Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions


Living From Writing II: Why Publishers?

October 24, 2011 by Richard Wright in Journal, Writing

Long Tail

Following on from the previous post, things need to change for authors and publishers. The current system is in terminal decline. The centre cannot hold. What route forward is there, for anybody involved? Is this the end of publishers, and full time writers?

Could be. Really could.

The publishing industry is based on blunt traditionalism. Publishers are not innovators, because innovation has never before been a route to success. In publishing, until recently, you did it as it has always been done, as best as you were able to do. The printing press changed little for centuries, except in terms of production speeds. The publisher’s job was to anticipate what readers want to buy, and produce as much of it as they thought they would sell. They controlled demand, because they controlled the product. Information was under leash. Sure, word of mouth has always been a factor in selling books, but people can only talk about what they’ve read, and they could only read what the publishers printed. Same thing with reviewers – they could only review, gloriously other otherwise, those books which a publisher was willing to print and bind. Nothing wrong with any of that, but because it was the same for decades, the ability to innovate stagnated. Publishing houses were full of people whose skills revolved around the effective implementation of an unchanging system. While there was a limited amount of innovation, it manifested mostly through identifying new books which took the public by surprise (and even at the top end, much or publishing has depended not on finding something new, but on finding something the same as the current ‘big thing’). The infrastructure behind everything stayed the same.

Not anymore. The big publishers are shaking themselves apart in the attempt to adapt. They’re massive dinosaurs, until recently the rulers of their world, too big, skilled, and established within their environment not to flourish. However, to extend the metaphor, an enormous meteor has just smashed into that terrain, and within a very short time it’s become impossible for them to survive. They’re too dependent on the terrain that was, and only their size is giving them the little strength they have to stagger a few steps further down the road. Soon, they’ll collapse and die.

Going to abandon the metaphor (oh, it’s a tempting one though), except to say that this isn’t the end of life in publishing. That’s what evolution is for.

To go back to my previous question, why do we need publishers? As importantly, what are they going to be for in ten years time? I don’t need them to produce my book for me (it’s cheap to do on paper, through print on demand technology, and if you have just a little technical know-how or the patience to read up, it’s also cheap to make ebooks). Distribution, through online retailers is also cheap and easy. Making people buy your book is no harder as a author publishing your own title than it is as an author being published by somebody else who is expects you to find ways to drive interest in the book (ie, it’s very hard indeed, regardless which side of the fence you’re working on). Through the power of the Interweb, anybody willing to invest a little (and oh dear god, you self-published authors out there, please take heed of this) can find a professional cover designer to make their books look as good as anything put out by the big houses, and a professional editor to make sure the content is as good as it can be. And so on. An author willing to invest a little, and work a lot, doesn’t need a publisher to make a book. Alas, lots of self-published authors don’t bother with these simple safeguards. Natural selection, and the fact that readers have eyes and brains, will limit what they can hope to achieve for themselves.

So publishers have to change what they’re for. If I haven’t made you slash your own wrists yet, and if you have a close look at what is happening in publishing, you’ll even see the beginning of what this means, right now in the independent press. Three good examples are Angry Robot Books, Abaddon Books, and Snowbooks. These are publishers that know what they like, and they’re good at representing themselves, the publishers, as an identity. They talk to their readers, and the tone of that dialogue helps to identify them further. People are fans of Angry Robot Books. They’re fans of Snowbooks. They’re fans of Abaddon Books.

You think many people are fans of Penguin?

Think on it. The publishers have fans, readers who trust them. Those readers are then led to individual authors, because that publisher trusts that author enough to represent their ‘brand’. Once, ‘genre’ helped readers to find writers. Now, with every horror author who is or has published or been published competing with each on a level playing field, it’s not enough to be a ‘horror author’. The choice is still too big for a new author to ‘break out’ of the pack. However, a new Angry Robot horror author is going to excite the fans of the publisher. They’re going to be curious. They’re going to pick up that author, and see if they get as excited as they did the last few times they tried an Angry Robot author. They might tell their friends. They might grab more of that author’s books from other publishers, or even self-published stuff.

