Sunday, July 11, 2010

The book: dead, dying or simply reincarnating?

Over the past decade, much has been written and postulated about the future of the book. For years publishers have been blithely ignoring the bleeding obvious and turning a blind eye to the telling and ever-increasing marketshare of digital "options", such as iTunes in the music industry. They've been whispering cagily to themselves: "This won't happen to us: books are revered, respected, the last bastions of elitist intellectual superiority". However, since Amazon and Apple first began their sortie on "traditional publishing" several years ago, things have changed, namely public perception of what the book is and what it can be. Such radical thinking is starting to force traditional publishers to rethink their rather precarious position.

Digital media threatens to transform the book into something that is no longer an object but a concept. For centuries the tangible has made books hot commodities (and no doubt the printed book will never "die" as some hyperbolic commentators have suggested). But now, it is the intangible: the potential, the melding of new media and the inclusion of features that transcend the traditional "noun" of the book to add a richness of features that act as the "adjectives" and "adverbs" of digitised content. These concepts will serve to amplify what the book truly is — a way to communicate with others and share a world (albeit fictional in many cases), and the internet will become an important extension of that author-to-reader communication. 

Yesterday I attended a fascinating seminar series produced by if:Book Australia and the Queensland Writers Centre and titled: Next Text. As always, Kate Eltham, CEO of the QWC, was a sterling representative for authors, publishers and booklovers. She was joined by Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull Press, who added several unique perspectives from the point of view of a former Indie Publisher now establishing a "new model" publishing venture (Cursor) that focuses on win-win solutions for authors and independent, enterprising publishers.

Overwhelmingly, the message that rang true to authors and publishers in attendance was that the book industry is undergoing a revolution. I don't mean the "quick get the guillotine and put the agents, editors and publishers' heads on the block" bloody uprising that I often see wild-eyed wannabe authors call for (particularly those already wounded by the rejections of established publishers). I mean a throwing open of the gates, a changing of the guard,  a broadening of possibilities for all authors, publishers and publishing professionals.

According to Nash, the days of publishers wielding the big stick and throwing authors a small carrot are over. And the author side of me barracks, "Vive la Revolution!" The publishing professional side of me, however, wonders if I will have a job five years into the future. Might be time to write the big one, methinks!

Digital media circumvents the laborious, political chain of command that has dogged the book industry for so long: author to publisher, publisher to distributor, distributor to retailer, retailer to reader (or, all too often, retailer back to publisher as "returns"). It alleviates the need for a sale or return supply model and it allows authors —those mercurial and often hermetical "primary producers" of the industry — the chance to access a greater percentage of profit from their work and to directly connect with their readers in real time, should they wish to.

The meteoric rise of social networking media, print-on-demand companies and all things "digital" has woven the chain of command into a complex web of opportunity for authors willing to exploit this sticky social gossamer. I call it the Writers Web and it allows numerous ways of attracting your "flies" (readers). Give away your content free online, but parcel up portions of your brain and make them available to the highest bidder in one-off editions? Sure, go for it. But don't expect that all traditional publishers will embrace your newfound anti-capitalist writing exercises.

The opportunities are there for entrepreneurial authors who have talent, and many will be snapped up by traditional publishers eventually and will no doubt relish that vindication. But there will still be plenty of mediocre authors who attract only a small online presence and earn enough to fund only their caffeine habit (which is still better than a poke in the eye or a form rejection letter).  Ah, but traditional publishing will be vanquished, vamoosed, I hear some authors, struck by the pangs of unrequited love for a big publisher, snigger. But I don't think so.

So what does it mean for publishers? Will the traditional guardians of the written word be buried under a flurry of ebooks? The answer, I believe is that some will. I believe the traditional bookstore will suffer more  (vengeance for demanding 50-60% of RRP or more for so long? Possibly. They too, will have to adapt or face slow extinction and it may be that they team up with PoD and develop virtual and literal bookstores where a range of options are available to booklovers).

