Sunday, February 05, 2012

Revolution & Evolution - The Publishing Paradigm

This is a continuation from my previous post: "An Open Letter To Barnes And Noble"

Recently in a discussion on a forum board I noticed a post by an author which set my mind in a whirl, as I began to wonder how many people seem to be stuck in a total misunderstanding of what the "Publishing Paradigm" has become. Words and terms which once meant and implied one thing are now totally different in their meaning. Even and most importantly the word "Publisher" especially when it applied the realm of "book publisher" has totally changed focus and meaning. (To be honest Magazine publishers are also suffering from the newly created paradigm, but in a much different manner.)

Just a few short years ago the word "publisher" implied something clear and specific. A person wrote a book. They would do their best job, write the query letter, get an agent, agent would sell to a publisher, and publisher would publish the book. That is basically the scenario. That scenario though has many "ifs" embedded within it. Let us for a moment look at them from the point where the Author actually has a book or an idea for a book to sell.

1. The query letter had to be written, or you had to know someone, who knew someone, who knew someone, unto and into infinity, who could get an agent to read that query letter. (Or perhaps go straight to the publisher, but in any case if your book does get accepted you still had to go back to the agent stage.)
The staggering amount of literature and people that made a living and still do on "How To Write The Perfect Query Letter" still boggles my imagination. But then, agents were the queens of the block. They were the first required step in getting a book out to market. Without an agent you had little chance of going anywhere.
The agent was dependent on two factors.
1: they had authors who were sending them query letters and they could actually find books within the pile that they could possibly sell to the publisher.
2: They were dependent upon the publishers and editors they knew to actually sign contracts for the books they presented for their clients. The second aspect, the fact they are dependent upon the publishers is what has led to an incredible revolutionary process in the industry. Because just like the publishers, agents did not wake up fast enough to see the writing on the wall.

2. So now you have an agent and the book was actually contracted to a publisher. Then came the problems. From what everyone knew and expected there would be an editing phase, an advance (which became smaller and smaller for new and not-so-new authors as time went on), a production stage, a release date and a marketing stage. But lo and behold, publishers began years ago crying that they were not as profitable as they once were. They told all their authors (except the mega-authors) that their marketing team would be at disposal, BUT authors must essentially market their own books. This I think, if one looks in hindsight, was perhaps the first evolutionary step to the revolution in the Publishing Paradigm.

The publisher would then contract out the book to a "book printer" or perhaps own their own printing house, and the new book would then be up for sale in the book stores and market. Whatever that market was.

Let me make this clear. This system existed, we were told and believed, as a series of "checks and balances" so that the books offered to the reading public were viable and good. In truth, this system existed to make sure that the agents and publishers alike, could make a living and even a good living by doing things that a "writer" could not do. In effect, an agent was and still is a very specific and targeted PR person. They like your book, they believe in it, they know the editors at the publishing houses, they present the book, they go through all the contract negotiations..agents do an incredible amount of work. They are very important to this system. I think they still are but the publishing paradigm has changed so much on them, that agents now have to keep up or get out. They must redefine their roles in the Author---Publishing experience. (Which is certainly not the subject of the post, but a later post in this series.)

So back to the term "Publisher". Then came the digital age. The Technology age. The advent of computers. I do not care what you call it, but whatever term you wish to insert here, it was swift and unforgiving. 

So a company calling itself "Amazon" came to the market and said: "You know what? I will aggregate all the publishers on to one web site, and introduce the idea of buying books on the web." And the publishers loved the idea. And even more importantly the public LOVED the idea. Wow. A book store on line with all the books available! What an idea. Perhaps at that time there were very few who foresaw this beginning as the death of the corner bookshop. Perhaps there were some who envisioned the electronic age as it has panned itself out today. But the publishers did not. They loved the idea of making more sales happily forking over a pittance of their profits to have Amazon deliver the product.

So far everyone lived in peace. There were the agents, the publishers, the printers, and the sellers. Everyone had a piece of the pie. Right? Well there was small little part of this pie, an inconsequential part actually (that last part was cynical), that of course everyone forgot about. Well two parts if you look at it correctly. They were simply put, the buying public and ummm...guess who? the authors themselves. Especially the authors who could not write that perfect query letter even after spending hundreds of dollars on books on how to write it, and finding out agents were so "overworked" (poor things) it took them 6 months to get to a query letter, and yikes, after all that, in the age of email, most places still insisted on snail mail and an SASE (remember that term - SASE?)!

