Monday, November 25, 2013

Traditional Publishing

This is the second installment of a three-part series on publishing avenues. You can find the first post here.
. . . people who continually predict that traditional publishing will disappear simply do not understand how multinational companies with holdings around the world operate.
Now that self-publishing is all the rage and easier than ever (you can publish a book directly to Kindle within minutes), the Big Five publishing houses are slowly evaporating, their foundations usurped by new technology, right? Well, not exactly. While it may be intuitive to think that self-publishing and e-books have undermined traditional publishers, they are still doing great jobs selling books and finding authors to publish. While self-publishing opened a host of new doors for masses of previously unpublished writers, traditional publishing still offers quite a few reasons to be sought after.

Let’s first address the obvious: the Big Five have tons of money. That means they can bankroll the capital investments necessary to launch nationwide publicity campaigns, buying the public’s favorable opinion the same way other product manufacturing and distributing corporations do. And they’ve been in the business long enough to acquire top-level talent in every field. Big publishing houses have experienced editors working in tandem with marketing and design teams, whose coordinated efforts do much to ensure that a high-quality book will be produced and will sell—a lot.

A book being sold, no matter how much artistic value it has, is ultimately a product, and no products sell themselves off the assembly line. As we read last week, many self-publishing authors stumble at the gate by not matching marketing and distribution efforts to the amount of time and (potentially) money they put into the quality of the book itself. But, as epitomized by Banksy’s recent stunt in Central Park, brand and publicity sell art, not quality alone. Imagine how few seconds would have passed before that table sold out of prints if Banksy had sent out a single tweet about it.

Traditional publishers like the Big Five have the clout to sell out bookshelves—not because of their brand names, but because of their ability to coordinate all the capable and influential agents necessary to both produce a high-quality product and to put it in the right places at the right times.

They are also highly calibrated marketing machines, seeking out the best opportunities for more sales. This is great news for writers with established platforms. Getting signed with a large publisher could mean an advance in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for a famous enough celebrity. The numbers are on a sliding scale, however, and the range that publishers omit includes new, unknown authors. In other words, publishers are looking to retain their big names more and are spending less time hunting down potentially famous authors. With success stories like E. L. James', for instance, why should publishers bother? Leaving unknown authors to the self-publishing market to find their own successes or failures is a sort of survival of the fittest tool publishers can use to easily cherry pick the champions from the masses. Once a winner is obvious, the publisher can swoop in and offer them a modest contract they can't say no to. Thus, the publisher can refocus its energy on on shoo-ins, as demonstrated by this anonymous 2012 publisher confession:
The bestselling books are all written by celebs, by people with huge platforms, by fiction writers with a long history of bestselling books, or by people who do a proposal that’s on its surface brilliant. In short, there’s a bidding war among the publishers over the big books. We all know what the good books are–it all comes down to how much of an advance we’re willing to pay for them. The hotly fought-for books are the ones that sell. And while we might not make huge profit % on these, we make big profit $ on these. They keep the lights on by covering overhead. Better to cover our fixed costs by going all in on a few big books than trying to buy dozens of mid-list books.
Of course, I don’t mean to exclude all the other traditional publishers who aren’t in the Big Five, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands, in the United States alone (although those numbers may be shrinking drastically, likely due to a flux of self-publishing). Recent technology has not only eased the role of the self-publisher, it has also made the process of starting a publishing house easier than ever. Much to the dismay of printers everywhere, print-on-demand services (like Lightning Source, CreateSpace, and Lulu) have simultaneously minimized the amount of communication necessary between publisher and printer and eliminated the issue of the capital investment involved in printing, managing, and distributing “runs,” in which the publisher formerly needed to buy dozens of boxes of books at a time.
For now, Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores have some pretty valuable traits, like the ability to fully showroom physical books and host community events, which result in plenty of sales. As with so many other things, however, technological advances prove adequate enough to make these fungible. E-books can be perused fully or sampled online, and being able to restrict what text consumers aren’t able to preview may be hugely beneficial to trade publishers. Forums and online book clubs provide communities for book lovers (and purchasers) to crowd around, and video conferencing is a likely replacement (and perhaps enhancement) for book readings, etc. The relationships between publishers, distributors, and consumers are changing, but that’s no reason publishers can’t stay on top of things.

According to apocalyptic headlines, publishers are going out of business en masse, but their articles don’t cover two areas of potentially relevant information: (1) What qualifies the term “publisher”? and (2) What is the counterbalancing number of emerging publishers? A casual coast through Amazon titles and authors’ LinkedIn profiles reveals the obvious: self-publishing authors are releasing books under invented publisher names—the authors’ own publishing pen names, essentially, which publish that author’s books and no one else’s. Do these qualify as publishers? If they do, the number of these incoming “publishers” is a crucial factor in evaluating the ratio of outgoing publishers. And what if these self-publishing publishers advance into publishing other authors’ books? That qualifies them to the “publisher” title every bit as much as established traditional publishers, right?

The very question identifies the trouble of defining publishers in the 21st century, when new technology and new opportunities means publishing professionals of all types—and the consumers they rely on—are playing on a completely new field. I propose that a publisher should be defined by the function they provide, but beyond quantifiable resources and networks, there isn’t much of a practical definitional difference between self-publishers and traditional publishers, which implies that the dichotomy isn’t as real as we perceive: that, in fact,  there is a substantial gray area, or middle ground between the two. That middle ground is exactly what we’ll be looking into next week: where the traditional definitions are eschewed for practical application and real results.

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  1. Andrew this is so true! Traditional publishers have had a monopoly on content for so many years and none of that was by accident. They've rigged the game in their favor. So, even when small publishers or self-published authors fall on some luck it's still an uphill climb. The fact is that having the big guns behind you, opens doors. We've been lucky to secure a major distributor, which is rare for new/small publishers and this means more sales outlets are available to us. We actually have a sales force greasing the wheels to get books moving. We can shoot off 1 email and all versions of a title go on sale at the same time across all websites & stores. We can opt-in for special nominations (Daily Deals and such). That's just not something that's available to self-publishers. Not to mention the awards/contests/reviewers that won't even consider self-published work!

    1. Thanks, D. Bryant Simmons! You're right, the odds are really stacked against individuals and independents. In a field with thousands of books being published every day, there's simply no reliable way to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, which is why awards & contests typically won't consider self-published authors. Still, options are growing. The whole publishing world is shifting to find new ways for readers to find what they want. I'm so glad you've been able to get the distribution you need. Large-scale distribution often simply isn't a viable option for small publishers.