publishing after publishers

Circulating briskly last week around the blogosphere was an interesting trio of posts (part 1, part 2, part 3) by the thriller writer Barry Eisler pondering how various roles in the present-day publishing ecosystem might evolve – ?or go extinct – ?in the coming decades. He envisions a world (an America at least) where mega-chains and big box retailers have taken over most of the distribution functions of publishers. Each store powers a squadron of on-demand printers (like the Espresso Book Machine), churning out paperbacks from a limitless digital backlist – ?think of a Kinkos and a Starbucks fused together with a small browsing area in between. Direct dealings with authors, including editing, copyediting and packaging, have largely become the work of agents, who broker distribution with various on and offline retailers. Authors themselves have become the brands. In some cases retailers ink deals to run exclusive authorial product lines – ?like Tom Clancy’s “Op Center” or James Patterson’s various co-authored spinoffs – ?in their stores. Lesser known writers can make a living writing for these franchises, riding the coattails of tomorrow’s Dan Browns and Sue Graftons.

In a flat distribution world, retailers will need publishers less, perhaps, eventually, not at all (or rather, retailers will become publishers themselves). But they’ll still need someone to help them cut through the clutter. And someone will still need to represent authors to buyers. I expect agents will start selling directly to retailers, and that their business won’t be nearly as affected by flattening distribution as will publishers’.

Eisler is really talking primarily about blockbusters here, and within that limited scope his predictions seem sound (though I think he seriously underestimates the extent to which reading will go entirely digital). Authors in the “short head” of the curve are already essentially brands and it’s only a matter of time before they realize that their publishers’ services are no longer required and that they can keep a much bigger cut of the proceeds by going it alone. Eisler points to the situation in the music biz and Madonna and Radiohead – ?superstars who bucked their record labels in favor of independent distribution and have been wildly successful. But what does this prove? Blockbuster acts with legacy brands and massive fanbases can easily establish their own media empires – ?Stephen King toyed with the idea with his 2000 serial e-novel The Plant, which he sold directly to readers with modest success.
The point is that these examples shed little light on the future except for those few who are already at the top of the heap – ?that tiny heap which has become so disproportionately favored by an over-consolidated, bottom line-driven industry. Rather than heralding a new age of self-determination by artists, the Madonnas and Stephen Kings are the exceptions that prove the rule that, while distribution may have been radically flattened by the net, attention and audience are as hard (if not harder) to come by as ever. How the vast majority of writers will make a living, and how they might have to adapt their craft to do so, is far less clear (the R.U. Sirius piece I linked to earlier this month, which interviews ten serious midlist writers who have done a fairly good job of setting up online, “branded,” presences, is a good barometer of current anxieties).
Eisler’s right, though, that publishers need to start thinking hard about what they have to offer beyond distribution or else go the way of the dodo. But it won’t just be the agents that replace them but a melange of evolved Web impresarios: bloggers, curators, list-server editors, social bookmarkers and other online tastemakers. But writers too will have to change to survive. The digital medium will provide more maneuverability and more potential reach, but less shelter and less of the hand-holding, buffering and insulation from their public that publishers traditionally provided when once upon a time they managed the production and distribution chain. In many cases, writers will have to work harder at being impresarios, developing public personae and maintaining a more direct communication with readers. They’ll have to learn how to write all over again.

9 thoughts on “publishing after publishers

  1. barbara fister

    For better or worse, the “impresario” role is already here. Writers of commercial fiction, at least, routinely say that promotion is half the job, which is why they spend so much time and effort trying to build relationships and force their glossy bookmarks on total strangers. Publishers don’t do any buffering anymore that I’m aware of. And, of course, the person handing you a bookmark may be self-published or published by a major trade publisher – either way, they believe they have to sell themselves. The idea that you must have a blog, a trailer, a presence on multiple social networking sites, etc. etc. is filling the internet and bookstores with a din of commercialization that is, frankly, tiresome.
    We hosted an Icelandic crime fiction writer, Arnaldur Indridason, at our campus last year. When I picked him up at the Bouchercon fan conference in Madison, he was bemused by the whole super-saturated sales fever of American publishing, and was a bit stunned to learn that one writer he was speaking with (actually from the UK – so it’s not just an American phenomenon) spends three months of every year traveling around promoting his new book, the other nine months writing the next one, keeping the product pipeline full.
    Frankly, I find books much more interesting than writers and, while Arnaldur is a fascinating man to talk to, I thought he was doing a healthy thing when he said he would rather spend those months writing. He doesn’t do much travel or promotion and has an amused, laconic Icelandic distance from all the hype. I never met anyone less anxious about success. It was refreshing.
    I think these kinds of analyses of the future neglect something that publishers at their best provide, and it’s not handholding or distribution – it’s editing. They can enormously improve a book, and the idea that “editors don’t edit anymore” is simply not true. It’s hard work and requires real skill and it’s not something authors can do themselves.

