Yesterday afternoon here at South by Southwest (SXSW) I had the chance to sit in on a panel featuring Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody) and several key members of the traditional book publishing world, including representatives of Penguin and Bloomsbury, titled New Think for Old Publishers.  Unfortunately this panel had very little think involved, as the first half of the panel basically consisted of introductions, descriptions of favorite books recently read and attempts to reinforce the importance of the beaurocratic system traditional publishers work in (and why this model is essential for book readers).  It wasn’t until the second half of the single hour allotted for the conversation that the audience was told the publishers weren’t here with “new think” but instead wanted to get ideas from the audience.  What ensued was quite a show of vitriol from the audience.

Rather than get into the details of the audience discussion (you can get the gist from the Twitter discourse or  can get the overview from MediaLoper), I want to discuss a bit the bigger point the publishing industry doesn’t seem to be getting – they no longer hold the keys to the kingdom.

For hundreds of years now, the barrier to entry to create a written work that can easily be duplicated and made available to the masses has relied upon a very closed system, with a very high cost of entry.  During those times logistical issues greatly limited the amount of content that could be created (how many printing presses exist, for example) or how many books could really be sold (how many bookstores could exist, and how much shelf space was available). So it was extraordinarily important for any publisher to make very discriminate decisions as to what books they would publish and ultimately attempt to get onto a store’s shelf. During this time they were the tastemakers and ultimately responsible for the continued desire for people to want to consume the written word.

Obviously in this day of low-cost Print-on-Demand, endless digital space to store works, a limitless long-tail shopping experience through places like Amazon, these logistical issues are no longer major barriers. Anyone can publish a book or write a blog, and there is a tremendous amount of content out here for all of us to consume. There is no barrier to entry other than having access to a computer, which really has reduced the ability for the publisher to be the “curator.”  Since everyone today has the ability to have a voice both among friends and family but potentially loud enough for the entire world to hear, the people are today’s curators and tastemaker.  This is why it was so disappointing to hear with such adamacy at yesterday’s panel that this was a key component of the traditional publishing industry.

The  ultimate “New Think” for the publishing industry that I’ve been pushing both in book publishing, as well as in the music publishing industry is to change the mindset that publishers are in charge and the customers should trust them.  Instead, publishers need to stop trying to be tastemakers and instead realize that they are ultimately administrators of extraordinarily valuable copyright-protected content that they can build a brand around. Find content or creators that already have a following (and sometimes take risks on ones that have a potential to be big), cultivate those creators and their content with your professional editing staff and then get the content out to people.

But in no instance, think it is your job to decide what is and is not worthy of publication. Yes, you should decide what is worthy of having your logo slapped on it, as you are building a brand – but the concept that it is your job to be the ultiate curator and gatekeeper, as well as to create one single item that people should buy is not going to work anymore.

Give people a quality product, from a respected brand, in whatever way people want to consume it, and you will continue to be relevant. Just keep in mind that people have the choice to ignore you now and go elsewhere too. Remove some of the internal decision process and instead watch trends. Take care of the intellectual property you administer, as well as take care of those who create it for you. The cream will ultimately rise to the top with or without you – so if you want to have a stake in the cream then invest in it and care for it – but don’t for a second think you’re the ones who decide what the cream is anymore.

That’s what this thing called The Internet does for you.

Footage from the Actual Panel (yes, the first question is me):

Really New Think for Old Publishers
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23 thoughts on “Really New Think for Old Publishers

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  • March 16, 2009 at 10:12 am

    This gets at the pith of why mainstream publishing is in crisis:
    “…publishers need to stop trying to be tastemakers and instead realize that they are ultimately administrators of extrardinarily valuable copyright-protected content that they can build a brand around”

    Exactly. But since so many of the old guard are still clinging to the old ways like drowning men to life preservers, the industry as a whole has self-deluding blinders on.

    Andrew Keen wrote an entire, hysterical book detailing and justifying the old guard’s stance: “The Cult of The Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values”. In the book, revealing his snobby disdain for everyone operating outside the mainstream publishing industry, Keen repeatedly refers to indie artists of every stripe and bloggers as “monkeys”. I criticized the book here:

    Change is hard, but it can be downright destructive to those who are inflexible. The more traction the indie/ Web 2.0 movement gains, the more frightened the old guard will become, the more tightly they’ll cling to the old ways, and the more ugly the attacks on the indies and self-pubbers will become. Just take it as a sign we’re on the right track. =’)

  • March 16, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    I’m confused. How can a publisher “invest in and care for the cream,” if by your reckoning they shouldn’t even be granted a role in deciding what the cream is? The existence of ebooks notwithstanding, the publishing process is still highly labor intensive. Especially when it’s done with integrity. I would argue that gives publishers the right to choose what they think is worthy of publication. Perhaps you can explain further how your model works on both a business and human level.

