Home » Big Publishing, Ebooks » A Reply to Simon & Schuster Chief Digital Officer on Inventing the Future of Publishing

A Reply to Simon & Schuster Chief Digital Officer on Inventing the Future of Publishing

29 March 2012

Passive Guy blogged about the original interview before, but this is worth considering.

From Digital Book World:

I found Ms. Hirschhorn’s comments intriguing and honest.  The most stunning thing she said seems to go completely against many posts about ‘traditional’ publishing not being dead and that print sales would continue to drive publishing:  that digital would be over 50% by 2015.

. . . .

Not getting sucked into the app thing is something that became apparent about six months ago when everyone was getting deluged by app designers yet there was little return.  Although I imagine the Kindle “app” gets used a lot.  Would a publisher’s app be used?  I think it’s possible, especially in bundled non-fiction.  Cookbooks is a great example where an app might work.  A organic app that has constant new content (perhaps from authors???) might be good.  Right now, many authors are flailing about on their blogs.  Perhaps a smart publishing house could aggregate their authors into an app or web site?  Or, even smarter, aggregate the same genres of authors to make it more audience specific?  (S&S is doing this with the four content verticals)

. . . .

Direct to consumer is encouraging.  While many in the industry whine about Amazon, why don’t they just sell their own books to readers?  Is the mindset still so caught up with distribution to retailers that this fundamental truth of internet sales is ignored?  I often go straight to the manufacturer when seeking to make a purchase on-line.

Sadly, I did notice the word ‘author’ was mentioned just a single time in the interview (a mistake– it was mentioned five times– as Father O’Shaungesy would say:  mea culpa).  It often seems implicit when talking to big publishers that they view their role as more important than the role of an author.  Yet in a digital world, the distance between author and reader is the distance and time lag of the internet which is wifi and practically immediate.  The key for a publisher is to facilitate that relationship.

. . . .

I often forget that my only title under my own name still with a traditional publisher is a non-fiction book: Who Dares Wins: The Green Beret Way to Conquer Fear and Succeed.   I forget because since publication date, I’ve never heard a word from S&S, the editor was let go, I was never informed who was now responsible for the book, and experience has taught me trying to ‘talk’ to a large publisher is whistling in the wind.  As one editor told me:  we can hardly promote our frontlist, never mind our backlist.

. . . .

A major thing most of the Big 6 are overlooking is the gold mine of their backlist.  I can sell more of one of my titles in eBook in a day than St. Martins (3 collaborative NY Times bestsellers) or S&S (my one title) can of my backlist in six months based on the royalty statements I just received this past month.  Why?  Because the best marketing person for a title is the author of that title.  If a publisher can hire people in-house to work with those authors of backlist, the return would more than cover the cost of that department, I believe it will greatly increase a publishing house’s bottom line.  Remember—if someone hasn’t read a backlist title, it’s frontlist to them.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.


Big Publishing, Ebooks

20 Comments to “A Reply to Simon & Schuster Chief Digital Officer on Inventing the Future of Publishing”

  1. Interesting points all. I disagree with only one.

    “Because the best marketing person for a title is the author of that title. If a publisher can hire people in-house to work with those authors of backlist, the return would more than cover the cost of that department, I believe it will greatly increase a publishing house’s bottom line.”

    It’s not that I actually disagree. Actually I do agree. Except, my former publisher has managed to find a way through the magic of creative accounting to ensure I receive only pennies off the cover price for my back list titles that they have published (poorly) as ebooks. Why should I waste even five minutes trying to sell my back list for the publisher’s profits? If the publisher contacted me with all kinds of brilliant plans for me to promote that back list (for which they will pay me but a pittance) I would have to most respectively tell them to suck it. Oh wait, I already did.

    • Jaye, this is wonderful! I do hope you were polite. After all, how many brilliant plans does one hear from a publisher?

      • You know, it occurred to me, something I am not seeing. All this talk about marketing and promotion and how everybody needs to kick up their game. How come I never see writers talking about how valuable it is in hard dollars?

