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.


  1. Thank you - one of the things I mentioned in my talk on blogging this weekend was to beware of being a Debbie Downer. That is, don't just post a lot of "oh noes" links about no one reads anymore, how impossible it is to succeed, and 101 other reasons why doing this thing you love is pointless. This is a great example of facing the issues with a balance of pragmatism and optimism. Hooray!

  2. Great post, Michael. Maybe I should become a celebrity first! haha.

    And I agree, freaking out isn't the answer. Figuring it out is.


  3. Here! Here! Or is it Hear! Hear! I can never remember. Either way...well said. Being a natural born eternal optimist, I am mostly excited by change and forward thinking. I generally leave the gloom and doom attitude to others!

  4. i so agree with you. as a patron, i love the changes in music, how i can hear a song while watching a dvd, run to my computer, download it, plug it into my rotating Very Big Mix, and weave it into my living. i love the immediacy of blogs, how a writer pulls you into the NOW of their lives. i love that i can read a book, then jump on the net to find the author's website, plug their blog into my google reader, and be taken on cool tangent adventures.

    the only way this could Not Awesome is if we resist change, like you mentioned with the music industry. but change is coming, it's happening, because it must, because it's time. we don't have the resources to keep using trees as book fodder. and the hierarchical setup that currently exists in publishing keeps the author and the reader too far apart from one another, both in space and time.

    it's all so exciting! kendles and ripped music and jason mraz's blog and diablo cody's twitter stream and oh good lord, it's awesome! how could it not be? only if we hold on to the past. only if we don't evolve.

    of course there'll be fighting and whining and grieving and grasping . . . but we will change. . . because people, and the environment and the economy and Life will make sure we will . . .

    evolution in motion . . . all up in our grills :)

  5. Amen...I'm with you! It is hard to see change as an opportunity sometimes, but that is how things move forward, evolve, and often surpass the successes of the past. Here's to positive thinking and creative solutions!

  6. I also refuse to be depressed. On the contrary, some of the possibilities out there are exciting. Creating stories across different formats has the potential to make characters live and breathe and inhabit our world in a way they never have before. And that seems like a storytellers dream come true.

  7. Thanks, all! Everyone can't agree with me, can they? I was hoping someone would tell me the sky actually IS falling.

  8. Recently an insurance company nearly wind up....

    A bank is nearly bankrupt......

    Who fault?

    The top management of the Public listed company ( belong to "public" ) salary should be tied a portion of it to the shares price ( IPO or ave 5 years ).... so when the shares price drop, it don't just penalise the investors, but those who don't take care of the company.....If this rule is pass on, without any need of further regulation, all industries ( as long as it is public listed ) will be self regulated......

    Sign a petition to your favourite president candidate, congress member again and ask for their views to comment on this, and what regulations they are going to raise for implementation.....If you agree on my point, please share with many people as possible....


  9. Hey Michael, I like your angle on this, your willingness to face the future and see what good we can create!

    Even the article you reference (despite the doomsday pomposity of it's title: "The End") talked about "the book business as we know it." Which I thought was really interesting. Because yeah, the book business is changing, but we're still going to be writing and selling STORIES. STORIES are what's in our blood, our DNA, our collective unconsciousness. We humans will always want to hear / read / see / be told a great story. I imagine it's (okay, go with me on this) kind of like lamenting the end of writing with quill and ink. Oh, how horrible those new-fangled typewriters were - no dirty fingers anymore. No feel of parchment under your fingers. So mechanical. So... much faster. And easier. And hey, a good story remained a good story no matter how you got it on the page!

    And with Audio books, kindle downloads, and actual paper books, don't we already have three different ways to get the same story told to us today? And look! The sky hasn't fallen.

  10. Now that I'm two months behind with my comment, it will be interesting to see if anyone is still out there....

    Interesting post as all companies (including the one I work for) try to compete, instead of create, in the market spaces available.

    But I see no one answered your underlying question of "How?" So, here's my attempt:

    Site Licenses.

    Pattern selling ebooks, etc., the same way software companies sell software to conglomerates.

    Libraries, Public Schools (teachers and Libraries), Daycare Associations, Hospitals (?) [hmm...waiting rooms are always filled with bored people...], and so forth.


    "Do your customers sit and wait? Do they fidget? Do young children scamper around, creating a ruckus? If so, then set up a bank of computer monitors and mouses and let your customer read an ebook of their choice. We provide a wide section from Children's literature to Romance to Fantasy. And if the service you provided is completed before the customer finishes the ebook, and they want to know where to get a copy, then send them our way. We will pay you x% for every customer you send us."

    ...or something like that.

    different subject now - Platform

    How does one like me develop a platform with so many aspiring authors?

    But, I am attempting to build one in a non-comformitory way.

    I composed and posted four Nursery Rhyme Twists on my blog (shameless self-promotion and they're free!). The objective of the reading game (new ebook market?) is to figure out the original Nursery Rhyme before the end of the story.

    A fifth grade teacher liked them and is going to read them to her class as a mini test-market for me.

    Thanks again for posting your wishes and reading my response.