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 customers
2. They will have to invest in publicity, marketing, and branding
Can they do it?
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
Could not agree more.
To address your last point about the plateau of ebook adoption, I have to think that Hugh Howey is right. We are currently using the ereader equivalent of the first gen walkman (or maybe the boombox on the shoulder!)
Ereaders will evolve, and it would make sense from MANY perspectives (including an ecological one) for the public to eventually adopt them.
Unfortunately, I get the impression that the publishing industry is so tech-averse that they are doing themselves in. Maybe it's for the best.
Melanie Schulz says
That's so funny you should mention that about authors as clients. I have a small press, and that's one of things we do best: involve our authors. They're the ones who wrote the book, shouldn't they have a say as to how it is presented to the world (cover, title)?
Really thoughtful article–thanks so much for your balanced look at the industry as a whole, Nathan! I know all too often, this topic is polarizing, so it's great to see someone who sees self-publishing as a legitimate path, while at the same time, not denigrating the existing traditional publishing path. I absolutely believe they can co-exist and it'll be interesting to see how it all evolves!
Ted Cross says
I especially like your point about publishers no longer doing enough marketing when that is exactly what we most need them for in order to stand out from the crowd. Hopefully they get the point sooner rather than later.
Alan Drabke says
In addition to offering sevices as a grammar and style editor, I think Mister Bransford should offer services in book creation (Create Space paperbacks & EBOOKS and MOBI files for Smashwords and Amazon digital books).
Well said. It's noisy out there. Authors do need a bull horn. But I'm happy with my choice in going indie, though for one novel, traditional might be the best bet. I like the idea of being a hybrid author.
Some of my friends are traditionally published with some support, but still working their tails off so that second and third novel will get picked up.
Katie Sullivan says
Excellent article – and I echo writejenewrite's comment in that I really appreciate the balanced look at indie and traditional publishing.
Janet Ursel says
This is the single most brilliant post of yours I have ever read. You've crystallized a lot of ideas that we're floating around in my head and given them a coherent shape. Authors as customers, better yet, clients: what a brilliant idea. Now to find the publishers who get it.
Natalie Wright says
You've nailed it exactly! I self-published my first series without seeking a publishing contract first. I have done better than I expected with it but from time-to-time I'll think that I should seek a publishing contract for my next project. Why? Distribution and marketing.
But as you point out (and as I've heard numerous times from trad.published authors), a publishing contract does not guarantee wide distribution and with almost certainty publishers will offer little to no help with marketing (at least to most first-time published authors).
Articles such as this one bring home the important reasons that more and more of us don't even attempt to bring our words to the world via traditional publishing. I have total control over my final product and enjoy a 70% royalty. If I felt confident that I would get experienced editorial input, wide distribution and marketing help, I'd trade my 70% royalty for the paltry one paid by publishers (in exchange for help with brand-building and distribution). But from all that I've heard, that does not happen.
Lastly, since I have already begun to build a fan base, they helped me decide to self-publish my next series too. They don't want to wait 2-5 years to read my next book 😉
Thanks for the insightful article (as always).
Alexandre Mandarino says
Excellent article, but I don't know. Publishers are already too far detached from their readers. Can they reconnect with them? After all, there's a whole plethora of marketing people working as freelance nowadays. Just wondering.
"This isn't an industry full of retrograde dinosaurs, despite what you might read on some other publishing blogs."
I do think that some publishing blogs exaggerate. But you have to admit that publishers and agents were not ready for the huge boom we've all experienced. I can tell you for certain that one agent I know sat in a restaurant across from me six years ago and laughed at e-books and said they would never be popular and would always remain less than half of a per cent. This is a good, reputable agent who has many big books from years ago. I recently heard it took him eight months to put a backlist book from one of his clients up in digital format. Eight months? What is that all about? It's a backlist title. And it cost the author a great deal to have done. Seriously?
And what I'm seeing now is that big publishers are capitalizing on the success of some indie published authors and parroting what those authors are doing. It's really a hot mess at this point. Not to mention that the information people are getting from most places is exaggerated on all ends. You actually do balance it here, Nathan. And you do a great job. But you are one of the slim few who do this.
I'm by no means anti-publisher, but I have seen things in the past few years that just leave me speechless.
Sonya Cobb says
Great article. I'm new to publishing, and frankly, I'm amazed anybody even tries. I made enormous financial sacrifices in order to write my novel; in exchange, my traditional publisher is paying me a pittance. The potential is there to make a little more if the book does well, but even if it's a NYT best seller I probably won't make anything close to a full-time salary (such as what's earned, for example, by my editor and publicist). It's ridiculous — but we keep doing it because it's supposedly an honor to be put through the funnel. I say, if I make it through the funnel because I've created a superior product, you (the publisher) should pay me accordingly. Do what you have the expertise and the clout to do — marketing and distribution — and do it well, for the few authors you judge to be good investments. Then pay your authors a living wage. I don't care what you say; people writing late at night, after a hard day of work, are not going to produce the same quantity and quality as a well-rested person with the time and brain-space to really think.
So I guess what I'm saying is…keep the funnel, improve the megaphone, and invest in the product! If that means raising the prices of your books, go for it. As a reader, I'd happily pay more for reliable quality — and I'd even become loyal to your publishing brand (imagine that). I love L.L. Bean. I wish they published fiction.
Sara Walpert Foster says
What I kept thinking as I read this post is that publishers not only need to put a great deal more into marketing their author's books but need to put more into marketing their publishing imprints or companies. It is SOOO hard to figure out what book to read next but if I knew that a specific publisher or imprint produces the types of books I love to read then I'd be inclined to look to them for titles when ready to read a new book.
We all know the big name publishers but few people understand the differences between them and between the imprints within each company. The romance publishers do this better than anybody. We see Harlequin on the cover and we know, at least in a general sense, the type of material we're about to consume.
My instinct is to seek out traditional publishers for the type of not-genre fiction I write BUT even as an author who has read practically every listing about publishing companies and agents, I am not confident of who to target. If the author can't distinguish between publishers, how can a reader?
Publishers might be able to get books into Target and Walmart but look at the titles there. The same big name authors– very, very few new authors. I used to hit the Target bestseller list with one series– by the last book the series wasn't even getting into Target.
Publishing had a decade to prepare for digital and simply didn't. There seems to be a feeling they've weathered the digital storm, but I submit it's really just beginning.
Anne R. Allen says
Excellent analysis, Nathan. A lot of new writers express a preference for working with the trads, but when they see what's really expected of them, and how little they get in return, they feel angry and confused. This week I heard from two newly trad-published authors who were told nearly nothing about how to market their books–only that the burden is on them. Telling an author to "join Facebook and Twitter" is not a marketing plan. They're setting their authors (and themselves) up for failure.