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More Perfect Union: Publishing

Literature is important to a culture. Before something becomes literature, however, it has to be published. That means it’s subject to all the constraints of the publishing industry, which is… (wait for it) an industry. It has to make money. Fine arts rarely make money, at least in the short term, meaning that the industry always has something else to focus on. That’s been accentuated lately by a general decline in publishing profitability. This is not a good time for literature.

Book publishing has never been a great business to be in. There have been periods of decent profitability, but the last 20 years or so has been a continuous slide in profits. This has come to a head recently, especially as a recession takes hold across the USofA. October was an especially bad month with layoff announcements and the realization that a general decline is becoming permanent.

The general reason given is that the internet has started to replace book reading, an argument that makes no sense on the face of it. Short blog posts may replace newspaper articles, but they bear little resemblance to a novel. The reality is that books are a form of entertainment, and as such compete with movies and sports and any other way people might spend their entertainment dollar. Literature isn’t really a consideration in the way it breaks down.

Recently, the blog of agent Nathan Bransford included this call to regular readers (who tend to be book people) as to what can be done with the industry at least in the short term. I took the liberty of summarizing them into an outline that looks more like a strategic plan, since that’s what I do for a living:

1. Generate Excitement
a. Use Internet better
i. Online sales
ii. Social Marketing
iii. Book chat / review
b. Advertise
i. Traditional Media
ii. Guerilla campaigns
c. Get known authors to take risks for art

2. More work available
a. Use more midlist authors
b. Tap into larger author base

3. Improve business model
a. Lower cost of books
i. Return of “Dime novels”
ii. eBooks
iii. Use POD technology effectively
iv. End hardbacks
b. Fix rest of business model
i. End returns policy
ii. Mass-market to chain stores

Why is this important to literature? A healthy industry supports the production of literature. In fact, I am arguing that as pure entertainment books are a dud in today’s world. What will get people coming back for more is the occasional new work that really speaks to them in a unique way. That means taking a chance. The industry, long in decline, is more likely to go from one blockbuster to the next to support the tremendous overhead involved in developing, printing, distributing, and promoting books. That overhead is simply too big to take chances.

That’s how the industry has ossified into what it is today. By not being able to support real chances on books, it mortgaged the future; one day, there wasn’t much of a future left. Traditional methods of squeezing money out of readers such as introducing a new work in hardback have only gotten more expensive as the leave new works out of the reach of many people. In addition, there is the strange industry practice reaching back to the Great Depression of selling books on a kind of consignment, taking back those that don’t sell.

The suggestions above hit on all of these problems, and a few more. There are many designed around making books exciting again and getting word of new works out there. Currently, if you’re not plugged into Book World it’s hard to find out about new novels because the media has stopped reporting on them. That’s what has to change first.

Is the Publishing Industry dead? No, but it will have to change. Certain old business practices will have to change. New author talent will have to be developed in a kind of Minor League. All of this can be combined with a coordinated effort to generate excitement as new voices are made affordable to new readers.

Will this work? It has to, at some point. What I find most important is that culturally relevant literature may not make money right away, but if it’s part of a culture of excitement around books it will pay off for everyone in the long run. That’s what this is all about – the long term playing against the short term. The long term isn’t just the future of publishing, it’s the future of our culture.

Other posts in the series More Perfect Union:
More Perfect Union
More Perfect Union: Literature

9 thoughts on “More Perfect Union: Publishing

  1. You are so right. Why don’t we try a social site that is a book club? Read a chapter os so a week and discuss it from a broad range of perspectives. Generate interest in reading by making it a social experience.

  2. Couldn’t agree with you more, Erik. And I think the parts of the industry that will continue to thrive, despite the current setbacks, will be those publishers who embrace the Web as a resource and not as competition. There are still book readers out there, as evidenced by the countless number of successful book cataloging and social networking sites. Some of the most successful authors, like Neil Gaiman, have found that otherwise unconventional methods, like giving your book away as a free download on the Internet, actually result in a larger following, thus more profits all around.

    And for authors frustrated with the limited scope of book review publications, there is always a network of book bloggers out there who are eager to spread the word about a new book to a few hundred or thousand of their closest virtual friends. Shifting their focus away from mainstream publications and to an underground network of Joe Readers (like that? no, not a Palin supporter, I assure you) could create an incredible boon to sales. I’ve created a few resources for authors who decide to take the plunge and hang with us normal folk (you know, the ones who are actually spending money on books). The first is a list of bloggers who are open to POD submissions. If you’ll scan over to the right sidebar at Breeni Books, there is a little widget with a list of sites who are speaking out, and telling the world that self-published books are just as valuable as books from large publishers. They welcome POD authors to submit books for review.

    The other resource is quite new. It’s a blog called The
    Book Bloggers
    , where I’ll be interviewing bloggers across the Web, picking their brains for information relating to their review processes. That way, authors will be able to scope out reviewers ahead of time, and be more selective with their review queries. It will enable authors, publicists, and publishers to find reviewers that are well-matched to particular genres or who might offer other services, such as interviews and blog tours. Each blogger will be featured for one full day, after which their interviewed will be categorized based on genre preferences, services offered, and any other factors that might be important to review seekers. The site is in its infancy, at only two days old, but I have already received an incredibly positive response and I’m sure it’s only going to grow.

    I encourage authors, publicists, and publishers to make free use of these resources and connect with the readers who can have a nice influence over their profit margins. And thanks for your continued support, Erik!

  3. Thanks Breeni! Brian, I hope this answers your point – people are indeed forming on-line book clubs and doing their own reviews. It’s been a bit slow, but it seems to me that the review and discussion process is democratizing through the internet. This is a very important development, and publishers MUST encourage it!
    I hope readers will find this all very useful, too. Without readers there’s no need for writers!

  4. For online book discussions, there is a wide range of group-specific conversation at GoodReads.com, Shelfari.com, and Bookcrossing.com, to name a few. They are out there, indeed!

  5. Ah, the issue in a nutshell. Good work, Erik!

    I have faith in the Grass Roots approach, building an audience through informal (and offline) book clubs and social and business contacts. People who read are always looking for something new.

    Despite what some publishing pros say, I believe the industry practices agenda setting. Publishers offer what they think will sell because the competition has something similar that’s selling well, whether in genre or subject. The industry ends up telling readers what they should read and expect to read, even if it’s what they really would rather not read. I frequently hear from people who tell me they’re tired of reading “what’s out there.”

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  7. You know I use the internet for everything but nothing will ever replace a book. I have a ton of them. I like to hold them in my hands and flip the pages.

    I think self publishing will become more important. With so many channels and distribution methods because of the internet I don’t think book publishers will get to decide what we read any more or what is good and what it not.

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