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Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved (As It Is)

Editorial by Richard Eoin Nash

The book business is a tiny industry perched atop a massive hobby. But rather than celebrate and serve the hobbyists, we expect them to shell out ever more money for the books we keep throwing at them (a half million English-language books in 2008 in the U.S.). Cutting back might work for individual companies, but not for an industry — s/he who truly believe that the best thing for our customers is less choice shouldn’t let the door hit them on the way out of this industry, indeed this culture.

We’ve built a massive supply chain system for connecting writers and readers because it suits us, but it clearly doesn’t suit most writers or readers. The ones getting their advances cut right now are a small minority of writers (working in any language today); we  should not weep for them, most were overpaid anyway. Instead of using the ever-increasing array of cheap and free tools now available to offer new ways to structure the writer-reader relationship, we’re using the technology to either thwart the readers (see: DRM) or to hustle them, using social media to move product, not have a conversation.

The question increasingly arises in today’s media: can publishing be saved? No. It cannot and should not. There are plenty of non-profit publishers that exist to create and distribute the un-economic content. For-profit publishing should not be saved — it should figure out new business models, ones that offer services that both readers and writers want and are happy to pay for. We cannot wait for a deus ex machina to descend. (In other words, neither MySpace, nor Twitter, nor price-fixing, nor some new piracy-inducing extension of copyright law will save publishing — we simply need to start doing business better.)

What are those services? It’s premature to state definitively, but we need to start with the conversation, so that we can listen to what the readers want.  Clearly the reading group is the best thing that happened to publishing in the past 30 years — while reading is solitary, talking about books is social. Given that books are orders of magnitude more demanding of our minds than any other media, they are commensurately better reflections of our minds and identities than other media. We publishers should be servicing readers’ desire to communicate about themselves with peers, offering books as the basis for connecting.

We’re also going to have to recognize that reading increasingly is writing — readers are writing back in all sorts of ways, commenting on books, re-mixing books as in fan fiction, or creating from scratch, and publishers, rather than barring this activity, or hiding from it, need to embrace it and find ways to serve it.

Books earned their place in our civilization because for millennia brave entrepreneurs and innovators (Gutenberg’s name is remembered, many others are lost) ignored or overcame the cultural and legal obstacles to new reading technology thrown up by the establishment culture of the time. It’s now time for those entrepreneurs to step forth and continue the glorious democratization-by-technology of writing and reading in the Digital Age, just as they did in the analog ones before.

Richard Nash, formerly publisher of Soft Skull Press, is now working on a social publishing start-up. Follow his progress at RNash.com

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33 Comments

  1. Posted July 17, 2009 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    The tendency is to look at digital media as nebulous, unfiltered, aesthetically-flat content. Text on a screen. But by changing the nature of a book, we can create a new medium that retains all the good qualities of literature while allowing designers to utilize (on an infinite sliding scale) all the open promise of technology and code:

    http://www.fictioncircus.com/news.php?id=407&mode=one

  2. Erin Cox
    Posted July 17, 2009 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    I think the most important part of publishing is find where the readers are–digitally, in non-traditional venues, etc. They are out there, we just have to find them and put the books in their hands.

  3. tonya
    Posted July 17, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Is it really necessary to give a platform to this self-promotional windbag? what’s the point? that publishers deserves to fail because they don’t use social networking tools properly, and oh hey look, the author is starting his very own social networking start-up! What a fortuitous coincidence! Every piece of “advice” in this column is a shallow rip of what many publishers are doing already.

  4. Anna Petrakis
    Posted July 17, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    He says: “For-profit publishing should not be saved — it should figure out new business models, ones that offer services that both readers and writers want and are happy to pay for.”

    That’s the ticket. A model in which both readers and writers must pay!

