Do Publishing Houses Have A Future?

March 5th, 2007 · 11 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

It is an interesting question: what role do publishers serve in this modern world? In the past, the work of the publisher was very clear. Editing, marketing, and distribution occupied the days of those who poured out of Manhattan office buildings for lunch, for those who devoured manuscripts on the subway ride home. But as the business model begins to shift, will publishers continue to be relevant?

Are publishers really ready for honest, open discussions about their books on their websites?

Stephen Page, chief executive and publisher of Faber & Faber, argues “Yes.” He would, of course, being one of those whose livelihood depends upon a robust publishing industry. Page lays out the role of publishers today and tomorrow, with some success, some curious argument. He is right. Publishers serve the writing and reading world very well.

Page begins by looking backward a year, to an article written by an agent, one that suggested that agents, not publishers, would be the drivers of the new book economy. This makes little sense, as we all know, unless agents suddenly become lean, mean marketing machines. Sure, some will, but if this agent’s post-and-download utopia ever comes to fruition, the author will be questioning the role of someone who takes 15 or more percent off the top for what is surely unearned effort.

If we’re seeing any trends at all based on today’s electronic publishing industry, it is that authors are interacting with publishers directly, bypassing the agent process entirely. We’re also seeing that authors are earning higher royalties on their work when they bypass New York Houses and publish online (with reputable electronic publishers). One could argue that the traditional publishers pay less, sure, but sell more books overall, but what author thinks about the “overall”? It is the one book, the one author that matters.

In the future, publishers will need to be more generous with authors because there will be more competition for their talent. Authors will have a wider range of publishing options, some of which make them squeamish and nervous now, but as different publishing models emerge and mature, what seems like giving it away or taking a risk will become standard business practice. With this variety, there will be more power to the author.

With this variety, of course, the publishers will distinguish themselves with editing and marketing skills. Editing, we have decided will gain new importance in the future world — an about-face from today’s bottom-line, shareholder driven model. In a world where anyone can throw up their work, it will be the good stuff (or the most salacious) that attracts a wider audience. We might chide today’s youth for their casual approach to things like punctuation and spelling, but complete sentences and words that are not one step away from initialisms will continue to matter. Good editing will continue to matter.

Marketing, too, will be an asset offered by publishers. As we all know, today, most books simply aren’t marketed, at least in ways that impact the reader. Most books are dumped on the market and told to sink or swim. This is an inefficient way to run a business, but that’s how it’s always been done in publishing, and only the future — that future with more competition and more at stake — will change this. Once committed to the notion of fighting to acquire and retain authors, we believe that publishers will find new and creative ways to market the books these authors write.

This will probably, yes, involve a smaller number of titles released every year but said publishers, but we can’t help but wonder if that would be a good thing.

Page rather idealistically sees publishing as already meeting these needs. He sees his house as leading the charge to capture the minds and eyes of readers. He also realizes that publishers must, necessarily, adapt to new processes to grab an increasingly fragmented audience (wasn’t the purpose of all this efficiency to give us more free time?). We are not sure that publishers — the big entrenched ones — fully understand how to go about this. Time and again, they miss what’s going on, they lack the key ingredient of today’s online culture: authenticity.

They make it clear that there’s a corporation behind every message in an era when people simply want to be told the truth. Truth is hard for corporate entities. It involves admitting fallibility, allowing messages to be controlled by outside entities, engaging the public rather than dismissing the public. Are publishers really ready for honest, open discussions about their books on their websites? Are they prepared for someone to hate something and to say so in a place that allows others to respond, a place that is still sanctioned as “official” by the publisher?

We don’t think so. It’s a scary proposition, and publishers, who so often answer to anonymous shareholders, naturally balk at genuine authenticity. It’s scary stuff. It’s also required if publishing houses really want to prove that they serve a purpose in the future. All of the things we noted above, the strengths of a publishing house, can be handled by third parties. In fact, there may be a new kind of publishing entity rising, a publishing packager, if you you will, that fulfills the needs that today’s publishers do not…including authenticity.

Do we believe that publishing houses will serve a purpose in the future? Absolutely. But they’ll need to evolve along with the rest of the world — and that’s where we get nervous.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

11 responses so far ↓

  • Richard Nash // Mar 5, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    I don’t necessarily think fewer books. There could in fact be more books. For example, the retail market for poetry has virtually collapsed, but the number of poetry presses in the country has tripled. The number of copies sold per title has probably dropped, but it seems that the right book is now much likelier to get to the right reader…

  • Dan Green // Mar 5, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    “that’s where we get nervous”

    As you should. Do you really think that publishers will be convinced to go back to editing and marketing? What makes you think this? The supply and demand imperative of capitalism? Isn’t this what has gotten publishing into its current mess?

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 5, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    It’s funny, Richard, that you should mention fewer copies per title with more individual titles being published. I don’t think, necessarily, that fewer copies sold is a bad thing. Granted, the poets out there might feel differently. This topic came up in relation to another post, and I think it’s something important to discuss. Yes, writers want to make a living from their work, but, realistically speaking, how many do? For so many, reaching the right reader is much more satisfying than being shunted aside due to perceived limitations.

    Of course, this is where I argue for flexible approaches to the publishing model. There are so many choices, so many options. I think it’s great when publishers look beyond the one size fits all model. One thing that I’m really fascinated by these days is extending the story beyond the book — using alternate venues, technologies, and worlds to tell the story. This doesn’t work for every book, but I think it’s an interesting model for authors, storytellers (can be different you know), and publishers.

