The Brave New World

Jul 14, 2012 | Opinions

keyboardThe reaction of traditional publishing to the Internet has always been somewhat lackluster. Faced with a new medium that renders 90% of their services obsolete, they struggle against the tide and thrash around like fish out of water. It’s only recently that Nick Morgan at Forbes said the Big Six should reach out and connect with readers, for gods’ sake – anyone who didn’t know that much doesn’t deserve to be in business, in my opinion, but apparently it’s something of a revelation in New York.

Somehow I get the feeling that the large publishers are already close to dying off. Tor, Baen and Harlequin have the audience and the savvy to survive, that I can see. The others? Not so much. This is what happens when your decades-old business model revolves around being a gatekeeper to a finite resource (shelf space) that nobody needs any more.

A Case in Point

Much ado has been made of Penelope Trunk’s recent article about her experience with a traditional publisher. She left them to self-publish, primarily because they didn’t have a clue how to market her book. Here’s a little of what they told her:

Three months before the publication date, the PR department called me up to “coordinate our efforts.” But really, their call was just about giving me a list of what I was going to do to publicize the book. I asked them what they were going to do. They had no idea. Seriously. They did not have a written plan, or any list, and when I pushed one of the people on this first call to give me examples of what the publishers would do to promote my book, she said “newsgroups.”

…There is no publishing industry fan page that is good enough to sell books. No one goes to fan pages for publishers because publishers are not household brand names. The authors are. That’s how publishing works.

“You know what your problem is?” I said, “Marketing online requires that you have a brand name and a following, and the book industry doesn’t build it’s own brand. But I have my own brand. So I’m better at marketing books than you are. I have a voice online and you don’t.”

I scheduled a phone call with my editor’s boss’s boss to tell him that. I told him his business is online marketing and his team has no idea how to do it, and he should hire me.

He told me, “With all due respect [which, I find, is always a euphemism for I hate your guts] we have been profitable every year that I’ve run this division and I don’t think we have a problem.”

I have to say, as a former marketing professional, this whole article simply took my breath away. It is close to inconceivable to me that a business would not know the most basic things about its sales, how to reach its customers, and how to coordinate its marketing efforts. It is also inconceivable to me that a business would treat a contracted partner like this. “We have been profitable every year that I’ve run this division and I don’t think we have a problem”? What author cares about that? Their interest is in their book, the one the publisher has bought with the promise of sales. No wonder Penelope left that deal, if the story is true.

She’s gotten some doubters – hell, even I doubt her numbers – but that doesn’t mean she’s wrong. The Big Six don’t sell to readers; they sell to bookstores, to distributors. That, right there, is why they’re failing.

On marketing as a traditionally published author

See, the problem remains the same: authors need to do the bulk of the promotion regardless of how they’re published. It’s a well known fact that publishers don’t throw much of a budget at any but the biggest names when it comes to selling their authors’ work. For midlisters, it seems that all publishers can do is get their books into the bookstores that are shrinking every day, and a recent survey showed massive dissatisfaction among traditionally published authors with a major sticking point being the marketing – or lack thereof.

So the question remains – if you have to do all that marketing anyway, why would you consider giving up your rights for a pretty terrible advance and a pretty terrible royalty structure? Is it really worth the advance that you have to earn back, just to get professional level editing and cover design? Some authors will still find it a good deal, if they don’t want the extra work and go with the publishers that really know what they’re doing. I had the pleasure of speaking to a Tor author this week, and, based on her quite interesting perspective, I’m sure that there’s at least one publishing house out there who are worth dealing with.

I suppose there will always be a place for the author-as-writer-alone, as opposed to the author-as-entrepreneur, but I’m no longer convinced that there will be enough of them to justify the size and scope of the big publishing houses. With that in mind, I make this prediction for the next decade or two:

  • The Big Six will downsize, consolidate and possibly merge over the next few years as they trim sails and try to survive in the brave new world of publishing.
  • Paper books will continue to crash, and with them, even more book stores will close.
  • The survivors will be incredibly consumer orientated, and focused on delivering a good sales experience – closer to a boutique than a supermarket, possibly incorporating extra services for readers like a cafe with comfy chairs, or even a small lending library.
  • Ebooks will continue to explode, and Amazon will remain the dominant player with very little competition from the traditional publishers. If a disruptive service appears, it’ll be from a source far outside the usual publishing paradigm, like Netflix.
  • Non-traditionally published authors will come to dominate the bestseller lists.
  • Literary agents will start to go out of business, and some will re-orientate themselves around a new list of services that don’t necessarily include the Big Six.

I’ve no doubt that some publishers will survive, but which ones, I wonder… The great tragedy of the Big Six, unfortunately, is that they are simply too big and too slow; two years to publish a book is eighteen months too long with the speed at which the world moves now. I know they think Amazon is the enemy here, but they’re missing the most obvious fact staring them in the face: their lunch is being eaten by the ones who can move a hell of a lot faster, and that’s largely self-published authors. It wasn’t so long ago that an indie author couldn’t dream of getting into the bestseller lists, and now the top spot has gone to a book that a mainstream publisher would have laughed out of their slush pile.

And, believe me, the indies are already cranking out Fifty Shades of Grey clones at a rate that would terrify Random House. I also wonder whether there will be any money left for BDSM romances when the majors get around to releasing their own versions. Welcome to the new world indeed.