Wednesday, June 30, 2010

12 Things I Won't Miss about the Old Publishing Business Model

When I started to get serious about writing as a career, I realized I had a lot to learn about the publishing industry. Because I was a successful executive in the biopharmaceutical field and an MBA, I recognized every industry has its own structure, operating imperatives and competitive characteristics. While innovation, particularly technological change can alter the playing field in any industry, some practices survive for decades, even centuries. Thirty years ago in the pharmaceutical business, chemists dominated research and development. They didn't pay much mind to biologists, because they didn't think biology had anything to offer in drug development. The gene splicers changed all that. Now genes and proteins are the meat and potatoes of drug development. As I looked at publishing, I saw many assumptions and practices that were ripe for change. Sure enough, along came technology and exciting new competitors to the rescue, and the hallowed old walls around many of these behaviors started to come tumbling down.

I am in the process of publishing my mystery, A Pointed Death, as a POD book through Amazon's CreateSpace program and as an eBook through Kindle. I feel in control of the process and also very liberated from bottlenecks in the traditional publishing process that mystified me as I immersed myself in the world of publishing. As an experienced manager, the world of Amazon is a fit for me because I can see how value is added to my project at each stage of development. Cyber-publishing is a flattened business model and much more transparent with regard to vital information, such as customer feedback. Here are some of the things I won't miss about the old publishing business model.

1. High barrier to entry. Many industries present a barrier problem, but it usually has to do with capital or know-how. By contrast, publishing has a thicket of poorly organized gatekeepers who deploy outmoded technology, labor-intensive processes and subjective search criteria to winnow out the worthy projects. The writer wades through an undifferentiated sea of agents, secretaries, assistants and editors trying to find that elusive fit between her project and the necessary champion. The editors chase the fad book of the moment and the agents focus on the hot genres. Innovative writing is ignored and, therefore, discouraged because nobody is going to take a flier on an original manuscript. The rejection process is not designed to produce quality, only conformity.

2. Cockeyed value proposition. In the old, old days, a publishing house did everything for its authors. Editors who really held your hand. Marketing and publicity. Strategy. Advocacy. A personal relationship. No more. Over time all the value-added stuff was wrung out from the process for all but the most successful of authors. Publishers could get away with this as long as they controlled the production and distribution channels, but they don't control these anymore. What they have is a brand, but most publishers are not very good at brand management. How much are you as an author willing pay for a brand? In the case of authors who are writing nonfiction and have a strong platform of their own, the answer is fast becoming, "Nothing." These writers are flocking to POD in droves. Which part of the book market is the largest? Nonfiction. This is another emperor-has-no-clothes story or the literary version of the Wizard of Oz. Don't look behind that curtain!

3. Lengthy production timeframe. For most projects, it simply takes too long for the book to get to market. High profile projects, of course, get lightening treatment. Expect to read the General McChrystal biography next week. Like all innovative people, writers need to finish a project and move on, not be held hostage to an interminable production schedule. With POD and e-Publishing, the wait is eliminated. With some works, timeliness may make all the difference in terms of sales.

3. Product life cycle issues. After all the work, your book enjoys a brief moment of glory and poof, you are in the backlist. Then you are out of print. Readers used to get pretty frustrated by this as well. Remember finding an author you really liked only to have difficulty sourcing the other books in her series. Thank you, Amazon and others for making all of this irrelevant.

4. Annihilating trees. I know there has to be control and an accounting, but I always hated the idea that bookstores returned unsold books to the publisher. I would imagine those pallets of bound paper wending their way back to some warehouse and see a coppice of ancient oaks weeping. The electronic approach marries efficiency to ecology.

5. Low-return marketing rituals. The book tour always seemed to me to be a poor use of time -- for the writer, the reader and the bookstore owner. Not every author is articulate, warm and engaging in person. Moreover, so many things can happen to destroy the value of the event or even prevent its occurrence. Rain, traffic, unfortunate gastrointestinal disturbances. Writers only have their time and stories to sell. They should jealously guard their hours and look for promotional activities that are more scalable. A web tour also may not attract many participants, but at least you avoid the travel time and expense. Launch parties and other publishing rituals contribute little to a book's success.

