Drawing Out the Meta-Concepts

There are any number of ways to approach the idea of eBooks and the havoc (and joys!) they might play on the business of publishing. As I alluded to yesterday, our group broke into a few different camps relating to this: there was the corporate side of things (Maja from Hachette, Molly from Penguin, Julia from Harper) whose biggest concern was Amazon.com’s influence on the price of eBooks ($10 will crush big publishing!), there was the idea that digital can democratize the distribution platform (btw, there could’ve been a drinking game revolving around the word “platform”), and there was the camp which included Todd from Opium and Paul from Bomb that were interested in the possibilities of developing readership through digital initiatives.

There are a lot of subtleties to these various viewpoints, both in terms of the larger picture, new business model sense and in more precise ideas of how these things play out day-to-day, but I think that I’ll ape the French method once again and start with a more grand, abstract picture of the shifting nature of the publishing world and spend the next few days explaining, exploring, and telling funny stories.

(Todd and I joked that every single meeting on the trip could’ve started with a single statement involving a few key words—“platform,” “digitization,” “fixed price,” “diversity”—and then the rest of the time could’ve been spent unpacking this. “I run a digitization platform that promotes diversity through the fixed price law. Questions?”)

So, on the last day of the trip we had a quasi-spontaneous lunch with Vincent Piccolo of La Martiniere Groupe. Vincent is an economist turned publishing person who works on the platform (drink up!) for eBook distribution that Flammarion, Gallimard, and La Martiniere built together in order to compete with Hachette and Editis, the two biggest publishing players in the French market.

Vincent—who has pretty rad hair—talked to us a bit about what he did, but my favorite moment of the lunch was when he flipped over his placemat and drew out his understanding of the nature of the book world:

I know this looks like random scribbles, but let me explain . . .

The bottom drawing—the linear one—is the traditional publishing model. The Author is on the far left and the Reader is on the far right. In the middle are the Agent, Editor, Publisher, Salesforce, Printers, Distributors, Retailers, and Booksellers. Pretty damn long chain of people to work through to be able to connect with your audience . . . Most importantly, in this traditional model, the Publisher (and arguably, the Retailer) have the most power. They generate the product, they set the price, they work together to extract enough money out of the Readers of the world to pay all the middlemen (and the Author . . . sometimes), they act as gatekeepers as to what’s made available, they craft the tastes of the reading public by promoting certain books over others.

This is a very comfortable situation—especially for French publishers. (More on that tomorrow when I get into the intricacies of the “fixed book price” law.) There is a clear chain of economic command, and everyone’s role is well defined.

But. Things are changing. The world isn’t so publisher-centric anymore thanks to Amazon.com. Thanks to Google. And that’s what the circle drawing on the top is meant to represent.

We now live in a i-fricking-everything world in which the Reader has much more power than he/she has ever had before. Thanks to technology, thanks to the Internet, Readers have almost unlimited choices for how to spend their time. Instead of a quaint world in which Readers rely upon the Publisher-Retailer chain to identify, produce, and make available for sale a work they might be interested in, the Reader can now search for and, in the eBook dominated world of the near future, find basically anything he/she might desire. Without having to rely upon a Publisher or necessarily a Retailer.

So the situation Vincent was describing places the Reader at the center of the Book Universe, with the Publisher-Salesforce-Distributor-Retailer chain in a ring on the outside. Amazon.com—an extremely reader-centric company—is a bit closer to the Reader, giving him/her instant access, personalized recommendations, a way of interfacing with the entire long tail of published materials, including ones generated by self-published authors . . . And Google might end up being even a step closer, offering access to an equally enormous range of materials, but also giving Readers a way to sync their experiences and to get to these works from any computer anywhere in the world. As if they’re run by diligent MBA students, both companies are trying to give the customers what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

This is frightening to Big Publishers. The comfortable model that has defined the development and evolution of this century’s book world is under siege. Disrupting the supply-chain loosens the control that Publishers-Retailers (I should redefine that as “Traditional Retailers”) have had over the past X number of years.

I know this is painting with broad, sloppy strokes, but continuing down that theoretical path for a moment it seems to me that publishing (at least over the past few decades) has been a supply-side game. Because of the structure of our business with its returns, its payment structure, its sunk costs and bets on public taste (no one really knows if a book will click with readers or not), publishers have evolved in a way that they’re always trying to outrun their expenses. Publish more books in more categories to reach more niche readers to sell more than you’re currently getting in returns. Outrun yourself. And if you can’t do it on the production side of things, then simply buy another press. Get bigger. Share costs across imprints. Synergize this shit. Make money by producing more varied content rather than spend time to ensure your content is reaching as large of an audience as possible. Put all of your proverbial eggs in the basket with the biggest advance.

This is an insane model that only really works if publishers are in charge and readers can’t circumvent the traditional distribution chain. But once the Reader is the center of the book world, things have to change to being more oriented to the demand-side of things. There’s too much available now. There are too many books, too many options, too many devices that allow you to do too many things. In this vision of the world—sketched by Vincent on the back of a placemat—the role of the Publisher in the future is to find ways to create an interest in its books. To return to audience cultivation and giving readers what they want. (Just wait: this idea is what’s driving Penguin’s ideas about eBooks and how to drive up the price through the addition of new media. But that’s for later.)

Following on the ramifications of this idea, we (Todd Zuniga and myself) drew out a couple more charts that explained the role of the Book to an independent, reader-centric press/magazine and to a traditional, corporate, bottom-line oriented publishing house:

So the larger circle in the center is how Todd sees Opium functioning. The book is at the center, and everything he does—producing the magazine, promoting it through Facebook, organizing Literary Death Matches—has the goal of elevating the work itself and finding readers to appreciate it. This is “Book sub Aesthetic.” From his perspective what’s most important is the quality of the work. The book’s “value” is in the quality of the text itself.

The smaller circle is my jaded view of corporate publishing. The book is also at the center, but it’s “Book sub Profit.” What’s most important to Big Publishing is the amount of money that can be extracted from a given work via sales of the book, sales of the foreign rights, sales of the film rights, sublicenses of the paperback version, etc., etc. (And the Reader exists on a little planet off on her own . . . And no, I don’t remember what the box in the upper right hand corner represents . . .)

This isn’t to say that corporate publishers don’t publish aesthetically interesting works—they most definitely do! Some of the best books in the world are coming out of Harper, Penguin, Hachette, Random House, etc. That’s not the issue. What we’re trying to say draw is that is that “indie” vs. “corporate” Publishers value books for different reasons. I would look at Twilight and decide against publishing it because I don’t want to unleash that aesthetic sensibility on the reading public; Hachette looks at Twilight, might be wary of its literary merit, but can value the fact that it will make them tons of cash and it doesn’t really matter how people are affected by reading the book. (OK, I shouldn’t pick on Mormon writers, especially never having opened a single volume of the “Twilight Saga.” But I’m assuming. And you know what I mean.)

Should small presses be seeking out books that can simply make them money? That might suck, but could underwrite a dozen other titles that won’t break even? We all want to sell as many copies as possible, or, put more gently, reach as many readers as we can. But I think the answer to those two rhetorical questions resides in a publisher’s belief in branding as a function of editorial vision.

And this is a topic for a later post on the value of publishers in the digital future . . . I think for now, this post is more than long enough, and filled with completely insane capitalization . . .

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