Rethinking the fiction publishing business, by Michael Harris


ImagesRecently, I discussed a few of the issues facing fiction book publishers. My prediction is that their biggest competition will come from authors who bypass publishers and distribute through electronic channels (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and even their personal web sites). Where does this leave the publisher in a post-printing world?


Publishers are mastering the defensive moves. It appears their goal is to protect their current markets. However, this doesn’t look like a successful long term strategy. Even small losses in market share will add up over time, and as electronic book readers become more common, publishers will be easier and easier to bypass.
Is there a way for publishers to profit from the new trends instead of fighting them? What are a publisher’s strengths and how can they be monetized in this new environment? One option would be for the publisher to reconfigure itself as an open access pay-per-use services and editorial company.
Many self-published books suffer from typographical and basic grammatical errors. A publisher could offer proofreading and editing services on a pay per service basis. If this service succeeds, the demand will far outstrip capacity. This can be solved by establishing a services marketplace where independent proofreaders bid on job requests from authors. The publishing company would still offer its own services, but at a premium to the general market. For this extra fee, the author would receive a quality guarantee as well as premium services, such as editing and coaching on writing styles.
Another service would address packaging the book for sale. This might include layout, book covers, and translation into appropriate formats (epub, mobi, etcetera). Similar to CafePress,  authors can open their Author personalized bookstores. These author stores can even offer a hardcopy option through a print-on-demand capability.
Arguably, the most important service that publishers provide is in managing the selection of books and arranging for access to the market. Although the publishing process may not be perfect in finding the best books, it does generally succeed in winnowing out unreadable slush. The presence of a publisher’s imprint is the promise of some level of quality. In contrast, the quality of independent writing varies from outstanding to utter dreck.
From the consumer viewpoint, this new world would be represented through the blogs of editors, or online librarians. These librarians would manage column that touts the best books that the company finds. Each of these recommended books could be purchased through a link to either the publisher’s own services or an exterior service such as Amazon. Even if the link is through Amazon, the return on this could be lucrative. Amazon offers affiliates a percentage of each sale that the affiliate facilitates. It is quite possible that a publishing company could negotiate a higher percentage based on their position in the supply chain and based on the size of the audience that they bring.
This librarian service could also be expanded by allowing individuals to sign up as librarians. This would play to the long-tail concept of e-commerce. For example a specific librarian who specializes in cozy mysteries might build their own following on the publishing portal. Each of these independent librarians would receive an affiliate commission for sales that they generate with some percentage also accruing to the accounts of the publisher who maintains the portal. The most outstanding independent librarians might also be reviewed and credited for finds on the blogs of official corporate librarians.
This eco-system of books would support many different levels and types of books. Readers who visit the portal would find new book suggestions from ‘trusted’ librarians. It would allow independent writers to enter books into the catalog, and these books may or may not be recommended by a librarian. However, other books in the system may have been vetted to various degrees. Some of them have been proofread by the publisher, others have been edited by the publisher. At the highest level are books that the publisher chooses for their ‘Select’ line. These are books that publishers feel have the most potential. Select books would be similar to the books the publisher currently produces. The publisher would offer editing, production, and marketing services for free. Of course, this would include discussions on the blogs of librarians. Depending on the book, Select services might include offline support (printing, book tours, public relations, advertising) and might include an advance to the author to buy exclusivity.
One of the keys to this approach is inclusivity to build a large audience. All writers would be admitted to the eco-system. All librarians, editors, and proofreaders are likewise welcome. However, the publisher would be rewarded for providing the portal and building the audience by earning a percentage of all transactions that pass through the site. Furthermore, there would be built-in incentives for using a larger percentage of the publisher’s official services.
Consider the selection process for librarian recommendations and Select books. These books might come from anywhere, and might be otherwise unconnected to the company. However, in the universe of new submissions, it will be impossible to review every book that exists. When an employee proofreads or edits a book, they may also flag it for consideration by librarians or for consideration for the Select imprint.
Of course, the devil is in the details. In this case one of the most important details is getting buy-in  from consumers so that they want to be part of this publishing portal. No doubt a trial in this line will bring a pivot or two along the way. The secret, however, is to embrace the new world rather than to avoid it. Publishers who see their business as under attack will only seek to defend it. The result will be a rearguard action that gradually gives up more territory. A more successful approach will look to capitalize on publisher’s strengths while accepting the new possibilities offered by new technologies.
[Via the Stuff That’s New blog]

12 Comments on Rethinking the fiction publishing business, by Michael Harris

  1. I think you have some good points in this blog post. I really do. As an editor I get blasted with requests from authors with… wait for it… the best story… ever (emphasis added). I try really hard to respond to every request we receive (when we’re accepting submissions) on why/why not I will not sign them. I had one individual submit several chapters of his novel – no dialogue or character development. zilch. nada. I explained to this person that was the main reason I would not accept the submission. Because of the onset of self pubbing, I think publishers should act as gatekeepers to the good stuff, but not so much so, that new authors are totally skipped. Our small press brings on new authors, and new authors only. There’s room at the top for everyone, but publishers need to re-think their position in this industry as merely the connecting point between writer and reader. When that happens, I think we’ll see a nice leveling and an uptick in quality. Authors also have to understand that an outright rejection with suggestions should be looked at as just that; the writing style of the author does not meld/mesh well with the publishing house and here’s why …x…y…z. Take those suggestions and look at the writing and really consider making those suggestions actual changes to the story. From the other side of the coin, trust me when I say, I’ve received a lot of garbage in my inbox.

