It's no secret that the publishing industry is in the midst of a vast transformation. The question is whether the industry can pivot to a vastly different reality.
I finally caught up with George Packer's excellent article on Amazon and its fraught relationship with the traditional book world, and there was one quote in particular that stood out to me. Russ Grandenetti, Amazon's Kindle vice president said:
The old print world of scarcity—with a limited number of publishers and editors selecting which manuscripts to publish, and a limited number of bookstores selecting which titles to carry—is yielding to a world of digital abundance. Grandinetti told me that, in these new circumstances, a publisher’s job “is to build a megaphone.”Building a megaphone is a really great metaphor for the value publishers can still bring to the publishing process even as we march steadily into the e-book era. At the end of the day, the publishing process is a series of tasks and services from production to distribution to promotion, and when they're working well, publishers can add tremendous value to a book project. And the most important task in an era of abundance is to help a book rise above the noise.
But do they think of themselves this way? Can they quickly adapt to fulfilling that role?
And most importantly, what does this mean for authors?
The funnel inverts
The old print world really was based on scarcity. There was only so much shelf space in bookstores, therefore there was only so many copies of any book it was profitable to print, therefore it was necessary and profitable to winnow down all the books out there into a select, chosen few.
Publishers added value through the act of curation. Gatekeeping is now treated with derision in some quarters, but it was a terribly important, valuable business activity. Publishers built cachet through quality control, and booksellers and authors alike came to depend upon them for this service.
Publishers were a crucial funnel. They made the system work when it simply wasn't profitable to print every book ever written during the first five hundred years of the printed word.
Now, as so many people have already breathlessly chronicled, the funnel is inverted. We no longer live in a world with limited shelf space, and in fact the complete opposite is true. With e-books and print on demand, the costs of producing an individual book have dropped dramatically.
Because of online bookselling, e-books, and advances in print-on-demand, we live in a world where everything can be published. Everything. As Clay Shirky very famously pointed out, publishing is no longer a job or activity -- it's a button.
The value in publishing is no longer built around scarcity. It's abundance. Instead of culling books into a select few that arrive on bookstore shelves, the value publishers now must bring is helping authors rise above the noise and connecting readers to the books they want to read.
Distribution isn't enough
Right now, the biggest thing publishers can still bring for self-published authors is getting them into the print distribution stream. Print still matters and probably will continue to matter in the near future. Publishers are still the surest way into bookstores and other important outlets like Target and Walmart.
But the importance of bookstore distribution will continue to wane, especially if, say, Barnes & Noble goes bankrupt and e-book adoption continues its steady, inexorable march.
Publishers cannot continue to rely on print distribution as a raison d'être. And in a world where there are tons of talented freelance editors and designers waiting in the wings, many of them former publishing employees, editing and packaging aren't significant differentiators either.
Indeed, authors now have a wide array of choices apart from the traditional publishing industry. It is extremely easy to self-publish, and especially with the paltry e-book royalties offered by traditional publishers, many authors can actually make more money going it alone.
This is a world of choice. There are two major shifts publishers need to make in order to accommodate this shift:
1. They will need to start treating authors as customersCan they do it?
2. They will have to invest in publicity, marketing, and branding
Authors as customers
When authors have a choice about how and where they publish and many of them experience great success self-publishing, publishers can no longer count on the authors just feeling lucky to be there.
Indeed, there is an undercurrent within the traditional publishing industry (not in all quarters, I want to stress) that authors should be kept on a need-to-know basis, that when it comes to things like choosing covers it's best to let the experts do their job unmolested, that authors are a rather annoying byproduct of the publishing process best kept at arm's length. Authors are often kept in the dark about key decisions that affect their book.
This will have to change. When authors have a choice about where to publish, publishers will have to make themselves appealing to authors. In other words, they'll need to treat the publishing process like a partnership.
At the end of the day, authors will be evaluating their options based on a wide variety of criteria. Especially as we move into a primarily e-book world, authors will be able to accomplish most of the tasks of publishing on their own. No one will have to have a publisher.
If they're going to choose a publisher, they'll need to have confidence it will be a positive experience, that their input will be valued. The next time authors have a choice they will need to feel a reason to return.
Publicity, marketing, branding
When a publisher is excited about a book it's amazing the amount of energy and marketing they can bring. It's not just the ads they place and the campaigns they execute, but even having dozens of employees excitedly talking about a new book with their friends can start the hype machine on its way.
But too often, non-lead titles are simply dropped into the ocean without a plan and nary a cent spent on promotion. It's no secret that the publishing industry doesn't pay well, and this can feel especially reflected in book publicity and marketing departments, which at some publishers can feel like a rotating collection of recent NYU graduates who stay a year or two before decamping for a higher-paying job.
It used to make sense to pick and choose where to spend marketing dollars. To a certain extent, someone walking into a bookstore is faced with a zero-sum choice between books. Publishers invested in the books receiving "co-op" at the front of the store, the rest were left to magically catch fire... somehow.
But that's not the world we live in anymore. Books aren't competing against other books, they're competing against apps and movies and games like 2048 in a vast virtual store and the books aren't all hidden spine out in the back of a bookstore. It now makes more sense than ever to promote every book, and to better take into account the purchasing process of an online book buyer.
There is still value in publishing brands -- people have heard of Penguin and HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster -- but publishers have never thought of these as consumer-facing brands and are squandering their cachet on imprints no one has ever heard of.
Publishers have grown even more reliant on authors promoting themselves at a time when advertising should be the very thing publishers are bringing to the table.
And if publishers aren't bringing promotion to the table and aren't helping a book rise above the noise, when it's so easy to self-publish and the returns-per-copy are so much higher, authors may well ask themselves: why do I have a publisher again?
I have always been optimistic about publishers and feel that their level of preparation for and investment in the e-book era has been sorely underappreciated by outside observers. This isn't an industry full of retrograde dinosaurs, despite what you might read on some other publishing blogs.
But my fear is that the recent ebb in the exponential growth of e-books and feel-good stories about independent bookstores will result in complacency about the shifts that will need to take place.
Publishers really do need to reimagine themselves as megaphones and figure out how they will help authors ascend to another level when they don't have their distribution advantage to rely upon.
Can they turn that funnel inside out?
Art: His Master's Voice by Francis Barraud