Publishing Models, Translations, and the Financial Collapse (Part 11–The End)

_This is the eleventh and final part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here, or collected in a single pdf file.

On a more personal level, editors—real, living breathing people, not just the faceless corporation—can reach individual readers in an extremely cheap, effective way. By creating Facebook groups to crowdsource parties, such as what Lorin Stein did for Bolaño’s 2666, or writing personal blogs about books and publishing, editors and independent presses can start to build alliances with readers who believe in what the press is doing.

One of the biggest growth areas—maybe the only growth area—in publishing is in the realm of graphic novels. Again, there are a lot of reasons for this, but one significant reason is the fact that graphic novels (and comic books more broadly) have always cultivated a fan culture in which readers interact closely with the publishers, writers, artists, etc. In our “web 2.0” world, interaction is key, and people who feel engaged with a project or organization are much more likely to do the sorts of things that will spread the word and increase sales and readership. As demonstrated by the success of BzzAgent—a word of mouth company that mobilizes hundreds of unpaid “BzzAgents” to spread the word about new products—word of mouth marketing is extremely effective. The more people who love what you’re doing and feel like they’re helping you to do it, the more they’ll get other people involved, and the more successful you’ll be.

It’s not a complicated concept, but one that sleek, savvy small presses are more likely to capitalize on than amorphous, nondescript commercial houses. Indies also have a chance to leap ahead in terms of using e-books to reach readers. With a loyal fan base and authors who aren’t looking to make millions off their intellectual property, independent presses can play around with the current models, giving away free e-books or selling them at a very low price, all in the interest of generating excitement about a particular author or work.

It was clear to me when HarperCollins announced a special iPhone tool allowing people to access excerpts of HC books by visiting the Harper website on their phone that the big presses are insanely out of touch. The activities of the Institute for the Future of the Book, such as their collaborative online reading of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, or their theorizing about how presses could be structured in a world where content is completely free, are much more cutting edge than what the big houses are doing.

One other thing worth mentioning is the nonprofit model and recent variations on it. Since the revenue stream for nonprofits is diversified—usually about 50% from sales, 50% from donations—these houses are more protected than other presses when the bottom falls out of the market. Granted, foundation giving is slowing up for the time being, but individuals are still donating. And individuals who understand the value of what nonprofit publishers do will continue to donate and help these presses through these rough times. Furthermore, collaborations between nonprofit presses and universities has proven to be very advantageous to both parties, giving the press additional, crucial resources, and giving the university new educational opportunities for its students.

With independent, nonprofit, and university presses doing most of the literature in translation, there’s a chance for the sales of translations to continue to grow in the coming years. As the industry retracts and readers of the literary community consolidate, translated literature could come to the fore, attracting new readers. And as more presses like Melville House, Archipelago, Europa Editions, Counterpath, Ugly Duckling, Graywolf, and Open Letter come onto the scene with reasonable expectations and a willingness to experiment with new ways of reaching readers and new models for how to survive and fulfill one’s mission, the literary world might not be as bleak as some might think.

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