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
  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    THIS is what I’ve been saying. Thank you Eli!

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    You’re welcomed, Gavin. We’ve got a lot of work to do, on Pandamian, and so I’m writing a bunch of things to examine some of the decisions we’ve been making.

    So far – I think – they make sense.

  • http://1889.ca Nancy Brauer

    I couldn’t agree more, Eli. Well said.

    Since you mentioned Shirky above, I presume you read this blog post: The Collapse of Complex Business Models
    http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collapse-of-complex-business-models/

    Explains a lot, I think.

  • http://secretloft.ca Derek

    Wow that’s one hell of an essay! It looks like the content of this one’s been swimming around in your head for a few years. Really looking forward to peeking into the world of Pandamian more!

  • http://www.mynext.co.uk steve

    Would point to video as well as an example of empowered publishers. Youtube etc has changed the game for small time video publishers.

    So do we need a youbook or a blogger for books?

    I guess these old industries are just really following the old mantra of “if it’s not broke don’t fix it”. If can get a high enough move to eBook readers old industry will be forced to move, but until then it’s the status quo

  • http://secretloft.ca Derek

    Apple has certainly started strong with the iPad. Estimates are that in the first month they have sold 1 million iPads and are delaying launch of the International versions because of supply issues. iBooks and the iBookstore are key selling features of the iPad. The ebook industry just got a major bell ringing. Although “geeks” have known about ebooks for years, the general public has not. The iPad has begun to enlighten the general public to the existence of them. This I believe is the proverbial straw to the publishing industry camel’s back.

  • http://www.ergofiction.com Jan Oda

    Great points.
    Have no time to respond properly, but I wanted to point out Baen publishing. They have a Free Library (http://www.baen.com/library/) which I think is a GREAT idea for a publisher (bar the awful website design that is). They also have webscriptions (http://www.webscription.net) which serializes novels prior publishing date, so readers can read them in front. What I find most interesting is that the webscription thing dates from 1999 (!!!) and that the Free Library was already around in 2000 (maybe earlier, but don’t have time to properly investigate).

    It’s not one of the big publishers I realize, but it is fairly big in the SF market (somewhere in the top 10 in the US according to Wikipedia)

    It obviously works great for them, so I wonder why no one else (except maybe for Harlequin, which has had a very active, prominent and cheap digital branch for years now) has jumped on this system.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Nancy: Yes I’ve read that article before, and I remember bookmarking it. =) Shirky just makes a lot of sense.

    @Steve: Yes we do. I intend to build equivalents.

    @Derek: Thank you for the kind words. =) I don’t personally think a move to ebook readers is enough to force the publishing industry to change – thus far publishers have managed to fool themselves into thinking ebooks are an extension of the old problem – the problem they’ve been set up to solve.

    @Jan: Thank you so much for the heads up. MeiLin was the last person to point Baen out to me – but I had no idea they were this progressive, (and so many years ago, to boot!).

    I think the problem with their execution is the lack of technical knowledge? They should’ve hired a bunch of programmers to do stuff for them – Baen’s well positioned to be the next Tor.com, if they play their cards right.

    Will keep them in mind when and if we need to cut deals, in the future.

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    So old publishers solved the problem “how do we find an audience for books” by over-producing them, putting them in multiple stores, and then hoping someone wanders over and buys one. INEFFICIENT. (I’m summarizing). That was their solution for the problem.

    Online, production costs go way way way down. So the problem to solve is bringing an audience to web fiction.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    @Gavin: One of the problems, certainly. I’ve got a rough idea of how to solve it, but the solution’s going to be a little … unorthodox. We’ll see, in a bit.

  • http://www.ergofiction.com Jan Oda

    @Eli: You do realize I’m bursting with curiosity now do you?

    As for Baen, I thought I’d referred to them here before, but I’m happy to refresh your memory. Maybe one of us should mail them about the programming issue :p. Though I imagine their users might be fond of the design, because it is soo wrong in a nerdy way.

    I do wonder however, why it seems that it’s often the genre publishers who aren’t afraid to embrace new things.

    In one of my recent classes we had someone from a big dutch publisher, who told us that on Bol.com (the Dutch amazon equivalent), people sought on genre most.
    10 minutes later the person explained to us that his company had unexpectedly acquired a strong brand in the thriller genre, so they branched out and attracted literary fiction authors.
    And then they wonder why the book business is going through rough times. The sheer stupidity of publishers sometimes baffles me.

  • http://www.ergofiction.com Jan Oda

    mmmmm. Sought is dutch no? I meant searched. I’m tired. Sorry for that. Oh how I wished you had an edit butto,

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    Eli my man, you know I have your back on whatever you go forward with. I’m all over it like a fat kid on smarties. I thought about making that PC and ironic, but it just doesn’t have the same impact.

  • Jaftali

    I think the idea of authors selling directly to readers makes about as much sense as architects selling directly to homebuyers.

    I’m late to the conversation, and need to inform myself more thoroughly (and the dog I have in this fight is that I make a living as a novelist), but I sometimes get the feeling that people imagine that all the steps of publication other than the writer finishing her or his ‘final’ draft are unimportant.

    The publishing industry is tremendously inefficient. But I’ve yet to see even the vague outline of a real solution. (Haven’t finished browsing your site yet, though!) One thing that the industry does fairly well is act as a filter, and every online community I’ve seen that tries to approximate that service ends up highlighting some deeply shitty writing. I mean far, far worse than the deeply shitting writing that -does- get published. And without the compensatory ability to promote the good stuff, too.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Hi there Jaftali. I’ve been neglecting Novelr quite a bit the last couple of weeks (due to work on Pandamian) but – just as a quick response: the whole point of this essay (and Pandamian itself) is to figure out if there are viable alternatives to the current model.

    As for whether authors selling directly to readers makes sense … well, we’ll see, won’t we? ;-)

  • Jaftali

    Fair enough! I agree with much of the diagnosis, and I’ve got my own personal issues that I rarely see addressed, though those tend to be sorta ‘within the beast’ problems about how publishing works instead of an entirely new model.

    Sometimes I wonder if, during the advent of television, novelists and publishers were in a frenzy thinking, ‘We need to figure how to get novels on these things!’ And in the end, it’s a different medium. I very much hope and expect that we’ll see a different medium of storytelling on some future multi-media platform, but I’m not sure it’ll any way supplant a single novel, any more than TV shows do.

    Now I’m off to see what Pandamian is! This site is v. impression, so I’m sure I won’t be disappointed!

  • Jaftali

    V. -impressive-. Me am professional.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I think there’s only one way to respond to that:

    =) =) =)