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Publishing in the Digital Age

27 March 2012

From Shelf Awareness:

During a keynote address at last week’s Publishing Business Conference & Expo, held in New York City, Marcus Leaver, the outgoing president of Sterling Publishing, offered what he described as some “common-sense prescriptions” for book publishers. “We must offer consumers an amazing value for their dollars,” Leaver said, arguing for a shift in emphasis on quality over quantity. “The world does not need another book,” he added. “We’re still publishing far too many.”

Leaver went on to predict the rise of niche publishers who would confront the problem of discoverability by marketing their books to readers, not to the publishing and bookselling industries, and who would recruit authors to take an even greater part in that marketing process. “Our biggest challenge will not be e-books,” he predicted, “but in proving that publishers will continue to be necessary.” He proposed that bundling print and digital editions as a joint purchase would become a necessary option, one that would offer consumers greater choice in how they want to read.

Link to the rest at Shelf Awareness

Why is it that every publishing executive who speaks about the necessity of publishers manages to generate so few compelling arguments in support of the proposition?

On an IQ test basis, these are not stupid people, but they sound like they’ve spent the last few years on Mars.

Does Marcus really think readers want fewer books to choose from? Is he ignorant of the explosion of titles, particularly successful indie titles on, for example, the scifi list of Amazon bestsellers?

This bundling of print and digital editions as a joint purchase — how does that work unless the purchase takes place on Amazon? It’s much less convenient to purchase such bundles in a physical bookstore than it is online.

Whenever Passive Guy reads things like, “recruit authors to take an even greater part in that marketing process,” he hears publisherspeak for “use free labor.”

PG thought publishers were supposed to provide great marketing as part of their indispensable services. Authors who are really good at marketing  their own books are headed to indieworld where none of the proceeds of their book sales go to pay the salaries of guys like Marcus.

And more comments on this speech from author Amanda S. Green:

After all, he also said, “The world does not need another book . . . We’re still publishing far too many.” Now, if he is including all the small press and self-published e-books, he may have a point. But if all he is talking about are mainstream publishers who are trying to make the transition from purely print to a print-digital format, I have to disagree. I don’t think too many books are being published. What I think is that there are too many books pushing the “correct” way to think and too many poor clones of the latest trend book. We went through that with Harry Potter and Twilight and we’ll soon be going through it with The Hunger Games. And can any of us forget all the Dan Brown-lite books that came out after The Da Vinci Code?

. . . .

When talking about book marketing,Leaver said that “book publishers should ‘go to where the audience is’ and no longer rely on mass-marketing like book publicity. Book marketing should also be ‘ubiquitous’ and rely more heavily on author participation.”

Wait a minute. I don’t recall much being done in the way of publicity for any book except those framed as best sellers or as the “newest, bestest thing”. When is the last time a solid mid-lister had any sort of real PR push for a new release? And, honestly, if authors were asked to provide even more marketing participation, when would they have time to write? As I said, this has me scratching my head.

And then I read further. Mid-listers, I warn you now. This is scary stuff and it explains so much. According to Leaver, “[t]he mid-list, however, is ‘toast’ . . . because mid-list books aren’t either beautiful and essential or workmanlike and utilitarian. Books that are neither of these things shouldn’t exist.” In other words, if you aren’t a best seller or don’t have a huge back list you are willing to let a publisher have, you are now worthless.

. . . .

Mid-listers are the backbone of publishing and have been for years. Mid-listers have been the one constant publishers could rely upon for sales. They could always predict X-number of sales. Mid-listers aren’t the risk that so-called best sellers are. Remember, best sellers are based on pre-orders which, in turn, come from the push at such events like BEA. You remember BEA, the event Leaver said should be thrown open to the public. How many of these so-called best sellers never came close to earning out their six or seven or eight digit advances?

Link to the rest at MadGeniusClub and thanks to Sarah for the tip.

Big Publishing

49 Comments to “Publishing in the Digital Age”

  1. It’s the rarefied air at the top – the lack of oxygen rots their brains 8^)

    Seriously, though, they haven’t been forced to really compete before, so the people who made it to the top don’t have that experience or skill set. When they really start to get into financial trouble the shareholders will probably force some new management that may do better. Either that or the takeover artists will buy them out and sell off the assets.

  2. “The world does not need another book.”

    Yeah, that’s a great attitude for someone who works in publishing.

    Seriously, in my experience, the people who own publishing companies or make the business decisions about publishing companies do not read. You’re wondering why they’re so out of touch with readers? Because they’re not readers, and they haven’t been selling to readers. In their minds, readers (including editors) are just these weird aliens who whine a lot about really stupid stuff, like “Why can’t I find the kind of book I like to read any more?” and “Why does this book have so many typos?” If you actually give a crap about books and reading and literature, you are dismissed as an ivory-towered idealist who has no idea how to make money…selling books to readers who like literature.

