Monday, July 13, 2009

Debra- Cultural Arbitration

I've been doing a bit of thinking lately. The world of publishing is changing so quickly. Authors have new opportunities and new challenges in getting their work in front of readers. New technology and the technical savvy of many of today's authors have demystified the how and what and when of publishing. Anyone under 60 in today's world who isn't accomplished on the computer is woefully behind the times. We have to assume the number of technically savvy authors will only go up in years to come.

So. One has to begin wondering if publishers will play a role in publishing in the future. What value are publishers to authors? To readers? Is publishing going to go the way of the telex machine? (Email killed it.)

Instead of the one, old, tried-and-true "ship a ton and accept returns" business model of publishing, there are a zillion new models. So much more content is being published these days. Any author with a computer can put up a website and begin publishing. Authors publish their own work through Amazon. Many of the print-on-demand printers will happily fold the author into their title list and get the author's book listed at Amazon, BN, Borders and at the wholesalers. There are tutorials to guide the author through the process of producing a print book via the online interfaces of the print-on-demand printers. (BTW, the titles above are an upcoming YA series from BelleBooks/Bell Bridge.)

So, do we need publishers? Really?

One company on the internet exists to bind and print CUSTOM anthologies. The user can browse their offerings via the internet, select from a wealth of material, according to their own reading preferences. You can even choose your own cover and title, and they'll send you your professional quality trade-size book for $ 14.95. The company has a review process for adding content to their database. They pay straight royalties, no advance. This new business model is actually pretty cool for interested readers who'd like to collect some of their favorite authors in the same book. Or stories of a similar theme, etc. The reader is, in a small way, being her own publisher, picking and choosing and investing money.

While this custom anthology bit is fun and probably useful in its way, the process points out exactly why I hope we don't lose publishing as an industry. I think readers need some way to sort through the incredible amount of material out there. After one particularly frustrating session of browsing through all the "noise" of so many new unknown authors in Amazon's Kindle store, I decided that the value of the traditional publishing system is... ::gasp:: ...cultural arbitration. There. I've said it. I'm not saying that I like anyone having control over culture, but think about this for a minute. Think about the sheer number of new books out there. Not to mention reprints and multiple editions of a book like the reprint of ON BEAR MOUNTAIN which should be out from BelleBooks/Bell Bridge in early August.

"Based on preliminary figures from U.S. publishers, Bowker is projecting that U.S. title output in 2008 decreased by 3.2%, with 275,232 new titles and editions, down from the 284,370 that were published in 2007. Despite this decline in traditional book publishing, there was another extraordinary year of growth in the reported number of “On Demand” and short-run books produced in 2008. Bowker projects that 285, 394 On Demand books were produced last year, a staggering 132% increase over last year’s final total of 123,276 titles. This is the second consecutive year of triple-digit growth in the On Demand segment, which in 2008 was 462% above levels seen as recently as 2006." -- Bowker (exclusive U.S. ISBN agency)

HOLY COW, BATMAN. How do we sort through all of this? And that was only 2008. The numbers are rising.

From my perspective as a reader, if I trust a publisher, I know I'm buying a book that has risen like cream to the top of a mountain of manuscripts. I know the book has been edited. I know someone invested significant money in bringing the book to market.

Yes, yes. I all know we have wall-banging examples of badly edited pieces of crap that were foisted on us by big publishing, but by and large, the traditional publishing model worked from a quality standpoint. It sucks on many levels, but not for quality. Am I ready, as a reader, to have to sort through everything that's out there as it all floods the market? Or do we look to quality publishers to do some of that heavy lifting for us? Does it make a difference to readers? Will authors know how to reach readers? Can they find me so I can find them?

Of course, the flip side to this coin is what publishers mean to authors. The short list of value is the oversight of distribution, subrights representation, marketing and production values a publisher normally brings to the table that an individual author might find important. Most authors would find it prohibitive to carry media liability insurance, for example.

Still, J.A. Konrath, author of the popular Jack Daniels books (Cherry Bomb is in hardcover), has been experimenting on Amazon Kindle with his unpublished early books. Per his blog, where he has kindly shared hard numbers, his income is up to about 30K a year from those titles. Of course, he has a BIG string of books from a major publisher. Let's do keep that in mind. This isn't Nancy Nobody trying this experiment. (His large publisher ebook numbers versus his home-grown ebook numbers on one title? 10,000 versus 1,600)

I don't know what will happen as we move into the future and absorb the changes for authors and publishers. I just know something's in the air. We're crossing the crossroads and the next adventure in books is beginning. I'm not sure I like it as a reader. I'm not even sure I'm ready for it as a publisher! (I still love my Kindle but I'm beginning to worry about the book *buying* experience.)

