Publishing Industry – Change or be Damned?

Over the past month, there has been considerable debate about the current state and future of the publishing industry across the internet on writer’s forums and blogsites. Some of the discussion was sparked by Boris Kachka’s recent article in the New York Magazine.

A lot of the criticism of Kachka’s article seems to centre on his depressing analysis expressed from speaking with industry insiders about the current predicament in publishing across the globe. One of the key quotes he uses in his article is from statistician, Philip Roth;

“…there were at most 120,000 serious readers—those who read every night—and that the number was dropping by half every decade.”

Many avid readers will naturally disagree with the Roth quote, and, in fact, I also disagree, but with this caveat. There are perhaps more people reading now, than at any point in the history of mankind. It is time that the publishing industry started to more accurately look at ‘what’ is being read, and more to the point, ‘where’ and ‘how’ it is being read.

Let me digress for just a while before returning to Mr. Roth’s quote.

I think before we can access what state the publishing industry is in right now, we must first look at where it has been and the reasons why it has reached such a pivotal and directionless state. It is not surprising that the industry, like many, has pedalled along and mirrored the rises and falls in the standard of living and economic recessions.

Let us not forget that some of us still living can remember when competent literacy was not always the accepted given that it is now. Let us also not forget that the vast amount of information we take in on a day to day basis is through the written word. Whether that is reading the morning newspaper; the billboards and road signs on the way to work in the car or train; opening our work emails; reading countless memos, reports; studying the lunchtime menu in the cafeteria; browsing the evening newspapers; the recipe for our dinner in the evening; our favourite websites and blogsites; not to mention the countless text messages we receive every day on our mobiles; right to the very point when we fall into bed with the latest bedtime read; they all confront us as part of everyday life.

The fact is, day in, day out, we are reading to overload point. Much of it may be seen as a chore, and some of it may be seen as pleasure. True, pleasurable reading, whether it is Barbara Cartland or James Joyce, Raol Dahl or Stephen Hawkins, will always have the common denominator of shared experience and the identification of a writer to his true reader, and the reader to their favourite writer.

You cannot accurately define the relationship of author/reader in any theoretical form or publishing model. This is even beyond the best publisher’s entrepreneur or even the greatest and most entertaining of writers, because it is fluid, ethereal, and constantly affected by public trends and the personal moods of mankind.

This is not to say that the publishing industry cannot set itself up in a way that gives it the best chance of flourishing, rather than floundering aimlessly amid its printed words and marketing blurbs.

I do not think it is a coincidence that the industry inherently began to seriously change in the economic recession of the 1980’s. The book publishing world followed the mark of the newspaper empires of Murdock and Maxwell, where a handful of media companies controlled the entire national world newsprint output. Throughout the 1980’s, large commercial publishers consumed smaller commercial and independent publishers. We watched large publishers dance around like politicians, desperate to tell us all how different they were from each other, yet, all the while, the centre stage became evermore crowded and the publishing model they used became steadily narrower.

The following are the reasons why I believe the publishing industry has reached its current state of being.

1. Consumption of smaller presses/publishers by large internationally owed publishers.
2. Inherent conservative nature of the commercial business model.
3. Economic recession of the 1980’s and the current impending recession.
4. Explosion of the ‘celebrity status’ writer, perpetrated by commercial publishers trying to find the winning marketable book every time.
5. The increased trend for enormous advances and bidding wars between large publishers for the most sought after writers.
6. The growth in the internet as an information resource and the rise of social networking.
7. The expanded saturation of multi-channel TV and digital entertainment products.
8. The development of Print-on-demand technology allowing printers to become publishers.
9. The slow, but steady development of E-Books and E-Readers.
10. The continued use of the ‘Traditional Model’ of the publishing industry.
11. The increasingly crowded arena for market space and consumer attention.

Let me return to the Roth quote. Why does he feel that readers are declining by the decade? I think to be fair to Roth, he is perhaps referring to what he sees in his eyes as the ‘true’ reader. He may even be tending toward what would be considered the ‘literary reader’. And if he is solely referring to the ‘literary reader’, then, he is probably correct. Yes, our poor literary reader is like most general readers—punch drunk from an industry publishing more titles that at any time ever before, and trying to market and reach out to its consumer in a media market saturated to the brim with messages and products we can’t live without.

A little more subtly may be required. Imagine our avid reader in this sorry publishing mess, not as a reader, but a skilled hunter of wild and exotic animals. At the moment, most traditional publishers still follow a rigid model of business, and so, they will more often send our hunter to the zoo to quench his or her needs, rather than send them out into the wild plains of Africa or Asia. At heart, I don’t blame large publishers for pursuing an already captivated audience, but it does demonstrate how far removed their ‘model’ of publishing has become over the years. It also demonstrates how in reality they have removed themselves so far away from the common reader that they can no longer define who the reader is or what makes them excited about the experience of reading.

