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Old 08-16-2007, 02:02 PM   #1
netscorer
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Are book publishers still relevant in new world?

I stumbled here on a post from Nogg where he struggles between his desire to have content available to him in the most convinient form and yet staying legal and on high moral ground.
This made me ask a number of questions. Some of them would put me in jail would I live in Orwell world of 1984 (like is it OK to break a law that benefits noone but the lobbying group who pushed it through in the corrupt goverment).
But some, I hope, would generate a discussion and not a ban from these forum. Like, are book publishers still relevant in this 21st century. I realize their historical importance in popularizing the literature and, through it, making it possible to live in the world we are in today. In the early years of modern literature (and by modern I mean any printed literature) Publishers provided that missing ingrideent that established the connection between writers and their readers. This led to exploding numbers of both and variety of wisdom and knowledge that could be passed through generations. In the still separated world publishers were carriers of this wisdom and knowledge.

But where do they stand now? Both writers and readers can connect with each other now directly, thanks to the integrated world without borders. There are no more costs to publish a book, since digits are free and anyone can post their content on Internet. A professional writer can support him/herself through direct sales of their books and popularize his/her content through the public portals like this one. It would not be possible to create a marketing blitz like the last Harry Potter book did, but was that really a good thing or just a ploy to earn as much money as possible in the shortest time interval?

What are your thoughts on this subject? Am I being naive in thinking that the civilization will not stop to a halt if, tomorrow, all publishers on Earth would vanish from this planet?

Sincerely,

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Old 08-16-2007, 04:43 PM   #2
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I'm not sure how things will shake out, of course, but I see a need for some sort of vetting of the manuscript before it gets thrown up onto the internet. Whether that happens through traditional publishing is the big question, but imo there needs to be some sort of filtering process in place.

The old stat of 80% want to write a book while 80% NEVER read books makes me shudder to think what kind of 'books' might get posted for my reading, uh, pleasure. I just don't have the time nor the inclination to wade through countless bad novels to find one I want to read. The situation now, while in many ways archaic, at least gives me books that have been through some sort of filtering process (even if it's only an agent and an editor).

I realize that much of reading taste is just that - personal taste. I also realize that what happens will have more to do with where readers put their money than any philosophical musing, but the idea of having no way to sort through the accumulating bilge is downright disheartening, especially with NaNoWriMo* just around the proverbial corner.


*National Novel Writing Month

(I mean no disrespect to NaNoWriMo coordinators or participants, but - again, imo - stringing 50,000 words together does not make one a novelist.)

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Old 08-16-2007, 05:06 PM   #3
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I think there would not be a problem finding a book that is consumption-ready. Just like today, people mostly buy books either by author's reputatation, word of mouth, or going to portals, like Amazon, where bestseller lists and reader reviews are available to anyone who can lift a mouse.
Editors, proof-readers, translators, critics would still be present - just look at how Wikipedia explodes with content that, in many cases, better fool-prooven then British Encyclopedia.

Again, the main need for publishers in the old world order was to sponsor a book (since paper publishing costs were and still are enormous) and provide initial marketing. Nowadays, IMO, most of them are simply leeches on the society, putting profits in many cases over the quality of the content they are releasing. One thing that tickles me to no extent are the prices on classic books, that are long as in public domain. There is no author interest - only publisher's greed that keeps the prices on these books too high.
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Old 08-16-2007, 05:17 PM   #4
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I think there would not be a problem finding a book that is consumption-ready. Just like today, people mostly buy books either by author's reputatation, word of mouth, or going to portals, like Amazon, where bestseller lists and reader reviews are available to anyone who can lift a mouse.
Editors, proof-readers, translators, critics would still be present - just look at how Wikipedia explodes with content that, in many cases, better fool-prooven then British Encyclopedia.

