The Future of Publishing?

I picked this article up in yesterday’s Publishers Lunch (subscribe at http://www.publishersmarketplace.com). It really struck me as an important indicator of impending change in the way that publishing will work. Would love to hear if those reading this agree.

Chronicle to Profit from Blurb Referrals
We’ve always wondered when traditional publishers would start to actually capitalize on the fast-growing market for self-published books, and now Newsweek has a web-only story that says Chronicle Books will use their slush pile to do just that in conjunction with Bay Area-based Blurb.com.

Newsweek says that in October the publisher will announce “a pioneering ‘mutual referral’ deal” under which “Chronicle will refer unwanted authors to Blurb, who will return an undisclosed cut of the earnings generated from the new accounts.”

Chronicle’s executive director of business development Sarah Williams indicates the deal is “primarily designed to help writers.” She says: “It’s an opportunity for writers to test their product in a digital marketplace where success might bring them back to us.”

So do I have this right? Chronicle is going to take a commission from Blurb.com for sending them customers. OK. Chronicle can certainly recommend them over the 100 or so other sites that offer online self publishing tools to authors, amateur and otherwise. But check me on this and tell me what I am missing:

Chronicle is telling authors they do not want to publish their books, but if the author pays Blurb to publish the book and if the book sells well (enough), Chronicle will now be happy to consider publishing the author’s book.

So if I am an author Chronicle sent to Blurb and I pay to publish my own book and then I expend the energy (and cost) to market it, and then I succeed in building an audience, why exactly would I want to reward Chronicle by offering them my book? And if I do all of this, don’t I deserve a bigger royalty from the publisher?

And maybe Chronicle by doing this starts me the author thinking that this publishing business needs to be redefined. Once upon a time, publishers nurtured authors, built their careers, invested in their work, taking the long view that writers and audiences need to be cultivated. That rarely, if ever, happens today – mostly publishers that answer to quarterly profit requirements cannot afford long term investments in authors (who after all, may not stick around to reward their original publishers with their long term success.)

So now the model is different. Publishers don’t “grow” author careers. For that matter, as Chronicle so plainly now makes clear, publishers don’t want to have much risk at all when it comes to authors.

For years independent and nonprofit publishers have served as “farm teams” for the publishing industry, regularly losing authors they discovered to the better paying and stronger marketing corporate publishing houses. And certainly seeing mainstream publishers discover hot selling books from the ranks of the self publishers is nothing new. But there is something striking about this Chronicle alliance. It tells authors to “go away and come back only once you have proved you can sell.” I am sure many will make the effort. But doesn’t this just tell authors what they have suspected for a long time, that publishers really don’t know what is good, or what will sell, and if they don’t, then what is so special about the editorial function? What defines a publisher other than a bankroll and a distribution system? And then why shouldn’t the economics of publishing change?

So publishers, I ask this question of you: If you show authors the door, and offer them the tools they need to publish themselves, and then they somehow manage to succeed on their own, which some will certainly do (i.e. create a paying audience for their books), what does this mean for publishers?

Are you ready for the next stage in the evolution of publishing?

Posted by on 09/24 at 09:54 PM






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