Sep 182011
 

As one who has a vested interest in the avalanche of recent changes in the publishing industry, I am both excited and nervous each time I read a new article about how said industry is evolving.  It’s obviously an exciting time to be climbing aboard this rushing train, what with the changing environment and all the new tools that emerging authors can use to their advantage.

Let me preface this post by reiterating, I’m not one who thinks that traditional publishing houses are about to dry up and go away (at least, not all of them).  However, I do believe that the traditional model that they have used for so many decades will have to adapt to the new environment.  They will have to accept that they are no longer the gatekeepers that they have been.

Gatekeepers.

I’ve heard that term touted quite a bit over the last couple of years.  It’s usually brought up in conjunction with an argument against the new wave of self publishing.  Folks using the term usually claim that the “Big Six” are guardians of quality, keeping the hordes of bad writers from flooding the bookstores with their substandard wares.  And to a certain extent, I suppose that’s true.  But I don’t buy the idea that this has been done out of any altruistic loyalty to the literary arts.  Let’s face it, there are still plenty of books that make it through the hallowed halls of the “B6” that should have never seen the light of day.

No, the gatekeepers of the industry are maintaining control of the process in order to add to their coffers.  It’s a basic business model.  Invest X dollars into a product.  Sell the product for a profit.

Look at it like this – when a company is first getting started, if they want to succeed, they must make that product the best they can. If they don’t, no one will buy it and they won’t stay in business.  Think of it as business level Darwinism.  The better the product, the better the sales, and the more the company will grow.  At this point in their evolutionary cycle, the business is controlled by the consumer.

If the business does a better job than its competitors, it outgrows them, taking a larger piece of the consumer pie.  In the case of the B6 businesses, they have gotten such a large piece of that pie that, to a certain extent, they begin to reverse the dynamic.  No longer is the business controlled by the consumer, but rather the consumer is controlled by the business.  B6 decides what author gets into print, how their book gets packaged, how much they put into marketing, and what price the market will bear.

And why shouldn’t they?  After all, it’s their investment that brings that author to  market, right?

But that was then.  With the advent of epublishing, the whole game changes.  B6 is not the only game in town any longer.  The old model of “writer sends manuscript to agent, who sends it to a publisher, who (if they decide to take it on) sends it to an editor, who then sends it to print on behalf of the same publisher, who then sends it to the store for the reader” need no longer apply.  Now, all that is needed for publication is a home computer and an account on one or more of the various epub sites.  This changes the model to “writer sends manuscript to reader”.  It’s simple now – so simple that Aunt Bertha, who can barely spell her name, could conceivably publish her memoirs for all the world to see, if she should so desire.

This, in my opinion, is both a good thing and a bad thing.

Yes, as much as I may love dear old Aunt Bertha, I have absolutely no desire to read the story of how she once met the love of her life and let him slip through her fingers because her cat got stuck in the toilet and she was too involved with trying to save poor Fluffy to make it to her date on the night that she was convinced that Mr. Right was going to propose, and so he left in despair and joined the French Foreign Legion, never to be heard from again.  No thank you.  Especially since I know for a fact that my dear Aunt Bertha, who is convinced that her name is spelled with a “u”, despite what her birth certificate says, is even worse at grammar than she is at spelling.

Obviously, that’s the bad side of how things are changing.  The simple fact that nearly anyone can publish their own book now, would on the surface seem to reinforce the proponents of using B6 as guardians of quality.  But that’s not the whole story, because not only is Aunt Bertha able to publish her book, but so is Uncle Rufus, and Grandpa Franklin, and the kid down the street who is either a drug addict, or a physics major (we just aren’t sure which).  And three out of those four are going to print absolutely horrendous books.

But that fourth one is going to be a pretty decent author.  They will be smart enough to recognize that they will likely need a freelance editor and publisher to take care of those parts of the craft for which they don’t have the proper skill set.  And it may take three or four books before they get the hang of it–but one of them will finally put out at least one novel that will entertain hundreds, perhaps thousands of readers.  And there’s no reason they shouldn’t be given the chance to do so.  It will be their investment.

And that is why the B6 model has to change.  No longer are they the gatekeepers.  They don’t control the market any longer, and in the manner of large corporations all over, they are trying to figure out how to regain their stranglehold.  But what they should be doing is concentrating on adapting to the new business model.

And it looks like at least one of them is making headway.  Simon & Schuster has signed a deal with epub phenom John Locke to sell and distribute print versions of his novels.  The big deal about this is that they will only be distributing his print books.  John will continue with his ebook publishing firm, Telemachus Press for the epub side of the business.

For what it’s worth, I predict this will become common in the next several months.  B6 either can’t or won’t compete in the epub market.  They are still trying to push their high prices on a public that is quickly learning that they don’t have to pay ten or fifteen dollars to get a decent ebook.  And authors are learning that they don’t have to settle for eight or ten percent of the take on their books.  Kindle pays the author seventy percent on ebooks selling for $2.99 or more, and thirty-five percent for ebooks under that.

