Sunday, December 11, 2011


Last week we had two viewpoints expressed in Digital Book World which raised much debate and further amplified the gulf of dialogue and thinking within the industry today over the issue of self publishing especially in the digital world.

First we had the original article ‘Leaked: Hachette Document Explains Why Publishers Are Relevant’ , which again raises the question as to the role of the publisher in tomorrow’s changing value chain. The premise of the proposition was based on, ‘Self-publishing is a misnomer’ and it went on to lay out the value added services that publishers can offer authors. When we look at these in pure digital terms there are a number of questions:

‘Curator’ we are not sure that this is the right term but irrespective is the curator for the author or the consumer?

‘Venture capitalist’ some would suggest that this actually describes the publisher role. As many who have dealt with VCs know, the VC onus is often purely on the money and return, more than the venture and interestingly most VCs have an exit strategy from the outset.

‘Sales and Distribution Specialist ‘ we agree this is very important in the physical world where grabbing shelf space and promotion has to be ‘in the face’ . However, does it carry the same weight in a digital world? The digital world does not just compete with the other new titles and some back list, but has to compete with everybook ever published. There is an opportunity, but it is more about marketing and brand awareness than sales and distribution. It could be questioned what digital sales expertise one needs when the sales are to a small number of aggregators who actually drive the sales and who by their virtual shelves carry everything anyway.

’Brand Builder and Copyright Watchdog’ this is real value and one that becomes of even greater importance the more digital we become. Brand building is critical in today’s viral world, but as often proved, this can be unpredictable in today’s Facebook and YouTube world. Copyright protection is however difficult and the publisher should have the mechanism to monitor, raise take down notices and litigate where needed. However, we must remember that a watchdog is not just about copyright and we live in a digital ‘honesty box’ trade, where it is rumoured that ‘no audit’ clauses exist today, so assuming a huge amount of trust.

We then read the response from self publishing author JA Konrath, ‘Advice to Publishers’ .

In his response Konrath lists six points:

‘Offer much better royalties to authors.’ This should be a given but there is often much debate about the digital norm and the fact that royalties are based on net sales which can be very loose. If agents do not tie contracts to term times, authors may find they are digitally tied to perpetual contracts, with little incentive and where both agents and publishers live off a sizable proportion of earnings for life plus 70 years. In this digital real time age, why digital royalties aren’t paid out monthly or even at the end of each day and totally transparently? The recent Simon and Schuster move on transparency is a step in the right direction but to some is only a one step.

‘Release titles faster. It can take 18 months after a book is turned in to be published. I can do it myself in a week.’ This is a legacy issue and often tied to physical lead times that are required by many large bricks and motor chains. In a digital world this doesn’t apply but the implications on the development process within publishers are significant and with reducing advances the pressure to reduce lead times and be smarter is clear for all to see.

‘Use up-to-date accounting methods that are trackable by the author, and pay royalties monthly.’ We have covered this above and must remember, when someone decides to do this and promote it heavily, it may become a game changer for all.

‘ Lower e-book prices.’ We see Konrath’s point and how some have moved volume by low price pointing. It is a case that when there is only one mouth to feed then a larger amount of a lower price is acceptable, but when there is a corporate to feed, there is often a cost point that must be first cleared to have any chance of break even.

‘ Stop futilely fighting piracy.’ This is not so much about self publishing as about publishing risk. We will soon reach a point when DRM (Digital Rights Management) becomes less of a risk and more of an inhibitor. It happened in music with MP3 and it will happen with books, it is just a case of timing.

‘Start marketing effectively. Ads and catalogue copy aren’t enough. Neither is your imprint’s Twitter feed.’ We understand Konrath’s point, but we all face the same problem and there are no digital marketing silver bullets. If there were, we would all be adopting them and … Publishers do offer scope and skills, but many have not developed these and rely heavily on external resources to show them the way. This is a core skill set for tomorrow’s publisher and one where they can offer in house value add.

Last week a good friend was offered a digital deal on some six titles that are still in print, but where the digital right is not encompassed within the contract. The agent had taken some months to negotiate an offer 25% net and suggested it was a good deal. Our advice was to define a fix term time, understand the reversal clauses on digital, agree the loan and rental deals up front, and the control and pricing policy on agency. The agent gulped and understandably is yet to respond.

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