e-submissions

Some Thoughts On: Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved (As It Is) An Editorial by Richard Eoin Nash

Eoin Purcell

Johan Gutenberg (Thanks to Flikr user robert Scarth: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robert_scarth/)

Johan Gutenberg (Thanks to Flikr user Robert Scarth: http://www.flickr.com/photos/robert_scarth/)

Things will get worse for publishers as they currently exist!
The increasingly wonderful Publishing Perspectives caries and editorial by Richard Eoin Nash*. It is a nice tight piece that makes a number of clear points:

1) This is an industry based on a hobby:

The book business is a tiny industry perched atop a massive hobby. But rather than celebrate and serve the hobbyists, we expect them to shell out ever more money for the books we keep throwing at them (a half million English-language books in 2008 in the U.S.).

2) Our distribution system suits publishers, not readers or writers:

Instead of using the ever-increasing array of cheap and free tools now available to offer new ways to structure the writer-reader relationship, we’re using the technology to either thwart the readers (see: DRM) or to hustle them, using social media to move product, not have a conversation.

3) Publishing needs to change to a service type model:

For-profit publishing should not be saved — it should figure out new business models, ones that offer services that both readers and writers want and are happy to pay for.

4) And in the words of The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine, we are all writers now:

We’re also going to have to recognize that reading increasingly is writing — readers are writing back in all sorts of ways, commenting on books, re-mixing books as in fan fiction, or creating from scratch, and publishers, rather than barring this activity, or hiding from it, need to embrace it and find ways to serve it.

Stake-claiming
One area I disagree strongly with him on though is the idea of service. I feel like there have been a glut of ground claiming posts recently mapping out a future for publishing, Nash like Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly seems to be pointing firmly in the direction of Publishing as a Service (PaS) (although to be fair to Savikas, he does say Content rather than publishing), the idea that if publishers want to survive they should adapt to become facilitators of the people who are creating and consuming content (I know people hate that word). Mike Shatzkin on the other hand seems to think the focus should be on curating those niches and in re-engineering a publishing portfolio around a vertical segment.

Now that might sound like splitting hairs, but in fact if a publisher only chooses one of these options (or over emphasises services to the detriment of the content) they lead to different scenarios, one which sees publishers create a set of tools to facilitate conversation and engagement and the other whereby the publisher focuses on changing their list and reinventing their content into a package suited to a niche in which they have credibility. in space one they have become software engineers, in space two they remain publishers.

Reinventing the wheel
When I read that first concept I cannot help but think that those tools exist. There is WordPress, Blogger and Typepad and even Ning. There is LibraryThing, Shelfari and even to a certain extent Amazon. Why recreate the wheel?

Publishers are not coders and we probably never should be. Personally, I don’t think that most publishers should spend their time creating design software or better printing presses, leave that to the odd genius who happens to also be a publisher or the software programmer? It would be a stupid investment. It isn’t our specialization, far better for us to spend time curating and filtering content, because filtering is what the web needs.

That doesn’t necessarily mean gate-keeping, we may be facilitating the filtering by readers within a community, rather than choosing what floats. The point is that spending money creating tools seems a waste when they exist already and are owned by people with much deeper pockets in many cases. Spending money curating the content, packaging it however seems like a good investment, using the existing tools and new tools as they emerge to distribute content , engage with an audience and promote good material sounds like a publisher’s job and is certainly something we can do.

Ditch the tool creation idea, lets look at tool usage and author/community development
I think that Nash actually sums it up better than in this editorial on his About Page on his website when he writes:

Basically, the best-selling five hundred books each year will likely be published like Little Brown publishes James Patterson, on a TV production model, or like Scholastic did Harry Potter and Doubleday Dan Brown, on a big Hollywood blockbuster model.

The rest will be published by niche social publishing communities.

That short phrase encapsulates the changes I see coming to the world of books and reading. Communities of Interest (with readers at various degrees of engagement from Obsessed to Mildly Taken with a genre/niche) that are deep and to which publishers add value and thus gain respect, credibility and leadership of a sort that allows them to curate and (hopefully profit). There is a danger though, as discussed on Twitter with Peter Brantleythat this role would be limited to publishers and in many niches, single individuals might wield enough power to curate a niche. It sounds plausible but I DOUBT they would remain independent forever as some publisher hoovers the niche operations in a particular segment up to re-balance their portfolio.

Nash goes on in his about page to suggest that those communities (niches) need an infrastructural base:

Now is time to build their infrastructure. Let me know if you’ve the time or money to help.

But as I say above the idea of publishers as a provider of tools I think is flawed, sure we can advise on what tools to use for certain platforms, which blogging engine we prefer or social networks we find work for what genre, but actually making those tools is too far beyond our reach and represent foolish dreams rather than real ambitions.

