Chatting with Alan
I thought I'd move the comments from my recent rant about Amazon into a post all of its own. Alan Baker, one of our fabulous authors, made some very interesting remarks in the comments section and since I felt they both captured views common in the book trade and were also ideas that I wanted to address, I've relocated them to here. (Alan, I hope you don't mind. If you want to say more on this subject, just comment below and I'll add it into the main body of the post. Everyone else should of course feel free to comment as well.)
Alan: Interesting post, Rob. From what I've read over the last year or so, no one really knows what to do about it - least of all the big publishers. And the matter is further complicated by the fact that more and more writers (in most cases, I use the term loosely) are self-publishing straight to Kindle and bypassing publishers altogether. Even big-name writers are doing it.
Nevertheless, publishers remain (and should remain) the gatekeepers in terms of ensuring a certain standard of quality; and even those writers (how many? Two?) who have hit the big time after self-publishing success on Kindle have been offered traditional publishing deals on the strength of it.
I think that Amazon will achieve an effective monopoly, but the question is, how long will that last before others (whether Google or Apple or whoever) decide to really get their act together and mount a serious challenge? Things look grim at the moment because this technology is still in its infancy; but further down the line, Amazon is bound to be challenged by other big players. Rob: Hi Alan, the 'gatekeeper' thing is an interesting one. I mean, if there's a market for a particular author, would it really be right for us to try to stand in the way? So are we only 'gatekeepers' in the sense that we try to predict what will sell so that we don't waste money on the uncommercial stuff? And does that mean that if there was a cheaper way to release books (which, increasingly there is) we can just lob it all out there and let the market decide? Like Clay Shirky says in his very interesting book Here Comes Everybody, in some ways the internet allows you to do your filtering *after* you publish an article or what-have-you (based on feedback) not before (based on predictions).
Alan: Hi Rob. Regarding publishers as gatekeepers, I think the criterion is quality rather than commercialism. In principle, it might be OK to publish Kindle editions of anything one thinks could be popular (since the overheads are so small), but I'm pretty sure it would damage a publisher's credibility if the quality of the writing wasn't there. I've done the rounds of a few writers' networking sites, and there are some real stinkers out there (and a few absolute gems also, it must be said).
I read somewhere that, since publishers are less inclined to put time and effort into editing these days, even big name authors' books now contain typos and infelicities of style which, a few years ago, would have been caught and corrected prior to publication.
I think your question on whether it's right for publishers to "stand in the way" of an author trying to reach a particular market is a very important one. If the material is good and well-written, the answer, I guess, is no; but if it's a good story badly written (or a bad story badly written), then the publisher's reputation is at stake in putting it out there (even just to Kindle). The question then becomes: do you spend precious time working with the author to knock their material into shape (which may or may not be possible), or do you concentrate on good material that requires minimal editing?
Your point about filtering after publication, based on feedback, is also important. To me, it implies a scatter-gun approach - i.e. fire off a big bunch of stuff and see what sticks. But is that really what publishers should be doing, when the online community of unpublished writers are already doing it?
Rob: Alan, I agree with you that putting out low-quality books would damage a publisher's reputation, but what I'm thinking about here is how to justify the existence of publishers in the first place. Once a publisher is established, they presumably need to do good work to attract good authors and good retailers, but why does the world as a whole need publishers at all when authors can self-publish? How does a publisher make money when their services are optional. Publishers, as you point out, usually set themselves up as arbiters of good taste, but unless readers notice AND PAY MORE for that publisher's books then where is the commercial basis for that process? Publishers could end up like restaurant critics who can't find a newspaper to pay them for their reviews. If a reader can buy a self-published book that looks interesting to them, how will publishers manage to interpose themselves and say "for an extra 1 I'll tell you why you shouldn't buy this book and why you should buy one of ours instead"? And how do we make sure that readers believe us, because I've bought my share of what seem like crappy books but which bear the name of big publishing houses on their spines.
