Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Publishing: learning to think outside the corporate box

Yesterday I talked about mainstream publishing, where the traditional industry is in disarray, and sales are dwindling for reasons of which no one seems sure, though everyone and his uncle has a theory.

Today, I'd like to take a look at a few of those theories, advance a couple of my own, and then shut one eye, squint with the other, look deep into the murk of my scrying mirror and ... well, make some educated guesses about where the future of publishing might lie, at least in the next five or ten years.

It's an indisputable fact that book sales are way down. What's astonishing is that anyone is surprised at the phenomenon. Readers like myself could have told the big publishers years ago that their sales figures were more than likely headed right down the toilet. It seemed so obvious then; it still does. Book buyers make their purchase decisions based on the same criteria as shoppers at the butcher's and bakery.

When's the last time you visited a real, physical bookstore? Did you buy anything?

For myself, I killed a half hour in a bookstore one evening when I realized I'd turned up way too early to see a movie (I'd misread the book-online ticket). The bookstore was open late, the lights and heaters were on, and...! It was either the bookstore or drink several buckets of coffee at about five dollars per thimble, and have the caffeine judders all the way through the movie. The bookstore won.

Aside from myself and three other people who all seemed to be killing time there (one spent the whole half hour standing in the middle of the store, talking on her mobile, arranging a dinner party for two days hence), the store was empty. So I could browse to my heart's content, and since I hadn't gone there with the intention of buying a book, I could be entirely analytical about the store's inventory.

I noticed that nothing had changed in the six months since my last foray into a similar store. In fact, nothing has changed in any bookstore in the last decade or more. It's what I've been calling "The Attack of the Bestsellers" since about 1990. You can walk into any bookstore, or the book section of a department store, and you will see, with few exceptions, the same books, by the same authors. Everywhere. The faces of bestselling authors are peering out of posters. Names like Daniele Steele and Maeve Binchy, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy, J.R.R. Tolkien and Arthur C. Clarke, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis, come blazing off the shelves.

If you're tall enough to reach the very top shelves, seven feet up (any pole vaulters in the store tonight?) you might find a work by a novelist who hasn't, yet, sold a zillion copies. If you didn't mind grovelling on the floor, breathing carpet cleaner fumes, in an attitude of worship (or the Quest for the Missing Contact Lens) you might find a few other obscure books by writers whose names have not, yet, been immortalized on the NYT bestsellers list.

You might find them. But the selection will be small. There will almost certainly be a range of 100 - 200 bestselling titles, and a small range of "iffy" books, those where the authors have not yet "proved" themselves by selling zillions, tucked away in corners, like offbrand cookies, where they won't challenge the big guys.

Now, contrast this with your browsing around an online store. Publishers and distributors have lately instituted a new spectator sport: Amazon-bashing. It's a bloodsport, along the lines of kick-boxing, where the basher who can kick the most teeth out of the jaw of the giant wins. But, say what you like about Amazon, they've got a range measured in cosmic numbers. AND they're cheaper, into the bargain.

So here's the quiz, from the reader's point of view.

    How many books did you barely glance at and go by, the last time you went shopping for a novel to read on your vacation, and in the end selected just one?

    Did you have the time to slog through ten physical stores, because you wanted something "different" not just another bloody best seller you've been TOLD to like, while the inventory in any one store is based around the "Attack of the Bestsellers" ...?

    Did you have a heart attack at a price in excess of $25 for a pulp fiction novel?

If the answers to the above questions are 200+; yes; and yes ... then here is an excellent chance you ran home to an on-line store to find a big enough range to give you freedom of choice, to save a half-hour bus ride and god knows how much walking, and (this is critical) to pay $10 or so for the book, which is what you can afford.

The online bookstores (of which Amazon is but one) offer the bestsellers if anyone is actually interested in them. But you can also get the "long tail" backlists of publishers who can't get bookstore distribution to save their lives; you can get reprints of fantastic books from 1973 and 2002, which the bookstore distributors wouldn't dream of touching, because they won't sell zillions now. You can get rare books; books from wonderful, fully-professional authors, whose subject matter isn't what the public wants en masse, so 10,000 copies will never be printed, and "proper" distributors will never carry them.

If you don't mind reading on a screen, you can get all the above for a fraction the cost you'll pay in a physical store. If an $8 ebook is agreeable to you, you can have it this instant, without any shipping costs or time. No trip to the mall. No hiking from store to store in the blind hope of escaping the bestsellers, the hyped novels that don't read as well as their covers look (!), and ... so forth.