    Reply
  2. Paul Lagasse

    Interesting post. A few observations and questions:
    1) I’m confused by the assertion that publishers handle distribution. Big publishers contract with either Baker & Taylor or Ingram for distribution, and there are many smaller distributors that handle small press, university press, and now self-published books. Distribution is not typically an in-house function of publishers, is it?
    2) Interesting that what is now called “flattening” is what used to be called “vertical integration.” The metaphors have turned 90 degrees.
    3) You conclude: “[Writers will] have to learn how to write all over again.” But what you’ve asserted is that writers will have to learn how to *market* again — a vital distinction that many writers fail to recognize.
    Just some observations inspired by your thoughtful piece. Thanks for fostering the dialogue.

    Reply
  3. bowerbird

    sorry, ben, but here i am again, telling you that
    you (and eisler) have gotten it all wrong again… :+)
    as usual, the answer is collaborative filtering…
    authors of the future will put their work online
    – available for free — and an advance guard of
    hard-core book-readers will devour each work
    just as soon as it appears (plus anyone else who
    happens across it). they’ll rate the book, and the
    ratings will go in a database to inform _everyone_
    (by comparing each of our own individual ratings
    on past works to the hard-core advance-guard)
    about how much each of us will enjoy that work
    – to a degree we will come to learn is accurate,
    at an astounding level.
    because this method will depend on the ratings of
    tens of millions of people on millions of books,
    it will simply be impossible to game the system…
    and because there will be _someone_ out there
    to match up tastes with anyone else, the project
    will make recommendations customized to you.
    and because it works so accurately, there will be
    no need (or even, really, ability) to “go around it”.
    advertising — or any other kind of hype — will be
    viewed as a sign of weakness, or even an outright
    kiss of death, meaning it will be stridently avoided.
    here’s an example. when you go into a shoestore,
    the various _shoe-sizes_ do not “do marketing”…
    we don’t have the size-7s in one corner shouting
    “size 7 is the best, you’ll love us!”, and the size-8s
    in another corner, with the size-9s and size-10s
    splitting one aisle, and the size-11s peeking out
    from the back of the store, with all of them making
    their “buy our size!” pitches, the very idea is silly.
    you measure your foot, so you know what size to
    buy, and all the hype and marketing in the world
    won’t get you to buy another size that doesn’t fit.
    and that’s _exactly_ how silly “book marketing”
    will be to us in the age of collaborative filtering.
    the system can tell us pretty much _exactly_ what
    books we’re gonna like and dislike, even how much
    we’re gonna like and dislike them, and we’ve come
    to trust it, because its accuracy has proven itself…
    and the system tells me i’m gonna give this book
    a measly 4.2 on a 9-point scale, so your _hype_
    that i’ll like this book will strike me as ridiculous.
    this system will also be used for music, movies, art,
    webpages and any freely-available digital content…
    so people will be fed a constant stream of content
    which has been custom-selected to _their_ taste…
    (the system will occasionally funnel you stuff that
    it thinks you will rate _lower_ on the quality scale,
    just to see if you actually _do_ rate it lower, since
    it’s testing that perhaps your tastes have changed.
    so you’ll constantly be refining the accuracy of the
    system by providing it with your ongoing ratings.)
    that’s how people will “find” content in the future…
    a collaborative filtering system will find it for them.
    there won’t be any “clutter” you have to “cut through”.
    and, on the flip side, that’s how artists of all stripes
    will “find” their audience. the collaborative filtering
    system will find it for them. it’s one big win-win-win
    for artists and audience and the relationship between.
    > while distribution may have been radically flattened
    > by the net, attention and audience are as hard
    > (if not harder) to come by as ever.
    only because we haven’t yet applied the net
    to solve that particular problem. but we will.
    it’s a simple matter of collecting the data and
    crunching it. i could build the whole thing with
    the money you’ve burned through to take sophie
    from a good idea up to its current beta-test state.
    > How the vast majority of writers will make a living,
    > and how they might have to adapt their craft to do so,
    > is far less clear
    are you seriously under the impression that
    “the vast majority of writers” make their living
    from writing? if so, i suggest you check that…
    but will writers starve in the future? absolutely not!
    because collaborative filtering will match an artist and
    their audience to a degree of unprecedented cohesion,
    the bond will be so tight that audiences will give freely.
    and generously. even profusely. and _voluntarily_,
    which will serve to _strengthen_ the bond even more.
    heck, this “gift culture” might even transform society!
    and because there will be no middlemen skimming off
    19 out of every 20 dollars, the “vast majority of writers”
    will find themselves making _far_ more money than they
    _ever_ did before. while climbing through far fewer hoops.
    they’ll have more time to write, and bond to their audience.
    and — i might add — they’ll experience a lot more _joy_…
    > Eisler’s right, though, that publishers need to
    > start thinking hard about what they have to offer
    > beyond distribution or else go the way of the dodo.
    oh please. publishers are already as dead as dinosaurs.
    anyone with a brain bigger than a stegosaurus knows it.
    no big deal. the parent corporation will just shutter them,
    and move on to some realm where they _can_ make money.
    right? it’s all just business. nothing to take _personally_…
    ***
    barbara said:
    > The idea that you must have a blog, a trailer,
    > a presence on multiple social networking sites,
    > etc. etc. is filling the internet and bookstores
    > with a din of commercialization that is, frankly,
    > tiresome.
    i couldn’t agree more.
    and m.j. rose, on whose blog these essays were hosted,
    has been a major proponent of that shrill salesmanship
    for many years now. it’s time to say “no” to the hypists…
    -bowerbird

