An American Editor

March 25, 2010

Books and Buggy Whips: Publishing in the New World

Levi Montgomery, today’s guest writer, is a novelist and blogger. His books are available at multiple places, including via his website. Levi drew my attention with his comment to my article On Words: Give Me a Brake. After reading his comment, I asked Levi if he would be interested in expanding on his views as a guest writer — the more viewpoints available for discussion, the better the discussion. The result is the article that follows. However, I suggest that you not only read Levi’s words below, but that you also read his original comment, which initiated the invitation.

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Books and Buggy Whips:
Publishing in the New World

by Levi Montgomery

The publishing industry is dying.

It’s been said so many times by so many people that it’s become one of those things that “everybody knows.” Whether it’s true or not, everybody knows it. Whether it’s helpful or not, everybody knows it. Well, everybody knows that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake,” too. Except she didn’t, and the publishing industry isn’t going anywhere in our lifetimes, either.

Face it, it’s a consumer-driven world. What one person wants badly enough to be willing to pay for, another person will find a way to provide, and we have so many people now sifting the Internet looking for something to read that the entire “content mill” industry has arisen to fulfill that need. As long as some of us write stuff and others of us read it, there will be a publishing industry. But I think that industry is in for some deep (and much-needed) changes.

People are fond of referring to the buggy-whip industry. It serves as a multipurpose metaphor. It was the industry that refused to adapt, and it got run over by the car industry. It was the poor, local workers, driven out by the big bad corporations. It was whatever you need it to be in order to grind whatever edge you have in mind. But I doubt that there ever was a “buggy-whip industry” at all. There was a market.

There were people who tooled around town in their buggies, who needed whips, and there were people with deep enough pockets to set up the machinery needed to meet that demand. When the car came along, no one needed whips any more (well, not very many people, anyway), and those deep-pocketed businesses simply began making other things, things the new buyers in the new age needed. Things like leather car seats and steering wheel covers.

The only reason there is an industry called the “publishing industry” at all is because owning the means of producing and distributing books was such a staggering cost. If I lived in Podunk, Anystate, and I wanted you to read my novel, wherever you are, I had to do one of two things: either buy a printing press and a signature-sewing machine and a binding machine and a truck, and drive it out to you, or find someone who had all of those things already. And because each and every one of us who wrote a book and wanted you to read it had to do make the very same choice, the people who already had all that stuff acquired a vast power, both over what you see in the bookstores, and over what the writers can put in the stores.

What does it mean when a writer is said to be “seeking publication” of a new novel? What does that really mean? Strictly speaking, it should mean nothing more than the author is seeking someone who has all the machinery in place to make a bunch of books and ship them to stores, but in today’s world, it has come to have a disturbing second meaning: The author is, to one extent or another, seen as seeking permission to place that manuscript in the hands of readers.

The ownership of the machinery has placed the publishers in the position of gatekeepers, guardians of the public good, someone to keep the riffraff at bay. The business model of today’s publishers is built on maximizing profit from each book produced, and since the traditional way of doing business is to make a huge stack of books, truck them halfway around the world, pay bookstores to put them in strategic places on the shelves, and only get paid at all for the ones that eventually sell, the need to make a profit turned into the need to create blockbusters. Who cares if it’s well written? Who cares if anyone reads it? Just make a bazillion bucks on it, and you’ll be all right.

Well, the cost of producing books in today’s world is a fraction of what it was, and getting smaller. What cost there is can easily be paid in tiny increments, as a book sells here today, and another couple sell over there tomorrow. If a publisher produced a book in 1985 that only sold four copies, it lost money. A lot of money. Today, a person somewhere loaded a file to Lulu, or to CreateSpace, that will sell four copies. That person might make money, depending on the path they took getting their book on the market, and Lulu or CreateSpace definitely will. The profits in tomorrow’s publishing will lie in the long tail of the popularity chart as much as they do in the fat middle, and the new publishers are the ones who will recognize that fact. They are the ones who will help authors find readers. They’re the ones who will help readers find authors.

