By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From March 21, 2013
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Most people employed publishing books perhaps as soon as 10 years from now won’t be working for publishing companies.
Take that, you stinking gatekeeper.
Okay, the ‘tude I’m throwing around here is not Mike Shatzkin’s. That’s my “editorial embellishment.” Poor Mike asked for nothing so crude.
But I want to call attention today to something that seems to have wafted in on the vernal equinox, and may represent one of those rare high-view moments in our gradual discovery of what “digital disruption” ultimately means for publishing.
We spend so much time ripping the minutiae to confetti-sized bits that I find myself pretty grateful for the institutional sweep Shatzkin can, at times, bring to the table.
Shatzkin’s essay Atomization: publishing as a function rather than an industry is just such a keeper. While nobody can contribute more cross-shredded bits to the confetti cyclone than Shatzkin along the way, when he’s able to climb up a lamppost and look down on the parade like this, his half-century of super-aware participation in the industry! the industry! allows him to see patterns in the ticker tape the rest of us might take for granted and miss.
With so many more books to choose from…than there ever were before, the function of gatekeepers, which trade publishers and booksellers clearly and proudly were, becomes an anachronism. The big question — at least for me — is what is trade publishing transitioning to? What does the trade publishing world look like when it doesn’t primarily reach readers through bookstores anymore, a day which one could say has already come in the past five years?
To answer that question, Shatzkin first recalls what publishers did mean to authors. Big chunk here, be sure to read it so we’re on the same page:
The central proposition that all publishers offered all authors is ”we put books on shelves.” The companion reality was “you can’t do this by yourself.” … The requirements to deliver on the promise “to put books on shelves” included the capital to invest and specialized knowledge to turn a manuscript into inventory, a physical plant to manage the warehousing and shipping of those books, and a network of relationships with the owners of the shelves (in the bookstores) to get the right to put your books on those shelves. These were the minimum requirements to be a publisher. If you had them, you could move on to being smart about selecting books (in the case of non-fiction, almost always before they were were completely written), being skilled at developing them, being capable of packaging them attractively, and being managers of another network — of reviewers and broadcast conversation producers and, more recently, bloggers and social megaphones — to bring word of them to the public.
This is gatekeeping. Was gatekeeping. Behold our new epithet: You stinking gatekeeper!
The ISBN issue, for many authors—who would like not to pay the US$250 Bowker charges for a pack of 10 ISBNs (one goes on each format/iteration of a book)—came down to this line from UK-based author Dan Holloway’s comment on that column:
What you haven’t spelled out is the way that ISBNs are still being used as a gatekeeping mechanism that narrows readers’ access to the very best, most groundbreaking literature because many of the leading literary prizes define possession of an ISBN as their definition of publication for eligibility purposes.
While in my response to Holloway I pointed out that if prize committees use the ISBN as a criterion of eligibility, this is not the fault of the ISBN administration (either in-country or international). What I hope to find out from the international body is how in some countries, such as the United States where Bowker is our designated ISBN agency, it has become the case that a corporate entity is the issuer of the world standard for tagging books.
But what, of course, struck me was this use of “gatekeeping,” yet again, as the nastiest thing you can say about someone now. The way we’re going, high schools no longer will ring with the sneer of “you’re so gay” when students are put out with each other. Instead you’re going to hear “you’re such a gatekeeper.”
As I wrote to Holloway, I’m tired of people crying “gatekeeper!” whenever there aren’t enough wolves around to blame things on.
Shatzkin’s writings in particular always illustrate—even for folks who don’t like his work as a consultant to the major traditional publishers—that the effects of gatekeeping in the legacy structure of publishing were just that, effects of a structure.
As I’ve written before, I’d like to kick the authorial asses of Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Hellman, and Fleming, for starters, for making us believe they were such movers and shakers but allowing old publishing to develop as such an author-oppressive business, grossly maternal in its obfuscation: “Don’t worry your pretty little head about how many books you’ve sold, just eat your royalties, they’re good for you.”
But maybe because my name’s derivation means, from the Latin portarius, “keeper of the gate,” I’ve got little patience these days for this easy swing at everything folks don’t like as mere nasty gatekeeping.
So put down that pitchfork and free up your mind to what Shatzkin is saying. Because the day may come when a little gatekeeping looks awfully good.
The barriers to entry to becoming a “book publisher” have collapsed, particularly if you’re willing to start with ebooks and think of print as an ancillary opportunity. Google is becoming one. Amazon became one a long time ago. NBC has become one. The Toronto Star and The New York Times have become ebook publishers. And, of course, so have many tens of thousands of individual authors, a few of whom are achieving startling success.
This is a newer comment and insight from Shatzkin than it might sound. He’s saying that one day Walgreens may publish a nice line of pharmaceutical thrillers; Delta could roll out its own in-flight novels; and every lady in your mother’s Tuesday Afternoon Bridge Tea Salon now introduces herself to you as an “author.”
