Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Can Publishers Stay Relevant?

Last week I talked about some of the ways the publishing industry is fighting Amazon. I also acknowledged another Amazon-related challenge for publishers – the way midlist authors are turning to self-publishing. They often start with their out-of-print books and then do well enough that they consider self-publishing their new work. The numbers may not be huge yet, but they are growing, and if the publishing business doesn’t change, publishers will lose their midlist – books that don’t make a fortune but sell enough to pay their expenses and help keep everybody in business.

I don’t know if publishers are talking about this yet. The public comments I’ve heard have typically been rooted in denial. Publishers and their employees want to see themselves as relevant, so they stand by the idea that traditional publishing is proof of quality, and any serious author should want the “validation” of a traditional deal. And many authors still do.

As writers, we learn about publishing companies so the names mean something to us, but I’m quite sure that if I told a non-writing friend that I had a book published by Clarion or Aladdin, it would mean nothing to them. Ironically, I’ve had people assume that my traditionally-published books were self-published, before I ever started exploring self-publishing. Most people still don’t understand the difference.

What’s the advantage of the “validation” of a traditional publishing deal, if it means nothing to most readers? Plus, publishers seldom do much to market books from debut or mid-list authors. But there’s a way publishers can make their names mean something, and support their authors better at the same time.

These days, you’re probably hearing a lot about “brand building” for authors, the idea that you should stand for something specific. Yet many publishers haven’t embraced the concept themselves.

If you know that a certain publisher always produces well-edited and well-designed books with a specific, narrow focus that matches your interests, you’ll trust them and look for their books. You might even buy directly through their website, which means higher profits for the publisher.

Small publishers can keep a narrow focus more easily (such as a regional focus), but bigger companies could do it as well. Tor, for example, is known for fantasy and science fiction, while Poisoned Pen Press focuses on mystery, as you could probably guess from the name. “Harlequin is Romance” as their tagline says, and specific Harlequin lines follow clear guidelines on subject matter and tone. But who goes out of their way to pick up a book by Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins? What do those names mean?

Big publishers publish too great a variety to brand themselves by genre, but many include imprints with a narrower focus, though few of those are known outside the business. If publishers develop imprint brands with a clear, narrow focus, and promote those, they might build customer loyalty.

And if they promote the brand rather than promoting a few titles each season, that would also be an advantage to mid-list and new authors, who’d benefit by the association even if they get no individual publicity.

How about it? Do you have any other ideas for publishers on how to stay relevant?

Blogger won't let me comment on my own posts anymore, so here's an addendum: Porter Anderson suggests "author collectives" supported by publishers: ‘Social’ Media: And the Boat We Rowed In On 

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