Again, the main need for publishers in the old world order was to sponsor a book (since paper publishing costs were and still are enormous) and provide initial marketing. Nowadays, IMO, most of them are simply leeches on the society, putting profits in many cases over the quality of the content they are releasing. One thing that tickles me to no extent are the prices on classic books, that are long as in public domain. There is no author interest - only publisher's greed that keeps the prices on these books too high.
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Old 08-16-2007, 05:19 PM   #5
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I like your 'portal' idea. Give me excerpts and maybe a few reviews and it is easier to choose what to buy. I agree that buying by author happens a lot - I sure do it! - but for every author I follow now, I once had to read a 'first' book by them.

Publishers are still important, though how long that will last I do not know. I buy ebooks from several online ebook publishers (not just trad publishers) and know that there are some publishers whose books appeal to me more than other publishers. Perhaps reviews (and reviewers?) will become more important as traditional publishers' influence wanes.
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Old 08-16-2007, 05:24 PM   #6
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One thing that publishers provide to readers (in the economic sense) is a brand. This is the expectation that someone has vetted the manuscript to a level of quality similar to that of other books from the same publisher. This works to the advantage of a newly published author -- the reader gets the imprimatur of the publishing house (or line of books within a publishing house) as an indicator of likely quality. Depending on the genre, it may also indicate something about the likely attributes of the book.

As an example, if you buy a book from Baen you can be reasonably sure that it is:
a) either science fiction or fantasy (with the occasional "airport novel thriller")
b) generally optimistic in overall outlook
c) focused more on story telling than on "literary merit" (as defined by the "litrachoor elite." This doesn't exclude literary merit by any means, but it does say that strong-literature-with-weak-story won't be coming from them.
d) not a nihilistic plotless mood-piece full of allusion and metaphor, bemoaning the pointlessness of existance (from the PoV of an SF-lover looking for entertainment), or
d-alternate) full of exploding space-ships (from the PoV of a member of the afore-mentioned 'lit-crit' crowd.

I've spent some time as a volunteer reading through the slush-pile at Baen. You wouldn't believe how terrible the average submission is. I sometimes think that my (deceased) dog could do better. From beyond the grave, no less! Time spent with the slush-pile is almost guaranteed to induce the need for mental-floss.

So, my challenge to those who think that publishers aren't needed in the electronic world is this:
How is a reader to discover books they might like to read? And how might an author bring their book to the attention of readers who may like it? And who is it who'll work with the author to get their manuscript from "almost good enough" to "knock-'em-dead wonderful?"
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Old 08-17-2007, 02:42 AM   #7
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As an author myself, I suspect that the average reader doesn't appreciate the teremendous amount of work that a publisher does before a book appears on the shelves in your local bookstore. As Xenophon says, the average book submitted to a publisher is, to put it frankly, complete crap. Even those which are worth publishing generally need a huge amount of work to make them publishable.

If we just got "raw" books directly then believe me, the few "gems" would be completely hidden by the torrent of garbage.

We need publishers.
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Old 08-17-2007, 11:13 AM   #8
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I've spent some time as a volunteer reading through the slush-pile at Baen. You wouldn't believe how terrible the average submission is. I sometimes think that my (deceased) dog could do better. From beyond the grave, no less! Time spent with the slush-pile is almost guaranteed to induce the need for mental-floss.
Hey, Xenophon, how does one become a volunteer reader of the slush-pile at Baen. I would be interested.

Also I would really like to see a reasonably accurate cost breakdown for a typical paper book, to include raw materials - i.e. paper, ink, glue, etc.; equipment - i.e. printing presses, maintenance on same, etc.; storage - i.e. ware houses, utilities and upkeep of same; salaries of the workers in the above areas; transportation to retailers; profit for retailers.

I probably have missed some of the cost areas that are basically overhead associated with paper books that are not needed for ebooks. I realize that there is value added by the publisher but we typically assign "intellectual property rights" to the author, not the publisher. If what you're saying is typical then perhaps the publisher should share in those rights. Maybe they do & I was just not aware.
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Old 08-17-2007, 11:29 AM   #9
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NaNoWriMo

Studio717,

Of course NaNoWriMo doesn't always produce 'quality' novels. Hell, I'd bet MOST of the first-time NaNo winners don't have anything *CLOSE* to readable. But then, NaNo's drive is to get the participants past the 50K-word hump at least once. Polishing comes later.