And then we have the vexed question of what is quality. Look at all the million-selling authors who couldn't get signed by the first twenty publishers they approached, who now give joy to millions. If publishers are justifying their existence by being arbiters of quality, why can't they agree on anything? When I buy a book, should I have to factor in paying the salaries of the people who couldn't spot that J K Rowling's books would be popular? Why would I want to pay for arbiters of quality who don't reflect my personal tastes? What if they're determined to steer me towards John Banville when what I really want is some Dan Brown? Should I pay publishers for that service?
The only consensus I can spot among publishers is that text should be grammatical, spelled correctly and sensibly laid out - and increasingly a computer can do that. Moreover, as you point out, it seems that publishers are starting to scrimp even on those basics - particularly in the growing e-book market. I don't think publishers are doing a very good job of justifying their existence.
If publishers are going to make their money from the guarantee of quality they offer then 1) readers have to notice that guarantee and 2) readers have to pay more for it than the books of lax publishers and self-published books (even good ones). I can't see that happening yet and I can't quite see how it's going to happen in the future except in specialist areas (like technical publishing) and in imprints (like the Idiot's Guide or Lonely Planet).
Alan: Lots of food for thought here. I wouldnt describe publishers as arbiters of good taste as such, but they certainly should be arbiters of good spelling, grammar and syntax. In the past, I have engaged the services of a professional manuscript reader, who did a fabulous job of pointing out lapses in plot and other problems. That doesnt mean I wrote badly, it just means that there were a few wrinkles which I couldnt see, so close was I to the material. I wonder how many self-published authors have made that investment of three or four hundred pounds to get a professional with a good eye to knock their MS into shape. This is the essential service which a good editor provides to a writer (God bless you, Ms Torborg!), and this is the reason why a properly edited book published by a traditional publisher is likely to be a better read, as it were, than a self-published book with no professional editorial input. Id suggest thats worth an extra pound of anyones money.
And dont forget that while a computer can help with grammar and spelling, it cant spot correctly-spelled words that have been misused, and it will often flag as ungrammatical a sentence that has been purposefully composed in an unusual way. A computer knows the rules, but it cant spot when a human who also knows the rules is using his/her knowledge and experience to break those rules in an interesting way.
A serious potential threat to traditional publishers, I think, is if their own authors decide to sidestep them and self-publish (which a few are doing). I read about one big-name author (cant remember who, Im afraid) who walked away from a half-million dollar advance to self-publish his latest book, because he thinks hell make more money that way and at Amazons 75% royalty rate, hes probably right. And of course, if the next J K Rowling decides not to approach any publishers in the first place and self-publish instead, then the publishers are going to miss a very big trick.
And yet ... lets think about that. Lets say that someone self-publishes a YA fantasy novel that becomes MASSIVELY popular on Kindle. Im willing to bet that a major publisher would contact her and offer her a high seven-figure advance for her next novel; and Im also willing to bet that she would think: Hmm ... carry on self-publishing or take the eight million theyre offering and see my books as ACTUAL books? Theyll be putting out Kindle editions anyway. Sure, I wont be making 75% royalty, but what the hell? Ill become a multi-millionaire just by saying yes!
The other threat, of course, is simply the overshadowing of physical book sales by ebook sales. Now, you know a hell of a lot more about publishing than I do, but surely it would be fairly straightforward for publishers to adapt their business models to this new scenario, and put out more ebooks at lower prices? Wouldnt the lowering of revenues be offset by the vast decrease in the overheads associated with physical books, i.e. production costs, warehouse storage, shipping costs to bricks-and-mortar bookshops etc.? Or am I being simplistic?
I just cant get past my feeling that publishers are important, and probably always will be. Otherwise, I cant help thinking that the whole thing will turn into an analogue of the punk rock ethos in the mid-seventies. It was great in principal, sure: anyone could pick up a guitar and form a band, and there were some fabulous punk bands. But most of it was garbage, most of them couldnt play for toffee, and it didnt last long. Anyone being able to write and publish books sounds great hell, it IS great, and more power to anyone who does it; but I think the time will come when readers will think: I know I only paid 1.99 for this, but it would have been so much better if it had been properly edited.
