I am not worried about the future of the book. I am not worried about the future of reading. I am not worried about the future of spelling (I am almost-but-not-quite ready to accept the “spelling is relative” argument, !@#$ British and their extraneous use of “U”). I am worried about the future of publishers.
Your competition is not who you think it is.
By publishers, I mean traditional, bound-copy based, royalty-paying publishers. Oh, I don’t think they’re going away for a good long time, but I do think we’re seeing the beginning of a serious challenge to the status quo. This means a slow (publishing being a very slooow business) shift from authors who are grateful for any crumbs thrown their way to authors who will ask “So tell me again, what can you do for me?”.
Authors who expect a serious, detailed, ready-to-execute plan from the publisher…otherwise, baby, options exist. Options galore.
While I buy the argument that authors should do what authors do best (write) and publishers should do what publishers do best (distribute and market), I am realistic enough to know that the marketing love is bestowed on a relatively few number of authors. I don’t want to scare anyone (lie, lie, lie), but product is being thrown at the market at an alarming pace. This month’s hot title is next month’s forgotten title.
This year’s Tools of Change for Publishing Conference emphasized the need for the publishing industry to, uh, change. To develop passionate (for those playing the ToC drinking game at home, that’s one chug) readers. To build strong, loyal communities. To make books findable. To keep the conversation on the books while convincing the readers that free doesn’t mean free as in beer (please do not ever allow me to say that again).
Very few publishers have managed to achieve these rather simple goals (Harlequin being the most obvious example of a house that got the social before the social was hot). There are a lot of reasons for this, the first (and probably most important) being that publishers don’t sell books to readers.
Heresy, you say? Nope. Publishers sell books to distributors who sell books to bookstores who sell books to readers. For publishers to do what they need to do — passion (two chugs), community-based, social, findable — they need to find a direct connection with readers. This means asking, now more than ever, “what can I do for you, dear author?”
Alison Norrington, a chicklit author from Ireland (man, I hope she’s from Ireland; if not, it’s, like, one of those countries with a “U” problem), published three novels. Like all authors, she wants to publish a fourth. Norrington, however, was working on her master’s thesis while getting said fourth novel off the ground. No problem! Write the book online (a chapter a day, daunting, no?), market it online, chart progress and effort, sell book, continue the conversation.
Norrington was very, very successful with her project. She still hasn’t sold that fourth book, but, given the line of publishers waiting to say “Hi” after her presentation at ToC2008, I figure that’s more a matter of time than not. Of course, if I were sitting on the publisher side of the equation, I’d be hiring her for a corner office job. Norrington’s kind of creativity doesn’t come around that often.
Her presentation “Web 2.0 to Publishing 2.0: How do you want your stories?” chronicled her experiences in online fiction — and by fiction, I mean multi-level, faceted, deep character development online. For those who have had the pleasure of hearing me babble about this topic, effective online fiction development requires far more than throwing up a blog and hoping for the best (especially since, as Norrington noted with just enough wryness mixed with exasperation, breaking into the blogging clique isn’t easy. I sort of feel bad for her experiences and sincerely hope I wasn’t one who rebuffed her advances!).
Effective fictional blogging requires building and maintaining character from blog to Second Life. It requires Facebook, MySpace (unless you’re clever enough to avoid it), Flickr, Twitter, and a dozen or more social networks. It requires building a life for a character that extends beyond the blog. It requires a multi-channel effort. It’s requires good tagging and good search engines.
[Stop. Don't. I know you're thinking "I can do that". Chill. You know who you are. We'll talk later, I promise; I have plans. Remember, it only works for the right kind of fiction -- sometimes you have to mix your own.]
Norrington spent an inordinate amount of time creating the fictional world of Sophie, a columnist who has vowed to stay single for a year. Note the inordinate part of “inordinate amount of time”. You think Facebook for your real life is too much? Try doing it for someone who isn’t corporeal. As Norrington learned, you get so deep that you find yourself crossing the lines between real and fiction.
So what does this have to do with the future of publishing houses? As I said to poor Alison Norrington when I accosted her, if she’d known what she was doing, she’d be dangerous. We’re talking about a relative Internet novice who managed to hit all the right notes (yet missed one of the most obvious pieces of the puzzle. See first link for this author.). All the notes the publishing business is still trying to reach.
The only thing she didn’t manage — and I chalk this up to the focus of her project rather than ability — was to figure out how to monetize her fourth novel. Yeah, she’s looking for the advance/royalty model, but given how much the average novelist makes these days, it’s not a stretch to imagine that self-publishing done her way can be lucrative.
As I listened to Norrington speak, my mind couldn’t help but consider the many, many authors I know who are doing exactly what she’s doing. How they’re putting so much of their creative energy into promotion. They’re doing an incredible amount of work to sell books to make money for themselves and their publishers. Without serious support from their houses.
Smart, savvy, entrepreneurial authors are going to wonder why they’re giving away an average (a loose average) of 90% of net income for what amounts to very little support, though I hope they consider the expense side of the equation before saying ta-da to the traditional publishing business. It seems rather odd that so many authors are busting their butts to reach a magical sell-through rate in order to achieve the golden ring of another contract, yet the actual support provided by their publishing house, the other half of an ostensible partnership, ends at dumping the book into a huge pile with the masses of other books released that month; how long before they realize that they’re doing the work, someone else is making the money?
I am not asking idle questions. Radiohead, Madonna, Nine Inch Nails, others are finding success without the support of major labels. Maybe these are exceptional examples, maybe they’re indicative of a movement. Time will tell.
A very wise man asked me what signs of hope I saw at the Tools of Change Conference. Still processing, I pointed out that there was a strong realization that today’s youth really do read. Maybe not the way we believe reading should be done, but, hey, I, for one, do not read the way my mother does. Had I had another hour or two, maybe I would have pointed to Alison Norrington’s presentation.
Which gets back to the role played by publishing houses. Obviously, publishers are not writers. It’s probably just as obvious to understand that online character development requires intense author involvement. But tomorrow’s publisher (for those wondering, tomorrow started about ten years ago) needs to be positioned to make the process of reaching and maintaining the social aspects of the book business as effortless as possible for authors.
Because I have seen the future and her name is Alison Norrington…your competition is not who you think it is.
- Sorting Out The Future of Publishing at ToC: Kirk “Time Machine” Biglione offers a few additional thoughts on the conference
- Who Are Your Competitors: Joe Wikert takes a look at the issue from the non-fiction perspective