  5. Tom
    Posted July 17, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    If there’s one thing I agree with, it’s the warning against cutting back on offerings, on content. Analogously, I worked in a midsize newspaper for nine years that was formerly a proud and substantial paper but whose incompetent leaders, enabled by the Advance folks in NY, only accelerated their decline in the age of Craiglist, etc., by thinning the paper down to Kleenex thickness. Now it’s a pathetic postage stamp and you can cue up the taps trumpets now. The book business can’t kid itself about immunity from the woes of the music and news industries but a book is simply less particulate than a news item or a song and people still enjoy the book as book. People forecast the death of the PC–everybody would be all hyped up on laptops, cellphones, etc. Premature. The Internet would kill TV. Yeah, right, I want to watch a movie on my computer. Ummm, no thanks. People get into a state of excitation, as this dweeb is about stuff like Twitter. The sky only falls in little pieces and it takes time, and some forms of content and delivery (books, cable television, etc.) have a bit more muscle in them than the “vanguard” adopters might want to admit. Twit this.

  6. Posted July 17, 2009 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    I think “social” needs to be defined first of all. It’s too nebulous a term and will lead many down a fruitless and pointless path.

    Reading groups? What portion of the total population are they? Even more importantly, what portion of the *reading* population are they?

    Just because, for example, I have a PC doesn’t mean I automatically desire to attend a user’s group (I’ve done so a few times — and vowed never to again).

  7. Andrew Littell
    Posted July 17, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I love editorials like this. “The publishing industry is doomed! I have no idea how to save it, but somebody better step up!” What is the point of this article? It is extremely frustrating to read as an industry participant — no new ideas, only condescension and stammering excuses “it’s too early to state definitively”, etc. etc. Ridiculous.

  8. Posted July 17, 2009 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    There’s some valid points here, but they aren’t fully thought out or applied. Publishing is built upon an entitlement model (the authors rights), embedded in a competitive capitalist model. This entitlement removes market risk from the author, because the advance is a guarantee, and royalties are a fixed percentage of cover price. The publisher has the major share, but assumes risks in a competitive free market. As the costs of books go up (manufacturing, transportation, cost of sale, demand for more profits), chain bookstores and publishers have worked to erode the author’s entitlement by lowering advances and royalties. The cause of falling profits is that booksellers (chains and Amazon) only have one marketing strategy: discounting. With typically 40% the 85%-95% of the cover price that is shared by publishers and booksellers, given away to make sales, they have to squeeze the author for an additional 2-3% that makes them look profitable. Ultimately it is the creativity and skill of the authors that attracts readers and we must recognize that marketing doesn’t sell books, authors do: by reputation and content. So joint ventures, self-publishing, ebooks and POD are hauled out to reverse the model and establish and entitlement for the publisher; whatever the author does to sell books, the publisher is entitled to the profit of actually making the book. Publisher’s interest in social media is two pronged: discovering how to corrupt social networks to insert dull marketing blab to guide the conversations, and to shift the cost of sale more solidly onto the authors’ shoulders.

  9. Lila Karpf Literary Management
    Posted July 17, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    This piece doen’t say anything.

  10. Posted July 17, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    This topic deserves a lot more conversation. Broad strokes like, The Publishing Industry is doomed, does no one any good. We all who participate in this industry, writer, reader, industry exe. take advantage of each and every opportunity to re-face a industry format that is indeed tired. Yet whether or not we are forming or predicting a demise or death if you would have forgotten that Television was going to eliminate radio..

  11. Obtuse Lautrec
    Posted July 18, 2009 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Why are we listening to this guy? He was put out to pasture because he couldn’t run his own publishing company, even after it was bought out by a company with deep pockets. Just because Richard was unable to run his publishing company properly, please leave the industry obituaries to people who have actually achieved something besides failure.

  12. Dinah Shields
    Posted July 19, 2009 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Waste of time reading this. Go find someone who a – can write, and b – has something to say.