        Think about it. Publishing: “I want you to write 17 articles for guest blog posts, visit sixteen book stores, have professional photos taken and build author pages on every online retail site, plus…”

        What do writers do? “Okay.”

        Nuh uh. What should be happening is this. Writer: “All right, Pubby Sport, you handle production and distribution (and I want to see some hard figures about how many copies you’re printing and where you’re shipping them) and provide me a fixed schedule. I’ll handle promotion. We split the take 50/50.”

        • And why doesn’t the publisher do all this as part of its marketing activities?

          Anybody with an ounce of technical competence could create a simple system that would automated the process of setting up author pages everywhere and those interns who populate publishers could contact the blog owners to set up the guest postings and write the first drafts of guest blogs after analyzing the tastes of blog visitors.

          • Such a sensible idea, PG. Which is why publishers will never try it.

            I want to see Michael Connolly or Stephenie Meyer tell their publisher, “Sure, babe, I’ll get right on that big piece for your website. I charge five bucks a word.”

  2. I was endlessly amazed when a publisher would pay me a large advance for a new book and then do absolutely zero to exploit my backlist. I kept suggesting it but got exactly nowhere.

    That’s why, in the years before e-pub, I became so frustrated I reverted backlist rights the moment they became available. I kept thinking I’d bundle my backlist with a new book and offer a publisher rights to an entire package. You know, the classic “offer they couldn’t refuse.” Silly me. Never happened. They were interested only in “new.”

    So there I was, controlling backlist rights to million-copy NYT & international bestsellers with no idea on earth what I could do with them when along came e-pub…

  3. The hurdle traditional publishers will have to overcome in regard to selling their titles directly to consumers (through an app or any other means)is that consumers read the works of authors, not publishers. Therefore publishers have to overcome the natural tendency of readers to go where they get the best selection. That will always be online booksellers who carry titles from multiple publishers rather than a single publisher. I can’t see a publisher-to-reader interface being more than modestly successful. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be done, only that it won’t make Amazon go away.

    • As I said in comments on Kris’ post today: I expect one direction big publishers will go is franchising. Hire staff writers, or use ghost work-for-hire, to turn out branded fiction. It might be branded by character, or even by a single pen name.

      They used to do it in the days of the pulps, and it suits the way the big entertainment companies think — and it will be the parent companies running the show in future.

      And yeah, if they do that, they will be the brand.

      • This is exactly what they should do, Camille. Trouble is, the very best writers, the original story tellers and those with a true voice will quickly figure out what a sucky deal they are getting and strike out on their own. The big publishers will quickly find their brands = schlock and hackery.

        Interesting times. Indeed.

        • You can generally find people willing to trade some potential profit for security, so I expect they’d be able to find writers willing to sign on to “staff” positions with benefits and whatnot. Piecemeal work-for-hire, maybe not so much.

        • Publishing has always had this element, and a lot of the great writers started out that way. It’s the way the pulp mills started.

          I would expect that, just as in the days of the pulps (or right now even), some excellent writers will be happy to make a quick buck working for a packager while they do other work of their own.

          It will also be a great apprenticeship for young writers. As with journalists, they might very well get internships and staff jobs while they learn the ropes.

          The world is not going to be homogeneous, so there is no reason not to do multiple things.

          • Being paid to write fanfic? If the publishers get some entertaining series, hey, they might get some pretty good authors. (Not all fanficcers are strong in world-creation, but there are some who can make someone else’s characters sit up and sing.)

            And, of course, some people write fanfic and original work. Diane Duane, John M. Ford, Barbara Hambly, and Janet Kagan all jump to mind as authors who’ve written original works and Star Trek novels. (And what are Star Trek novels if not licensed fanfic?)

