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 www.streamwriting.com 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.