Three Ways Publishers Can Avoid Extinction

Publishers need a new operating system. Here are three core features that would make it work.
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In his blogpost The Incredible Resilience of Publishing Fantasy, author Michael Levin responds to a piece in the Atlantic by former Random House editor Peter Osnos.

Osnos makes the case that books will survive, while Levin makes the point Osnos avoids saying: trade publishers might not, having "lost the two things that made their business model work: the hammerlocks on distribution and marketing that the Internet has utterly destroyed."

Levin's correct, but I also agree with Osnos that trade publishers are resilient and adaptive. They haven't stuck "their heads in the sand," as Levin puts it, "and hope[d] that the whole Internet thing will go away." They want to adapt, they're flush with ideas for doing so, and they've tried to exploit the rapidly changing book market. Problem is, they're hindered by legacy business practices. Their experiments are like patches to failing software or new programs that don't work well with their ancient OS.

Instead, publishers need a new OS. Here are three core features that would make it work:

Publish the e-book first

E-books are quickly moving towards 50% of a title's sale and could go as high as 75%. So publishers need to bite the bullet and make the first edition the ebook. This would let them go from manuscript to ship in only twenty weeks, half the time it usually takes to produce a print book.

This change would force publishers to rethink the many practices built on the 40-week schedule: sell-in, which now occurs 6 months before pub; initial marketing, which relies on bound galleys; and catalogues, which wedge lists into seasons. In exchange, publishers would gain publicity immediacy and more flexible lists.

A print edition would follow 3-5 months later, but there may not need to be one. Just as paperbacks are cheaper, lighter weight versions of hardcovers, an ebook is even cheaper, weighs nothing, and contains the entertainment or information the reader wants. So what function does print serve?

Answer: Print books are fashion accessories; whether you display them on your coffee table or on your lap, you are what you read. Print books can be given and collected. They need no batteries, you can get them wet, and you don't have to turn them off during takeoff and landing. You can "have" a print book, whereas an ebook is just a license. Print books are, ultimately, luxury items. The decision to publish them should be made with these factors in mind, and their packaging should promote their tangibility.

E-book packages, that is, their thumbnail covers should become more iconic, even animated, so they can act as badges for the reader, something they can pin to social media site, to be sent as a hotlink as a recommendation, to be collected and displayed on an author or publisher's site as proof of fandom. They are the consumer's laminate to a book's community.

Create communities

In a recent post, Penelope Trunk wrote: "There is no publishing industry fan page that is good enough to sell books. No one goes to fan pages for publishers because publishers are not household brand names. The authors are. That's how publishing works." The first three sentences are, but the last assumes they must always be true.

Publishers can't work this way anymore. The only way they can survive in a world where self-publishing is easy and without stigma, especially for those with followings likes Penelope's, is if they create communities around themselves, make the strength and reach of their communities a reason for authors to sign with them, especially those authors without followings like Penelope's, and listen to these communities and respond with better acquisitions.

They have to learn who their readers are and show their readers who they are. This way they can get word to consumers directly without having to rely on co-op, media and authors to do their job for them.

To start, publishers need to stop trying to interpret faceless sales data and start studying actual consumers. They could, for instance, survey their own thousands of employees on their buying habits. Most employees would love to be part of a big solution, and they'd have helpful things to say, especially when thinking as consumers, not about bottom lines. Armed with this knowledge, publishers can devise ways to insert themselves into consumers' buying processes and, thus, save their bottom lines.

Publishers also have to get over their reluctance to deal with consumers. The most astounding thing about BEA's Consumer Day was the terror it reportedly struck in exhibitors. BEA, in fact, should be all about the consumers, like Comic Con. Booths shouldn't be office spaces for having meetings. They should be stores for consumers to gather, sample the wares and discuss. Publishers should put in couches and a coffee bar and invite readers to hang out with them instead of just moving through once their book is signed. Each booth should strive to be the place to be. That would build serious fans.

The center of a publisher's community could be its website, but it can't look like a glorified catalogue. Each book's page should be as robust as the etailers' page for that book, and it should cross-sell to other titles readers might want, not just other titles on similar topics. The shop should be only one part of the site--and it should offer consumers better discounts than they'd find at the retailers.

Overall, publishers should be in the community-building business. The books would be how they monetize it. There is much they can learn from academic and professional publishers who have long established relationships with targeted communities.

Managing a community can't be left to that assistant who tweets. Nor can a publisher have a monolithic voice. Many in the publishing house, the core community, should take part as fans themselves, regardless of job description. Publishers can't just ask questions of their audience, then exit stage right. They have to let them behind the curtain and see the books being made.

It can be done. SF/F, romance and mystery publishers already have strong relationships with fan and author communities. The major publishers have Twitter feeds with followings approaching 200,000, which sounds great until you realize Sarah Jessica Parker has nearly 325,000 followers and she's never sent a tweet. So there's much more to do.

Libraries are the new Amazon

Publishers have long fretted over the future of B&N, the death of independents, and the threat of Amazon, but they're ignoring a great venue for building communities: libraries.

Because local collections are often linked with others, creating a wide selection; because their catalogues and reservation services are online; because a book's nearly as easy to pick up at a library as going to one's mailbox; and because the Bush Depression won't be ending soon; libraries are the new Amazon. The experience is exactly the same. Plus parents can bring their kids there. What fun is it taking a kid to an etailer? There's nothing to touch or play with.

(Which begs the question: how can publishers make the selling experience on their own sites more tactical? How can they make the samples and webpage data more interactive? This would provide another advantage over e-tailers.)

So adult trade publishers should learn from children's book publishers and do more library outreach. After all, they act like a store, and they're customers, and they're the greatest champions for books. Publishers could provide guidance for town libraries' collections, just as they do for independent stores. They could give them co-op, seeing as they're always strapped for cash. And they could supply posters, postcards and shelftalkers. Publishers wouldn't be advertising, of course. They'd be like NPR sponsors, just encouraging people to read.

Publishers certainly shouldn't try to restrict library patrons' access to ebooks. which kills community and gives publishers a bad name. Such an attitude won't serve them well when many library shelves will be online.

The publishing of tomorrow will have many other features, of course: ebook updating as with software, print and ebook bundles, advance payouts predicated on author and publisher marketing targets, to name a few. But the three above are key to rewriting the underlying software.

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