Friday, June 12, 2015

Will publishers go the way of the dinosaur?

It has become popular (mostly in self-publishing circles) to declare the end of the traditional publishing establishment.

The most common metaphor here involves those extinct reptiles. (Google “publishers are dinosaurs” and see how many hits you get.)

So let’s consider the question: Will publishers go the way of the dinosaur?

The short answer is: probably not. What we will see, rather, is a literary economy in which it makes sense for some authors to self-publish, while others will fare better with so-called “legacy” or “traditional” publishers. Yes, this means those dreaded “gatekeepers” in New York.

There is much wrong with the traditional publishing system. Compared to industries like manufacturing, the traditional publishing industry is clubby, inefficient, and often more committed to ideological aims than economic ones. (These are all reasons why traditionally published books remain more expensive than they should be.)

But the flaws in the traditional publishing industry do not automatically make self-publishing a panacea.

From the writer’s perspective:

In this section, we’ll consider the self- vs. traditional publishing from the perspective of writers. Then we’ll examine the issue from the perspective of readers, and the overall structure of book retailing.

The primary obstacles for self-published authors are no longer editing, cover design, and the cost-effective production of books.

The technical expertise provided by New York legacy publishers is now within the reach of independents. Freelance artists, editors, and book designers now ply their trade on the Internet, and can be hired for fees that make them accessible to individual authors. And the advent of e-publishing erased the economies-of-scale barrier that once made self-publishing a horrendously expensive proposition.

The problem, rather, is one of marketing.

Yes, the “m-word”. But why is the m-word so important? What does the m-word really mean?

Rather than think in terms of the “m-word”, it might be better to think in terms of the “p-word”: platform. Given the profusion of books in the marketplace, every writer requires a platform in order to succeed.

Platform is more readily attainable for some authors than for others. A nonfiction author who specializes in stamp collecting books can easily build her own platform. She can produce web videos about stamp collecting and post them to YouTube as tie-ins to her books. She can set up a website filled with content that will be of interest to stamp collectors, etc.

For fiction authors, the problem of platform is a much more difficult one. Most of the fiction authors who have become Internet darlings have done so with nonfiction content before they successfully published fiction.

This usually requires a blog, YouTube channel, or a regular column on an established website. Once an author is well known as an Internet personality, it is fairly easy for him to get his books in front of potential readers. But the platform has to come first. And that will take time, effort, and a skillfully executed strategy. The marketplace for online attention is even more crowded than the marketplace for book readership.

A few self-published fiction authors (I emphasize the word few) have managed to lure readers to podcasts, etc. that specifically showcase their fiction. But this strategy requires a lot of content that one is willing to give away, along with the ability and willingness to market it.

Most novelists, both by temperament and training, are ill-prepared to engage in aggressive online hucksterism. They are by nature introverts. And they regard marketing as a philistine undertaking.

The result of all these factors is that the single author of the single novel probably stands a better chance of success with the traditional publishing system. Why? Because a publisher can provide the platform that most self-published fiction authors will struggle to create.

Simply being listed in a publisher’s catalog makes a book a part of the publisher’s platform. Many genre publishers in particular (science fiction, romance) already maintain highly trafficked websites that are frequented by readers with those particular interests.

The big problem for the independently published author, then (assuming that he or she is a competent writer to begin with) is not the production of books. The problem is gaining the time and attention of readers. And this one is huge.

The solution is to have a platform (in addition to a good book). And platform-building is a very difficult task in a crowded marketplace—especially for fiction authors who have a small number of titles.

These authors will continue to enjoy greater chances of success, on average, with the “dinosaurs” of legacy publishing.

To be continued...

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