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Old 04-26-2010, 10:29 AM   #1
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Publishers - Gatekeepers or facilitators?

Hi Guys.

I thought my latest blogpost might be of interest to some -

I was asked to speak at an eBook event last week in Cork and there was some great debate before during and after as is the wont at these types of events. I also read an interesting article by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times examining the ipad and publishing. (I cant find a link to the article online so I’ll do my best to be accurate to the printed version.)

Both the event and the article raised some interesting questions and had much in common. I’d like to add my take on them here.

eBook Potential
Bryan quotes Bloomsbury’s estimate of eBooks attaining a ceiling of 30% of the book market. He states ” I think the answer is higher than 30%…..An electronic reader is not a different thing from a book, it simply delivers books in a different way. If people like that way, then the sky is the limit.”
Thats a really interesting point. I have been arguing for some time now that the real value of a publisher or authors title is the content, not the context and I think Bryan is arguing along the same lines here.
A smart publisher I spoke with last week has been converting their titles to ePub/xml over the past number of months. They arent about to make any earth shattering moves in the market, but they are getting prepared for a future when the dust settles. Having your content in xml allows you to slice and dice your content in any way you like in the future.
While I think their move is a good one in the current scheme of things, I wonder if such a conservative policy will pay off in the long term. Do you need to act decisively now and back a format/model or do you hold back, ready but uncertain and perhaps lacking a little direction? Is it possible to move forward while standing still? It is hard to run a business with no definite goal, however temporary that target may be. These are just some of the pressing questions facing publishers today.

Publishing Irrelevance
Another concept proposed last week was that publishers are moving towards a future of granting and maintaining licenses rather than traditional rights packages. Many cannot afford to hire in or outsource the required technical knowledge to produce apps, interactive eBooks and the likes. So they might as well grant the license to a third party who can. While there seems to be a short-term economic reasoning to this, I cant help but think that receiving as little as 15-20% of the revenue from your content before paying expenses and authors is a large slice of the pie to be giving away. I’m basing the 20% on several real world examples I know of.

I’m no economist, but lets look at it logically;

Option one;
An app costs a publisher $5000 to produce. (less if its in-house)
They retail the app at $5.99 in the app store. Give or take, thats at a profit of 4.00 or so. Recouping their initial investment requires sales of 1250 eBooks/Apps, but means an income in the interim.
Next 1000 sales earns publisher $4000
Total income over 2250 units = $9000

Option 2:
3rd party developer licenses title at 20% net to publisher.
Cost of development to Publisher – $0
20% of net as above – .80c – (often only earned after cost of development re-couped)
Sale of 1250 titles earns the publisher max $1000.
next 1000 sales earns publisher $800
Total income over 2250 units = $1800

Is $1000 in the short term really enough incentive to give away your content to a 3rd party over whom you have virtually no editorial or artistic control? I appreciate that few titles willl sell in the volume above, but its still a valid comparison.

Jon Reed quotes Kate Wilson of Noisy Crow in his blog “If we don’t produce digital content, there are plenty of men in basements in Basingstoke in their pants who will.” The argument is “publishers can learn a lot from other industries who have engaged sooner with digital” and that they must act or “Those publishers not doing this – well, your author can do it anyway and disintermediate you.”

No more gatekeepers
This leads me back to another point I raised last week – that Publishers are no longer the gate-keepers of the industry and must adapt to become the facilitators or risk irrelevance. What do I mean by this? Continued here
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Old 04-27-2010, 12:24 AM   #2
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well yeah, when books were paper the publisher was there to get them printed.....a press costs a lot of money, paper is another big expense, ink, machine operators etc...............now thier materials investment is sooo much smaller. in fact the average person could actualy manage it..........maybe publishers will go the way typesetters did when computer fonts came out.......there's a business that literaly disappeared overnight
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Old 04-27-2010, 08:25 AM   #3
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As someone who's read the infamous slush pile (and seen excerpts from PublishAmerica books, and worked at a POD publishing service) I firmly believe in the importance of publishers as both gatekeepers and facilitators.

Truth is, there really is a ton of unreadable dreck out there and you need someone to go through it. I prefer books that have been vetted by commercial publishers because that does usually mean the book meets a minimum standard of spelling and grammar. It may still be dreck, but at least I know it's written in readable English.

