virtualDavis

\ˈvər-chə-wəlˈdā-vəs\ Blogger, storyteller, flâneur. G.G. Davis, Jr's alter ego…
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Jane Friedman on the Future of Publishing

Christina Katz: Is the future of publishing bleak? Go ahead and tell us. We can take it.

Jane Friedman: The future of paper-book publishing is bleak. Paper books will become talismans, souvenirs, collectors’ items, or something that “paper sniffers” will insist on buying. I don’t buy into all the sentimentalism for paper books, but there will be a cabal of those types—just enough people to ensure that paper books are an enthusiast or niche product, much like vinyl.

The future of writing, reading, and literacy [however] is bright… (Christina Katz ~ The Empowered Writer)

So begins Christina Katz’s insightful interview with Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writer’s Digest and current visiting professor at The University of Cincinnati. The interview complements Friedman’s publication of The Future of Publishing: Enigma Variations, but employs a more pragmatic, dilated look the present and future of the publishing industry. To my knowledge there are very few as informed, lucid and articulate on this subject, and Katz does an excellent job of amplifying the message that Friedman so lightheartedly explores in her new ebook.

View the collected highlights from Jane Friedman’s ebook launch…  

Jane Friedman’s new book is part publishing world science fiction, part 21st century book fugue and part author-agent-publisher slapstick! Released on April Fool’s Day, it delivers the wisdom that only laughter can conjure…


On Publishing, Adventure and Julio Cortazar

Argentine writer Julio Cortázar‘s short story La autopista del sur (The Southern Highway) opens on a Sunday afternoon north of Fontainebleau, France amidst a traffic jam of anxious, overheating weekenders returning to Paris. Trying to return to Paris.

They check their watches, move a few inches each time they get the chance, tell themselves contradictory stories about what has caused the jam, and wait expectantly for an authority to clear things up.

But no authority takes charge. Nothing clears up. Paris becomes an abstraction, the metaphorical Ithaca that catalyzes Odysseus’s adventures and storytelling.

Are you with me so far? Good.

Top up your coffee; add a dollop of bourbon. You’re going to need both. And if my Cortázar Homer two-step’s already gotten you out of your comfort zone, you just might want to stop here. Seriously. As in, stop listening/reading. Go load the laundry. Turn on the tube. Tweet a friend. Talk about the weather. Because the Cortázar Homer two-step is… It’s just the warm up. The big jig – the toe tapping, deep dipping, smooth sliding number I’m about to dance (and sing) – it’s bodacious. And it’s liable to blur the steps you’re already dancing. More than a little.

Still with me? Laundry be damned!

There’s a new tune in town. And a new dance.

Remember the eBook Summit 2010? Presenters were rhyming and jiving as if their careers depended on it (I suppose they do), innovating right there in front of our eyes. Remember the vook boogy and the broadcastr shuffle? Of course, some presenters were wearing fancy new clothes but humming the old tunes and dancing the old steps. It was a mixed bag.

Publishing industry representative weren’t in sync; presenters were shimmying to at least two totally different rhythms, one oh-so-retro and the other post-post-modern.

Fast forward to the 2011 Writer’s Digest Conference. This conference was different. There was much greater alignment of wills and visions. Embracing digital books, digital distribution and digital platforms; embracing print on demand; embracing indie publishing; even embracing increasingly transmedia-oriented publishing alternatives.

I spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday riffing with many of the five hundred writers in attendance about manuscripts, queries, pitches, proposals, platforms, print books, digital books, etc. And not just writers. The event was thick with editors, publishers, agents, platform builders, app creators,… Three days of presentations by individuals at the bleeding edge of 21st century publishing, professionals reinventing storytelling in the digital age.

On Saturday afternoon, from 3:15 to 5:15, I pitched my memoir Rosslyn Redux to literary agents, many encouraging, interested and full of advice. Most asked for a proposal. Incredible! Actually, the whole experience was incredible, from the controlled chaos of the event itself to the real-time, time-lapse “pitch tuning” made possible by pitching, pitching, pitching. Picture 500+ writers navigating a too tight, too hot, too dimly lit conference room at the Sheraton. Picture 58 literary agents sitting around the perimeter of the room, surnames affixed to the wall behind them. And lines, serpentine lines of writers, waiting for a chance to sit, smile, inhale, greet, pitch, exhale, smile, listen, inhale, engage, nod, exhale, smile, thank, stand and then head off to the next line. And bells, so many bells, every three minutes another bell ringing announcing the change. Next writer. Next pitch. Three minutes. Ninety seconds to pitch, ninety seconds to listen, talk, interact, connect. Or not.