    Kortney Gessler
    Unforgettable Books, Inc.

  2. Kortney Gessler – I am afraid this is just more of the same claptrap we have been getting from publishers for too long. This astonishing arrogance “Because of the onset of self pubbing, I think publishers should act as gatekeepers to the good stuff”. Yeah right. There should be no gatekeepers within the industry. The only gatekeepers should be the reader. That is part of what is wrong with the old fashioned system.

    emellaich’s article makes a lot of good points that have been touched on many times over the last couple of years here on Teleread.
    The old style publishing model is not up to scratch for dealing with the new digital world. Writers want more and more to self publish, to be in control of their lives and destiny and not be exploited by self appointed gatekeepers who patronise them and offer poor royalties and no justification of added value.
    Writers will be looking to the new style of Publishing Services Agent, who will offer a range of services on a menu basis to writers. Editing, development, proofing, promotion, design, digital management etc. Some writers will want some services, others will want different ones. Services will be delivered on a fixed fee basis much of the time. Percentage royalties will be applied to writers with a track record. This is the new world imho.
    If I were in the management of these old fashioned publishers I would restructure into a smaller leaner modular configuration delivering a range of specialists services, and develop new cost systems, new pricing systems and a new royalty system tailored to individual writers and their individual record.

  3. “There’s room at the top for everyone…”

    This is the one thing that bugs me about Michael’s outline: That it still creates a “slushpile,” it simply shifts it to another room in the publishing “castle;” and that it still creates a world where “experts” subjectively decide what is, and is not, worth the consumer’s time. In his outline, there isn’t room at the top for everyone; there’s a clear hierarchy of selected authors, and the rest become also-rans and losers.

    Granted, not every author is equal to the others, but not all authors fall into convenient niches, either… and editors aren’t always as good at predicting successful books as they are in editing them. I’d hate to see a new system fall into the same mistakes as the last one.

  4. New lean, mean epublishers already exist and are thriving. Authors get freedom, communication with their editor, added value, editorial, shaping, communication to the reader, PR and social networking/discoverability guidance. The readers know they’re getting a selected, well-edited, well-formatted book.

  5. Good Morning Howard,

    Maybe I was not clear on the gatekeeper comment. I am not saying prevent (emphasis added) authors from going to production, I am saying make sure the work is clean and ready for production. That’s what publisher’s should be doing… be the check on quality being produced, now what should be produced.

    My company is new to the playing field of publishing, we bring something really very different. We give our authors total control of their books, down to where, how, what, without asking why. Oh, and our commissions is low, very low for how much work it takes to put out a good book.

    There are plenty of pay for services for publishing already out there – and yet when I pick up a new author’s book that has done this gig on their own I cringe for the first few pages until I can see they have quality there.


    I have been in the publishing industry for 7 years now. Because of the crap an author of ours went through during those 7 years Unforgettable Books, Inc was born. There were a few things about the publishing industry I could not stand, nor could my business partners. So we took things in a different direction. A) We’re not a niche company, nor do we have imprints specifically for different niches. I have everything from a child’s book to paranormal erotica on the roster. B) Our authors are different, very different. The stories are different. Plots are different. Creativity is oozing out of their bodies. C) They make the final decision on anything having to do with their books.

    I agree that not every author is equal to another. However, I do believe there is room for everyone at the top. Publishers should be the mode of transportation to get them there and should not snub someone or their story. I have had to turn away good authors with good stories because I just cannot handle anymore work load right now. I have had a number of people reach out to me with a good story and very poor grammar and writing style. My job as an editor is to get those good stories with poor grammar and writing style to readers – that is the ‘gate keeper’ in me.

    Kortney Gessler
    Unforgettable Books, Inc.

  6. As an author and a “service” provider, I poke holes throughout your theory. Sorry. Convincing new authors that they even need an editor is a job in itself and everyone wants to call themselves an author just because they have written…something…and were able self published it. Just look at the amount of people on Facebook who have decided to put “author” in the name field. It’s laughable. (I even saw one woman who had “authoress” in the name field – that was truly funny). I just turned down a client who had compiled (not written!) 842 pages of “inspirational” material which is now available for sale on Amazon for…get this…TEN dollars!! As Kortney mentioned, some of the work that has come across my inbox has caused my eyes to bleed. There is still a need for traditional publishing no matter whether the medium is electronic or paper. I agree that their methods need to change, I don’t like the idea of someone telling me whether or not my work is “good enough” or not anymore than the next writer. But we’ve become a society where we want things to come SO quickly and so easily to us. If you get rejected, keep trying. Someone will eventually pick you up! Any established author worth a hill of beans got rejected repeatedly then went on to monster success once someone signed them. Releasing a book is a long and arduous process – it certainly not a get-rich-quick scheme! Self publishing is a double edged sword. It allows great writers to get their work out to the masses but at the same time, it lets just absolutely disgraceful work get out there too. Why? Because a lot of the … uhm, writers… think they are good enough and bypass an editor and if they do seek to obtain services from an editor, often bawk at the price which has dropped significantly below industry standards (most people don’t want to pay more than $3 per page which is slave labor really). I recently sent back a work because by page three, I still had no idea what the writer was talking about. It really is a jungle out there.

