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Can publishers change from funnels to megaphones?

30 April 2014

From Nathan Bransford:

It’s no secret that the publishing industry is in the midst of a vast transformation. The question is whether the industry can pivot to a vastly different reality.

. . . .

Russ Grandenetti, Amazon’s Kindle vice president said:

The old print world of scarcity—with a limited number of publishers and editors selecting which manuscripts to publish, and a limited number of bookstores selecting which titles to carry—is yielding to a world of digital abundance. Grandinetti told me that, in these new circumstances, a publisher’s job “is to build a megaphone.”

Building a megaphone is a really great metaphor for the value publishers can still bring to the publishing process even as we march steadily into the e-book era.

. . . .

The old print world really was based on scarcity. There was only so much shelf space in bookstores, therefore there was only so many copies of any book it was profitable to print, therefore it was necessary and profitable to winnow down all the books out there into a select, chosen few.

Publishers added value through the act of curation. Gatekeeping is now treated with derision in some quarters, but it was a terribly important, valuable business activity. Publishers built cachet through quality control, and booksellers and authors alike came to depend upon them for this service.

Publishers were a crucial funnel. They made the system work when it simply wasn’t profitable to print every book ever written during the first five hundred years of the printed word.

. . . .

The value in publishing is no longer built around scarcity. It’s abundance. Instead of culling books into a select few that arrive on bookstore shelves, the value publishers now must bring is helping authors rise above the noise and connecting readers to the books they want to read.

. . . .

This is a world of choice. There are two major shifts publishers need to make in order to accommodate this shift:

1. They will need to start treating authors as customers
2. They will have to invest in publicity, marketing, and branding

Can they do it?

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford and thanks to Sandra for the tip.

PG would point out that it takes a much different skill set to be a curator than it does to help authors connect with readers. Since publishers are institutionally unconnected with readers, one wonders how useful they’ll be to authors.

It sounds to PG like a pretty lame value proposition for authors.

There are a zillion experts in marketing to consumers who have a big head start over publishers when it comes to connecting with readers.

Big Publishing

10 Comments to “Can publishers change from funnels to megaphones?”

  1. They won’t be able to do it if the current management philosophy (and the inertia that comes with it) continues.

    First, they have to recognize the author and reader as their customers and treat them fairly. Then they need to define the “value” that they alone are adding to the author-reader relationship; value that the author and the reader can’t get without the publisher.

    In the “A/B Conversation”, the publisher is “C”.

  2. It reminds me of something Hugh wrote, that I’m sure others have echoed. The thought, as I recall, was that as soon as one traditionally published book becomes older than six months old, it becomes competition for the new releases.

    So reading this I thought that will be the mindset that will hold publishing back – that they will have to stop thinking that a free book, or a book in the same genre, or another book in the same series is competition with their book.

  3. Good article. When I made similar points at Pike’s Peak last year, a lot of agents and authors in the audience freaked. I think reality is beginning to sink in and what was once heretical is now gradually becoming more generally understood and accepted.

  4. Publishers (their marketing arm really) might be able to do some of this megaphone thing, but they won’t be able to claim the lion’s share of the revenue for it. It would be like the advertising agency that has the Ford Automobile Company advertising contract getting $20,000 of every $25,000 when a car at that price is sold.

  5. I agree with Barry, nicely put. A year ago, this would have been controversial and stirred up animosity. Now, publishing people are ready to hear it. They’ll most likely see this as perceptive, and may be open to it.

    Which is okay. Timing is important. And Bransford does a really good job exploring the issue and laying out the concerns – it’s a very good article. And one that will probably make a significant impact – he’s respected.

    Of course, there is the other side of timing – folks like Eisler and Konrath and PG and his blog – the people who first blazed the trail and spoke the truth. The “heralds” get more flack – they are not welcomed and listened to – at least not by the establishment – but they brought the truth to writers, so it could not be hidden. They started the revolution.

    I think there’s a place (and time) for both working outside, and working inside, the system.

  6. There’s lots of words in that there article, but I honestly don’t understand what it’s trying to say.

    Are publishers suddenly going to publish everything sent to them, and give it a big advertising push? No, they don’t have that much money.

    Are authors who understand the business going to send their books to a publisher when they can just upload them themselves? No, if their book can sell, the publishers will be taking money for doing very little.

    Are authors going to pay Non-Deterministic Aardvark to publish their books and advertise them? That might make some kind of sense, but would rapidly destroy any ‘mark of quality’ value the Non-Deterministic Aardvark brand had.

  7. I think this article has a bad case of “The Green Lantern Theory of Publishing”. All a publisher needs is the will to be whatever the commenter thinks they need to be and they can thrive in the new world of publishing. The question that really needs to be asked is whether it is even remotely plausible that a legacy publisher could transform themselves from a “funnel” to a “megaphone”.

    Bransford says that

    …the value publishers now must bring is helping authors rise above the noise and connecting readers to the books they want to read.

    The problem with the megaphone scenario is that competing megaphones are a less than zero sum game. One voice with a megaphone does indeed rise above the noise. Two voices, with competing megaphones, can be effective only with coordination (and coordination between the big publishers is illegal). Hundreds of voices with megaphones just creates more noise. Everyone is worse off.

    How do publishers connect readers to the books they want to read? To the extent publishers have experience in marketing books, it is in connecting readers to the books publishers want them to read. Connecting buyers (readers) with the products (books) the buyers (readers) want is what we call retailing. Quick show of hands from everyone who thinks publishers can compete successfully with Amazon in book retailing. Anyone?

    The real problem that publishers face is that now that they’ve lost their gatekeeping function, it is clear that their goals don’t align with writers or readers. To have a long-term path to success, a publisher must either serve a single writer or group of writers exclusively (promoting a body of work for the long haul) or they must serve a particular well-defined set of readers by identifying and acquiring the books those readers want the most. And that, defines a very different type of industry compared to what exists now.

    • Quick show of hands from everyone who thinks publishers can compete successfully with Amazon in book retailing. Anyone?

      If you keep asking for a show of hands on propositions like that, I’m going to have to cut my hands right off, just to make clear the depth of my disagreement. And then what am I going to type with, you heartless creature, you?

    • Quick show of hands from everyone who thinks publishers can compete successfully with Amazon in book retailing. Anyone?

      I think the real problem, though, is in the business model, or at least its execution. Because really publishers have never been retailers; they’ve been wholesale suppliers to retailers. They’ve rarely actually sold books to readers. They’ve sold books to stores who sell them to readers.

      Publishers have basically produced books, not sold them. They’re more manufacturer than retailer. Actually connecting books with readers has most often been left to others: booksellers, media (in the form of reviews), advertising, etc. Publishers pay for the first (as in store placement) and the third, but they’re not really about selling.

      It’s way too late for publishers to compete at book retailing. Pretty soon they may not even be able to compete with them at publishing.

      I don’t think readers will mind all that much.

  8. As somebody famously said (and I paraphrase), “When the internal combustion engine came along, the buggy-makers went bust” – i.e. they didn’t start making cars.

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