The high price of publishing. July 5, 2011Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
Tags: book publishing, publishing, publishing platform, social media, The Wall Street Journal, writing
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the publishing industry is in a serious predicament. Predictions of print newspapers’ imminent demise, followed by the extinction of printed books, have made headlines for at least a decade. As a professional writer, our friend Ben follows these updates with ongoing concern. But as an editor and historian, I can assure you that it’s hardly news, as far as the history of the written word goes. Changing media are a fact of life throughout our writing history.
Picture these imaginary headlines from the past:
“Yesterday’s News? Clay Tablets Replaced By Papyrus”
“Today, the Commandments Would Be Written on Parchment, Not Carved in Stone”
“Parchment Obsolete as Paper Takes Over”
“Monks Out of Business: Illuminated Manuscripts Fall to the Printing Press”
“Turn in Your Pens: Typewriters Take Over”
“End of an Institution: Digital Age Makes Typesetting Obsolete”
“Personal Computers Send Typewriters to the Trash Folder”
And on and on. We won’t even start on the shift from rolled vellum manuscripts to hand-sewn, leather-bound books to ornately printed clothbound covers to glued-in pages and paperback editions.
Our friend Ben will also try not to scream about the ever-increasing price for the most ephemeral of works, from $5 to $12-plus magazine issues to $13 grocery-store paperbacks (excuse me, that would be $12.99) to very ordinary, unillustrated hardcovers going for $35 and up. I hesitate to join the ranks of those doddering doomsayers who proclaim that they can remember when a movie/Coke/fill-in-the-blank cost 25 cents. But by the time a magazine or “cheap” mass-market paperback costs more than a day’s meals, it’s time to confront the real issue: that buying real as opposed to virtual reading materials has now become a luxury, and an often unaffordable luxury in these recessionary times.
Thank God for used bookstores and libraries. But what if they don’t have the particular book you want? Would you rather buy it for $49.95, or download it for $12.99? Or $2.99 or 99 cents?
Thanks to relentless marketing, Americans are turning more and more to e-reading devices like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. These devices cost no more than, and often far less than, a smart phone or iPad or whatever, and people are apparently quite used to shelling out this kind of money for portable web-enabling devices. Our friend Ben recently read that 14% of American adults now own e-readers, which might not seem especially impressive unless you take into account that that number has doubled since November. At that rate of acceleration, all Americans will own an e-book reading device by the end of 2012. (Well, all except for our friend Ben and Silence Dogood and our fellow Luddites.)
But I digress. When I talk about the high price of publishing, I’m not actually talking about the cost to readers. I’m talking about the cost to the authors themselves. And I don’t mean the cost of self-publishing.
The way that the book publishing industry has tried to secure sales in these shaky times is to shove the burden of marketing books onto their authors. Through most of the past century, it was comparatively easy to get published if you were a good writer and had a good idea for a book. You might not have gotten a big advance (upfront payment) if you weren’t well-known, but if your book took off, you’d get a few cents in royalties for every copy sold, and a bigger advance for the next book. Once you’d written it, it was up to the publisher’s publicity department to market your book, though you as an author were expected to support their efforts by giving interviews, attending book signings, and etc.
Then the world turned. Books began to cost a lot to acquire and produce, and there were lots of them out there competing for a dwindling market. No fools, publishers saw that celebrity was the driver for most consumer purchases, from clothing to cola. Why not create celebrity-branded books? The idea of the marketing platform, usually simply called a platform, was born. You signed an actor or a sports star or a fitness or diet guru or celebrity chef or doctor to the stars or what-have-you to a book deal, then paid somebody else to “ghostwrite” the book. Thus, the decades of “BY SO-AND-SO with [or “as told to”] So-and-So.” Everyone knew that a book with star power would sell better than most books by non-celebs.
Then came the era of social media, and with it, a slightly different skew to the idea of a platform. Suddenly, you no longer had to be a star to get published, but you had to be a star in your own social-media realm, be it blogging or YouTube or Facebook or Twitter. How many followers and/or friends do you have? How many of them would buy a book by you? Bloggers with large, enthusiastic followings like Julie Powell (of “Julie & Julia” fame) and The Pioneer Woman found themselves pursued by publishers, and that pursuit paid off handsomely for all concerned. Everybody won: the blogger/authors, their readers, and the publishers.
Who lost? Those good writers with good book ideas who hadn’t been able or willing to translate their talents to the world of social media. This was borne in on our friend Ben in an article in the Friday, July 1 edition of The Wall Street Journal, in an article called “Title + Twitter and YouTube Take Unfinished Book to No.1.” (Go to www.wsj.com to read the article in its entirety.) The point of the story was that a relatively obscure young-adult author (as opposed to, say, J.K. Rowling or Stephen King) whose book won’t even be published until spring 2012 has captured the #1 bestseller spot for it on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com, with some B&N readers giving it a 5-star rating, even though the author, John Green, is still writing it so no one has in fact actually read it. Not even the author himself.
How could such a thing happen, a nonexistent book by a non-celebrity rocketing to #1? Simple. As the WSJ writer, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, explains in the article, “In only a few short years, the ability to use social networking as a literary megaphone has gone from an afterthought to the focus of most marketing and image shaping by publishers.” Mr. Green, the author of the nonexistent bestseller, has mastered this art. According to the article, he has 1.1 million followers on Twitter, where he tweets daily. He has made nearly 900 YouTube videos with his brother, a musician, including one of an impromptu victory dance after learning that his in-progress manuscript had become the #1 bestseller; his YouTube audience is 526,000.
Think making 900 YouTube videos and tweeting constantly in response to your Twitter audience might be exhausting, perhaps draining energy from your efforts to finish that unwritten bestseller? Not for Mr. Green. In addition, he has 62,000 friends on Facebook, 60,000 followers on Nerdfighters.com, 27,000 followers of YourPants.org, and 26,000 followers on Tumblr. (The last two follow up on his YouTube videos.)
In today’s world, this is what you call creating a platform, bringing in the buyers to guarantee sales for your publisher and yourself. But at what cost? How much time does a dedicated author like John Green spend tending his social network as opposed to thinking, creating, writing, living?
Maybe networking substitutes for living for a lot of people today. Or maybe savvy authors realize that, once they’ve made enough money playing this game or become big enough names that they no longer need to play it, they can forget the secretarial maintenance and get on with the business of living, bolstered by their ample bank accounts. Our friend Ben can’t begin to say. But I will say that the cost of this form of publishing success, from an author’s point of view, seems very high. And I’m waiting with great interest to see what happens next.