    Reply
  4. sebastian mary

    authors of the future will put their work online
    – available for free — and an advance guard of
    hard-core book-readers will devour each work
    just as soon as it appears (plus anyone else who
    happens across it). they’ll rate the book, and the
    ratings will go in a database to inform _everyone_
    (by comparing each of our own individual ratings
    on past works to the hard-core advance-guard)
    about how much each of us will enjoy that work
    – to a degree we will come to learn is accurate,
    at an astounding level.

    Each work? Just as soon as it appears? bowerbird, have you ever done time reading a publisher’s slush pile? Or worked as an editor at a vanity press? If you have you’ll know that there is such a thing as good writing and bad writing: to suggest that this is not so, and that it’s just a case of matching readers to writing, as though prose styles were shoe sizes, and that this can be automated, is nonsense.
    Besides. All automated ‘predict my taste in music’ systems I’ve ever encountered seem to default eventually to OMD or Garth Brooks; I hesitate to speculate what the literary equivalent might be, but I’ll trust my friends’ recommendations over any system.

    Reply
  5. ben vershbow

    I’m with you, Bowerbird, that collaborative filtering is important but I don’t believe it’s a panacea. Writing isn’t shoes. Readers aren’t feet. Personal networks and editorial selection (and yes, editing!) will be as important as ever, though they’ll assume new forms.
    As for the comments about marketing and re-learning how to write, I think I wasn’t clear. Marketing is certainly part of it, and writers have always had to worry about that, but I was trying to get at something about the actual way of writing -? inchoate thoughts sparked by something Mark Amerika said in that R.U. Sirius piece:
    It helps to know how to write across all media platforms. Not only that, but to become various role-playing personas whose writerly performance plays out in various multi-media languages across these same platforms. The most successful writer-personas now and into the future -? at least those interested in “making a living” as you put it -? will be those who can take on varying flux personas via the act of writing.
    He then quotes Italo Calvino:
    Writing always presupposes the selection of a psychological attitude, a rapport with the world, a tone of voice, a homogeneous set of linguistic tools, the data of experience and the phantoms of the imagination -? in a word, a style. The author is an author insofar as he enters into a role the way an actor does and identifies himself with that projection of himself at the moment of writing.
    It’s that performative aspect of writing I mean, coupled with the immediacy of textual forms on the net -? the radical proximity of writers to readers. Not PR, rather new kinds of personas. New masks.

