Publishing is Not Dead… but it’s looking a little scaly….

I went to the gym this morning after participating for a while in an interesting online chat about changing publisher advances (this grew out of several other discussions on Twitter this week about the publishing industry and agents specifically, including this blog post by Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware, for whom I have a ton of respect). The discussion started from the question “what would it take to make a no-advance model worth your while?” I probably missed some great discussion while working out, but I was slightly irritated that conversation seemed to split into “Indie” and “Big Publisher” camps, as often seems to happen these days.

So this is what I have to say:

Whichever you favor, Indie or “Trad”, the problems remain: e-books are changing the game by stripping the complexities of the international publishing industry (big, small, indie, or self-pubbed) down to the basic bone of Intellectual Property rights. How we address the issues stemming from the facts of e-publication and distribution technology (not our fears or our favorites) will be the determining factor in how advances (if any) and contracts are managed in the future, for all writers and publishers, in all formats.

This is not a “slate wiper” for writers or for the industry. Publishing is not dead, but it’s got to evolve with the technology, and copyright law and contracts will have to do the same. It’s not a matter of “or else” because there is no “or else.” Even if all publication becomes some form of Indie or “self” it’s still publication, but it’s not going to be the same animal it is now.

I’m not an expert and I don’t have all the answers–I’m still thinking about this a lot, but I believe this really is the crux of the issue. Unfortunately I have to get back to work or I won’t have another book for you guys next year, so discuss among yourselves and I’ll get back when I can.

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About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
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10 Responses to Publishing is Not Dead… but it’s looking a little scaly….

  1. T. Hernandez says:

    I think you are quite right. Publishing is not dead, nor do I personally think it will be, but it has already changed and will continue to do so as a result of the ever advancing effects of technology. I love ebooks myself but this love is not universal by any means at this point. I love the idea of being able to pay writers directly for electronic versions of their books but I am also very happy to pay publishers for electronic versions of books from writers they represent. I’d say this is probably the most exciting time to be a copyright lawyer because it’s time to create new law, it’s time to figure out what it all means in light of technology that did not exist when our current copyright laws were written. I had so hoped the publishing industry would do better than the music industry has done so far but I’m not super impressed just as yet. No easy answers here when an entire industry gets turned on its head…but it’s not being destroyed, it’s just changing.

  2. Cat says:

    Keep writing. But the questions most pressing to the future of publishing, I think, are being discussed by other entities than writers.
    No matter whether it’s an “Indie” house or a “Trad” house, their motivations are not to directly increase costs or decrease revenue. Authors publishing electronically for themselves is a potential decrease in revenue for houses while their advertising and overhead stays in the same ballpark.
    Of course, the traditional functions of publishers in other realms, like management of intellectual property rights and legal enforcement.

    However, I don’t expect a whole lot out of any media distribution company faced with a shift in business models and paradigms. And I don’t think copyright lawyers are quite the right group to be looking at either, because the electronic media possibilities are often not something they’re geared towards. (How does selling a used eBook work out? The law seems to allow this, but without physical media, it gets very very muddy.)

  3. Marc says:

    eBooks can’t kill publishing. Why? Books still need editing and formatting, and in the world we currently live in there are so many eBook formats that we need to have new formatting for each, er, format. Surely there was a better way to say that. But the point is that eBooks are not just a PDF sent away. Sure, authors could do that but they would do so at the sacrifice of choosing how their words are displayed. Hyphens in the wrong places, mucked up flow, pure anarchy I tell you! No, we won’t lose publishers.

    Instead, we’ll soon see publishers taking a stand. They’ll start pricing the books themselves, start to lean toward a favorite format (who here thinks porn will influence this as they did VHS vs Betamax?), and start to put out eBooks with cool new features. eBooks will become classified and counted like hardcovers and paperbacks, and life will reach a new norm. And with the bliss of a single format and this set of features will come all manner of new applications. Online libraries and lending, anyone? Why not? We already have online video rentals – think Amazon Unbox and their expiring and self-destructing videos. When the formats are standardized the applications can get smarter. When the applications get smarter, we can see things like an ad driven online eBook library – borrow a book, few a full page ad at the beginning and end of the book (or perhaps each time you open it? this is for someone far more business-minded than I to decide), and enjoy it. The library is funded. Life is good.

    The possibilities are amazing, and we won’t get there without the publishers driving us toward them. After all, who else could?

  4. but it’s not all about e-books, it’s just that e-books are the new technology twist that is challenging the industry. I don’t think print books are going to go away, but the impact of e-books is forcing publishers, agents, and writers to look at the licensing issues differently for all types of format.

  5. Cat says:

    I don’t know if books still need editing prior to publishing. Have you seen some of the things hitting print lately? I haven’t noticed them where Kat’s works are involved, but I keep stubbing my brain on outright mis-spelled words, grammatical gaffs (outside of dialogue), homonyms, and things that just strike me as “If someone read this with a red pen first, this could have been avoided.” Heck, a lot of it could be fixed with spell-check.

    Formatting for print is an arcane process, I’ll agree, as trying to club readily accessible tools (like FrontPage) can be a trying problem. However, a proper template and set up in something as simple as Word can look just as nice as the majority of things I’ve seen in published books. (Except for covers, which are a different kettle of fish.) It’s theoretically possible for someone to write a novel, format it exactly as they want it to appear, and then… it breaks down. I don’t know many authors that have the printing and distribution networks covered. :)

    Paper publishing will never die; for one thing, I read faster than the Kindle, Nook, or Sony devices display text and a paper book simply has far better durability. Licensing is where the issue is going to be the biggest morass for industry and lawyers to work through. (Personally, licensing is a crazy world in any case.) The electronic format, and how it interacts with traditional licensing/publishing, is going to be very difficult. For example, the Kindle’s ability of remote content removal. Amazon is able to remove works that were purchased from the Kindle device without purchaser consent or even being informed. This is something not possible at all with a physical book. The intersection of author, publisher, and consumer rights in an area where there isn’t a physical product are awful murky.

