Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Michael Bourret talks Doom and Gloom

There’s an awful lot of negativity going around. Wall Street is suffering through a financial crisis heretofore unimaginable, the elections seems to be more about lipstick, pitbulls and insults than about real issues, and New York magazine says that publishing as we know it is dead.

It’s pretty easy to get caught up in all of the drama. The economic news is distressing. The whole election cycle has been difficult to watch. And then I was told that publishing had come to an end. Well, crap. Honestly, the headline was more doom-and-gloomy than the article’s actual content. Much of the information it contained was already available, but the piece brought it together quite nicely. And it was interesting to hear what publishing vets think about the changes we’re going through as an industry. It’s funny – we have this election that’s all about change, supposedly, and people are really excited about it. “Washington is broken, change it!” With publishing, we all know the system is broken, but everyone seems afraid of changing it. And, I don’t think it’s simply because people are afraid of losing their jobs.

Change is inherently frightening, especially in a business as old and conservative as publishing. Publishers discovered the web long after most industries, because they didn’t see a way to monetize it. I often worry that we’ll end up like the music industry, focusing on bogus issues (piracy) while the real issues (distribution) are ignored. So it heartens me that experiments like Vanguard Press and Bob Miller’s Harper Studio seem to be getting people’s attention. Both look to turn the publishing relationship into more of a partnership in which the publisher and author take shared responsibility for a book’s success. In their model, either no advance or a smallish advance is paid against a much higher royalty (their 20% - 25% instead of 15%). Risk is then assumed by both the author and publisher, but the reward for the author, should the book succeed, is much higher. Authors in these sorts of deals are expected to come to the table with a much larger platform, however, making this situation ideal for previous bestsellers and celebrities.

But beyond the publishing-as-partnership ideas, we need to fix the system of returns that is the bane of the industry; we need to figure out ebooks, including how to distribute, price and market them; and we need to look at how we can compete in a media saturated world. It’s not like I know the answers to these questions, but it’s a good sign that we’re talking about them.

There are more changes to come in publishing, and I refuse to be depressed about them. In fact, I look forward to being around to take the challenges head-on and to figure out, with unbelievably smart, creative and talented industry colleagues, how to bring publishing into the future.