Friday, 20 June 2008

False Hopes and Expectations...Is it Time for a New Business Model?

By Darren E Laws

The current dilemma facing the publishing industry of an increased market base in the form of an enhanced global platform called the Internet, against an evolving audience which requires its fiction (and non-fiction) delivered in many different forms is challenging an industry that is pretty much set in its way. Publishing has been operating quite successfully (thank you very much) using the same business model for the past century, and now faced with a radical re-think it is struggling to come to terms with change. In the old days authors expected and received (quite deservedly in many cases) a nice fat advanced payment on the expectation that their hard work and toil would meet the expectations of their audience, who would in turn reciprocate equally by diligently going to the book store and buying copies of the said work in their thousands. This utopian arrangement existed quite happily for decades.

Now though, one has to question these ideals on the basis that technology and the internet is revolutionising and democratising publishing. Sure, every author dreams of receiving a good advance offset against royalties, but can this model be applied throughout publishing, especially when the industry is reporting increasing returns and often bad judgement of 'future' publishing stars actual earning ability. Note I do not mention potential as I am sure each author that receives a large advance does so on the basis that he or she will fulfil that potential.

Ghost written media celebrity novels and 'misery lit' (mis-lit) are the order of the day and publishers are falling over themselves to part with hefty sums, often before even checking the validity of the author or the story. Trifling matters as far as some publishing houses are concerned; so long as the celebrity stays flavour of the month long enough to see the book hit the shelves and some investment return. Watching this trend in publishing is like watching Hollywood remake classic movies because it no longer has the judgement skills to determine originality. Believe me, Hollywood nor the mountains of unpublished manuscripts sitting within publishers actually lack depth of quality, just the ability have a reader with faith in their own skills at sorting the wheat from the chaff. And so we are left with this current situation where money that could be spent in investing in new talent is handed willy-nilly to what they assume is the easy mark, the quick return. Sadly the only quick returns come from the book stores as the public becomes tired of over-hyped, over-marketed fodder made for the non-discerning. But if you are using a machine gun to hit a single target you are going to hit something every now and then and as long as the mainstream publishers have enough bullets to keep spraying and there is enough new fodder out there waiting to have their names attached to the latest celebrity novel or biography, then I guess they hope the status quo will remain.

So what is the answer; what can open the market and untap new riches of talent? Maybe the changes are already happening. Imagine for a moment a new world where the author writes a book and only gets paid for the amount of copies he or she actually sells. Imagine a world where a marketing budget is used to create demand but the books are only printed to meet that demand, and not printed by the hundreds of thousands and splurged into every book store regardless of actual demand, only to be returned six weeks or months later to be pulped. Imagine not paying hundreds of thousands of pounds to an author in a bidding war where he or she has done little to establish themselves in a market, save for looking pretty or having attended the correct schools. I am not for one moment denigrating all of the practices in place, it would be great to be in the position the large publishing houses find themselves in, of having a rich vein of new talent arriving on their desks every day. I applaud all the great work they are doing in bringing fantastic new talent to the fore, I am just questioning some unsettling practices that certain publishers seem to be adopting because they are the easy option. Remember, it is easy to choose the easy option but consider the longer term implications.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with appealing to the mass markets or even the lowest common denominator. We would all love to be in the position of selling thousands of titles, but you should at least create demand and fill demand first rather than putting all of your proverbial eggs in one basket and finding they are rotten. Are the days of huge advances, huge print runs, celeb-lit and false expectations over; sadly, not just yet, but the warning signs are there and hopefully the industry is taking heed.

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