Publishers also serve as facilitators, getting bookstore placement and promotion in the trade press.

I think they're vital to the health of the industry.
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Old 04-27-2010, 08:35 AM   #4
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I see publishers as the same as the music business who try to smash and legislate any new and innovative technology advance out of existence. If were up to the music industry we would all still be buying records and the book publishers want us to by printed books.
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Old 04-27-2010, 08:35 AM   #5
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Publishers are a link in the food chain. When it was clear what they did, what they contributed, no-one begrudged feeding them (though there might have been questions about how much of the food they were taking!). Now it's not so clear what their real contribution is - this is not to say that they don't make one, it's perhaps just less obvious - this raises questions about whether or not they actually earn their keep. Ultimately it's down to publishers to show their worth - and they do that best by actually making a contribution, not by simply trying to persuade everyone that they are, and bleating on about how unfair the world is to them (this last comment is really just about the big ones).
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Old 04-27-2010, 09:24 AM   #6
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Publishers are a link in the food chain. When it was clear what they did, what they contributed, no-one begrudged feeding them (though there might have been questions about how much of the food they were taking!). Now it's not so clear what their real contribution is - this is not to say that they don't make one, it's perhaps just less obvious - this raises questions about whether or not they actually earn their keep. Ultimately it's down to publishers to show their worth - and they do that best by actually making a contribution, not by simply trying to persuade everyone that they are, and bleating on about how unfair the world is to them (this last comment is really just about the big ones).
The real problem here is that when a publisher does their job well, much of their contribution is invisible: you only notice it when it's not done or is done poorly.

Anyone who has read slush understands just how important the "gate-keeping" and editorial functions of a publisher really are. Baen thrives because of this: it's not simply their approach to ebooks, but also the fact they do have a consistent editorial policy and the fact that I, and many other readers, know that if we're looking for a certain kind of book we can go to Baen knowing that the majority of their offerings in that subcategory will be enjoyable reads.

Early DAW books with the yellow spines worked the same way. I read lots of them because they published the sort of fiction I liked and I knew it.

PublishAmerica, on the other hand, publishes essentially any book that is sent to them. They have no editorial control and no one acts as a gatekeeper. The end result is wildly variable quality, and some books which are so badly written (from a basic English standpoint) that they are effectively unreadable.

The only real way to tell a good publisher is to look at your bookshelves after the fact, and see how many of their titles are on your shelves. If you have a lot, chances are they're good.
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Old 04-27-2010, 09:43 AM   #7
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@Lemuion

I think the points you make are all valid and they point to the fact that it doesn't really make sense to talk of publishers en masse any more (did it ever?). I basically read two types of books - academic texts and what I would snobbishly but apologetically call literary fiction.

The academic publishers engage anonymous reviewers to inform their publishing decisions, seem to spend very little on copy editing and charge through the nose for what they expect to be mostly low circulation books. This part of the industry seems intimately tied up with academic career progression and tenure - publish all the papers you want in peer reviewed journals but unless you get a book out every so often you'll likely be stuck with an associate professorship. In some ways it's a classy form of vanity publishing.

With regard to literary fiction, it used to be the case that the publisher was a kind of guarantor of what I was going to find when I encountered a new author. I'm not sure this is true any more.

When it comes to ebooks the situation seems to get even worse - not only can I not rely on publishers to vouchsafe for the quality of what I read, the formatting is likely to be rubbish and they want to dictate to me what I can do with the ebook that I thought I was buying from them but it turns out I was just licensing it. It's in this sense that I meant publishers have to show that they are making a contribution.
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Old 04-27-2010, 10:07 AM   #8
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An interesting article.


http://ireaderreview.com/2010/04/27/...s-looking-for/
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Old 04-27-2010, 10:21 AM   #9
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I wrote about this problem, the problem of ebooks and the downfall of literature at An American Editor last Thursday. The article provoked a lot of controversy at various websites, with most commenters applauding the floodgate approach and deploring the gatekeeper approach to publishing. As a result of the comments and the hornet's nest I stirred, I have written a 4-part further exploration of the problem. The first article appears today at An American Editor, and the others will follow this week.

Among the questions to be resolved are these:
  • What literary legacy do we want to pass on to our great-grandchildren?
  • How do we find and identify the new John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, or Ernest Hemingway in the absence of a gatekeeper?