Even for print, it is now very common for some of the smaller presses to offer authors a fifty-fifty split.  In fact, Ridan Publishing offers their authors a seventy-thirty split, with the seventy going to the author.  Needless to say, they have attracted some pretty wonderful talent.

So while B6 houses may still hold power with some of the bigger name authors, they have no real power over the market beyond that.  Yes, they currently control most of who gets into the brick and mortar stores, but how many of us really do most of our book shopping in B&Ms?  Ask Borders that question, why don’t you?  I know I do at least eighty percent of my book buying online, and almost all of that is electronic books.  And what happens when the big name authors that are currently in the B6 stables come to the end of their contracts?  Will they continue to work for twenty percent (or often less), when they can go elsewhere and get thirty, or fifty, or even seventy percent?  Who will B6 publish then?  They’ve run off most of their mid-list authors.

No, the traditional B6 model is doomed.  Whether they evolve with the times is, of course, up to them.  But I suspect that the number behind the “Big” will likely change before the shakeup is all said and done.  Or if not, the names of the B6 players will change some.  Amazon is likely to become one of the larger businesses in the industry.  They have already shown themselves to be innovative in their approach to things, and ruthlessly effective in their execution. Apple also appears to be making a move, though it remains to be seen how effective they will be in the long run.  So while it remains to be seen if we end up with a “Big Three”, a “Big Ten”, or keep the “Big Six” with another group of players behind the number, I think it’s pretty certain that a huge shift is underway already, not just down at the lower levels with us small fry, but all the way at the top.

The times, they are a-changin’.

 

  4 Responses to “Gatekeepers?”

  1. I have recently had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Brackett and come to know him as a thoughtful author and blogger about these issues. Jeff is 100% right on the money in his perspective about the transition in publishing. The old supply chain with its gatekeepers is coming apart due to a change in technology and the frustrations built up over time by so many authors unable to get past systemic obstacles into the publishing process.

    The transition from legacy publishing to self-publishing is exactly like the upheaval experience by other supply chains that for so many years had remained well-defined. The participants become entrenched in their roles and jealously guard any disruption because change will most probably upset the flow of money to them in their part of the chain. That is, of course, unless they reengineer. And, that is the sad part of this story. Literary agents and traditional publishers have so much to offer and can still play significant roles in publishing. They need to learn from some not-to-distant history and work to maintain their relevance – it is no longer a function of their gatekeeper position, they are no longer entitled simply due to position in the chain.

    Some decades ago, people and freight were moved about on railroads. A change in technology occurred and along came the airplane. The railroad emperors were not amused. They stomped their feed and yelled at the skies. They employed every tactic they could from legislation to fears over safety to prevent air travel. Next time you are at the airport, look around for the Chesapeake and Ohio Airline; their efforts did not succeed. What they forgot was that they were in the people and freight moving business, not the railroad business. No organizations were better poised to launch commercial air service than the railroads and they plain and simply blew it.

    More recently, say ten to fifteen years ago, when you got off of your airline flight and walked into the gate area at the airport, you were confronted by banks of pay phones. The same situation existed at large convention center hotels. Row after row of pay phones on walls or in cubicles. Another change in technology upset this supply chain – the cell phone. Aren’t you glad that you are not holding long-term leases on airport floorspace and paying for pay phones all now unused?

    The legacy publishing world can no more push back on advances in technology than airport concessions could stop cell phones or the railroads could have prevented airplanes. They have a choice, reengineer or perish.

    I have met with many of the world’s largest and most famous literary agencies. Just about all of them are a mix of anger and fear about their future. Some are wallowing in denial. Most hide their true fears in resentment and proclamations of self-importance and entitlement . Hiding underneath all of it is a fear about cash flow.

    Wake up people! I very truly believe that there is a new and maybe even more important role for you. Learn to follow the successful in the self-published marketplace. Encourage them to enter only into agreements with self-publishing companies where they can move to a tractional model without reversion of rights. Put new authors showing actual success in front of major publishers. Edit. Design. Encourage. Shape careers. You do these things very well.

    Or, if not, we will miss you.

  2. Wow! First of all, thanks, Steve. I appreciate the kinds words. Secondly, I really like the analogies you’ve listed here. You’ve obviously thought about this longer than I have, and I’m pleased to see you reinforcing my assessment.

    This was a really detailed reply, and I will likely be contacting you shortly to see if you have an objection to my setting it up it in it’s own posting – a “guest blog post”, if you will. Listen for your phone. :-D

  3. […] much for you.  However, he also mentioned that he had written a reply to my last blog posting (Gatekeepers?), and it was awaiting my […]

  4. […] mentioned in the comment section of my “Gatekeepers?” post, as well at the bottom of my post earlier today entitled “Some interesting posts […]

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