PS: Ive just read Ewan Morrisons Guardian article (which I guess I should have done at the outset), and he makes a very interesting point on long-tail e-publishing, which raises a question for me. If professional writing really is in danger of becoming extinct, if writers really will be forced to produce their material for little or no money in the future, how many people will actually DO IT? How many people will write and publish the one novel thats in them, and then never be heard from again? My guess is a lot. And then there will be the people who have a lot of books in them, whose passion for their craft will spur them on to keep producing books (much as they have always done); and those are the writers who will become loved and sought after by their audience, who (one would fervently hope) will always be willing to put their hands in their pockets to buy a ticket into the worlds they create. Romantic nonsense? Maybe, but its what I choose to believe.
Rob: You know, I don't think we're very far apart on what we think is a good idea and what we think is bad. I think where we differ is the extent to which we think the world of books will be influenced by what is good. I don't disagree that it's preferable in many (most?) ways for a book to have received the services of a publisher - even if those services are procured independently without involving an actual real-life publisher. But I look at the industry of authors, publishers and readers a little like biologists look at systems of predator and prey (not because I'm being macho, just because I find the ideas useful). In a world where most publishers publish superior e-books compared with a lower-grade morass of self-published work, what will happen to the first publisher to cut corners and adopt that scatter-gun approach we discussed of dumping lots of poorly curated titles onto the market? Well, presumably they will disappoint many of their readers who expected better. And perhaps they will profit handsomely too, because they were able to charge the same rate as more conscientious peers, but spend less than them. So how will the system punish them to make sure their approach doesn't become the norm? I'm not sure it will. Or rather, I think the system would have to change considerably in order that slapdash e-book publishers didn't (temporarily) thrive once they'd found a way to enjoy higher margins than their more sober cousins. In a sense, I think this has been going on with paper publishing for a while - standards have slipped and all that's happened is that we regard the act of buying a book by an unfamiliar author as even more of a lucky dip than ever.
I mean, consider what happens when a traditional reader buys a paperback and discovers it's a turkey. They probably avoid that author in the future, but do they rotate that book through a quarter turn in order to discover the publisher's mark on the spine and avoid it in the future? Do they penalise that publishing house for allowing a substandard author through their gates? And what if the book contains accidental homonyms and an eye-gougingly cackhanded style? Granted, the crimes of sloppy publishing are far more heinous in the self-published e-book morass, but I don't see any sign that readers differentiate between different publishers when selecting a book in anything like the way they differentiate between authors (with the possible exception of Penguin, perhaps).
I think the waters are muddied here by the scrappy quality of current e-books. As I've noted elsewhere, I bought a New York Times bestseller in e-book format that contained a row of six square boxes at the end of a paragraph. It was supposed to be an ellipsis, but it didn't display properly in the Kindle app on the iPad. So how do I punish Vintage for that lapse? A lapse that would be something of a scandal in a paperback. The problem is that I already find the quality of typesetting and font choice, etc, amateurish in the extreme on the Kindle platform (and partly that's because of failings of the platform itself), and, as you mentioned, I'm noticing a dozen or more typos in even the most high-profile paper books, and yet I haven't yet made a mental note to avoid a particularly publishing house.
If good quality editing and typesetting, etc, is to hold its own against the higher margins of scatter-gun e-publishing, the virtues of the good publishers will need to become explicit to the reader rather than implicit as they are now. And readers will have to pay for them. There will, I suppose, need to be something approaching a kite mark, where publishers guarantee the fidelity of their proofing and formatting process - and back that guarantee with some sort of refund offer. And readers will need to consciously choose to part with more pennies for those quality-stamped publications.
But even that extends no further than the medium term. The new iPhone 4S apparently does a remarkable job of acting upon spoken instructions. Take a look here at the sorts of commands it can handle. I don't doubt the day is soon coming when a word-processor has not just spell-check and grammer-check, but the grammar-check works and catches all the which/that who/whom less/fewer gotchas and much more besides. I can remember how annoyed I was when Word 2007 suggested a reconfiguration of a sentence and I realised it actually had a good point. As publishers, we'll need to pin our hopes on more than proof-reading and tidy layouts because one day soon such things will be automatically generated. And whatever that remaining ineffable quality is that we offer, it will need to be something that readers can see and are willing to pay for, otherwise lax publishers will say they have it when they don't and self-publisher authors will do without it entirely.