    It may be outdated and naive, but many publishers don’t see our jobs as “brand building”. We just want to draw the attention of readers to great writing. Most books are far too singular to be branded. If you are serious about reinventing publishing, why do you rely on this kind of b-school marketing jargon?

    Finally, if you so disparage the conceits of traditional publishing, why waste your time with it? As you point out, you have the means and access to circumvent the system. Go with god.

  • March 16, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    While I agree with some of your ideas, I am a bit perplexed by two of your comments about publishers:

    1) “in no instance, think it is your job to decide what is and is not worthy of publication”

    2) “don’t for a second think you’re the ones who decide what the cream is anymore.”

    Let me see if I get this. You want publishers to spend money branding a quality product (book/author) and get it in front of readers, but the publishers (should) have no say on defining “quality.” You say the Internet will decide for them. How exactly do you envision that working—the Penguin model—and what else? Who tells the publisher that something is quality if they can’t decide themselves? By vote by a particular set of web readers? Number of hits? Web awards?

    (I hate to break it to you, but so much of the junk that is out there is published because that’s what people are “buying.” Think about all those celebrity memoirs, diet books, and BIll O’Reilly.)

    If that’s the case, I don’t know that I want to read a book written/approved by committee, even a committee of web readers. Also, that seems to limit an artist’s vision. Where does input end? Should a committee tell YOU how to write? What your ending should be? How your plot should turn? Or even WHAT to write about?

    And say your model takes over corporate publishing. What happens to those works that don’t necessarily appeal right away but take years to reach an appreciative audience? What happens to a writer like Thomas Pynchon? And what about those authors who don’t want relationships with their readers—they want to retain their privacy and let that relationship be with their work alone? I suppose they don’t get published.

    It seems you want publishers to take all the responsibility for making the author/brand without allowing them any say about whether they think the brand is worthwhile. But what about those few editors who do have a vision—who can recognize potential right now that a committee of readers in the ethernet might not necessarily see? Seems to me that pretty much all your calling for is a power shift—American Idol, the book edition. In that case, should Hollywood only make Will Smith or Saw movies and chick flicks because that’s what draws the biggest box office receipts?

    Following the twitter trail of the panel at SXSW, it seems there is a split out there. You want publishers to stick around but to be a service to you, while others envision a world without publishers.

    The bottom line is about money. Publishers put up the money, they want control. And without publishers, ALL writers are going to have to practice their craft in their spare time (which many do already) unless they want to starve, that is. Readers are going to have to go to even more trouble to find appealing writing, sifting through the ever expanding electronic detritus. And I’m not even thinking about what this means for great nonfiction.

  • March 16, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    I must not have made myself clear. Publishers can and should decide what is that they publish, as it is absolutely imperative for their business that they publish high quality. What is different now is that they are not the only ones who decide what is and isn’t “great” anymore because they can easily be circumvented. With so much talk of them being the “curators” at the panel, I think they were missing the fact that their core business is in finding great work, helping make it even better, and get it out to the people.

    If publishers don’t start to realize this and continue to act in the way the record labels worked – as assuming their opinions in the filter were the only ones – then book publishing will go the same way the music industry has. The music industry is a mess with a LOT of content out there, way too much noise, filters that are pretty much completely out of the hands of the industry, and less and less money being made.

    There needs to be a strong incentive for both authors and readers to work with the traditional publishing industry, and right now they seem to be losing the focus of emphasizing all the benefits they can give to both.

  • March 16, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    William, that first question was you? Thanks for the Smashwords plug at the beginning of the video!

    Amen. The new curators are the readers. Readers have always been the curators, only the publishing industry hasn’t been able to expose the curators to all the curatable content.

    Yet today, thanks to free and simple online publishing tools (Smashwords is just one example, of course!), any author anywhere in the world has the power to publish and be given a fair shot to find their audience. If the curating audience deems that author’s work worthy, it will spread. Word of mouth, after all, has always been the primary driver of sustained book sales.

    Part of the problem facing the publishing industry is that due to the high costs of print publishing and the bloated expensive publishing supply chain that stands between the author and the audience, the big commercial publishers have a filter that programs them to look for only big potential sellers. Yet commercial appeal should not be the only filter for a book. There are millions of brilliant authors and books out there for which their long tail audience might number only 50 to 100 readers. There are millions more books for which the audience potential might not be readily apparent. These books are just as deserving of being published as a former NY Times bestseller, and now, thanks to new digital self publishing tools, this is possible.

    Woo hoo!

