Thursday, July 1, 2010

12 Things I'll Miss about the Old Publishing Business Model

Northwestern University Library, Northwestern ...Image via Wikipedia

The brave new world of cyper-publishing has arrived, and while I love this exciting space, there are things I miss about the old publishing business model. I am publishing my mystery, A Pointed Death, the first book in the Pointer Mystery series as a POD and an eBook with Amazon under the penname, Kath Russell. This is a thrilling process, but the rhythm of birthing a book this way is different, and the market my book will enter is radically transformed from the comfortable bookseller world we knew. Here's what I'll miss:

1. Quality control. Traditional book publishing had a high barrier to entry and a myriad of checks and balances in the production process to assure a quality product. If a reader purchased a book from a major publisher, she was reasonably assured of a good experience. Now, on the web, a vanity book can have a cyber face that is the equal of a book from a venerable firm. The reader has to work harder to make sure she is not buying a pig in a poke. Thank heaven for Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature and the customer reviews.

2. Bookstores. I love bookstores, especially the quirky, smarmy, off-the-beaten-track independents, but, sadly, the vast majority of such stores are doomed. They cannot compete with the pricing, access to titles and ease of delivery of the cyber stores. The delicious shopping experience of wandering the aisles, handling the volumes and enjoying the themed displays offered by a local bookseller with whom you have developed a personal relationship is soon to be only a memory. Progress is painful.

3. Agents who represent new authors. Unless you are uber-connected or uber-platformed, you can forget about landing an agent if you are publishing your maiden book. Increasingly, first-time authors will publish first and attract representation based on the performance of their work. Savvy agents will swoop down and snap up the promising performers, making money on international markets, audio and film rights, etc.

4. Team effort, team spirit. It used to take a village to publish a book. A group of people representing a range of skills from editing to design and marketing to pr, came together to launch an author and her work. Today, a writer might assemble the same set of skills on behalf of her project, but the experts are strangers and many are faceless contacts. The warmth, support and camaraderie of interpersonal relationships are lost. There is no professional shoulder to cry on when you get that first bad review, so your husband, partner or mother is going to have to bear the brunt.

5. Publishing a hardbound book. As irrational as it is, I know I would love to see my own work between hard covers. The heft. The gravitas. However, this makes less and less sense for the vast majority of books. The price of a well-made hardcover is too high for escapist reading, and the cheaply produced hard-bounds you find in CostCo, diminish good books and the authors who write them. Hard-bound publishing is destined to shrink to a coffee table business.

6. Book rooms at conferences. When the panelists finish speaking at a writers' or book lovers' conference, a throng of avid attendees surges toward the book room to score a book by a speaker who impressed them. They head to the signing room with their prize and ask the author to autograph the book. In the future, listeners will simply open their Kindle's internet connection and download the book without ever leaving their seats. The panelists will be 'approved' by electronic orders the way political ads are rated in a Frank Luntz opinion poll. I'll miss milling around in the book room, running into friends and making new finds at the book tables, but I won't miss lugging the sagging bag of purchases back home on the plane. I hope conference organizers can work a deal with Amazon so that any attendee who downloads a speaker's book during the meeting can receive a conference discount. This could be accomplished by providing Amazon with a list of attendee Kindle account e-mail addresses, author/speaker names and the conference dates.

7. Newspaper book reviews and book sections. Most people who love books love reading about books and authors. Increasingly, you have to do this on the Internet. Every morning I read The Wall Street Journal which offers a daily book review, but the newspaper business is under siege and few papers can afford to provide such features or attract audiences who will support book critics.

8. Libraries, book mobiles and stacks. I have vivid, happy memories of the libraries of my childhood and college years. Surviving small town libraries now are community centers, and the amount of space occupied by books is shrinking. At Northwestern University, the stacks were a labyrinth of cerebral and tactile exploration. Of course, I also remember the frustration, even horror of discovering that a particular volume needed for a term paper was missing and quite possibly miss-shelved. Soon you will download a cyber copy of a book from the library's web site and the copy will become unusable when your borrowing period runs out. This means we also are to be deprived of those great news stories about the library books that were twenty years overdue found after the funeral in Uncle Elmer's attic.

9. Used textbooks with annotations. Academic publishing will be transformed by the new technologies, liberating professors pursuing exoteric subjects of interest to a handful of other academics, and students with shrinking education dollars from the crushing costs of the traditional system. I'll miss the little coffee stains, doodles and class notes of students of yesteryear, and the sense of continuity and solidarity those marginalia engendered.

10. Giving fiction books as gifts. Passing on a favorite author to a friend is always a treat. Acknowledging a special connection with your friend or demonstrating your understanding of your friend's love affair with London or passion for locked box mysteries through your specific choice enhances the meaning of the gift. Somehow, an Amazon gift card is not as personal.

Donating books is another form of giving. When things get out of control on our bookshelves, and we feel the floor boards in the house can no longer be expected to support the weight of our hoard, we make a trip to the local library, senor center or church thrift shop. As more books become electronic, we need to make sure that we find ways to provide reading material to people on limited incomes and to children. Free cyber content is one way, but we need to make sure this is working at least as well as the old methods and, one hopes, better.

11. Sensory loss. Books and book places smell. New books, old books, reaaaaalllllyyy old books, cookbooks, your birding field manual, all have an odor. My boy scout manual which belonged to my father had a variety of mysterious smudges and a blood stain. I expect the blood was my father's spilled during one of my uncle's pranks. Uncle Carroll became a doctor. The book smells of mildew, gunpowder and seaweed. Books also bring us tactile pleasure. A crisp jacket, creamy pages, a firm spine. The crumbling front plate of the family bible. Books make sounds too. The smack of satisfaction when you close the binding after finishing the thrilling last page of an international adventure tome. The rustle of the pages as you try to find that perfect description of San Francisco at dusk. The beckoning whisper of the pages of the novel you left open on your desk by the window. Is it the wind, or are the pages alive? You be the judge, but one thing is for certain -- that whimpy click the Kindle's 'next page' button makes has a lot to live up to.

12. Glamour. The old publishing industry had a certain glamour. It was the fashion industry for your gray matter. Read the right books and you could partake a tiny bit of the allure of the New York deals and the martinis, the dressmaker suits, the gossip, the scandal and the money. During the classic era of film, there was always a character who was an agent, or an author or a publisher, a critic or a columnist. And of course, there was that symbiotic relationship with the movie business. Steve Jobs has created an aura of hipness around Apple. Although you can sense Jeff Bezos' energy and vision, I don't think he has created a replacement culture for the publishing business, nor can the thousands of self-publishers accomplish this. We'll have to wait and see what the new ethos of the emerging publishing model will be.

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