Bring Out Your Dead: If book publishing is truly dying, then the afterlife is looking pretty sweet!

So here’s a rhetorical question: At what point do media pundits finally get that the digital revolution tearing down long-established systems through previously unimaginable efficiency isn’t the end of all civilization, just the likely end of various legacy businesses who used the previous inefficiency and prohibitive cost structure to dominate their markets?  It’s rhetorical because the answer is obviously never.

The book publishing industry is the latest group of legacy businesses to fall into the chicken little, the sky is falling fallacy.  To be sure, the large publishers themselves are in trouble, but that doesn’t mean that the writers they’ve built their legacies on will fall with them.  In fact, I would argue just the opposite is true.  Writers now have previously impossible access to the market, to production and marketing possibilities without having to run the gauntlet of the publisher gatekeepers or pay their exorbitant tributes for being allowed to do so. How is this a bad development?

Here’s a piece that appeared in The Guardian recently that makes the exact case I disagree with.  In fact, the piece lays out the argument that, as publishers fall to the digital transition and ebooks become more pervasive, the writer as a profession will cease to exist.  Interesting point of view if totally and completely misguided. 

The author makes the claim that writers must support publishers or else they both are doomed.  Well, he’s half right.  If writers do bail on publishers in increasing numbers, as they very likely will, the publishers will be doomed.  Of course, I would also argue if writers ignore the new freedoms of the coming age and blindly support publishers, they’ll be dooming themselves.  Publishers, as they exist today, are doomed regardless.  They are middlemen and the internet kills middlemen as effectively as any process ever invented. 

In the past, writers needed publisher’s infrastructure and resources to print their books, market them and distribute them.  With ebooks and increasingly affordable print on demand, we don’t need that printing service any longer.  With Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, the ibookstore, etc, etc, we no longer need their distribution services either.  That leaves marketing, and the savvy web using author can do that too, with little to no expense.  Plus, how long will it be before there are no upfront costs for advertising, either?  Imagine a world where you click on an ad, buy an ebook from your mobile device, download it and a percentage goes to the storefront, a percentage to the ad platform and the rest instantaneously into the author’s bank account.  You won’t have to imagine it because it’ll be here very, very soon, and you and I will have the identical access to that framework that any legacy publisher has.  So much for marketing.

I purposely left editing out of my list of offerings from publishers for a couple reasons.  One, it’s remarkably easy to find someone online to do a technical edit for a small fee.  Two, when speaking of editing, it’s often included in with the process of selecting which works deserve to be published, i.e., the gatekeeper role.  Well, in an infinite online world, we don’t need those gatekeepers anymore.  So that about wraps it up.  There is virtually nothing publishers do that writers can’t do for themselves at low or no cost.  How, in that atmosphere, does it make any sense at all to continue to turn 75 or 80% of your possible earnings over to a legacy business you don’t really need?

There is a one caveat here.  The world I describe is one where the writer does a lot more than simply writing a book.  Of course, I would argue that the ideal of the writer earning a living simply writing has always been a bit of a fallacy.  Certainly, there are some, but the vast majority of writers have always supplemented their income in other ways.  In the Guardian piece, defending the publisher advance system that is today declining, the author sites Dickens and Shakespeare as writers who earned a living wage.  Well, Dickens was a prolific magazine editor, and most of his works were serialized into magazines before they were ever collected into books, that age’s equivalent of the radio play or the television drama.  Shakespeare was a playwright and an actor.  His work wasn’t even collected and published until well after his death.  How does that apply to modern book publishers and their advance pay scales?

In this recent interview, author Graham Swift decries a world where writers would have to depend on readings and events to earn a living.  Well, maybe I’m wrong, but wasn’t no less notable an author than Mark Twain pretty famous for his live performances, some even suggesting he invented the role of stand-up comedian? Twain was also a prolific magazine editor, as was another American great, Edgar Allan Poe.  Poe, by the way, was also known to earn a buck doing public and private readings of his poetry, notably The Raven.  I don’t see how these efforts detracted from their writings.

The fact is that the vast majority of writers have always needed other means of income outside of simply putting pen to paper.  The difference now is, that if done properly, the writer can keep the lion’s share of the money generated from their works instead of the table scraps publishers have historically thrown their way.  And make no mistake, even when publishers were paying large advances and higher royalty rates, the money filtering down to creators, by and large, was still table scraps. 

And while book publishers don’t generally have the same horrendous reputation for totally screwing their talent that the music industry does, there have been reports of publishers severely under-reporting ebook sales to get out of owed royalty payments.  Is there a justifiable reason to continue blindly trusting these folks?  And that doesn’t even mention turning over the rights to your work in various formats, which self-published folks keep outright in all forms.  Increasingly, that answer is no.

The doom and gloom is somewhat understandable coming from that quarter, however. There has always been some resentment by those inside the gated walls of publishing, and by those who aspire to gain entrance there, toward people who circumvent that process.  To some, it seems as if spending years or decades compiling a mountain of rejection letters from publishers is some kind of noble pursuit or right of passage.  Well, more power to you if that’s what you really want, but there is clearly a better way, and it’s simply a matter of time before those walls come crashing down, as well they should.

We haven’t yet reached the point where the transition has come to complete fruition yet, but it’s fairly clear the direction things are going.  When we do get there, it’s going to be obvious that publishers no longer add enough value from their offerings to justify claiming 4/5 of the proceeds or more.  It’s actually debatable to me if they ever really did, just that they held a dominant enough position that they could demand those extortion-level financial terms from authors or they could effectively squeeze you out. 

If publishers are going to survive in the coming future at all, they’re going to have to find ways to add value to the new processes, and the terms will have to be much more author friendly, to the tune of 40-50% royalties, if not more.  Otherwise, they simply become an unnecessary and prohibitive middleman expense.  Squeezing author royalties or colluding to artificially inflate ebook prices, as they have recently done, is the exact wrong way to go about things.  Even if they do make solid choices, publishers will become support mechanisms for authors instead of dominant masters.  Again, this is not a bad development for writers in any way.

All is not totally dour, the end is near commentary. In fact, here’s a counterpoint to the Guardian piece I first referenced, also appearing in the same publication.  If nothing else, this uses much of the same data to paint a much brighter picture of the industry as a whole.

And I’ll close with one more link that refuted the coming decimation of books and those who write them.  The author here sums up the point nicely in the last paragraph:

“This is a growth industry, if only its practitioners would admit it.”

Very well said.  And very true, unless you’re a legacy publisher.

Published in: on August 30, 2011 at 5:46 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Good points, well made. Funny, when I read the opening paras, I was going to post up the link to the Guardian’s ‘The death of books has been greatly exaggerated’ piece but you beat me to it!

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