Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What can publishing learn from the music industry?

In this long conversation between Joe Konrath, the torchbearer for self-publishing, and Barry Eisler, an author of bestselling thrillers who has decided to give up traditional publishing for self-publishing, they make an interesting comparison between the music industry and book publishing. Not just that both are suffering because of digital media, but rather that the music industry spent its time and money fighting against piracy instead of building a digital distribution system, allowing Apple—a computer company—to take over music delivery. 
Joe says, “Simon and Schuster or Random House should have invented the ereader. They should have been selling ebooks from their websites a decade ago. Instead, an online bookseller, Amazon, is leading the revolution.”
Barry Eisler responded, “If you think about it, for years publishers have been steadily outsourcing their core business functions. Culling the slush pile went to agents long ago. A lot of editorial devolved to agents, too. Marketing has increasingly become the responsibility of writers, who are expected to blog and be social media demons. I think publishers felt comfortable outsourcing all these functions because they felt the lock they had on their core function—distribution—made their overall position impregnable.
“The problem is, they’ve lost that lock, and they’ve already outsourced so many of their other functions that it’s getting hard for them to offer a writer a coherent value proposition. For now, they have enough cash to offer advances, which most authors will need to live for the same reason most people need a mortgage to buy a house. But even that advantage is being eroded by digital, because with digital, you publish right away and start earning right away.”
Are publishers becoming obsolete? I don’t expect traditional publishing to go away anytime sound. But in this changing climate, authors—even those who are traditionally published—have many new incentives for turning to self-publishing.
According to Mark Coker in the Huffington Post, “More and more talented writers—including authors previously published by the Big 6—are losing faith in the old system of publishing.”
He lists as reasons:
  • Advances are declining
  • Publishers reluctant to take chances on authors without established platforms
  • Most print books forced out of print before they’ve had a chance to reach readers
  • Authors expected to shoulder most post-publication marketing on their own dime
  • Lost and mismanaged rights
  • Brick and mortar retail distribution disappearing
  • Publishers value books through myopic prism of perceived commercial potential (publisher death panels)
  • Publishers acquire today what was hot yesterday so they can publish it 12-18 months from tomorrow
  • Publishers over-price and under-distribute author works
  • Publisher ebook royalties 17% list (25% net) vs 60-70% list (85-100% net) for self-publishing
So what does the future hold? Do traditional publishers need to change their ways? Or will the self-publishing revolution fade away as most “indie” authors fail to sell well?

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