I think that is the primary job for any publisher - getting a basic story idea cleaned up for the customers. Well, that and acting as a 'gatekeeper' to weed out those stories which don't appeal to the various overworked staffers on the publisher's payroll.

I've noticed that many good stories *don't* make it through simply because they don't appeal to the (publishing house's) readers' tastes. (And this is the strongest argument for targetting one's submissions to a publisher who does similar work.) The second big wall is that publishers don't actually 'sell' the novels - except for the few they've chosen to be 'blockbuster' - and that means they rarely generate enough sales of a given title to make them interested in getting further stories from the author.

What I think is happening is that - for most of the books they accept - they use the "we'll build it, toss it out to the market and the customers will be so starved for anything new that they'll buy whatever we produce" method of marketing. IOW, no marketing strategy whatsoever.

Derek

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Originally Posted by Studio717 View Post
I'm not sure how things will shake out, of course, but I see a need for some sort of vetting of the manuscript before it gets thrown up onto the internet. Whether that happens through traditional publishing is the big question, but imo there needs to be some sort of filtering process in place.

The old stat of 80% want to write a book while 80% NEVER read books makes me shudder to think what kind of 'books' might get posted for my reading, uh, pleasure. I just don't have the time nor the inclination to wade through countless bad novels to find one I want to read. The situation now, while in many ways archaic, at least gives me books that have been through some sort of filtering process (even if it's only an agent and an editor).

I realize that much of reading taste is just that - personal taste. I also realize that what happens will have more to do with where readers put their money than any philosophical musing, but the idea of having no way to sort through the accumulating bilge is downright disheartening, especially with NaNoWriMo* just around the proverbial corner.


*National Novel Writing Month

(I mean no disrespect to NaNoWriMo coordinators or participants, but - again, imo - stringing 50,000 words together does not make one a novelist.)
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Old 08-17-2007, 11:29 AM   #10
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I'm with Xenophon. I've seen slushpile work. (I've contributed some of my own, but not at Baen.) I don't know if we still need publishers, but we sure need editors. I particularly like being able to get used to an editor's style and knowing that I'm likely to like most of what they publish.

To the description of Baen books above, I'd add that many of them tend to be "military" stories. This is unfortunate from my perspective, as I love the Baen policies around ebooks, but don't care much for military fiction. (Yes, I know there are exceptions. I own most of them already.) Another common quality is humor. But if you're looking for serious philosophical SF or fantasy, you want a different publishing house. To my mind, this is actually a good thing, even if it is inconvenient for me regarding Baen. I like knowing approximately what I'm going to get from a publisher.

Portal sites like Amazon actually handle making book recommendations fairly well these days, so that aspect could possibly be replaced, but the task of filtering the slushpile and working with authors to improve the writing of those works worth publishing still needs to be done. Maybe there's a place for freelance editors out there.
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Old 08-17-2007, 08:51 PM   #11
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To Everyone,

thanks for sharing your thoughts and first-hand experience. I did not say that editors would not be required. It is definitely a very needed job. I remember Asimov's memoirs where he mentioned the struggles of getting published until one of the Sci-Fi magazine editors noticed his work. I think a lot of talented authors did not make it through just because their work did not seem to be sellable and it's a shame.
I think that if authors can post their books on open portals, more people may notice them and start encouraging them to produce better works. Very few aspiring writers dream right away of earning money from their work. Most simply want the recognition of their talent, want to bring their ideas to the world around them and going through the publishing house sieve may be too difficult a test to pass by the starting author.

