Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thoughts about Publishing and Self-Publishing

One of the "big discussions" in the publishing industry is the future of publishing, and right now it boils down to two questions:
Here's a quick summary of the lay of the land: self-publishing has always been around, and in fact was the de facto method of publishing until sometime after the movable-type Gutenberg printing press was invented. Even after that, self-publishing was a fairly common way for someone treat a completed work of research, for example, or perhaps doctoral work that was obscure enough for a relatively small audience.

As the publishing industry matured under the loving-care of its foster-parents -- capitalism and modernity -- two important shifts occurred. For one thing, more people began to write with an eye to publication. No longer were the writers who published non-fiction almost exclusively academics, pastors, political figures, and philosophers. And many who had a love of fiction and poetry also began to hope that their own stories and poems might appear in published form. Whether it was the dream of becoming the next great novelist, gaining prominence as a lecturer, a hope of earning some money from the hard work of writing, or simply the satisfaction that someone else found value in what they had written, the desire of "getting published" took on a new allure.

It also took on a new flavor. The other shift was this: those enterprises that had begun to make a name (and a profit) for themselves as publishing houses became the implicit arbiters of what is or isn't worthwhile for publication. There is something to this, really; if a publishing house is going to risk its own money on the publication of a book that may or may not earn them anything (let alone represent a real return on investment), they must be wise and discerning about where they choose to invest their money. But the shift didn't occur when publishers realized that they now had choices, and some were better investments than others. The shift occurred when the world arrived at the conclusion that the publishers knew something that others didn't: namely, which books were or weren't

I don't believe that there was some broad conspiracy among publishers to foster this impression among the outside world; I attribute it instead to the rise of the culture of experts that emerged in the 1900s. But publishers didn't eschew this impression. Instead, the fed it, and one of the ways that they fed it was to present the idea that self-publishing was far too arbitrary and unreliable-- indeed, that it was not something that serious and worthwhile writers engaged in, but was instead an act of vanity. Thus arose the label, "vanity publishers" which is what many of the long-lived self-publishing companies are referred as.

Some interesting things have happened in more recent years, however, that have caused tremors in the publishing industry-- especially with reference to self-publishing. First of all, the rise of the internet and related technology at the end of the 20
th century eventually gave way to the "democratization" of serial publishing, and it became possible through blogs and the like for someone to write and be read without ever passing through the gauntlet of queries and editors. Now anyone can write for a blog-- their own or someone else's-- in the way that someone once wrote for newspapers and magazines, though in far greater quantity. Magazine and newspaper publishers will argue that the same problems are in place: without the benefit of editors and "trusted names" in publishing, no one knows where to go for the good stuff, and there's far too much stuff "out there" that is poorly written and edited (if it is edited at all).

As most of us know, though, neither of these has become anything like the problems that the traditional publishers tell/told us they are/were. How many traditional magazines are on the verge of bankruptcy? How many newspapers are closing up shop? The problems they face are much greater than these two minor obstacles, which it turns out that word-of-mouth and the benefit of no-cost/high-frequency reading take care of handily.

Another thing that has happened is that the traditional book publishing houses have become more subject to the desires of the resellers, and not the other way around. This is largely due to the emergence of a few very large resellers that now dominate the book market -- think Walmart, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and -- and therefore control of how people buy books rests in the hands of a relatively few people. Publishers who set out to mass-market their books are beholden to these companies, and must accommodate their wishes to a large degree or face very threatening consequences. (More on this in a moment.)

A third thing is the subject of the other big question above-- the rise of alternative media to print publications, such as audio books, electronic books, and other forms of alternative publishing (like serializing on a blog, etc.). This means that print publications have potential to decline in ways and for reasons that have historically been non-factors, and traditional publishing houses face huge questions about what level they will participate in these new media, how they price their new-media publications (and how they justify these costs), questions of rights, etc.

These last two have already had a convergence of large scale that drew a lot of attention in the publishing industry earlier this year: Amazon faced off with MacMillan, who announced that they didn't want to work with Amazon any longer according to Amazon's terms for e-books (on the Kindle platform), which were basically, "list it at $9.99 and we (Amazon) will keep 70% of the sale price". Oddly enough, MacMillan thought they should be able to determine their own prices for the books they publish. Amazon's response: stop selling ALL of MacMillan's books, electronic AND print. Eventually Amazon brought their marbles back out to the playground, but the whole episode demonstrates how tentative the notion of who is in control in the publishing industry really is.

Finally, technology has made possible the idea of print-on-demand. Publishers once had enormous costs involved in getting a book to publication because they had to commit to a certain number of books for the "first run" -- maybe 5000, at a cost of, say, $1.60 each, which means that (in addition to the salaries of all of the people involved, the costs of marketing and promotion, any sort of advance payment to the author, and the overhead of maintaining their offices), they had an initial outlay of $8,000 just to get the book printed -- when it may not sell even half of those copies, and they were stuck with an inventory of a non-seller. According to that trajectory, a publisher might have close to $20,000 invested in a book before it ever hits the shelf of a bookstore. That's still the most economically-viable way to publish a book, because printing thousands of copies is much less costly than printing one or two at a time. But now it is technologically-viable to publish a book on a print-on-demand basis, meaning no copies are ever produced that aren't needed/wanted. The cost for a single copy might jump to triple the cost or more-- instead of $1.60, maybe it's $5.10-- but it is possible to produce a single copy of a book and no more.

How does this affect self-publishing? Because now AND Barnes & Noble (the nation's two biggest booksellers by a very large margin) both have self-publishing divisions, where any writer can publish their book(s) and have it appear within the listings of the respective stores. What is more, Ingram-- the nation's largest book distributor (which means they are typically the middle-men between publishing houses and resellers like bookstores, websites, etc.) also has a self-publishing division. In each case, self-publishing is done by print-on-demand, though some of these companies offer a more traditional bulk publishing option. In other words, anyone who wants to self-publish in today's market isn't stuck with selling what copies they can out of the trunk of their car; now they can say, "check out my book on" and (at least theoretically) no one can tell the earnest difference between their book and one published by MacMillan, Random House, or Thomas Nelson.

This is a huge shift, and there's more to say. Look for a follow-up post coming soon.

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