    Ah, Dan, I live in a fantasy world, you know that. Thus, in my fantasy world, the need for good writers will lead to investing in the infrastructure that supports them. In another venue, I have pissed off a group of erotica authors for suggesting that their prolific output has degraded the quality of their work. The topic that I didn’t address — word count sometimes limits my ranting — is that editing, especially poor editing, is a bit of an elephant in the room.

    However, authors are finding increased options for publishing their work. Do I believe that the current system will disappear tomorrow? No. But I do believe that some publishers are doing their darnedest to make themselves irrelevant to the creative, edgy authors that make reputations. I also think that these creative, edgy authors are finding better outlets for their work.

    That’s a good thing.

    Most books don’t get marketed properly. They can’t. And maybe many books don’t deserve to be marketed properly. There are many factors that comprise a big-ass publisher’s list. Sometimes titles don’t need to be marketed. In the minds of the publishers.

    But, yeah, in a way, I think supply and demand will drive the publishing industry to make some (but not all) wiser choices in the future, if only because the authors these publishers want have other options.

  • Lisa Silverman // Mar 5, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    Right now agents and authors are expected to do the editing and marketing, respectively. Since agencies don’t have editing and marketing departments, fewer and fewer will take on new novelists who need developing or nonfiction writers who don’t have a preexisting marketing platform.

    Changing this state of affairs will take more than wishful thinking, at least at the major publishing houses. Who will take on these roles in the digital future is anyone’s guess.

  • Joe Wikert // Mar 6, 2007 at 10:29 am

    Hi Kassia. I am a publisher myself and I read your post with great interest. I think you sum it up quite well at the end when you say that publishers will need to evolve. In fact, that’s the subject of the keynote address I’m giving at the ASIDIC conference next Monday. I’ll be answering the question: “How are major publishers and aggregators moving from being licensors to solution providers?”

    My opinion is there are (at least!) 6 things publishers need to do better as they evolve. This list includes changing their acquisition/development model, focus on existing brands (and building new ones for the future), embracing the community, focusing on authors with strong platforms, innovating and providing content on a multitude of delivery platforms and leveraging advertising models online. All of these items are likely to be controversial, so I’m looking forward to the Q&A at the end of my session!

  • Joan Kelly // Mar 6, 2007 at 11:18 am

    I always read your posts on the publishing business with even more interest than your other great topics. I am dying to have my own ideas about publishing evolve, aka get a grasp on the things you’re talking about and learn how to avail myself of the new world order. I was left with an overstock of self pity and crabbiness after my first, and so far only, experience with having a book published, and although I’m writing another one right now, trying to get it published when it’s done feels pointless. And it’s my understanding that as far as first-book-experiences go, mine was a fortunate one. So. Things can’t change fast enough for my taste.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 7, 2007 at 10:20 pm

    Joan — I am so sorry that you didn’t have the candlelight and roses first book experience. But how boring would that be? Without crabbiness, what would we have in life? Oh, happiness. How dull. Nobody wants to read happy people. Or so I’ve been told.

    Congratulations on the second book. It’s going to be like sophomore year in high school. You have to get past it. Laws of the universe are dependent upon this hurdle. Probably it’s part of the hero’s journey, but I’m lazy and cannot look it up. Plus I’m supposed to be packing, not commenting.

    Do not feel like getting your work published is a pointless endeavor. You want to be read. Like all of us, you have exhibitionist tendencies. But I do like that writers, now more than ever, can control how and where they’re read. I am very happy with how my career as a writer is going. I’m doing what I love to do. I’m also not forgetting that writing fiction makes me happy, too. I have simply found a model that works very well for me. Cats, as you know, are cheaper to feed than human kids; that makes one trade-off easier for me. I think it’s critical to know what you want from your writing — and then you have a goal to pursue.

    And things change rapidly. And you have incredible stories to tell. How they’re told can change over time. To me, that’s the coolest, best thing ever.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 7, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    Joe — I am curious to hear the results of your presentation. How you distilled all of this down to just six points is amazing. Of course, it takes six points for me to get warmed up.

    Keep me posted. I am truly interested.

  • Joan Kelly // Mar 11, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    I forgot I commented, and coming back and reading your response was the nicest delayed gratification I’ve had in a long time. Maybe nicest ever. I am not usually a fan of delayed-anything, let alone gratification, but this time it really worked out well for me. Thanks Booksquare!

  • Joe Wikert // Mar 12, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    Just got back from the ASIDIC conference and it went well. “How did I boil this down to only 6 points?…” Well, we all know there are a *lot* more than 6 points for this sort of thing, but the 6 I listed were the highest on my priority list that particular day.

    I was pleasantly surprised by the ASIDIC group. Everyone was very much engaged in the discussions and totally interested in hearing what each speaker had to say today. I was only able to stay for 2 sessions after my own but they were both top notch.

    The audience had lots of great questions for me after my keynote. We ran out of time or we’d probably still be kicking around ideas related to blogs and wiki’s, for example. There was a very strong interest in all the forms of community and how to be an integral part of it (e.g., join existing communities rather than trying to build your own, walled-off ones).

    I’m glad I was given the opportunity to speak at the conference and I look forward to following-up with some of the people I met there last night and today.

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