Suddenly, because the publisher is an agent (direct to the readers) of the author, acting on their behalf for mutual gain, there’s an entry point to the ‘market’.

I think that’s the future of publishing. Highly speculative, of course. Total guesswork, in many ways. But as I’ve described, readers have the bulk of the power now (because they can get everything, whenever they want). Publishers can only exist where readers have a reason to trust them, and trust is a very personal thing. Because of that, I think publishing is about to follow the leaders of the Independent press, and become smaller, more personal, and in many ways, more intimate. Oh – and the other thing about trust, is that it breeds loyalty. If a publisher and a reader have a ‘relationship’ of sorts, it’s that much harder for the reader to resort to piracy. The betrayal is a more personal thing, on a fundamental level. A reader of Penguin original novels might not think twice about pirating a book from a big, faceless publisher. An Angry Robot fan might hesitate.

As you can see, I think we’re in the dying days of big, corporate publishing. That doesn’t mean that those publishers who act now, with strong principles of identity and trust, can’t flourish in their own right (at a certain economy of scale). Those I’ve named as examples might not themselves survive as publishers (natural selection will always be at work), although I hope they do, and this isn’t a business model that can be ‘faked’, but it might just work…

The only ‘big player’ to have worked this out is Amazon, which not happy with owning a lion’s share of the tools commonly used to self-publish, has decided to be a traditional publisher as well. It’s no accident either that the giant is getting the ball rolling by publishing significantly in genres which have more dedicated fan bases. It will work, too. Amazon, for a while, will derive profits from the devices you read on, the books you’re using them to read, and the means by which you’re purchasing them. As the biggest retailer in town, they can also make sure their own books get constant exposure to the reader. It’s incredibly clever market domination, and because of the percentage of the revenue they’re taking from the reading experience, they can still offer good author advances compared to everyone else. What Amazon will never be able to command is trust, because only the blindest fool these days trusts business goliaths. The rest of publishing, if they shift now, can do that one thing that Amazon can’t. They can form a bond with the reader.

So, in my brave new world, the traditional publishing giants are about to become extinct. Retailer-publishers like Amazon (and maybe Apple and B&N have enough clout to do the same if they put their mind to it and get their act together) and their future competitors will take their place entirely. Traditional publishing will, like the dinosours, evolve into things more nimble and specialised, and if they’re happy with that shape and size, might actually flourish. It will be a quantum shift, but there are some bright, bright people taking the first steps along those lines.

As for authors themselves, how can they position themselves among all this seismic activity? Is full time writing a future possibility? Well, those giants will still exist, and for a short while they’re going to pay competitive advances. Not for long though. It remains the case that all things are available, all of the time, and Amazon for one doesn’t care. It takes a cut from the Kindle edition of my novel Cuckoo, as well as a cut from a title it puts out itself, so it wins every which way. Don’t expect those big advances to stay. It needs competition, and right now that’s not on the horizon.

The new wave of publisher/agents will be able to pay small advances, but they’ll remain insufficient to feed your family on. I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m going to have to take a risk, and work out how I see the cards falling. What can I, as an author who hasn’t already made a sufficient name for myself to write full time, actually do to enhance my chances? I need to commit to something now, so that I can put time and effort into making it work. Could be time and effort wasted, but you get nothing for nothing.

I wasn’t going to do a third part to all this, but I might as well set out my stall fully. Not all of the old rules are dead, I think. Some, that have been dormant for a while, are revived. A lot more requires an level of entrepreneurial innovation authors haven’t had to take charge of before.

Part three is the most speculative essay of all… and it’s what I’m going to try to do to give myself the best chance I can.


