In January this year, as part of my series of articles on The Future of Publishing 2020, I finished with A Program for Publishers and Self-Publishers – Part 1. I looked at the role of self-publishing, its development and shift (or acceptance if you will) into the world of mainstream publishing, specifically through new imprints launched by traditional publishers like Penguin and Simon & Schuster. In recent months we have also heard a great deal of discussion over new digital imprints from Random House, resulting in something of a public backlash from authors and, notably, John Scalzi, president of The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). This tetchy exchange between Scalzi and Random House quickly led to the big five publisher revising some of its contractual terms when the SFWA delisted one of the publisher’s digital imprints because it was not considered a legitimate publishing credit for authors.
What this tells us is that big publishers are still finding it difficult to skate the tenuous line between offering traditional (whatever that really means now) advance and royalty paying contracts, and the new pathway to running digital publishing imprints and exploring the bottom of the envelope (read barrel if you are cynically inclined) when it comes to paid services, whether for B2B content service programs or outright self-publishing imprints. What is clear right now is that the largest publishers might possess many of the ideas and mechanisms to survive the next ten years, but it is going to take a lot of consolidation, pain and experimentation. Experiments, like the program Random House adopted with their four digital imprints, brings with it trial and error. For big publishers, experimentation in new business models, when combined with a dose of innovation, should steer them deep into a high-investment and high-risk ocean of uncertainty.
However, I can’t help feeling that the process of experimentation by big publishers is less about adaption and innovation, and more about survival and risk-aversion. Risk is something big publishers have nervously scrubbed from the whiteboard many times over during the past two decades. In fact, almost every decision big publishers have made over the past two decades have been underpinned by a strategy of risk-aversion—from outsourcing process solutions (to agent gatekeepers, external distribution partners and IT consultants), a reluctance to adopt e-books early on, an insistence on maintaining high retail pricing; through to becoming entirely subservient to the retail book sector. If you push a problem or challenge out the door of your business, you might save short-term investment capital, but you cease to have full responsibility and control on the overall solution. In principal, I think this is why so many big and medium-sized publishers were happy to launch self-publishing imprints in partnership with Author Solutions Inc. over the past five years and pick up the additional, new revenue stream, rather than attempt to develop something more challenging and innovative in-house.
But first, before we march forward, let me recap on the main points of Part 1 of this article posted on The Independent Publishing Magazine in January.
I don’t believe self-publishing has come of age, to coin a well-used phrase, but rather we have a growing group of savvy authors, within the community, publishing books in a very professional manner and with a level of success rivalling many mid to top-listed mainstream authors from the publishing industry. I’ve also argued about the dangers of the self-publishing community dividing itself into two distinct groups; the savvy, entrepreneurial authors using a combination of direct DIY self-publishing platforms and professional freelancers, and the other larger group using one-stop-shop companies (including author mills and vanity presses). I’ve also highlighted the dangers of the self-publishing community allowing a highly vocal and prolific band of experts and marketers promote this divide between DIY self-publishing and one-stop-shop companies. We are also seeing the emergence of what the media like to call the Hybrid Author—an author straddling both the traditional and self-publishing models—often using print contract deals with mainstream publishers and working directly with retail publishing platforms like Amazon KDP for e-books. The in-vogue description of Hybrid Author might be presented as something new, but wasn’t Paolo Coelho and Ian McEwan doing something like this a few years ago, long before J.K. Rowling devised Pottermore or Michael J. Sullivan hit the publishing headlines recently.
The ease of self-publishing has created a vastly democratised landscape with new digital platforms and distributors springing up monthly, and a future where agents, publishers and booksellers will have to drastically re-examine their models of business and roles in the book industry, and like it or not, that means not loading all the risk on the author and leaving the lion’s share of profit with the publisher. But publishers are slowly starting to embrace the value of social media and direct selling as well as developing strategies to integrate the self-publishing phenomena. Expect many false dawns before we see something really advantageous for authors.
Agents are also looking beyond their roles as just author representatives and servants to publishers, and if it means launching in-house e-imprints or supporting an author going down the self-publishing path, then they have shown that is exactly what they will do to survive and hold a relevant future in publishing. My Irish compatriot, David Gaughran, just this week, wrote a stinging piece on Argo Navis—a self-publishing/distribution option for exclusively agented-authors. Argo Navis is owned and operated by the Perseus Book Group and Gaughran lists 24 literary agencies signed up to its self-publishing program on his excellent Let’s Get Digital blog. In his piece entitled Lazy Literary Agents In Self-Publishing Money Grab via Argo Navis, Gaughran, reflecting on his disappointment that David Mamet chose Argo Navis as his route to self-publishing, nails his convictions to the mast right at the door of some big and reputable agencies.
