Mark Terry

Monday, June 09, 2008

Do We Need Publishers?

June 9, 2008
Over on Murderati, there's a post asking if publishers are important. I made a rather long-winded response, which is this:

The key issue here is this:

Who's the customer?

If you define the customer as the bookstore and the library, then yes, they care a great deal.

If you define the customers as the enduser, ie., reader, then I would say it probably depends.

For the typical reader who picks up a book at the local Kmart or Sam's Club--no, probably doesn't matter at all. In fact, they only seem to care whether it has James Patterson's name on the cover, and don't care one iota if he actually wrote the book or not. And you can now apply that to Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy and a number of other authors. When you look at that, it seems that the enduser JUST DOESN'T CARE.

There's certainly a percentage, albeit small, of readers who are very attuned to publishing brand names, but I can't think of anyone who might go to a Borders to buy the latest Bantam. Still, in academic circles a certain type of nonfiction is going to have credibility based on its publisher.

With larger publishers doing very little marketing, (and in many cases seemingly very little editing) it becomes harder and harder to tell exactly what it is a publisher does. It seems to boil down to packaging--typesetting, cover art--and distribution. Typesetting is getting easier and easier and cover art is done successfully by small presses and places like iUniverse, so the key component must be distribution. And with the advent of Amazon et al., it gets harder and harder to discern exactly what it is that big publishers do.

What do you think?


Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
Well . . . I guess I give it a qualified "it depends."

Realistically speaking, instead of hypothetically, the distribution and packaging aspect is enormous. Distribution will kill you (i.e., without it, you are essentially a non-entity).

In terms of quality though, I also have to say that being on the front lines of people approaching me for editing, of publishers hiring me to edit, of reading through slush piles for a couple of smaller publishers, the level of delusion of most people who want to be published is quite high. So . . . there is a bar that a publisher sets, and thus there's some element of books hopefully representing what we hope is the best.

NOW . . . we all know that's not always so. We know great writers who can't get a deal. We know published writers whose work is not high quality. But in the end, without publishers, there's an element of chaos and free-for-all. If you want an example, randomly order any five novels off of PublishAmerica or some such . . . and tell me differently.


7:33 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

(Sorry to go on in advance. I'm just thinking out loud. This has been on my mind.)

I think the need will diminish as time goes on. If you have the money to front (or talent to create) the cover art and can front for editing, then, if the tipping point of e-books occurs, we'll need publishers less and less. Then it will be more about where you rank in search engine searches. If you're on the front page for a popular keyword, you won't need a publisher. If publishers are on the front page, then you'll need the publisher to get there.

It comes down to what you can do for yourself and what you can't. If you manage it on your own, then cool. If not, then you need someone else. (Just like distribution.)

Also, with social media and Amazon's system or ranking and learning buying patterns and recommending books, there's in-place ways of allowing the "cream to rise to the top," without relying on publishers to select the cream.

I don't know what the future will bring, of course. I am holding my breath, hoping it will work out better for authors than the current system.

As a side note, even one of my tiny pubs is looking at the big pubs and saying that they're going to decrease what they're paying authors because if big pub can, they can.

Sometimes, it feels like they're trying to squeeze as much as they can from the author, you know? I think it's the wrong place to look, because, frankly, it's the authors who are keeping them in business. They wouldn't have anything to make money off of without authors. I take making my publisher money very seriously. I worry about it, especially when she writes me bemoaning her bills and such. I think of it as a partnership, I guess. They think of us, sometimes I feel, as roaches taking part of their profits.

If SEO does become a determining factor, then self-publishing will take off for better and better authors, and big publishers will have to offer more of an incentive for authors to use them. That would be interesting.

I also find it interesting that about 15,000 people a day perform some search related to romance novels/books/authors/romances. And only harlequin and Liquid Silver Books, comes up on the first page. To me, that's 15,000 people looking for a product, and not much fight to reach those 15,000 people. (Only one author is advertising, and she has been for awhile. It's on my list to contact her, but ... it must be working out for her. But only one???)

I've been thinking about this a lot. I think it's a good idea to prepare for some things, just in case, to position oneself in advance.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I agree with you, actually.