Self-published books are no good, because they’re not well edited. They’re no good, because they have terrible, cookie-stomper covers. They’re no good, because they have no distribution and marketing, so you’ll never find them, anyway. Well, maybe. And maybe not. Maybe there’s a self-published book that’s a great read, but it needs to be edited, it needs a better cover, and it needs a better marketing plan. Maybe, in fact, just maybe, there are a whole bunch of them.

The old publishers are the ones who set up to meet the needs of the authors of their day, the need to have all that machinery in place in order to get a book to market. That need no longer exists. I’ve put six books on the market without ever leaving the desk where I sit now. Well, the first one was done from the kitchen table, but we’ll ignore that. The needs I had weren’t editing needs, either. What I needed (and couldn’t find) were cover design services and marketing services that got paid on the same model on which the old publishers got paid for their machines: by selling books. My early covers suffered for it, and all of my books still suffer from a lack of marketing, but I still hold out hope, because where there’s a need, where there’s a market, people will step forward to make money off that need. I would gladly pay a percentage of a book’s income to a cover designer who was willing to work the way I did, by putting the work out in the belief that it would sell.

The publishing industry is going to change. There is no doubt at all about that. The changes will be as fundamental as any change in any industry ever is, but the industry isn’t going away. The new publishers will act as service providers to authors as much as goods providers to readers. The new publishers will offer cover design services, editing services, marketing and sales plans, distribution of review copies and so forth, not on a paid-up-front scheme (read “scam”), but in the hope of making money off the sales. The new publishers will recognize that they no longer hold the power of refusal to the market, and they will act accordingly. Gone are the days when a book will come out with a cover the author hates, because the publisher knows that the author can simply go to Lulu. No more spoilers on the back cover, because the author will have veto power over the back-cover copy. If you want to publish my book, if you don’t want me to go to CreateSpace and do it myself, if you want to make money off my book, you will need to recognize that gray looks ugly with an A in the middle, that Dr and Mr and Mrs look terrible with periods, and nobody gets to override me on hyphens. It’s my book. Do it my way, because I know someone who will.

The new publishers will see writers as their customers. They will sift through the products of the various free services, and they will woo authors they think they can make money from. And when they come to the table, they’ll come with something in their hands besides a grasping greed. Better design, better editing, better back-cover copy, better marketing, better sales, better distribution; all paid for by a percentage of sales income, these will be the hallmarks of the new publishing industry.

Readers will be able to go online to authors’ websites, to the free services, to online bookstores, and take a chance on an unknown book self-published by an unknown author, and no one will say either that they do not have that right, or that authors do not have the right to self-publish, but the less adventuresome majority of readers will feel more comfortable buying from the new publishers, because they’ll be able to feel more certain of their choice. Because every book in this brave new world is either an ebook of some sort, or is printed on demand, there will be far less upfront cost to recover. Those costs, of course, will vary from book to book, and the publisher will choose what books to pick up based at least partly on how much editing, cover design, etc, needs to be done, but the profits in the long tail of tomorrow’s publishing world will be as important as the profits in the middle of the graph.

I don’t think the readers of the world are going to stand for the ankle-deep sludge that seems to be washing over our thresholds now. I think they are going to demand that someone sort through all that sewage and find the books worth reading. The buggy-whip makers who survived the automobile revolution were the ones who took their leather-working skills and put them to work making car seats, and the publishers who will survive this revolution are the ones who will take their production and marketing skills and use them to create services that bring together readers who demand merit in what they read and authors who demand it in what they create.

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I find Levi’s article thought-provoking (and it has given me several ideas for future commentary), although I disagree with his views in several aspects. I think, however, that Levi has thrown down a gauntlet that needs to be picked up. His challenge to the publishing industry is in sync with the challenges presented by ebooks and ebookers to the nascent ebook market. What do you think?

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