“Argo Navis has been very clever with how they market their service. It’s pitched as agent-curated self-publishing – hey, it’s a step up from assisted self-publishing. Argo Navis don’t (and won’t) deal with authors directly, and will only accept titles for distribution submitted by literary agents.
“This in turn allows agents to tap into what I call The Myth of the Segregated Marketplace – where authors believe that the visibility challenges resulting from the open nature of digital distribution are exclusively faced by self-published authors. Of course, those challenges are faced by all authors – however they publish. And given the abysmal rankings of books published via Argo Navis, it’s not a challenge that they are handling well.
“But what’s in it for the agent? For starters, royalty checks come to their offices first (after Argo Navis have taken their considerable bite). This allows the agent to deduct their 15% before the author sees any money. Of course, it allows unscrupulous agents to take a little more – something enabled by Argo Navis only providing sales reports to agents rather than directly to authors – but I digress.
“Many authors have mixed feelings about agents moving into publishing – and for good reason. But at least (some of) those agent/publishers are providing nominal value for their 15% cut – arranging cover design, editing, formatting, and handling the distribution in-house by uploading to the various retailers.
“However, the agencies using Argo Navis are taking the lazy approach to locking down their cut. They aren’t uploading. They aren’t optimizing metadata. They aren’t arranging for cover design. And they certainly aren’t paying for it.
“Instead they are simply passing the manuscripts from the author to the distributor, billing the author for any services they need and taking their 15% cut. And what have they done for that cut? Put them in the hands of a crappy distributor who is taking 30% of their royalties (on top of the 30% the retailers take and separate from the 15% agents are getting).”
It does make me wonder how much agents and publishers really know about their own industry—the one they toil away day-in, day-out in? There are countless blogs and forums where the doyens and leading lights of the publishing industry are quick to berate authors for not knowing enough about how publishing really works—should work—and yet we’ve witnessed agents and publishers alike happily clamber into affiliation programs, partnerships and arrangements with solutions services offering anything but fair and transparent deals for their authors. It makes you wonder if agents and publishers know, bother or even care about the reputation and quality of a company they choose to do business with. Are they so institutionalised by the traditional industry they work in that they can’t exercise common business sense (for all parties) and a degree of savvy? While I do question the motivations of many big publishers to launch self-publishing imprints in partnership with Author Solutions, I still maintain Pearson’s acquisition of Author Solutions was a good move for them, though, I appreciate my opinion may be an isolated one. I think we have already seen the benefit of it with Penguin’s developed offering and revamp of their in-house self-publishing imprint, Book Country.
And if you think agents have gone all soft and are a little less sharp-toothed and snarky, don’t click this link. Barry Eisler recounts his experience and the reaction of some agents and editors after he delivered a keynote speech at the recent Pike’s Peak Writers Convention where he discussed the choices for writers in today’s publishing world. I don’t agree with some of Eisler’s views on modern publishing and self-publishing, but he is often eloquent, knowledgeable and thought-provoking. It would appear some reacting to Eisler’s keynote address at the conference not only didn’t agree with many of his views, but also consider him a publishing industry pariah and fair game to hurl insults and scorn at with the best of The New York Girls’ Snarky Club. Some of his detractors and agent-provocateurs are the very same doyens and mouthpieces I spoke about above and they hold very prominent roles in literary agencies listed on Argo Navis’ client list. Enough said.
Booksellers, too, are learning that they will have to offer much, much more than shelves of books under a roof and a recommendation or two because the future of bookselling lies as much in the experience of book discovery as it does in the sale of book products. Perhaps the biggest challenge ahead is the continued existence of large, dedicated, book retail chains in our streets as publishers begin to get to grips with more direct selling and online distribution channels. The real future for dedicated book retailers (physical) might lie in some form of collaborative effort with libraries and universities where the experience and curation of literature and book content returns back to its true home and out of the hands directly of the publishing industry. Indeed, I wonder if the publishing capitals of the future won’t be Mayfair and Manhattan, but return to places Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Syracuse and Chicago, and maybe some new, invigorated publishing capitals like Barcelona, Rome and Hong Kong. Equally, locale, territory and language may no longer hold relevance in the future of publishing.
What is clear is that no element of the book industry can operate in isolation and we are going to see far more examples where there is little space for complex processes or needless middlemen between author and reader if it is not adding real value to a book. In other words, the romantic idea of the author making a living from writing alone in the seclusion of a den might very quickly become pretty old fashioned, whether the author is a bestselling kingpin or a suffering bohemian artist. Sara Sheridan, big swot and historical novelist, does a great job of exploding some of the cultural myths of writers’ earning in this piece for The Huffington Post, and though its focus is the UK market, I still think it has enormous global relevance.
