Keen to foreground speakers for its FutureBook Conference in December, Britain’s The Bookseller has run a long profile interview with Jane Friedman, former CEO of HarperCollins and creator of backlist-focused independent digital publisher and publishing services provider Open Road Integrated Media. Garnished with a hint of smarm, the profile interview declares: “What makes Friedman’s commentary on digital publishing so potent is that her career trajectory seems so traditional.” And it claims that she has shown “how to clear new digital territory for publishing into the future.” Perhaps.
Friedman still preaches the revitalization of backlist, and her own role in it. “Fast-forward, I go to Harper which is bleeding, no profit, and the first thing I say I’ll do is…backlist,” she declares, as a result, making revenues. “jump 30% almost immediately” with Harper Perennial. With digital on the horizon and digital rights up for grabs from pedigree imprints, she “went and seized those rights.” However, she states, “while my goal was to make a company successful, my real goal was to bring books back to life, books I felt the next generation should be reading.”
As it happens, a while ago I praised Friedman’s business model, saying: “The future is an Open Road.” I’m happy to have been proven wrong. Why? Because truly breakout self-publishing hits, like The Martian, are continuing to get through the flak barrage of marketing and promotion put out by Open Road and its even more traditional peers. Also, Open Road has proven to be closer to mainstream publishing than perhaps it wanted, especially now that the Big Five have learned all about backlist revitalization. What they haven’t learned to do, apparently, is to let go of pricing practices and other policies that are shrinking their share of the e-book market. And there’s no sign that Open Road is any different. The problem is not distribution: Amazon can do that for everyone, self-publishers and Big Five alike. It’s getting some kind of market-making edge that rivals Amazon’s recommendation engine, and plain old word of mouth. Neither the Big Five nor Open Road seem to have cracked that.
The other slight snag is that backlist publishing hasn’t proven a market-transforming proposition. Trade publishers still seem to rivet all their hopes on the next big seller to drive their business model, rather than resuscitating the authors of yesteryear. And significantly, there are two terms that don’t appear once in Friedman’s interview: “public domain” and “copyright.” Because it seems that the reading public haven’t appreciated the distinction – meaningful chiefly to trad publishers and rights-holders – between backlist titles and the true historic legacy of great literature curated by the likes of Project Gutenberg, for free, gratis. Gutenberg, Archive.org, et. al. have brought the great books of the past back to life in a far more significant way. I’d say that the business model of companies like Pyrrhus Press, who appear able to make people pay for what’s available elsewhere for free, is far more interesting now than Open Road’s.