Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Whereto Publishing?

The invention of the printing press made it po...Image via Wikipedia

"If you can see into the future, you're not looking ahead far enough," said the bloke that put the hole in the toilet seat that is the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee. Right now, that is particularly true in the world of publishing, where a great looming cloudy thing is gathering on the horizon.

Problem is, nobody knows quite what's in it.

I have long been fascinated with the question of where publishing's going. This is because I used to be in the publishing industry (before I fell into PR, insensibly, like a boiled frog) and also because I have a nasty book-writing habit. Harper Collins' experiment in online talent-spotting and stealth POD site, Authonomy, showed how book publishers were casting around for some way to use the Internet in their business models. At the same time, magazine and newspaper publishers have been watching revenues dwindle as all those bloodshot morning coffee eyeballs drifted onto the Internet.

The problem facing both categories of publisher is that they are wedded tightly to their business model - and it's a business model whose very existence is based on inefficiency. It's simply got to go.

This is not something I say because I want it to go. While I have long suffered from the whole 'carvers at the gates of Gormenghast' aspect of submitting to publishers, I am deeply attached to the papery wonderfulness that is a good book. It's just that it doesn't really work very well anymore.

Authors are paid a percentage of the cover price of a book. Publishers print lots of books, essentially speculatively, and depend on trying to sell a high percentage of the total number of books. They will never, ever sell all of the books. If you're doing very, very well you might sell 60%. The rest are returns and so the cost of any given book is actually a tad over 140% of its actual cost of production, print, shipping and so on. This is the first inefficiency - wastage on returns.

The total cost of the book will include something like 40% for the distributor (20% for the disty and 20% for the retailer). The author will make something around 8-10% of sales, although the percentage depends on who that author is.

Given that I can put a book in your hands for nothing using the Internet, the process of chopping down trees and squeezing them through printing presses, shipping them all over the world and then accepting the unsolds getting shipped back again (to be remaindered and then, if all hope is lost, pulped) seems to be terribly inefficient. And it is.

I have often said that the last refuge of the about-to-be-disintermediated is 'quality'. Never has it been so true of publishing the traditional way. You need professional editors to give a book quality. You can't replace the quality of a paper book. You'll lose all quality if you open up the publishing market to any Tom, Dick and Harry who thinks they can write a book.

In the time I was involved with Authonomy, you'd often hear me saying that I had found more books on the website that I wanted to read than I had found in my local bookshops. That was, and is, the case. There's a lot of great writing out there that could not be published not because it wasn't good or highly readable, but because it didn't fit into the commercial needs of a market that was based on focusing solely on the 'next big thing' precisely because of its inherent inefficiencies.

I have posted before about some interesting efforts to redefine book publishing that were born out of authonomy - and I think that life is about to get even more interesting for these fledgling attempts to find an alternative to the traditional publishing model.

At the same time, magazine and newspaper publishing (with many of the same inherent inefficiencies of sales and returns and the like) are both seeing declining sales and advertising revenue (see this guest post from writer pal and newspaper editor Robb Grindstaff). Early attempts to apply 'old fashioned' thinking to the Internet have racked up failure after failure - we ain't going to pay you for content we can get for free. This total disaster is the latest warning that newspaper 'paywalls' aren't the solution.

If Apple's announcement today is what I think it is going to be, a smart, usable tablet 'multi-reader' supported by a user-friendly transactional portal, then we will see if the soundbite of the year will come true: "Apple is going to do for publishing what the iPod did for the music industry."

Authors in the UK can make 75% of an e-book sale, which is not only fairer on the content creator, it reflects the fact that the actual cost of distribution of an e-book is zilch, nada and mafie. Editing and marketing are a cost - and an imprint will still want to gatekeep to keep quality high. But selling fewer books could make an author just as much money - and so smaller , more defined audiences can be served with more of what they want.

This doesn't mean the end for books and newspapers, by the way. It doesn't mean the end of journalism and authorship. It just means the end of publishing houses stuffed with gatekeepers, yoyo-toting cretins and marketing departments that want to sign up any half-celebrity or vampire novel rather than actually finding out what readers want. There'll be new publishers - quality imprints that are slicker, world-sourced and more nimble, marketing-centric and reader-driven, participative and community-minded.

And they'll be efficient.

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Hisham Wyne said...

