In defense of traditional book publishing

22 Jun

Whoosh! You hear that? That’s the sound of e-reader prices plummeting. Indeed, both Barnes & Noble and Amazon significantly cut the prices of their respective devices, the Nook and the Kindle, yesterday. The moves shone a particularly bright light on something Michael Serbinis, the CEO of Kobo – the e-book effort of Canada’s Indigo/Chapters – said earlier this year: that e-readers will sell for less than $100 by the end of this year. At this rate, with Kobo and Nook both costing $150, we may get there sooner than even he expected (it’s only June!).

Now here’s what you don’t hear: the sound of everyone wanting one of these devices, and the sound of writers pounding out the content to supply them.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be an author, published or not. If you’ve got a book lying around, now is the time to get it out there as an e-book because sales are about to take a big jump. As some studies have shown, people who own e-book readers actually buy more books – and right now, there still aren’t all that many e-books available, relatively speaking. In other words, there is an ideal window of opportunity to be taken advantage of.

That window won’t be open forever, though. Over the weekend, I sat in on a panel discussion called “Fiction in the Age of E-books,” which was part of the Luminato arts festival here in Toronto. On the panel were Indigo president Joel Silver, House of Anansi Press president Sarah MacLachlan (no, not the singer), and authors Paul Theroux and Katherine Govier. One of the topics discussed was, of course, the changing world of self-publishing, which I’ve blogged about quite a few times. With Amazon, Apple et al changing the game and making it easy – and potentially lucrative – for authors to cut out the middle man (i.e. the publisher), the whole industry is having to assess how it does business.

One of the common refrains from the panel was that self-published e-books will soon lead to there being more authors than readers. I’m not sure that’s true, as I do believe the upcoming ubiquity of e-readers will result in more people reading books, but I can appreciate the point: there will soon be a flood of would-be authors filling the current void of e-books. So again, if you’ve got something ready to go, do it now when there’s relatively little competition. It’s probably going to be a lot harder to get your e-book noticed a year or two now, once the flood sets in.

I had a chance to sit down with MacLachlan and discuss this whole self-publishing trend. Anansi, if you don’t know, is one of Canada’s more successful independent publishers and boasts big names such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje on its roster. You can read a transcript of that interview over on CBC, or watch the video:

In essence, MacLachlan says that despite all the changes coming to the book industry, the appeal for authors to go with a traditional publisher versus the self-publishing route on Amazon etc., is unchanged. Traditional publishers still handle marketing, publicity, distribution, payment and all those non-artsy things that artsy writers generally loathe. Those are headaches that self-publishers inevitably have to take on. The other reason to go with a publisher, she says, is one I’ve touched on before: ego. Most authors simply like to have their work recognized by a publisher as something worthy of print.

Interestingly, this is a view that took some criticism at the Q&A. One person in the audience said the panel members, including the authors (more on them in a minute), were “gatekeepers.” MacLachlan didn’t disagree when I asked her, although she preferred the term “cultural aggregators.” I don’t think she caught the hint of contempt in the audience question, though, which infers that the old system is out of touch with the internet and therefore elitist. The new system, where anyone can publish a book that is then judged by the public as to whether it’s good or not, is far more democratic, or so the thinking goes.

From my perspective, that view is also somewhat flawed. As MacLachlan herself says, a big publisher tends to release a book without much effort, then hopes that it does well. If it does, then they’ll jump in and help promote it. It’s a kind of backward logic, like tossing a child into the deep end in an effort to teach him/her how to swim, then giving them a life preserver after they’ve figured it out.

Big publishers are also very focused on the bottom line, so if a book doesn’t perform well, they cut their losses and abandon it, she says. I’ve heard this enough to believe it to be true, which means that the typical reasons for going with a big publisher rather than self-publishing just don’t seem to be there. If a publisher is going to release your book and not promote it, what’s the advantage over publishing on Amazon?

(Anansi, being an indie publisher, is different, MacLachlan says. I obviously don’t have any experience with them, but I did like this quote: “When a book is working, then [big publishers] pick up and work on it, but I don’t believe they actually try to make it.”)

Overall, I thought her answers were similar to what I’ve heard and read elsewhere. The traditional publishing industry is perhaps a little defensive when it comes to the threat from Amazon and company, which may not be the right way to approach things. The smarter move might be to try and work with self-publishing and find a way to incorporate it into what they traditionally do. Otherwise, the publishers run the risk of being overwhelmed by democratizing technologies, the same way Napster overwhelmed the record labels or YouTube overwhelmed Hollywood. Heck, even the porn industry has been overwhelmed by YouPorn and the rest.

One possible solution is that big publishing houses set up their own self-publishing divisions, which can help prospective authors get their work out through Amazon yet also give them some sort of quasi-association with the big name company. The publisher could perhaps sign a deal with the author to actually print their book if the e-book does well. I’m sure someone is trying something like this somewhere, but I haven’t really heard about it yet.

One final note in regards to the panel – it really suffered for not having a technologist on board. For a discussion about the future of books, the author’s perspective was limited to the surprisingly Luddite views of Theroux and Govier. Theroux, whose travel books I have read and loved, showed how amazingly old-fashioned he was by telling us how he didn’t become any faster a writer when he switched from the pen to the computer, and how Google was indeed making us stupider. While it may have taken him the same amount of time to write his manuscripts by pen as they did with a computer, Theroux obviously has never considered how much time he’s saved his publisher by going electronic. As for Google, it seems he’s also never considered the internet as a research tool that has immensely opened up the world’s information.

One audience member drew some laughs by likening him to a Dark Ages monk who objected about writing moving from scrolls to books. It’s no surprise that along with the retailer and the publisher on the panel, Theroux – with his outdated and overly romanticized views of what writing is – was counted as a “gatekeeper.”

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Posted by on June 22, 2010 in amazon, apple, books, internet


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