Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tear Down the Walls

For authors it's always intriguing to study the current throes of the "traditional" book-publishing business model. Rules and practices are fluctuating rapidly in almost every aspect of the business, from the ways books are published to the ways they're acquired and read. This places authors in a landscape as rosy as it is daunting to maneuver as they toil to capture the attention of potential readers.

In days gone by not so long ago, by the far the best path for an author to gain notice and a shot at fame and fortune was steadfastly treading the "traditional" route of book publishing. Many argue that the traditional route remains the best choice, and to some extent (at least right now), that might be true.

The question is, why was it ever true at all?

The answer is in those recently bygone days, and for many decades preceding them, the traditional publishing houses largely and most efficiently controlled the means of production, distribution, and marketing of books released for mass commercial consumption. Once an author contracted with a publisher for a book's publication, the publisher arranged for the book's editing and polish, its cover art, and its pre- and post-release reviews. The publisher arranged the book's physical production. The publisher had the wherewithal to get the book stocked on national and international retail shelves. The publisher had the money and means to market the book domestically and abroad before, during and after its release.

In the Internet Age, the traditional publisher's control in those matters is no longer as weighty as it used to be.

Authors now have access to a robust and growing array of means to have their books professionally edited and produced. Many independent publishing houses can arrange for "fully-returnable" book distribution to retailers via the likes of Ingram, and Baker & Taylor. (And as Kindles, iPads and Nooks abound and gain popularity, the necessity of producing physical books at all dwindles proportionately.) Any author reasonably familiar with social media, and possessing sufficient time and resources, can devise and implement a marketing campaign to support her work as vigorous as just about any rolled out by a traditional publisher.

So barring for the limited purposes of this post the undeniable benefits that accompany economies of scale, the traditional publishers don't enjoy any particular advantages in physical book publication and distribution, and only one (as we'll see below) in marketing. Yet at the moment, for sure, most independently published authors would be elated to move their books into the hands of traditional publishers.


Because not even the Internet Age has stripped from traditional publishers their one clearly invaluable power -- they have been for many years, and remain today, the arbiters of popular reading taste in the mass commercial markets. Whether rightly or wrongly so isn't relevant. It simply is so.

The popular music business is the traditional publishing model's first cousin, so a brief stroll into the music arena is illustrative. When I was a teenager, my family moved between two continents in the mid-1970s. Whether I was in Massachusetts or England in 1976 and 1977, just about every kid I knew had a copy of Peter Frampton's live double album, "Frampton Comes Alive." Record stores on both sides of the Atlantic displayed reams of promotional collateral devoted to the record. American and western European radio stations kept cuts from the album in heavy rotation for nearly two years without interruption. The album became a phenomenon that fed on itself, until for my generation owning the record was a commonplace rite of teen passage.

Alternatively, had the record label not so aggressively stamped the record with its seal of approval, the odds were only a small fraction of us would have ever heard of it, much less bought it.

A&M/Polygram was the record label that made "Frampton Comes Alive" successful. The label, which operated much the same way a traditional book publisher does to this day, excelled at convincing record-buyers that Frampton's album was good, and worth purchasing.

Frampton wasn't unheard of before "Frampton Comes Alive" was released. He had previously been a member of  the well-received band Humble Pie, and released four solo albums between departing the band and "Frampton Comes Alive." Neither individually or collectively did those four solo records remotely approach "Frampton Comes Alive" in sales. Was "Frampton Comes Alive" a great record, or one of the "best" ones released in the mid-1970s? Was it truly superior to hundreds of other contemporaneously-released albums in its and other genres, including Frampton's own previously released material?

Well, that's a matter of taste, isn't it?


In 1976 and 1977, A&M/Polygram was a formidable tastemaker in popular music. The average radio station, music store and record buyer had neither the time nor inclination to scour through hundreds upon hundreds of albums released around the time of "Frampton Comes Alive" to seek out lesser-publicized gems. The record label did this for them.

The major record labels were gatekeepers. Their imprimatur was perceived, to a significant extent and whether justifiably or not, as a pledge of product quality on which stations, stores and buyers were willing to rely. And this is only one example of labels' highly effective gatekeeping and tastemaking efforts before and since "Frampton Comes Alive." (I selected this specific example because it rekindles such fond memories of my youthful miscreancy in the 70s. You'll just have to indulge me.)

The only superpower that traditional book publishers still have today is that power of tastemaking.

Online retailers like the behemoth Amazon.com have millions of traditionally and independently published books for sale. As of this writing, independent e-book publisher/distributor Smashwords.com has "3,764,692,764 words published." Yet even a cursory glance at the current major bestseller lists will return almost exclusively the names of authors who are very well-known and widely read, and have been for years. The premier book review outlets (i.e., The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Times of London, major television programs and magazines, etc.), as well as book stores and book buyers, have neither the time nor inclination to scour through hundreds upon hundreds of books released every month to seek out lesser-publicized gems by lesser-known authors. As they have for decades, they rely on traditional publishers do the sifting for them.

Hence, at least originally and in considerable part, the remarkable success of Meyer's Twilight, or Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or scads of other "phenomenon" books. The underlying business model that made worldbeaters of Twilight and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the same one that propelled "Frampton Comes Alive" to such lofty heights.

I know many authors, both traditionally and independently published. I don't know one who wouldn't crave his or her book to be reviewed by The New York Times. And The New York Times, like The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers, magazines, television stations and radio programs, very rarely shine any light on independently published books. The Washington Post, for one, declines to review independently published books as a matter of stated policy, and it's far from alone in this regard.

My friend Marvin McIntyre recently released his debut novel, a great thriller titled Insiders. His book is professionally edited and produced, and it's distributed "fully returnable" via Ingram, and Baker & Taylor. It has earned great feedback from Internet review sites and online reader reviews. But his sales didn't take off until he was able, through his own professional connections, to get Insiders reviewed by Barron's.

I know it's the Internet Age. There are tens of thousands of web-based book review sites. Some are very good, some not so much. Some have lots of readers, but most have few. There are so many online book reviewer sites splintering readers' limited time and attention that none of those sites have aggregated sufficient gravitas to be a national tastemaker. None of them alone (and even some thousands of them put together) yet have the reach and prestige to launch a book's sales the way a single, brief mention in  The New York Times can.

The way to The New York Times' book review pages and their precious ilk is still, and for all meaningful intents and purposes is exclusively, via the traditional publishers. Relations between traditional publishers and the front-line prestigious book review outlets remain tight and cozy. The publishers will battle to the end to keep it that way, as it's the last vestige of their old-world value proposition that continues to matter. For the near future it seems in the reviewers' interests to perpetuate this status quo too, since it obviates the need for them to invest limited resources in seeking and evaluating independently published books that are as good as, if not far better than, the ones shilled by the traditional publishers.

These are the last walls between very talented but independently published authors and the widespread attention they justifiably deserve. Those walls won't stand forever. The sooner they crumble, the better it will be for everyone who loves to read books.

  "Something there is that doesn't love a wall..."
~~ Robert Frost ~~

1 comment:

  1. I'll go on, um, record right here: Frampton Comes Alive was/is a great album.