Monday, May 31, 2010

What Value Does the Publisher Bring to the Table?

On Friday, Stephen Page, CEO of Faber & Faber, wrote an article for the UK's Guardian. Faber & Faber is a British independent publishing house that can boast of having once employed T.S. Eliot.

Page begins by asking the question, "Will the iPad lead a reading revolution?" But he quickly abandons that train of thought for a question that interests me far more: "What will ebooks mean to publishers?"
It's clear that publishers must move faster to establish our compelling and useful role in the modern life of reading. While acquiring new expertise, we must assert the best of our traditional strengths ... But that's not enough. Publishers also have to explain what value they are bringing to the relationship between writers and readers ...
Three years ago, on April 28, 2007, I asked this question in a post here: In a digitized world, what value does the publisher bring to the table?

At that time, I suggested the following:
The answer could be in the marketing and distribution chain. While anyone may be able to produce an e-book, the failure of most self-published books is evidence that merely having a book is not enough ... a system for vetting books is still needed ...

What I suspect is going to happen is that the lines between publisher, distributor, bookstore and author are going to start blurring. Unusual contracts among the different parties are likely to emerge.
Page points to six principles to help publishers survive. His first principle is "Creating the greatest value for writers should lie in keeping their print and digital publishing in one place."

I can understand why this would be important to the publisher. I'm just not as certain of the importance to the writer.

I'm going to suggest a different first principle for publisher survival. Publishers need to start aligning their goals more with those of the writers they represent. Unfortunately, that is not presently the case.

When the consolidation of the publishing industry began in the '70s, books became widgets to the mega-corporations who bought out the various publishing houses. The focus moved from the product to the bottom line. Keeping the profit-and-loss sheet clean took precedence over other considerations. Taking risks suddenly became dangerous because print books that fail are costly experiments. We've all watched as publishing houses chase trends ... and already established authors. Why take a chance on a young, new writer when you are virtually guaranteed a sure thing with a best-selling author like Stephen King or James Patterson ... as long as you don't get carried away when writing the advance checks.

If a publisher wants to stay alive in the new publishing industry, he had better recognize that the reader--not the bottom line--is king.

Instead of trying to juggle ebooks versus p-books, publishers need to realize that the different mediums exist for the convenience of readers. Stop thinking in terms of one medium cannibalizing another and start thinking about helping authors build their brands. The way to do that is to reach as many readers as possible in as many venues as possible.

Offer the p-books alongside the ebooks on the release date. Quit worrying about which one the reader picks. Make both available everywhere as fast as possible. Instead of huge print runs, use POD technology to fill the p-book demand.

Did anyone wonder why Charlaine Harris sold 199,732 copies of Dead in the Family during the six days following its May 4 release? Sure, I'm certain the tie-in to the cable show True Blood had something to do with it. But I'm dead certain (no pun intended) that the fact that Amazon was selling the hardcover for $9.99 (plus shipping) had a lot to do with it.

And, yes, I know that Amazon was taking a huge loss on those books. However, it wouldn't have been a loss if those books were ebooks, instead of p-books. And the demand was there for the book at that price.

Obviously, no publisher will want to sign a contract for a book that does not include all the various mediums in which it will be offered (p-book, ebook, and audio book). However, I'm convinced most writers understand the need to build their brands. And writers are readers. They know that they only get one shot at pushing their new releases before hundreds of other new books come along to wiggle their sexy little covers in front of readers.

In the new publishing world, publishers need to focus on three things: (1) The widest possible distribution on the day of release; (2) The best possible price on that first day of sales; and (3) The fairest possible royalty to authors.

If the New York publishers continue to dick around with trying to suppress ebook sales to support the p-book sales, they're going to find their writers moving elsewhere ... perhaps to smaller publishing houses ... or perhaps to companies like Amazon and Google, who can as easily become book publishers as booksellers. Don't forget what I said in 2007 about the lines between publisher, distributor, bookstore and author blurring, leading to "unusual contracts among the different parties."

Read Page's article here.

I'm pleased he's asking the question. I'm just not certain that the Big Six are ready for the answer.


Lynne Connolly said...

Excellent article, Maya!

Bernita said...

Calm good sense.

Maya Reynolds said...

Thanks, Lynne and Bernita.

It will be interesting to see what happens next with publishers.