Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at the invitation of Jane Friedman at JaneFriedman.com
Is that a chip on your shoulder, or are you just carrying John Sargent around the room one more time?
In a week of sometimes rancorous debate about the actions of the U.S. Department of Justice and the responses from sued publishers, an initially zany-disaster mode has darkened into a more serious tone.
The sense of a real and present crisis should by now have caught up with you.
Some of our better heads have, as ever, produced useful, thoughtful commentary. Even so, a lot of folks probably feel battered by the back and forth between pundits, some of whom seem more eager to look smart than to advance much understanding of what’s going on.
It’s a time when no one seems able to just be quiet.
There is some minor news, as the Ether begins floating for this week, of progress in the suits brought against publishers by 15 states’ attorneys general.
In E-Books Case Judge Told Publishers Settling With States, Bob Van Voris at Bloomberg writes that HarperCollins and Hachette have signed a memorandum of understanding with the states and “hope to extend the agreement to all 50 states and complete a deal within 60 days.”
And before I offer you a little romp at the clifftop of the pundits’ party, I’d like to give you the view of an observer who stands just outside the main coterie — not one of our usual suspects.
I admire Macmillan CEO John Sargent.
He had the courage to pre-emptively send an email to hundreds of industry insiders this past Wednesday. In that email, Sargent did something that gives me great hope about the future of publishing.
He used the word “I.”
“I am Macmillan’s CEO and I made the decision to move Macmillan to the agency model.”
Publishing veteran Shawn Coyne blogs at Steve Pressfield’s site. His series of posts there is called “What It Takes,” and it runs on Fridays.
Today, John Sargent believes that nothing less than the entire book publishing business is at risk of being overrun by a sinister force. He’s not alone. With the agency model gone, the thinking is that Amazon will go back to slashing eBook prices and the now inevitable race to the eBook price bottom will resume. With its deep pockets and rapidly expanding global distribution, Amazon will slowly lure the big bestselling writers from the big publishing companies over to its side.
In Publishing is Personal, Coyne acknowledges competing forces of change in publishing today. In doing so, the guy does a rare job of showing the poise of good punditry. I wish we saw more of this.
The only problem is that John Sargent chose the wrong fight. He’s on the eastern front when he should be shoring up the western.
At the foot of the cliff, Coyne minces no words.
The fact is that the agency model is dead. And the reality is that it was only a stop gap anyway. I think John Sargent should swallow his anger and good old-fashioned American stubbornness about this footnote in publishing history and redirect his passion.
Here, in three sentences, he now gives you the problem:
Let’s face it; the future of book publishing is B2C — business directly to the consumer. If you can talk to the consumer and the consumer trusts you, you’ll survive. If you rely on other people to talk to customers for you, you’re in deep trouble.
Coyne goes on to pinpoint the right response:
(Sargent) and his fellow publishers—separately of course—should focus their energies and resources on innovation. Not strategies to manipulate “terms of sale,” but real innovation.
All does not have to be lost.
Rest assured, book nerds are still in-house. They just get shot down trying to acquire the odd books that the category buyers at the retail chains “wouldn’t get.” So those strange book phenomena like the Fifty Shade of Grey trilogy are only published by the Bigs after they’ve emerged from the primordial self-publishing soup.
And it’s time for the real genius of Coyne’s essay. In saying that publishing is “personal,” he hasn’t meant only what a lot of us have learned, that publishers must forge their connections with readers instead of distributors. No, Coyne has something internal in mind, as well. He wants it “personal” with the publishing staffers who are busiest fearing for their jobs these days:
Come up with business models that allow the strange creatures within your citadels that dedicate their lives to books shine. You know who they are—editors, artists, sales people, publicists, marketers. Introduce these people to readers. Let them be weird. Let the conversations begin…and make sure to have your own store. Sell direct.
And that’s the crux of Coyne’s message. The mistake has been these defensive dodges, these sniping guerrilla efforts to get around Bezos with agency pricing or alleged collusion, marketplace skirmishes, feints in the kasbah.
The strategy has been reactive, not proactive. Don’t skip the end of Coyne’s piece. It’s the attempt of a veteran to rally a weak and tattered field, among a dour debate that has exhausted most of us.
Rather than “stopping Amazon!” from taking over book publishing, I think John Sargent and all of the incredible people who work at Macmillan should focus on “out Amazoning, Amazon.”
As the introductory notes on the conference clarified, “As traditional children’s books increasingly merge with digital technology to expand across devices and platforms, the way children find, enjoy, and learn from books is rapidly changing.”
Here is her complete deck, Trends in the Kid’s Consumer Market.