A few recent developments in publishing have made me think that publishers are not very good at responding to competition, and additionally there seems to be an attitude of martyrdom whenever a perceived threat to their livelihood emerges on the scene. New technological developments, for example, nearly always get a cynical treatment in publishing news, even if they will make publishing easier or cheaper, or have advantages to the book-buyer. The status quo is not only sacred, but seen to be a kind of birthright.
No business is entitled to eternal smooth sailing, however; they’re at the mercy of the consumer and changing times. Most seem to accept this and adapt to new situations in order to survive. Perhaps publishing has enjoyed a longer period of steady profits than other industries, or had the disadvantage of seeing itself as not really an industry but a cultural institution, but the need to adapt seems a particularly bitter pill.
To choose just two major sources of discontentment – Amazon’s low prices, and the rise of self-publishing – from where I’m sitting, it looks like publishing hasn’t started to rise to the competition. In the US, leading publishing houses responded to Amazon’s price policy by conspiring with its competitor Apple to set artificially high prices. This was supposed to be a lesson for Amazon, and I’m sure they did lose some business, but it almost definitely ended up hurting the publishers as well. When prices go up, demand goes down.
As for self-publishing, the consensus, I think, is still forming, but in its half-formed state it sounds like it’s being dismissed as the thing bad writers do when they can’t get a contract with a ‘real’ publisher. But most would concede that, actually, a few really exceptional writers have chosen self-publishing as well. Some would go so far as to suggest publishers should address whatever it is that makes authors abandon them in favour of going it on their own (royalty rates). But as far as I know, no traditional publishing house has yet come up with sufficient means to compete with self-publishing. Meanwhile, self-pubbing continues to grow, virtually unchallenged.
In both these cases, it has been easier for publishers to retreat and resort to smear campaigning and underhanded tactics than to think about what their value is and defend it in a concrete way in the eyes of consumers and authors. After all, that’s the two groups of people on whom publishers will always depend.
It will always be in publishers’ best interests to make consumers happy, and currently the best thing to have happened to the book-buying people is Amazon. It offers low prices and quick delivery, which is not just great for people who already love books but also reaches those who normally wouldn’t be interested enough to fork over the asking price. What’s more, Amazon directly counteracts the two biggest causes of piracy, which are high prices and low availability. It would be a huge loss for publishers if Amazon went out of business.
Luckily, publishers don’t have to compete with Amazon. What about self-publishing – a form of getting books out there that could potentially make publishers obsolete; in what clever ways are we combatting that?
So far, publishers seem to be cowering behind their oldy-worldy prestige and not, say, offering 100% royalties to any author. Well, that would be absurd. But what about editorial services? Many traditionals already commission their editorial work out of house, and the same high-quality freelancers are available to selfers. Publishers are in fact evenly matched for every criteria, except for one – that very same oldy-worldy prestige.
The reading public assigns more value to books that are published by traditional houses, because they know it’s content that’s been vetted. It’s very hard to get published, and to a large extent (with notable exceptions…) that still means that only the best make it. Conversely, of course, anyone can self-publish. You take much more of a risk buying a self-published book. Quality assurance is the traditionals’ ace in the sleeve!
This is still true at the moment, when self-pubbing is not yet mainstream, but it’s by no means going to continue to be true unless publishers make it so.
Something is elite and exclusive when it’s highly desirable but availably to only a handful. Whatever makes it highly desirable – the promise of fame and wealth, for example, in the case of getting published – causes it to become exclusive, as resources are scarce but a large number of people go after it. But when there’s a challenger, suddenly what was so rare is a little less so. The original provider must come up with ways to make themselves more desirable than the competition, and possibly kiss farewell their sense of prestige.
For traditional publishers, this will certainly mean offering better royalty rates on top of all those great editorial, design and distribution services. No one can rely on just prestige to do its job, because prestige has to be earned. I think publishers have a lot of pride to swallow and a lot of ground to cover in rising to the challenge in honest ways which serve both the consumer and the prospective author.
What do you think? Are publishers slightly resting on their laurels?