  6. I’d say that argues that they DO still need editing. The problem is that for economic reasons some houses don’t hire copyeditors and some don’t even hire proofers. They leave those jobs to the editor and writer who often don’t see the problems because they’re tired and have looked at the same ms over and over. Bestsellers often get the least oversight since the feeling is that the readers want it NOW and won’t care that it’s not perfect.

    And writers, as you point out, rarely have any contact or understanding of distribution and marketing, or the contacts to do those things for themselves.

    E-books are definitely becoming our watershed for how the industry will work at all levels and formats.

  7. Cat says:

    Kat, sorry… I think I failed at whatever it was I thought I was saying, but I was agreeing that books certainly do need editing! This is something I have always thought houses worked out, but as you say, apparently they’ve been trimming the budget there.

    I think, on reflection, the biggest issue that needs to be decided (preferably for everyone in many industries) is how licensing works out in practicality. Is the license for a physical printed book different from the license for an eBook? Is licensing really something that should even be determined from the consumer standpoint, as copyright should have precedence. It’s clouded by the use of licensing in software (where licensing as a general tool has been twisted pretzel shaped into crazy ideas by some), in music and video. Distributors like the idea, because a license can enforce specific things (such as buying a new copy every time format changes in devices, denying the concept of “second sale”, and possibly stomping on already slumping libraries), while authors seem to be as individual as their books, and consumers are confused about why they aren’t seeing eBooks cheaper than a bound paperback (there’s less physical costs, right? -maybe).

    It’s just a crazy world out there. Meanwhile, Google is trying to get its mega-publishing groove on, which is scaring all kinds of other people.

  8. Oh my. At least we figured it out, yes?

    I just don’t know how this is all going to shake out. I wish I did, I must say. I suspect we’ll see e-books separated from print in some way, but… who knows how?

    And I’m not even going to try and figure out the whole Google Editions/Books/twiddle/snatch/whatever… or anyone else’s. Oi…

  9. Marc says:

    The whole thing is a mess, but I think when the dust settles it’ll all be good. Like I said, I think part of the reason eBooks are shaking things up so much is that eBooks don’t even know what they want to be yet. They’re in the middle of their own format war that’s entirely independent of the print vs eBook thing. Think of it like CDs and Cassettes coming out at the same time, while vinyl sits on the side saying, “How is this going to affect me?” CDs and Cassettes don’t care, they just want to know which of the two will come out on top. Print books will not go away but all formats will suffer as long as the eBook format war goes on.

    I think eBooks have a fantastic future alongside the average book. I think eBooks could become what mp3 albums have become – an inexpensive alternative for someone who wants to enjoy the content and is willing to miss out on the excellence of the packaging. Why hasn’t that happened yet? Because it’s expensive to make them as there is no one eBook edition. Instead there’s the Kindle edition, the Nook edition, the Sony edition, the iPad edition, and so many more.

    Cost goes down when level of effort goes down, so why aren’t publishers encouraging devices to settle? Because they know that eBooks are the new hot thing and that people will buy what’s put in front of them no matter how bad it is. I admit even I have. So they’re willing to cut corners to save on costs but leave prices as high as they would be with good solid effort because they’ll capitalize on the turmoil and let the consumers settle the format war instead.

    Google is opening a door that scares me, though, by wanting to start indexing all books. The ease of circumventing the flimsy protection they offer is as clear to me as my windows would be had the cleaning service bothered to wash them. Jerks.

    I could go on and on, I really could, but I’m pretty sure everyone would appreciate it if I don’t.

  10. Cat says:

    Getting Sony, Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble to agree to a single format capable of being read across all the devices is, sadly, probably about as likely as getting Dracula and Van Helsing to sit down at a table and hammer out their differences peacefully. The closest is likely Sony, which will actually read different file formats.
    The effort level of creating eBooks I don’t think is really that much more than simply laying out the book for print. If anything, it should be easier… use the same software, but “Save as…” the type of file that each device uses. The licensing for that “Save as…” is probably as much to blame for the cost as any effort. (Not that I begrudge the labor intensive process of laying out a manuscript for print or publication… I’ve tried to do that myself with public domain works, and failed.) But it does cut out the costs of printing and binding prototypes, maintaining a press or contracting out the actual printing, cutting, and binding processes.

    This reminds me, on a simple format level, of the VHS/Betamax and HD-DVD/BluRay format wars. Except that there are 3 competing formats. Which should all do the same thing, and from a software viewpoint, should be interoperable if the companies involved were willing to share specifics on file formatting and mark up language. Of course, software patent processes, copyrights, and the individual company’s willingness to bind forever their proprietary file format and software properties to their hardware devices, so that you must buy both from the same single source, mean this is highly unlikely. (Any third party that attempts to do it will also be buried under C&D orders and lawsuits.)

    This also explains my dislike of the current Apple market scheme… but that is something else entirely.

    Marc, it’d be great to go on, but yes… it could get lengthy. Also, I think the publishers have a great deal less control of the format war than you think; Amazon is willing to leverage their position, and I have no doubt BN&N would be willing to just as easily.

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