  3. I’m just wondering where this guy buys his kool-aid. Because the take-away I get from his words is: “We don’t need writers to write. We need them to be and do all the grunt stuff we don’t want to do anymore.”

    Thanks, no. I’m bust writing. Your kool-aid’s not my flavor.

  4. That’s *busy* writing. Bad fingers! Bad!

  5. According to Leaver, “[t]he mid-list, however, is ‘toast’ . . . because mid-list books aren’t either beautiful and essential or workmanlike and utilitarian. Books that are neither of these things shouldn’t exist.”

    Wow! That, right there, blows me away. These people really don’t know what they are doing.

    • Yeah. That’s insane. That shows they have no understanding at all of what is going on. I mean, he really doesn’t “get” the readers at all.

      The midlist, ironically enough, is where the books that the readers really truly LOVE are. Those are the books that matter most to the world, the ones that most need to exist, in terms of literature.

      The best sellers are lowest common denominator books.

      But he is right that Big Publishing (as opposed to small and medium press) should give up on that area. They don’t understand it and can’t do a good job of publishing it. They are better off being absorbed into their parent companies, and being a part of the Media industry — handling “big properties” and leaving publishing to those who do a better job.

      • Camille, I disagree with this: “The best sellers are lowest common denominator books.”

        Maybe because I’ve always wanted to write one. 🙂 Or maybe because many of those best selling authors were once mid-listers.

        • I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with best sellers.

          What I’m is that nothing appeals fully to everyone. While some best sellers may well be brilliant to some people, they don’t appeal that intensely to everyone, or even most. We’re all too different.

          And this is my beef with traditional publishing in a nutshell. The compromises in style have turned a lot of great writers into okay writers.

          There are midlisters who make the best seller lists, but it’s a very very narrow group (thriller writers mainly) and it has long been a practice in publishing to “groom” writers into these lists, often leaving behind the brilliance that they had in the midlist. (Bloat the book, make it “Big”, etc.)

          This isn’t JUST a thing of the best seller list. IMHO, a lot of genre books have been warped by publishing’s push for “big” — an unnatural amount of world-building and sophistication inserted at the expense of the story. (That isn’t to say that extreme world-building and sophistication don’t belong in some books, only that it ruins stories that weren’t meant for it. Sure, some writers have become masters at keeping the story alive inside the bloat, and so you don’t mind, but it’s very clear that the demands of the industry, rather than the story, demanded it.)

          This of course, barely touches on how deep my hatred is for what publishing did to the midlist. If you love thrillers, you will be happy, but the rest of us readers have been screwed.

          • I’m in complete agreement with you! I’ve nothing against bestsellers, and read them from time to time – but my most rewarding reads have usually been from the maligned midlist. I suppose not only am I a natural midlist writer, but I’m a midlist reader as well! And I know EXACTLY what you mean by the ‘warping’ of books – and grooming of writers. I think as writers we don’t always put two and two together and realise that our experience with big publishing: the demand for the stunning debut, the instant breakthrough and the unnatural ‘bloating’ of our books (I love your choice of words!) is precisely what has resulted in the miserable experience of going into a bookshop and finding hardly anything you want to read. I’m now finding the books I DO want to read as eBooks.

            • Or in romance, the demand for more and longer and more explicit sex scenes. I don’t mind it when it suits the stories–but it does not suit all story. Also the relentless Alpha-izing of heroes.

            • Which explains why so many adult women are now reading YA. Getting away from the sex books to find their romance fix.

            • Yeah, that the male protagonist was “not alpha enough” was one of the things that the agent said, who I was talking to at one point, if I recall correctly. (A friend who sampled the first chunk said roughly the same thing, so there’s clearly still a market for Alpha Male Star Pilots… Er, sorry, that’s a filk song, nevermind…)

              Ahem. Yet another reason why I went “MEH” and ran for self-publishing. I don’t get along with Alpha Male characters very well, and certainly didn’t want to write a story with Yet Another One. There are ways to be successful, competent, and interesting without being “alpha.”

  6. brendan stallard

    “We’re still publishing far too many.”


    There’s a horrible song, sung in UK football grounds by the home supporters, when the away team is taking a beating.

    It goes, “Show them the way to go home, they’re tired and they want to go to bed.” It carries on in terms I cannot place here:)

    Methinks big pub and gang are a little tired, are publishing too many books and need to go home and take a very long nap indeed.


  7. Ah come on, guys, give the man a break. He’s spot on about this: “Our biggest challenge will not be e-books,” he predicted, “but in proving that publishers will continue to be necessary.”

    Emphasis on the “necessary.”

    I wonder how they’ll manage it. Not doing so great, so far.