And so things went. Amazon grew and Barnes & Noble got in the act. And it was such a cozy nice thing. Everyone was happy. The party kept going on and on. Except, there is always an "except" right? Except Amazon realized that this was really just the first step. While the others were working on the salad, Amazon got up, excused itself and went back to the office.

And they watched very quietly. Companies like Lulu and others advertised "Self-Publishing", "POD" and "Vanity Publishing". Call it what you will that is what it was called in those days. The term "Indie" did not exist. And it was "self publishing". And while the publishers and agents were waiting for the soup to be delivered at their little party, Amazon went ahead and started watching the growth of these companies. The public began to vote with their wallets. Sure, 99.9% of those books were not used for anything and never got read, but, and this but is huge, people were saying, "I don't care! I want my book published, and waiting around to try and find an agent and a publisher is futile." Is Lulu and others like it, a publisher? Or are they just glorified printing machines? Hmmm....well we will look at that further in this article.

And we all, including myself, turned up our noses. We snubbed this. Agents who were at least savvy enough to have a web site or blog, and few of them were, took great pains to write, "If your book is self-published do not send it in. Do not list it. Do not send us to your blog. Do not tell us a thing about it." They were right of course. Self-published books were not part of the game. You want to be an author? Well we have a system. These are the rules. Follow them I may look at your query, on a shining day when the angels are dancing. Don't follow them, tough. No go Joe. And the publishers and agents smiled and laughed in glee, and patted themselves on the back because they were now able to get to the online public through Amazon and B&N and they could increase sales and brand name. It was really an ideal process.

And as time went on, they moved with it. Wait a sec? There is something called a PDF. Which Adobe had been advertising for years as the answer to the paperless office. And there were other small companies sprouting up saying we have formats you can use to put a book into the electronic medium and read.

Up until this moment, the appeal of publishing within the rarefied atmosphere of Agents and Publishers was basically the only way to go. Up until this point you went their way or the highway. Or you self-published yourself out of existence.

Then came the electronic possibilities. Ebooks were born. And for a while it seemed these Ebooks would be the wave of the future and another great source of income just for publishers. Actually, most agents would not look at your work, if you published anything and I do mean anything of that book on the web. Ebooks looked like they were going to belong to publishers. For a moment in time.

And then the customers stepped in and spoiled the whole damn party. And Amazon & B&N watched real carefully what would happen next.

No doubt about it when  you put a tool like a computer and the internet in the hands of the public you had better watch real carefully what happens.

Ebooks took off. To make matters even worse you could use a cellphone to read a book. Imagine that! And of course tablets. And of course your computer screen. And someone out there realized that all those people who were paying to be "self-published" would love to put their books in Ebook format. And to sell them or give them to the public. But during this time the "real" publishers and agents were still just sitting and talking and eating their soup as the second course. "Nothing to worry," about they said. "Just a handful of frustrated wannabes are going to try and do it. And besides, who is going to sell their stuff?"

Well, it turns out that at this juncture Amazon said to itself, that they were not just distributors. They realized this was not a handful of people wanting to do ebooks. They realized that this is one huge market. And honestly, why be just tied into the normative publishers? By that time the publishers had become so dependent on Amazon and B&N that they could not afford to live without them. Book Stores closed up by the hundreds. People bought books with one click and an address for Fed-Ex or UPS. It was that simple.

Amazon before all the others realized its position in the market. It was no longer a middleman but a mover. It was indeed a power to be dealt with. B&N did not wake up fast enough, that is for sure. But Amazon did. Amazon changed the whole paradigm. Amazon actually changed the way we see the industry today.

It had help of course. Ipad, Android, Kindle, Nook. All names that came into being by the vision of those that understood the market and where it was headed.

And so Amazon and B&N said we will publish your Ebooks. They did not say that to the publishers. Amazon and B&N became publishers. Hey! Did I make a mistake? Amazon and B&N are not publishers, right? I mean they don't use only agents, they do not sign contracts, they do not give advances. So what makes them publishers?

Well, that is just the thing. The "Big 6" as the traditional publishing houses are being called today (you must couple this with the hundreds of imprints that are spin-offs from each publishing house), kept to the old formula. Of course, if you were a new author your advance was minimal, your PR was basically up to you, your contract was good but it would take a year from the time you signed it to get your book out, and you came with an agent of course in 95% of the cases. Returns from booksellers are accepted.

