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Recently the friendly-looking team at HarperStudio asked a question on their blog, The 26th Story, about whether to invest in a full-featured website or keep up the blog. Since they invited input, I weighed in with an oft-quoted phrase in the industry: “The author is the brand”.

The general idea (which someone else much smarter than I had a long time ago) is that customers don’t walk into a bookstore and ask for the latest HarperCollins or Macmillan. They seek out their favourite authors and genres. Readers want to buy the next Alexander McCall Smith or Stephen King or the latest crime thriller or epic fantasy.

In this context, there doesn’t seem much point in investing a lot of money in a publisher website with a lot of bells and whistles, unless you can master the challenges of searchability in order to drive attention to your authors and titles. Instead it makes more sense to invest in communities of interest around topics or genres, such as the Spinebreakers or tor.com sites, or individual author brands.

But then I had a quick look through the HarperStudio blog and static pages and was pretty charmed, actually. When was the last time you saw a publishing company website with candid photos of the publishers? Open, humorous bios with real human details? There aren’t a heap of publisher blogs that are more than publicity channels for the books they’re putting out. The Penguin blog is funky and well written with a diversity of voices, but these are still disembodied voices emanating from an opaque corporate behemoth. The 26th Story is one of the few blogs where I feel like I’m actually engaging in a conversation with the real people behind the enterprise, instead of being fed marketing copy. 

Perhaps that will change as HarperStudio signs more authors and has more titles to manage and promote. Perhaps it will change when they create their new site – although I note they’ve decided to stick with a blog platform for now, using WordPress (good decision!) – but for now I like the small team feel of the blog, the sense (however idealistic) that I could take an elevator to the 26th floor of the HarperCollins digs and find Bob & co sitting around the table much the same as they are in their photo.

And all this got me thinking… is the author the only brand? Isn’t it possible, however unlikely, that some publishers could create an identity so strong and a community so vibrant that audiences seek out their books because they trust and like the people producing them? It’s hard to imagine of the multinationals, but not so hard to imagine of the quirky independents who have well-known identities associated with them, such as McSweeney’s (Dave Eggars) or Small Beer Press (Kelly Link).

Of course, even a wildly successful publisher blog is unlikely to generate the kind of audience that would shift books in the quantities required to make the ROI worth it. Then again, when you look at blogs like Boing Boing it’s quite clear the awesome power of conversation and community. The publisher as brand may not be something to write off just yet. Perhaps publishers just haven’t worked out how to do it well in the new paradigm.

I’ve got some thoughts about author sites and branding too, but this is getting to be an awfully long post already so I’ll hold that over for next time.

What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s worth publishers spending the time and resources on their own brand identity?

P.S. Keep up the cello practice, Bob. It is the most sublime of stringed instruments.

The third thought is about rights, yep, that old nugget again. If I sound like I’m harping on this topic it’s because I’m coming at these issues mostly from an author’s perspective and the rights are the basic unit of tradable property from which authors’ incomes derive.

The current rights debates do not stop publishers digitising their processes they merely stop them being able to realise all the possible opportunities. However, at a time when the digital market is not established, for many, this may be a huge leap into the dark.
Link to Martyn’s original post.

The point about realising the opportunities is the key for authors here. Has it occurred to publishers that the ability to digitise in order to realise commercial opportunities is one of the services they have to offer authors who retain digital rights? If publishers move toward fully digitising their pre-press processes, as Daniels suggests, and can create format neutral content, then they could sell these formats back to authors as a service. When put next to their ability to provide marketing and branding oomph to the ‘author as brand’, it reinforces the idea that publishers, as intermediaries between author and reader, could be reconfigured to be author-oriented services companies rather than content producers.

…and with that neat turn of phrase, Brian Tart, publisher of Dutton of Penguin Group USA, has expressed why subsidiary media rights are no longer subsidiary. They are the whole box and dice.

