Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is this the future of publishing?

The announcement by Harlequin of their new Harlequin Horizons imprint this week sent shock waves throughout the publishing industry that likely registered on the Richter Scale. My initial gut reaction hasn’t changed much after reading a lot of the chat about this in various loops and forums, but I’ve given it some thought, looking to the future.

Apparently Harlequin is not the first publisher to move to an agreement like this with self-publishing companies. As a business decision, I can totally understand why Harlequin would do this. Malle Vallik commented on Smart Bitches that the reason they’ve done this is to offer authors other avenues to get published. Nothing wrong with that. They’re charging a fee, and there may be a market for this service that will make them money. Tons of money (based on the fees on their website). Especially if every author they reject is directed to Horizons.

On the surface, if that’s all it is, I say, fine, let them run their business (buyer beware). I can understand Harlequin authors who are upset by this, although Ms Vallik assured them there will be no association between the two imprints and readers will not confuse Horizons books with traditional Harlequin imprints.

We know the publishing industry is struggling with their outdated and cumbersome business model, especially in this economic climate. The advent of digital publishing has highlighted some of those inefficiencies and change has started to occur. I don’t know enough about the publishing business to be able to suggest solutions to their problems, but I can’t help but wonder if publishers are seeing this kind of venture into vanity publishing as a solution.

In an economic climate that is requiring all businesses to look for efficiencies, this definitely works. Editors/editorial assistants read through piles of queries, rejecting most of them or asking for a few partials to read, then read through piles of partials and reject most of them or ask for a few full manuscripts, read through all of those, passing some up to senior editors but rejecting most of them, then senior editors read them and reject them, with all the back and forth correspondence that happens, or in the case of those they accept, the publishers then spends considerable time editing, designing covers, printing, promoting, etc etc. Harlequin still does all their business by snail mail! That boggles the mind in this day and age! No wonder it takes a year to hear back from them.

In this new model, the author pays for all these costs. It also saves them all the time (and editorial salaries and benefits) of reading through slush piles. They can see which self-published stories do well, and pick those ones up with no risk and little cost.

Malle Vallik also stated: “…if anyone is wondering if this changes anything with Harlequin’s usual editorial processes, the answer is no. We remain committed to reading and acquiring manuscripts from aspiring authors. It’s new voices that set new directions for the future.”

Call me cynical but if I was an editorial assistant or less senior editor at Harlequin, I’d be worried about my job. Looking to the future, I can envision Harlequin reducing editorial staff and picking up fewer books from slush pile submissions, and relying more on the Horizons line to provide their next releases. And it makes me wonder if other publishers will do the same.

Publishers are already reducing editorial staff and are apparently reluctant to take on anything that isn’t “big”. They’re afraid to take risks with new authors, and rumour has it they’re even hesitant to take on proven mid-list authors. This is a way for them to reduce their risk. Let’s face it, every book they decide to publish is a guess. Editors are using their best judgment, but it’s subjective and they’re just guessing. Mistakes are made, and it goes both ways – authors who get huge advances that never get earned out; manuscripts that are rejected and go on to become bestsellers with other publishers; books that you read and say, “how the heck did this get published?” and books with few expectations that go on to sell big numbers. This kind of model would take the guesswork out of it, take the risk out of it, and save publishers a ton of money on one side of the business, while making them money on the other side.

Let’s say one day this becomes the normal new publishing model, where authors who have the money pay get their book published and out there, perhaps connected to a particular publishing house that may or may not decide to offer a contract on that book if it does well. If we’re all playing on that level playing field, I suppose it could work. You would think that the books that are good stories and well-written would in fact rise to the top and sell more – thereby attracting the attention of the publishers. Which in fact is a more accurate way of deciding which books to spend money on publishing and promoting than say, a query letter.

But my goodness, how many sales do vanity-published authors make? My understanding is, the numbers are very low. How do you get your vanity-pubbed book into bookstores to sell, without the backing of a publisher? Most bookstores won’t even consider it. Once again, someone with enough money and knowledge to run a good promotion campaign will come out ahead on this one.

Authors already spend money now to write. I spend money on Internet service, workshops, reference books, membership to various professional associations, my own website and promotion, paper, printer ink, postage. Maybe that extra money will just become another cost of doing business for a writer. I’m not saying I like it, or that it’s right or wrong. Things that have been generally accepted business practices in the past aren’t necessarily the “right” way, and I’m thinking of traditional advances. Most people are now recognizing there are other ways to pay authors.

But in that model, only writers with money would get published. That’s a bit discouraging, isn’t it? What about all the great voices and talents and people with something to say, who may not have that kind of money to spend? What about other artists? Sure, painters have to buy brushes and paints and canvases – do they pay galleries to have exhibitions or sell their work? (I really have no idea, not being that kind of artist). Do musicians pay recording studios to produce their album? (Recognizing that many musicians can now record their own music and put out CD’s and MPs independent of big record labels – kind of like self-publishing, hmm?)

In this kind of model, publishers potentially could make more money from rejecting authors than by actually publishing their books and selling them. That just doesn’t feel right and doesn’t bode well for the quality of the work being put out there. And if that was all there was to choose from – unedited, self-published books - what does that do to the quality of our literary experiences?

If this in fact becomes the new model, how would that affect other stakeholders? What happens to agents? If anyone can pay to have her book published, she doesn’t need an agent. If the publisher decides to offer a contract, the author may need an agent to negotiate terms. Or maybe not. Maybe publishers would move to standard boiler-plate contracts like many digital publisher currently do. In which case, why would anyone need an agent? Or could there be a dual model, where some pursue the vanity publishing avenue and others try to get that contract through an agent as they do now?

What about existing digital publishers? They have built an apparently successful business model based on no large advances and higher royalty percentages. Would they be motivated to move to a similar system, whereby authors pay to be published and associated with their name?

Somehow, in the digital-only world, this doesn’t sound so appealing. Vanity publishers have traditionally focused on print books; if you want to publish a digital book, apparently it’s quite easy these days through various venues (Lulu, Smashwords, even Amazon). So it’s unlikely that digital publishers could make money offering this service. And digital publishers are probably pretty lean already in terms of their business processes. Editors work from home, most of them have “day jobs” as well as their editing work, business is conducted electronically and the publishers aren’t paying for office space, computers, equipment, supplies and the salaries of editors to sit in those offices all day reading the slush pile.

I don't have answers, only a lot of questions, and I don’t know if this is where the publishing industry is going. I have to admit I find it a frightening prospect as both an author and a reader. I think everyone will be watching this venture with great interest.
Post a Comment