To Nekokami,

I am not sure how familiar you are with Russian Sci-Fi. If you like serious, even philosophical Sci-Fi, try Strugatsky brothers. You might be already familiar with their work by reference if you watched Starkovsky's Stalker. It was done based on their novel Roadside Picnic (Roadside Picnic and other texts on the official site of Strugatsky brothers). They are widely acknowledged as the most influential Russian Sci-Fi writers and you won't be dissapointed reading any of their work. Very, very philosophial (Simak could only wish his books were that deep).
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Old 08-18-2007, 05:38 AM   #12
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[snip]
I think that if authors can post their books on open portals, more people may notice them and start encouraging them to produce better works. Very few aspiring writers dream right away of earning money from their work. Most simply want the recognition of their talent, want to bring their ideas to the world around them and going through the publishing house sieve may be too difficult a test to pass by the starting author.
This whole notion of a new world order for authors and literature without publishers has a couple of stumbling blocks to overcome before it will be viable:
1) of all the book readers I know, even among the computer-literate among my circle of acquaintances, friends and relatives, I am the ONLY person reading my books electronically. Everybody else prefers paper and wouldn't be on-line searching, so that would drastically cut the number of people in the marketplace for books;
2) with all the possible author web-sites, it will be ever more difficult to be sure to find new authors one might be interested in. No-one will know whether a link appearing in Google when they're searching for "mystery novels" (for example) will contain crap or excellence, and life is way too short to be able to seek out all possible good literature. And with anybody being able to put their own work up on web-sites with no vetting as to quality or readability, the world of literature, should it try to follow this new world order, will be in total disarray for a while until entrepreneurs figure out how to develop their portals and advertise their portals as having only quality literature -- this will simply result in new electronic "publishers" which will need to make a profit to keep their portals up and to be able to have the time to filter the crap from the gold, and will need editors to help the unpolished gems develop into lustrous wonders we'll all want to read. We'll end up with publishers just as we have them now, they'll just have a different name but they'll still add their profit to the cost of the literature;
3) many (most?) of the current authors are not all that keen on ebooks -- I've contacted all my current favorite authors to encourage them to get their books on the Connect ebookstore and several have said they have no interest at all in doing it, and most have said something to the effect of "Wow, maybe I'll have to look into it" and NONE of them have said "Thank you for showing me this great new marketplace, I'll get my publisher to put all my books there at once!" The book world is very old-fashioned, so it'll take some time before authors will all get on the ebook bandwagon.

In the meantime, publishers, as always, will remain a necessary "evil" in the world of books, either paper or electronic.
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Old 08-18-2007, 10:02 AM   #13
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What did we get from Desktop Publishing? That is text processors like word got layout features for dummies.
We simply got real bad texts because there are real professions behind the various stages of book production.
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Old 08-18-2007, 11:25 AM   #14
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I think that if authors can post their books on open portals, more people may notice them and start encouraging them to produce better works. Very few aspiring writers dream right away of earning money from their work. Most simply want the recognition of their talent, want to bring their ideas to the world around them and going through the publishing house sieve may be too difficult a test to pass by the starting author.
But they can do that now. And they do. And it hasn't put publishers out of business, yet, for all the reasons that have been pointed out in this thread.

If you're looking to portals to filter the content, Amazon is a bad example. Most of the information that anyone pays attention to on Amazon comes from the publishers. Or it comes from professional review sources who get the books, synopses, and teasers from the publishers. Most people only hear about the book because the publisher advertised it, or because it had a nice display in a bookstore. That display, of course, was produced and printed with advertising dollars from the publisher. It also got placed there because the publisher gave a financial incentive to the bookstore to use their valuable floor space.

If you're thinking that user-generated content will take care of separating the wheat from the chaff, that's probably not going to work either. When somerandomsite.com becomes the vehicle by which most people choose their books, there will be a lot of incentive to game the system. It happens now. Epinions, cnet, Digg--every one of them has been astroturfed into uselessness. The user comments on Amazon are faked on a regular basis. It just isn't going to work.

I disagree about the motivations of most beginning writers. Many, yes, are willing to follow the long road of gaining recognition through their talent, because they simply have to write. But a great, great many start out firmly convinced that all they have to do is throw some words together and they will suddenly get discovered and become famous and influential. They don't want to write, they just want to be writers.
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