Publishing will become a function of many entities, not a capability reserved to a few insiders who can call themselves an industry. Think about it this way. If you had told every museum and law firm in 1995 that they needed a web page, many would have wondered “what for?” If you had told them in 2005 that they needed a Facebook presence or in 2008 that they needed a Twitter stream, they would have wondered why. We’ve reached the moment when they all need a publishing strategy, and that will be as obvious to all these entities in a year or two as web pages, Facebook pages, and Twitter streams look now.
Hugh McGuire, our good colleague who has created PressBooks, is right here to show us what Shatzkin means. He’s over at O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change blog with Building an eBook Business Around Analytics.
In the year-and-a-bit since PressBooks launched publicly, we’ve worked with many traditional book publishers, big and small. But what’s most interesting to us is non-traditional book publishers entering the ebook space, because they have the flexibility to approach book publishing in whole new ways.
This is Shatzkin’s point on the hoof. AskMen is producing a line of ebooks meant to answer the needs of its readers.
They’re using data analysis as “a dominant force” to figure out those needs.
McKay is bracingly clear on the goal in her interview with McGuire: “Give readers more of what they’re looking for” so advertisers will follow.
I checked out one of their new books, Mission: Motivation for guys who want to stick to a fitness regimen for the long haul, not just take a turn on the four-hour Ferriss wheel. When I downloaded the sample, I discovered that it started with eight pages of “Praise for the Author,” James S. Fell.
Hell, one page on the Kindle version sample says nothing but “This ebook was produced with http://pressbooks.com.”
UPDATE: Since I published these comments, I’ve heard quickly by Twitter from both McGuire and McKay, and the word from McKay is especially generous: “You made some very good points and I’m going to be making some revisions ASAP. Thx for the feedback!”
That’s the reaction of a good sport and a receptive pro at work. As I’d written, Fell’s writing will sell me without the back-page blurbs. He’s good, especially by comparison to Mr. Four-Hour.
And note the leveling of the playing field that even my carping—and McKay’s plucky response—represents: these days, we all know how to appraise an ebook’s structure.
In fact, want to see a mistake in professional cover design? Check Frank Rose’s The Art of Immersion in Reading on the Ether below. Notice how you can read neither the title nor the author’s name in an online thumbnail. By comparison, look at the strong display of the Mission: Motivation title on the AskMen cover above: that’s how it’s done.
Finally, it’s true: everybody’s a critic. This is a cousin of Shatzkin’s point.
He calls it “atomization” to mean “the dispersal of publishing decisions and the origination of published material from far and wide.”
Atomization is verticalization taken to a newly conceivable logical extreme. The self-publishing of authors is already affecting the marketplace. But the introduction of self-publishing by entities will be much more disruptive.
This won’t thrill the self-publishing authors who think of themselves as the new center(s) of the universe. But he may be right.
Most self-published fiction is crap, but a small percentage of a very large number of self-published novels constitutes a significant range of good, cheap choices for fiction readers, particularly in genres. That “diamonds in the dirt” effect has been becoming more and more evident with the passage of time.
Using Hugh Howey as his model, our new National Example of Everything—remember Amanda Hocking?—Shatzkin points out that even the legacy publishers’ ability to horn in on grassroots publishing is drying up amid the atomization under way.
The publishers’ power to use that capability to command a share of the “easy” (no inventory investment or sales force required) money from ebooks, which was a sine qua non for them until very recently, is evaporating.
I believe this is an existential challenge facing general trade publishers because it relates directly to the value publishers deliver authors and readers.
He uses the chart that many of us have picked up from Bowker (I found myself using it at Writer Unboxed), showing the terrific tumble of in-store sales in the States since 2010, with some 44 percent of the action now happening online.
And while conceding that many publishers are working on developing the kind of direct-marketing expertise that McKay discusses with McGuire—widely considered one of the few hopes they have for getting around the “atomization” at hand—Turner writes of the kind of misgivings many others see in the old gatekeepers:
I just don’t believe these strategies will demonstrate sales in a way that will impress authors, satisfy readers, or–most important of all–yield the necessary consumer data that will allow for the necessary marketing agility and scalability. Since book sales are flat and market share is being atomized, the discounts demanded by third-party eCommerce retailers are a profound barrier to the margins necessary for surviving the transition that eCommerce demands.
And Shatzkin, for his part, isn’t ready to say that legacy publishing is fully over the side.
There are ways to market to “known book buyers” that are increasingly going to be the property of entities that have developed lists and techniques at scale.…it is likely that the machinery of the biggest book publishing organization (or two) will be required for a very long time to maximize the biggest commercial potential, like “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
But note that what he’s describing is the capitalization by a publisher on a success that enters the field from “outside” the industry, in that case fanny fiction.
This “atomization” concept has legs. The structured industry, not just its supremacy in books, is what’s coming apart.
Without a robust “book trade”, from which trade publishing gets its name, there cannot be commercially robust trade publishing, at least not as we have known it…The atomization I think may be the overarching trend of the next decade or two.