We all sang and danced. Then shuffled to the next partner. And sang and danced again. But better. Each time better. Cleaner, crisper, freer. Less book pitch, more dialogue, more collaboration. I’m talking about getting in sync. Flowing. Finding our groove. In fact, at the risk of bludgeoning this song and dance metaphor into oblivion, the whole weekend was about finding our groove. A new groove, but our own groove. Does this make sense?

Like Cortazar’s protagonist, we writers started the #wdc11 adventure hyper-focused on our destination: deliver the perfect pitch to the perfect agent. I’m generalizing. I’m referring to the majority of the attendees. Several writers didn’t intend to pitch. But most did. Most, like me, have been working long and hard on a manuscript. Most, like me, were pitching for the first time. We were learning how to pitch – hopefully how to pitch well – by pitching. And perhaps, if the predictables and the unpredictables were aligned, we’d accelerate our quests toward published authordom.

It wasn’t just during the Pitch Slam that my memory flitted from the low-ceiling, fuzzy lighting and recycled air to Cortazar’s short story. Again and again I thought about the traffic jam south of Paris. An otherwise random assortment of motorists except for a common ambition: get to Paris. But the delay stretches to hours then days with nominal progress and no authority steps in to offer answers, guidance or assistance. Even the change of seasons doesn’t significantly advance the motorists’ progress. Gradually the motorists’ ambition shifts from reaching their destination to surviving the traffic jam. News and rumors circulate. Then are debunked. Then more rumors. Strategies, amities and tensions ebb and flow. Micro communities of motorists coalesce around the rudiments of survival and sickness and birth and death. Life happens. Until, one day, traffic begins to move. Paris comes into view as columns of cars begin to advance – slowly at first, then more and more quickly – toward their destination. The micro community begins to dissolve as the motorists hurtle toward Paris. I’ll leave the final ironic twist to you. Read the story. In Spanish, if you can.

So why all this song and dance?

Here’s the skinny. As writers we’re all traveling in a similar direction. Or trying to. Sometimes we’re all targeting the same destination. We focus – or think we do – like laser beams. We don blinders to eliminate distractions. We stare straight ahead at the destination, press the pedal to the metal, and race headlong toward the goal.  Then something shifts, slows us down long enough to question, to regroup, to consider

  • whether we’re headed toward the right destination
  • whether we’re pursuing the destination in the best manner
  • whether the destination has changed since we picked it
  • whether we have changed since picking our destination
  • whether we’re missing the scenery and the people along the way

If my destination is the perfect pitch, a debut memoir, a rhyzomic platform, a storytelling career for a loyal audience, or all the above, the Writer’s Digest Conference did a bang-up job of slowing me down. In short, the Writer’s Digest Conference provided the proverbial traffic jam. So many writers ostensibly headed in the same direction, hyper-focused but blinded, caravanning along together but mostly disconnected. Until Friday afternoon. Traffic was forced to slow down for three days. We writers are an independent, solitary and stubborn lot, so it wasn’t surprising that we chomped at the bit, test driving our pitches, asking and re-asking for the secret sauce. For a while. Until we got to know the writers sitting next to us. Until Chuck Sambuchino reminded us that pitching is a conversation, that agents were here at their own expense to find promising talent. Until Jane Friedman dilated the menu of writer’s destinations. Until Dan Blank and Guy Gonzalez dilated the perception of a writer’s platform. Until Richard Nash nimbly bridged the solitary-to-social divide and reshuffled the writer/publisher relationship. Until a parade of literary agents shook my hand and welcomed me to the conversation.

The Writer’s Digest Conference was enjoyable. Singing and dancing usually are.

