Reassemble or Be Damned (or how humpty-dumpty publishing should be put back together again)

Last week PC World ran an online article entitled, Why Book Publishing Needs the Silicon Valley Way, by Mike Elgan. There is a great deal in this article and Elgan’s basic premise is that the current model of publishing—by which he means traditional publishing houses—is broken and it is now time for publishers to look to Silicon Valley and adopt their approach and apply it to the publishing industry.

“The reason is that the industry is clinging to an obsolete business model. And the whole process of discovering new talent is broken beyond repair.

Like the book publishing industry, Silicon Valley is in the business of cultivating, nurturing and funding intellectual property. The difference is that the Silicon Valley approach works, and the book publishing industry’s doesn’t—at least not anymore.”

Elgan goes on to describe the book industry as ‘unique’, and at their essence, ‘a publisher is above all an investor’. There are plenty of industry analysts, consultants, journalists, bloggers, self-published authors who were rejected at the gates of Eden or simply chose from the word go to give the established path to publishing the two fingers—happy that the publishing industry is broken and its funeral march is just around the corner.
I’m not sure I would go along with many naysayers in describing publishing as ‘broken’ or that the ‘whole process of discovering new talent is broken beyond repair’. Elgan seems to be specifically addressing the New York publishing establishment, and if there is one thing we have learned over the past ten years, it is that the publishing machine is made up of many complex parts, and right now, few of those parts are working well together. Publishing is not so much broken, it’s disassembling itself in a very public manner. In so doing, it’s showing itself to be a machine that has pretty much worked the same way for several hundred years.

Let us not forget that some of the oldest and most established publishing houses started out in the book industry as printers, where the production and publication of a book was much more of a co-operative effort between author and printer/publisher. For a printer, the quality is in the paper book as a physical product. For a publisher, the quality is the intellectual content of the paper book. The whole publishing machine was built on the foundation that the paper book was sacred. Digitalization in the publishing industry has for the first time challenged that core belief. This is a major sea-change for publishers—akin to the first explorers discovering that the earth was round and you wouldn’t fall off the edge if you pushed your boundaries of belief. So publishing at its core hasn’t really changed from its inception—and it’s hard not to understand an attitude of ‘if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it’.

“Much like a Sand Hill Road venture capital firm, a publishing company plays kingmaker by discovering, guiding and, above all, investing in the right talent.

Sure, publishing companies employ brilliant book designers, editors and others who collaborate to produce high-quality products. But they don’t have a monopoly on those skills. Any author can hire great book designers, editors, printers, marketers and everyone else in the creative chain. What most authors can’t do is invest $150,000 to produce and market an untested book. Ultimately, the ability to invest — and the experience and wisdom to invest wisely — is the only uniquely valuable thing about publishers.”

In many ways, Elgan—certainly for me—is not describing modern publishing houses, and I think, in a roundabout way he acknowledges this. He is describing publishing as it was 30 to 40 years ago, when large publishers were still prepared to take a risk with a new author or unproven author—happy for a period of time to pass while they invested and worked with the author until they wrote ‘that book’ which broke them into a large market. It might take publishing two of the author’s books, or it might take five books. This approach rarely happens with large publishing houses now, certainly not without the active presence of a dedicated literary agent. The ‘business of cultivating, nurturing and funding’ may exist in Silicon Valley, but it does not exist inside the doors of large publishing houses. Those tasks were long pushed out to literary agents, and if the truth be known, many of those agents would probably say their time is far too restricted to spend cultivating and nurturing authors. Literary agents, like publishers, want a good marketable book as close to final publishable product as possible from the get-go.
Elgan describes the Broken Model as he sees it: (The bold is mine)

“Here’s how book publishing is supposed to work: Joe Author decides to write the Great American Novel. He bangs out a couple of chapters in his spare time, cobbles together a polished book proposal and goes hunting for a literary agent. Most real agents are maxed out with clients, but after six months of dedicated searching, he finds one, who then spends weeks or months shopping the proposal to major publishing houses.”

I’m not sure book publishing ever really did work quite that way. From my experience, no literary agent or publisher today would bother looking at a synopsis, three chapters and proposal submission for a novel unless they knew the book was actually completely finished by the author.

“The result of this disconnect in the talent discovery system is that the quality of books is declining fast.”

I agree with Elgan here, but, and it’s a big but, quality is entirely subjective. Someone is still buying those celebrity and template-driven books churned out by publishers.

“Browsing a bookstore is like picking through trash in a garbage dump looking for something of value.”

I’m not sure where Elgan is doing his browsing, but I’d suggest he try another store, perhaps some of the independents. Ultimately the retailers still hold a great degree of power over the publishers, and their buyers decide what goes on the shelves, but there is no doubt, certainly in the large retail chains, that inventory lists are shrinking fast, and it is only the sure-fire sellers that get premium space.

“And that’s why the industry is dying. The content is skewing toward trash. The public is becoming less enthusiastic about books not because they have other diversions but because books are becoming less exciting.”

