9.5 theses on publishing

Colin Robinson • 08 October 2012

It's time for a Reformation in publishing, argues Colin Robinson. The old order no longer works. A new one is yet to be born. But the outlines of what's needed are clear.
Publishing is divided increasingly between a dwindling number of big books that sell to gargantuan audiences - think 30 million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey - and a vast ocean of small books that sell to practically no one. The "midlist", books that fall between blockbusters and specialist titles, is being hollowed out to nothing.

This is bad news for publishing, and worse still for the culture at large. Anyone with sufficient resources can publish and heavily promote big books. Anyone at all can produce and make available little ones. But, for writers, readers and publishers, the key test of the industry's health is the mobility of books between these two groups: the title that starts off small but may end up big, the ideas and art that may at first be appreciated by only a few, but which, because of their cleverness or beauty, go on to capture the attention of many. For this, the most critical function of publishing, to work, a system must allow, even encourage, unpredictability and transformation. In this respect the prevailing arrangements in the book business have no discernible pulse.

The Big Berthas of trade publishing, the five or six large corporations that have dominated the industry since the consolidation of the 1980s, are likely to encounter an increasingly torrid time. The bifurcation of the business between blockbusters and minnows will make it ever harder to earn money from their only hitherto existing source of new book profit - the midlist title bought cheaply which, through serendipity or good judgment, emerges as a bestseller. In addition, their inability to build direct selling relationships with readers for fear of alienating retailers will make it impossible for them to protect already diminished margins. A combination of cuts in staff, promotion and midlist advances has, thus far, protected the bottom lines of these houses, even as their top lines have stagnated. But these ameliorations are finite.

The future is brighter, I would contend, in the case of start ups, for which new technology presents the possibility of successful midlist publishing. To achieve this, however, such companies will need to hew to a number of precepts, which, broadly speaking, involve redirecting resources from stock and distribution towards marketing. Taken together, these changes represent a revolution in the business of books, the creation of a new publishing. Because they aim to throw over an old order, I am enumerating 9.5 of them, echoing the 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral nearly half a millennium ago. Luther's action was a protest against the prevailing idea in the Church at the time, that the route to salvation could be secured by payments to those at the top of an ecclesiastical hierarchy.

1) Publish for readers, not authors
Whenever the topic is discussed, which, oddly, isn't often, it's apparent that considerable confusion exists within the industry as to whether publishers' primary purpose is to serve their authors or their readers. Of course writers are critical to the business; it could not operate without them. But the more salient fact here is that it has always been readers who pay publishers' (and writers') wages. What's more, the publishing environment of the 21st century has tipped the balance still further towards the importance of the reader. The garrote that Amazon has applied to the industry, leveraging the power of its market share to obtain ever higher discounts from publishers that, in turn, allow price cuts that secure still more market share, is possible because of the behemoth's direct relationship to readers.

To break this stranglehold, publishers have to start selling to readers themselves. There is a convincing and straightforward argument for this. Take the publication of a book about, say, the cultivation of hydrangeas. A chain exists, stretching from the writer and illustrator, through the commissioning editor, the publicist and the reviewer, to the purchaser and reader, entirely made up of people with an interest in, perhaps even a passion for, these flouncy flowers. Amazon, with no commitment whatsoever to hydrangeas, enters this chain to do just two things: take most of the money, and collect the purchasers' e-mail addresses so as to sell them another book, perhaps on chrysanthemums. Such an arrangement should be anathema to perennial lovers the world over.

Eschewing the services of the world's largest bookseller, especially one not known for its touchy-feely approach to suppliers (Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO, once remarked that if the company "ever had to give up ‘friendly' in order to have ‘intense', we would do that"), is not something most publishers will contemplate lightly. But the longer term advantages of developing their own customer databases which can be used to sell, over and over, at full price will progressively outweigh the immediate discomfort of severing business with Seattle. In bracing themselves for this switch, publishers will recognize that it's simply not possible to spend money on both marketing and retailer discount at the sort of levels Amazon and the big chains now require - it's one or the other. And if the $12 required by today's retailers for selling a $20 book doesn't seem sufficient to find a single purchaser through the publisher's own efforts, well, perhaps it's time to re-staff the marketing department.  

2) Publish more selectively
In a recent open letter to Amazon customers touting Kindle Direct Publishing (through which authors sell their books directly to readers), Jeff Bezos claimed that a major benefit of the programme was that it produced "a more diverse book culture" with "no expert gatekeepers saying, 'Sorry but that will never work.'" Such a statement reinforces the view that Bezos regards the function of publisher, which is precisely that of being "an expert gatekeeper", as basically obsolete. It's not the first time Amazon has revealed its hand on this front: when, in the spring of 2010, the company was forced to reinstate Macmillan's titles to its site after removing them during a dispute over who set prices, it complained that it was being forced to do so "because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles". Of course, without such a "monopoly", Macmillan, or any other publisher, simply could not survive.

