A group of leading authors, including Donna Tartt, Stephen King and Malcolm Gladwell, has attempted to intervene in the dispute between publisher Hachette and retailing behemoth Amazon. Observers of the music industry are familiar with this tactic; prominent musicians are persuaded that the interests of music publishers are aligned with their own. The reality is very different.
Music and print media are among the industries most fundamentally changed by digitisation. When Amazon likens the change to the arrival of the paperback, it makes a grave underestimation; the invention of printing is a better analogy. Costs and barriers to entry in distribution have almost disappeared.
Established companies in all industries are inhibited in their response to radical change by vested interests inherent in their existing business models. Music publishers tried to block new technologies, and were marginalised by better-run businesses: Apple, Walmart and Spotify. Book publishers responded initially with dismal reproductions on screen of their printed books. When these failed to sell, they retired into protecting the status quo.
The game changer was the ability of hardware manufacturers to produce displays that provide a reading experience almost as pleasant as the printed page. Soon they will be better. Amazon’s distribution capability enabled it to challenge publishers’ recalcitrance.
The role of the book publisher has been based on control of access to channels of distribution. The ambition of the aspirant author has always been to “get published”. Along with the decision as to what should be published, the company has traditionally provided a collection of associated services: identification, support and finance of the underlying literary project, editing of the draft manuscript, and marketing and promotion of the finished work.
But the large conglomerates that have come to dominate publishing are run by people who love money more than they love books. These support activities have been cut back in the interest of maximising the revenue, from control of access to distribution. Today’s bestseller lists are filled with imitations of books that have already been successful; footballer’s memoirs, celebrity chefs, vampires and female-oriented erotic literature.
Such publishers are ill-placed for the new environment. I do not know the extent to which the printed book will remain extant in two decades. But enough ebooks are already being sold to signify that being published by a company such as Hachette or Penguin Random House (part-owned by Pearson, which also owns the Financial Times) is no longer critical.
What matters to the success or failure of a book is the quality of conception and execution of the underlying project, the competence of the editing, and the effectiveness of marketing and promotion. Most new self-published titles fail these tests; in particular, the lack of a competent editor is often obvious. But this is also true of many titles now published by established houses.
Some existing publishers will thrive on the basis of their strengths in author support services. But most will not. Savvy and well-advised authors, often helped by agents, will be able to buy editing and marketing skills with the receipts from a much larger share of the sales proceeds than the traditional royalty model allows. One of the lessons of the new world of music is that the balance of revenues has shifted from publishing rights to live performance and merchandising. The blockbuster advance for authors will be replaced, as has to some degree happened in music, by securitisation of future revenue streams. Venture capital funding of book projects – perhaps starting with university textbooks and practitioner handbooks – is possible.
Readers will miss the traditional bookshop and the comfortable ambience of the library. We have a nostalgic affection for technologically outdated steam locomotives and candlelit dinners. Change is rarely an unequivocal benefit. But the authors who signed the open letter have missed the most significant business consequence of the evolution of the book industry. The author will now be placed where he or she should be – in charge.