Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Role of Publishing Houses in the New Publishing Economy - Part 1

To paraphrase Monty Python’s Life of Brian, ‘what have publishers ever done for us?’
Well, plenty, and they continue to do so. But the world never stops changing and their portion of it is changing more rapidly than ever. As a self published writer who has never managed to secure an agent, let alone a publishing deal, it would be easy for me to be entirely dismissive of the mainstream publishing industry but that would be disingenuous to say the least.
What I will say is that the game is changing and the traditional publishing model is way past the point of being threatened. Some publishing houses have woken up and are aware of a vague coffee aroma in the air, but some seem to think the smell is limited to strangers passing by their doors. My advice to them is this – the coffee has arrived and it’s not going away.
What is happening would have happened at any time in the history of printing had an economical method of self publishing occurred that was analogous to the ebook process today, for example if printing from home had become ridiculously cheap. It didn’t, and anyone trying to self publish outside of the mainstream had to foot huge costs that rarely resulted in a meaningful payback and led them to accusations of vanity publishing. It took a large number of relatively small pieces to drop into place to enable the process that is now happening, and it is posing a real threat to the status quo. And this isn’t a trivial issue as the publishing industry is huge, it employs a large amount of people (supporting their families and homes in the process) and it serves a very noble purpose.
However, while the contraction in that industry is inevitable, the real problem is the resistance to accept the change. Like the music industry over the last ten to fifteen years, which has invested more in resisting the download age than in embracing it. If the music industry had recognised that you can’t uninvent technology, that the Internet was largely out of its control, and had instead worked to both legitimise the download industry while in parallel provide more value for money for tangible music products such as CDs, then it would be in a stronger position today. It took a computer hardware and software manufacturer, Apple, to do what the music industry could and should have done several years earlier. A similar challenge is facing the publishing industry, except there isn’t one single rogue corporate entity doing this, it’s dozens of manufacturers making reading devices, a significant number of very large corporations such as Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Sony etc providing a legitimised front end for consumers and an almost uncountable number of writers who may or may not be of the standard required by the mainstream pushing their books through these channels.
The real problem for the mainstream publishing industry, though, is that the change will take a couple of years, not the ten to fifteen enjoyed (I’m not certain they would describe it as such) by the music industry. The rate of change is way faster today and nearly everybody in the developed world has access to the necessary technology.
So what went wrong? Obstinately looking the other way is part of the problem, obviously. Seeing a truck bearing down is more motivating than just hearing the sound of the horn. But I think the problem is rooted deeper than that.
The publishing industry, quite correctly, lauds its own successes. It puts the successful authors on a pedestal and treats them like rock stars. J K Rowling, for example, is a perfect example of how the mainstream publishing industry gets it right, right? What about Stephen King? Probably one of the most successful writers in any genre, an undisputed marvel of horror fiction. The industry should be very proud of how well they’ve supported and cultivated Mr King, recognising his talent. Except it took, I understand, seventeen commissioning editors to recognise that Carrie was worth publishing. The first sixteen didn’t see what the public did and continue to do so, and don’t forget these are industry experts. Sure, one or two might decide it wasn’t their bag, but really, shouldn’t they be looking for what’s our bag?
The real problem, though, is not just good books being overlooked, but failures being commissioned too. Well, failures might be a harsh word but look the high street of any sizable town in the UK. You may or may not find a mainstream bookshop (other than WH Smith, which is more generalist) but you almost certainly will find a remaindered bookshop such as The Works. These shops exist by selling off at bargain basement prices those books the professionals commissioned and either got hopelessly wrong or over-egged production of.

That’s enough mistakes to fill a bookshop in every medium to large sized town in the UK all year round!

Compare that to virtually every other consumer business on the high street and you will see that there are a handful of outlet stores dotted around the country to sell off the equivalent of their remaindered stock.
And the likes of The Works only shows the books that didn’t sell that might if sold at cost or a small loss. There’s also a mountain of books being pulped as well.
So the industry has a track record of not getting it right. The problem they have to contend with is that we don’t want the same books, or at least all at the same time. They also have to juggle manufacturing costs – printing is one of those areas that is less suitable to small production runs in economic terms.
My view is that electronic publishing allows exactly the right amount of books to be published, without loss. It’s also technically inexhaustible in terms of supply – if someone writes the blockbuster everyone wants to read today, they can get it immediately without waiting for the manufacturer to gear up production, it’s only a download away.

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