New Think for Old Publishers at South by Southwest

If you haven’t been following this story, there’s been a minor dust up at South by Southwest in a panel about publishing.  The basic gist: publishers are holding onto the past model of publishing, while there are new ways to determine if a writer will find a readership.  William Aicher, a self-published writer, has one of the best posts and discussions on the topic.

The  ultimate “New Think” for the publishing industry that I’ve been pushing both in book publishing, as well as in the music publishing industry is to change the mindset that publishers are in charge and the customers should trust them.  Instead, publishers need to stop trying to be tastemakers and instead realize that they are ultimately administrators of extraordinarily valuable copyright-protected content that they can build a brand around. Find content or creators that already have a following (and sometimes take risks on ones that have a potential to be big), cultivate those creators and their content with your professional editing staff and then get the content out to people.

But in no instance, think it is your job to decide what is and is not worthy of publication. Yes, you should decide what is worthy of having your logo slapped on it, as you are building a brand – but the concept that it is your job to be the ultimate curator and gatekeeper, as well as to create one single item that people should buy is not going to work anymore.

Here’s the video that started the discussion:

One might assume that I’d agree with this immediately, being a devout supporter of self-publishing as being a legitimate avenue for writers to take.  But his description here doesn’t seem entirely different from how publishing works now.  Yes, publishers far too often rely on vague notions of marketability to decide what to publish.  That is awful and horrible and publishers deserve to fall apart.  But publishers are recognizing small and self-publishers who have made a name for themselves.  In other words, if you’re able to – somehow – sell 10,000 books using only Myspace and Twitter any traditional publisher is going to take notice.

So, yes, the web can be a great barometer if a book has appeal and by all accounts the publishing industry is increasingly aware that if someone sells a lot of books independently, they’ll be given a shot. The trouble is that when you get out into the web, the tastemaking isn’t much better than it is in publishing marketing departments. If you look at sites like Authonomy, the quality of work voted best by online consensus isn’t any better than the work voted up by publishing marketers.  When you’re talking about consensus opinion, you’re more than likely to get a lowest common denominator.  If publishers start looking at web marketability alone, they’ll still be driven by marketing, not the quality of the work.

What needs to happen is that publishers should not judge a book based on its selling 5000 copies entirely online – it’s if the book sells 300 and those 300 are very excited about the book.  Given the great difficulty a self-publisher has in finding readers, publishers need to look at smaller pools of fans – or else just risk continuing the same old model of relying on marketable books that aren’t very good.

The problem is not that publishers don’t recognize that grass roots marketing has value, it’s that they’re a terrible filter. As agent Nathan Bransford said in an interview, “It’s definitely frustrating working in a business that increasingly will spend $5 million on the latest celebrity book but can’t find $20,000 to take a chance on a quirky debut novel.”  Really, you  do this enough – publish books that sell well, but aren’t worth buying – and people will stop buying books.

But the notion of publishers being tastemakers is not a negative development – if they have good taste.  For example, SST records and Matador Records are both tastemakers – labels you count on to release good stuff. The same goes for publishing, whether it’s a corporate monolith, or a place like Bleak House. If the publisher is going to put up money for design and distribution, they have every right to act as a filter – it’s just their filter shouldn’t run on marketing.

The fear is that publishers will look to the web as a test market – which has both good and bad implications.  It’s good because unknown writers can find an audience.  Bad because sales are not necessarily the only barometer of a book’s worth, given the difficulty of reaching readers, especially for something that’s not mainstream accessible. And given the publishing industry’s increasing emphasis on marketing, online tastemaking may just amount to books with big sales numbers – in effect no different than how things are run today.

  • One of the problems with self-publishing is that it is a very inefficient way of going to market. True, with time and care, you can design or have designed your own book, do your own publicity, arrange distribution, and even surmount the barrier against getting your work reviewed, but it all takes a lot of time that ideally, you would use to create new content. On the other hand, if you are stuck trying to get your material past gatekeepers, then you might as well go this way. You really have nothing to lose and a great deal to gain.

    The current model of conventional publishing is simple. Create best sellers by brute force. Print lots of copies, ship them the big chains and have the independents follow more out of fear than anything else with their orders, promote the title everywhere at great expense (sucking the air out of the room for other authors in the process), and take half of the hundreds of thousands of copies back to be pulped or remaindered. Not exactly a “green” model, is it? Not when you consider the materials wasted and the shipping costs incurred, which translates directly to oil used to ship books back and forth.

    Self publishers can’t go that way. We have to produce a better product , in all ways, and keep it in the market longer. I recently talked to a manager at a chain store who blithely told me that my book had been on the market longer than six months and would not be considered for a signing for that reason alone. She assured me that this is a policy of that chain. I’m still trying to find out if that is true. (Norrmally I would not care, but many places these chain stores are the only game in town.)

    Their cycle is six months and ours is four or five years. Little wonder that Amazon.com, which carries everything, is eating their lunch! Don’t blame Amazon because they emphasize customer service, blame a corporate culture that has tunnel vision and only sees New York publishing as a legitimate source of product.