There is a lure to thinking of publishers as some kind of technological innovators, but it is a call of the sirens, it will end in tears. I’m with Shatzkin in encouraging a concentration on the best quality niche content mediated through the existing and developing tools in a credible way to create and curate a community of interest around a niche.

Yes that means slicing, dicing, repackaging, up-selling, giving away and generally bashing content from place to place in the most platform neutral way, that still requires good enough content for them to think it worthwhile.

All of this is a long way to say that Richard is right in the overview but I’d be concerned on some of his details!
Eoin

Guest Post: An Author’s View of Electronic Publishing

Peadar Ó Guilín agreed to write a post for me on, well it does what it says on the tin. I was inspired to ask him by the contribution he made to the forum on the future of publishing that CBI ran.

Paper Chase
There is a goose that lays golden eggs. Yet, its flesh is so tasty that sooner or later, people who aren’t getting their share of the gold, will say to one another — “why don’t we take that bird to the chopping block and have ourselves a feast?” It’s not their goose and they didn’t spend money feeding it. They have nothing at all to lose.

Good morning, or maybe, good afternoon. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but newspapers all around the world are going out of business right about now. The Rocky Mountain News has bitten the dust, The Boston Globe is slashing wages and even the world-famous New York Times, the “grey lady” herself, is predicted to phase out its print edition a few short years down the line. Journalists by the score are losing their jobs because they can’t compete with the lower quality, but free information that lives less than a click away. Nor, as Rupert Murdoch is learning, can online revenues make up for eyeballs lost in the real world.

“But books are different,” I hear you say.* “It’s all very well for gentlefolk to read a few headlines off the screen, but War and Peace would burn the eyes right out of their sockets…

A few years ago, you’d have been right about that, but these days the arrival of e-ink devices, such as the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle, mean that electronic reading causes no more eye-strain than paper. Indeed, if your peepers are beginning to age a little, the fact that you can increase the print size at will, might allow you to leave your glasses in their case all the way to Napoleon’s defeat at Moscow.

There are other advantages that make a compelling argument for the imminent rise of ebooks. Here are just a few:

    1) some of these devices can hold thousands of books at once. This is handy if you want to carry around a whole law library, or take 17 novels away with you on holiday
    2) some of them access the internet directly so that the user can buy a book while on the train, or sitting up in bed, or out for a walk
    3) the title you want is never out of print or out of stock
    4) some devices allow you to take notes
    5) all of them will let you upload your own documents from work
    6) school books weigh nothing and never go out of date

If none of the points above represent a compelling reason as to why you would want an ebook reader, then rest assured, there are thousands willing to take your place in the queue. Once they become the majority,** the publishing game will have changed forever and woe betide the writers, publishers, editors and book-sellers who don’t find an online berth for themselves before that day comes.

A Rising Tide of Tosh
We’ve all had the experience of spending our own sweet, sweet money on awful books. Books that we’ve flung at the wall, or abandoned in train stations, or given as gifts to our enemies. But even terrible books have to meet certain standards before they can be published. Somebody loved them enough to purchase the rights. And that same person only did so after a process that weeded out a thousand books that were even worse. Imagine that! Just close your eyes and think about how bad some of those rejected books must be. Try to picture them in a pile next to the one book that was chosen. This is important, because, that column of purest tosh,*** is the future of fiction.

You see, when electronic books take over, printed novels will become a bit of a rarity. I don’t believe they will ever die out completely. There are still specialist shops, for example, where you can buy the tiny number of vinyl records that the music corporations still produce. However, in the same way that most people these days listen to songs on CDs or mp3s, most readers will find their thrills on e-ink devices and a large amount of fiction will only ever appear in that format. After all, cut out the book shops and the printers, distributors, buyers, returns, warehouses etc. etc. and it will be cheaper to produce an ebook than a pbook by orders of magnitude.

Indeed, in many cases, the production of an ebook will cost precisely nothing. After all, anything you write on a word processor is already a document capable of being read on an electronic reader.

Rejectee’s Revenge
Once upon a time, the public would never have come across a writer’s work without the intercession of a publisher. A rejected author might shake his fist at the gods or smash a bit of furniture, but in the end, the manuscript would be retired to the sock drawer for the nourishment of mice and beetles.***

These days, however, the rejectees have another outlet for their frustrations. They can sell the book through their own website or even on Amazon, where it will compete with, and distract from, more professionally produced work. The authors can also give their novels away for free, and a great many do.**** That is, of course, their right and none of my business. But I can’t help thinking about what is happening to journalism right now as it tries, and fails, to compete with free sources of news

The Death of Reading?
This is dangerous territory for everybody involved in publishing, from the authors right on down the line to the person who stacks our books at Easons. It’s not just that we might all lose our jobs. There’s a very real possibility that the hobby known as “reading for pleasure” could become a thing of the past. A reader’s investment of effort in a book, is far greater than the three minutes it takes to sample a pop song. In a world chock-full of free, but pitiful fiction, the average novel will be a waste of time, an insult to the intelligence and an advert for every other form of entertainment out there.

