Finding Value: In the great internet disruption, will authors need publishers any longer?

I’ve written a bit lately about the value, or relative lack thereof, of publishers to authors in the rapidly emerging ebook market.  I covered my thinking on the subject clearly here.  And then followed up a bit when discussing a somewhat similar point of view from a self published author here.  Basically, my point is that book publishers once brought value to the relationship with authors in the sheltered, high cost-barrier to entry print market, but, unless they undergo a major paradigm shift, they risk bringing very little value to authors in the growing ebook market.  And they certainly won’t bring enough to justify keeping 4/5 of the proceeds.

Well, in following the market as I do, I’ve increasingly run across more and more authors asking the very same question:  what are publishers doing for me that I can’t do for myself and why should I continue to give up 75 or 80% of the proceeds?  As increasing numbers of authors ask these questions that are so imperative to our futures as writers, publishers have a major problem.  How they respond will largely determine whether they follow the collapse of the newspaper and music industries, or will they adapt, and adjust to a more equal or even lesser role to content creators in their business relationships.  There is no middleground.  Publishers cannot continue with business as usual.  Adapt or die is the mantra of the internet disruption and they are not an exception.

Here’s an article that describes exactly the issue at hand, an agent discussing the fact that more of the authors he represents are asking him exactly what are publishers doing for me?  There are some responses from publishers, mostly to the effect of, well, we defend territoriality and we fight against piracy.  One publisher said that perhaps the problem is that publishers don’t explain to authors what they do for them very well, without, of course, any specific details of what exactly those benefits are.

Territoriality is an increasing anachronism in today’s market that creates unnecessary hurdles like an author needing different publishers in the U.S. and the UK.  The concept may have made sense in the somewhat sheltered physical world of yesterday, but in today’s digital age, it seems like one more unnecessary obstacle.  It’s also going to be pretty irrelevant, too, as more authors forego publishers as I, and many others, expect they will.

Fighting piracy is another matter altogether.  I’ve long believed that the framing of this issue has been off base all along.  As a content creator myself, I have no problem with downloading.  It’s not taking money out of my pocket if they weren’t going to buy it in the first place.  And I firmly believe that more eyeballs on my work can only lead to more fans which leads to more opportunities to make money.  DRM, draconian intellectual property laws, and copious infringement lawsuits lead to the exact opposite, that is less exposure, more alienated customers and an overall decline in opportunity.  They need to come to grips with the fact that they no longer have a captive customer base and they will not be able to recapture that.  The music industry declined precipitously not because people were downloading music for free, but because of the tactics they used to fight it.  They can argue all they like, but increasingly strict controls on intellectual property leads directly to loss of sales, not the other way around.

The key today is to have a positive mutual relationship with current and potential customers, and that means we have to convince people to willingly want to pay for it, at a price the customers find reasonable.  You can’t force that.  Just because I produce something and put it out there doesn’t mean I am entitled to get paid, or that I deserve to earn a living from it.  Creative works, intellectual property if you will, is a completely different animal than building furniture, or painting a house or virtually any other trade.  No matter how much the industries that profit from the creative works of others frame it, it’s simply a different, stranger business with a very different customer relationship.  And I’d be nothing short of a total hypocrit to complain about not extracting value out of a product the customers see no value in. 

Fighting what they call piracy is a losing game, and I would argue that traveling that road actually creates and perpetuates the true negatives of file sharing while blocking its potential benefits, and does nothing but add to the psychological barriers between potential customers and paying for your products.  These defenses by publishers aren’t things they do to benefit authors, they do these to benefit themselves, creating barriers between authors and customers they believe they can exploit and profit from.  Exactly how much money of that recovered by the RIAA in infringement lawsuits was paid down to the artists who’s works were the basis for the suits in the first place?  That’s right, zero.

Here’s another piece that discusses the same issue, what exactly is the value of a publisher?  Don’t miss the comments by a publishing exec later on in the piece where he essentially makes the case, against all reality, common sense and first hand observation, that ebooks aren’t actually cheaper to produce than print books.  In fact, he makes a subtle suggestion that they might actually be more expensive.  He provides a lengthy list of things publishers do in producing ebooks that is a combination of their own overhead and things authors can easily do for themselves now at low or no cost.  This smacks of a self serving point to me, both to justify publishers place in the process and the obviously way-too-small royalty rates on ebooks to authors.  If ebooks aren’t infinitely cheaper for you to produce and sell, you’re doing something horribly, horribly wrong. 

