Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Let a hundred formats blossom

My good friend Vardibidian has posted a thorough response to Mr. Schnittman’s inane meanderings through a fraction of the problems facing trade publishing. Mr. Schnittman posits that trade publishing is a Ponzi scheme, where advance sales of new titles finance the continuing losses on previous titles. Leaving aside Mr. Schnittman’s apparent failure to understand the difference between cash flow and accounting, which Vardibidian is rightly perplexed by, Mr. Schnittman is correct that trade publishers would be in a better financial position if they paid their authors less and reduced their printing and shipping costs. (All other things being equal, which of course they never are.)

Vardibidian is also correctly dubious of Mr. Schnittman’s ex cathedra declaration that “Ebooks, if successful, will sink the trade publishing industry” as being remotely connected to the significant problems of trade publishing. Ebooks as a mode of publishing are orthogonal to a financial model of publishing (of which there have historically been a large number). Implementing ebook publishing is costly in many ways, and potentially rewarding in far fewer, so for quite a while publishers tried to mislead each other into diving into ebooks in the hopes that their competitors would drown, or at least smack their head on something hard. And they tried to talk down ebooks to their authors and customers, which is what Mr. Schnittman appears to be doing, so that the publishers wouldn’t be forced to Change.

But I’m not here to mock Mr. Schnittman for his absurd argumentation, nor to praise Vardibidian for trying to make sense of it. I’m actually here to highlight a comment made by James Embry on Mr. Schnittman’s post:

While, for many authors, the most crucial function of the publisher is to find the book’s audience, many established authors have a locked-in audience, and many of the younger, web-savvy set, are actually better than most publicity departments (OUP exempted, natch) at marketing themselves as well as their output.
The strength of those blockbuster authors is the core of the problem for trade publishing. Trade publishers depend on them, and the entire traditional trade industry has organized itself around precisely those authors who no longer need the trade publishers to find their audience. So trade publishers need to figure out what their role is. To provide an editor? Proofreader? Book designer? These are all individual tasks that are easily outsourced, as many employees of trade publishers have discovered. Production and distribution remain tasks that most authors will continue to need some company’s infrastructure for, whether the books are delivered to customers in print or in electronic form. The technical requirements of creating and distributing ebooks for a large number of reading platforms are, in addition to a cost and a headache, an opportunity for publishers. They should be embracing the complexities, because those complexities are a way to remain indispensable.


Michael said...

I don’t want trade publishing to survive because of complexities in the distribution system; I’d greatly prefer that the effort go into editing, proofreading, and design. I do think it’s important that trade publishing rethink its role as it rethinks its financial models.

Vardibidian said...

They should be embracing the complexities, because those complexities are a way to remain indispensable.

I think that's an excellent insight. On the other hand, I don't think you can rightly call my snarking thorough.