But the Writer’s Digest Conference was more. It was a traffic jam that introduced me to dozens of inspiring, visionary fellow journeyers on this adventure of writing and publishing. It exposed me to the community that can help me and taught me how to ask for help. It created a map and gave me the tools I’ll need to reach my destination.

Query. Wait. Fail.

“Queries received in 2010: around 10,000. New clients taken on from query (no referral): 0.” [...] Those 10,000 queries represent approximately 10,000 writers who have dreams of seeing their book in print, who’ve likely spent months on a manuscript, who are desperately seeking a chance at traditional publication… So what does that say about the query system? Does it really work anymore? Is the system slowly dying?

Of course the system isn’t dead yet. From time to time, I still hear reports of writers landing agents through cold-querying. But if the statistics of gaining an agent through querying are slim and growing narrower, what can writers do to increase their chances of getting an agent? (Is the Query System Dying?)

This sobering post from Jody Hedlund (author of The Preacher’s Bride) echoes an increasingly familiar publishing mantra, “Adjust, adjust, adjust. Connect, connect, connect.” It’s yet another reminder that the days of the solitary author penning in a garret are numbered. Correction. They may be numbered if s/he wants to secure a publishing contract, build an audience and possibly become a professional writer.

I’m not horrified to read Hedlund’s post or Rachel Gardner’s post that prompted this reflection on the demise of the conventional query system. As a newbie unaccustomed to the “old way” of querying and well accustomed to merits of the social web, I actually see this transition as a potential improvement. Or at least an improvement for me and writers like me. And I think that Hedlund’s advice makes sense:

  • Seek out new agents through reputable literary agencies.
  • Realize the query system may not be enough.
  • Shift to a new way of relating to agents.

So where does that leave me on the week of my first foray into agent pitching? I’m optimistic. The query system hasn’t failed me, and I’m confident that I’ll find the perfect agent. Perhaps not this week, or even in the next few months, but I’m learning more every day about which agents are embracing the publishing industry transition rather than lamenting the change and clinging to the old. I am learning what sort of agent relationship is best suited to my strengths and ambitions. And I am learning how important the right match will be in the years to come. Tomorrow’s query system sounds just great!

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Open Road Shifts Publishing Industry’s Epicenter

Open Road is a digital content company that publishes and markets ebooks by creating connections between authors and their audiences across multiple platforms.

Brendan Cahill, VP and Publisher of Open Road Integrated Media (ORIM), was lead presenter during eBook Summit 2010 last week in NYC. He set the tone for a forward looking agenda in the publishing industry, “pioneering an alternative publishing model”, where digital books replace print books at the epicenter.

Although Open Road (@openroadmedia) is only a year old, they’ve already made a major push in publishing ebooks and have set an ambitious target of 2,000 new books to be published in 2011! They are effectively producing more content per title than traditional print publishers (including HD video author and book trailers) and yet they’ve slashed the standard industry production time line from a year or more among traditional publishers to approximately 120 days at Open Road.

How is this possible? This shrinking book cycle (rights acquisition, manuscript editing, cataloguing, soliciting, fulfillment and marketing) critical to their rapid upscaling and early mover success depends upon a new publishing model: outsource, outstource, outsource. Virtually every stage of the traditional publishing process is outsourced except for acquiring rights and marketing which allows ample flexibility for editing, art directing, etc. Check out the first few slides of Cahill’s presentation below.

Speed to market and scalability is possible at least in part because Open Road is primarily publishing athors’ back list books. Nevertheless, Cahill assured us that the their 2,000 title goal for 2011 does include “e-riginals—original e-books—which he said were a small part of the company’s business, but were critical to its identity.” (Publishers Weekly)

In addition to a new publishing model, Cahill distinguished Open Road’s new book marketing model from the ingrained paradigm employed by traditional publishing companies. The new model integrates content communities, social networks, blogs and microblogs, videos/photos, retail and ratings.

Cahill spoke about how Open Road Media uses the Internet to connect their readers to authors. The digital publisher creates author pages with videos and photos, as well as social media accounts to help build a platform for the write online. “We follow the marketing process to empower the author to connect with readers,” he said.(eBookNewser)

Cahill explained that professionally produced high definition video is “one of the core offerings that we create…” He showed us a slick example of Midnight Guardians, by Jonathan King. The quality of the footage, editing and storytelling is superb! Cahill emphasized the short, enticing, syndicate-able and viral potential of the video content they are using to market their titles.