    Reply
  6. bowerbird

    smary said:
    > and that it’s just a case of matching readers
    > to writing, as though prose styles were shoe sizes,
    > and that this can be automated, is nonsense.
    good, you’ve put yourself on the record. thanks.
    now we have a horse-race.
    > Besides. All automated ‘predict my taste in music’
    > systems I’ve ever encountered seem to default
    > eventually to OMD or Garth Brooks;
    there are two types of collaborative filtering…
    the first one, which just works on _popularity_,
    is what you’re talking about when you say that…
    the second, which works on _individuality_,
    is the one that i’m talking about… if _you_
    have never rated o.m.d. or garth brooks highly,
    and no people who have similar ratings to yours
    have ever rated o.m.d. or garth brooks highly,
    then you will _never_ get a pointer to o.m.d.
    or garth brooks. never ever. it’s impossible.
    > I hesitate to speculate what the literary
    > equivalent might be, but I’ll trust
    > my friends’ recommendations over any system.
    “trusting your friends’ recommendations”
    _is_ the system i’m talking about, _exactly_.
    except i probably define “friends” differently,
    in that i define it as precisely those people
    whose literary tastes agree with you, as shown
    – unequivocally — by their actual ratings data.
    and because you won’t even _know_ the vast throngs
    of these people, the system will surpass your “local”
    network of friends, without even straining itself…
    you underestimate the power of large amounts of data.
    ***
    ben said:
    > collaborative filtering is important
    > but I don’t believe it’s a panacea.
    > Writing isn’t shoes. Readers aren’t feet.
    yeah, yeah, everyone wants to think their taste is
    “unique” in some way. your fingerprints? yes.
    your taste? no way. there are probably hundreds
    of people whose ratings correlate _very_strongly_
    with yours — either positively or negatively — and
    their ratings can thus be used with great confidence
    in steering you toward or away from certain content.
    and in the event the system gets things slightly wrong,
    those disconfirmations will only serve to help refine
    its predictive power, so it gets more accurate over time.
    but, you know, people who desperately want to believe
    that they are “unique” won’t be swayed by _arguments_,
    so there’s no sense in discussing it. when the system
    is in place, its accuracy will do all the “convincing”…
    you probably think that your vision is “unique” too,
    but they’ve got your contacts in stock, believe me…
    > Not PR, rather new kinds of personas. New masks.
    donning masks _is_ p.r. it’s the very essence of it.
    and masks have nothing at all to do with _integrity_,
    which is what the new world will demand of its authors.
    the old world — the one modeled on popularity — was one
    where the author tried to say what the world wanted to hear.
    in the new world — the one geared to your individual taste –
    only the author who speaks his or her own truth will have the
    _authenticity_ that the people _in_that_niche_ need to hear…
    and believe me, you’ll feel even more special when you realize
    that you are _not_ “the only person like yourself” in the world,
    but in point of fact, there are only a few hundred like yourself,
    and you now know every single one of them, and they know you too.
    -bowerbird

    Reply
  7. gary frost

    This has been a magnificent exchange. I only wish we had the slightest reluctance to walk into a new society dependent on different energy source of computer assistance. There is also the weird circumstance that the narrow enclave at if:book is so diverse.

    Reply
  8. Raj

    Newspaper is a regular published print product containing information, news and advertising. Newspapers are living textbooks and they are source of information and learning. It’s a source to find out whats happening in movies, books, concerts, games, jobs and events. Major advantage left to newsprint is that reading it does not require any sophisticated, cumbersome technical equipment. This offers the reader a high level of flexibility: newsprint can basically be read in any place at any time. The reader can absorb the information offered at his own pace. Even the fact that the reader can touch and feel the printed paper while turning the pages may be of some importance.
    Disadvantage of Printed edition of newspaper -
    Circulation of the newspaper is one of the principal factors, circulation is not the same as copies sold because many copies are read by more than one person this is a major offset as the number of copies distributed are not read.
    People away from their home place would always love to read their regional paper wherever they are in any part of the world. Take my case; I have been hunting for my favorite newspaper Times of India in the heart of New York City but in vain and the only solution I found at this time is e-paper.
    E-paper and its advantage -
    Will e-paper is going to replace the printed edition in future is the question to be asked? ePaper is the replication of newspaper pages which allows one to get the same experience as reading the hard-copy edition and e-paper has the advantages of being interactive, multimedia, of providing internal and external networks and offering selection functions, the possibility of regular updates, access to archives, rapid access to a large number of newspapers, and being paperless, thus creating no problems of waste disposal.
    Not even that it’s more convenient from the customer’s point of view while reading the e-paper, I came across Nokia new model cell phone, and by clicking on it; I was taken directly to the website, where I could compare the prices.
    So this has led to some predictions that is newspapers will shrink or even disappear?
    All the recent surveys both in USA and abroad indicate that print newspaper readership is going down; there has been a dramatic drop in the circulation of papers.
    Full time professional employment at daily newspapers is falling. In a desperate attempt to offset the falling revenues, more newspaper groups are setting them up online.
    All of the major news publishers have adopted e-paper technology in order to increase their readers and revenue.
    Looking at the enormous growth in the Digital News Publishing Industry, many new media companies are offering ePapers and eMagazines at affordable costing with low or no upfront investment. Pressmart Media Limited, a leading new media services company based out of India and USA provides an excellent Multi channel distribution on Web, Mobile, Podcast, Search Engines, Social Networks, Web2.0 sites and RSS.
    I hope you do agree that digital versions of news publications will be an added advantage for publishers in increasing their brand value, customer reach and revenues.

    Reply

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