There is no question that anyone who wants to write and publish should be free to do so IF we have a way to build a consensus as to what newly published work is great literature. As it stands now, in the absence of traditional publishers we have no way to build that consensus. The idea that the Internet community can do it by word of mouth (or word of twittering) is ludicrous -- at least today.

I encourage those interested in the subject to read the articles at An American Editor and express their views.
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Old 04-27-2010, 10:26 AM   #10
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But one focused on the hardware aspects of the problem, not the gatekeeping role and separation of dreck from literature.
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Old 04-27-2010, 10:40 AM   #11
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Publishers are interested in separating people from their money. The rest is up to others.

If they were interested in 'literature', they wouldn't be in business.
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Old 04-27-2010, 10:44 AM   #12
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There is no question that anyone who wants to write and publish should be free to do so IF we have a way to build a consensus as to what newly published work is great literature. As it stands now, in the absence of traditional publishers we have no way to build that consensus. The idea that the Internet community can do it by word of mouth (or word of twittering) is ludicrous -- at least today.

I encourage those interested in the subject to read the articles at An American Editor and express their views.
That makes no sense. A general consensus from interested people can't make a consensus? That would certainly appear to be a ludicrous statement. You are implying that there exists some nebulous group of people not using twitter that are much, much smarter than the rest of us, and able to do so? That is definitely ludicrous.

So what, the only people that can do it are old white American luddites that write each other notes in pen and ink delivered by peasants on bicycles or something along those lines?
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Old 04-27-2010, 11:51 AM   #13
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Publishers are interested in separating people from their money. The rest is up to others.

If they were interested in 'literature', they wouldn't be in business.
Publishers love literature: it keeps selling for decades.
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Old 04-27-2010, 12:17 PM   #14
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That makes no sense. A general consensus from interested people can't make a consensus? That would certainly appear to be a ludicrous statement. You are implying that there exists some nebulous group of people not using twitter that are much, much smarter than the rest of us, and able to do so? That is definitely ludicrous.

So what, the only people that can do it are old white American luddites that write each other notes in pen and ink delivered by peasants on bicycles or something along those lines?
It's impossible for anyone to help build a consensus about something they do not know exists. The problem with twitter and the internet in general is that it tends toward fragmentation and multiple non-intersecting communities rather than a single whole.

Without some form of filtering mechanism it's too easy for great works to get lost in the background noise. No one has the time to search the internet for every single novel that aspiring authors have posted - let alone read them all - and because the perfect book may be posted on a single web page with no inbound links it may be effectively unfindable.

The current system is by no means perfect, but there does need to be some winnowing and filtration system in effect or even more great works will be lost in the ocean of background noise than are now.
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Old 04-27-2010, 12:17 PM   #15
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Originally Posted by rhadin View Post

There is no question that anyone who wants to write and publish should be free to do so IF we have a way to build a consensus as to what newly published work is great literature. As it stands now, in the absence of traditional publishers we have no way to build that consensus. The idea that the Internet community can do it by word of mouth (or word of twittering) is ludicrous -- at least today.
I have qualifications in English and Education, am an avid reader and own an eBook store and publishing services firm and I still struggle to accept that a published work is great literature because the consensus says so. I enjoy Michael Connolly, Shakespeare, Chandler, and Cormac McCarthy in equal measure. I love Military history, thrillers, drama and the odd bit of poetry. Different styles and genres mean different things to me, but all are enjoyed. I will equally put down a great published work if I dislike it or don't "get it."
Why do we have to be so decisive and divisive on these issues?

Take the internet for example - there must be billions of webpages out there, most of which are of no interest or little value to me. I therefore choose and visit regularly the sites that I consider of interest and benefit to me! ( Take a bow MR )

It's exactly the same with books and eBooks. We all gravitate to what we enjoy and while the net presents us now with a huge range of choice in a seemingly impersonal wilderness, we are actually forming tighter groups and relationships than anyone realises. Recommendations online count for a huge number of my purchases and I am seldom dissapointed. The cream does rise to the top - just depends on your flavour.

What I'm trying to say I guess is why try and dictate what someone should read or what constitutes a classic? And equally, why argue about it?

Each to their own and let diversity and individuality continue to be one of the biggest benefits the internet has given us.
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