have long dispensed with the age old typesetter, stooped over a printing press with a “y” and a “w” held tightly between thumb and index finger. The modern digital printer demands that the technology they have can turn out at least 20-30000 books per day. (See the link for Calvin Reid’s article on Lightning Source on this site). The logistics manager of your average book wholesalers demands that his product flow and supply chain is efficient and immediate so he can optimise warehouse pallet space. The retailers demand that they have access and availability to every possible book the reading public might want, and of course, at the cheapest prices. I hear you say, “What about the publisher? What do they demand?” Let’s leave them stew for a while and go back to our humble customer and reader, the person who actually keeps this whole damn thing going. Who are they?
If we are to believe the saying – there’s a book hiding away in everyone – then the real truth is that the book buying consumer is both the reader and writer rolled in to one. No writer is born a writer, we all go through our personal form of reading apprenticeship. We know what we like and we read what we like, some choose to ultimately replicate, and if they have a gift, to finally originate their craft. This is the magic of the written word. We writers demand that our voice be heard. The journey of the reader is no different than any human instinct, to survive, to identify, and most enjoyably, to explore and share the experience.
Now, let’s go back to the publishers who seem to be stewing along nicely. What do they demand? The writer would say that they demand a mass popular book with a global market for every submission to them. The reality is different. With the massive surge and flooding of the information market, publishers demand trends so they can fulfill them with books. Publishers demand fads and whims because they are now owned by the daily news media groups, and like baying seals at the aquatic waterworld at feeding time, they just want their food thrown to them. They demand that the “Traditional Publishing Empire” be held in the elite esteem that it was a hundred years ago. A time, when most ordinary gentle folk couldn’t even write their own names. While the elite perception might remain the same in tradition publishing, the reality has vastly changed. Some 15 years ago, with the rise of the newsprint media groups founded by the Murdocks and Maxwells of this world, the publishing playing field has been reduced to 5 or 6 key players, following the consumption of many medium sized publishers. Thought the publishing world has an even louder and more controlling voice, its message has greatly weakened by these changes.
The arrival of digital print-on-demand technology has shifted things quite a bit. The rise of POD/Subsidy presses has given more writers a voice and a new, more accessible avenue of publication. Traditional publishers have had to reluctantly embrace this technology, for out-of-print back catalogue titles which they are not prepared to do large off-set print runs of. But this is only happening because the quality and cost of the two print methods are coming closer and closer together. It’s also interesting that some POD publishers who have a very successful title on their list are actually starting to use off-set print for their bigger titles. This demonstrates that the future lies with a combination of both print methods. We have already seen the lines of description blurred between POD/Self-Publishing/Vanity publishing. I’ve been through all the arguments, the definitions, the blogs, the forums, the bias, but the reality is that we are in an publishing industry were no-one quite knows where the lines of definition begin and end. I think the lines are so blurred now that it is no longer about who pays for what, where the money flows, what terms are in what contract, or who is producing the best quality and best choice for the buying reader. The bottom line is another book is born and the reader, as always, should be the person who decides what is bought and read.
I will finish by touching on technology again. Espresso! No, it’s not a cappachino or coffee. It’s a 5 foot by 5 foot machine which is a mobile POD machine. There are five operating in the US at the moment in book chains. The customer goes in to the store, orders from a database, and in a few minutes, the book is printed and bound there in front of them. Think about it, any book, anywhere, any publisher, once it’s downloaded to the database. The stores, like the suddenly defunct book wholesalers, would need no shelf space, only a digital inventory. I suppose they would operate like a kind of Internet cafe. Hey, maybe I was wrong about the cappachino! By the way, Espresso (EBM – Espresso Book Machine) – the company are currently negotiating to have a machine installed in a store in the uk this year. Be afraid…be very afraid, the only jobs left might be for the author to download directly to the database linked to the machine, and the humble buyer to read it! Sounds pretty efficient to me!
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