    Mark Coker

  • March 16, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Thanks for the clarification. I do work in publishing, and I dream of getting back to real quality or at least a better balance. I don’t know if that is truly possible the way business—and not just publishing—is run today, thank to the insatiable greed of Wall Street where only profits matter. I cannot agree more that we need to experiment with different ways of publishing and marketing.

    I love the book and don’t ever want to see it go away. (And yes, I have both a Sony reader—love it for manuscripts, no more heavy loads and wasted paper!—and the reading apps for my iPhone.) The book has been a great technology for a couple of centuries, and I think it still works now. That doesn’t mean we can’t offer other forms (like we do for many books) so that a reader can purchase the format they prefer. Also, while the web is free, I don’t believe creativity necessarily should be. People deserve to make money from their endeavors, whether it’s writing a great story or building a beautiful table. That’s a shift many on the other side will need to get used to—paying for content more often. That, of course, leads to a whole other set of issues.

    Publishers need to figure out how to cut through the growing white noise of the Internet to help writers find their audience and readers find work they’ll love. I’m all for early or exclusive ebook releases, working with author websites, book sites, blogs, etc. And yes, some things are going to work, some things aren’t. But we have to try.

    We need to use the Internet as a bountiful resource. Unfortunately, many people don’t get technology. They see it in opposing apocalyptic terms: as the darkness of end times or as the second coming with no in between. Because of this, bad decisions are sometimes made for both right and wrong reasons.

    Unfortunately, I see the problems, but there is little I can do to fix them (I am a mere cog).

  • March 16, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    Hi William — fascinating post. As someone who used to work in publishing and just recently departed, I know of and understand the frustrations on both sides of the equation.

    The dilemma for book publishers is that they fail to realize that they no longer book publishers — they are content creators / managers / administrators as you put it. But what leaves them in a more difficult situation is the fact that they are being encouraged to adopt a direct to consumer sales approach while continuing to sell to their traditional buyers.

    The book industry itself does not wield the resources to tackle both approaches effectively, let alone ebooks, XML, and epub files. You can easily tell by the way some websites are set up — even the newly designed ones that look somewhat asthetically pleasing.

    What causes the most frustration in my opinion is the fragmentation within the industry and the lack of vision. I say vision because there is plenty of bandwagon jumping, as we see with books being published through people who have utilized twitter and other facets of social, but nothing that truly utilizes the creativity and innovation of so many people around the world that could be brought together. What we end up with is a bunch of people who keep asking what to do / how do we do such and such, rather than envisioning new possibilities for books and associated content.

    Without a vision — there is no direction and there’s no way that publishers can drive. Therefore everyone else is driving for them — Amazon, other large retailers, ebook readers, technology companies, other businesses, readers, etc.

    Publishers either need a united vision dictated to them by the readers (this seems most likely) … or recruit someone into their company to provide them with a vision of what books can become through technology rather than only focusing on what can be published with current technology.

  • March 16, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    Good article, Bill, and well said. There’s always going to be a place for publishers, I think. Only publishers will start to become niche markets for certain products and they’ll work alongside the indie authors and publishers, each with different strengths and weaknesses.

    Look at the indie music scene and it’s place among the behemoths like Sony BMG and Warner. That’s the future of publishing.

  • March 16, 2009 at 6:30 pm

    All good reading here. The one thing that strikes me is how little other arms of the media have learned from the music industry. By stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the fact that the internet gave listeners a new level of freedom music publishers went a long way towards opening the door to rampant piracy – had official, workable, and affordable means of distribution been established *when the demand was there* I believe the music industry wouldn’t be in the crisis it is now.
    As a result film and TV publishers, initially protected by slow download speeds, entered an online world where piracy was already a matter of course. However, look at official channels for downloading film abd TV content and you’ll generally find low quality, overpriced content – certainly in comparison to current DVD pricing.
    Hopefully book publishing won’t suffer the same fate, but we’re already seeing pirated audio and ebooks. Fortunately there are a lot of channels opening up both for self-publishing and acquiring digital content. It’s now up to ‘bricks and mortar’ publishers take as much advantage of these options as readers are.
    I only hope that the traditional publishers use these new tools to start giving us more choice – something decent to read alongside the self-help manuals, ‘celebrity’ bios, Jackie Collins, etc …

  • March 16, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Sorry – one more thought

    Mapster – regarding your last comment, maybe you’ve hit the nail on the head – maybe the most important function for publishers going forward will be to filter out the white noise – find the best content and deliver it to readers who don’t have the time, patience, or expertise to find new content on the internet…

  • March 17, 2009 at 3:42 am

    I found your views on the attitudes of “old publishers” interesting. Yes, they need to be careful about the books they publish–they should focus on the quality of writing and story-telling and not so much on the recognition value of a name. It’s disgusting to hear that a pop diva will be paid a great deal to “write” a series of books, because she is a known personality and the marketing department does not have to go out and publicize her work. Why don’t publishers do the following:

    Really start to select authors based on the quality of writing and story-telling rather than on their celebrity status

    Use print on demand and e-book technology to produce the book. Follow a no-discount, no-return policy.