I know the point Elgan is trying to make here, and I equally sense his passion as well as his frustration, but there are more books being read now than ever before – more books being published than ever before, but the combination in a recessional downturn, deep discounting, the ludicrous returns policy operating today in the publishing world doesn’t help matters, and ultimately, it has led to profit share being squeezed everywhere. Fundamentally, I disagree with his assertion that the public are becoming less excited by books – the real problem is going to be the acceptance of the fact that there will not be any significant growth in books as paper products anymore – it’s going to become a diminishing circle. The ‘diversions’ are actually the key itself to the future of publishing and the ability for publishers to identify and harness the mediums and platforms of those very diversions.

Remember, the book is no longer intrinsically a physical paper product. Its strength is now it’s rebirth as a piece of digital content – capable of dissemination into a multitude of delivered channels. Publishers need to acknowledge they are going to have to do what they did hundreds of years ago when they moved from being simply printing presses to being publishers. Now, the real adjustment and challenge is for them to alter their models of business and move from being publishers to providers of ‘content’ products – be that digitized or paper. To be fair to them – that’s a very big challenge.

The real question here when the dust settles is the core of Elgan’s concerns about ‘discovering talent’, and who the remit will lie with. Elgan pretty much answers the question when he says that if Silicon Valley worked the way publishing does, we would never have had Google, Facebook and Twitter. He is right. And there’s the answer. The single most fundamental reason books sell remains word of mouth – personal recommendation. Networking platforms are simply the modern road word of mouth has advanced to.
Here is how Mike Elgan believes publishing should work if it follows the nod from Silicon Valley:

“Every new author would forget about seeking an agent or an advance, and instead self-publish. This is what software and cloud-based start-ups do: They use their own money — and the inexpensive tools available — to build something on the cheap before they go asking for outside investment.

New services should emerge where authors could post links to their books, with samples, commentary and opportunities for reader reviews. A Digg-like voting system could surface the most popular titles.”

If you substitute the opening word of the above piece, ‘Every’ to ‘Many’, then you are pretty much describing things as they stand now. All of the above is happening and new as well as established authors are going directly to services like Lulu, CreateSpace and Lightning Source – cutting out much of the middle-men in between them and their readers. They are using publishing platforms and online communities like Smashwords, Wattpad, Fictionwise, Amazon Kindle, IndieReader, and many, many more.

“Meanwhile, authors would try to get meetings to pitch to the publishing companies. Agents, rather than reacting to authors beating down their doors, could instead act more like sports agents and go out and hunt for new talent using Web 2.0 tools and the Internet in general to find brilliant authors.”

I think the above piece reflects what most fundamentally needs to change in publishing – agents. As more and more authors reject the gate keeping policy adopted by the publishing industry, agents may decide to be happy with their lot and deal exclusively with established authors and lucrative deals. Alternatively, for the first time, they may actively seek the higher quality independent authors and work for them, or act as scouts for the larger publishing houses and independent publishers. We may quickly approach a time where there is no such thing as a midlist author. You are either a full time author earning a reasonable living with an established publishing house, or you are publishing independently and contracting services, be it agent, editor, designer or distributor.

“If authors get their own deal, they could use that fact to attract the best agent, whom they would need as a guide and as a negotiator of the contract.”

There is a mindset here Mike Elgan is inadvertently challenging. I’ve always believed that the publishing industry has a kind of attitude – almost a class structure – ‘this is the way it is and has always been done’. That has to change, whether publisher or agent, survival and earning a crust will always be the great leveller. Publishers will have to accept that just because there is more ‘self-published crap’ out there, flooding ‘their industry’, the books they publish should in that case stand head and shoulders above that ‘crap’. They are easily achieving that now, but in five years, independent authors may very well have the knowhow, platform and network to easily rival them. In a few notable cases, it is already happening now. Agents will have to accept, more and more, when they enter a contract with an author, it is the agent who is working for the author, and not the other way around.
Mike Elgan concludes his piece by presenting some suggestions as to what he believes publishers should do. I quoted a lot from his article because I happen to think it one of the most significant articles I have read on…well…if you like, the future of publishing. I think it is clear, I don’t agree with all Mike’s points and conclusions, (yes, I think advances should go, but I still believe in the basic fundamentals of established publishing houses, and the death knell is not sounding just yet.) though, Mike Elgan might prove me wrong if it all goes tumbling down.
Here is why I don’t think it will.
Many of the people operating small presses, author solutions services, independent publishers with new models of business, came from the belly of the beast itself. They got out, or were spat out, for a variety of reasons. Maybe some of them really were breezing it, and hadn’t a clue what they were doing from they off. But the fact is, there is a vast wealth of talent in the publishing industry. Some of them are starting to do it within the beast itself, and many others have kissed the beast goodbye and prefer to do it on their terms and their chosen model. What is clear to me is that no one model will win out. No one has it right or wrong. We are entering a time when a whole host of publishing models will suit the needs of author, publisher and reader alike.
Publishing is not broken by a long, long way, but the key is how we disassemble the components of the machine and reassemble it all back together without forgetting the core elements that make it work.

This is no longer a question of how publishing really works, but rather, how it now needs to work combining all the components of publishing, all that the established fraternity have learned and all the independent and self-published fraternity have learned. To believe that one doesn’t need the other and the two cannot exist under the one umbrella of the publishing industry, is to speak ignorance and write the words of your own publishing demise.

[This was a general free-flowing article and I have deliberately avoided few links, citations and references outside of Mike Eglan’s PC World article.] All quotes used are copyright of PC World.
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