Affirming and reaffirming Open Road’s new media savvy was the strongest undercurrent to Cahill’s presentation, and it illumnates Open Road’s vision of the emerging publishing industry. Publishing tomorrow, Open Road believes, will focus on a quick and efficient acquisition-to-sales cycles and top notch marketing.

“Metadata is our sales force… We concentrate on marketing.” (Brendan Cahill)

This lean model shifts publishers out of the editing tradition and out of the book factory tradition. It seems considerably more sustainable in today’s marketplace, and it creates partnerships and lucrative synergies with businesses that otherwise might be direct competitors with a traditional publisher. Is this what tomorrow’s publishers will look like?

Kohlberg Ventures financed Open Road, so they must think so. And Open Road was cofounded by former HarperCollins CEO, Jane Friedman, and film producer Jeffrey Sharp, so they must think so. Established novelist Susan Minot thinks so. And so does debut novelist Mary Glickman.

What do you think? Is Open Road’s lean, quick-to-market and social media oriented marketing strategy a road map for tomorrow’s publishing companies?

Web-Hooked EBooks

According to Hugh McGuire the future of book publishing looks more like the internet than print books or even ebooks. Web-connected digital books are inevitable, and the line will vanishing between books and the Internet. Today’s savvy publishers will be tomorrow’s ebook API providers:

E-books to date have mostly been approached as digital versions of print books to be read on a variety of digital devices, with a few bells and whistles–like video… Thinking of e-books as just another way to consume a book lets the publishing business ignore the terror of a totally unknown business landscape… While you can list advantages and disadvantages of print books vs. e-books, these are all asides compared with the kind of advantages that we have come to expect of digital information properly hooked into the Internet…

Let books live properly within the Internet, along with websites, databases, blogs, Twitter, map systems, and applications… the foundation is there for the move. If you are looking at publishing with any kind of long-term business horizon, this is where you should be looking…

We are a long, long way from publishers thinking of themselves as API providers, or as the Application Programming Interface for the books they publish. But we’ve seen countless times that value grows when data is opened up (sometimes selectively) to the world. That’s really what the Internet is for and that is where book publishing is going, eventually…

The current world of e-books is a transition to a digitally connected book publishing ecosystem that won’t look anything like the book world we live in now. (Forbes.com)

I don’t need any convincing, but I found McGuire’s article straightforward and compelling. This isn’t rocket science, folks. It’s open source storytelling! And it’s one of the most exciting application of this global rhizome we call the World Wide Web. Like McGuire, I still can’t envision what the commercial underpinnings for this future of publishing looks like, I am confident that entrepreneurial minds all over the world are already scheming up efficient, reliable methods for monetizing web-enabled ebooks. Copyright issues will become increasingly complicated, but where there’s a will (and a market) there’s a way. And I’m thrilled to be able to participate!

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Publishing Chain; Vanishing Links

“Technology has made virtually anything possible,” says Neill Denny, editor-in-chief of the publishing industry magazine The Bookseller. “If you look at it conceptually – there’s a five-link chain between the person who writes and the person who reads. You’ve got Author-Agent- Publisher-Retailer-Reader. Theoretically, the three middle bits could all now vanish and the author could write online directly to the reader.”

However, he continues, “A more likely possibility is that just one of the three central links will vanish on-line. It could be that Amazon, the retailer, becomes the publisher. Or that the agent becomes the publisher, or the publisher becomes the retailer, and you go to a publisher’s site to buy the book. One of those links will certainly disappear on-line. We just don’t know which.” (The Independent)

John Walsh’s article “E-books: the end of the world as we know it” offers no new insights, but a handy summary. More intriguing though are the comments which are worth a wade through. A few flaring tempers, a few snarky jabs, and plenty of voiced growing pains as we tramp through the clumsy not-altogether-painless publishing revolution.