Advocates of the traditional publishing system have been heard to pooh-pooh the Amazon-bashing. Their case is that Amazon is no danger to the publishing districts of New York and London, because even now it only commands a measly 15% of all book sales.

This is perfectly true, but as an argument for the healthy future of traditional publishing it's void, because is only ONE store. There are hundreds, and more appearing all the time. There's Barnes and Noble, and Borders, and Dymocks, and too many just like them to count...

Then, there's the ebook stores -- and I'm not talking about rubbishy "business in a box" stores filled with "get rich quick" and "sex positions" ebooks that were knocked out by illiterates in an afternoon ten years ago, and are currently retailing for the princely sum of a dime.

I'm talking about stores like these:

...and there are hundreds more just like them too, with more appearing every day. Never in a year of hunting through physical bookstores will you see inventory like this, nor prices that can compete.

Bookstores are not about art; they're about business. The store that sells the most books wins. Not unnaturally, that store will be the one offering the widest choice and the lowest prices.

Now, chainstores have been offering massive discounts on books for as long as they've existed, but they do this by chewing into the retail price percentages returned to publishers (who, in turn, end up shorting writers' royalties just to survive). Chainstores are driven by marketing, and major publishers pump money by the ton into hyping novels for which they've paid up to eight million dollars before a copy was printed, never mind sold. This is business: when you've paid a writer this kind of money, the book must succeed. The marketing campaign will be a monster, and the bookstores will be overrun by copies of this book.

Hence, the same hundred-odd books which are seen predominating in every bookstore you walk into; and the corresponding paucity of choice, and the high prices.

The whole situation is adding up to an inescapable bottom line: the industry started to go south, turn sour, when Big Business, multinational corporations, got hold of publishing. Small publishers were absorbed osmotically, and sometimes put to sleep ... like GMP, come to that, who gave Mel Keegan a go twenty years ago, and was bought out by Prowler, which was then absorbed by Millivres, who had no use for a paperback line, so ... GMP was history.

In the place of numerous small, medium, and pretty-large publishing houses, we wound up with a comparative handful of supergiants helmed by marketing directors. The "Attack of the Bestsellers" was on; chainstores proliferated, forcing out indie booksellers, and ... well, this is where we are today.

If you want wide choice, at a price you can afford, you buy books on the Internet.

People do. I do. Frequently. Okay, Amazon only accounts for 15% of all book sales ... but add in the thousands of smaller online stores, whose catalog pages are filled with reissues of great titles from other decades (all stone-dead, as far as national distributors are concerned), the backlists of dormant or even deceased publishers (like GMP, some of whose titles have been showing up in the bookstore on my own website), and also --

[drum roll ... cymbal clash ... spotlights converge on centerstage]

-- the work of a whole new generation of writers, presented by a whole new generation of publishers. If I were a publishing combine in New York, it wouldn't be that terrified the life out of me with its massive warehouse of physical books. It would be the unthinkably vast digital publishing Hydra which is waking up right now, just starting to flex its seven necks, and blink open its seven pairs of eyes.

Like it or not (and a lot of traditional publishers don't, because they surely don't understand it), the digital age is upon us. The time has come when literally any Tom, Dick and Mary can get an idea for a book, hammer it out, zip it into an ebook, park it up on, put up a webpage to sell it, and buy 5,000 hits on that page for $30.00.

But it's not only poor old Tom, Dick and Mary who can do this. When the best writers, editors and artists get into this game -- watch out.

If you reckon this megatrend is sounding the death knell for the publishing industry, and you need a scapegoat, it's probably Bill Gates. Microsoft ushered in the computer age; the software has become commonplace and easy to use. Anyone and his uncle can, and will, be writing and publishing. They're doing it now ... and (alas) there's a downside which is as unavoidable as it was predictable.

It has been said that 90% of everything is trash, and when it comes to DIY desktop authoring and publishing, it's more like 98%. There is trash out there which you wouldn't believe. You'd wonder how it was possible for someone to write a whole novel without punctuation ... but he did. There are books which are so poorly written, you can barely understand what the author means. Others which are fairly well written, but not even spellchecked, let alone edited. And those which are well proofed and edited, but the subject matter or denouement are simply krudd with a capital K.

