Scale and synergy do not drive publishing, people do

The death of Nick Webb had led me to ponder another untimely demise: that of trade book publishing. Ever since the Department of Justice decided that publishers trying to defend their businesses was a "conspiracy" the end of a certain type of publishing has been a tale increasingly foretold.

I've been off-grid for the past few days, but here are just a few of the blogs I've been reading that attempt to describe how the dance of death might play out.

In the short-term view, the stronger Amazon is, the better it is for the indie author. But is that true for the long-term? I can only speculate, but based on Amazon’s attempting to squeeze publishers for more money, I think it is fair to expect that eventually it will turn to squeezing indie authors.
An American Editor

And Amazon Creative Capital will help visionaries invest in promising projects and writers. Amazon will spend to achieve scale wherever scale drives economies, and everywhere else, Amazon will provide hypervisors to match talent with tasks.
Go to hellman

Even if a judge eventually rules against them, it’s heartening to see publishers—the people who actually know how to curate, edit, design, and care for books in ways Amazon just doesn’t or won’t—counterattacking for a change.
NYMag

This is no easy case for the government.  There are three parties left in the suit: Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin.  The three will have differing arguments.  In the beginning, it will behoove all three to stick together, all arguing the same points of law.  The first step is to file a motion to dismiss but I think the DOJ petition pleads enough facts to overcome a motion to dismiss.
Dear Author

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word 'publishing' means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That's not a job anymore. That's a button. There's a button that says 'publish', and when you press it, it's done.
How we will read

For a few heart-stopping years, publishers feared they would be completely bypassed. Now they get revenue from ebooks, and all the editors and agents are still here, in jackets and horn-rimmed spectacles, sipping wine beside posters of next season's literary gods, Christopher Hitchens, Will Young and J K Rowling.
The Guardian

What people like Nick Webb remind us of is that publishing, like other creative industries, cannot be replaced by people who simply push buttons. Webb, of course, is most famous for turning the radio play The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy into one of the biggest book franchises ever. But I met him when he was m.d. of Simon & Schuster, which back then was just building up its British publishing interests.

The buzz word then was "synergy": the idea was that businesses owned by diverse media groups could bring out the same content in different media with little extra cost and to great success. At that time S&S' parent Viacom was trying to milk the 'Star Trek' brand in book, TV, DVD, and film format.

I'm pretty sure that when Webb later referred to "a fair tonnage of BS" he'd been responsible for, he would, had he remembered, include his attempts to win me around to the view that "synergy" was a smart business strategy for a trade book publisher. Of course, no-one uses the word anymore, it was largely killed off by the AOL/Time Warner merger: and I suspect most of us have now learnt that while some things do translate between different media (Harry Potter, for example) most creative projects struggle to emulate the success they had in one form in another.

The reason for this is that creativity, and 'what works', cannot be done by numbers. If you really want your 'Star Trek' books to succeed in a written narrative format then you are going to have to hire a pretty smart writer, and effectively start from scratch. And even then it's a risk. But that's called publishing.

But it seems to me that synergy has been replaced by scalability. I've heard time and time again recently that Amazon is all about scale, and it is this that will kill off publishers. The first part is true. Amazon has the biggest customer base, probably the biggest list of authors, and the smartest platform. You'd imagine that since these three elements are only likely to improve and grow, there remains little room for the intermediary.

But, I am not sure publishing books is scalable, or will be greatly impacted by it: at least not on the creative side. If it was, then we'd have gone beyond the "big six" already: we'd be down to the "big two" by now. The point being that getting much bigger than they already are has not been seen to be an attractive proposition for the big groups. In fact, some of these conglomerates don't even act like big groups at all: they have a federal structure, meaning that Headline will bid against Hodder, and thus as an author you might think there are more publishers vying for your book than there really are.

The structure is really an attempt to marry publishing with big business: act small when you need to, and big when you have to. They will negotiate with the big retailers at a corporate level, but with agents at an imprint level.

If publishing really was scalable then smaller publishers such as Canongate, Profile Books, and Atlantic Books, would have been driven to the wall years ago. But no publisher, no matter how large, ruthless, or efficient, can mitigate against a Life of Pi, an Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a White Tiger. Or a Hitchhiker.

There are clearly some who think differently. That a YouTube-ion vision of a thousand writers self-selling to a million self-selecting readers is actually a good thing. I have no doubt that some indie writing is great, and whether that writing is ultimately sold to a publisher or not, can make its way in the universe untouched by an editing hand. And this is a good thing: it should keep publishers honest, and encourage innovation both in their approach to authors and how they get the books to readers. Unlike some publishers I don't think all user-generated content is crap. But I'm not convinced it can or should be the only game in town.

But then I'm not sure Amazon thinks so either, which is why it is getting into traditional publishing: a move, which as I’ve said before, could actually open up an achilles heel at the giant e-tailer. For starters there is the sheer reputational damage that will come when one of its blockbuster titles fails to sell. Imagine the phrase: It’s not just a flop, it’s an Amazon flop. Even if the first few titles don't falter, it then has to repeat this success: something even the best publishers struggle to do (for example, Canongate, Profile and Atlantic). Book publishing is a tricksy animal and one not easily tamed by the corporate whip.

This is not to deny that change within publishing businesses isn't necessary. To paraphrase Richard Charkin, publishing needs to be less about the alcorithm and more about the algorithm, a transition that was already in play thanks to BookScan but which now needs to accelerate as indie writers and Amazon combine to radically alter the way books are sold. As we heard on the latest epsiode of The Naked Book, publishers are failing to keep up and they need to. If that is about scale, then they need to scale-up those departments that deal with the mechanics of publishing, and they need to do it quickly.

The point here is not that scalability is a mirage, anymore than the idea of synergies was in the past, but neither can entirely obviate what is important within publishing: judgment. You cannot replace the Nick Webbs of this world with a computer, and it is they who help add that most inefficient and elusive of things to books – the stardust.

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Comments

AT LAST...

 

...a SENSIBLE piece about publishing. Bravo, Philip!

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