In the face of such existential undermining, publishers need to assert emphatically the rights, both legal and earned, that they acquire in return for purchasing and adding value to the books appearing on their lists. Above all they should insist on their usefulness in winnowing the vast mountain of available manuscripts into meaningful choices for potential readers. Bowker reports that over two million new titles appeared in 2011, up from 172,000 in 2005. As new technology in editing, typesetting and short-run printing combines with distribution platforms such as Amazon that are happy, in Bezos' words, to sell "the good the bad and the ugly", a vast tsunami of available reading matter bears down on a hapless public. Faced with overwhelming choice, readers increasingly divide between blockbusters by writers like EL James or Stephanie Meyer and specialist publications read only by tiny audiences. This is the polar opposite of "the diverse book culture" claimed by Bezos.

Publishers will flourish when they are seen as effective arbiters of their readers' tastes, selecting titles accordingly. Limiting the number of books published will assist in emphasizing this vital role of gate-keeper. Publishing in "strands", meaning either successive books by the same author or books grouped by type or subject, will underscore the publisher's authority as a curator. Further, it will allow the assembling of coherent customer databases which, over time, will become the key component of the publisher's marketing effort.

3 Rethink editing and design
Selling print-on-demand (see below) or ebooks direct to the customer dispenses with a variety of traditional functions of publishing: investing in print runs, warehousing, running a field sales force, liaising with retailers, and processing returns are all part of an obsolete business. But other functions take on additional importance under the new system. Among these are the tasks of editing and design. Utilizing expertise to ensure that books are readable and aesthetically pleasing is a vital way for publishers to stay afloat in an ocean of self-published titles with text edited by Microsoft and covers designed by siblings who are "really very talented".

But if the value of effective editing and design remains constant, the form it can take is profoundly expanded by the new systems of publishing. In relation to editing, printing on demand and direct selling make possible frequent updating and the tailoring of text to specific audiences. Single works can be broken apart and published separately, or melded together with other works to create interesting new juxtapositions or complementarities. When it comes to cover design, without the need to mollify buying departments of big retailers anxious about how it will play in Peoria, hitherto unimaginable risks can be taken. Indeed because the books will be purchased on a screen rather than in a store, the roster of conventional rules determining what a book needs to look like just left the building. Type need no longer be large enough to see from across an aisle, images don't have to conform to the stultifications of genre- based sections. If you want to leave type off the jacket altogether (except, perhaps, on the spine - to facilitate identification on the purchaser's bookshelf) that's fine; if you want to offer a variety of different covers for the same book, that's perfectly possible. The size of text type inside is not just variable on e-readers but in individually printed books too. Functionality and aesthetics are each set free in the new publishing.

4) Hold no stock
As a result of improvements in print technology, the price of print-on-demand (POD - producing books digitally in small batches, or even individually, to fulfill sales) has fallen over recent years, as the quality of the books printed has risen. POD is still more expensive than conventional printing - producing a single copy of a 240-page paperback with black and white text and a laminated colour cover, for instance, will typically cost $3.30 if produced digitally, compared with only $1.30 for the same book in an offset run of 1,000. But set against the ensuing saving of $2,000 is the reality that the publisher may well mis-estimate the number of copies that can be sold - indeed in publishing, an industry that runs Hollywood a close second in the stakes of wishful thinking , this error is endemic. If only 350 copies of the 1,000 printed can be sold, it would be cheaper to have printed them digitally. Further savings will be achieved by foregoing the cost of a warehouse as one is waiting for the book to be sold (or not), and by not tying up capital in stock. Of course, if sales of a book accelerate sufficiently to make it worthwhile, a switch to offset printing is always possible.

This latter factor undermines the traditional role of publishers, whose primary function, since they first emerged out of the printing houses of 17th century London, was to put up the money required for an initial print run. The arrival of digital printing and ebooks renders this largely obsolete. Publishers must redefine their usefulness, concentrating instead on selecting titles for publication, managing their editing and designing, and, above all, finding audiences (see below).

5) Publish fast
Not every book needs to come out quickly: indeed many titles will benefit from a long stewing through the editorial process. But the antediluvian schedules of the conventional business are rightly doomed by the arrival of direct-to-reader digital publishing. The protracted delays of the existing system come, primarily, from the demands of the retail sector, where the chain booksellers require catalogue copy, endorsements, a finished cover, and perhaps even a full proof of the book, many months before publication. Offset printing, which can take up to two months to deliver books to the warehouse, also plays its part in slowing things down.