The trick is, when you're shopping for books online (especially ebooks, which are very often the backyard variety of literature, and can be of any quality at all, from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous), to know what you're getting before you put your money down.

Just because a book is from a small press, new press, online press, ebook publisher, POD publisher or whatever, does not mean it's a bad book. Far from it. Exactly the same process of meticulous care and undying love for the nuance of language can be invested in the work, before it's uploaded to a server and printed on demand by a company like You, the reader, are responsible for making sure you know what you're getting before you buy.

In a physical bookstore, you'd read the slogan on the cover, like the look of the hero, turn it over and read the back cover 'blurb.' If you still like the look of it, and if the price is okay, the next thing you do is open the book and read a few pages ... to see if the writing style rubs you the wrong way, or if this author can actually string words together. (Also possibly, if the editor was speaking the same language, and wide awake when an edit was done on this item.)

So, do the same thing online. Weed out the 98% of trash, and zero in on what's great. Get into the habit of digging a little deeper, embrace the "due diligence," and don't worry about the pedigree of the book. See it this way: there was a day when an unknown called William Shakespeare put on his first play.

The digital publishing megatrend is going to explode. This much is without question. The Internet is already swimming in fiction of every description, from juvenile stories to the most far-out porn you can't even imagine. (There's even the "fanfiction," if you fancy into stories about the characters of virtually any TV show or movie that was ever made. Most of it's dross, but it's free dross.) Or, you can hunt down fiction of any length, in any genre, on paper or pixels. A Google search, and you're on your way to discovering something absolutely fresh.

The ocean of free fiction in which we're afloat is definitely going to impact on book sales at the checkout. I don't know if the New York publishers have even looked this far into the adversary they're up against. It's easy to bash Amazon, but at least they charge a price. The amount of free fiction which is available now is staggering ... and it's not all dross. There's also some darned good reading out there, if you can only find it ... and it's fun searching. You can download it to your Palm or Sony. Or print it out and bind it on a coil. Free.

The effects are going to blow back, through bookstores, to distributors, to the big, traditional publishers, who will eventually have to compete, somehow. Now, the only way you can compete with free fiction is with quality, and variety, offered at much more affordable prices than you've been charging. Convince people they're reading dross, while you offer something better at a good price ... and you have a massive inventory of this quality stuff.

Oh, boy. The sound you hear is the Marketing Department having a spontaneous meltdown. The bestseller mechanism won't carry this change. National distributors can't carry 1000 titles instead of 100. (Distributors have a long, unsavory history of refusing to even deal with small publishers who could certainly supply the inventory). The whole current system of publisher - distributor - bookseller is not designed to offer 10,000 professional titles for $6 each --

But the Internet is. People want choice; quality; and LOW prices. This is why folks go berserk at clearance sales. They fly into a feeding frenzy when they see prices they can actually afford.

In short: give 'em product they can afford, and they'll buy it. Give them something they actually want (rather than what you've decided they're going to get), and you'll have customers.

For decades, the major publishing communities in New York and London have been in the very unfortunate business of trying to "educate readers." They use any means they can think of, from posters to talkback radio, to newspaper ads, to book launches, to try to shape the tastes of the reading public ... in other words, to divert readers from what they themselves wanted, and push them in the direction of what's already been printed.

Before the Internet revolution, it probably worked. But it won't work now, because too much on the Internet is free; too much good reading is available for $5 a pop. If the customer wants "a,b,c" and has a few dollars left in the PayPal account, and a major publisher has printed 40,000 copies of a $45 hardback featuring "x,y,z," hands up who'll be surprised if the customer walks out the door, logs on, and buys what s/he actually wants?

The writing has been on the wall for a long, long time, but the publishing industry is a juggernaut that can't slow down, stop and turn around without taking decades over the maneuver. From their perspective, the challenge is to figure out what READERS want, and how to deliver, within a business model that lets them survive on a corporate level.

For writers, however, the future is vast, misty, filled with massive possibilities and opportunities. Potential is everywhere. So are pitfalls. The digital age is multi-faceted and deep as an ocean trench. Writers everywhere are starting to feel that certain shiver: it starts at the feet, goes up the spine and throttles your creativity, into overdrive -- "Hey, I can do this myself."

You can. You probably will. And if you're smart, you'll also know pitfalls galore lie ahead.

I'd intended to talk about the actual process of digital publishing today, but I've rattled on so long, once again, I'm out of time! So I'll pick up the threads tomorrow, and finish this discussion then. Right now --



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