  8. Michael Matewauk

    “On an IQ test basis, these are not stupid people, but they sound like they’ve spent the last few years on Mars.”

    It was my understanding that the word “Mars” had been replaced by “John Carter-land.”

  9. The more I hear about the big publishers, the more I think about vampires. Stuck in their old ways, unable to adapt and expecting the modern world to work the way their old worlds did.

  10. “On an IQ test basis, these are not stupid people, but they sound like they’ve spent the last few years on Mars…Does Marcus really think readers want fewer books to choose from?”

    Looked at from the standpoint of Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “scarcity” model, Leaver’s remarks make perfect sense. Traditional publishers are in the job of funneling scarcity, of managing scarcity, of directing scarcity down the proper automated chutes of the Rube Goldberg machine that is book publishing.

    He’s gotten the teensiest glimmer that Traditional Publishing’s problem is that scarcity breaking down. The obvious solution, in his eyes, then, is to artificially re-create that scarcity.

    This is also known as directly steering INTO the iceberg.

    • Captain Smith of the Titantic–Back up! Let’s hit it again!

      • Actually, what killed the Titanic was the fact that they tried to turn. That, and putting on a backing bell while making the attempt. Had they continued straight into the iceberg, they would have buckled a few bulkheads, but the ship would have remained afloat.

    • I’ll take that one further — they’re interested in creating scarcity, as well. What big publisher wouldn’t like to dominate the market with the books that “should” be published? Given the chance, any of them would do. Then there’d be…say…15 titles per week out there for us, the reading public, to choose from, and 12 would be “by” Paris Hilton or Snookie.

  11. I’m getting a sense of why he’s the *outgoing* president of Sterling.

  12. Are publishers necessary? The answer to that question is in, and is unequivocal: No.

    What publishers now need to establish is that they are useful. This guy ain’t makin’ it.

  13. I knew there was a reason I was still reading the novels published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. That was when there were still a lot of publishers (large, medium, and small) around that weren’t all conglomerated into the same handful of entities. Sort of like the days when you could go into a city and find it’s own unique department store with its very own buyers (unlike now where it’s Macy’s).

    Sorry, Mr. “Outgoing” President, you’all lost me about 15 years ago with the homogenization of what you thought I should read for enjoyment.

    Too many books? Bah!

  14. “The world does not need another book,” he added.

    *beth flips the bird at the screen*

    It’s statements like that which fuel rage, I think. I’m generally happy enough to live and let live with tradpub; I don’t have to participate in that if I don’t wanna, and that’s fine. But that comment is just… insulting, as it implies that all these indie books are like unwanted puppies and kittens whose parent-authors should be spayed and neutered.

  15. Another sign of the decline of big publishing. We don’t need more books? Proves how clueless some of these guys are. It all goes back to Kristine Rusch’s argument about scarcity vs. abundance. These guys are terried of abundance and the new choices it will bring readers.

  16. When I first glanced at the title of this post I thought it read, “Publishing in the Dark Ages.” Perhaps that would have been more appropriate.

  17. I am going to go against the grain and say that what he said makes a lot of sense.

    If publishers are not ready to go through fundamental change, they are going to have to narrow their focus to remain relevent.

    Their focus should be on authors like Patterson, Martin, and King. Those authors are guaranteed success and sales. They are happy with the old model and they make their publishers money.

    The way it was explained to me, publishers would put out midlist books knowing that most would fail financially and banking on the very few that went big.

    Do punlishers offer much to midlisters? Not really. They don’t need each other. More midlisters are finding their way to self publishing already.

    Midlisters don’t need publishers and vice versa.

    Publishers will wait around and snatch up self pubbed authors with big sales or platforms and turn them into the next “big names”.

    Basically, publishers will take a more focused approach and put out fewer books. They will have to cut back, but they are already doing that, right? From their perspective, they really are putting put too many books. At some point, they are only going to bet on sure things.

    The rest of us will fight over the readers who look beyond the big names…and I’m ok with that.


    • I think you make a good point here. I would also posit that the middle-sized publishers might have an easier time with the transition, simply because their scale is smaller (even the ones that have the same distribution as big 6). If they are already running successful business margins on a smaller number of books–if they are not relying on any book to hit it big and make up for the other 90% but expecting each book to attain the 4% grocery store profit margin, then they just have to keep doing what they’re already doing. It’s the really big behemoths that operate on an inverse pyramid–a handful of books support the costs of all the others–that need to change their SOP.

      But also, useful not necessary is what they need to prove. The internet has already Mythbusted the necessary.

    • I agree with you–I think the big publishers will be publishing many fewer books and will be much smaller companies, focusing either on taking self-published bestsellers and making them available in Target or on books that don’t work well in an e-book format.

