Self-publishing used to be a dirty word.
Now it’s a buzz word.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the potentially redundant role of publishers in the ‘post-medium’ world.
United Agents’ Adam Martin, head of their interactive department, recently told the Bookseller that “There’s no good reason why a key author with fresh content should ask their publisher to make their app for them,” stressing that publishers would only out-source app development anyway. And then Cory Doctorow, who is more insightful than most when it comes to ebook content, claiming that the real pirates are in the digital departments of publishing houses. The implication being, publishers’ sense of ownership of digital content is preventing the ebook from reaching its true potential, owing to digital licensing systems. In other words, publishers should stop guarding the vault, unfold their arms and step aside. Then you have Harper Studio’s Bob Miller worrying about a contracting industry where there is more work for less people. Like David Cameron’s pledge for smaller government, reduced roles for publishers seem to be the current trend.
The role of publisher will unquestionably need redefining as the migration to digital-mobile reading platforms continues at pace. Tightly wound around that question is the re-focused roles within publishing houses. Already the title of ‘editor’ has become something of a joke, as editors rarely do any actual editing these days. In publishing conglomerates they are, with a few noble exceptions, merely extensions of the sales department, whose primary role is to generate sales copy, liaise with marketing departments and negotiate lower royalty rates and advances. These have always been part and parcel of an editorial position, but their importance has shifted in recent years, for reasons far too complex to expand upon here, but suffice to say, the watermarket was the mid-90s corporatisation of the major publishing houses, which brought with it economies of scale and critical profit margins for each and every title published. Sales teams used to haggling discount margins with buyers down the phone will have to readjust, as will marketing departments populated by punters who organize wine-and-cheese events than sophisticated augmented-reality programmes.
But just because the jobs that publishers do must change, and at least some of their current activities will soon be irrelevant, does that mean authors can go it alone, launch their own apps and by-pass the publisher? Especially if, given that editors by and large no longer edit, the old argument that publishers offered some kind of quality-control input into books, no longer applies? Some bright spark might argue that publishers contribute marketing budgets, which give a book a much better chance of success. The counter to that is that, even for the biggest publishing houses, the marketing spend is isolated to just a few headline titles, with the majority of books allocated little or even no spend at all. Not enough to fund a bus or Tube campaign, certainly nowhere near enough to get the kind of exposure that helps motivate sales. So, marketing and editorial add nothing. Sales clout? Well, many publishers, even the biggest ones, mean nothing to the man on the street, and are definitely not brands in the same way that other production houses, such as Universal or News International are. The only guarantee is that, with more overheads, more product and focus on only a few key titles, a lot of good content is not so much pushed under the carpet as neglected like an unwanted dog.
Three strikes and out, then? Perhaps, not quite. There is still something that publishers bring to the table: the ability for authors to piggyback on the shoulders of more familiar brands.
I have no empirical evidence to back this up, but my experience is that, in digital marketplaces, brand discrimination is on a par with, or even greater than, the high street. We are, by now, all familiar with the extremely long tail of the iTunes App store. Only a few leading products get headline status, with more than a few carrying some brand value that is instantly familiar to the user (Time Magazine app, NBA Live, FIFA, Nasa, movie apps, and so on). If you are with a major publisher and they put your App on iTunes, because of their own ubiquitous status, you are more likely to succeed, even with zero marketing spend or editorial feedback, than if you launched your own Joe Bloggs app. The App store is not the be-all of the ebook marketplace, but it is a good barometer of the type of environment authors and publishers are going to have to compete in over the coming years. With more than 75,000 apps available, and an increasing number of those book apps, it is inevitable that user selection is streamlined, with only the top few per cent gaining any significant traction. And herein lies the dilemma of ‘endless information’ marketplaces. With so much to choose from, people are naturally bewildered. And often they will settle on the most prominent selection, with a little nudge from the retailer. If you are self-published, my friend, as an App, there is a very, very small chance you could achieve any mainstream exposure. Just because you are on iTunes, doesn’t mean anyone is listening. Or reading.