And if you published with CreateSpace, KDP, Nook Or PubIt or Smashwords (and some of the others) you had no advance, your PR was up to you, you had no contract, your book never went out of print, and you did not need an agent. No returns are accepted and many book shops wont hold your book unless there is a neighborhood demand for it.

So if you kind of compare the two in a chart, guess what? The publishing paradigm had changed. Amazon was not just an an aggregation of books for publishers, it was not just a distributor it was not just a re-seller - it was a publisher! So was Barnes and Noble.

But you ask what about this POD thing? Amazon uses it and Barnes and Noble uses it. I mean isn't that like "against the rules?"  Well, got news for you. Any of the "Big 6" who says today they are not moving in the direction of POD is outright lying. POD allows them to cut drastically on costs of inventory. It allows them to produce on demand. It allows them to know exactly just what is going on  and it allows them to give out serious inventory and publishing and royalty statistics. In other words, it saves them money. Big money.

So there was the rub. Amazon turned from plain distributor to book publisher as well, and said to its public "You choose". Barnes and Noble developed with less vision and scared for whatever reasons of loosing the "backbone" of the traditional publishing houses, did not cater to the newly formed market of Indie. They made it somewhat difficult to publish, and they also applied some incredibly arcane structures to their rules. True, if you go through Smashwords, you beat those rules both for B&N and for Ipad. Indeed Apple, on its page, almost asks you to go to one of its official partners and do them a favor by not going through their specific process.

So now you have it. Is Amazon a publisher? Well go look at Amazon. Books are listed as being published by CreateSpace and lo and behold with an ISBN number as well. B&N books are PubIt, (or have been published through PubIt with their own ISBN and publishing house name.) No agents, no advances, no contracts. But no year of waiting, no cancellation of contract, books always available, and no query letters and agents at first. (Of course if your book does succeed you will definitely need an agent or lawyer in the long run for other rights.)

Ebooks went the same way. Even before the paper books. And no matter what they actually demand, Ebooks do not really need an ISBN (though it may be good to use one, no matter what).

Now the Big 6 is hopping mad. Why? Because they cannot live without Amazon and Amazon wont fall into line like Barnes And Noble has played along. Amazon does what it wants in a free market. And the Paper books and the Ebooks flourish, and people actually get to search for and buy what they want to buy. Amazing concept!

And yes, sure many of those self-published books those Indie books are horrible. And got news for you. Many of the books done by the Big 6 are just as bad as well. Their editors are horrible. Indeed sometimes I wonder if the editors at the Big 6 are not more than first year college students. They print books based upon name-fame not upon content. So they cannot point fingers here.

The Publishing Paradigm has changed. Drastically. And It will continue to evolve now. It will continue to grow. And simply put, if the Big 6 and the agents refuse to read the writing on the wall, they too will find themselves fighting for every client.

So now I ask you. Is Amazon and Barnes And Noble a publisher? Or are they just book re-sellers?

P.S. If anyone today asks you for a printed ms. delivered via snail-mail with an SASE - well laugh. It is truly funny.

Books by Ted William Gross

1 comment:

Anna T. Merrill said...


You tell it like it is! After 10-years of handing out my 'do it yourself' legal book on a .pdf document on a CD at seminars, I suddenly woke up one day and realized not only did I have a product (developed in conjunction with thousands of clients) that was unique, but that I was -also- an independent publisher!

Me ... a publishing company ... who woulda figured?

After attending a few conferences and looking at the publishing company business model, I decided to not even bother going down the Big-6 route. Why on earth would I do all the work to market my book (and the others I have written to help my clients), build a website, attend conferences, and continue doing my self-help seminars and then hand over 93% of the profits?

Or as Diane Keaton said in the movie Baby Boom - if Food Corp can put Country Baby on every supermarket shelf in America ... so can I...

It's not just 'wannabes' anymore, but professionals like me with advanced degrees and viable non-fiction products with lucrative markets the Big-6 wants. After reading half a dozen 'how to send a query letter' books, I have decided not to deal with such arrogance.

My soon-to-be e-book/POD self-help series will sink or swim on its own merits ... but I'll be damned if I'm going to put up with being treated like dirt!

Anna T. Merrill, Esq.
CEO - Seraphim Press