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Deep impact

The title of this post doesn't refer to asteroids or the end of the world. Rather, it relates to what I consider one of the side effects of the rise of digital publishing. I think digital publishing highlights a fact that has always been true but was less visible in the print world. Most readers don't know (or care!) who publishes what books.

It might be somewhat less true in spec fic, where many readers attend conventions at which there are editors from various publishers. But in general, most readers don't pay any attention to the publisher, only to the writer. The writer is, in effect, the brand, and the publisher's name is just a word and a logo on the title page. Booksellers (wholesale and retail) have always paid attention to publishers' names, but not readers. One interesting tidbit of info in the whole Amazon-Macmillan kerfuffle was that Macmillan saw Amazon as a customer. This came as something of a shock to readers who thought they were the customers. They were also mad at Macmillan without really knowing what Macmillan was, i.e., what imprints were under the Macmillan corporate structure,

With many products, the brand identity is keyed to the manufacturer's name. Look at Apple for a prime example of brand identity. It's not just an iPod, it's an Apple iPod. By stressing its products' quality and maintaining a distinct design, Apple has built some fabulous brand loyalty (Apple also has its detractors, but at least those folks know what they're against).

Publishers can't really do that because every author's work creates its own following, and authors can and do change publishers. Publishers can try to impose a level of "quality," but the fact is that just because a book is well written doesn't mean everyone will like it. Some genre publishers have carved out niches by publishing only certain kinds of books. Baen is an excellent example. Until recently, they published mostly military science fiction, giving fans of that subgenre a reliable place to go for that kind of book. But it's difficult to grow revenue with that kind of strategy, as filling a niche means you can only be as big a business as that niche.

So, here we are, poised on the brink of the digital revolution. It won't happen overnight, but over the next ten years, publishing will change radically, as new technology provides new, more convenient ways to read and experience books. I may write spec fic, but I can't pretend to predict how things will look in ten years. But I do think that one thing publishers will need to do to survive is to establish themselves as a brand with their readers.

A lot of digital enthusiasts predict that publishers will be less relevant because authors can branch out and publish digitally on their own. I don't actually see that happening any time soon for several reasons. First and foremost, authors don't want to deal with the business side, they want to write books. Second, print is still much bigger than digital and will remain so for quite a while. Third, most successful writers know the value of good editing.

But here's a little quiz to prove my point. Without looking on Google or Amazon, which publishers can you name for these books? Leave a comment and tell me!

DEAD IN THE FAMILY (a Sookie Stackhouse book), by Charlaine Harris
UNDER THE DOME, by Stephen King
CHANGES (a Dresden Files book), by Jim Butcher
BLACKOUT, by Connie Willis
OATH OF FEALTY, by Elizabeth Moon




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Comments

( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
peadarog
Mar. 14th, 2010 09:30 pm (UTC)
I can't name a single publisher from that lot, although I'm going to guess "Tor" for the Moon book :)
karen_w_newton
Mar. 14th, 2010 09:43 pm (UTC)
You can look it up, but you're wrong. One reason I chose these five is that I didn't know them either!
peadarog
Mar. 14th, 2010 09:44 pm (UTC)
Well, if authors don't know, most readers aren't going to either. I'm sure that was the point.
karen_w_newton
Mar. 14th, 2010 09:47 pm (UTC)
Exactly! In a way, the Macmillan/Amazon dispute highlighted it. People were surprised to find out that the books they wanted weren't available because they didn't realize the author was published by Tor, or if they knew that, they didn't know Tor was part of Macmillan.
mtlawson
Mar. 15th, 2010 09:49 am (UTC)
I suspect you're right about big changes in the next ten years, but IMHO it will be only after a massive fail in the self publishing world that people will realize the true value of editors. Software companies want to sell their products, vanity presses want to sell their services, and commercials touting the triumph of the little guy over the big bad gatekeepers will combine to create a mini-whirlwind that will subside only when their customers --the writers-- realize that they need good editing.

