For Your Consideration: Publishers Need to Adapt in the Digital Age

I’ve recently been re-listening to the Writing Excuses podcasts and found them as enjoyable as ever (including LOL moments every few episodes). In this blog post I want to drill-in slightly to Season 1, Episode 20 and then pivot from that onto my own thoughts, especially about how I think publishers need to continue to evolve.

Setting the Scene

(Bare in mind that this podcast is now a decade old. Predictions made about the future of the industry may be well-along to either fruition or stunted after the passing of time, fruit unrealised).

In this episode Brandon asks a question of audience member, author Mike Stackpole who had this to say (slightly paraphrased, mostly verbatim):

“It’s only been the last 70-80 years we’ve been churning out literature, prior to that, we were entertainers. Now with the coming of e-books we can sell direct to endusers and cut out the publishers. … The problem for traditional publishing is they only own the electronic rights on manuscripts since about 1996 and since now were in 2008 they’ve got 12 years’ worth of novels and no writer needs to sell electronic versions to them anymore because we can sell direct. They’re in trouble.

The big problem for traditional publishers is their business has never been about bringing us fiction. It has been about them bringing to us blocks of wood. Their whole business is based around printing, shipping and warehousing blocks of wood. Their not that vital any more. We can find editors, copy editors, etc ourselves.”

To emphasise his point he says he can make greater profit by selling a short story from his website for $2 than he makes selling 2x $8 paperbacks. Additionally he gets the money instantly, not 9-15 months later as he would with a publisher.

As it relates to the Author

It’s pretty hard to argue with the real-world example given. There’s more profit in it for the author to sell direct-to-consumer, rather than via a publisher.

And there’s certainly truth to the point that the writer’s efforts are the main commodity being sold by a publisher. That’s not to say that the publisher doesn’t add value. The publisher brings professionals who have expertise and more experience than most authors ever will in their chosen field: editors, marketers, illustrators etc.

As an example, there’s a reason why most authors aren’t consulted about what their front cover look like. Publisher’s know what will sell, and also have a better understanding of what’s in the marketplace at the present time.

Publishers also bring credibility. Until you’re an established author you’re trading on the brand of your publisher.

However, the publishing world is changing. It is now easier for the author to editors, line editors and research assistants online. Websites like 99 designs exist to let you choose between competing artists for book cover designs. Sites like Patreon make it easier for creative people to be funded by those who love their creativity.

Personally, I don’t want to have to make all of those decisions. I prefer to think of myself as focussed on the writing, not lazy. Just like I could change the oil on my car, but I’m OK with paying someone else to do it.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too many fantasy books lately but I wonder in an internet full of people offering their services if we will see a return to guilds? Where groups of similarly skilled people will form to enhance their own credibility and exposure to potential customers.

For the Publisher

I am not unbiased in this discussion. Not too long ago I submitted a manuscript sample to a US publisher via the postal system as prescribed. And it disappeared.

Thinking about this podcast and the changing nature of technology it made me wonder: why would a publisher ever want to receive a manuscript by mail? The only reason I can possibly think of, is that it lowers the volume of submissions. What if embracing technology could actually make the submission process easier and cheaper?

What I’d suggest is that publishers should provide an electronic submission process. They could even charge an administration/submission fee (which would cover the costs of printing at their end, if printing is still necessary?). There are numerous benefits for the publisher:

  • An additional revenue stream (submission fee)
  • Automated-checking to see if the document complies with the submission guidelines. If it doesn’t you can reject it outright. (If you’re nice you can let the author know; if you’re so inclined you can reject it ‘quietly’ and keep their submission fee without much guilt. They, after all, didn’t follow the rules, so be it on their own head).
  • Use machine-learning to automatically check and redirect to the recycle bin. (Too many spelling errors? Rejected. Tense confusion? Rejected. Swear-word tolerance breached? Rejected. Foul content? Rejected).
  • Author-filtering. Get a submission from someone who is truly terrible at writing? Auto-reject anything they submit for the next year. (Or if reject is too strong, though I doubt it, at least put them toward the bottom of the slush pile).
  • Implement a “submission alpha reader” process where unpaid minions can up-or-down vote manuscript samples.
  • Environmentally friendly: less printing.
  • Author-history. Hit gold with an excellent author? Want to see everything else they’ve submitted before?
  • Faster submission process. When you’re already waiting for months, it’d be nice to streamline any part of the process as an author.

Am I a genius or diabolically evil?

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