Except…

Except, of course, there’s rarely such a thing as a completely random read. Most of our books come recommended from friends or reviewers we’ve grown to trust, or they’ve been written by a favoured author. We’ll still have such voices to listen to in future: the modern internet is already well-populated with heroic bloggers who sacrifice their own sanity wading through dung so that we don’t have to.

Instead of agents and publishers, we authors might end up submitting our work directly to the famous taste-makers of the day. Indeed, many of our current industry professionals, in particular, editors, might well find that their opinions are still be in high demand.

But what I can’t yet see, is where the money is to come from in this scenario. And I do believe, that the very best fiction, like great journalism, needs to be funded. Professional writers have more time to dedicate to their art; editors add enormous value by taming a manuscript and so on. Yet, in the end, none of us will keep our jobs unless we can find a way to succeed where the newspapers have failed: we must convince the public that our services are worth paying for.

For now, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. Hope to see you on the other side :-)

*I have remarkably large ears.
**Which they will when schools start to make use of eReaders.
***This is not to say that all rejected books deserve such a fate, and we are all familiar with stories of spurned genius, but please understand that I’m speaking in generalities here. Also, some novels fail to find a publisher, not because of low quality, but because the potential audience might not be large enough to justify production costs. However, it is also true that the vast majority of what lands on a slush pile is pretty much unreadable.
****But since the ebook market is still so small, the effect is negligible for the moment.

Quartet Press: One to watch

Eoin Purcell

Start your engines
If business models in publishing are to change and if people are to adopt digital over paper books as their main reading method (whether that be in ebook, online access or whatever), publishers are going to have ro embrace the online world in a real way. To date, although some publishers have started to do this, few major movers in the Trade Publishing world have shifted in any earth shattering way.

Which is why the new, digital only, house Quartet Press is an interesting launch. For one thing the three members of the quartet that we know of are not easily dismissed. They are serious people with a record of expressing informed opinion on the trade, not to mention actually engaging on one level or another with the trade and making things happen.

The stature that Quartet will have because of the prominent status of its founders suggests that the digital publishing space is about to become much more interesting. Quartet may be the trailblazer but there is a every reason to expect that most trade publishers will follow suit and launch digital only imprints (or indeed change the basis of their publishing to digital first), maybe not in a rush but eventually as they translate their publishing from a predominantly paper based business to one that revolves around the types of verticals that Mike Shatzkin discusses in this post and many others and communities like Tor.com.

In any case, we watch this space with interest!
Eoin

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!

Authonomy: Good Or Bad

Eoin Purcell

The time has come to take a stance
There has been some discussion, some of it on these pages (seems an odd yet apt expression) by guest-bloggers and much, much,more of it out in the wider blogosphere, about Authonomy. Given that much of the comment has edged towards the critical and negative I thought I’d offer some perspective, for what it is worth.

But first, times are tough
Before I pass a judgment it would be worthwhile sketching the numerous ways that publishing (globally) is changing. I’d spend sometime doing that here, except that it is done much more elegantly and with feeling here in The London Review of Books by Colin Robinson:

My boss ended our meeting with a reflection on the state of book publishing today. She said that two words sprung to mind: General Motors. She then accompanied me past the newly installed poinsettia display to Human Resources on the 11th floor. When I asked whether he was having a busy morning, the HR director told me that, yes, a number of other people were being ‘impacted’.

Go read it. It strikes quite the chord.

The list below is unordered and absolutely not exhaustive but it certainly runs the line over most of the major issues facing publishers as we approach the second decade of the new millennium (I think that may well be the last time I call it “new”):

    An appalling economic climate
    Weak terms from our major customers
    Dreadful value perception of books versus alternatives
    Poor mid list sales
    Weak retail sales
    The power of the Blockbuster
    The threat of digitization
    Returns

If I have left anything out, let me know!

Change does not always come easy
Sometimes change does not happen the way you would expect. Newspaper publishing is undergoing a painful transition to a digital environment, one in which the very core of newspapers offering, solid, dependable investigative journalism and beat reporting is under serious threat from massively reduced revenue and exploding competition. The cost of providing these services is outstripping what people seem to be willing to pay.

The music industry faced similar problems; downloads from pirate sites were slaughtering CD sales, costs were rising and the price of breaking new bands was getting too high. Eventually major music labels capitulated to Apple’s iTunes and iPod. At least it created a revenue stream that produced money, costs could then be realigned and tours and endorsments could provide revenue to fill the gaps. It’s not foolproof but it seems to be making some sense.

