23 Apr 2009
Publishers are deeply conservative. The book trade is one of the older professions and its habits change at a genteel, evolutionary pace. It’s not surprising, then, that one trade journalist recently described publishers as "late adopters" of technology.
They’re going to have to get over that.
In the face of the cultural and commercial revolution wrought by the Internet and other new technologies, the response of too many in the publishing world is to stick their fingers in their ears and intone loudly, "this is not how we do it, this is not how we do it".
The problem with change is that it happens whether or not you want it. Adapt or die.
That's not to say that all changes are for the good. Far from it. I’ve argued elsewhere, for example, that new attitudes and approaches engendered by digital technology and the web are killing photojournalism without replacing it with anything worthwhile.
But there is much that is good about the web and the possibilities it presents. People used to sneer at blogging: now it is seen as essential for authors and businesses, and the best bloggers make money and provoke social and political change. Twitter is the most recent application of new technology to move from object of ridicule to social phenomenon.
So how have publishers reacted to the new opportunities and paradigms of innovative technology? Well, mostly they haven’t. Some have toyed with e-books, but mostly by reformatting backlists in a "let’s hope this goes away" fashion. They all have websites, but largely as 'brochureware' or simple shop windows.
As for self-publishing, the (perhaps inevitable) response has been to condemn it as vanity publishing and the domain of the gullible. It’s not ‘real’ publishing. After all, self-publishing never involves expensive lunches.
So the responses to new technology from the mainstream publishing world have ranged from indifference, through incomprehension to occasional panic. But at least some are trying. For instance, a major theme of the current London Book Fair is "how the hell do we make money out of e-books?" (I'm paraphrasing). Here are some other examples:
HarperCollins has its Authonomy website which harnesses the energy of social networking as a way of replacing the slush pile. Would-be authors upload their works for others to read. And those readers may leave comments and vote for books they like. Each month, the five top-ranked books are read by HarperCollins.
It’s an interesting, but flawed, model. In theory, members of Authonomy provide a filtering process so that HarperCollins need read only the best works, which should rise naturally to the top of the pile. In reality, the system is easily gamed, and it becomes a popularity contest in which the winners are those willing to put in the most effort and engage in the most schmoozing: it seems to have little to do with the quality of the work. But it was a brave attempt at actually using the power of the web.
The Litopia website is older and more established. In essence, it’s a straightforward forum. But it’s run under the aegis of literary agent Peter Cox of Redhammer Management. And for the best and most active participants there’s an opportunity to pitch your work to the agency.
Again, this is a virtual alternative to the slush pile. It’s good for the agent, but means that authors need to invest considerably more work just to get themselves in front of this one agent.
Whether you feel this is worthwhile may depend to a great extent on how valuable you find the forum itself: it is one of the better forums on the web. If your only ambition in using it is to be able to pitch to the agent, however, it’s probably not an effective use of your time and energy.
Macmillan New Writing
Macmillian has taken a very different approach. Perhaps it recognised that self-publishing is here to stay, and that it is on the same trajectory from derision to acceptance as other technology-based phenomena.
With its Macmillan New Writing (MNW) imprint, the company is attempting to embrace this phenomenon within its business model.
MNW uses the Print on Demand (POD) technology that has spawned the self-publishing market to produce the books. It doesn’t accept all comers, the way services such as Lulu or CreateSpace do: it vets and selects the titles it wants to publish. However, authors don’t receive advances. They get a 20% royalty on sales and a 50% cut of other rights deals.
That’s actually not bad. With a conventional publishing deal, an author’s contract might stipulate a royalty of 10-15%, depending on the edition and various other factors. According to stats I’ve seen, however, special deals and discounting often mean that an author actually sees average royalties of 8%.
With self-publishing, an author might receive around 40% of the cover price for sales made directly (eg, when a customer buys the book via Lulu.com). But with retail sales (eg, via Amazon), that drops to around 12-13%.
MNW does provide some support for the author, in terms of distribution and arranging reviews — far more than you would get with any self-publishing operation, even if you pay for some of the expensive options that the likes of Lulu, Wordclay et al offer.
But MNW has been criticised for not giving the books ‘proper’ distribution and marketing support. The imprint has also attracted flak for not providing proper editing of the books, the way they would with a mainstream title. (However, my experience of many mainstream books recently has been that editing standards have greatly slipped, an impression supported by this article in the Guardian.)
MNW is having some notable successes. Ann Weisgarber has been nominated for two Orange Awards. Her book The Personal History of Rachel Dupree is on the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009 longlist and the Orange Award for New Writers 2009.
Of course, there are those who turn up their noses at anything new. At least one critic has dismissed MNW as the "RyanAir of publishing". This is precisely the kind of smug pomposity that is drearily familiar among the old guard of publishing.
Macmillan is at least trying to accommodate new ideas. The rest of the industry, it seems, just wants things to remain the same — even though that is clearly proving to be a road to faliure. After all, they’ve made it into the club, it must seem very frightening to them that others don’t care about the way things used to be done. It’s time for them to take the fingers out of their ears.