That will most likely happen after enough people have blown their money into publishing books that don't sell. I'd still expect a small number of people to continue to believe in conspiracy theories that "the machine" is keeping them down and sabotaged their career, but there's not much you can do about them.
jongibbs
Mar. 15th, 2010 11:54 am (UTC)
Good point. At the moment, I think it's mostly writers who have strong feeling either way about the self-publishing industry.

I wonder if a few self-publishing companies will get wise and lay down some quality control standards, so that just having the money to pay for the process isn't enough.

That might make a difference, especially if those same companies don't set up their own editing department (or refer people to one). That way they'll avoid the accusations of scamming.
karen_w_newton
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:30 pm (UTC)
See my reply to mtlawson. Their quality control standards seem to consist of "you have to pay us for some level of editing to self publish with us." Whether that's scamming or not is an open question.
karen_w_newton
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:28 pm (UTC)
I find it interesting that web-based POD self-publishing started as very low cost-- as in NO cost to sign up or upload a book, only to print them out-- but now they all seem to charge at least a few hundred dollars. Amazon merged their no-cost option into the fee-paying one, and it looks like you can't put a book on Lulu without paying at least $369. Of course they are all offering some level of service for that, but still, it shows you where they see the money being. If you don't expect a book to sell more than a few dozen copies, you want to make some money off the author right from the get-go.
mtlawson
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:33 pm (UTC)
Which means they'll milk prospective writers for all they're worth, and those writers will never get the chance to see money flow toward them.

The gatekeepers change from the big bad corporation to big bad money. For some reason, the same people who complain about the big bad corporate publishing bosses fail to do the same about the fees charged by the self and vanity publishing firms.
karen_w_newton
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:38 pm (UTC)
They are really keepers of the same gate-- the "We want to make money from publishing your books" gate. It's just the person paying the toll to get through is different.
jongibbs
Mar. 15th, 2010 11:50 am (UTC)
Interesting post.

I wonder if readers have ever chosen a book because of its publisher.
karen_w_newton
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:32 pm (UTC)
I think Baen has a following because it reliably puts out certain kinds of books, and because it has, for years, made its own line available as ebooks.

Certainly, in some kinds of nonfiction, like the O'Reilly technical books, people look for the publisher. But I wouldn't call technical book buyers readers in the classic sense.
mtlawson
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:40 pm (UTC)
I love O'Reilly books. If there's a subject out there that I need a reference on that has an O'Reilly book on it, I'll grab that first. Their level of quality and technical expertise hasn't dimmed over the years.
karen_w_newton
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:42 pm (UTC)
That is exactly what all my geek friends say.
mtlawson
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:46 pm (UTC)
Hey, don't I count?
karen_w_newton
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:47 pm (UTC)
Sure. I should have said, "That's exactly what my OTHER geek friends day."
mtlawson
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
Whew. For a minute there, I thought I was in danger of losing both my geek and friend cred....
mtlawson
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:37 pm (UTC)
Maybe not in books, but back in the 80's I used to try to buy every CD that the Telarc label put out. I was infatuated with their technical recording prowess, and being a small catalog at the time, it was easy to keep up with.

I know some people who will buy every boardgame that certain publishers will put out, such as Fantasy Flight or GMT (or the old Avalon Hill label), but I've long since moved past that.
karen_w_newton
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:41 pm (UTC)
I totally forgot about Romance! I think it is one genre where the readers do notice the publisher, partly because a lot of times romance publishers put out series books-- "category romance" it's called-- where they actually hire writers to write a book with given specifications, to fit the series, like "Texas studs," or whatever. Those readers do pay attention because different publishers have distinct lines.
mtlawson
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:47 pm (UTC)
Um, okay. I don't read romance, so I wouldn't know.

I wonder if Westerns are in the same boat. My grandfather still reads at least one Western a week, and as far as I know he's read just about the entire Louis L'Amour catalog.

karen_w_newton
Mar. 15th, 2010 12:51 pm (UTC)
I don't read romance either, but I have a friend who does, and another friend who writes it. I can't say about Westerns. The genre is so small, I wonder if there IS more than one publisher.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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