Of Plagues, Publishers And The Angel Of Death

Publishers around the globe are hunkering down this Passover, trying to outlast the season of plagues and hoping the Angel of Death will pass over their publishing house. Rather than painting the blood of the Paschal Lamb on the doorposts with a sprig of hyssops, the modern peoples of the book are covering their websites with strange hieroglyphic symbols: Feedburner, Twitter, Facebook, Kindle, LinkedIn, YouTube, ePub, Atom and Podcasts galore. Does anybody truly believe that the grim reaper of business models will spare their imprint because they've leapt for (and usually missed) the latest social networking or technological trend?

The plagues visited upon publishers are hardly Biblical in proportion, with the possible exception of the stygian darkness under which so many labor. Most of the plagues publishers face are truly in the eye of the beholder, and could easily become blessings if the publisher could only remove the consultant from his eye and read the changing landscape. So unless you're counting on Manna from Washington, learn the five plagues of publishers and how to transform them into blessings:

The Five Plagues (CADEG): Customers, Authors, Distribution, Editors, Google

Aren't customers just awful? So demanding and so disloyal. Why can't they all just sign up (with a credit card) to purchase every book you publish? They shop online for the cheapest edition of your books, often buying them used so the publisher doesn't earn one red cent. To add insult to injury, they post one star reviews on the Amazon product page of the new edition, complaining that it's out of date! Customers are fickle. Just when your business model reaches maturity, customers decide they don't need the 16th book in your Homegirl Knitting series, or your latest title about the latest trend that never quite caught on. And then there are those bloggers who complain about your ebook efforts, chastising you for being too proprietary, too expensive, too platform specific or just not free. How can a publisher keep up with a customer's ever changing tastes and interests? Surely customers are a plague.

If publishers could only produce books without authors, what a paradise publishing would be. How can people who work with words for a living not understand what "deadline" means? Can authors be so twisted that they think that "dead" is something pleasant? The endless arguments over contract terms, always asking for more like a gang of musical pickpockets. Confusing their facts, or even worse, confusing another author's work with their own. Submitting their Word files without ever running a spell check, and fighting over every correction the copy editor makes. And then, "Why isn't my book selling?", "Why isn't my book selling?". Publishers would be better off buying parrots, at least they don't eat so much. Truly authors are a plague unto publishers.

Distribution was invented by the Devil. First the distributors want discounts ranging from 55% to 75%, and then they want to return the travel worn books! What do they think, that dust jackets grow on trees? They promise to get your books into stores when in reality, you're lucky if they warehouse them without charging extra fees. And they're so pushy about exclusivity, locking publishers in contractual prisons and then screwing up on filling the Amazon orders that the publishers could have handled themselves at twice the profit! If by some chance the distributor succeeds in getting your titles onto store shelves and ordering more, they're almost certain to go out of business, leaving you to fight for pennies on the dollar. Verily distributors are a plague upon publishing.

The only thing worse than an editor who jumps ship to another publisher and steals your star author is an editor who stays on indefinitely, demanding raises and promotions. After a few years, editors start thinking that they're somebody! And they get confused over which side they're fighting on, as if the authors and the agents pay their salaries. Not to mention their artistic integrity and hunches about markets. How about reading the book sales data we pay for every month! You'd swear that editors only talk to other editors for all they know of the public taste, much less what's going on in the world. Editors pay too much attention to publishing pundits and bloggers focused on insider technologies, turning red herrings into whales. Certainly editors are a plague on publishing.

Then there's Google, with their damn search and destroy engine, breaking down the monopoly on information long held by publishers. Next they go and scan millions of books, threatening the whole back-in-print and classics business. How could they possibly put those insipid Wikipedia results above a publisher's pages in the search rankings? After all, publisher websites have such beautifully conceived advertisements for their books! First they came for the newspapers, next they came for the music companies, now they're coming for the movie studios. When they finally come for the publishers, we won't have any media partners left to throw under the bus. Indeed, Google is a plague on publishers.

The Five Blessings (GEDAC): Google, Editors, Distribution, Authors, Customers

Google won't fail publishers because Google is too big to fail. If Google hadn't figured out how to print money, the government would be printing money for Google instead of for the banks, car companies, and everyone other business failure on steroids. Google IS the information economy, and the information economy is one of the few things we have going for us these days. Google has freed publishers from the tyranny of book reviewers, talk show booking assistants and print advertising. For the first time in history, any publisher who is willing to listen to reader feedback can watch their mailbox runneth over, before even committing to print. Don't obsess about Google Books, it's Google Search that matters. Indeed, Google is a blessing on publishers.