From Rachel Deahl @ Publishers Weekly:

Dutton has laid out big money for what it’s dubbing a “digi-novel” by the creator of the C.S.I.television franchise. The Penguin imprint paid millions for a multimedia three-book series from Anthony Zuiker that, at its centerpiece, features a mystery novel which will send readers to a Web site with companion footage relating to the plot…Zuiker’s story…will, as Dutton noted, “move from books to film to the web with ease.” Read the whole article…

It’s an exciting project from its description. More importantly, this is an early example of more and more digital “publications” that publishers will be doing in future, which begs the question – how do you sell the rights to it? This is not a traditional deal where a publisher licences print rights and also subsidiary media rights, including film and digital. Most publishers have fairly standard contracts, but this project is entirely bespoke. It requires an entirely different way of conceiving of the project and the intellectual property involved.

I think this is largely positive. Publishers need to loosen up their contracts and start thinking about different ways of licensing content. I’ll admit the morass of copyright legislation makes it difficult to slice and dice copyright however we want, but there is still scope for more flexible approaches to publishing contracts. For example, with a project like Dutton’s (or for that matter Scholastic’s 39 Clues or HarperCollins’ The Amanda Project) there may be a mix of licences needed, including Creative Commons licences to cover the web 2.0 components and user generated content.

All this may be obvious, but I recently had a conversation with an Australian publishing professional who works in contracts and insisted that digital = e-books. What about alternative reality games, web 2.0 and mobile content, I asked? “That’s what game rights and film rights etc are for,” she replied.  My point is that these things don’t sit in neat little boxes anymore. They haven’t for some time and we’re only just catching up.

Aside from sorting out who licences what, another question I have is, how do authors get paid? 10% of a book’s cover price is a neat equation. It provides a simple economic basis for calculating advances and also judging the success of a title. Not so with mixed media projects like this one. I think we’re going to see more revenue models proliferating now, including profit sharing between authors and publishers.

Lastly, and slightly off-topic, with more projects like this popping up I wonder what the difference is now between publishers and other media companies? Not a whole lot, it seems.

So yesterday I attended a meeting in Melbourne of various industry types to discuss the need for/benefits of an Australian industry-led taskforce for digital publishing. It was interesting.

First up, it’s worth noting the breakdown of attendees. The meeting was jointly hosted by the federal government arts agency Australia Council for the Arts (Ozco) and Copyright Agency Limited (CAL), which for our international readers, is the Australian collecting organisation for copyright licence fees. Prior to this meeting they had jointly funded research into Australian publishers’ attitudes and perceived information needs in relation to digital publishing. (Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find this report published online yet, I hope it will be at least included in Ozco’s new online research hub which is being released soon) Of the 17 people who were there, Ozco and CAL were more than 30% of the group.

The next biggest group was publishers, with four publishers plus the head of the Australian Publishers Association. The spread of publishers was really good. There was one large trade publisher, Macmillan, plus three independents – Spinifex, MUP and Sleepers, with Zoe from Sleepers also representing the Small Press Underground Collective (SPUNC). From retail, there was an independent bookseller, a representative of the Australian Campus Booksellers Association and the CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association. Bringing up the rear were authors with just myself and a representative of the Australian Society of Authors. I was not initially invited to this meeting, but requested to be included when I read about it in Weekly Book Newsletter. I found this distribution particularly odd after the Director of the Literature Board of the Australia Council had declared that she sees this as the writing industry not the publishing or book industry, and that everything stems from the writing. One would perhaps have expected to see more writers in the room. Notable absences were libraries and at least one representative of the Australian Literary Agents Association. I’m unsure if that’s because they weren’t invited or were unable to attend.

Okay, so now you’ve met the players in our little drama, here’s how it unfolded. Ross McCall from CAL outlined the background to the meeting, and an Ozco representative gave a summary of the ‘desktop research’ they’d done into the digital publishing scene so far. We then broke into groups to discuss the opportunities, threats and questions of setting up an industry-led taskforce to support and drive knowledge transfer, new digital publishing initiatives and collective efforts to fund innovation.