Back to publishers. Those who are unethical, authoritarian or inflexible will struggle to attract authors (especially those authors savvy enough to know they should individually license off their multi-facted "rights" as profitably as they can).  Those who offer new methods, more appealing contracts and better royalty payments will also be able to move away from the distribution and chain-store model into web shopfronts, where they keep a greater percentage of the RRP and are also able to give authors a bigger slice of the pie. In return, authors will still get books on literal shelves, will benefit from a larger marketing budget, and will have the credibilty afforded by being "banked upon" by a traditional publisher. Authors, I believe, will unconsciously become the gatekeepers of quality and the printed word purely out of their desire for print validation.

The cost of printed books will undoubtedly rise, and boutique, rather than chain, bookstores may stock only the best, most popular titles and authors, and offer high-priced premium and limited additions as well as become "events management" sites for direct author-to-reader interaction in the flesh — super signings, if you like.

What about other publishing professionals? The availability, accessibility and affordability of ebooks and even PoD has already resulted in a significant downturn in DIY offset publishing, and authors are buying into the success of net marketing doyens, such as Doctorow. As a freelance editor and publishing professional as well an an author, I all too often feel a decidedly chill wind when I walk into a room of disgruntled wannabe authors (and it's not about the lentils). Words like "shark", "scam" and "vanity publisher" are all too often erroneously bandied around on author forums and in writers groups, making the assumption that all editors, agents and publishers aim to channel funds away from the writer. (Oh, how many times have I heard the old chestnut, "Money should flow towards the writer" and thought "if only they'd build a bridge over that fast-flowing river of potential Meyer-esque riches they'd have so much more chance of the traditional success they seek but simultaneously deride!") This attitude, and the affordability of "publishing" with Lulu or Smashwords or CreateSpace has meant authors are increasingly unwilling to shell out for professional editorial, jacket design or publicity/distribution services, which IS affecting the quality of the books hitting the (admittedly figurative) shelves of online bookstores. It is also likely to effect the role of both editor and agent in the future, and we need to think about how to change the perception of what it is we do and why we do it, and to ensure that our colleagues work ethically. 

The challenge for all publishing professionals is:

(a) how to stay relevant in an age where there is "no fence". Don't want to publish an author? Fine, they'll jump the fence (if there even is one anymore), publish themselves, and sell their book on their homepage for two dollars a pop. Offer them shitty contracts demanding all digital rights lumped into one and 10% RRP of net receipts — goodbye! Publishers need to look towards models that satisfy both parties, similar to Richard Nash's hinted-at business model for Cursor (which is fledgling but appears promising).

(b) how to reverse the damage done by traditional publishing to encourage ALL authors that services such as editing, distribution and book design are valuable, worthy and, here's the big one — ethical. Part of this is in weeding out those who do suck, or who prey on the naivety of authors (and they are out there). I think this will occur by natural selection as the industry constricts. The rest will be more effectively communicating to authors that editors and agents are advocates for the written word, not the "policemen" of it. An editor's job is not to wring the author's ego right out of the page and an agent's job is not to "screw" the publisher (or the author) but to negotiate a satisfactory outcome for both "stakeholders". Editors are lifesavers in the sea of words — think Pamela Anderson in Baywatch but substitute the little red floatation device for a red ballpoint and the red one-piece for, well, something less overtly sexy. They'll drag your gasping text out of a frothy dumper more times than you can count if you let them, and they'll do it so quietly and effortlessly no one will even know you were floundering.

(c) how to remodel the way publishing professionals attract, entice, deal with, pay and promote authors in order to keep print publishing viable and alive. This could be a variety of licensing methods or new publishing mechanisms and models that, as of yet, haven't even been conceived. One thing is certain, all of them will mean rethinking the "cut" authors make out of the publishing process and finding ways to give the authors and the readers more credit. And that, in my mind, can only be a good thing ... just don't tell my publisher. :-)


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