My point is not that we should not stop experimenting with new author contracts, transparency, formats, trade terms, or marketing — we need to try new things and be allowed to fail. But this should not come at the expense of consistently good, interesting (and inexpensive) books.
I encourage you to read the post. It’s a summary of things that have been and are being tried to in order to gain a toehold in the new publishing reality, but — as Dan points out — it’s also a reminder that the basic problem is not one of process but product. What is it that is the publishing industry should be selling?
In the comments to the post, I wrote this:
…if the industry needs to contract on the basis of content alone (ignoring other obvious reasons driving a coming contraction) — it seems to me that the internet is a useful mechanism by which that contraction can be managed, as opposed to happening at a more precipitous rate.
I think it’s clear that corporate publishing cannot continue in its present form. It’s top-heavy and badly listing, and sooner or later economic pressures are going to take their toll. Thinking about this over the weekend, it seems to me that even as the internet is the instigator of many of publishing’s woes, it’s also a relief valve of sorts in that it allows publishers to connect readers with content, while at the same time being more (appropriately) selective about which content is turned into physical books. (Note how completely this distinction seems to be lost in the current publishing dialogue at the corporate level, while it is at the heart of discussions at the authorial level.)
Following this line of thought, I think there’s something to be said for aggressively trying to develop the e-book market as a kind of minor leagues, whereby authors might demonstrate economic fitness for p-book publication by generating e-book sales. Given that many book publishers are still trying to perpetuate the p-book business model in denial of the new digital reality I’m sure organizational resistance to going down this road would be fierce, as would the blow-back from bookstore owners.
Still, I see this as an inevitable step. In fact, I cannot imagine a future in which a stable e-book market does not regularly transition a certain amount of product to the p-book realm. Blogs (and the internet) were originally dismissed by mainstream media, only to become central to the aims and pursuits of everything from local and national politics to cable news itself. By the same token, e-books will soon be part of a vertical book-publishing pipeline, and I think are benefits to be had by those companies that anticipate and integrate this pipeline into their organizations.
If all of this is inevitable, and if the main corporate players do not have the intestinal will to try this (at the admitted risk of utter failure), the question becomes one of timing and opportunity. Traditionally, the way in which this kind of industry-wide pressure is released is through mergers, where words like consolidation and synergy mask the obvious aim of slashing payroll costs and diminishing costs associated with competition. (Here you might consider the parallels between publishing and the airline industry, where mergers are both frequent and fruitless.)
If I was trying to position myself to launch what would essentially be a minor-league e-book imprint for a p-book publisher, I would be looking for any sign of an industry merger on the horizon. Between the inanity of the resulting Wall St. cheers and the relief of those who manage to avoid the axe, there might be an opportunity to propose such a forward-looking experiment.
Update: Yesterday Random House merged two large in-house imprints into one. I make no pretense of understanding what this might mean in terms of cost savings or jobs lost, but I do think this is a sign of things to come. If you can’t remake the market in your own image through marketing or innovation, you pretty much have to remake your own image. Given publishing’s deep institutional resistance to embracing the opportunities inherent in digital technology, I would think we’ll see a round of high-profile mergers before we see any serious corporate attempt to adapt to the new realities in the marketplace.
— Mark Barrett