Saturday, December 15, 2012

United Authors

Legacy book publishers are in trouble the same way their record company cousins were when the latter were blindsided by the digitization and subsequent revolution of Internet-based commercial distribution of musical entertainment. In that environment, it's no mystery why Tower Records and its ilk have all but disappeared from shopping centers.

How many record stores have you visited during the holiday shopping season? Could you have found a stand-alone record store even if you wanted to? Nonetheless many of you will gift recorded music to grateful music-lovers, as probably as not via iTunes gift cards and the like. Then your happy recipients will hop on the web and download digital music to their computers, cell phones and iPods. Those musical acquisitions are unencumbered by plastic or cardboard casing, and your downloaders won’t care a bit. They want the music. The physical trappings that used to encase the tunes simply aren’t relevant.

For music appreciation purposes, an iPod by any other name is still just an "e-listener," filled with "e-songs." The massively successful market penetration of e-listeners and e-songs worldwide demonstrates beyond doubt that music entertainment consumers care primarily about efficiently and conveniently acquiring the music they want at reasonable prices. Forcing customers to trudge to a store and overpay for a piece of plastic laden with music they don’t want just to buy one or two songs they do has been extinct for years now. But the record companies remain largely clueless about how to adjust their business, profit, and talent-acquisition models accordingly.

The ongoing death spiral of the old record company business model is instructive as traditional book publishers and sellers ceaselessly bemoan their now equally traditional dwindling book sales. The record companies’ woes were predicated on the companies' mistaken belief their business was selling physical recordings. It wasn't. They’re in the business of selling a form of popular entertainment — recorded music. At the end of the day, consumers wanted the music, not the vinyl or tape or plastic by which the companies attempted (successfully, for a long time) to restrict its availability and control its pricing.

The same self-inflicted myopia clouds current legacy book publishers' vision. They cling to the notion that they're in the business of selling paper, and the overwhelming majority of their business model is structured accordingly despite indisputable evidence (whither Borders?) they're wrong. A paper book is nothing other than a technology by which a form of popular entertainment — stories told in printed words — is sold to consumers. It’s also a technology whose days of market dominance are well behind it.

The current renaissance (which it most certainly is — see Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, et al.) of book self-publishing, underway via the digitization and Internet delivery of e-stories directly to readers, rattles legacy publishers into scrambling to purchase stakes in self-publishing firms flush with e-book expertise. One example is British legacy publisher Penguin’s purchase last summer of the American self-publishing company Author Solutions. Penguin bought Author Solutions less than a year after Book Country, Penguin’s own timid stutter-step into self-publishing, launched to less than magnificent results.

The legacy publishers’ objectives in doing deals like Penguin’s for Author Solutions are twofold. Primarily, they hope to exert some measure of control over the new business model that threatens them. A distant second is to use the self-publishing outfits as a kind of minor league farm system to scout authorial talent deemed sufficiently "worthy" of traditional book publishing contracts. The legacy publishers will fail, because self-published authors of varying degrees of success achieved on their own terms won’t be eager to sacrifice their independence, and vastly higher potential earnings, on the crumbling altar of a clearly dying business model.

Think about it. No one gets excited because Random House or Harper Collins has a new thriller coming out. It’s the author and her story that matters to you, not the publisher. I bet most of you couldn’t name the publisher of the latest novel you enjoyed. I’ll win that bet at least 99 times out of a hundred, for the simple reason you don’t care who the publisher is. It doesn’t matter. It’s not why you bought the book.

Internationally best-selling thriller author Barry Eisler realized just that when he rejected a two-book contract offered him by legacy publisher St. Martin’s Press. That deal included a $500,000.00 advance. Eisler turned down the contract because he wanted to claw back from traditional publishing some measure of independence and control in his career, as well as the opportunity to foster a more intimate relationship with his readers than traditional publishing afforded him. Also, Eisler ran the numbers. Electronically publishing his novels and stories on his own he stood to net a lot more money, more quickly, than what any legacy publisher could pitch to him under the outmoded constraints of traditional book publishing. So Eisler mostly e-publishes now. If he wants to grant one of his e-books corporeal existence, he arranges with Amazon publishing arm Thomas & Mercer to make available physical copies of his work via the Internet.

It's interesting to ponder what might happen if some successful e-book authors like Eisler chose to band together and form their own enterprise to foster, market, and sell digitized books outside the legacy publishers' clutches. There's precedent in entertainment annals for that too — about a century ago popular Hollywood stars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and a handful of others founded an independent film studio called United Artists. They wanted to free themselves from the oppressions of the so-called studio system of commercial American movie-making. Almost a century before the opportunities afforded by a cheap, ubiquitous and commercially-accepted Internet offering Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Instant Video entertainment for in-home 84" flat screens, Chaplin and his colleagues succeeded, in small ways for a short while. Imagine the same effort undertaken by similarly situated movie people now, much less a few years from today.

Now imagine a new digital book publishing operation established along the same lines as United Artists, by a similar caliber of Internet-savvy literary talents for the same reasons. Thanks to current technologies and growing customer acceptance of e-books, such a company would be freed entirely from devoting costly resources to making, storing and delivering physical books, not to mention the arcane financial accounting that necessarily intertwines with all of that. Middlemen siphoning off time, space and money between author and reader would be rendered superfluous. Instead, this company would spend its time and efforts strictly on discovering and promoting authors and their work. The imprimatur of a group of popular and well-respected "e-authors" like Eisler and J.A. Konrath on e-books released by such a company would provide meaningful value to authors and readers alike. It would help talented but relatively unknown authors who otherwise might get lost in the Internet’s raucous e-publishing noise gain readers’ notice. It would help readers find new e-stories to buy and read that come with a seal of approval from established authors whose writing they already know and enjoy. One avenue of book publishing's imminent future may very well lie there, unfettered by paper, brick and mortar, delivery trucks, predacious agents, and bewildered legacy publishers.

Maybe they'll call it United Authors.

 "The past cannot be changed. The future is yet in your power."
~~Mary Pickford~~

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