The new publishing dispenses with pretty much all of these arrangements. Working with a fast typesetter, perhaps based in the East where time difference means that proofs for the US or Europe can be turned around overnight, an efficient digital printer, and with a direct to reader sales system, a publisher can quite comfortably deliver a manuscript into the hands of a customer as a paperback within six weeks, even less if necessary. An ebook can be dispatched still faster. There may be marketing reasons for delaying publication beyond this compact production cycle: media outlets often need a book considerably in advance in order to assign and schedule their review coverage (though such review coverage, as discussed below, is becoming ever less important to the success of a book, both critical and commercial). But from the perspective of publishers' cash flow and the required timeliness of books dealing with current affairs or breaking cultural trends, the advantages of new publishing's fast turnarounds are enormous.

6) Keep prices high
In Das Kapital, Karl Marx makes an important distinction between the exchange and use value of a commodity. While the former is not reducible to price, it is a measure of what an item can fetch from others in the market place. The latter, meanwhile, is a calibration of the benefit that derives to the owner of any item by being in her possession. As with many cultural products, the disparity between exchange and use value when it comes to books has widened dramatically. Recently released information from Kobo, based on metrics gleaned from those using their reader, reveals that the average length of time it takes to read the 384 pages of The Hunger Games is seven hours. The book is available for $5.39 on Amazon, reduced from the publisher's recommended price of $8.99. It's impossible to ascertain precise equivalences between use values, but compared to the 100 minutes of entertainment provided by a movie for $15, or the 15 minutes one might linger over a $12 glass of Montepulciano in an Italian restaurant near to where I'm writing this in Chelsea, New York City, the price of The Hunger Games seems like sensational value.

In fact, book prices have been falling steadily over recent years, pushed down by retailers, most notably Amazon, attempting to secure greater market share by undercutting their competitors. The arrival of lower priced ebooks has added further pressure to this downwards drift. With only a few exceptions, publishers have watched this process from the sidelines, apparently helpless to do anything about it for fear of alienating their largest customers. Initiatives such as World Book Night, where millions of book are given away free, have only underscored the idea that books are worth less than the amounts for which they have traditionally been sold.

The relationship between price and value is a complicated one, but it seems unlikely that publishers can successfully defend the perceived worth of their wares by offering them to customers at ever lower prices, or even nothing at all. If customers don't want a book, they are unlikely to buy it at any price. By the same token, if a potential customer can be persuaded that a book is, in the parlance of copywriters the world over, "essential reading", then price, within reasonable limits, is unlikely to be a disincentive. However, because reduced margins resulting from price reductions leave publishers with no choice but to cut further already slender marketing budgets, the potential for conveying this message is diminishing, and publishers find themselves in yet another downward spiral.

7) Hand-sell on the Internet
The amount of money taken up by distribution in conventional publishing dictates that little to nothing is left for marketing midlist titles. Bookseller discount, warehousing and sales representation, and the cost of processing returns can easily eat up in excess of 70% of the price of a book. Production costs typically take up a further 15%, leaving just 15% to pay the author and cover the publisher's overheads. It's not perversity, then, that prevents old-style publishers from committing resources to promotion - it's hard economics.

At the same time, the need for marketing has never been greater. Rocketing title output, combined with reduced books pages in newspapers and magazines, has made traditional review coverage ever rarer. The constant background crackle of electronic media, and the declining influence of old media, both contribute to making it more difficult to be noticed.

The internet appears to open opportunities that can fill the gap. Video, flash ads, electronic fliers, multiple serializations and social media - all present opportunities for reaching potential audiences. But as ever more publishers join the fray, including legions of the self-published, all determinedly Tweeting and Mail Chimping, a zero sum game is underway. With attention time of potential readers at best static, and efforts to attract it ballooning, success in this arena will be increasingly elusive.

The savvy publisher will recognize that the key to gaining attention and making sales on the internet is by presenting carefully tailored messages to readers about books she knows will be of interest. With the exception of blockbusters, blanket campaigns are not just prohibitively expensive; they are ineffective at winning customers. Wide focus advertising and mailing will establish a book's presence in the zeitgeist, but will rarely clinch a sale.

