“Authors and readers are all that matter. Publishers will soon be irrelevant.” It was billed as The Great Debate – but has the discussion really moved on since last year?
With the London Book Fair over for another year, the key session for me was the panel debate on the motion: Authors and readers are all that matter. Publishers will soon be irrelevant. Speaking for the motion were author Cory Doctorow and technologist James Bridle; speaking against were Profile’s Andrew Franklin and Bloomsbury’s Richard Charkin.
The panelists were all passionate about their positions and spoke compellingly and entertainingly. The role of publishers in the digital age is the Big Question and a Great Debate. But it is still a question most publishers don’t want to hear and a debate few are ready for.
The event highlighted a level of industry complacency that seems unchanged from previous years. An unwillingness to recognize that out there, in the real world, authors are self-publishing, readers are using Kindles, and publishers are struggling to add value in between.
A vote on the motion was taken before and after the debate. Here are the results:
It is perhaps not surprising that a room full of publishers didn’t want to vote for their own irrelevance. Yet, while publishing may be thriving, many publishers seem not to grasp that business as usual may mean going out of business within a few years. Here’s a summary of the arguments.
Cory Doctorow argued that monolithic corporate publishers in particular may be irrelevant. Publishers are hollowed-out organizations – all the key tasks are now done with freelancers and outsourcing. Why do we need publishers to pay other companies to do things on behalf of authors?
We are already living in a post-publishing world. We have something that has connected more writers with more readers than all previous publishers in history: Google.
Doctorow believes the next wave of publishing will be small publishers who don’t need big buildings. Publishers will exist to solve problems that authors can’t solve for themselves.
When you’re in business to solve a problem, your business is to keep that problem.
Profile Books m.d. Andrew Franklin acknowledged that nobody owes publishers a living: the only way to earn it is to do a good job. He argued that, while you can publish yourself, there’s a difference between publishing and “privashing”. Some things are more fun to do with others – and he believes that includes writing. The reason that there are so many slightly folorn authors is that “they have tried doing it themselves, and it hasn’t worked: they have a much better experience with a publisher.”
Franklin also acknowledged that it is now straightforward to publish on your own, where once self-publishing was a racket. But he also thought that the advantage of self-publishing is that you never have to print a book – because no one will buy it.
So, we’re back to the filtering, gatekeeping argument of yesteryear.
Publishers select from a mountain of dross anything worth publishing. Is that elitist? No – there are over 1,000 stands at the Book Fair. Big monolithic publishers all have many editors with their own distinct tastes. If you self-publish on the Internet, you may as well not bother – you will be silent. People will only be interested in you as an author at a dinner party if you have been published by a real publisher, such as Bloomsbury or Profile. Free is far too much to pay for the majority of self-published books – and even some published books. The only way is to persuade readers that it is worth parting with their cash. Amazon may pay a 70% royalty, compared with a publisher paying 10% – but it is the size of the cake, not the size of the slice that is important.
James Bridle, from his perspective as a publisher, writer and technophile, asserted that the failure of publishers to cooperate has damaged us as an industry. Absurd notions such as the idea that you can only borrow an ebook from a library five times – and that it may be out – show how out of touch publishers are with today’s digital realities. The ever-increasing prices of ebooks, accompanied by their increased profitability for publishers, plus an obsession with DRM despite its failure in the music industry all damage the credibility of publishers – and readers are aware of the disconnect.
The essential editorial skills of publishers keep being pushed back onto authors and agents. Publishers used to be experts in typography and production – but ebooks are full of typos and layout issues. He believes publishers have taken everything they’re good at and decided not to bother with it any more because it’s all electronic now: it is a betrayal of what they’re good at.
Five years ago, Amazon just sold books. Now it has an end-to-end digital supply chain – something no publisher considers doing. We have alienated readers and writers and given them few good reasons to come to us. Authors are starting to notice our stereotype of the “mad author at the Book Fair”. Agents will start taking rights elsewhere – it is already happening with Andrew Wylie, and Catherine Cookson.
Summing up, Bridle concluded that publishing is not a healthy industry. We need to re-think outdated business models. Instead of battling over the Google Books Settlement, for example, we need to come up with our own solutions. The book is a way of publishing, delivering and marketing that has only existed for a century or so – and this is changing.
Publishers are not yet irrelevant – but if we don’t act soon, we soon will be.
These debates so often have an unspoken assumption that “publishing” means “literary fiction”, and Bloomsbury CEO Richard Charkin brought a much-needed inclusion of educational, STM and academic publishing into the discussion. This is a group of publishers he considers more relevant than ever.
What would lawyers do without LexisNexis or Westlaw, or scientists without Elseveir, Springer or Wiley? These publishers take the material of academics, digitize it and distribute it; they have made it freely available at the point of access with the Open Access movement. Yes, Pearson is a big corporate publisher that includes Penguin and the Financial Times – but Pearson Education is more innovative and entrepreneurial than most publishers.
Charkin added that publishing is a service industry – and it’s about servicing authors rather than retailers. Publishers also need to get better at getting products out more quickly, and marketing them 24/7, not just at launch.
Q & A
Thoughts expressed by members of the audience included the observation that the music industry is ahead of publishing; that they were dispirited by the disparaging attitude to authors and aspiring authors; and that where people used to read and watch, now they want to write and create.
Trade publishers just don’t understand social networking – they’ve missed it.
Andrew Franklin countered by agreeing that, yes, people want to write – but please don’t burden us with having to read it. Social media is great – but the numbers are very small – whereas publishers have access to a huge number of people.
The Future of Publishing
It’s a shame that the debate doesn’t seem to have moved on from last year – but I don’t think it should come as a surprise that publishers don’t think they are irrelevant, or that some regard authors as a necessary evil. The difficulty for publishers is that, whether they know it or not, they are not as essential as once they were. Authors have a choice. They have options. They can self-publish.
This is why it is so surprising that, in this day and age, publishers seems to be doing less – not more – for their authors. When I was a publisher, the main thing authors complained about was the perceived lack of marketing. Publishers usually have tiny marketing budgets per book, and only a select few titles get the full publicity treatment. I think many authors are realistic about this and recognize that they are largely responsible for marketing their own book – whether they like it or not. Fortunately it is easier than ever for them to do so, using social media – and try telling an author like Neil Gaiman that the numbers are tiny. Publishers, however, need to find a way to support their authors’ social media marketing efforts – whether with technology or training.
But today I also hear many authors complaining about dropping production standards – along the lines of : “You’d better be sure there are no typos in your final draft, because the publisher won’t proofread it.” This resonates with what James Bridle says about even the specialist editorial functions of publishers declining, agents taking up the slack, and what Cory Doctorow says about a de-skilled, outsourced, hollowed-out industry.
The question is: if you can market your own book, if you can produce it yourself to a high standard, and if you can distribute it as an ebook – why, exactly, would you need a publisher? Publishers need to find some value to add in between author and reader – and this isn’t as clear as it once was.
Is the advantage to self-publishing that you never have to print a book? Possibly – though not because no one will buy it – because you can self-publish ebooks directly for the Kindle. This is a growing trend. Try telling self-published ebook author Amanda Hocking that she will be silent without a publisher. She’s 26 years old. And a millionaire.