From the writer’s point of view—and most publishers seem to have forgotten that all writers are first and foremost readers—publishers will not read unsolicited manuscripts; they will expect an agent to deliver an ms as close to the publishable book as possible; give the author little input into the design and production process; give many of their published books less of a print run and lifespan than is really needed. More and more new writers to a publishing contract, even many of the major publishing houses, expect the new author to take on much of the marketing and promotion for their book with little recompense to their time, energy and effort expended. The comparisons between traditional publishing and self-publishing/subsidy publishing are becoming far more blurred. There is still a stigma attached to publishing through any method other than traditional publishing, and the greatest slight on subsidy publishing is that it is purely driven by vanity, hence the tag of ‘vanity presses’. Perhaps the truest form of vanity is the arrogant author who lands a traditional publishing deal and boasts about his grand success while the self published and subsidy authors hawk their few copies from store to store without an arse in their trousers. I think I know where true vanity lies, and it is not with the alternative methods of publishing. The music business got over this stigma of ‘self recording/publishing’ many, many years ago. Traditional publishing has a lot of catching up to do.

If anything, the digital technology which has lead to the growth of self/subsidy publishing–print-on-demand (POD)–has now been utilised by some traditional publishers to revitalise their back catalogue of books which did not warrant a large offset print run. Many publishers still remain lacklustre in embracing new online marketing ideas, electronic formats via e-readers, e-books and the use of blogsites and writer forums. Publishers have spent more than a century viewing the physical format of a book as sacred.

For the past two decades, publishers have allowed wholesalers, distributors and retailers to dictate the terms of their own industry, from pricing agreements, wholesale discounts of 50% and a ludicrous returns policy that should only exist in the industry of fresh food manufacturing and supply. At heart, from top to bottom, the industry needs to learn how to properly and fairly regulate itself and think beyond its own imposed confines.

It is for many of the above reasons that we have seen the rise and growth of the online retail monolith Amazon. Amazon has come in for much criticism particularly over the past year among authors and publishers alike, and while I am not a fan of their strident and heavy handed business conglomerate tactics; who can blame them? The publishing industry has provided the platform for Amazon wanting to be ‘all things to all mankind’, excuse my tongue being firmly embedded in my cheek! Amazon want to be publisher, printer, distributor and wholesaler all rolled into one. True self publishers cast the first stone in a landmark change to the publishing industry decades ago by eliminating ‘the publisher’. While online sales of book formats still remains in its infancy, time and technology marches on to a point in the not too distant future when the traditional publisher as we know them now finally bolts the last door on their brick and mortar houses.

If things continue without a refreshing change in the current ‘publishing model’, then all authors alike may be dealing directly with online businesses like Amazon–self published authors are already doing it–and I do not believe this is the best path forward for publishers or authors.

So where should we go from here?

There is a chink of light ahead already. There does seem to be a minor shift at the moment, both by smaller traditional publishers and their imprints and some subsidy publishers. It has to do with their ‘publishing models’. If you like, we are seeing publishers move a little both ways. Earlier this year HarperCollins appointed Bob Miller to head up a new imprint, HarperStudio. This eclectic imprint offers authors advances of no more than $100,000, but offsets ‘the pain’ by offering a much larger royalty. The imprint involves the author in the process of the book from production right through to hands-on marketing. Effectively, we are looking at a kind of partnership publishing. On the other side of the coin, we have subsidy publishers like Cold Tree Press who are now moving away from out and out subsidy publishing toward the traditional model of publishing. Troubador in England are another example. They operate a sister imprint called Matador, (run by Jeremy Thompson, one of the most successful self publishing authors in the last twenty years) who self/subsidy and partnership publish depending on their evaluation of a book. I believe long term success lies somewhere in between self/subsidy and partnership publishing, and several publishers are starting to see this, both in the UK and United States. I would be nice to believe that this change is driven by entrepreneurism and independence, but the reality is economics.

I think there is also a lot more going on as well in the marketing of authors by these independently thinking publishers. They realise if you are a large traditional publisher you cannot warrant small print runs of books destined never to be best sellers, nor can you try to market lesser known authors globally. For that, you need a global budget and even some luck. The new independent thinking publishers, be they an imprint of a large publisher or reputable subsidy publisher being selective about what they take on, are taking a leaf out of the self publisher’s manual. You market new and lesser know authors at grass roots level, in their local or online community. You invest and build slowly with your author alongside you all the time. You invest for the medium to long term over several years with your list of authors. It is a partnership which does not leave too much room for the Manhattan or Mayfair agent. It is low volume distribution which does not necessarily require large companies like Baker & Taylor or Ingrams to be involved. It is a band of authors from one publisher who ‘tours’ their publishing wares throughout the country(s). It is the publisher who can feel their reading and buying public at the ends of their fingertips.

Some of these changes will grow in the book publishing industry, but for any new model to succeed, we must take back some of the control given away. Writers must accept that the days of advances from publishers are numbered and that the real ‘work’ of a book is only born when it is printed and they cannot run and hide to pen their next magnum opus in the shed at the end of the garden. This is not too big a price to pay. The reality is that less than 90% of authors receive an advance of $10,000 or less.

It is time for large publishers to stop paying out exorbitant advances to fading TV celebrities for a quick return. It is time for publishers to start reconnecting with the reader as well as their authors. It is time the publishers took back the business of publishing from the hands of wholesalers and high street retailers.
It is time our retailers stopped selling books on a ‘no risk, sure we can return them to the wholesalers in three months’ basis, and, perhaps then, they might invest more time into the buying needs and comforts of the public when they enter a bookstore to experience the gift of reading.

And to the readers…let us all not forget we are also the authors, publishers, and retailers as well.

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