Friday, 20 January 2017

A better model for the publishing industry?

I asked this on Goodreads and I’m waiting for answers from authors past and present:

“Not everyone writes for money. Many want to be remembered for their contribution to our culture, a number want to pass on knowledge and others are driven by something they want to say. In the UK, a survey by the Authors’ Licencing and Collecting Society of active writers (with separate publications in each of the last three years) reported that the top 5% of professional authors receive over 42% of all author income, the bottom 50% earn less than £10,500 a year, that’s beneath the minimum wage, and the bottom 17% earn nothing or, through publishing services, pay to write. A survey of readers (not book sellers) in the US concluded that 41% of US citizens have read no fiction books at all in the previous year. A smaller sample group of independent writers concluded that on average more time is spent promoting an independent work that was spent writing it. A Sunday Times survey in January 2017 found that 1 in 10 people do not own a book, dropping to 1 in 5 in the 18 to 24 age group, and although the average household in the UK has 158 books, a quarter of them have never been opened.
      An international trend too obvious to bother evidencing has apparently developed that many members of the public expect to receive their information and entertainment for free and many publishing houses prefer to give contracts to new authors who are already famous for something else, not writing. Has it been your experience that the writer/creator has become dangerously unappreciated in modern society or, alternatively, has the feedback you have received as a novelist persuaded you that it is all worthwhile in the end?”

Until those answers come in (I’ll update this), here’s my opinion:

I’ve always wanted to go into a career in publishing but although I can see the rails running with assuredness into the distance, the feeling’s growing within me that we’re slipping evermore off the side of the track. I think I’ll change the metaphor. Think of the publishing industry as one of those paintings of a tree in blossom, where the flowers are at different stages in their life-cycle. Some are buds, some are peaking and some are withering into decay but the living force when taken as a whole is continuous. The industry is represented in my mind by that tree and the debut authors are new buds, there’s established flowers that are pulling their weight and then there’s old and falling blossom that we all know and reference (the classics). But but but. What happens when the tree doesn’t support the new buds and fewer of them are ever nurtured to open? Sure, they can try to do it away from the tree. Good luck with that but you’ll spend all your time calling “Look at me” and not writing. Back to the tree. With nothing new, the mature blooms get tired and then everything shifts to the dead and dying end of the range. No new professional contracts, no reward stream and no publicity for new writers isn’t the way to go, but it is market forces. It's a bleak picture though.
      Journalism as well, the industry in which many writers learn their trade, is withering because people either don’t read papers or don’t want to pay for their news. Where will the new writers come from, the ones we need to keep the tree alive? I don’t find dead wood particularly attractive but we still have the opportunity to press it into fresh pages. Do authors have to get pushy and discover themselves? An author can take advice from the industry about this but as my Mum says “Try not to take any advice from someone who wants to fuck you, dear”. What’s supporting the industry now? Tie-ins? Reprinting old works with a new cover just because they’ve been adapted for television? That’s what second hand bookshops are for. You can download the picture and stick it over the top, if you like, and I don’t want to read a foreword by an actor because the actor didn’t write it. Who cares what an actor thinks anyway? Fresh writing that can be filtered by an independent audience to find new literary talent would be welcome but I think it would be better to set it in a framework.
      Now the publishing industry has passed on the responsibility, is the best mechanism to find new writers going to be self-publishing? Should more effort be made in crowd sourcing books? The problem with that is the services that provide this have often been set up by former publishers who are looking for a different business model and new ways to support themselves, so the author and their friends are the second priority and supposed to pull in the money for the publisher. They are offering a new author the opportunity to be in print if they can raise a few thousand pounds in pre-sales, from which the business takes an agreed profit margin for the service. The author has the responsibility of marketing their book before it can be published though, so the system only rewards good salespersons. If some hermit in a cave in Ireland has written a book that could change the world, with no friends and no online following they have no chance. So, the filter used to be an editor who read a manuscript to see if it was good enough to attract long term sales and if the writer was worth nurturing. Now the mechanism is that the author needs to make themselves popular and get pre-sales in before the publisher thinks the project is worth claiming.
      This isn’t news but publishing can be done for nothing (Createspace or Kindle KDP). One answer might be to crowdsource to pay the bill for editing and marketing because that’s what can’t be done for free (Kickstarter or Indiegogo). Who wants to pay someone else’s bills though, before they know what’s in the product? Will the angels ever read the product? We need a system which sends money and publicity to the writer, not everyone else in the chain with the writer doing the work, paying for services and then giving copies away because that’s the only way to get it reviewed and read by anyone. I’ve got a business plan now which was suggested by my good friend Mr Talking Sock:
      If people could be encouraged to feel proud about themselves and be acknowledged by others as a worthy, educated and benevolent soul for helping to bring new writers to the world, a kind of warlord of books, that could take off. Membership of that prestigious club would be the incentive. I’m talking about readers contributing time, not money, and it’s not quite voluntary work because they’d be reading ebooks for free and getting respect for it (for panelists only and with access to the text expiring on a deadline). It would be a cultural change that would re-align the industry. I know independent reviewers do see ebooks now but we either have to seek them out from authors (compromised by opening relations) or the author comes to us (only proactive ones get seen) or we never find them. What we need is structure and a hub where we can get to them all. Would you join an honourable panel of citizens who can choose to read new and independent authors’ books as they come in? Would you be interested to hear this week’s top ten of debut books after that skim? Would you be more likely to talk about new books spontaneously with your friends or buy a physical copy of one of the titles to support a new author? Everything older than 6 months could drop off the list, so would have the promotion early on and then be sold at a fair price going forward.
      Questions: “In who’s opinion is the top 10 ranked?”, when no individual has read them all. It starts working when there are more reviewers as the collective has read them all. "If a title with a huge sample group is scored just below something with a small sample group, is that still ok?" I don't know. Music is judged by market spend, one pound one vote is universally comparable, but unknown books being displayed for the first time have no such mechanism. I think we need a larger pool of independent readers (not just one or two bloggers) who will donate some of their time to reading and scoring new books by new writers, putting only this category into a ranked long-list, auto-tracking what’s moving up and down so people can jump into a trend and find out if they agree with it. Two or three marks is no good to rate equivalence, so the system only works if lots of people get involved. 
      Indie authors would then do their publicity in terms of the list, so that attracts more attention to the list’s existence until it goes mainstream, which puts independent authors on the front line for a change. The press would have their choice of people to interview and that would stoke the fire. Publishers would then be more inclined to give contracts to independent authors, who would then be able to make a career of it and the publishing industry would have its pick off the conveyor belt of new talent. This can be done, everyone benefits, the publishing industry would stop declining and become fashionable again, the public would have confidence in the fairer and larger quality sift, authors wouldn’t give up and there might even be a desk job in some far corner of it for me when I pop out of uni.

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