Do you think we need to ditch publishers? (It's okay. I can take it. I want honest opinions from authors and readers.)


Emmanuelle said...

As a reader, I think it would be a big mistake to ditch publishers (I don't even think it will ever happen). I'm among the reader who need to buy a "paper" book. I've some times baught an ebook but that was because I live in France and it was not available in an other format (or too expenssive).
The publishing process as you said creates a selection for which I'm rather grateful.

Kylie said...

I don't see us leaving publishers behind either. For one thing, as a reader I'd rather fork over money for a book a publisher felt strongly enough about to publish, rather than taking a chance on another release. It would be difficult to find new authors merely by trolling the web looking at who's self publishing these days!

Publishing is going to change drastically in the next decade, no doubt about that. But hopefully it will be in ways that make the marketplace more streamlined and the publishers and authors can make a dime doing it, LOL.

And I will always be one reading print books. I'm at the computer so much that the thought of reading a book on a screen holds absolutely no allure for me.

Debra Dixon said...

Emanuelle-- Yes, as a reader I value selection. I want more choice, but I also want that choice backed up by a process that winnows down the noise out there.

I find I'm actually checking the publishers. Clicking through to their sites as I make online buying decisions.

And yet as an author I like the idea that authors can leverage their names in the future and take more control of their profit by taking on more of the process like J.A's doing. If an author wants to do that.

Debra Dixon said...

Kylie-- Yes, publishers and authors have to make a dime. If the marketplace crowds out publishers because they can't make a dime, then authors might have to take on publishing chores.

When BN bought Fictionwise to position itself to compete with Amazon, instead of accepting the standard 40% discount on REDUCED retail price ebooks from publisher who had already adjusted for the reader's expectation of lower prices...well, BN wants 50% of the NET.

They increased their discount AND want control of the revenue stream. If they decide to run a sale on ebooks, they force the publisher to participate and accept an unplanned reduction in revenue. How does a publisher or author survive if they can't control their pricing? BN wants to be able to deduct commissions before paying the publisher.

Our publishing company declined to sign their contract.

Readers may wonder why publishers aren't adjusting the pricing on their ebooks from their print pricing, well BN's scheme is one such reason.

Michele Hauf said...

I've actually been thinking about trying to sell one of my old historicals through Amazon. I've just started researching, and all I can say is, Man, the take a huge cut from the author! And that's if I can figure out how to get my book (which I no longer have on disk and must be scanned) into a file. I'd love to give it a try though. Just test the waters and see what happens.

I like the variety in publishing. So many options for so many different types of readers and writers. I hope it stays this way. As an author I always want those options. As a reader I prefer books I can hold in my hand and page back and forth through, yet I do love my Kindle. Certain books are 'Kindle-worthy' for me, and that's those that don't have really spectacular covers, maybe new authors, or shorter stories.

Playground Monitor said...

Count me in the "wants-a-paper-book" crowd. I've only bought 2 e-books in my life and that's when Harlequin released the first Spice Briefs at a drastically reduced price. I wanted to see what they were all about.

Right now I don't have an e-reader so I have to read on the computer. I hate that. The Kindle looks good, but more as something to travel with instead of filling my suitcase with half a dozen books. On a regular basis, I still prefer to curl up with the old paperback in hand.

Do away with publishers? Uh, I think not. The occasional wall-banger notwithstanding, I depend on the publisher to make sure what I'm buying meets certain standards. A particular genre may not be my cup of tea, but I can presume it's well written and edited.

I'm off to DC today! Hope to see some of the Top Down gang there.


Debra Dixon said...


Very interesting that you consider books without spectacular covers as Kindle candidates. 'Cause nope. Once it's on your Kindle the cover isn't important at all. You don't paw through a pretty TBR stack.

You should definitely try to get your older books out there if you own the rights. And yep. Amazon takes a larger portion from an author trying to sell through them than is standard discount for publishing. I think Amazon wants 55% from the author whereas if they bought a book through regular publishing channels their discount would be 40%.

Debra Dixon said...

Marilyn-- Have fun in DC! I still remember running right smack into you about 3 seconds after I arrived in SF last year.

Glad to hear there is yet another member of the, "Publishers please!" crowd.

That increases eventual cost to the reader. And in this time of fairly cheap off-channel books like self-published and barely-published, I have been wondering if the reader will be content to pay the prices required for a publisher to operate and an author-with-publisher to receive income.

Debra Dixon said...

RE: Barely published

I just coined that term and didn't mean to be disrespectful. But there are differences in publishing companies.

