Sunday, 19 April 2009

The new post-recession landscape of publishing

Please note, there are no value judgements in this post. I’m not saying publishing has to change, or ought to change – nor am I saying the current way is bad, or that we are stepping into Utopia. I’m simply saying what I think WILL happen. And the reasons I think it are purely business and economic related ones. This is about the business model of publishing

In other words, publishing’s going to change over the next couple of years. And because of the economic climate big publishing houses may not be able to keep up. It may well be the ones that have no choice but go for broke – or the ones who are so vulnerable they get snapped up and stripped for parts – that will actually emerge stronger. The result is when the recession’s over publishers may find themselves as dinosaurs in a land of mammals.

I wrote an article on publishing in 10 years’ time recently for in which I predicted a POD machine in every supermarket and on every high street. I don’t think we’ll see that in 2010/11. I DO think we’ll see publisher become flatter and leaner.

Briefly, how; then, why; then, what does that mean for writers.

How? What does “flatter” mean? It basically means this. There isn’t one thing a publisher does. Publishers provided a whole host of services. For a writer to be with a publisher means they hand over control of all these services to one organisation. Now that has a vast number of benefits. After all, we all like a one stop shop. But there are disadvantages too – there’s a real lack of focus, and some big old cumbersomeness. Plus there just isn’t the choice there should be.

OK, lack of focus – what do I mean? It’s easy to say what a publisher focus on doing – they focus on publishing, on getting the best book possible to the widest number of possible readers for a price those readers can afford that still makes everyone a slice. But that’s a category error. I mean the same Bertrand Russell meant when he said to the person who’d just had the contents of the Universe listed and then asked – “yeah, but you’re forgetting the Universe itself.” The Universe isn’t a “thing”. It’s the sum of all things. In the same way publishing isn’t a service. It’s a host of other services – editing, marketing, design, proof-reading, PR, printing, logistics, IT etc. – and when you’ve listed them all there’s nothing else to say – “yeah, but you’re forgetting publishing itself.” “Sorry,” I say with Bertie R, “Publishing ain’t a service. It’s the sum of all services”. That’s what I see happening – we’ll have all these services provided by small specialists, and the writer (or their manager) in the middle, picking and choosing who does what.

So? Here’s the why. Well, so what we’ve seen in other sectors of the economy – I’m not going to keep coming back to IT, so I’ll just say techie stuff now and explain when I’m asked – plus fashion, manufacturing – is that big umbrella industries work better when they’re not big umbrella industries but lots of small specialists (I think Charles Handy said something about donuts but last time I read his stuff I just got fat). And don’t forget the banking industry got in trouble because firms that did one financial thing thought they could do lots of financial things. My point is the economy’s moving to a situation of lots of little companies doing very focused tasks – when complicated products are put together it’s a coming together of lots of these little companies each doing what they do excellently, rather than one company doing everything reasonably well.

I’m not talking from a publisher’s POV on this blog but a brief note – Harper True, MacMillan New Writers – great ideas, but if they’re going to work you’ve gotta let these pseudo small companies act like REAL small companies and cut the apron strings.

This new publishing landscape will be a minefield. It’s always like that when things start – most of the new specialist companies will go to the wall – many taking writers’ hard work with them. As Hurricane Number One said, only the strongest will survive. As writers there’s a chance to get it very right in the new picture – but a bigger chance to get it all wrong.

So what are the benefits for you as writers? Well, first off, you will get to deal with the editor who’s right for you; the designer who knows your genre best; the web person who can give you exactly what you want. Sounds good? Maybe. Sounds hellish daunting though. That’s work and money. And there won’t be “publishers” handing out advances to cover it now you’re doing it yourself.

Some writers will thrive in this model – the entrepreneurial, extravert, business-savvy ones who know exactly whom to use, how to use them, and what to pay. They will be better off than they ever were under the old system. Much like the savvy self-publishers today, only better because distribution and printing will finally be separated properly.

How will the rest survive? Two ways. Collectives with a niche audience, who basically act as a specialist Yellow Pages for writers, pooling information, possibly tying in with specialist credit unions (a forgotten but highly successful – because focused – part of the generally failing finance industry) to offer small loans tailored to authors needing self-pub costs.

In the past few weeks my thoughts have surprised me, but I think anyone who’s followed the argument here knows where I’m going for my conclusion – we’re going to see a new model of agent that’s more like a project manager, who coordinates all these things for their writers.


  1. A few questions:

    1. How are you going to get around the fact that writers, very often, don't know what's best for their book? People who are close to their own work often make very poor decisions in terms of design and marketing etc, especially if they know a lot about writing but not a lot about editing, designing, printing and distribution.

    2. How are the many writers of the future going to organise distribution? When there are millions of books to choose from on the POD machine, how will writers who can't have a physical presence in the bookstore, or get a review in the mainstream press get noticed?