And for proof that what we once thought of as publishing, and how it (the collective industry of writing, publishing and bookselling) should work is changing, consider this:
J.K. Rowling is an author…
…but she self-publishes and sells her own e-books now.
Andrew Wylie is a literary agent…
…but he also runs an e-book imprint for his authors.
Faber is a very large independent publisher…
…but it also runs workshops and a very successful writing academy.
…but it also now operates many publishing imprints as well as the Kindle KDP platform.
I want to look at what is needed from both traditional publishers and the self-publishing service industry, rather than simply focus on the deficiencies of either model of business. We hear far too much about what is bad in both models and rarely focus on solutions and the path forward.
Firstly, as Smashwords founder Mark Coker rightly pointed out recently, the growth and development of self-publishing, like the growth in e-books, is an opportunity to address and put right what is deficient in both tradition and self-publishing, rather than see one as a revenue stream of the other. Right now, some traditional publishers see self-publishing solely as an avenue and way of survival or, at least, to prolong the survival of the traditional model. We have witnessed the same mistake with e-books from many publishers—that it is simply a method to revive dormant backlists and out-of-print books, and that developing a self-publishing imprint is simply a method to monetize the slush pile without simply ignoring it altogether.
So haw can self-publishing as a valid path for an author be best represented within the publishing industry?
Of course, the obvious answer is that we need more well-written books which are professionally edited and designed from self-published authors. And we need traditional publishers to support and make available their experience and resources to self-published authors through full-service publishing platforms with fair terms. Instead, what we see developing in the world of book publishing is a mish-mash of insufficient solutions, poorly conceived, or responsibilities to a new challenge farmed out to third-parties to provide an adequate solution.
We now have outright vanity presses, author mills, fast and easy online publishing platforms, expensive paid-publishing imprints launched by traditional publishers, but actually run by service providers with poor reputation or inadequate resources, and a host of new digital imprints offering nothing more than second class watered-down contracts. Outside of this motley crew, there remains a much smaller group of reputable full service publishing providers, but it is becoming increasingly harder for authors to locate quality services amid the competition in the industry, and the plight of authors is not helped by so much misinformation and marketing noise coming from the self-publishing community itself.
It is easy to beat up on big publishers, just as it is easy to beat up on self-publishing providers. I am not going to rehash all the reasons why it is easy for analysts and seasoned observers from all camps to rattle off articles about the demise of big publishers or the illegitimacy of self-published books or why some in the book trade consider most self-publishing service providers as nothing more than vanity operations or outright scams. Some traditional publishers are doing a better job of extracting themselves from old habits and the legacy of book publishing than others. Digitization in the industry, the rise of self-publishing, increasing competition in the retail sector from new online platforms and the continued blurring of the lines of what publishing actually is makes the future of publishing a very uncertain landscape. Right now, we need to focus on how self-publishing can best find its place in the greater publishing industry and how both camps can best use the attributes the other has to offer. Large businesses, particularly those run by media conglomerates, always find it difficult to adapt to change and turn the ship into the wind, just as the nature of self-publishing will always see a majority of material pushed out prematurely to potential readers before the ink has barely dried on the author’s page.
But before we fall into the trap of beating up on big traditional publishers and the self-publishing community alike (and I’m equally guilty of that), be aware those big ships are beginning to turn and face the heavy winds ahead, and as every month passes, we are seeing more and more examples of savvy self-published authors emerging into the commercial world of publishing. With change comes reinvention and experimentation. For publishers to develop the right strategy and model of business to deal with the future of publishing, sometimes it means getting it wrong several times over. Guess what. That’s okay; no one expects a circus performer in training for the first time to walk a tightrope without falling a few times. Nothing could be truer when we examine new digital imprints of big publishers and the recent moves by several of the big five publishers to develop self-publishing imprints. No one should expect these early models to be perfect, straight out of the box, because the book industry is currently on a very steep learning curve and any new endeavour is going to test all the components and beliefs we have in what we have come to understand as publishing.
What I do know is that none of us know it all—not the publisher, the agent, the writer, the publishing service provider, not the retailer. We just know our pieces of the business expertly well, but in the future of publishing, that’s not going to be good enough to survive and prosper. We can sit at conferences and deride other opinions and views on where the future of publishing lies, but isolated with our fingers in our ears, we are nothing, and we should never assume we are the sum of all parts. However, collectively, with everything laid out on the table, there is a place for all of us.
In the third part of The Future of Publishing 2020: A Program for Publishers and Self-Publishers, we will take a brief look at the history of publishing and directly examine how publishers and self-publishers can together develop a sustainable model of business for the future.