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
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!
* 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.