I reviewed books for ForeWord Magazine for a couple years--they focus on independent and self-published titles (although it's not clear to me now or then if they actually differentiate between indie and self-published).

There are a number of small presses that have very high quality. There is a lot of total crap coming out of self-published publishers.

So yes, it would seem that one of the primary reasons publishers exist is to draw the line at quality. But what I wondered in my post was whether or not it mattered to readers--and I try to keep track of publishers and I can't keep track of all the various imprints within various large publishers. I've been noticing a lot of bestselling nonfiction and fiction lately by publishers I've never heard of, only to find upon a little investigation that they're new imprints of (typically) Random or someone else.

So I suspect it matters a lot to booksellers and libraries and not so much to readers, although if enough crap gets published and nobody knows who to turn to, I suppose it'll be a mess.

And yes, as I've discovered the hard way, distribution is pretty much everything. No matter how great Amazon may be (and I order a fair number of books from them), distribution to bookstores and big box stores like WalMart and Sam's Club et al can be a dealbreaker in terms of a writing career.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Ah geez Spy, don't get me going on small presses and their contracts. The ones offered me over the last few years have had all sorts of problems with them.

I'm often puzzled (and dismayed) that there often feels like there's a sense from publishers that they'd "love the publishing business if it weren't for those demanding hard-to-get-along-with authors."

And there does seem to be some truth to the notion that the majority of published authors are totally replaceable... if they're only selling a few thousand copies each book, we can easily replace them with someone else who will only sell a few thousand copies, so they shouldn't make many demands.

The trend has been for quite some time to publish few authors that sell more copies. But I'm starting to wonder if what we're going to see are major publishers publishing only bestselling authors that can sell 75,000 in hardcover and 500,000 in mass market paperback, and everybody else is pretty much going to be published by small presses that sell anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 copies in whatever format they can pull off.

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think readers care or pay any attention to who publishes books but unless it is distributed widely by a big publisher readers aren't likely to see it.

I do think that the day is coming when the conglomerates will only publish a limited number of bestsellers and smaller presses will publish everything else, and for writers (who aren't trying to make a living) and folks really into reading and good books that will be terrific. Actually, it might turn out that more writers will be able to make a living if most books are published by smaller presses who aren't blowing all their resources on chasing bestsellers.

I figure someday publishers will offer a limited number of new models every year, like car manufacturers. The new King model, the new Patterson. Instead of a line of SUVs there'll be a line of thrillers etc with only a few selections -- so that each will be a bestseller.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

There have recently been a couple attempts in this direction, the most notable being Vantage Press, which was started up by a former head of Warner, I believe it was. They attracted a number of name-brand bestselling thriller authors like David Morrell. Part of the deal was apparently to publish a lot fewer books and concentrate on marketing the books hand-in-hand with the author, an attempt to make each book's publication "an event." I've spoken with both David Morrell and Tom Grace about this and they were pretty enthusiastic, particularly since both were marginalized in terms of marketing by their publishers once their sales hit a plateau (a damned high plateau, I would add).

IF it is a successful business model, I can see a lot of publishers going that route, focusing on the name brands and essentially ignoring everybody else. Rather like the movie industry in a lot of ways--the studios put out fewer movies but expect each one to make a fortune in the first weekend.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh, and apparently part of the deal with the authors was lower advances but higher royalties. Or so goes the rumor.

11:27 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Am I wrong? I could VERY possibly be wrong, but I have stuck in my head that Vantage Press offered no advance, high royalties (much higher), and, in lieu of the advance, something like at least $50,000 in marketing money?

This is a hazy memory. But it's there. :-)

Btw, I think the idea is AWESOME. Whatever I read about Vantage Press, I remember being absolutely thrilled with the idea.

12:24 PM  
Blogger The Dark Scribe said...

Speaking of, David Morrell's last couple have been quite successful. When I worked at the bookstore, his releases did not just show up in a box. They showed up with copies for booksellers, flyers, bookmarks, promotional materials, etc. And they sold really well, which was strange only because thrillers NEVER sold in that store.

So maybe Vantage is on to something. If it works, one would hope that the big pubs don't try to bully it around out of fear that the market will force acquiesence.

5:19 AM  
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