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Thus Spoke Seth Godin

In the still buzzing world of “Seth Godin versus print publishing” much has been said in favor and against Godin’s announcement that he will no longer publish books traditionally. I’ve been fascinated with the debate. I’m an unabashed neophyte in the world of agents, editors, publishers and book retail, and I profess to know little as a still-hopeful in the world of publishing. But I’m a fan of Godin’s ideas, energy and quasi oracular vision, and I’ve been fascinated with digital storytelling in its diverse and perennially morphing potential for a decade.

Back in the shadow of Y2K I lead a workshop in Paris for teachers called Storytelling in the Digital Age that explored the merits of (and methods for) embracing new narrative media in the classroom. That workshop evolved into a semester-long elective for high school students at the American School of Paris, exploring the roots and evolution of storytelling while developing a methodology for digital narrative craft. Remember, those were heady days when Dana Atchley was at the peak of his all too short life.

It’s stunning how much has changed since then. Staggering. And not a little scary (ie: “One Dark Side of Publishing Changes“) either… But it’s also thrilling and exhilarating! And inevitable. Though not everyone agrees on this last point. In evidence, consider this poignant request from the sage, book loving Gail Hyatt:

It’s true that things are changing drastically in the world of words and ideas. Nobody knows this better than you. You’re a big reason. The possibilities are being realized faster than we can absorb them. However, in my opinion, the end of traditional publishing has not yet come. Not at all. It has a most crucial and vital part to play in feeding our souls and our minds and challenging us to change our lives. I see this fleshed out in my own home. Mike’s chair is the perfect example. Propped in the seat is his laptop, waiting to be awakened for the day. The iPad is perched on the side table next to THE DIP and the highlighter, and the is Kindle peaking up from his briefcase on the floor waiting to be compared to the newest Kindle which will arrive sometime today. I want to encourage to rethink this “quitting.” You say one has to know when to quit and when to stick. Don’t quit that which is obviously sticking. You and your works have a place in our lives that will never be unstuck and we’re very grateful for that. I think your best work is yet to come … and that’s saying A LOT! Maybe not right now. Maybe it needs to ferment for several years. Who knows? All I hope is that, when it does come, you don’t quit and you give it to us in every form possible—especially traditional publishing. Please reconsider. (The Treasure Hunt, by Gail Hyatt)

And while Gail Hyatt is begging Seth Godin not to quit, many others are excoriating and chastising him for his decision. Fortunately, there are also some level heads approaching Godin’s announcement with a more metered, more academic interest. For instance, Mitch Joel shares the feedback from his literary agent, James Levine, regarding four critical considerations for other writers considering emulating Seth Godin:

  • Fan base. Must be fanatic, very large, and inclined to read the author’s works in digital format. This won’t work right out the gate for authors whose main following is in print.
  • Marketing savvy and support. Aside from being very smart about marketing, the author needs to have the staff in place to execute, execute, execute, daily, daily, daily. Many authors will underestimate how expensive and time consuming this is.
  • Long term money goals. The author needs to be able/willing to forego the short-term guarantee from a publisher [known as "the advance"] and bet on long term sales direct from consumers (the per unit revenue to the author is much bigger when the author acts as the publisher).
  • Platforms. It’s important to realize that this approach will make the most sense for authors who make most of their money by speaking/consulting to business audiences. In this sense, books are a form of advertising for the more lucrative services provided by these authors. (“You Are Not Seth Godin“)

Joel adds two further essentials: a top flight editor and a team of performance driven sales reps. Starting to sound like going the Seth Godin way involves launching your own publishing company? To some degree, yes! Joel goes on to remind us that Godin’s ability to make this brave decision nevertheless relies on more than these parts. Godin tirelessly invested “decades of doing tons of things… that all had him in direct connection with the people who will buy his books from him, talk about it to their peers and evangelize his always-brilliant thinking.” In short,Godin has a world class platform. Do you?

What Seth, The Wall Street Journal, the book publishing industry and the literary agents aren’t telling you is that you can – in fact – be just like Seth Godin. These Digital Marketing channels are here for you (and they’re free – if you don’t count the time you need to put into them). In text, images, audio and video you too can publish how you think to the world… instantly. You too can share with others, build relationships and get your ideas to spread. You do not have to rely solely on mass media to help spread the word. And, you’ll know in short order, if your idea has traction… and you’ll be able to track how that idea spreads and connects.