6. Too many bottlenecks, gatekeepers. Remember all the agents who told you they were not taking on any new clients or the publishing house who only publishes six books a year. This is another example of a scalability problem. It is one thing never to get published because your project is not very good; it is quite another to be kept from the market because of other people's capacity or throughput limitations.

7. Reliance on hidebound formulas. Any industry that puts forward a lot of rules, regulations, boxes to check and guidelines to follow is usually riding for a fall. The genre system is an example of this in publishing. Publishers will tell you, you have to fit in these categories because otherwise bookstores don't know where to put you and readers don't know where to find you. Funny thing is, readers don't think this way. Look at Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. I would describe her work as mystery-thriller-romance-LOL humor-women's-wacky pet-wackier sidekick-funkindabook. Readers love her. And now, with tags, readers can know all of this and more. In fact, on Amazon readers help other readers find what they are looking for.

8. Lack of data. I know that loving a manuscript is a subjective thing, but the subjectivity of artistic appreciation has become a crutch for many professionals. Sometimes, it is hard to get straight answers from people in the business. How many books did you agent last year and how many of them did you place? What about the year before? How many mysteries have you edited? What were the sales of the top three? Authors often have had difficulty coming by useful metrics, but the Internet is changing that. Writers can see for themselves what readers are buying and why, they can look at the numbers and not have to deal with the spin of industry mavens.

9. Snobs and in-group behavior. "I represent mystery and memoir, but my passion is literary fiction." Eye roll. "Our house has one Holy Grail, great writing." Spare me. Melville, Tolstoy and Dickens couldn't get published today. Professional gatherings are filled with talk about great writing, character development, motivation, dialog, opening sentences, beats, arcs, etc. We dissect, but we don't converge. Amazon readers are doing that for us with their little thumbs up and thumbs down consensus. In the end, enough people have to like the totality of your yarn. Some professionals will shudder and say this is the tyranny of the mob. Not so. Worthy literary fiction that is not being published today will find a home on the web because the literary readership niche will find and support those authors more efficiently than was the case under the old model. (See below.)

10. Sharing the Profits. The old model was more akin to the situation in drug development or the movie business. The drug discoverer or the script writer gets a small percentage because the subsequent stages of production, testing and marketing are ruinously expensive, shifting the project risk to the folks responsible for those parts of the process. The POD and eBook models offer authors a bigger share of the pie because they have removed middlemen and eliminated inventory and other risk issues that pushed the breakeven of projects up to the point where the author would never see anything beyond the advance.

11.Customer and channel distance. Authors have always gotten customer feedback, but today that feedback comes much more quickly, directly and richly. It is possible to see what is driving your sales, whether a particular reviewer, blog, seller or page on your web site, and develop more of a sense of what specifically in your book is attracting or (gasp) confusing readers. Thanks to the Internet, you can gain an intimate understanding of who your readers are and allow you to develop a positive long-term relationship with buyers who respond to your work. Cyber-publishing also aligns promotional effort with sales more closely in real time. Instead of working off an advance you've already spent, you are building your profits, and you can see the result of the effort you put in right in your numbers, all in all, a happier proposition. The more effort you put in blogging, establishing links, asking for reviews, and deploying web ads, the more you will be rewarded.

12. Hierarchical vs. leveled decision-making. Many businesses have found that when you put the worker into the decision making process, the product improves. The Japanese auto companies put this philosophy to work on the assembly line. In the cyber-world, you are invited into the learning curve, and you will learn what works for your kind of project faster than under the old model. In the old days, writers often were treated like hothouse flowers, too delicate for nasty old business decisions. Now you will find yourself in the driver's seat.

You can see by now, I believe the new publishing model is more author-centric, especially if you are a writer with a business background, or just a person who likes a certain amount of control in her life! There are of course, downsides to the new model. Next, I'll blog about some of the things I'll miss about the old way of doing business.

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