Last week PC World ran an online article entitled, Why Book Publishing Needs the Silicon Valley Way, by Mike Elgan. There is a great deal in this article and Elgan’s basic premise is that the current model of publishing—by which he means traditional publishing houses—is broken and it is now time for publishers to look to Silicon Valley and adopt their approach and apply it to the publishing industry.
“The reason is that the industry is clinging to an obsolete business model. And the whole process of discovering new talent is broken beyond repair.
Like the book publishing industry, Silicon Valley is in the business of cultivating, nurturing and funding intellectual property. The difference is that the Silicon Valley approach works, and the book publishing industry’s doesn’t—at least not anymore.”
Let us not forget that some of the oldest and most established publishing houses started out in the book industry as printers, where the production and publication of a book was much more of a co-operative effort between author and printer/publisher. For a printer, the quality is in the paper book as a physical product. For a publisher, the quality is the intellectual content of the paper book. The whole publishing machine was built on the foundation that the paper book was sacred. Digitalization in the publishing industry has for the first time challenged that core belief. This is a major sea-change for publishers—akin to the first explorers discovering that the earth was round and you wouldn’t fall off the edge if you pushed your boundaries of belief. So publishing at its core hasn’t really changed from its inception—and it’s hard not to understand an attitude of ‘if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it’.
“Much like a Sand Hill Road venture capital firm, a publishing company plays kingmaker by discovering, guiding and, above all, investing in the right talent.
Sure, publishing companies employ brilliant book designers, editors and others who collaborate to produce high-quality products. But they don’t have a monopoly on those skills. Any author can hire great book designers, editors, printers, marketers and everyone else in the creative chain. What most authors can’t do is invest $150,000 to produce and market an untested book. Ultimately, the ability to invest — and the experience and wisdom to invest wisely — is the only uniquely valuable thing about publishers.”
“Here’s how book publishing is supposed to work: Joe Author decides to write the Great American Novel. He bangs out a couple of chapters in his spare time, cobbles together a polished book proposal and goes hunting for a literary agent. Most real agents are maxed out with clients, but after six months of dedicated searching, he finds one, who then spends weeks or months shopping the proposal to major publishing houses.”
“The result of this disconnect in the talent discovery system is that the quality of books is declining fast.”
“Browsing a bookstore is like picking through trash in a garbage dump looking for something of value.”
I’m not sure where Elgan is doing his browsing, but I’d suggest he try another store, perhaps some of the independents. Ultimately the retailers still hold a great degree of power over the publishers, and their buyers decide what goes on the shelves, but there is no doubt, certainly in the large retail chains, that inventory lists are shrinking fast, and it is only the sure-fire sellers that get premium space.
“And that’s why the industry is dying. The content is skewing toward trash. The public is becoming less enthusiastic about books not because they have other diversions but because books are becoming less exciting.”
Remember, the book is no longer intrinsically a physical paper product. Its strength is now it’s rebirth as a piece of digital content – capable of dissemination into a multitude of delivered channels. Publishers need to acknowledge they are going to have to do what they did hundreds of years ago when they moved from being simply printing presses to being publishers. Now, the real adjustment and challenge is for them to alter their models of business and move from being publishers to providers of ‘content’ products – be that digitized or paper. To be fair to them – that’s a very big challenge.
“Every new author would forget about seeking an agent or an advance, and instead self-publish. This is what software and cloud-based start-ups do: They use their own money — and the inexpensive tools available — to build something on the cheap before they go asking for outside investment.
New services should emerge where authors could post links to their books, with samples, commentary and opportunities for reader reviews. A Digg-like voting system could surface the most popular titles.”
“Meanwhile, authors would try to get meetings to pitch to the publishing companies. Agents, rather than reacting to authors beating down their doors, could instead act more like sports agents and go out and hunt for new talent using Web 2.0 tools and the Internet in general to find brilliant authors.”
“If authors get their own deal, they could use that fact to attract the best agent, whom they would need as a guide and as a negotiator of the contract.”
This is no longer a question of how publishing really works, but rather, how it now needs to work combining all the components of publishing, all that the established fraternity have learned and all the independent and self-published fraternity have learned. To believe that one doesn’t need the other and the two cannot exist under the one umbrella of the publishing industry, is to speak ignorance and write the words of your own publishing demise.