The positioning of selling messages needs to be planned as carefully as their content. Though it's vital that the eventual sale occur through the publisher so that the customer can be added to a database for future marketing, it's unlikely to be initiated on the publisher's website. The resources required to create a destination website are far beyond the means of small independent publishing houses. Potential readers may wake up in the morning wondering what's happening on the New York Times or Huff Po, but will rarely feel as inquisitive about Jo Shmo Books, no matter how much blogging or reposting the publisher engages in. A much better use of resources is to sell to readers where they already are. Publishers need to see themselves less as bookstores and more as travelling salespeople.

The internet is well-suited to "hand-selling", connecting books to readers through knowledge of both. This approach, practised so successfully by independent booksellers, can create an initial buzz among a core audience that can then be leveraged to build a wider readership. It doesn't require massive advertising budgets or expensive mailing lists. It is costly, however, in terms of the time it takes to implement. Though the author can often provide vital initial guidance, determining where the core audience for a book is to be found on the internet requires painstaking research. Working with the multifarious contacts this produces is laborious, with materials having to be customized for different sites, blogs and list servers. Money being saved from the distribution process needs to re-directed to paying staff engaged in this sort of work.

8) Sell globally
Speaking to a crowd of 10,000 people at the 1985 Calcutta Book Fair, Peter Mayer set out a critical distinction: "It's not possible to write global books," the then-CEO of Penguin insisted, "each title needs to be rooted in specific, local knowledge and experience." "But," he went on, "it is possible to publish such books globally and that's what we intend to do." These words, which heralded the setting up of Penguin India and a new step in the establishment of the first truly global English language trade publisher, were greeted with a roar of approval from the vast crowd standing on the Maidan. The idea, clearly, did not just make business sense; it was hugely popular on a political and cultural level too.

It is a measure of the sclerosis of conventional publishing, pinned down by the strictures of agents, contracts and their own internal apparatus, that, more than 25 years after Mayer's address, global publishing remains an aspiration rather than a reality for mainstream houses. Speaking in June this year, Harper Collins CEO Brian Murray set out plans for his company's 360program: "Our vision is to have the entire HarperCollins book catalogue available for customers in all major territories for which we have rights," he said.

Fortunately, independents, especially those working primarily on the internet, need not be constricted by timetables more appropriate to the shifting of tectonic plates. For the contemporary, modern publisher, geographical territory has little meaning, having been replaced by language in the determination of markets. Currencies and price levels will be affected by location (it's evidently appropriate to reduce prices in less affluent countries), but simultaneous availability will not. Further, satellite, on-demand printing, increasingly available as the technology spreads, means that books can be produced nearby and dropped in local postal systems, ensuring cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly distribution.

9) Use real-time information
For many years publishing enjoyed a consoling period when the book was out in stores and, though aware that, if unsold, it could be returned for a full credit, no-one had much of an idea how it was doing. Usually it was doing quite badly, especially compared with the hype that surrounded its announcement at the preceding sales conference. By the time that the awful truth had become apparent, everyone had moved on to the next season's titles and, if the question was raised at all, it was generally difficult to ascertain which idiot was responsible for a book so evidently destined to be a flop.

The arrival of Book Scan, which measures sales at cash registers, significantly diminished the scope for the comforts provided by such self-delusion. Now, in the new publishing, that insulation from reality has been stripped to the wire. When selling direct to the customer via the internet, reporting of sales figures is both exact and immediate. Painful though this often is for the author and publisher, it provides valuable intelligence about both specific marketing initiatives, and more general publishing strategies. Giving authors access to real-time feedback of the performance of their books is not just a welcome transparency in an industry that has made an art of camouflaging sales figures in sporadic royalty reports of Byzantine complexity, it also allows writers to assess the effectiveness of their own work in promoting a book. Further, linking such feedback to contracts can give authors live access to the amount they have earned from their books; indeed, micro payment systems will soon allow royalties to be paid instantaneously as cash from customers' credit cards is received by the publisher.

9.5) Recognize the complexity of publishing choice
It's now time to admit that the half point at the end of this new publishing manifesto is actually legerdemain, a trick to provide a numerical corollary to Luther's Wittenberg thesis, but also to draw attention to something more important than all the other points put together. The changes outlined above provide the foundation for a new system that, by minimizing risk in how books are published, allows for greater risk in what books are published. This ability to take chances makes vibrant midlist publishing possible, but by no means guarantees it. For that, a vital additional ingredient is required: the intelligence to discover and develop books that customers want to read. This skill is of a complex kind. Not reducible to algorithmic calculation, it demands a discernment that can recognize an idea as original or a sentence as beautiful. It lies right at the heart of successful publishing, old and new, and there is something very reassuring about that.

Colin Robinson is co-founder of OR Books. He worked previously at Scribner, and before that was MD of Verso.