The discussion was robust and I think there was a healthy level of honesty in the room, but that left me feeling a little depressed also because some of the ‘honesty’ delivered aloud was an observation of the lack of trust and openness in the Australian publishing industry.  Everyone agreed that digital is huge and most publishers seem to be tackling it on their own terms, which I felt kind of missed the point of us all being in a room together. The booksellers seemed a bit down about the prospects for their part of the supply chain. And I sense I made a thorough nuisance of myself by being bolshie on behalf of authors. One of the best points was made when it was noted there is little if any collaboration or discussion between publishing industry organisations and other digital media companies, such as games developers, telcos and mobile content publishers.

Overall, I think we got to a positive endpoint, which was an agreement that there is scope for more cooperation at a national industry level and that the next step is to have a “blue sky” discussion about what’s possible and desirable, before narrowing down to what we’re committed to achieving. There’s a ways to go, but for a first meeting I’m optimistic we could eventually achieve something relevant and meaningful.

Do I have any concerns? Yes. I am a little worried about an entrenched culture of “everyone in their foxholes” undermining the process and I was guilty of this too. I boldly claimed that publishers aren’t talking to authors about what they’re doing with digital, and was roundly disabused of this notion by the publishers in the room. Yet my scepticism remains because, while publishers may be having these discussions on an individual basis with authors, especially when it comes time to negotiate rights and contracts, I don’t believe there is a general awareness among Australian writers about the digital innovations publishers are planning.

That could be a problem for publishers long term in a number of ways. First, it makes it harder for authors to get excited about assigning their digital rights, because they don’t have information about the creative ways publishers may want to commercialise them. I think publishers will have to compete for authors’ digital rights in future, and I would think you’d have a competitive advantage by demonstrating what you know and what you can do, the way Penguin UK has been doing for examaple. Second, it means they could be missing the writers who are producing the most innovative content which will help them succeed, who are very likely not to be book authors. Finally, I think writers are capable of innovating and commercialising on their own and have a lot to offer publishers if there’s a collaborative and sincere way of working together for the profitability of both.

But of course, these are the questions that a taskforce can address. Perhaps it can’t pose definitive answers but it can certainly prod, educate, nurture and moderate. Bring on the next step!

An article over at SNL Interactive explores the delicate business of dealing with Amazon. Sarah Barry interviews Michael Cairns of PersonaNonData and Mike Shatzkin of The Idea Logical Company about the ways publishers have responded to the growing market power of Amazon, and the online retailer’s willingness to use it.

Despite the strained relationship between Amazon and the publishing community, neither Cairns nor Shatzkin believe publishers will decide to stop dealing with Amazon altogether.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a love-hate relationship; it’s more of need and fear relationship,” Shatzkin said. “They need Amazon because it’s probably every publisher’s first or second largest client. But they fear Amazon because it’s every publisher’s first or second biggest client.”

Link [Thanks Jose, via Read 2.0!]

Text Publishing has just announced The Text Young Adult Prize, which according to their website “aims to discover more wonderful new books for Young Adult readers, by Australian and New Zealand writers.” The winner will receive $10,000 and a publishing contract with Text.

First let me say hooray! I love young adult fiction. I’m an avid reader of it, sometime writer of it and am excited by any mechanism which might lead to more of it from Australian authors.

However, this brings up something of a puzzle, one which I’ve been pondering for a little while now. Text is just the latest in a growing list of publishers who are using competitions to find publishable manuscripts. Last month Penguin launched their Penguin Most Wanted Crime Writing Competition, also with a publishing contract for the winner (although I note there’s no mention of any prize money or advance). Last year New Holland Publishers and the NSW Writers Centre teamed up to offer the Genre Fiction Award with, you guessed it, a contract for the winner (I find it odd that there’s no mention of this award on New Holland’s website). ABC Books have been running the ABC Fiction Award for two years now. Of course, the Vogel has been running for nearly 30 years but there’s still a marked acceleration of this kind of publisher-driven initiative.

I’m not against writing competitions with publishing contracts as prizes. Provided the terms are fair and don’t disadvantage entrants, they can be fabulous opportunities for emerging writers. But, really, what’s going on here? What’s the difference between running a competition and simply opening up for unsolicited submissions?

