It has been suggested that I am in love with new concepts, new media. It’s true. I am absolutely in love with “new” media models (as opposed to new media models, though I am very fond of those as well). As an old media person who has witnessed successes and failures and inefficiencies, I am excited to see people shaking up existing business models because, like our outdated laws, the current models don’t reflect the reality on the ground.
To entice the talent needed to keep publishing viable in the future, the economic model must change.
I figure it’s going to take a while to find the best approach, but given the fact that so many companies have spent the past decade hoping the Internet is a fad, any forward thinking is good thinking. I would rather see mistakes made than recalcitrant publishers and authors clinging to the good old days. They weren’t that great, you know?
While I feel that all entertainment media needs a good kick in the !@$, I think publishing, particularly, needs help. It is the oldest of entertainment models, meaning it’s the most entrenched. Books are still (and will be for some time) a very physical product. Unless you count digital audiobooks, which are finding greater audiences due to their convenience and portability (while increasing “reading” even if the consumers don’t see it that way). Or ebooks, which are still not the next big thing. I’m almost of the opinion that ebooks will skip the phenomenon stage and merge gracefully into the regular course of business phase without the traditional hysterical hype.
Kind of like the publishing version of a Velvet Revolution.
You might not like what HarperCollins is doing with their new Bob Miller imprint (and a lot of you are, understandably, reacting with fear rather than seeing a starting point for transitioning publishing into the future), but everything’s got to give. The current model might be able to limp along for a good long time, but do you really want your business investment — and authors, yes, it’s a business investment, do not be precious about your work — to limp along?
The question on the table is “What does a publisher do?”
This is not an existential exercise. HarperCollins didn’t just develop a creative way to wriggle out of paying advances. I truly believe it’s a high-profile acknowledgment that publishers simply don’t do the same job they previously did, and that the function of a publisher will be changing even more. The idea of “publishing” is no longer a print book based model. As I noted above, the way consumers read is vastly different than it was even a decade ago, and if you’re paying attention to your Twitter account, it’s change, change, change, all the time. With this change comes new business models and relationships with authors.
If authors don’t view this first (okay second) salvo as a wake-up call from the future, they’re going to lose. Lose like the Writer’s Guild did in 1982. And again with every contract thereafter (including, if you want my opinion, with the current contract; SAG — the Screen Actors Guild — is trying to fight for more, we’ll see how that goes). Because if you believe that “publishing” begins and ends with a (print, bound) book, then you’re going to be one of those cars sitting on the side track while the big trains whoosh by.
Sometimes you might get to take a little ride, but mostly you’re just hoping to be noticed.
Some suggest that advances are the publishing company’s way of investing in the author (meaning, I suppose, that cutting out the advances signals a lack of investment). Yes. And no. Advances are part of the investment publishers make. Authors write books. I am not sure there is a way to fully quantify the value of their time and labor. Do you work on your book 2 hours a day, three, five? Could you make more working at Home Depot? While some authors receive advances that dwarf their investment of labor, few come close on a labor-to-payment scale.
Let’s get back to investments by publishers, because they reveal the strength and weakness of the publishing business. Advances are only a piece of the investment a publisher makes. The publisher also invests via editorial time, production efforts, printing or manufacturing, maximizing the distribution network, and some sort of marketing/publicity, and sales. Also their online efforts, though that’s another post entirely.
The weaknesses, as you can deduce from the above, is that these strengths are geared toward the traditional publishing world. And that was just nifty until about 1994. Since then, particularly, new market forces have emerged, new distribution models have formed, new competition has developed (who woulda thunk that booksellers would become serious publishers?). Most amazingly, consumers have become more engaged in story than ever before. It’s no longer just a book/reader relationship.
Not only do publishers have to increase their investment in online activities, but they have to develop innovative ways to engage readers who might never enter a bookstore. When Penguin test drives wiki novels and ARGs, it’s not all about press releases and headlines (though you’ve got to admit they’re garnering those and the bump in web traffic). It’s about reaching readers in new ways. Publishers are engaging in something brand new to the industry: R&D.
Books — close your eyes, fetishists! — are only one form of storytelling. If there’s one thing I believe about the future, it is that publishers will only succeed if they think beyond the (printed, bound) book as the be-all and end-all of story. The book is just way for story to be told. My personal favorite way, sure, but it’s just one way to engage the reader of the future (who is really the reader of the now).
Likewise, if authors — storytellers — stop and start with the book, then they are limiting themselves to not only a market segment, but a specific type of story. To completely destroy a childhood memory, I suggest that story includes fat books, skinny books, books that come in chunks, video books, mobile books, even books with games attached…
Forbes has speculated on the possibility of increased shares to authors if they go with Amazon as publisher and distributor as a key enticement for authors to go with Amazon-as-publisher. That’s a possibility, sure, but Amazon is just as likely to invest money in creating new platforms for books. Just as Barnes & Noble is attempting to step into traditional publishing territory, Amazon — if it gets its act together, and sometimes I wonder — is beautifully positioned to become a publisher of the future.
The difference between Amazon and traditional publishing is that Amazon is more likely to treat its relationship between content creators and publisher as a partnership. This matters because, while money made from online endeavors isn’t awesome, authors are increasingly finding that they can make as much or more going a non-traditional route. In order to entice the talent needed to keep publishing viable in the future, the economic model must change.
And that’s what I find most interesting about the Bob Miller project. Will it fly? That remains to be seen. I think it’s the first of many new models (most of which, yeah, won’t really be all that new) as publishing transitions from old school to new school.