The problem isn’t that ebooks aren’t cheaper, it’s that publishers’ infrastructure built on the print model is too bulky, inefficient and expensive.  Again, this is a clear indication of the need to adapt before authors flee in droves.  After all, why prop up a framework you neither benefit from or really need, especially to the tune of 40-50% of the proceeds you would otherwise have received?

And here’s another piece, this one discussing agents starting digital publishing efforts of their own for their authors.  Now there are some concerns with that type of arrangement, potential conflicts of interest primarily, and the writer of this piece has a vested interest being an agent doing exactly what he’s advocating.  But there are some excellent points about what he calls a “perfect storm” of elements bearing down on publishers.

There are two points, in particular, that struck me.  One is about rights, namely that many authors have given up the rights to backlist titles that publishers are doing little or nothing with.  He even argues for a reverse royalty type arrangement where the rights would return to the authors in exchange for a 25% royalty on future sales paid to the publisher.  Rights are an area where I believe we, as content creators, have been very lax over the years, willingly giving up rights to our material almost in perpetuity to publishers.  This is another area where publishers must change, I believe, as it’s increasingly in our best interest as authors to reclaim control of our material.

In the past, the difficulties of getting into the guarded walls of traditional publishing made giving up our rights almost an afterthought and a necessary evil at best.  But now, the tables are turning to where authors again have much more leverage in the relationship.  Besides, how galling would it have to be to pay royalties to a publisher to regain rights to your own works that they weren’t even adequately exploiting?  It’s an experience I could do without having.

The second point is about big name brand authors, such as J.K. Rowling.  The Harry Potter series author, as you may have heard, has started her own ebook unit, called Pottermore, and is planning to use it to sell ebooks of the Potter series, which she smartly retained rights to, as well as other titles, free from the hand of a publisher.  In the article, the writer points out that we could soon see a rush of brand authors following suit.  Many of these well-known, best-selling authors are under contract for more books in the traditional system, but he correctly makes the point that when those contracts run out, all bets are off. 

If the most profitable, A- list authors begin to bail on publishers, they will have a very real and potentially fatal problem.  To this, I would add a deeper concern.  Not only are publishers at risk of losing their top-level performers, but the pipeline to produce new top-selling authors could be clogged as well.  New and emerging authors are likely to be very technology friendly and proficient.  This makes the publisher arrangement look even more unattractive to someone who’s essentially an internet native and can easily grasp the aspects of going it alone and foregoing traditional publishers.  Lose your top earners and your means of replacing them in the chain, and publishers can, for lack of a more diplomatic term, kiss their ass goodbye. 

The only way to keep either end of their pipeline of talent from fleeing is to have much, much more author friendly arrangements, which means big changes to publishers structurally.  This is something they, to this point, have been hesitant to consider, but it’s also something that could well have forced on them in the not-too-distant future, but by then, it could be too late. 

Newspaper publishing was facing a similar situation 10 years ago and they, almost in unison, ignored the warning signs while still reaping the nice profits from their print-centric system that had yet to be seriously disrupted.  We all know how that turned out, a decade later, a market less than half the size it once was, dead and dying papers strewn about the landscape, and those remaining little more than dragged kicking and screaming into reality, praying against hope that paywalls and tablet apps will stop the bleeding.  Do book publishers want to end up the same way?

I’ll wrap up this with a look at author Sam Harris’ take on the future of the book from his own blog.  Harris has an interesting view on how things have changed, pointing out that, in some cases, author’s blogs far exceed the traffic and interaction that their work receives on sites like Vanity Fair or the New Yorker.  A telling line from Harris is this one:  “I can count on one finger the number of places where it is still obviously better for me to publish than on my own blog…”  That development is at once liberating and discouraging as a writer.  That an individual writer can far exceed the exposure and reach of the platforms that used to provide that reach is greatly encouraging.  But those same platforms used to pay.  Now, it’s up to the writer to figure out how to monetize that newfound reach.  Like I said, at once scary and exciting.

On Harris’ end, he’s trying the route of get the best of both worlds.  He’ll publish long-form works through traditional channels and self publish shorter works independently online.  Sounds like a plan, but the tone of the piece had a distinct sense of foreboding for the future of the printed book, as if he was saying he’d stick with the traditional print end just until he doesn’t anymore, which could be sooner than any of us realize.

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