There has never been a need for editors like today. The Internet has turned every monkey with a keyboard into the authors of sonnets, or at least, random words thereof. It takes a skilled editor pick out the seeds that will germinate and grow in commercial titles for the publisher. The irony of having so much information about authors at your fingertips (look, he has a blog, she tweets, his name comes up a million times in Google) is that it takes more research than ever to figure out if the exposure is significant from a publishing standpoint. Publishers need to find editors who understand the Internet through the experience of running their own websites rather than relying on social networking butterflies and crackberry twits. But a knowledgeable editor is worth her weight in rubies, or at least a monthly salary equal to her monthly unique visitor count in dimes. Certainly web savvy editors are a blessing on publishing.

Distribution is moving online for all electronic content, and given the growing dominance of Amazon in the printed book sector, it can be argued that the outlook for traditional book distributors is grimmer than ever. Their struggles to stake a position as electronic media distributors will rest on their ability to convince publishers and customers that their file management and DRM solutions are relevant, an increasingly difficult argument to make. Online distribution systems tend to move in the direction of lowest cost, allowing publishers who don't want to purchase or create their own file handling and payment systems to use packaged solutions, like PayPal and E-Junkie, for pennies on the dollar. And for offline distribution, as Amazon continues to grow their marketshare, distributors will be forced to give up their exclusive contracts and bookstores will learn to accommodate publishers who can provide books that sell. Verily online distribution is a blessing upon publishers.

No single group of individuals is better suited to leverage the Internet to promote their work than authors. An author who can deliver customers is the publisher's best friend. For all the audio, video, and who knows what to come, text is the driving force behind Internet search and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Nobody does text like authors, if only they can get it online. Publishers who eschew non-compete clauses and give authors the flexibility to use their work online will only benefit from the results. Direct feedback on an author's work in progress could entirely replace market research for publishers and ensure that every book published has an audience waiting to buy it. And when it comes to finding new gems amongst the pebbles of the wreckage strewn shores, what publisher could hope for more than an author already polished by endless friction with readers? Truly authors are a blessing unto publishers.

Customers face a serious problem when it comes to selecting and buying books. So many titles are drek dressed up with graphical elements and sold through cram-down marketing. Perhaps the most overlooked factor in the problems facing the superstore book retailers is that the books they sell so often leave the customers disappointed. With over 100,000 titles in stock, a large share are derivative “me-too” books rushed out by unqualified authors and crafted for a look, page count, cut size, deadline and ROI - not to deliver a solution to a customer. Even though Amazon buyers risk being taken in by fake or opt-in reviews, they have a much better chance of finding the book that’s right for them than going with the face-out bookstore displays driven by co-op dollars, or counting on the spine text and back cover promises. A customer looking on Amazon for an investing book would have to be a very bad shopper to accidentally leave the store with a title that promises an unending bull run in stocks or real estate, but that happens in brick-and-mortar bookstores every hour of the day. Publishers who listen to their customers and serve their needs have a tremendous advantage over their publishing brethren who mainly don't. Surely customers are a blessing.


Gary Roberts said...


This is one of the funniest, most spot on reviews of the State of Publishing As We Know It. So much so that I'll be making note of it over on my blog, which, although focused on old books and ephemera, still relates to all that you address here.

BTW... the latest studies say the Google Search Spider only travels an average of 500 odd KB deep into a web page to harvest data. Yahoo and MSN may go a bit deeper, but they can take a week to a month to register changes.


Morris Rosenthal said...


Thanks, dudes dig links:-)

Interesting on the Google spider, but 500 KB is a lot of text, If the average English word is around 6 bytes, it's just under 100,000 words, assuming the pages designer doesn't go nuts with HTML coding, or about the length of a moderate novel.

If they limited their spidering of websites to 500 KB, that would be something pretty bad.


Gary Roberts said...

That's just it... Google won't spell out the policy. At work we just discovered that Google Enterprise Search will only index pdf files of no more than 30 mb in size. Over that and the Search spider skips the entire file.

Google works in peculiar ways...

Morris Rosenthal said...


Hadn't heard that, though 30 MB is pretty big for a text PDF. If I remember next time at one of their online Q/A things I'll ask.


Anonymous said...

Great post, although, I think that if a publisher hasn't already figured most of it out by now either by instinct or by trial and error, then........sorry to say, but the reaper is already at their door, whether they know it or not.