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  1. SteveOctober 24, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Certainly looks like all change. For most of what you say it’s the same for music and film / video. There’s a democratisation going on. 170 years ago when photography was invented they said it would be the end of art. Maybe it was. I dunno. However, as you say, it’s all part of the evolutionary process. I was listening to Mick Jagger on the radio the other week. Interesting to hear from someone who has worked through so many market and technology changes. It was interesting to hear he wasn’t bothered about the perceived risk of piracy or digital distribution. What was most interesting was that he saw today’s market as a return to normality. In the 60’s & 70’s there was very little money to be made from releasing albums. The money came from merchandising and playing live. The 80’s & 90’s he saw as boom time when a small number of musicians made serious pots of cash, and he counts himself lucky he was part of that. But now, it’s back to playing live and licensed merchandise that makes a profit. There’s no money in recording and releasing albums or singles anymore. Not for artists or the record labels. The days of big advances have gone. But people will still want to make music / write books and there will always be people who want to consume them. The trick is standing out against the background noise. To do that you either need to be shouting the loudest (which costs the most), or find something original and clever that your audience will love. And that’s being creative. And that’s what so many people completely undervalue – but that’s another rant…
    Interesting times ahead. Genuinely interesting.

  2. Richard WrightOctober 24, 2011 at 1:01 pmAuthor

    Jagger’s is not an argument I’m unfamiliar with (though I don’t know how well it translates to the movie business). However, it’s not one that I think sits well with publishing. The difference is that a musician writes a song, and then has the power to generate income from it in different ways. Recording and releasing is, as you say, increasingly a way to generate interest in gigs (again), for all but the top tier of musicians. For the ‘mid list’ of music though, those gigs do allow for an established professional living to be made from playing said music. Full of peril, yes, but a definite possible career path. Where’s the equivalent alternative income stream for the author of novels though? There really isn’t one, that I can currently see (unless you’re prolific enough to do speaking tours, after dinner events, and so on – and if you’re that big, you’re probably still getting those critical advances anyway).

    Your last point is right, but I think that while the rise of piracy in digital music (which I refuse to equate with democracy) is being mirrored with digital publishing, I don’t think the effects on the artists and the solutions available to them equate comfortably.

  3. SteveOctober 24, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    yes. I know there are fundamental differences between writing books and writing music. For one, recording and performing are part of the same rather than an alternative income stream, so on that front it would appear writers have the rummer deal. I guess the point I’m making is that things were different in the past and are going to be different again in the future and we have to be able to adapt and stay one step ahead of ‘the man’. Recently in the news was the sale of big kids animated programmes. These things are no longer commissioned by a broadcaster and the broadcast fees are so low now that the programmes themselves are made purely to generate a market for spin-off merchandise. It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that is slowly leaching to other parts of the media.
    The democratisation I’m referring to is the increasing ease to which general joe can play on par with the big guns. Youtube was a start. Bandcamp for musicians is really interesting too. There will no doubt be something similar with enough clout for writers using print on demand (there’s plenty of smaller operations already).
    The fact remains that only the top fraction of a percent of all writers/musicians/artists ever earn a living from what they do. I saw some stats recently on the state of visual artists. There are millions of us working professionally. Of that around 10,000 are represented by a gallery. Of them only around 800 are represented by a gallery in more than one continent. There’s a world ranking system for artists – I’m around the 9,000 mark!
    So what is the new business model for writers, musicians, artists, photographers? Look at those at the top of their game in any genre. How many of them got there through the standard routes?
    That’s the point.

  4. Richard WrightOctober 24, 2011 at 1:38 pmAuthor

    Sorry, yes. Democratisation for artists, rather than product access. In that case, the parallels are a lot closer. And the question is therefore similar. As you say, what’s the model? Or is there one yet?

  5. markOctober 31, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Brilliant series of blogs.

    The curatorial aspect of publishing is going to become a much bigger deal – it’s already a key buzzword and watch it come much bigger of the next couple of years. (and also watch of the second death throw of the publishers as they realise that the curatorial aspect is done much better by smaller fish than themselves)

    I think you missed one throw of the dice for the publisher. The kind of publisher project coffee table type thing becomes an app – I have the utterly excellent app of the wasteland from faber for example. Some publishers will head off down this road and we will also see a whole new branch of writing based around apps I imagine

  6. Richard WrightOctober 31, 2011 at 2:43 pmAuthor

    Yep – there will be new avenues to explore, for publishers, in some avenues. I think you’re right too, that these will become more specialised concerns. Big, trad publishing can’t narrow down enough to focus on these things well enough to make the most of them in a timely fashion, I suppose.

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