To Change Publishing, Make Publishers Obsolete

Publishers will die if they cannot change, but it doesn’t seem like they’re interested in change anytime soon. Why?

There’s an enlightening quote in the New Yorker article published yesterday, where Madeline McIntosh of Random House says:

“I think we, as an industry, do a lot of talking,” she said of publishers. “We expect to have open dialogue. It’s a culture of lunches. Amazon doesn’t play in that culture.” It has “an incredible discipline of answering questions by looking at the math, looking at the numbers, looking at the data. . . . That’s a pretty big culture clash with the word-and-persuasion-driven lunch culture, the author-oriented culture.”

More tellingly – Markus Dohle, the chairman and CEO of Random House, thinks “the digital transition will take five to seven years“. He believes that the argument over the iBookstore is rushed, and unneeded; accordingly, Random House is the only one of the ‘big-six’ publishers who has not signed up with the iBookstore.

The problem with publishing today seems to be that there’s not enough impetus for publishers to change. And this is rather perplexing. The way forward for publishing appears to be clear, if people like MCM and Mark Barrett and Michael Stackpole are to be believed. Go online, stay digital, jettison your legacy printing systems, and build good digital filters for popular content. More importantly: create publishing brands readers can identify with – the same way readers now cluster around authors as brand names.

But this has yet to happen. Despite all this common-sense advice, despite the many publishing roundtables and conferences that have happened recently, publishers appear to be more interested in squabbling over eBook prices than in investing for long-term change. I’ve waited four years for some of these changes to happen, and none have yet materialized. In the meantime – articles like the ones I’ve linked to above have begun appearing at increasing frequencies. Why has the publishing industry failed to act? What has gone wrong? Can no publisher see what these writers currently do?

It occurred to me recently that the problem may be deeper than just these surface recommendations. Suppose publishers are institutionally incapable of changing? All these articles by well-meaning, far-seeing writers would be of little use, because they do not address a deeper, more fundamental problem: that publishers simply cannot change, and will remain the way they are until they die, or something bigger comes their way. Are there reasons for this? I believe there are. But the answers to these questions – and what to do about them – aren’t particularly comfortable ones to answer.

The Shirky Principle

“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” – Clay Shirky

Shirky is right. What the publishing industry really is – if we step back to look at it long enough – is that it is a highly inefficient solution to a real problem. Publishing houses print thousands of copies of a book in the hopes that enough people would see it in bookstores and few would like it enough to buy it. In her paper Paper Houses, writer Diana Kimball points out that many of the artifices of the publishing industry grew out of a need to justify the massive cost of such inefficiency. Publishers, after all, take great care to bet only on books they think bookstores might stock; bookstores, in turn, chose only books they think might sell (given limited shelf space). Speciality institutions like the book review, the role of the editor and the speciality of creating cover art all arose from such bookstore-ish needs.

Grossly inefficient platforms don’t come fully-formed, however. They grow as specialized solutions to complex problems. What problem does the publishing industry attempt to solve? If we think about it for a bit, we’d realize publishing arose as a solution to the problem of distribution – in this particular case, the problem of distributing stories and ideas. People needed a good way to share knowledge and (to a lesser extent) stories; for a very long time publishing was the best solution to that need.

That has changed. We no longer need the publishing industry as a solution to our distribution problems: books now compete with blogs for the dissemination of ideas, and fiction – to a lesser extent – currently compete with digital fiction. Even if such digital distribution channels cease to exist, technologies like printing-on-demand publishing and the Amazon store make publishing far more efficient than the traditional publishers would care to admit.

Applied to publishing, the Shirky principle says this: traditional publishers are a solution to a vanishing problem. They are becoming obsolete, but not quickly enough. And they refuse to change because they are attempting to preserve the problem to which they are a solution. This is why Markus Dohle, CEO of Random House thinks ‘the digital shift will take five to seven years’; it is also why publishers have been so slow to do anything other than bicker over eBook prices.

