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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Are Writers Killing Book Publishing?

Blogs.
Web sites.
E-books.

Is all of the free information out there killing the book publishing industry or enhancing it?  “Free” stuff might induce someone to buy A over B but I don’t see any evidence that as a result of the overflow of free info that people are spending more on books overall. If people spend time every day reading stuff online for free they have less time to read a book and less financial incentive to buy a book when so much is free out there.

Maybe, as writers, we need to reconsider all of the free content we produce out there.  This blog included.  Maybe it’s time to charge for information and ideas.  Perhaps we need to put a price tag on things in order to give the whole reading experience value?  I don’t know for sure but I do know that if we escalate the availability of free information we will most assuredly continue to see a slowdown in the growth of book sales.

We’re doing the opposite of what escorts or consultants do. They charge for what is otherwise free - sexual relations or advice. We’re giving away what is otherwise charged for.  Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?

But writers want to be heard and read more than enriched or paid.  And many writers feel they will earn back money once they build up a following.  It’s like an internship or apprenticeship – there is hope for a payoff down the road.  But what other industry gives away so much of what it can charge for? It’s time for writers to unite and to put a price tag on their skills. Otherwise we’ll work against each other and ourselves.

Interview With Bill Smith, Director Of Digital Development for Perseus Books Group

1.      What does the director of digital development do? As director of digital partner development, I am the business development lead for our digital distribution business, Constellation Digital Services. When I started in the role in 2007 we were distributing e-content for just the dozen Perseus Books Group imprints. We now distribute for over 220 independent publishers – from Grove Atlantic to Harvard Business Review Press to the wonderful Bellevue Literary Press publishers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers. I manage the business side of our digital vendor relationships – from the big digital programs with Amazon, B&N and Apple to library related offerings like Overdrive, ebrary, and Follett and more niche solutions like Blio and Zinio – and work closely with our operations team to ensure our titles are well represented with all. But the majority of my time is spent prospecting new digital initiatives that might be a fit for Constellation. In any given week I speak with five or six new vendors interested in our content.    

2.      What do you love about being a part of book publishing? I’ve got an M.A. in Literature, a journalism background, and I started out in bookselling. So I don’t come at this from the technology or “MBA” perspective. When I was a General Manager running a Borders Books & Music store in the mid-nineties, I would get headhunting calls from Target and Home Depot gauging my interest in managing one of their stores. I would always tell them: “I sell books because I love books. I can’t sell hammers or shoes.” It’s a vocation – and right now I can’t imagine a more exciting industry to be working in.

3.      Where is the industry heading? There’s been a remarkable amount of lip service paid to the idea that the publishing industry is in the midst of “disruptive change.” But publishing is the original media technology business and when hasn’t “the Media” been “disruptive”? I’m sure the Gutenberg Bible rocked the world of the monks of the Middle Ages. As a glass-is-half-full sort I prefer the phrase “transformative change” and like to think the industry is in a state of arriving. With 15-50% of any given book title’s sales now coming as an e-book, the digital revolution has happened in publishing. The devices – the Kindle, iPad, Nook,– continue to be adopted by readers at a furious pace and consumers are already making their preferences clear by winnowing down the competition to a select few preferred choices. The rush to put out book apps has subsided and once again the adage “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” is being adopted. 

This has all transpired at impressive speed and, unlike our friends in the music industry, publishers have not buried their heads in the sand and wished it away, but rather responded to consumer demand as the opportunity for growth that it is.

What I feel is one of the most promising developments of this rush to digital is the potential success of social networking in establishing a more direct relationship between reader-and-publisher/author. Except for one marked exception, the new technology allows the creator to bypass the intermediary selling party and foster that more direct reaching out to a very specific – and likely more avid – audience. As a result, there’s the promise of more intuitive and nuanced interpretation of a reader’s interests. What author or small publisher wouldn’t welcome that more immediate contact with the reader?

4.      Which type of books/genres do you believe are better positioned to succeed in the current marketplace? Not surprisingly, genre fiction is the prime example of success thus far in the e-book arena. Publishers like Harlequin have been innovators in the space catering to the page-turning, series-hungry nature of their readership through push notifications and automatic delivery subscription models. That was obvious. The same pattern is bearing out with other fiction and any of the narrative non-fiction genres as well. What’s been a slower burning development has been offering solutions for more complex publishing – i.e., cookbooks, children’s books, textbooks and anything that requires robust formatting and illustrations. But that’s happening now as well with a lot of industry-leading innovation happening in the student and academic space.

5.      Are authors embracing technology and all the resources available to them to promote and market their books – or are there things they should be doing more of? Absolutely – and not only for perceived monetary gain but for the reasons I mention above. And it’s not just the big names like Stephen King (although he has been a trend setter in the digital space). At Perseus, our authors use their own websites, Facebook, Twitter and any other technology at their disposal to connect with the reader. One of the most insightful and witty author perspectives on the digital publishing landscape was given by the award-winning author Margaret Atwood at last year’s Tools of Change conference. She called it "The Publishing Pie: An Author's View" and I think your readers would love it:.http://youtu.be/-6iMBf6Ddjk.

However, as someone working in publishing I have to believe that the new technology only strengthens our role in the food chain. The vast majority of authors I speak with want to be educated about the new digital opportunities available for their work. However, in the end they want to put their efforts in the creative process – so long as we can assure them that we’re covering the digital waterfront to ensure their book reaches the widest possible readership.
           
Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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