            Also, look at the comic book industry. Yes, they have uneven quality! But people tend to follow certain authors…

      • You already see this to some degree: video game fiction (books based on things like the Halo video games) and TV series fiction (like the Castle books.) Movie franchises are being built around toys (Transformers, GI Joe, Battleship). I would expect to see more vertical integration, where the TV series/movie/book/toys are all controlled by the same conglomerate.

      • The problem for publishers is literally anything they can do, someone else can do better and with a lower cost structure.

        • Yes, to this. Ye olde style business, with all those fixed overhead costs, must be painful in the NY publishing world.

          It must be like wearing cement shoes.

      • Also, it is not strictly true that readers only think of author names as brands. In SF&F there have always been other brands: the magazines like Asimov, Analog, Interzone, Weird Tales, and so on; the publishing imprints like Baen, Tor, and so on; and the obvious shared world gun-for-hire stuff like Star Wars, Star Trek and so forth.

        Of course SF&F is a particular field built around particular needs in the reader (they want SF stories based around ideas they haven’t seen before for instance, or Fantasy stories with strong characters and world-building, or shared-world stuff that is internally consistent — actually I’m not sure of that last because I don’t really read share-world stories). And the author is still the main brand but I can certainly see publisher brands becoming useful. They will, however, have to have a rather narrow focus (like Baen) and work very hard to gain reader trust that their product delivers.

        To do that they will have to pay authors properly. That will be a given.

        I expect imprints to become either semi-autonomous or spun off to once more become the small publishing houses they once were. You can’t sell a brand to readers if it is as large and diverse as one of the big conglomerates. It simply would not gain any marketing traction. But a small brand, focused on one specific genre, that could gain traction.

        It would also require the bean-counters to give up some of their control, so it might not happen.

        • Wizards of the Coast is entirely about shared-world when it comes to their publishing arm, as is Black Library. Both are also gaming companies, and the books are literally marketing for their games. There you will find some authors who have such name recognition that s/he is a sub-brand (like RA Salvatore in Forgotten Realms) but in many cases it’s about the novel being a Forgotten Realms book, or a Horus Heresy book, not about the author who penned it. This model does work…but I agree that it works when you have a narrow, deep focus rather than trying to cover all corners of a genre.

          Also just for more examples of fanfic writers making a jump to original work, Cassandra Clare was a fanfic writer, and 50 Shades of Gray which this month popped onto every desperate housewife’s “to read” list was morphed into a unique story from a piece of fanfiction. My own first novel (written as an adult and unavailble even for free due to…many reasons) was re-writing the end of a series who last book disappointed me, and it taught me oodles about how to go about writing long-form fiction. Fanfiction is a GREAT learning tool, since, as someone mentioned above, it allows a writer to focus on characters and story rather than also having to build a world (or build characters, for that matter, if they were established in the original canon material). I can see this being a direction more publishers go…but the question is, do they create original worlds from scratch on a work-for-hire basis or license for mega-bucks worlds that were already created and published and successful?

  4. Lots of publishers have long sold their [hardcopy] wares direct on their websites. The problem is it’s always been very irritating as a potential customer, when faced with that as the only choice for whatever reason, to be charged full list price plus a substantial shipping fee, when even the middlemen never charge you full price. It’s understandable, their business model being dependent on distributors that they don’t want to undercut and thus anger those distributors or retailers, but just because I understand it doesn’t mean it sits well with me as a potential customer.

  5. “Cookbooks is a great example where an app might work.  A organic app that has constant new content (perhaps from authors???) might be good.  Right now, many authors are flailing about on their blogs.  Perhaps a smart publishing house could aggregate their authors into an app or web site?”

    This is already being done. We just launched a new platform, storefront & reader called Cookbook Cafe at BakeSpace.com. Now anyone can publish a cookbook to the web and as an app for free. The main app is a storefront and doubles as a reader for our library of cookbook apps. The beauty of this format is that all the content in any book is searchable… Making the library a smarter cookbook.

    I don’t mean to market on your blog, but I had to chime in and shout “we’re over here!” 🙂

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