The old model is dead; long limp the new model

The old model is dead; long limp the new model

This story was originally written as the walkup to the 24th April #FutureChat session. Join The Bookseller's The FutureBook #FutureChat each Friday at 3 p.m. GMT, 4 p.m. London (BST), 5 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11 a.m. New York (ET), 10 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9 a.m. Denver (MT), 8 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).


If you see that "new model" for publishing go by, grab it and don't let go.

Authors seem particularly ill-placed, with many simply too far down the food chain to see the value in the current model. As the ALCS' head of rights and licensing Richard Combes says in a column, in any other sector "alarm bells" would sound. Yet publishing carries on, paying the brunt of its talent too little and too infrequently. it has been quick to lower advances and slower to raise royalty levels, arguing that the shift to digital has not yet settled enough to rethink this. But that clock has long struck 13.

This is my colleague Philip Jones, editor at The Bookseller, in today's leader piece, "The grand illusion." 

In it, Jones promulgates an all-too-familiar post-trade-show theme:

One would think, walking the packed aisles of Olympia's main hall [at London Book Fair] that publishing was booming — a hubbub of book folk doing what they do. The atmosphere was febrile, the mood rambunctious. The big publishing groups dominated the space.

And then he turns to the all-too-persistent problem:

Yet all around them [the big houses] and in the galleries above them envious eyes looked on. Many within this wider firmament of smaller publishers, start-ups, and service companies whisper darkly about how the business model is broken, yet the rights activity at LBF tells us otherwise. 

Why are the interpretations so different? Jones writes:

We cannot say that all is well...Some of the discontent can be felt in the Author Licensing & Collecting Society's (ALCS) important report into "the business of being an author" and Spread the Word's survey into diversity. If the current system is failing to pay the talent and not attracting a workforce able to "engage meaningfully with the next generation of readers — as the diversity report suggests — then for whom is the model set up?

All this talk of models. Is the old one really quite dead yet? And are we that sure the new one is, um, working?

What does this remind you of? Exactly — US-based analyst Jane Friedman's latest iteration (I still have Lean Startup on the mind, see?) of her seminal Key Book Publishing Paths chart, published on Friday (17th April). You can get a large PDF rendering here.

Read it and weep:

 

Far be it from me to make you cry. But as Friedman and I have been discussing, just look at the complexity exploding around decisions facing authors today. At least the trains used to run on time, right? Now, the sheer density of variations of author-support, author independence, publisher risk, and author "control" (hey, it's still up to the readers, right?) is boggling.

In an exchange on Google+ about it, in fact, Friedman messages me:

As you point out, so many different terms get used and there's so little agreement on definitions — "partner" publishing, "hybrid" publishing, "assisted" publishing — if I were an author trying to sort through the differences, I'd be so frustrated, even WITH this chart. (lol)

An example of what she and I and Jones are talking about.

A company calling itself FicShelf.com has appeared in The Publishing Startuppery. (Don't get me started on the cutesy names for these things, you know how I am about that.) Gorgeous sunset imagery. We should all write bestselling novels while sitting on the dock of the bay with coffee on a blanket, right? Nothing unrealistic about that. What are we all thinking at these crazy desks?

Okay, I'll behave.

FicShelf (did I grimace?) was, in fact, a sponsor of last Friday's #IndieReCon event in London organised and produced by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) -- here's some info about the new #Authors4Bookstores campaign that ALLi's Debbie Young launched there. And for that sponsorship, of course, we can all thank FicShelf.

Indeed, to be clear, we don't know that FicShelf isn't a bona fide boon to the "would-be authors" it aims to help, take good note of that. We're working here from a point of necessary caution, not proven trouble. Surely we'd rather see each author-services start-up turn out to be superb than not. Who benefits from bad services? 

So don't misunderstand. We wish this and all author-services well. And we want them to be what they say they are. 

