Tuesday, June 01, 2010

A Publisher's Value Redux

Yesterday, I wrote about the article Stephen Page wrote for the Guardian on what ebooks will mean for publishers.

Other publishers have now jumped into the conversation. What I find frustrating is what my high school history teacher called the difference between debate and critical thinking.

My teacher taught us that debate begins with taking a position and then finding evidence to support that position. Critical thinking, on the other hand, begins with analyzing a subject prior to taking a position and being willing to adjust your position as new evidence is uncovered.

The publishing industry appears to be starting from the premise that "We need to defend our house," which is really just their position in the debate. They then present evidence to justify that stance, all the while pretending they are engaged in critical thinking.

There was a panel titled "Are eBooks Good for Authors?" at the BEA (Book Expo America) at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York, NY last week. BEA used to be called the American Booksellers Association Convention.

My first issue is with the title of that panel, which seems to imply that authors have a decision to make regarding whether their works are offered as ebooks.

The decision on the viability of ebooks belongs to readers, not to either authors or publishers. WAKE UP, PUBLISHING. That train has already left the station. If you are hoping your authors will throw themselves across the train tracks to save you, I'd remind you that "Denial is not a river in Egypt."

Publishers Marketplace (PM) reported that Sourcebooks' CEO Dominique Raccah argued at BEA that "it's just plain wrong...to pretend that ebooks cost nothing to make."

To buttress her debating position, PM said Raccah had a PowerPoint slide that listed 26 things that publishers do along with her claim that "only two of [these] bubbles represent physical distribution and manufacturing."

I'm assuming her remark was intended to point out the small number of tasks unique to p-books. The catch is that she included multiple tasks in some of the bubbles on the slide. As an example, those two bubbles for p-books included four tasks unique to that medium (printing, manufacturing, physical distribution, and physical warehousing. Here are all the tasks listed in Raccah's bubbles:
  • Copyedit and Proofread (1 & 2)

  • Content Development (3)

  • Content Design (4)

  • Creation of Content Portable Files (5)

  • Printing/Manufacturing (6 & 7)

  • Physical Distribution (8)

  • Physical and Digital Warehousing (9 & 10)

  • PR, Marketing and Advertising (11, 12, & 13)

  • Retail Marketing and Sales (14 & 15)

  • Trade Shows (16)

  • eCommerce Administration (17)

  • Licensing and Administration (18)

  • Trademark/Copyright Protection (19 & 20)

  • Accounting: Royalties (21)

  • Positioning (22)

  • Cultural Filter (23)

  • Creative Partner (24)

  • Author Branding(25)

  • Niche Community Building (26)
I find it ironic that publishers are suddenly hot to build communities of niches. I can think of only three publishers who made the effort to build niche communities before it became recently fashionable:

1) Harlequin: romance
2) Thomas Nelson: Christian
3) Tor: sci fi and fantasy

Now suddenly Raccah lists it as a publisher task.

And don't get me started on the task of "cultural filter." A look at the offerings in my local bookstore would suggest we are filtering the culture of vampires and zombies.

I'll repeat what I said on Monday. I think 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 they do these things, authors will flock to them, and their continued place in the publishing universe will be assured.

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