      But I think what gets up people’s noses is the language. Note that he doesn’t say, “We shouldn’t publish mid-list books because our costs are too high to make a profit on those.” He says, “We shouldn’t publish mid-list books because they aren’t beautiful, essential, or utilitarian.”

      They always seem to use the language of aesthetics to justify business decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with aesthetics, and that’s just infuriating. If it’s about money (which it is), be honest about that.

      • But, if they make it about money, they lose the whole “supporting the artist” mystique. And, let’s face it, a big reason some authors want to work with large publishers is the artist ego. A contract like that is validation.

        And a lot of people still buy into that, not just authors.

        The language used to justify the theory is offensive.


  18. The business model he knows is control the supply (of books). Many books, lots of competition and less profit. Not good for big publishers. We see a conflict between publishers wanting to make a profit and control the supply, and authors wanting to be published and publishing the indie way in large supply, be that good or bad. Authors have a choice, be published or let the publishers make a profit. Hint: publishers will make a profit, but only one percent of new authors will be published.

  19. I’d also like to point out that when legacy publishers talk about “quality” books, they often mean “expensive.”

  20. Publish fewer books.

    You see how out of touch this is with the actual clientele, the readers, really, in the best seller lists, especially as you drill down on Amazon to some of the subgenres. Readers would read more books if they were available, but traditional publishing has abandoned so many genres … In mine, historical fantasy, the top 40 are dominated either by indie books, or by one or two authors (Diana Gabaldon). But her #1 book, though great, was published last century.

    It was the mid-listers who wrote different stuff, whose books, as someone said upthread, appealed to fewer people, but at the same time, gave you so many more reading choices.

    • (Whoops, this was supposed to be a reply to tcheni, below, and when I went to click, I got the wrong “reply” button.)

      “[t]he mid-list, however, is ‘toast’ . . . because mid-list books aren’t either beautiful and essential or workmanlike and utilitarian. Books that are neither of these things shouldn’t exist.”

      As Sarah pointed out, there is an ironic reason why those dominating the best seller list are Indies and back-list books — that’s because the publishing industry killed the mid-list a long time ago. They used the throttle to create a best seller driven world, and in the end they throttled their customers.

      The customers, who really WANTED those books they didn’t want to offer because they couldn’t get the level of profit margins off them, went away.

      But they used to offer such books, and those books are still competing. And the indies are now offering the books that the readers want. (In some genres, at least.)

      The mid-list and the back-list are where the “beautiful and utilitarian” books are.

      As for his business plan: both I and C.S. Splitter did point out that the general idea is a good business plan for the big publishers — but that is concentrating on a niche. It’s very clear from his speech that he doesn’t realize that.

      The genie is out of the bottle. His talk about books that “should not be published” shows him to be utterly out of touch. He’s not just talking about what his company should publish, he’s talking about the whole industry.

      • “The customers, who really WANTED those books they didn’t want to offer because they couldn’t get the level of profit margins off them, went away.”

        Bingo. Last time I was in a book store I looked at the horror shelf to see whether there was anything worth reading and all I found were Twilight clones, ‘Bill Clinton, vampire hunter’ and ‘Da Vinci Code and Zombies’ novels.

        Nothing wrong with those per se, but nothing that I wanted to read. By chasing the ‘just like the last best seller but different’ market they’ve lost many of the readers who used to buy their books and now buy indie books instead.

  21. Hello there,

    Did you all realize that literature is far from being Sterling main business? Are you sure your wise advices don’t miss the point when applied to books about gardening, cooking or sudokus?
    (Also, I can’t see why “publishing fewer, better books” is a bad idea, from a publisher perspective: less costs, more benefits. Sounds good to me.)

  22. ” It’s much less convenient to purchase such bundles in a physical bookstore than it is online.”

    Not really. Have the physical book contain a (potentially unique) QR code so the purchaser can download the electronic version direct from the publisher.

    The trick is getting publishers to realise they could actually try interacting directly with readers, rather than trying to keep them as far apart as possible.

    • I understand your point, Gary, but clicking the buy button on Amazon and having the ebook appear on my Kindle in two minutes and the physical book appear at my front door in two days is simpler.

  23. What opened my eyes several years ago was Michael Allen’s article, “On Survival of Rats in the Slushpile”. Towards the end of the article, he addresses the eBook/Online advances as an alternative path for writers not destined to pen the next “Black Swan” (keep in mind he wrote this around 2005 when the eBook concept was very much in its infancy). I went back and re-read it last night and realized that, in many ways, this article was a bit prophetic with regard to the future of the industry.

    If you have never read the article, I recommend it strongly. It provides some very interesting observations for any who enter the industry: publishers, agents, established authors, new writers, etc. It also underscores the issues that those who are trying to hang onto the legacy model will need to address if they hope to survive.

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