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Rethinking the fiction publishing business, by Michael Harris
February 20, 2012 | 9:33 am
|Recently, I discussed a few of the issues facing fiction book publishers. My prediction is that their biggest competition will come from authors who bypass publishers and distribute through electronic channels (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and even their personal web sites). Where does this leave the publisher in a post-printing world?|
Publishers are mastering the defensive moves. It appears their goal is to protect their current markets. However, this doesn’t look like a successful long term strategy. Even small losses in market share will add up over time, and as electronic book readers become more common, publishers will be easier and easier to bypass.
Is there a way for publishers to profit from the new trends instead of fighting them? What are a publisher’s strengths and how can they be monetized in this new environment? One option would be for the publisher to reconfigure itself as an open access pay-per-use services and editorial company.
Many self-published books suffer from typographical and basic grammatical errors. A publisher could offer proofreading and editing services on a pay per service basis. If this service succeeds, the demand will far outstrip capacity. This can be solved by establishing a services marketplace where independent proofreaders bid on job requests from authors. The publishing company would still offer its own services, but at a premium to the general market. For this extra fee, the author would receive a quality guarantee as well as premium services, such as editing and coaching on writing styles.
Another service would address packaging the book for sale. This might include layout, book covers, and translation into appropriate formats (epub, mobi, etcetera). Similar to CafePress, authors can open their Author personalized bookstores. These author stores can even offer a hardcopy option through a print-on-demand capability.
Arguably, the most important service that publishers provide is in managing the selection of books and arranging for access to the market. Although the publishing process may not be perfect in finding the best books, it does generally succeed in winnowing out unreadable slush. The presence of a publisher’s imprint is the promise of some level of quality. In contrast, the quality of independent writing varies from outstanding to utter dreck.
From the consumer viewpoint, this new world would be represented through the blogs of editors, or online librarians. These librarians would manage column that touts the best books that the company finds. Each of these recommended books could be purchased through a link to either the publisher’s own services or an exterior service such as Amazon. Even if the link is through Amazon, the return on this could be lucrative. Amazon offers affiliates a percentage of each sale that the affiliate facilitates. It is quite possible that a publishing company could negotiate a higher percentage based on their position in the supply chain and based on the size of the audience that they bring.
This librarian service could also be expanded by allowing individuals to sign up as librarians. This would play to the long-tail concept of e-commerce. For example a specific librarian who specializes in cozy mysteries might build their own following on the publishing portal. Each of these independent librarians would receive an affiliate commission for sales that they generate with some percentage also accruing to the accounts of the publisher who maintains the portal. The most outstanding independent librarians might also be reviewed and credited for finds on the blogs of official corporate librarians.
This eco-system of books would support many different levels and types of books. Readers who visit the portal would find new book suggestions from ‘trusted’ librarians. It would allow independent writers to enter books into the catalog, and these books may or may not be recommended by a librarian. However, other books in the system may have been vetted to various degrees. Some of them have been proofread by the publisher, others have been edited by the publisher. At the highest level are books that the publisher chooses for their ‘Select’ line. These are books that publishers feel have the most potential. Select books would be similar to the books the publisher currently produces. The publisher would offer editing, production, and marketing services for free. Of course, this would include discussions on the blogs of librarians. Depending on the book, Select services might include offline support (printing, book tours, public relations, advertising) and might include an advance to the author to buy exclusivity.
One of the keys to this approach is inclusivity to build a large audience. All writers would be admitted to the eco-system. All librarians, editors, and proofreaders are likewise welcome. However, the publisher would be rewarded for providing the portal and building the audience by earning a percentage of all transactions that pass through the site. Furthermore, there would be built-in incentives for using a larger percentage of the publisher’s official services.
Consider the selection process for librarian recommendations and Select books. These books might come from anywhere, and might be otherwise unconnected to the company. However, in the universe of new submissions, it will be impossible to review every book that exists. When an employee proofreads or edits a book, they may also flag it for consideration by librarians or for consideration for the Select imprint.
Of course, the devil is in the details. In this case one of the most important details is getting buy-in from consumers so that they want to be part of this publishing portal. No doubt a trial in this line will bring a pivot or two along the way. The secret, however, is to embrace the new world rather than to avoid it. Publishers who see their business as under attack will only seek to defend it. The result will be a rearguard action that gradually gives up more territory. A more successful approach will look to capitalize on publisher’s strengths while accepting the new possibilities offered by new technologies.
[Via the Stuff That’s New blog]