From FicShelf's press release:

  • FicShelf, a provider of online publishing services, has launched a brand new funding platform to help authors finance the editing and design of their books
  • The platform launch is led by three independent authors who won a competition for writers with an as yet unpublished manuscript
  • Authors will be able to spend the funds they raise on hiring professionals and building their very own publishing teams within the platform

And you know, there's Kickstarter. And Indiegogo. And Rockethub. And Unbound. And Inkshares. And now FicShelf. And your Aunt Gladys. (Shut my mouth -- can AuntGladys.com be far behind?)

As Friedman's chart points out -- and Jones' commentary brings to light -- while the traditional pubishing world has yet to step forward and subtantively answer the "alarm bells" going off about inadequate author remuneration and that widening rift between the big companies' pavilions at Olympia London and the gallery-hugging tiny outfits watching from a distance, these endless permutations of "author services" and other efforts are breaking out all over the landscape. The complexity deepens with every one of them.

And not many are coming forward to say, "Sure, we'll pay for it." No, most of them are saying to the author, "You pay us for it." Or "You get your friends and family to pay us for it."

Based on Friedman's chart, let me give you another example. You've heard of "partner publishing." What is that? -- just about anything someone wants it to be.

To wit, notice the company called She Writes Press

Generally termed "partner publishing" by its fans, this is an outfit that charges a flat fee -- of $4,900, no less -- to "partner" with you.

A couple of points in She Writes' favor:

  • They're upfront about that money and they tell you that's the only amount they'll take: one price must fit all.
  • They also then list what they're going to do. That's a plus as far as it goes. You must, to make a responsible transaction, ask them to make it go farther. For instance, mustn't the reader know, surely, what "distribution to the trade" actually means? Musn't the writer know why they say they'll upload only to Amazon, B&N, and iBookstore, too. For $4,900, might not the author want them to upload to a lot more places? "Ongoing project management...for the lifespan of your book"...means...what? Who decides the "lifespan of your book"? And what does "project management" entail? "High-level support for getting your books into bookstores, libraries, and other trade outlets"...and "high-level" means how high? And how much support? And exactly what will they be doing to get those books into all those places for you from that "high level"?

An author needs to know. An author needs to ask. An author has to wonder whether this is really that "new model." And is it working?

As with FicShelf, let's be very clear: She Writes Press may have a terrific programme that matches every single need you have perfectly. If you have a good experience of it, I'm thrilled for you and hope you'll enjoy it. I do not have a negative case to put forward to you, nor do I know the She Writes operation closely. I have met one author who says she's very happy with it, and I'm glad it's worked so well for her.

Friedman talks in her chart of risk -- that taken by a publisher and that held by the author. What makes a "partner" a partner? 

And how will we recognise that "new model" that Jones is hearing about?

Take your pick. Check out Friedman's chart.

  • Six major categories that start on the left side wth "Advance & Royalties" (remember that "old" model? -- this is the one Jones says so many people are saying is "broken" while it racks up new profits on the London Book Fair floor).
  • At the far right side, you end up all the way at "Within a Community." That's serialisation at Wattpad... is this the "new model"? Is this even publshing?

For the purposes of today's #FutureChat, I'm going to stick to my headline: I say the "new model" is limping, not living yet. I say, along with Jones, that the "old model," while not taking care of its creative corps is hardly "broken" — far from it. The profits are there.

And look how many "new" efforts, in fact, are start-up editions of parts of the "old". FicShelf is about finding funding to pay for editing. Well, guess who does that in the "old" model.

Are we, with all these "new model" elements, trying to cobble together a facsimile of the "old model," after all?

Watch for incremental variations on one theme or another such as crowd-funding, distribution, and exclusivity, that gathering effluvium of "options!" that can make an auithor want to throw himself into the bay rather than type on its dock with a blanket and coffee. 

To quote Jones once more:

The best thing about the book business is its inconsistency. It is also the most troubling.

 


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Main image- Pixabay: Blackhart