So, "barely published" wasn't an insult, just a recognition that some publishers do not advertise, don't edit and don't pay advances, but they also aren't vanity press or self-published because they don't require a financial investment of the author.

Helen Brenna said...

There's very definitely something in the air, Deb, and it'll be interesting to see how it all plays out. I really like the idea of authors having the capability of publishing their own material after they've made a name for themselves. It's a tough business and I'd like to see writers, who often get the short end of the stick, make some headway.

Still, I'm a paper book reader. Can't see myself ever reading on a computer screen. Kindle, maybe some day. I don't see traditional publishers going away any time soon.

lois greiman said...

I, too, prefer my books to be on paper, but I think we're all pretty avid readers here, and maybe that's not necessarily the norm.

But yeah, publishers give books a certain amount of credibility that is still lacking in most other venues.

flip said...

I am not saying ditch publishers, but I think that the alternatives to mainstream publishing will change publishing.

I cannot get into ebooks. I love books, the smell and feel. My preference is paperbacks.

Genella deGrey said...

I love both paperbacks and my ereader. Much like I enjoy both theater and motion pictures.

Another vote for keeping publishers*


Debra Dixon said...

Helen-- I think all the authors really like the idea of how they can take control of their work and still create the work. Which is sometimes best done when you have a name and the resources to get help with the business aspects.

Debra Dixon said...

Lois-- Yes, it's hard to get away from the "credibility" factor. I know I rely on it.

Debra Dixon said...

Flip-- I agree with this too. Mainstream publishing will change. I just wish I knew the exact form the changes would take!

I can think of 15 ways this might play out. Publishers are probably going to be running their own pick-and-pack operations for their titles or at least they should be leveraging the ebooks on their websites since that's all automated.

Betina Krahn said...

Deb, how brave of you to bring this up!

I think we definitely need some cultural arbitration these days. The power, open access, and immediacy of the internet makes it attractive for publishing all kinds of material FAST. Which in my mind is the problem. . . too much volume that gets published so quickly that it hasn't had time to settle and form and be shaped by good editing and the perspective of publishing "lag time."

It's always been my opinion that there hasn't been a book written that couldn't benefit from a good editor's work. With every copy-edited manuscript I've received from a publisher I've learned something. And where do you get that kind of learning experience as a writer, except from a good editor at a publishing house?

Publish on, Belle Books!

The publishing industry

Sandra D. Coburn said...


I think you have hit the nail on the head. I have read a few self-published novels from very nice authors I have met. The books had beautiful covers, but inside, there was something missing. Maybe their characters were good, maybe the plot had potential, maybe they had something fresh and unique, but it wasn't a complete package -- yet.

If the authors had kept refining their novel, they may have made it through the difficult process of selling the book. As it stands, they have a beautiful book that doesn't read well, which they have resorted to giving away because they aren't selling. Publishers provide more than "cultural arbitration" -- they provide quality control.

You pointed out a lot of other things that publishers do that most of us aren't aware of -- media liability insurance for one! I think we need publishers. I also think that publishers need to be farsighted and proactive when it comes to the future of publishing in order to support their authors and to continue to provide a quality product for the reading public.

Debra Dixon said...

Betina-- Good editing is key. Critical. And that doesn't happen quickly. So, yeah, that's a good point that the process of traditional publishing provides a few "Whoa, Nellie" moments along the way to give the book time to develop.

Re: Brave
LOL! Yep. I had a few second thoughts about raising the issue, but this is a question that's been on my mind. Pretending publishers are valuable without testing that hypothesis would be stupid if you're in the business of publishing.

Debra Dixon said...

Sandra-- Yes. You've hit the nail on the head too! The "complete package" is the value a reader should expect from a trusted publisher.

Being far-sighted has never been a publishing strength. At least not for big publishing. They're Luddites. They should have been early adopters of all sorts of technology. They should have been proactive about leveraging the internet. They/we're all paying the price now as we play catch-up. We should have learned a few lessons from the music industry which imploded before our eyes.

Margaret E Reid said...

Re: Barely Published
That's where I am. I vote for publishers. I want my book in my hand. I also want my work to be available in another format for those who enjoy reading via computer, iPhone or Kindle. While I can self-publish my short stories, I still feel the need to be 'good enough' and that means a contract from an established house.

Debra Dixon said...

Hey, Meg!

Just saw your comment. As soon as I typed "barely published" I realized that I liked the term. There is a spectrum of published. It's not black and white. So, barely published is accurate, just wished I had a better moniker for it. Authors are truly published, just not with all the bells and whistles of big publishing.