Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Future of Publishing
Part 2

Read here to see what this is all about.

What is one thing you would you do to change book publishing for the better?

Publishing has long existed in a top-down, trickle-down mentality. A book is acquired, then editorial bosses have to get excited, then sales and marketing have to get excited, then bookseller accounts have to get excited and finally, oh, there's this pesky reader who's supposed to buy the finished product, but by then the deck is often stacked. But we're in an on-demand culture, where people don't want to be dictated to but want the freedom - perceived or real - to choose what they want when they want it. And when the reader is so far removed from the process of making books, there's this huge disconnect that's now even bigger. So it's a huge challenge, but publishing's going to have to adjust its mentality from top-down to bottom-up; engaging the reader as early as possible. Knowing not just anecdotally but quantitatively what readers want to read, how they want to read it, and making books available in as many formats as they wish. But that's not going to be easy - and I wish everyone luck as we figure out how to adjust in this very scary, but also very opportunistic and very exciting time.
Sarah Weinman, editor, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

I'd get the major publishers together on a standard e-book format, one that's DRM-free and not tied to a device (like the kindle). Most important, we need to get e-book prices down. Charging the same price (or more!) than a hardcover for a digital file is absolutely ludicrous--we're hamstringing this technology at a crucial phase in its development.

One major thing that has to change is the attitude that publishers (and their editors) are the gatekeepers of quality. There seems to be an ongoing perception that only a select few people in New York City high rises have the golden touch, the ability to know what is "good fiction" and what is "bad fiction." These gatekeepers decide what gets published, and what stays forever on the slush pile. While that skill set has its place, in today's world there are far better options for making business decisions. By embracing free content, the zero-cost distribution model of the Internet, and learning how to monitor which authors can generate their own audiences, publishing can see what's going to sell by doing a rather basic measurement -- watch the people who buy the books, and see what they like before you print anything. The marketplace won't tell you exactly what books will fail, but it will tell you what books will succeed. The recent article in Time Magazine identifies several such examples, like Lisa Genova's "Still Alice" and Daniel Suarez's "Daemon." Both books were rejected dozens of times by agents and publishers who "knew" the books would not sell. Genova and Suarez self-published via different strategies, then generated sales to end customers, proving that they knew their potential audience better than the experts. 
(,9171,1873122,00.html). My story is another example. I have hundreds of rejection letters from the people who "knew" what would sell and what would not. I started giving my stories away via podcast, and three years later hit the NY Times extended list with my second hardcover, CONTAGIOUS. Cory Doctorow continues to prove, over and over again, that if you give your content away, fans will discover you, fans that are happy to pay for your work. Upcoming novels by J.C. Hutchins (7th SON, St. Martin's Press) and Seth Harwood (JACK WAKES UP, Three Rivers Press) will outsell the vast majority of new authors hitting shelves at the same time. Does it make sense to regularly hand out advances, pay editorial, production and sales staff, pay print costs, distributions costs and take returns on books that are proven to no one other than a handful of staffers who work under one roof? Repeat this formula for the hundreds of thousands of titles printed every year, and it's no wonder the system is collapsing in on itself. Publishing needs to start watching free content, monitoring it like pro football scouts watching the college ranks. Authors that can build an audience before Big Publishing ever steps in are the "blue chip" recruits of the literary world. People like Mur Lafferty, Matt Wallace, Mark Jeffrey and Tee Morris already have thousands of people listening to their stories -- why haven't publishers snatched them up? These people have proven their potential to readers, not to editors, not to publishers, and not to critics. It's a business, and happy readers are what makes everything happen. 

I would like to see publishers spend less money on the big celebrity and political books so that debut novelists, and other authors of serious fiction and nonfiction can get a fair shake. There are so may great, media-driven books that do not get their just deserts regarding publicity and advertising budgets because there is so little money left over after the million dollar advances go toward books that will never, ever earn out their advances. If money were more evenly distributed, more authors would earn a reasonable income, more books would receive media coverage, and there would be more balance in the industry as whole which would serve authors and readers alike.

The industry could use more sex, rock and roll, and any other form of recreation that will permit the austere types to loosen up. The inability from some to pursue fun and to foster curiosity was bad enough before all the layoffs, but it's now reached a catastrophic level. If you're working at a house, you could lose your job tomorrow. If you're a midlist author, you could be dumped tomorrow. If you're an independent bookstore proprietor, tomorrow you may not have the energy to prevent yourself from decking the insensitive lout who boasts about how he'll buy the book you've highlighted on the table at Amazon. Good eggs are disappearing and it's all very sad, but the true eggs will stay. Remember that nature abhors a vacuum. If we approach these concerns with anything that might cause us to remain bouncy and buoyant, then we're one step ahead of the dour D-Fenses who will implode and start metaphorically shooting people in the streets tomorrow. If you're not passionate about books, get out of this business. If you're not willing to fight for something better, get out of this business. If you're not willing to dust yourself off the ground, get out of this business. If you're not helping others and you're being selfish about preserving your meager place on the ladder, get out of this business. If on the other hand you're living in the present and paying attention to the future, and you have the chops and the fortitude to persuade the stubborn holdouts (even if it means bracing a John Anderson-like blow, as Jeff Dowd did last week), then you're absolutely vital to the future of publishing. You're needed. And you must go in and change things for the better.

Stay tuned for Part 3 tomorrow. Read Part 1. If you work in publishing (author, editor, agent, critic, bookseller or reporter) and would like to participate, email me at with your response to "What is one thing you would you do to change book publishing for the better?" and I will post it.

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