Movies have been saved a great deal of pain by the relative cost in time and money that downloading a movie requires versus a song. That may change as bandwidth in the final mile to the home increases (alternatively it may be held up by the slow roll out of faster broadband) and Apple and others slowly and surely roll out their Movie offerings. Again, like music, these new downloads at least offer a revenue stream and crucially indicate that the audience still want the product and are willing to pay.

Publishers have not been blind to these changes, nor have the been complacent. That’s a contentious position of course, there are those who think Publishers as a body have been too slow, too old fashioned and too complacent by far but I think that is unfair. For one, most publishers have made efforts to at least try the new methods of distribution and marketing that digitization and the internet allow. Most if not all publishers have embraced POD at some level for instance and there are few who do not understand the value of e-commerce and who are not seeking ways to sell content online and reach readers the same way.

Obviously this is all broad stroke stuff and shouldn’t be paid too much mind but it does serve as a way to consider what come snext.

Where does Authonomy fit in this picture?
From my unaffiliated position Authonomy sits nicely into this milieu. Publishers are deluged with unsolicited material. The web offers a way to organize, filter and sort that ocean of stuff. Authonomy was an effort, legitimate I think, to try and start learning what the web could offer a publisher on the commissioning side of things.

It is not and was not perfect. In fact, I would have been surprised if it had been. I’ll be surprised if it ever is. It suffered and possibly still suffers from the flaws one would expect in a project that was a) novel (for a large publisher) b) open, in a corporate culture that is generally closed* and c) involved the hopes and dreams of thousands of earnest would be authors.

The slush pile, as it currently exists, is a cruel thing. This is especially true in bigger houses, though the form letter or e-mail is as hard to take from a small publisher as from a hard. The illusion of Authonomy was that it could make the slush pile process easier for the want to be author. It was a never a reality.

The process might be faster, more open and hopefully more transparent (though given b) above that was not guaranteed), but rejection would be a bitter a pill whether it was offered by a single unknown commissioning editor/editorial assistant or the System that ran Authonomy. The only beneficiary was likely to be HarperCollins. But then that was the goal.

Ancillary benefits would accrue to some authors as they gained a readership they might not otherwise have but they were as likely to fail through Authonomy as through the old system if only because there were no new publishing slots and more rather than less applicants to fill those slots.

So an outburst against Authonomy was to some extent inevitable. But the idea that there has been some kind of underlying plan to exploit the system (other than a desire that after funding it, Authonomy should at least help HarperCollins) either as a route to POD or something else is misplaced.

Authonomy is, I think, an authentic effort by a large publisher to harness the web to its advantage. Rather than tear it down because it has dissappointed some, I’d urge the participants to view it more as an experiment and a noble one. There is, I suspect, some room for and openness to change (though I don’t know for sure). As for Harper I think there is much to be praised. It strikes me that they might have created something pretty wonderful but the path ahead is a rough one and I wish them luck with it.

If that’s too middle of the road for some, then I am sorry, its what I think!
Eoin

* By this I mean the culture of any large corporation. Sharing information other than that which is essential is often viewed skeptically by corporations and regularly is teh reason why that corporation profits. Changing that culture is hard and is not always desirable.

Authonomy Contracts Three Books From Members

Eoin Purcell

Strike me down
I have to say I saw this coming. After some recent bad press on POD issues, Authonomy issued an e-mail informing the community that they have contracted three books from amongst the huge slush pile of authors.

Coffee At Kowalski’s by Miranda Dickinson

Rosie is happy at Kowalski’s florists in New York – until her past catches up with her. Romantic comedy with a cast of memorable characters.

Reaper: Coming soon to a family near you by Steven Dunne

A combination of Silence of the Lambs and The Poet set in Derby. A long dormant serial killer strikes again and the hunt is on.

Never Say Die by Melanie Davies and Lynne Barrett-Lee

The incredible story of an exceptional life…

The subtle genius of Authonomy
Is that the author already has a profile page and an image, a book and probably some fans built up through the site community. Yes I think perhaps some people underestimated the potential of this digital slush-pile!

Intrigued!
Eoin

Penguin go innovating again

Interesting
Not happy with the biggest and bravest attempt at storytelling experiments, A Million Penguins (Discussed on this blog here & here), Penguin are going to take another crack at it with a new site and a new project. I signed up for the project here:Pengrin
Not sure what it means, but Jeremy Ettinghausen, Penguin’s Digital Publisher has some words on it here:

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that in a few weeks Penguin will be embarking on an experiment in storytelling (yes, another one, I hear you sigh). We’ve teamed up with some interesting folk and challenged some of our top authors to write brand new stories that take full advantage of the functionalities that the internet has to offer – this will be great writing, but writing in a form that would not have been possible 200, 20 or even 2 years ago. If you want to be alerted when this project launches sign up here – all will be revealed in March.

I’m watching with much interest,
Eoin