In the case of Text, I suspect this is a confident move to build a new list of YA titles. Since Text also are happy to accept unsolicited submissions the competition is an add on, a way for them to attract the kind of manuscripts they may not have been attracting until now (although, I if they simply asked for such submissions they’d be fairly swamped within a short time of doing so)

But there may be other reasons that are not such good news for writers. Firstly, running a competition may be a way of capping the advance or not paying an advance at all. The terms and conditions of the Penguin competition don’t mention anything about an advance. Neither does the New Holland Award and in both cases there’s no prize money offered. Are they expecting to negotiate an advance via the usual methods once a winner has been chosen, or are they hoping not to pay one at all? Of those competitions that do offer prize money, the publishers can factor in a finite advance up front and if the books goes on to be very successful they’ve got a higher likelihood of earning back their investment and going on to make a profit. It takes a lot of the risk out of the equation for the publisher. It’s true that first novel advances are paltry anyway, so a fixed prize money may be to a writer’s benefit, especially where the prize seems to be quite generous (or at least adequate) such as the $10,000 offered by Text and ABC. But if the winning author has a literary agent, what are the chances they’d have been able to negotiate something better?

Secondly, a competition may be a way of insisting upon a “standard” contract. Will competition winners have the opportunity to negotiate terms of the publishing contract or will they have to accept the only contract offered? This is critical whether authors are receiving prize money or not. For the competition to be fair, it’s important for authors to be able to negotiate on any contract terms, but particularly those relating to copyright, subsidiary rights and royalties, and also any options on future manuscripts. If the publishing contract is not negotiable as part of the competition, will authors have an opportunity to read them before deciding whether its in their interest to enter?

But apart from these considerations, I’m still puzzled as to why publishers would prefer to run a competition than accept unsolicited manuscripts. What’s the difference? Do they perceive a difference in the workload and administrative resources required? I note that Text has only allowed one month between the Young Adult Award closing date and the announcement of the winner at the Melbourne Writers Festival. Surely the publishers will not give entries any greater reading time or consideration than they would to manuscripts from the slush pile? Do they believe they’ll receive more targeted, relevant or higher quality submissions through awards and competitions?

And how should authors respond? On the one hand, it’s great news, particularly when publishers accept submissions (in whatever context) when previously they had been closed to them. On the other hand, is this a gradual erosion of (the very little) power authors have to control their publishing contracts? Not that I ascribe any sinister intent to publishers running competitions, but I question the collective impact it may have on the industry. On that score, only time will tell.

Generally, when new writing awards are announced there is much celebration and back-slapping about the creation of new opportunities for writers to become published. But it’s important to delve into the detail to make sure we’re not murdering our darlings.

Sorry for my absence for the blogosphere lately, chickadees, I experienced a few health hiccups but am now back at the keyboard.

And while I was away those sneaky folk over at Amazon did a 180 on me. Here I was thinking how helpful and forward-thinking their services were for small presses and self-publishers. It turns out monopolistic and aggressive might have been better descriptors.

As first reported over at Writers Weekly Amazon are now insisting that Print on Demand (POD) books be printed by Booksurge (an Amazon-owned company) or they will not be offered for sale on Amazon’s website. POD publishers and small presses who are printing with other companies, Lightning Source for example, will have to shift their lists to Booksurge or have the “Buy” button taken off their amazon listings. According to Writers Weekly, Amazon representatives have admitted that eventually their desire is to carry only Booksurge printed POD titles.

Though egregious, I agree with Booksquare that this is hardly surprising. Vertical integration is a tried-and-tested method of increasing efficiency and hence profitability within industries, and for a mature company like Amazon this is a strategy that makes sense.

What I’m interested to see next is how publishers respond and whether they’ll be able to leverage any collective power to win changes. While this appears like agressive even bullying market behaviour on Amazon’s part, it seems unlikely that it is in breach of antitrust laws or competition legislation.