Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Changing Role of Publishers

Every day there are new views and discussions about the changing role of publishing, While browsing for the latest developments, I found this August, 2014 article "Authors should back Amazon in the battle with Hachette" by John Kay in The Financial Times. Kay's article is about change, the value of publishers and the strengthened role of authors. He describes the ebook controversy between Amazon and Hachette, which last summer was still unresolved after months of negotiations, - see also my June, 2014 blog post The Amazon - Hachette Saga -and he disagrees with a group of leading Hachette authors who wrote an open letter intervening in that dispute. Kay believes the authors should understand that they are benefiting from Amazon's technology and distribution capabilities. Although the dispute between Hachette and Amazon has been resolved (see this November article in The New York Times,) Kay makes some worthwhile points. In his view it's all about change and how publishers and authors - and readers for that matter - deal with this ongoing change in the publishing landscape. He states (underlining added by undersigned):

"....Established companies in all industries are inhibited in their response to radical change by vested interests inherent in their existing business models. Music publishers tried to block new technologies, and were marginalised by better-run businesses: Apple, Walmart and Spotify. Book publishers responded initially with dismal reproductions on screen of their printed books. When these failed to sell, they retired into protecting the status quo........... 

....The role of the book publisher has been based on control of access to channels of distribution. The ambition of the aspirant author has always been to “get published”. Along with the decision as to what should be published, the company has traditionally provided a collection of associated services: identification, support and finance of the underlying literary project, editing of the draft manuscript, and marketing and promotion of the finished work. But the large conglomerates that have come to dominate publishing are run by people who love money more than they love books. These support-activities have been cut back in the interest of maximising the revenue, from control of access to distribution. "

Kay continues by saying:

"......Today’s bestseller lists are filled with imitations of books that have already been successful; footballer’s memoirs, celebrity chefs, vampires and female-oriented erotic literature."  I couldn't agree more, how many more celebrity chefs and recipes do we actually need?

".......Such publishers are ill-placed for the new environment. I do not know the extent to which the printed book will remain extant in two decades. But enough eBooks are already being sold to signify that being published by a company such as Hachette or Penguin Random House  is no longer critical."

In my view, Kay would be surprised to see how many printed books will still be sold and read twenty years from now, but at the same time it's clear that authors increasingly will find multiple ways to get published, also thanks to the advent of eBooks.

"What matters to the success or failure of a book is the quality of conception and execution of the underlying project, the competence of the editing, and the effectiveness of marketing and promotion. Most new self-published titles fail these tests; in particular, the lack of a competent editor is often obvious. But this is also true of many titles now published by established houses.

Some existing publishers will thrive on the basis of their strengths in author support services. But most will not. Savvy and well-advised authors, often helped by agents, will be able to buy editing and marketing skills with the receipts from a much larger share of the sales proceeds than the traditional royalty model allows. "

Kay ends as follows:

"Change is rarely an unequivocal benefit. But the (Hachette) authors who signed the open letter have missed the most significant business consequence of the evolution of the book industry. The author will now be placed where he or she should be – in charge."

Notwithstanding my agreement with several points Kay is making, I don't believe that every author wants to do everything by themselves and I believe they will need support and expertise from professionals. Neither is every author a Stephen King who can fund and execute his own publishing activities better than even big publishers. Biased and hopeful as I am, I believe that Cosimo Books (note: of which I am the publisher) is one of those publishers that are well-placed for the future and will continue to expand its role as publishing partner and supporter of our authors, new and old.

What do you think about the changing role of publishers and the future of publishing? Have a look at what some publishers said at last year's London Book Fair, and let me know what you expect for 2015 and beyond.

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