SXSW – Far From The Madding Crowd

Eoin Purcell

Twitter it up
There has been extensive coverage of the New Think For Old Publishers panel at SXSW on 14 March. By most accounts it was a complete and utter disaster for publishers. Here’s a sample of opinion more here, here and here

As per usual Kassia krozer @ Booksquare summed both sides up pretty well in my view:

Let me be clear. Absolutely clear. Not one word spoken in that session, either from the panelists or from the audience, was new or innovative. The panel, well, we’ve all heard job descriptions before. The audience? That was one very long line of people saying the same things we’ve been saying to the publishing industry for ten years. And yet the publishing people treated our comments as if they were items to be added to a list.

It got me thinking?
What do we as publishers actually want to change? Are we, like the frustrated audience members angry at things in the industry that we would see change? In an ideal world where we got to direct digital change what would we like that change to be? Would authors join us in this campaign?

What would publishers do?
I think most publishers would like a simple platform that allowed them to offer their content online and be paid up-front for it. That seems easy doesn’t it. Except our cousins in newspaper land have lost their lunch trying to monetize their content online and almost all of them have surrendered to free service with ads and most of them are failing even with that.

What’s more the book is pretty much the most simple platform there is right now and lots of people like it. So moving away from it seems a little wild for most publishers. On top of that authors don’t seem keen to hang round waiting for the digital world to start rewarding them either. Whenever a book deal presents itself, bloggers and journalists all take them.

Where does that leave us for digital distribution and selling? Well e-commerce is nice, except you get Amazon and its crazy glitches and its harsh terms. On the other hand, ebooks seem to be starting to break through but you still have to deal with Amazon for those too!

Of course you might take the perspective that if we were to drive digital change, we would drive it along a path that gave our books (content) more attention (such tools even exist). If we were to drive change we would use it to sell more books directly to our customers in order to learn about them at the customer level and so tailor our products to their taste and their pocket. If we could drive digital we would build communities about our content and aggregate content from other publishers to help support our own. But then I’m just talking crazy!

Maybe I am talking crazy but
The problem I have with the current penchant for beating publishers up is threefold:

1) Many publishers (not to mention authors) are doing some pretty amazing things. Tor is building a wonderful, engaged and exciting community of readers around SF&F, Osprey have already done so around Military History. Penguin have spent a small fortune on trying new tools for reading and writing fiction. Macmillan and Random and Harper have all embraced blogs and Facebook and twitter and the web in general seeking new audiences, fresh feedback and platforms for their authors.

2) Despite the urge for the new, it doesn’t yet pay for itself and it may never do so. Andrew Keen is right about that if nothing else. Without money, artists will not create and currently the system that rewards both the artistic and the serious (or not serious) non-fiction author is breaking (if not entirely broken) and the chances of fixing it anytime soon are slim. Unless we revert to older methods of financing art and journalism, campaign funding, endowments, patronage and subscription (all being tried in modest enough [and a few large scale] ways) we may lose something pretty valuable.

3) Radicals are not always right. Even if we might accept that in this case it seems like digital is the way forward, that doesn’t mean publishers will survive the shift. Its not unreasonable of them to be reluctant to leap when right now there is a damaged but viable system in place that delivers unspectacular but solid enough revenues and profit figures.

To wrap it up!
Which leads me to my final thought, despite my own leaning towards a digital future, it is still entirely possible that the paper book remains the preeminent (I note not only) form of publication well into the next century and beyond. It currently seems likely to remain the most profitable (not the only profitable form) form of publication too. If you are an exec at a leading paper book publisher, then it’s a big bet right now to put the house on digital. If you get it wrong you’ve cut open the golden egg laying goose to show her insides to the public and have only the guts to show for it, the public were not that impressed and have watched the show for free on youtube. If you get it right you might still loose the golden goose and the people who benefit are your authors.

So to the radicals I say, lay off the publishers, some of them don’t care, but others are actually succeeding in changing the system and many many more are trying to figure out a way to make it happen without going out of business or destroying their companies, a not inconsiderable consideration in the current environment!

Eoin
PS: None of which changes the fact that I want to be able to buy an ebook version of a novel even if it is only just released in the US and I live in Ireland!

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5 comments

  1. I won’t disagree with a word here, Eoin. We all love toys, we all love doing groovy things and we all love new stuff. However, at the end of the day we need to get revenue or we cease to exist — and authors need revenue, or we ALL become amateurs: the quality of the work suffers, and important things like local and regional integrity go down the toilet.
    Lots of problems, lots of solutions that don’t fit …

    Ivan

  2. You’re right in your defences as far as I can see Eoin; it’s impossible to know whether digital is the future or whether it’ll carry on as a 1% blip on the P&L, and smaller Irish publishers especially have big decisions to make about whether to hedge your bets or invest now.

    Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly was speaking last week about how now is the time to do it, now while it isn’t the most prominent revenue stream and you can fail, monitor and start again, and there’s wisdom in that if people can afford it, I think.

    -Laina

  3. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but I have to disagree with this statement:

    “Without money, artists will not create”

    Unless you’re referring very specifically to the costs associated with producing a work of art — costs which vary according to the art in question, of course — then I disagree. The whole history of art and music and literature is a history of people not earning much money — if they earn any money at all. Saying “Without money, artists will not create” sounds too much like “Without newspapers, journalism will vanish” or “Without record companies, no one will make music” or “Without Hollywood, there won’t be any more movies” or “Without publishers, there won’t be any more novels.” All of those statements are lies. They are lies designed to help perpetuate those corporations or institutions that have a stake in maintaining the status quo, and it’s a real shame that many people can’t see through these lies. All I need to write a novel is $5 — the cost of a notebook and few pens — and I’ll continue to write whether I earn money in endeavors or not. Painters will still paint; teenage boys will still start bands. Artists don’t need money nearly as much as “moneyed interests” needs artists. The only difference between a “professional” and an “amateur” is that one gets a fat paycheck and the other does not. There is no discernible difference in terms of talent.

    But I’ll shut up now. I did agree with the overall message of your post, just not with that one little point. :)

  4. Thanks for those links Eoin, very interesting reading and reassuring too.

    I think ebooks could do quite well when/if we all have a Kindle; the price and instant availability would offer an advantage. Meanwhile I don’t know why ebooks aren’t being developed more to their potential: by featuring some bells and whistles that a paper book can’t offer. A bit more interactivity is possible and would make them fun, and people may well buy both versions in that case.

    Reep’s right that artists will always create; but I must say that I agree with the statement “without money, artists will not create” because without pay or funding, they simply cannot create *to their fullest potential*, and then everyone misses out on what could have been.

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