This post is something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. And then this week, John Biggs posted his article “Publishers, We Need to Talk” on Tech Crunch and it felt like the right moment.
Before I begin I’d like to say that I believe Biggs does have a bone to pick with publishing but he is using humor and hyperbole for a laugh. I do not want to come across as some humorless crank. And certainly my issue is not with Biggs or his article per se. It merely reminded me that I’d like to dispel some common myths and stereotypes about our industry. Also, I’m a big fan of TechCrunch and have been a daily reader for years.
I’ll summarize his article briefly: Biggs was upset by the news that the popular Tumblr Texts From Dog got a book deal. He believes this book deal represents what is wrong with publishing.
His complaints include:
- Publishers are ignoring ebook piracy
- Publishers are signing up low-quality books, many from Tumblrs
- Publishers are not digitizing their backlist
- Publishers are not signing up books from great thinkers on the web
- Publishers are not taking marketing and publicity seriously
- Publishing people eat fancy food and have Summer Fridays
I know he is trying to be funny, and I’m perfectly willing to laugh at myself and my industry, so let’s go ahead and throw out #6, the fancy food comment. The others, I’m happy to address.
1) I see no signs that the book industry is ignoring ebook piracy. DRM (Digital Rights Management) is easily one of our industry’s biggest concerns. Publishers work closely with ebook publishers to monitor and immediately bring down any whiffs of piracy and ebook plagiarism. It is an issue and the industry is serious about addressing it.
Digital Book World blogs about DRM frequently and it’s a great place to follow this important topic and learn how different publishers are addressing piracy challenges.
2) I’m going to get back to this one, as I have a lot to say about it.
3) Publishers have small staffs and are currently in a mad dash to not only publish all frontlist titles as ebooks but to also chip away at the backlist. When you consider that a publishing house could have over 100 years of publishing that pre-date ebooks (each year easily comprising over 100 titles), you’ll understand the enormity of the challenge and why it will take some time to achieve our goal of offering all books in all formats. Never mind that ebook formats and devices change all the time.
4) The publishing around Steve Jobs alone disproves this point. But even just a quick look at the business books category page on Amazon shows that, in fact, business publishing is currently dominated by tech CEOs, writers, and thinkers.
5) While there was likely a time when publishers were slow to embrace digital marketing and publicity–and perhaps there are still laggards–today when I look around me , I see incredible digital marketing and publicity campaigns. I’ve seen publishers build entire in-world games on Facebook to support YA titles. I’ve watched entire movements around books pop up–generated by a publisher-created Tumblr to support the title.
Ignoring #6, this brings us back to #2. Publishers are signing-up low-quality books, many from Tumblr.
As most of you know, I was in the travel space before rejoining the publishing world, working for Travelocity. Certainly there were articles about the travel industry from time to time, but the volume was nothing compared to articles about the publishing industry. I have been amazed at how often publications and sites cover the publishing industry and what a wide variety of outlets enjoy doing so. This is a good thing. I love working in a sector that people find interesting and write about.
Many of the articles are well-written and do a great job of highlighting publishing’s transition into the digital world. The industry’s battle has become somewhat iconic of the struggle facing so many other mature companies who must also make this transition–and, more specifically, of the media’s particular battle to make this jump.
But this great quantity of articles also means there are often wrong, baffling, or incendiary articles written. These articles can generally be broken down into two basic stereotypes about the publishing industry.
1) Publishers are Luddites who don’t understand TEH INTERWEBZ
2) Publishers only publish celebrity books and crappy Internet memes
What I find funny about this is: they can’t both be true. (And indeed I would argue neither is.) If we don’t understand today’s digital world as stereotype #1 suggests, then how are we savvy enough to publish all these books that started out as Tumblrs? We cannot be both Luddites and web-obsessed hacks who merely hit print on a collection of blog posts.
My feeling on books that started out as Tumblrs is this. Tumblr is an important platform for discovering content. Many successful, high-quality books have started out as Tumblrs and blogs. It is a right and a good thing that editors are tuning into these platforms, searching for new book concepts and ideas and it’s exciting that anyone with a smart idea can grab the attention of a publisher by starting a Tumblr or blog and building up its following. In so many ways, this model perfectly sums up what the tech world preaches as savvy business strategies. Crowd sourcing! Online tribes! Social media!
And no publisher worth its salt would simply string a series of Tumblr or blog posts together and call it a book. There is an editorial process in shaping this content into a longer format and today’s consumer is far too savvy to purchase sub-par, poorly strung together posts that were offered for free on the web.
Also, while I personally don’t read memoirs and novels from MTV stars and celebrities, I assure you they make business sense. It seems to me that people love to decry publishers as being clueless and unable to sort out how to make money on the one hand and on the other hand bemoan commercial publishing.
There is a sector of the book buying audience that enjoys this type of publishing and the industry will continue to publish books for them because meeting the market’s needs is what we’re supposed to do. It’s what any business is supposed to do. There is also a segment that prefers nonfiction from tech leaders, as Biggs does. Many, many publishers produce books for that segment. And so forth and so on.
Me? I’m about to tackle Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending and I’m currently working on Anne Lamott’s Some Assembly Required. Neither of these books could have been published by an industry that only produces sub-par content from the web. The truth is, our industry is enormous, we all publish different genres, and you can’t fault a publisher for publishing books to an audience that wants exactly that content.
We are neither a consortium of old-fashioned folks wearing elbow patches on our jackets and typing away at our typewriters nor are we tacky profiteers scouring the web for the hit trend of the moment that can be packaged into a shoddy book. How could we be? Today’s consumer has incredible access to free media that we are competing with every day.
Our goal is to convince them to pay for content. And the only way to do that is to publish the content they really want in the format they prefer at a price that seems reasonable.
And we do that every day. This is where I’m not sure the publishing industry is getting enough credit. In a world where a consumer agonizes over the purchase of a $1 app, the fact that we sell books for $15.99 day in and day out is impressive.
Have there been bumps in the road on our journey into the digital age? Absolutely. Will there be still more? Undoubtedly. But what we have already achieved is impressive and any article peddling the same old stereotypes is hardly raising the discourse.