There's plenty of speculators out a-speckin' about the death of the author. This is tied to the demise of publishing as a profitable venture. The forecast is pretty dismal.

What I haven't heard a lot of are models for the future. There's foggy talk about eBooks and eReaders, but nothing concrete. Here's my idea:

My Plan

In X number of years, instead of querying a publisher, writers will query major retailers of digital content. These retailers will be the gatekeepers, like it or not. They will still accept crap from anyone,
the difference being how the retailers market writers. This will arrive out of a need to sort content according to quality, demanded by consumers frustrated with content bloat (this is already happening).

The cream (sellable content) will rise to the top, the crap (not sellable content) will not. This may not always be ideal, but it's been that way since publishing began.

We're already seeing a handful of digital retailers grab most of the market (Apple, Amazon, etc). Placing them as content gatekeepers would allow them to claim quality over their competitors. This demand for quality will come from consumers who are overwhelmed by the millions of books available.

Your Plan

What publishing business model do you see taking shape in the future?

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Yes, I agree. I see too many very poorly written books that have been promoted heavily by their publishers and keep raking in the sales because of the promotion. A book that gets advertising in national TV is not going to fail, regardless. That, by the way, accounts for all the books by celebrities.
No one knows what will be a best-seller, publishers or authors. I won't blame either group for chasing a buck.

The "best" books publishers could buy is totally subjective. What's mind-blowingly awesome to you might be drivel to me.

Which comes right back to publishing what sells.

It's the same with any business. It's an economic law that won't change regardless of the times. It is: The most money will be made from what has the most appeal to the most people. Followed by: Making the most money is good business.

You're free to debate the consequences of these laws, positive and negative (it hasn't done me any favors), but they aren't going to change unless you totally remove monetary gain as an incentive in publishing. If money doesn't mean much to you in your writing, you should have no problem giving away your work for free. But that doesn't sound fair, does it? Writers should be compensated for their work. So should publishers.

So when discussing the future of publishing, it's necessary to consider how these laws figure into things.
I disagree that quality cannot be judged. We've had long discussions here about "gatekeepers." We also assume, rightly or wrongly, that the top reviewers will not lie to us about the quality of a book.

Writers may be willing to work for very small advances. In nine of ten cases, they make up for it by writing faster and with less interest in quality. Can we blame them? Perhaps not, but I'd rather have an author take his job seriously if 'm going to buy his book. There is no law that an author should be compensated. Most are not. Period. And publishers and readers like it just fine because it saves them money. The vast majority of readers who keep bestsellers in their place are rarely in a position to judge the quality of a book beyond the "page-turner" criterion.

What irks me is the unfairness of publishers pushing a few of their authors while totally ignoring the rest. There should be a law against that. And publishers should be contractually bound to exerting the same effort on behalf of all of their authors. If that would mean that everybody gets the same advance, then so be it.
Yes, I know, Dan. But you can see where the system itself is responsible for so many bad books, while good writers can't make it in that business world. I have 6 books in print and two more coming out, all with excellent reviews in major papers and praise from fans, yet I've never made a living from writing these books and foresee a time when signing a publishing contract is not much better than giving the book away. Hence my applause for Konrath. If the system doesn't allow you to make a living, and you really like writing, then you might as well by-pass the publishers and take the books directly to the readers.
Yes, but mind you, I write pretty sensational stuff with lots of action, some sex, and a good deal of suspense. My problem tends to be resistance to foreign cultures. We could blame that on the schools.
As you say, no one knows what will be a best seller, but a lot of people know what might turn out to be a good book. Picking good books is subjective, but not totally subjective. There are literary conventions that run through all great literature that can be found or not found in all books that make the choices less subjective.

Of course no publisher is ever going to have only good books. I'm not asking for that. I'm only asking that they care that the books be good, that the primary consideration in their minds be quality, and that making it a big money maker not enter the equation until they have judged the book to be worthy.