    3. Assuming the writer can do all these things successfully, does that mean you envisage a future where writing goes back to being a gentleman's pursuit... something done for love, not money, by those with the means and time to do it? In which case, does your scenario simply describe the decline of the professional writer? And a world where those with the most money, rather than the most talent, can buy the best agents, the best designers, the best distribution?

    Just thoughts,


  2. Osiander,

    thank you so much. I am about to go into a long meeting but will take your questions with me so my brain doesn't rot completely, and post answers later today.

    Very many thanks for coming over

  3. Hi Osiander,
    Sorry for the delay – I have to say thinking about your questions makes a meeting about Mandarin teaching pass much quicker!

    Anyway, to start at the end. I’m broke. Seriously broke – the kind where no bank would have looked at providing a mortgage even during the boom years. When I decided three years ago I wanted to give publication a shot I was genuinely bitter about the future of writing. I thought exactly what you have said – that with books available for free (at that stage I like many others overestimated the impact blogs would make on people’s reading habits) there was just no place left for me as a writer to do what I love for a living. I thought the only people who’d get this luxury were the people who were already rich, who could already do it pretty much full time, talented or not.

    I was wrong.

    Part of the reason I’m sure I was wrong is what’s happened in the music industry. Free downloads and file-sharing haven’t put an end to the chances of the amateur band – they’ve actually increased their chances.

    The Boxer Rebellion reached number 1 on iTunes earlier this year without having a label – without even having a CD to sell. And amateur bands now rely on giving free downloads (try before you buy) as a means of gaining exposure. This is also the bulk of my answer to your other questions – I am, to be polite, sick to death of writers coming up with excuses for being able to do nothing but write when musicians have been successfully managing their own production and marketing – in fact relying on doing so – for years. Are we really THAT incapable of multi-tasking? And if we don’t know what’s good for our books then perhaps a bit more time learning and a bit less thinking the world owes us a living would be a good thing – as I’m always saying, if anyone else wants to make a business out of their hobby/passion we expect them to do their research and put together a business plan – why should writers be exempt? One of my friends in the music industry is Charlie Cooke, the absurdly talented frontman of indie band InLight. He expects to spend at least as much time promoting the band as he does writing and performing material. If you order a CD, he will personally draw you a customised cover – for which you pay the princely sum of £3, or £5 for 2. Like every struggling musician, he is passionate about his craft; like very many musicians on the verge of “making it” he is equally passionate about promoting the band’s work.
    Why are musicians so willing to promote their work, and so seemingly good at it, whilst writers are so unwilling, and so seemingly bad? I think the answer’s easy, and summed up in a recent interview with The Enemy’s Tom Clarke. The Enemy recently ditched the arenas they are used to p[laying, and toured a series of tiny venues. Clarke said it was the best experience he’d had in years, because he got to see the whites of his fans’ eyes. And that’s what it’s about for musicians – the fans. Because their stock in trade is performing live, from their very first gig in a grimy bar singing to one man and his dog. Because as writers we tend to bash away at the keys in private, we forget that the same is true for us – we exist for our fans. Marketing isn’t a chore, it’s what we do to bring our writing to our fans – it’s part of the service we provide for them. I think if there’s one lesson we as “artists” could learn from musicians, it’s to love our fans more and ourselves less. Which is one reason I’d encourage every writer to write online, to attend open mic sessions, to give away their work to people in person – even if it’s only a chapter on a piece of A4. Reconnect with your readers, remember they’re the reason you write – and very soon you will find the chore of promotion is actually part of the pleasure of what you do.

    Anyhow, back to question 3. The fact is that the new landscape will be more egalitarian not less. There will be opportunities for writers to make money out of traditional books – I’ll answer on exposure later. There will be numerous other ways to make money – readings, tie-ins, consultation. Yes, it means we have to change the way we think about writing as a potential career – but everyone else has to – like I say, we’re no different. No one owes us a living.

    So how do we get exposure? How will people know what to order from POD machines? If we service a niche market, I see the growth of niche websites where the equivalent of very short-run books have a shop window. I also see POD machines being fully searchable – sure, most money gets the most prominent position. But you’ll never be more than 2 or 3 search terms from any book – is that really the case now?

    Finally, I’ll answer what’s left of question 1, bearing in mind my earlier comments. I said at the end I see a real change in the role of agents/managers – writers who don’t have expertise will rely more and more on them. It will be a case of money buying the best – but also of the best seeking talent – as now. I do, alas, see a growth in agent/managers seeking to exploit desperate writers – much as the vanity publishing industry does now. The best way writers can protect against that is by learning the trade and doing research. If they’re not prepared to do that, then as far as I can see they’re not really writing professionals in the first place – THEY are the real “gentlefolk amateurs”, and they pays their money and takes their choice – literally. It will take a lot to persuade me to feel sorry for them.