Can We Make Publishing Better, Faster, Stronger?

By Neal Comment

Yesterday, prompted by Jon Karp‘s WaPo article, I asked what it would take for the successful techniques of small independent publishers to be scaled up to Big Publishing. “It really wouldn’t be very hard,” Soft Skull‘s Richard Nash replied, “since they’re already doing it in children’s books, they’re already doing it by providing client distribution services to other publishers and they’re already doing it in sales by establishing corporate-wide organizations to supply sales services to the existing imprints.”

“The corporate publishers have to convert themselves into distributors akin to Perseus/PGW [and] Consortium,” Nash continued,” except that they also provide editorial, design and production services, and they provide office space and human resources support. But editorial and marketing/publicity gets disaggregated into multiple imprints. Each has a budget, anyone can get fired for not staying within budget or not have a plausible explanation as to why budget will be made, and then some, in the subsequent fiscal year. (That is, approximating the fiscal discipline of the average independent publisher.)

“To make this work there would be one critical adjustment to make, which is to ignore those agents who play publisher egos off one another and convince them when they’ve overpaid for yet another debut novel that they’ve ‘won,’ that they ‘beat’ the other house. However, I believe that having the smaller imprints will render more transparent those who know how to reach an audience, and be profitable, compared to those who just know how to ‘win’ auctions. As a result, kudos will go to those folks who are reaching their audiences, rather than to the editor whose strengths lie in talking the suits into writing big checks.”

As Nash sees it, “Corporate publishers have the talent, the sales force, the publicists, the management information systems, they just need to realize that while things are not yet fucked in the publishing business… [W]hile it might seem for each senior management person that they’ve more to lose by rocking the boat than by holding tight, you don’t want to be trying to turn the aircraft carrier into the flotilla of destroyers while sales are down 10 percent like in the music business and you’re getting strafed from above.”

But another reader wonders: Is Karp’s scenario missing a key component?

“As I read Karp’s piece, he seems to have left out a very important point,” came an anonymous email yesterday. “With the advent of dgital books the big advance will go away. Why? Because there will be so many books and entertainment options to choose from that it would be foolish to pay a large advance. The more options that a person has in a digital format the less likely that person is to hone in on one specific title, thus paying a large advance seems counter-productive. In the near future, a book will not be thing to be treasured, but merely a file to be produced and shared. Whoever heard of paying a large advance for that? Books are a niche product today because most people do not read, but that will even be more the case in the future. Karp is right, quality is the way and that puts books in line with expensive wine, classical music and euro-sports cars. They serve and will continue to serve a small, but select audience.”

Shades of Ursula K. Le Guin‘s argument in Harper’s at the beginning of the year, no?