Old publishers won’t die, they’ll just multiply

I was in Brisbane last week talking to Queensland librarians about ebook lending in public libraries and why HarperCollins wasn’t really the bad guy in this conversation.

One view seemed to have a lot of support, both among the audience and my fellow panellists. It was that publishers, especially the big multiunationals, were doomed.

I do have some sympathy with the view that the big publishers might lose out from the digital shift, but publishers in general won’t go away. There will always be the creative side and the business side of things and not every author or artist wants to deal with the latter. But big multinational publishers will have a tough time staying big.

The digital market is a chance to break up the industry into smaller players and re-energise it.  “Smaller” doesn’t mean self-publishers will rule. But the reasons for being very big will be fewer in the digital world, at least initially though I’m sure consolidation will eventually return as the market matures.

Here are three pieces of news from the last few days that point to this shift.

Major literary agency announces new ebook services. New York agents Dystel & Goderich Literary Management join the ranks of agents tip-toeing onto the publishers’ turf by “facilitating” the self-publishing process for their clients.

We will charge a 15% commission for our services in helping them project manage everything from choosing a cover artist to working with a copyeditor to uploading their work.  We will continue to negotiate all agreements that may ensue as a result of e-publishing, try to place subsidiary rights where applicable, collect monies and review statements to make sure the author is being paid.  In short, we will continue to be agents and do the myriad things that agents do.

Our intention is to keep on trying to find books we think we can sell to traditional publishing houses, to negotiate the best deal (always), and to give our authors as many options as we can.

It’s oddly schizophrenic as it tries to avoid the obvious conflicts of interest but I’ve no doubt that many of these tentative early steps will—and should—turn into full-blown digital publishing companies in time, while other agents will turn this service over to digital publishers. Like new venture Compass.

PanMac launches Compass for digital backlist. This is a UK version of Open Road Media. Where Open Road was started by corporate refugees, Compass has been spawned from within a big multinational publisher.

The imprint will establish exclusive publishing partnerships with agents, literary estates and other rights holders. It said digital pricing across all formats will be “competitive”. [Publisher Jeremy] Trevathan said: “… We believe we are the right partner for agents because in addition to our proven digital skills, we will bring all the attributes and reputation of the Macmillan brand to tailored marketing and social media campaigns, print and online publicity and direct-to-consumer e-commerce.”

This will be interesting to watch because it comes out of a traditional publisher, includes well-regarded digital innovator Sarah Lloyd, plans to poach other publishers’ authors, and looks set to play by the new digital rules rather than those of its corporate parent.

Or, I hope so. This will be the real test. Because many big publishers are basing their digital strategies on the mistaken view that digital is just another format and the best way to deal with it is by tightly integrating the print and digital sides of their businesses. This is a big mistake because it will strangle the digital business in the interests of internal harmony. Too much emphasis on internal harmony—playing nicely with your colleagues—can be bad for a new venture in a very different market, no matter how many shared points of contact. I hope, too, that Pan Mac will be brave enough to cut its digital business(es) loose if that’s what it takes to thrive. Like the online units inside newspaper businesses, it’s likely to become a fast-growing unit in a rapidly shrinking business.

And then there was Pottermore.

Pottermore.com Is Exclusive, Interactive Harry Potter E-Bookstore. Billionaire author J. K. Rowling managed to keep, or wrest back, her digital rights and is going to sell Harry Potter ebooks directly and, at this stage, exclusively from her forthcoming Pottermore.com store. And why not?

It’s an exciting development but it’s not a game-changer or a sign that publishers aren’t needed. Rowling is big enough to be a one-person industry and, importantly, has an intensely dedicated fan base and multimedia opportunity that can be developed in ways that will go well beyond selling ebooks to Kindle owners. This vertically integrated media business won’t suit every big author but if you’ve got the ingredients Rowling has, you’d have to say that no conventional publisher, movie producer, theme park operator or games developer is going to be quite right. And no doubt her creative urges wouldn’t fit well into someone else’s corporate worldview. The scale of Pottermore’s vision won’t be realised with one person’s lonely tapping away at a typewriter. Rowling will want to control a team to realise her vision.

Finally, in case there are still some doubters about the ongoing relevance of the publisher’s role, here’s a survey of the Australian digital publishing market conducted in May this year by the Copyright Agency (CAL). It shows that authors highly rate the various functions the publisher performs in the digital world, too. So expect to see them around for a long time, self-publishing revolution or not.

Source: CAL Digital Publishing Trends Survey, May 2011

CAL Australia survey June 2011, question 40






Dystel & Goderich Literary Management

Leave a Comment