Harder, better, faster, stronger

In recent weeks news events, conferences and press articles have repeatedly pointed out that the traditional model of trade publishing is becoming more and more fractured.

In a recent article in the Guardian, ‘Publish and be branded’, Jennifer Rankin quoted significant publishing industry figures on the subject of how publisher investment in today’s high profile authors is taking money away from tomorrow’s high profile authors. The rich are getting richer, so to speak, and the ‘laboratory’ of the mid-list author is vanishing.

Recent Bookscan analysis shows that retail sales are actually travelling in the opposite direction, suggesting that publishers’ bets may not be paying off. Meanwhile Porter Anderson’s latest ‘Writing on the ether’ column discusses the bifurcation of the industry – the extent to which self-publishing and ‘traditional’ publishing are increasingly at odds and in conflict. He quotes agent Jason Ashlock, saying that we ‘choose not to tackle the world outside establishment publishing, which is exploding in ways the establishment cannot fully name or measure, and fragmenting in ways that resist any kind of mapping with the tools we’ve been using’.

In Philip Jones’ recent editorial ‘Keep it interesting’, he concludes by saying, ‘This is a market that resists simple analysis, and some might wish that times were less interesting, but an interesting marketplace means a diverse and unpredictable one, and that is good for books.’

Despite all this, in so many ways most publishers continue to push everything through the traditional publishing and sales process, innovating only on the outer edges. From my conversations with publishers it seems that for many editorial and sales teams nothing has changed. Marketing and digital is where it’s all happening.

Until recently we had good reason to push all our ‘product’ down the same shaped pipeline, because that was all we had as a route to our readers. This pipeline sees us selling-in and promoting a year ahead of publication as part of a ‘season’ of books; requiring initial buy-in from retailers to justify a profitable print run, lots of copies of which will come back later; conspiring with a system in which fibs about first print runs (in order to show our level of support for a book) are accepted practice. All of this is in order to justify unrealistic advance payments that we write off some time later. This pipeline is a cracked, crumbling edifice that reinforces our siloed existence and stifles innovation, and yet we are locked in by the need to maintain legacy revenue.

The current trade publishing sales process means that money and time are invested in 15 to 18 months’ worth of books at any given point. If we could reduce the length of the pipeline for most of the books we publish we would be able to invest more in each book – and the fact that the business of publishing would become less working capital-intensive would improve its chances of survival and therefore of continuing in its important role of finding and developing talent.

Some books need time to develop, to build slowly. Others need to be out there and promoted as quickly as possible, or even to be written and evolved by authors in collaboration with their readers. Let’s allow books to find their readers in a time frame that is most appropriate for the author, the book and the readers, not our sales process and teams.

Flexibility

We need increased flexibility in deals between publishers and authors. Marcello Vena has talked about what RCS Libri are calling ‘co-publishing’, hinting at the idea of different service levels for authors, with different types and levels of remuneration. Publishing should be more of a partnership, and this requires change from both publishers and agents. Agents and authors feel that advances are dropping but royalty rates are not rising, publishers feel that advances are still too high and are therefore inflexible on royalty rates. Publishers also need to prove to agents and authors that the ‘sausage factory’ mentality created by the current pipeline will change.

The academic publishing world has been reliant on short-run and on-demand (POD) digital print for some years. This was possible because of the premium prices academic titles can command, and was necessary because demand for each title was slow and steady. With the removal of the buffer of stock that used to sit in physical retail channels and the difficulty in creating hits, trade publishers are having to think hard about inventory and be creative with their production processes.

Fortunately, digital print technology is coming to meet us and it is now possible to make a £7.99 novel profitable on very low print runs. There are digital printers who are willing to partner with publishers to innovate in both process and specification, so you don’t have to work with the ‘one size fits all’ approach of some POD suppliers. Let’s start with the real number we think we can sell and work back from that – we’ll soon be working with an inventory-free process for all but guaranteed bestsellers. Many very small publishers already are.

If an author’s idea should not be a book, don’t make it be a book. In the world of chain bookselling there have been many ideas that have been extended to fill 200 pages in order to give them a spine and a place on a shelf. This no longer needs to happen. Let the idea influence its expression, and let the expression inspire its presentation. There are an increasing number of ways to realize the value of ideas, let’s take advantage of that.

Publishing is no longer an industry, it’s a function – as Michael Bhaskar said at FutureBook, publishing at its purest level is filtering and amplifying content. Let’s take that principle and think about what it really means, about what is right for each individual project. Some of the steps are scary, but it’s imperative we take them.