In the end, you are not Seth Godin, but you can be. (“You Are Not Seth Godin“)

In Seth Godin’s words, “The business race is on to have the relationship with the reader.” According to Mark Coker (CEO of Smashwords) “the distribution advantage of having new titles in bricks-and-mortar bookstores will have to be weighed against the potential financial advantage of retaining ownership of a new book and distributing it as an e-book or on a print-on-demand basis.” Makes sense, right?

But others argue that this misses the point. Joel J. Miller argues that Godin has misunderstood “what traditional publishing is about. We sell books to people who love them, to people who crave them, who love bookstores, who love reading…” True. And you sell books to lots of other people who don’t love them but need them, rely upon them, etc. And you may be missing an opportunity to sell books to lots of people who simply haven’t considered buying them because they don’t love them, don’t need them, don’t rely upon them, etc. Right? Wrong, says Miller.

Godin’s basic misapprehension is that people don’t like books. There are billions of dollars exchanged every year that say differently. If you’re a reader, your own habits probably say differently. Mine do.

The second misapprehension is that books are a clunky way to deliver and spread ideas… For people who love them, there are few things more elegant or efficient than books…

A third misapprehension is not Godin’s fault. It’s our own. Godin’s personal business model is perhaps set up for him to succeed with this independent adventure. Good for him. Most authors, however, are not set up to go it alone. Likewise, most publishers are not set up to translate many of Godin’s ideas into their models. As authors and publishers, we should spend more time trying to please our customers than trying to justify ourselves to, or square our practices with, Seth Godin. (“What Godin gets wrong“)

I think this last issue is probably true. At least until the new digital publishing industry matures and begins to offer plug and play solutions to many of the challenges an indie author would encounter. And true too that most traditional publishers aren’t equipped to learn/adopt much from Godin.

But the first two “misapprehensions” strike me as somewhat naive. Sure, some people like and will continue to buy books, and many of those book buyers do indeed consider print books to be elegant and efficient. I am one of those book buyers. I love books. I will always love books. But that’s not the point.

I also love wine, and I am particularly fond of the ritual of opening a good bottle of wine. Cutting the foil is like breaking the wax seal on a letter or document, bold and permanent and assertive yet beautiful and not a little poignant. Once the foil or leading is trimmed away tidily, there’s no greater satisfaction that removing the cork from an aged but well maintained bottled of wine, each twist of the corkscrew adding to the anticipation…

It’s easy to romance wine corks. It’s easy to romance books. And with luck and sufficient numbers of passionate book and wine consumers, we’ll be able to enjoy both for a long time into the future. But screw caps, with all of their oenological, environmental and economic logic are making rapid inroads, and the likelihood of screwcaps gradually eclipsing corks is increasing with every vendange. The point isn’t that some of us prefer corks, but that the industry is changing because there’s greater oenological, environmental and economic value in screwing than corking! Does that mean that corking is dead? Probably not. But it’s likely to become exceptional, less widely available, and more expensive. Miller seems to miss this inevitability.

Literature is like running. It’s not for everyone, but for people who love it stopping after four blocks fails to satisfy. There are miles to go. It’s immersive. It’s also time consuming, but real readers are like real runners; you settle into a good pace and time evaporates. People whose primary reading is Facebook and street signs might not get that. Fine. Selling books to them is a waste of time and effort. Thank God that’s not the task before publishers. (“What Godin gets wrong“)

Whether or not literature and running are similar is a dabble for another day, but it’s clear to me that Miller’s off target. The shifting of the publishing industry from print to digital isn’t about those who love books, love running or love corks in their wine bottles. And if his oversimplified notion that the digital alternative to elegantly bound tomes is blog posts and Facebook, then it’s no wonder he’s confused and concerned. We’re at the dawn of digital publishing. The user-friendly innovations that will propel digital content into the next century aren’t even dreamed up yet. NookKindleVook, etc. are mere prototypes for the next generation of content conveyances. But they are already considerably more evolved and useful as digital publishing platforms than blogs and Facebook!

Clinging to an industry which has largely grown obsolete is lamentable, but failing to recognize the inevitability of the shift and failing to recognize the enormous potential represented by the shift is indeed naive. Let’s be frank and honest; the publishing industry not only resisted change, it kept its head in the sand for far too long. This change isn’t happening overnight. It isn’t an unanticipated fluke. It’s been a gradual evolution, the slowly building wave that only recently has started to crest!

