The Publishing Revolution


View 748 Thursday, November 01, 2012


We have this:

Which ran with a puff for Levin

New York Times best selling author and Shark Tank survivor Michael Levin runs, and is a nationally acknowledged thought leader on the future of book publishing.

Levin is commenting on the Random Penguins merger. Among other things he says:

Here’s what happens next: The remaining major publishers will find it harder to compete, because the resulting publisher (Penguin House?) will be able to produce books more cheaply. So they’ll fire people, merge, fire more people, and eventually roll over and die.
All because publishers never figured out how to deal with the Internet and how to sell books in a wired world.
All because publishers considered themselves "special" and thought they could get away with selling products they didn’t market.
All because publishers are English majors wearing Daddy’s work clothes and pretending to be business people, running their businesses on whim and gut feeling instead of figuring out what people want and giving it to them, the way smart businesses work.
I have no pity for the fallen publishers. In Wall Street terms, there isn’t enough lipstick in the world to make these pigs kissable. They had the responsibility to shape society by providing it with books worth reading, to create a cultural legacy for our generation and generations to come. And instead, what did they give us?

I first saw the Levin essay in an author association – Science Fiction Writers of America – discussion, and replied off the top of my head. Some fellow members of SFWA have suggested it might be appreciated by a wider readership.

I am reminded of the Old Timer in the late Fibber McGee series, who would listen to a long rant and say "Pretty good, Sonny, but it ain’t the way I heard it."

I have had my criticisms of the publishing world, but I don’t think things are as bad as all that. Indeed, the big problem with publishing seems to be that the bean counters come in and decide that there ought to be much higher returns on investment than publishing generally makes, and try to apply what they think thy know from the business community to publishing. The result is usually a disaster.

Publishing has its ups and downs, but the ups don’t go all that high: traditionally the return on investment in publishing is much smaller than the average in the business world, and the efficiencies are awful– but attempts to streamline and make things more efficient have generally made things worse. At least that’s the way I heard it and what I have seen since I got into this racket in the late 1960’s.

It’s certainly the case that new technologies have changed publishing at its core and no one is quite sure how to adjust to that. Worse, the collapse of the distribution system in which all the smart business people tried to eat each other with hostile takeovers left traditional publishing with real dilemmas. When you go from 200 distributors to about three and a half, and some of the takeovers were so hostile that the losers ‘lost’ their customer lists and accounts retrievable files on their way out the door, you are going to get some real dilemmas. More, the consolidated distribution companies, hugely in debt, thought they could now put bigger squeezes on the publishers just as technology made enormous changes in the very nature of distributing.

Alas, authors and their associations were taken in surprise as much as anyone else.

More, looking at the new generation of computers, laptops, netbooks, readers, etc., and new print technologies and print on demand system, the revolution isn’t anywhere near over. This means that publishers are going to have to scrap a lot of what they "know" and learn the new world.
Authors have to be aware of all this, but authors aren’t publishers, and most authors who thought they could be publishers have regretted trying that. The whole point of the publishing business was to take a lot of decisions out of the hands of authors — indeed, SFWA uses the publishers as its Membership Committee, and the collapse of publishing is making us wonder if we need to come up with our own means for choosing members.
Publishers have taken most of the business and marketing work out of the system leaving authors to write, not manage. Publishers give out advances and publish and market books. They try to choose books that will sell while at the same time playing for the favor of certain public intellectuals in the hopes of being well thought of, not just panders. What most publishers wanted was to do ‘important’ books that made money. That didn’t always work. "I publish Mickey Spillane so that I can publish award winning books…"

After the huge flop of Day of the Locust (it sold about 400 copies total) Bennett Cerf famously said "If I ever publish another Hollywood novel it will be My Fifty Ways of Making Love by Hedy Lamar". Of course that’s now considered one of the great American novels and Random House is quite proud of having published it.

Publishers have ceased to be the gatekeepers in the sense that anyone can now ‘publish’ a book. On the other hand, there is still the need for advances, editing, marketing including soliciting puffs and blurbs and reviews — every reviewer I know of is now bombarded with requests for reviews from people they don’t know, and every author receives requests for puffs from people who swear they have been readers and fans for many years, and no matter what good intentions we may have there is no way we can read all that. Someone has to become the equivalent of the publishers reader and the slush pile editor. Someone has to select what book ideas should have an advance, and there has to be a way to get a return on that risky investment. I will still read soon to be published books sent to me by my editors and publishers, but I can’t possibly read everything sent me by readers seeking a puff. Nor can anyone else.

I’m not sure that the rant that began this topic is terribly useful in finding answers to these questions.

= = = = =

I can add this:

In the past year one effect of the publisher revolution has been that eBook rights have become more valuable than print rights. Lucifer’s Hammer and Mote in God’s Eye are now selling quite well as eBooks even though they are decades old. Oath of Fealty isn’t doing too badly. Backlists are valuable again – and publishers haven’t done anything to market those books. Amazon has with its clever “People who bought this book also enjoyed” advertisements, which spreads the popularity of Mote and Hammer to many other works.

Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t a great deal for publishers to do. There are still the difficult tasks of editing – both line editing and copy-editing and the specialized copy editing required for eBooks which have to be examined in several publishing formats.

There is still the fact that publishers serve as the Membership Committee for the Author’s Guild, Mystery Writers of American, Science Fiction Writers of America, etc.: That is many author associations only allow membership to published authors, and ‘published’ specifically excludes self-published. This is now challenged by ‘self-published’ eBooks making more in a year than they would have got as advances for first novels. Author associations don’t know how to deal with this.

Niven and Benford have just been on an author’s death march – book signing tour – for their new collaboration, Bowl of Heaven, which managed to hit the best seller list. There is still money in book publishing of the old fashioned variety.

Publishing has been through many crises and will go through more. Publishers and authors have many mutual interests; the problem is usually the bean counters who come into publishing not understanding that to be a successful publisher you need to know something about authors – not only getting along with established authors who can make money for you, but in recognizing and encouraging and developing newcomers whose first efforts probably won’t make any money, but who can become the best sellers you will need in ten years and more.

At least that’s the way I heard it.









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