Solutions at the margins

Kevin Kelly, in formalizing the Shirky principle, also references an interesting idea from Clay Christensen on innovation and change. Christensen demonstrates that disruptive technologies always arise from the margins of an industry, where they start out as ‘insignificant or toy solutions’. He writes:

Honda’s hobbyist electric bicycles were no threat to the big four automobile companies, until electric bikes become motorcycles and motorcycles became small efficient cars. Cheap crumby dot matrix printers were no threat to big offset printing companies until dot matrix became inkjet printers and injects became the HP Indigo 5000 on-demand printers. In each case, the solutions were marginal, barely working, at first, and therefore ignored.

At Novelr, we have been sitting on a toy solution to the publishing industry’s problem. This toy solution is web fiction.

Is web fiction really a toylike solution? I believe it is. Writers treat web fiction as a hobby more than a job at the moment, but this can and should change.

Some writers believe that ‘indie publishing’ is the answer to the future of publishing. But if we accept the Internet is the best way for writers to sell directly to readers, then we must also accept that web fiction is the most logical way to do so. It is far more effective for writers to sell to a community of readers through their websites, as opposed to a disconnected store like Smashwords. Indeed, experience has shown us that readers are more likely to buy eBooks that are also available on the web, and the major innovations in the eBook space will be largely related – I believe – to the way authors do their websites. Web fiction writer MCM sells books by building a following around his weekly chapter updates (a model he calls ‘Serial+’) – if readers want to read ahead, they pay to download the full book. Serial+ is merely one innovation of the many I’ve seen the past four years; many more, I’m sure, will come to be.

Authors selling directly to readers undermines the publishing industry, of course. But this is inevitable – history has shown us that efficient solutions win out over inefficient ones, and publishers are unable to respond to reader needs as quickly or as comprehensively as a market of independent, passionate writers.

Are there ways to bolster the efficiency of the traditional publishing model? I don’t think so. Publishers are really set up to respond to bookstores. This used to be okay, because for the past hundred years the bookstore has been the sole gatekeeper to the reader. But no matter how efficient the bookstore, or how innovative the publisher, both can never be as efficient as a direct writer-to-reader relationship. And this change will only be a good thing.

A publishing industry set up to efficiently connect writers to readers is a far better thing than one that isn’t. It is, however, a very different industry from the one we have today. Some people will lose their jobs. Others will change theirs to suit the evolving nature of the publishing world. Just as the specialized apparatus of the book reviewer, the editor, and the cover designer arose from the old publishing industry, so will new kinds of jobs arise from the new one.

The Road Ahead

It is important to ask here: how quickly will this future arrive? I began making predictions on the new digital future shortly over a year ago, but not much has changed since then. I suppose there are two ways of answering this question – the first is to ask: how much do we want this future? If most traditional publishers currently do not want to change, then s second question comes to mind: what would it take to force them to change?

While the second question is more important, it would do to consider the first as well. Is an efficient publishing industry a desirable publishing industry? I’d like to suggest that it is. We will waste less paper, for one. Too many trees are currently being killed for the gross inefficiencies of the traditional publishing model. But this is obvious. Less obvious are other benefits, like bigger margins for the publishers, bigger profits for writers, and perhaps other art-related changes to the nature of our reading mediums.

Will publishers respond to such incentives? I do not think they will. Change is painful, especially when such pain is of the existential kind – if we do shift to this new model of publishing, current houses will have to find new problems to be solutions to. This means a few years of soul-searching and layoffs. Not something you’d imagine lunching publishers to be able to do.

The only way to make publishers change is to force them to do so, and the best way to force them is to render them obsolete. Publishers currently control the distribution chain between the reader and the writer, and so – if we are to do this – the fastest way to make them obsolete is to empower the writers. To give them the keys to the distribution chain, and to see what they do with it.

This is the first of a series of essays I’m writing to figure out what we’re doing at Pandamian. In the meantime, you may follow us on Twitter here.

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Category: Pandamian · Publishing