Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Shifting of the Balance of Power

On a writers' loop to which I belong, we were predicting the direction publishing will take in the next few years. This is what I said:

New technology always shakes up an industry, and publishing is no different. We've seen a lot of change in recent years, but I believe we are on the verge of an even greater sea change.

The act of physically producing a book was once the sticking point preventing authors' entry into the game. Publishers dominated because they were the owners of the means of production. That is no longer true. Producing a physical book or an e-book is far cheaper and easier to do today.

However, once you have that book--as the self-pubbed among us can testify--the real challenge becomes the marketing of the book. With thousands and thousands of more titles available on the market, drawing attention to a single one is a substantial task.

This is, of course, only my opinion, but I believe this new challenge will result in that sticking point to the game moving further down the line from the production of books to the marketing of books. I suspect in less than three years, authors are going to find themselves at the center of a battle with booksellers on one side and traditional publishers on the other--each struggling to survive.

Acting as a publisher is nothing new to the large bookchains. Crossing that line into publishing already happened for them. They have been publishing public domain books for years. If you walk into a B&N, you'll see aisles of books that were published by B&N.

What will be different is when the bookchains start seeking to obtain rights to copyrighted material to publish. Borders has already announced they are going to begin publishing copyrighted books that will be available exclusively in their stores.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that this flattens the process and cuts out one of the middlemen (the traditional publisher).

What I am unclear about is whether bookchains will employ in-house talent seekers to locate authors or whether they will rely on the agent system. Of course, if they're smart, they'll seek to contact the up-and-coming authors whom their staff identify as being on the verge of breaking out from the pack. Bookstore clerks are probably more in tune with the current market than anyone else. By offering those writers a bigger cut of the pie than a traditional publisher does and by promising prominent display in the store and on their website, the bookchain could entice those writers to leave their current publisher at the end of their contract.

At the same time, all of the major publishers are building digital warehouses. The publishing houses' goal is to sell books from their own websites. Their challenge is twofold. They understand the first challenge: most readers do not shop by publisher; they shop by looking for their favorite author, by browsing new material in their favorite genre or by just wandering around a bookstore.

The second challenge for traditional publishers is much more subtle: to realize that the world has changed and they are going to have to be much more flexible in negotiating with writers. While their bully boy approach [I'm thinking here of S&S] will work in the short term because the balance of power is still in the process of shifting; in the long term, it will work against them because they will have created an adversarial relationship with the very people who provide their product.

Let me repeat what I said earlier, in a world in which much more material is being dumped on the market, the challenge will be to make individual material stand out.

My interest in remaining with a publisher is going to depend on two things: how much are they going to support my marketing efforts and how willing are they to negotiate royalty rates?

Tomorrow we'll talk about the dark horses in this race for power.

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