The music industry offered possibly the best case study and the most abundant lessons. If the Big Six had studied the music industry over the last decade and adapted the most successful lessons, they’d be surfing the wave now instead of paddling like mad! But the music industry is only one example. Reflect back on the transition from traditional film photography to digital photography. Remember the detractors, the naysayers, the purists, the film lovers, the darkroom junkies, the overconfident executives who scoffed at the need to reinvent cameras, developing and photography. And note too that evolution from film to digital photography is responsible for the virtual ubiquity of cameras today. Every gadget imaginable includes a camera, and the proliferation of photo sharing, archiving and publishing gadgets demonstrate that this evolution had the effect of democratizing photography. It also opened up massive markets that had been overlooked or unfathomable prior to inexpensive digital cameras.

I suspect this example is particularly relevant to the transition in the publishing industry today. Some people love books and bookstores. Agreed. But look at how many do not. Look at how many never even consider books. And recognize that like digital photography which has proliferated beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, the transition to digital publishing will similarly transform the production and spread of information. And though we’re not all Seth Godins, not by a long shot, this brave new world of digital publishing will make it possible for you, me, anyone with ambition, intelligence and hard work to develop a platform and build an audience who appreciate, justify and contribute to our literary creations.

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Who Needs Publishers? We All Do!

I’m glad that self-publishing has evolved from stigma to respectability. I love that worthy authors who might be overlooked by the major houses can now be read. It’s great that writers with a special niche, an established following or an entrepreneurial bent can make more money self-publishing than they would in royalties. But I’m also concerned about the future of books and the larger issue of assuring the flow of reliable information.

Here are just two reasons for that concern, based on my own recent experience.

  1. Advances. I just finished a nonfiction book that will be released this fall. It consumed the better part of three years… and the research entailed countless hours of reading, about three hundred interviews and some travel. My advance did not come close to covering the cost of all that information-gathering, but it helped. More importantly, the fact that a major publishing house was committed enough to write even a modest check was psychologically essential. Given my personal circumstances, I simply could not have sustained the effort to complete the project without that commitment…
  2. Quality control. After authoring and coauthoring more than twenty books, I was just reminded once again of the immense value of working with professionals. At each step of the way, from inception to restructuring to rewrites to finalizing the index, editors, copy editors and proofreaders made my book a better book… I’m a professional writer who takes great care with his work and has been at the business of books for over thirty years. And I still need editors…

My bottom line is this: when it comes to serious nonfiction especially, readers, libraries, reporters and everyone else concerned about accuracy and readability should rely only on books that have been competently edited. And long live advances: may they grow and may authors and their readers prosper. (Huffington Post)

Seems to me that advances and quality control in the traditional publishing industry are already sliding, hardly the inspiration for clinging to an increasingly inefficient publishing paradigm. But let’s remember that the evolution underway in publishing, from print to digital, doesn’t eliminate publishers, editors, advances, quality control, etc. Sure, self-publishing opens the flood gates which will inevitably reduce quality control of the publishing industry as a whole. But self-publishing is only one part of the switch from ink and paper to digital formats. And publishers will be important for a long time, they just will look and behave differently than they did yesterday. And books that sell, books that make money, will still incline publishers to advance them enough to get their next bestsellers researched, edited and written. That’s business!

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One Dark Side of Publishing Changes

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. (Anatole France)

I’m sometimes criticized as overly zealous about today’s shift in the publishing industry — away from print, paper, ink, trees, bricks and mortar production, retail, etc and toward digital, portable, shareable, multimodal storytelling alternatives — and it’s a fair criticism. But despite my enthusiasm for electronic publishing, I am also quite nostalgic/sympathetic when it comes to traditional publishing. For starts, I’m a big fan of print books. I appreciate the aesthetics of books, the psychology of books, the history of books. I love the smell of old books, the sense of color and abundance offered by shelf upon shelf of neatly stacked books. I love the visual narcotic of colorful coffee table books and the tactile joys of childrens’ books. I love scribbling notes in margins and dipping into the artifacts left by readers before me like a voyeur wandering through another’s diary. I love reading books in bed, in the bath, in the hammock, on a boat, and despite my enthusiam for the concept of electronic publishing I still haven’t made the leap to an e-reader. Audio books? I love them. eBooks? I’m still old school, aside from a few dabbles with vooks and quick gobbles via Project Gutenberg.