    Focus their energies on selling the book to the public by contacting bloggers who review that genre. It’s true that the book review sections in newspapers are being cut down, but the blogosphere is awash with review sites.

    And yes, they need to pay their editors better! I spend a lot of time reading and correcting bad writing and critiquing some awful manuscripts. And I do this for a pittance. I find that in many cases, publishers are swayed more by their contacts than by their common sense. I remember editing a book last year that was so badly written that I honestly wondered how the publisher ever managed to read the book to select it.

  • March 17, 2009 at 4:53 am

    Really interesting article – I think you strike the balance between recognising that publishers do still have a key role where they can add real value in terms of editorial input and distribution to a mass audience that it is still hard for a lone author to reach. However, they have to look hard into where they do add value and as you say, being a curator or gatekeeper of all the content isn’t one of those areas anymore.

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  • March 17, 2009 at 9:13 am

    I love April’s post, but to the point:

    I have long ago thrown down the gauntlet against literary snobs and donned the moniker”1,000th typing monkey” and wear it proudly. I have self-published 5 books to date (not to worry, three more are slowly being shaped–Type monkey! Type!) and two of them have consistently been among Amazon’s top sellers. Traditional publishing must change and adapt or it will go the way of the dinosaurs. The advent of a keyboard for every set of fingers has made writers of all of us, and authors of more of us than ever. Quality will always be an issue, and like we see in Hollywood, major houses can put out crap just as easily as any amateur, especially when profit supersedes artistic integrity.

    Self-publishing is quickly becoming “personal publishing” (pardon me for introducing a new term into the lexicon, but it is appropriate). Gramma can now publish her secret recipes and get them on Amazon for posterity. Is that so sinful? Who cares if only 10,000 people buy her recipes over the next 100 years, or if only 5 people buy them. One may be the next Wolfgang Puck.

    Personal publishing is about sharing our viewpoints, knowledge, and the democratization of knowledge. Not every vote is scrutinized, and not every book is read, but if the author can empty their bladder and thus fin some validation in this world, is that “three-copy” seller really threatening Random House?

    Major houses need to watch out for small houses who are smart, savvy, and nimble, as they become major players in the new game. It is simply about adapting to the market, which means retaining the collective wisdom distilled from ages of professional publishing, and firing the old codgers who stand in the way of progress. Get some new (internet and caffeine powered) blood working under the careful guidance (guidance, not dictatorship) of J.Jonah Jameson types and the publishing world will, as a whole, rise from the ashes of the bonfire it has currently lit under itself.

    Quality books will sell. Those books need distribution and proper, effective marketing. That means a publishing industry. If the old guard expects to be “that industry” forward-thinking CEOs need to hoist the bones, plank the bean-counters, and shanghai the best new blood they can for internal creative organization. New techniques of scouting quality authors need to come to the fore, and less reliance needs to be put on the fascination with non-author celebrities.

    I stand at the gates and shout into the vaunted halls of publishing. The short game is killing the industry. Keep dumbing down America with the crap that is currently being published and your core audience of readers will shrink. Or have you learned nothing? To those publishers who pit out the intellectual equivalent of People magazine in book form, you-ill-die on the vine. New blood is coming, and we will dominate the readership. If you want to maintain control of the information flow, you need to come down from your high horsie, harness the best we have to offer, and humbly help us help you become billionaires.

    Now excuse me, but monkey has typing to do. It takes a lot of hack-typing to end up with one readable draft, but I never stop.

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  • March 20, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    I love this discussion. Great blog entry!

    Mr. Mapster. You still seem to think that it takes the traditional (I won’t stoop to calling you old as others do) publishers to weed out the good stuff, as if readers don’t know what’s good for them. True, many readers aren’t ready for writers at a certain time, or that author is not ready to engage their readers, but do we really need you to understand and mediate for us and get that author to print? No, because in the “New Publishing” world, those books will stay in “print”, they will never die, they are burned onto thousands of servers memories and propagated everyday. Or they sit on a computer at the offices of “ye ole’ print on demand shoppe” waiting to be called into service. There is no shelving, no remaindering, no corporate archiving of someone’s great work. Eventually it will be discovered and understood because regular people who do get it will take it up and champion it via all the new media outlets at their resource. And they’ll do this all without you. Isn’t that amazing?

    You might want to work on your resume if that is the kind of argument you bring to the table against New Publishing.

    My god, I can’t wait for BEA!

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