Like petals in the wind, we’re puppets to the silver
strings of souls, of changes
— from Changes, by Phil Ochs
One concern (paranoid obsession?) of the publishing industry is going the same route as the music industry. I’ll grant you that quoting my favorite song of all time is a bit obvious. However, the parallels do jump out at you. The common thread comes back to the democratization (for lack of a better word) offered by changes in technology. And though Phil wanted desperately to be a star, I think he would have liked the idea of the people having more power.
The dynamic in the music industry changed radically when technology became available for artists to record and sell their content directly to a (potentially) wide audience without the machinery of a big record company. Getting their songs on iTunes or selling it thru their own websites was a whole new avenue. Very often, the record company machinery offered, at best, physical distribution of a record or disc; and, at worst, a beast that made more money than the artists off their work. Not every artist has abandoned the major labels—Springsteen still records for Columbia, Neil Young still works with Reprise, etc. But, for example, artistShare came into existence several years ago allowing artists to really control their work and get funding from fans for works in progress in exchange for autographed CDs, inside looks at the process, etc. I made a small contribution toward Maria Schneider’s last project.
Self-publishing has always existed, of course. In fact, there have been companies to help authors self-publish. Not exactly the contradiction that it sounds like. Authors pay a modest fee and their book is published, skipping the whole process of getting an agent, convincing a publisher to publish your opus, etc.
As Jim Sturdivant has pointed out, publishers ARE beginning to adapt to the increase in self-publishing and, in fact, have discovered that it provides potential new revenue for them. But as Matthew Ingram writes, this all suggests a tilt in power toward the author. And he writes of one author who is still represented by a major publisher, but is also very successful as a self-publisher.
Publishers are now not only competing with each other for talent, they are competing with the author. In some cases, an author must be convinced that they need what the publisher has to offer—higher-quality production if needed (perhaps), better marketing (probably), wider distribution (definitely).
All of this adds to the evidence that the old models of publishing are crumbling, changing, adapting … pick your adjective, depending on your perspective. “Inevitable” is the word that springs to mind for me. And I continue to keep my fingers crossed that publishers will QUICKLY figure out a business model and how to move to that business model that allows them to succeed going forward.
Another change we’re seeing due to e-books and changing technology is the “traditional” publishing plan. As Julie Bosman writes in the NY Times, it used to be that the trade hardcover would be released, and then a year later the paperback would come. But now we are seeing the hardcover, simultaneous release of the e-book, and publishers bringing out the paperback (sometimes) only six months after the hardcover.
With so much attention being given that initial print and digital release, publishers are feeling the need to make sure the paperback buyer is still being served. This also speaks to, what we have all seen, an increase in the speed of publishing cycles. Books are published on shorter schedules, the e-book must be simultaneous, and the books have less time to succeed before they get pushed aside for the next book.
As Bosman points out, pricing between e-books and paperbacks has also grown closer, forcing both consumers and publishers to rethink strategies. With the e-book, generally, priced lower than the printed hardcover, what becomes of that hardcover in the future? Does the choice become between the e-book and the paperback? And the hardcover becomes something that publishers must do, like a marketing piece?
I’m tossing out speculative questions about this, but these are some of the issues at the core of what both customers and the industry are grappling with. Nobody knows the answers, and those answers will change with time, anyway. Another reflection of those ongoing changes we’re all going through.
He is currently Production Director for Teachers College Press. Previously, he was Vice President, Global Content and Media Production for Cengage Learning. Prior to that he was Vice President of Production and Manufacturing for Oxford University Press, Pearson/Prentice Hall, Worth Publishers and HarperCollins.
In those capacities, he has been a leader in managing process and content for delivery in as many ways possible.