And then there’s the whole other concern of the people connected to the production and retail of print books… As Neil Postman points out, technological leaps forward always veil a darker, less positive side. One of those darker sides of the publishing evolution from print to electronic formats is the people whose educations, experience, livelihoods and fortunes are tied to the print publishing world. Jobs will be lost. Careers will become obsolete. People and communities will struggle.

The plant will cut down on the amount of paper it produces for the publishing sector.

“This is a strategic move,” Mr. Travers said. “We’ll still have a portion of that. That area of the market is oversupplied.”

The production of advertisements, a crucial market for Newton Falls paper, has declined as the recession has worn on. At the same time, technology including Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad — handheld devices that can display books, blogs and newspapers — is cutting into the traditional publishing market, Mr. Travers said.(Watertown Daily Times)

The ongoing impact to the music industry pales in comparison to what we can expect in the publishing industry. I get it. I lament it. I’m genuinely torn. But I also understand that time marches mercilessly, inevitably forward, and despite the ugly and painful evolution, the transition from print to electronic publishing offers a bounty of good. I’ve chosen to focus on the promise. Perhaps I need to slow down and reflect on the hurt… Thanks for the reminder, Doug Yu (aka @tourpro)!

Publishing Industry’s Frenemy #1

Do you ever flash forward to 2050 or 2100 and wonder what students will be studying in the Publishing Industry chapter of their Economics books? Will encyclopedias (or Wikipedia) parade Amazon and Jeff Bezos as Gutenberg II or the Gutenberg Killer?

Amazon is busy making the entire book business a “direct-to-consumer” model. This isn’t new; they have been doing it for 15 years. By most accounts, the company is now the largest retailer of physical books and the dominant player in the digital space. What are Amazon’s priorities?  It doesn’t hide them.  In 2007, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos described a company that is “congenitally customer-focused” whose enduring priorities are selection, low prices and fast delivery.

Compare those priorities to the ones in place at most publishing houses.  It’s easy to see where interests start to diverge.  And if you apply Porter’s framework to Amazon, you quickly see why the company has become publishing’s best-known and most significant frenemy… The recent controversy involving an agent selling exclusive e-book rights to Amazon… has focused largely on royalty rates, the role of agents and the exclusive nature of the deal. I think that debate misses the point.

The publishing supply chain has shifted. The interests of the company best positioned to benefit from those changes are not aligned with those of most publishers today. Publishers can defend, change or co-opt, but they can’t stand still.  Issue all the press releases you want, but realize this isn’t about e-book royalty rates.  It’s about Amazon. (Magellan Media Partners)

Spot on, of course, the “publishng suppy chain has shifted” and ranting, soapboxing, naysaying “old school publishers” are liable to miss the train if they don’t start running down the platform and getting on board.

Look at the last decade in the music industry. There wil always be audiophiles who insist that the “new school” music supply chain is killing the music industry. Or has already killed the music industry. They’ll insist on higher definition audio, better acoustics, etc. And they’ll pay through the nose for their tastes and recalcitrance. That’s fine. It’s good. They’ll continue for a long time to support an increasingly niche but valuable pocket of culture and business. But they’re already a tiny minority. The music train left the station, and the landscape of the music industry shifted dramatically, rapidly and irrevocably.

Unfortunately, the book publishing industry isn’t sure it wants to run and catch the “new school” train out of the station. In fact, its not sure which direction it’s going, an aggravating predicament when trying to decide which train to chase… So instead of leaping on the Amazon Express to the future or the Gutenberg Paradigm to niche-bibliophile-land, the publishing industry is planted on the platform throwing a temper tantrum. “I don’twant to go anywhere! I like it right heeeeeeeere… And I get motion sickness. And I have waaayyy too many traveling companions to fit on that dinky little train. And there’s no first class. I ONLY travel first class!”

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