Thursday, November 4, 2010

The emperor has no clothes

I've been thinking about writing this post for a while. It's not going to contain anything I don't say to other people in the industry but quite often I'm shy about saying 'yes, this is the way things are' because, well, who am I to say? But, emboldened by Mike Shatzkin, Richard Nash and others, I'm just going to say what I've been thinking about digital publishing - what's happening now, what I think may happen. These are theories and observations - I'm not saying I'm right. And I'm interested in your thoughts on the matter.

First, let me say that I believe that what's changing in the industry is going to be very good for authors, as a whole, and obviously better for some authors than others. It will be great for authors who understand that they need to connect to their readers, whether they do it through social media, live readings, open dialogue. This is, in a way, a return to the original forms of storytelling: in a cave, perhaps, or around a fire, with your audience right there in front of you. It's going to suit some authors very well, and others not so much. But it was ever thus.

Second, a lot of the intra-industry thinking (and I'm only talking about the Australian industry, because that's what I know best) about how to wrestle with the changing digital landscape is, I believe, wrongly framed. Publishers are still focusing on books, but we're so far past that now. Books contain stories and content. Stories and content are what we all work in, not books. Yet the production processes and supply chain are all about books. So I can understand why there's a reluctance to think differently - once we're no longer talking about books, all those processes have to change. But it's better to make the change than have the change forced upon you, which is what's happening right now.

When all we focus on is books-as-objects, a very important element of the whole process is overlooked: the author. If sales reps are selling books, they mainly need to focus on the book. If they have no book to sell - if you take away that object - they're left with stories/content created by the author. An author is quite a different sales proposition to a book. An author is a person, for one thing, and comes loaded with all the person complications - like a personality. A book is easier. A book is less messy. Sometimes it's easy to forget that the book came from an author originally. But it did. The author is not a necessary evil; the author is the reason the story exists.

We also need to realise that bookshops as we know them are disappearing and will continue to disappear, particularly if the independents can't get access to e-books (this is a separate and involved issue that I'm not qualified to properly explicate). So there will no longer be the same number of channels for books to be distributed to consumers, and publishers will be forced to become business-to-consumer operations, not business-to-business operations. That also requires a big adjustment in their thinking. So that makes two fundamental changes for publishers.

The other fundamental change is the adjustment to producing content for screens. Screens have been around for a while - the first e-books were read on computers - but until recently no one's really had to think about how you make a novel look pretty - or even functional - on a screen. We don't do screens, see - we do books. The music industry didn't have to make such a radical adjustment - an iPod is an outgrowth of a Walkman, and buying single songs on iTunes is not a radically different concept to buying a 45" single. The movie and TV industry have always been in the business of screens, and that won't change. But those of us who are in the 'book business' don't know about screens. Well, now we have to.

There are several people in the local industry who have already thought about these things, and there are some who have wanted to think about them but have been hamstrung by having to wait for the trickle-down from the head offices overseas. But there's really no time left, now. This is cultural change of an extraordinary kind, and it has to happen or there's going to be a mess. Correction: there already is a mess. Booksellers are increasingly concerned about what's going on and wondering how they can simply maintain their businesses, let alone thrive. For some publishing companies the change will come too late. So I do think times will be gloomy for some.

But not for authors. I do not think many authors need to make the same changes in their thinking because I've found that many of them are highly adaptable. The driver for many of them is getting their stories out into the great beyond, and if that takes the form of a no-advance, profit-sharing, digital-only publisher who can provide editorial and marketing/publicity support, they'll seriously consider it. I've actually been surprised by how many authors I've spoken to who have not really batted even one eyelash at the prospect of one day not having a book with their name on it printed. The story is everything, you see - the story is what they want to see released into the wild. And, really, that's the position we all need to come to if this publishing thing is going to survive.


Brendan said...

It is always interesting to hear your perspective on the future of publishing. I find your candour and perspective refreshing, it so different from what I hear elsewhere. Of course that may mean it is wrong but I doubt it, as it jibes so well with what I see around me, addressing issues I find others are loathe to contemplate.

Susan Wells Bennett said...

As an American author, I have already seen the effect digital publishing is having on traditional publishers. I'm one of those writers you talked about: my publisher, Inknbeans Press, is small and digitally focused. Though POD books are offered, they are not the main thrust. Having them as my publisher means more exposure and publicity than I can get on my own, and for that I'm more than willing to forgo an advance.