Every now and again there are stories in the media (mainly traditional media: newspapers, TV, radio) that doubt the capabilities of the publishing world coping with the shift to digital. That there is truth to be found in this subject is clear, but what stings me (and many others in the publishing world), is that almost all of these stories are poorly justified, blunt and only seem to be made to cause a stir. And none of these traditional media seems to be interested in the side of the publishers. What about hearing both sides? Isn’t that what journalism is all about? Time for the other story to be told!
I was triggered to write this down by a column, made by a young journalist of a respected Dutch newspaper, that caused quite a stir on Twitter. In that column, he stated that the publishing world is a sleeping industry which is put offside. Why? Because publishers are being overtaken left and right by self-published authors and online bookstore-giants like Amazon, moving into publishing books themselves. It would be just a matter of time before the largest Dutch online bookstore will do the same.
That this loosened the tongues is clear. These are bold statements that evoke reaction. Also with me. But not because of what is said, but by scoring easily, as I called it, by writing a brief plea with some sharp one-liners, and leaving it by that.
I've said it before and I say it again: the media is picking on the book world and think it massively knows better. That bothers me. The reason it bothers me, is because I haven’t come across a single substantiated story in this ‘reliable media’. Media from which you may expect to do investigative journalism, hearing both sides of the story. But no. Of course, a column is not the place to thoroughly underpin your points of view. But for me it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. What is funny by the way, is that this traditional media itself is struggling even more than the book world. Maybe it’s just easier to write about other people’s misery instead of solving your own? But that aside.
Because I do agree on the statement that is taken: publishers have a hard time now, which will become even more difficult in the future and those who are not able to adapt, will be devoured by parties as Amazon or new technologies like digital books, tablets and streaming content.
However, I do not agree with the reasons that are cited every time. They matter, that’s not the point. But they are, in my view, not the main reasons. The favourite causes the media uses, are: authors can now do it themselves, Amazon (or whoever) is also publishing and publishers were only good to get your book into the bookstores. First: self-publishing books can be done for quite some years now, but it seems that the media have picked this up only very recently. Second: if parties like Amazon want to publish books themselves, then go ahead. That they were going to was bound to happen. Seeing it like that, makes it just another publisher. Third: the idea that the bookstore buys all books from all publishers and give them all a good place on the table (or shelf) is unfortunately an illusion. That was not the case, is not the case and will increasingly less be the case.
Regarding the first point. Writing, hiring editors, designers, typesetting it, converting it into an e-book and possibly hire some marketing people as well, can be done by yourself for many years. It is true that this is rapidly becoming mature, and some people made millions with this. But you can count these successes worldwide on just one hand, which makes them very unrealistic as a vision. And when they use this as an example, they almost never tell you (a tactic?) that self-published authors regularly choose for a traditional publisher to continue their writing career. Is it a threat? Yes, it is additional competition from a new angle. Is this the demise of the publishing house? No.
Regarding the second point. Amazon is great, Amazon is powerful. And Amazon exploits this further and further in a very clever way. That you could self-publish books was already possible for a while, but now Amazon is going there as well. What you never hear in this comparison (on cutting out the middle men), is that this makes Amazon a publisher. And so a middle man. Against other conditions (better for the author, in terms of splits of revenues), but still a traditional publisher. Is it a threat? Yes, it is again more competition. And big too. Is this the demise of the publishing? I think not.
Regarding the third point. If you think that the only value of a publisher is a possible entry in the bookstore, you're wrong. Such a guarantee cannot be provided, let alone that this is a publisher’s best USP. And this is where publisher maybe drop a stitch. If people think their main value is that they can get authors in the bookstores, there is something wrong. Because that is not the most important added value. In fact, there is little impact on this exercise. The real added value of a publisher, is to improve the original work that the author has devised. Not checking on spelling errors, but to ensure that there comes a really well put together work. Work that also (if it’s good) matches other work the publisher has already published (wherefore knowledge and expertise on this subject are in house), and why he is known for being a supplier of good titles in this area by the bookstores (you see, it can work to your advantage, and therefore be an added value, but not on itself). Besides that, you also have editing, design, marketing, sales and distribution to add to the list of services in which a publisher can be of service. The latter are easy to hire yourself (editing, sales, distribution), or can be done better by a modern author than a publisher (marketing), or be arranged in a combination of the networks of the publisher and the author (design, marketing). Another added value, is that a publisher can take this all for his account (which creates synergy), in which he has many years of experience (which has value in itself).
This doesn’t say that the way things are done now withstands the future. I think it doesn’t. But to see publishers as a company that simply picks up a manuscript, runs it through the spellchecker, prints it and delivers it to the bookstore, is far too bluntly. No, if you want a real good reason why publishers are going to experience hard times in the near future, you have to look one step further than the Amazons of this world, namely: the established order trying to stop innovation in their industry at all costs.