  7. In the ongoing debate over new publishing models, Gatekeeping is associated with traditional publishing workflows and is generally equated with filtering content to keep it from the marketplace. Gatekeeping is all about fences and gates, promoting approved works and degrading all others. Advocates of frictionless market access as well as ebook consumers see advocacy of gatekeeping as a sign of arrogance and parochial retrograde thinking out of sync with the times. Gatekeeping = old-school thinking.

    What nobody will take issue with is the concept of value-add services; intermediaries choosing works to endorse and add value to via editing, distribution deals, and other services intended to increase their reach and, above all, visibility.

    Clearly some discretionary judgment is required as to which works can be supported by a specific publisher but the traditional model of publishers as absolute arbiters of quality, Gatekeeping, is pretty much dead and discredited among those that are closely tracking the disruption caused by ebooks. Which is to say, the folks round these parts. 😉

    There is a difference between saying “We like this work and will help it reach and appeal to a broader audience.” and saying “Only the works we support are worth considering.” The former is Curation/Promotion, the latter is Gatekeeping.

    And in a world where editing services and covers are readily available from freelancers, and where self-publishing platforms can easily reach 90-plus percent of a given market, there is no realistic barrier keeping content from the market and finding some audience on its own. Where there is room for New Publishing models is in helping products find a *bigger*, more *appropriate* audience.

    When everything has a place in the market there is no value in getting a product to market; the value is in getting the product *visibility* and acceptance.

  8. Felix – Excellent post, expressing things much better than I :)

    One thing where I diverge slightly in on the “Curation/Promotion, the latter is Gatekeeping” thing … I don’t personally like the use of any of this language where curation or gatekeeping is concerned. To me they smack of the same thing.

    I see a significant market where these services will be delivered on a straight fee basis and no judgemental filter will be applied at all. A package of editing will be offered in the form of some kind of “X-hours” of editing work package. The result may not be Tolstoy, but that doesn’t mean it won’t sell and be popular with some element of the public.

    Where a decision is being made to offer services based on a percentage of sales, and where essentially an investment is being made and the ‘risk’ is being shared, clearly a judgement will and must be made based on perceived quality and track record of the writer. The exact percentage and terms should be individual to every writer and every title.

  9. Well, I see curation as a recommendation sort of thing. And it does add some value.
    Like the Amazon and Apple App stores (where there is testing and an implied recommendation) versus the Google Android Marketplace where everything and anything goes indiscriminately.
    A “new publishing” operation will always be constrained in the number of titles they can add value to so their choices will go to what *they* perceive to be a good investment of their resources. So by providing their services to a product they are in effect endorsing it. How much that endorsement is worth will be a reflection of *their* track record.
    What I see is a leveling of the table where it comes to negotiation of terms between writers and publishers; instead of the publishers having the power to deny market access (gatekeeping) if their terms are not met, in the future they will only be able to negotiate terms based on whatever added-value they provide, some of which *may* come from their imprint.
    Where I see the difference is that Gatekeeping is a negative power, the power to deny, whereas curation is a positive power, the power to recommend. The latter may be subtle and limited–most imprints are *not* strong brands–but the former is effectively non-existent.
    Fair enough?

  10. I would like to see most of the ‘competition’ for new books coming from the millions of perfectly good old books which have been written, published, reviewed, read and then conveniently forgotten in the rush to find and profit from ‘the next big thing’. Luckily many of these are now becoming available, and it’s now possible to spend a lifetime reading fiction without exposing oneself to any of the excoriating drivel written after, say, 1970. But there are many many more excellent books languishing in attics and second-hand bookshops which desperately need to be rescued, so that books can compete on their quality, rather than their recency.

  11. Felix – why is this word ‘curation’ being used when it’s actual meaning is nothing to do with recommendation or the like. I know it has history but whenever I hear some stuck up publisher use it, they are usually using it in a very patronising way.
    Definition: “select, organize, and look after the items in (a collection or exhibition) : both exhibitions are curated by the museum’s director.”

    I apologise for repeating myself but I see two types of activity by future Publishing Agents that replace the current big publisher model. The first will be fixed price services. Editing, proofing, digital, promotion. This will become more and more common. The second will be risk shared publishing where a title is invested in. No charge will be made for services and the profits will be split with the writer according to the balance of risk and the track record of the writer.

    This kind of publishing will be a recommendation of sorts. But taste is so random in this world that I believe it will be a meaningless recommendation for readers.

  12. @Howard – Try an online search for “curated apps”.
    In the tech world curated = reccomended for a while now.
    The language does evolve.

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