By some definitions making the most money is good business--that's been BP's definition and Goldman Sachs' and Enron's before them--but it's by no means a law. There's more to running a good business than making money. There has to be a component of responsibility and ethical behavior at every level--relative to customers, employees, and society. Again, I'm not suggesting removing monetary gain totally as an incentive in publishing. I'm only suggesting that if it is the primary incentive, if it dwarfs all others, then the result is a bad one--for readers, for literature, and ultimately for the publishers themselves.
Oh, good man! Excellent comparison. The only trouble is that you won't get much outrage from a cheated reading public.
That's largely the effect of conglomeration in the publishing biz--what used to be a pretty broad array of small, reasonably profitable publishers have, over the past generation or so, been bought up by big multi-nationals, and now we're down to six big NY publishers with dozens of imprints--most of which used to be independent houses, competing for profits but also to make names for themselves, to publish quality work, to win the big prizes and the prestige that came with them. Basically nobody gives a shit about the prestige part anymore, except to the extent that prizes sell books. Profit has entirely supplanted pride--it's the inevitable result of bottom-line, MBA-driven thinking that places profits before every other consideration.
I think we'll see a blended system-that-isn't-a-system, with ebooks holding a dominant market share in a decade or less. Efficiencies in ebook production and distribution will largely be offset by piracy and market pressure to reduce retail pricing to near zero. Traditional publishers will continue to play a major role, at times in competition with ebook retailers like Amazon. Legal squabbles over price fixing and other monopolistic practices will doubtless ensue. Most books by new authors will be released with limited initial print runs--enough copies for libraries, reviews and promotional packages--and in ebook format.

Authors who jumped ship and signed exclusives with Amazon may well wish they hadn't, as ereaders integrated into other kinds of whiz-bang gadgetry outsell the Kindle, and Amazon's ereader apps fail to keep up with the speed of innovation. Big name authors will, as always, be able to name their price. Unknowns will have more ways to break in, but a harder time than ever being recognized through the clutter. Midlisters may well thrive due to the higher royalty percentages they'll earn on ebooks--50%-70% could become the rule.

Promotional space on Amazon and iBooks will sell at huge premiums, though, and midlisters will still (always) be forced to contend with being shortchanged in the publicity department by their publishers, traditional or otherwise. Paper manufacturers will suffer. Libraries will change profoundly, or not. I'll be able to take my wife to Italy and rebuild my garage, but will never quite feel secure enough to quit my day job. Not that I'd want to, of course.
Yes, I think the blended system that isn't a system is likely.

Right now publishers do two things - they discover new writers and they publish the books of established writers. The discovering writers can be very costly and doesn't always pay off. Sometimes a publisher will stick with a writer for 3-4 books but that writer doesn't hit until the 5th or 6th book. It used to be that meant all the earlier books would then sell, back catalogues had value, but one thing Oprah's books club showed was that a lot of buyers today are more 'book oriented' than 'author oriented.' None of the writers Oprah picked have come close to selling the same amount of any other titles (this may be less a factor wth genre writing and series books).

So, if publishers can find a way to spend less on discovering new writers they will. This may be where e-books come in.

It may be similar to the way sports teams develop players. Baseball and hockey have farm teams and extensive player development systems. The NBA and the NFL get almost all their players from the NCAA. So, up till now publishing has been like baseball with a big farm system - for every ten players signed one may actually make the big team. For every ten first time novelists a publisher signs maybe one will have big sales down the line.

e-books may become like getting players from the NCAA. Either publishers wll start their own e-book divisions like Harlequin has (think ofit as double or triple A), or they'll track self-published e-books (single A or the rookie league?) and sign up the bestelling (sort of like what happened with Konrath).

Right now I think I like the idea of proving yourself with three or four dollar e-books instead of twenty-five or thirty dollar paperbacks. They have a different type of buyer.
Didn't Konrath start out with a publisher and then switch to self-publishing electronically?

The comparison with Oprah' Book Club is fascinating. I think you're quite right: these people buy content, not author -- at least not initially. Mystery buyers are a bit different, I think. They buy author. But they don't make up the big numbers. So we have really separate audience categories. So separate, that they may not usually mix. Different tastes, different habits, and different attitudes toward book buying. The focused mystery reader is informed and rarely led by promotion. The Oprah Book Club buyer needs someone he/she (mostly she) admires to tell them what to like. If you go by the numbers, there are more followers than leaders in our reading nation.


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