Alexander, great post. Fair point - the Internet can do for publishing what it did for music - by launching communal channels that don't need record labels or publishers.

But what guarentees quality? The free market?e.g. people only pay/consume the books they like through the Internet?

But what about journalism? You have yourself made the point during #iranelection that bloggers and social media like twitter are fast and responsive but not necessary quality-controlled or verified. Your thoughts?

Phillipa said...

I don't want to read a book on an electronic device because I work on one all day long. I want to get away from the damn screens flickering and carving up my concentration span. So if it's on a screen it's work and belongs in my study, not in my bedroom where I like to read. Give me paper, and give me gatekeepers and damn your efficiency, McNabb. I may be completely alone in these sentiments but I care not, I have a book to keep me company.

Matthew Teller said...

Philippa - you're not alone. We should be searching for ways to keep books (and publishing) viable - not giving up on them and switching to screens...

There is simply no more efficient, long-lasting, meaningful, aesthetically pleasing, sensuous, readable, useful, usable, ergonomic and bloody CHEAP way to transmit information than a book - run a close second by a newspaper.

They have mattered, in various forms, for the last 2000-plus years of human civilization, and will still matter when all those California corporates are dust blowing across the pages of their great-great-great-grandchildren's edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Publishing - and journalism - are in a hole because of advertising. Hallelujah: that means the subsidised model is dead. Let's instead devise a way for me to pay full-price for access to good writing without having to suffer advertising getting in the way and feeling like it rules the roost.

It's a revolution, brother and sisters.

alexander... said...

Well, for a start Hisham's point's a goody - quality guarantees. That's why I think there will be imprints that are known for quality in the 'e-model' - there'll be a lot of sole traders/self-publishers, but at the end of the day imprints with reputations will be preferred by users and grow their markets. That does mean gatekeeping, but in an environment with a huge amount more choice.

As Pip well knows, I too love 'booky books' but to quote another of my well-worn aphorisms, quality becomes irrelevant when technology enables access - look at the book of Kells and Caxton's first print and you'll get what I mean.

Similarly Matthew - I agree emotionally, but more and more people are using 'non paper solutions'.

I am now going to patent that 'most annoying phrase of the year'...

Oh! Journalism. Again, it's down to reputation. People of reputation become a little like editors and we'll follow those, and trust those, who build a reputation for insight, quality and capability.

The game changer is distribution. We still need the information and we still need it to be channeled for is. It's just that we'll go direct to eyeballs rather than through printing presses and the physical distribution of paper. Not tomorrow, but I wouldn't write off next year - look at adoption of the iPod, a device that reproduces music at BELOW CD quality!

Matthew Teller said...

Nice thought, Alexander - but editing is absolutely key to quality. See my humble thoughts on the matter:

I don't want to go straight to the 'horse's mouth' - if that horse is one solo individual who is publishing alone. Although blogging is great, and allows dissemination of diverse opinions that might otherwise be lost, I also don't want its amateur take on the world to dominate the discussion.

I want the experience of professionals. In the plural. That's unfashionable, I know - but journalists and writers need the backing of large organisations in order to BEST do what they do.

And that value judgement is crucial. Quality matters. Writers need editors. Books need publishers. And people need books.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

the Internet has done so much for art, music and DIY filmmaking-- and slowly it's making a path for writers. Old Media & Publishers need to stop rejecting the Internet.

Phillipa said...

"quality becomes irrelevant when technology enables access" - that aphorism gives me the heebie jeebies. Think Big Brother, sexual abuse porn, religous tracts, cooking race shows etc etc ad nauseum.

I've just come from coffee with a person who has an ereader who was telling me about the need to recharge the thing via one's computer. What a hassle. A few weeks ago my partner and I plucked one child from behind a screen and set off to relocate for a few weeks. We took with us ...
1 wifi phone and charger
2 other phones and two other chargers
2 ipods and one charger
a touch ipod and one charger
1 satnav device and charger
2 usb's
1 laptop and a/c cord
1 Nintendo and charger
2 electric toothbrushes and respective chargers
1 hairdryer
1 powerboard
And if we'd taken the other child you could add at least three items with respective chargers.

Do I want another e gadget and charger? Or four of the damn things - one for each family member?

And all this stuff will need upgrading in a year or so.

Give me a book so I can get away from all this 'stuff'

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