  13. Duke Cain
    Posted July 20, 2009 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Sure publishing is changing but I doubt it’s going away. Gutenberg wasn’t a publisher – he was a printer – and, though not mentioned above, he went broke printing that first batch of bibles without a massive supply chain (or royal army) standing in his way. He just didn’t know how to calculate manufacturing costs.
    The idea of totally non-profit publishing has to lead to totally non-profit writing. Charles Dickens would undoubtedly have written shorter books (quills and ink weren’t free) or maybe he’d have supported his writing habit with a paying job. Who knows.
    Reading is becoming writing?? For a few folks, I suppose, but certainly not for most. Reading IS a solitary act; so is writing. The truly good writers I know “birth” their books alone and it’s an agonizingly difficult task. Online bantering, amateur tinkering, and coffee-house conversations about writing don’t even come close to the creative process that sparks to life in the solitary places those writers retreat to. I think even old Ben Johnson would agree. I don’t recall any lasting works actually written in a public setting in the midst of community conversations. It’s one thing to talk about a book and quite another to actually write one.
    Not to be entirely negative — I completely agree with Nash when he says that publishers need to listen to their customers.

  14. Posted July 20, 2009 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    So writers are greedy and publishers are incompetent but the internet (if we ever figure out how to use it and give it all away free) will save us all. I should apply for the job as shelf stacker at the local supermarket now, then.

  15. Posted July 20, 2009 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    Some folk talk about books, but there are more folk who read them and have no need, nor desire, for social grouping. Selling an ebook, whether fiction or non, can be just as profitable for publishers and booksellers. Like always, it entails informing readers what is available, giving online samples, and setting a reasonable price. At http://www.booktaste.com we find the formula works. The one change that demands more effort is marketing a title. And again, the internet makes this simpler and cheaper than ever.

  16. Evan
    Posted July 20, 2009 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    “reading is increasingly writing”

    OMG!! People are, like, writing down their thoughts about what they read now! Wow. That behavior is surely only 15 or so years old. Wait. Maybe newer. How could people have written down their thoughts before blogs? Before the internets, people weren’t even ALLOWED to write down their thoughts in one place, right? Evil publishers never gave them the chance. Whew, it’s a good thing twitter lets us do that now.

    “the reading group is the best thing … in 30 years”

    OMFG!! People are, like, meeting up to TALK to one another about books!! What an amazing new development. How did publishing survive for 500 years before reading groups? I mean, people never gathered together to dicuss literature before Oprah’s book club, right? What an amazing new marketing opportunity. I mean, before book clubs, people just heard about literature through publisher advertising, right?

    Publishers take note: readers are also writers AND talkers now! The industry will never be the same.

  17. Posted July 20, 2009 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    It is the writers who cannot be saved. The publishing industry needs to stop paying writers and find a way to monetize the free labor of readers and writers, maybe through social publishing.

  18. paolo
    Posted July 20, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Books will retain buyers as books are objects and as such desirable. I’m not that interested in all this social networking stuff as i dont care too much about people who like to post pics of themselves on the net, bunjee jumping or mountain biking (whilst wearing some stupid t-shirt) accompanied by a list of their inane hobbies.

  19. Will
    Posted July 20, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    When Nash says “social”, we should all hear “education”.

    A major problem for the publishing industry is that many in the up and coming, 25-and-under crowd were not exposed to the right books in school. By which I mean an array of difficult adult literature in elementary and highschool.

    Various pressures, especially financial pressures, have hamstrung the ability of public education to connect younger readers with books. As any teacher will tell you, there’s no guarantee a kid will like any particular text– that’s why you’ve got to make them read dozens, until they figure out what they’re into. Reading children become reading adults, who then will go on to join bookgroups, twitter their favorite titles, or whatever. But you’ve got to play the numbers.

    One major problem in the publishing industry is that it’s run by book people– people whose attachment to reading typically came unbidden and early, or was inspired by a particularly attentive teacher or parent. Their insight into the “love of literature” is personal, and they have a hard time stepping back to see the big picture. We don’t have to convince every adult in the US to read the latest translation of Proust as soon as it comes out; we just need them to consider picking up a copy of the latest Eggers or Lahiri, or some better, lesser-known author, because they’re unintimidated by the notion of “adult” novels.

    This is why I’ve got mixed feelings on the success of YA literature; surely, this helps get kids interested in reading, but it also seems to divide the world into “entertaining” (YA) books and “serious” (literature) books. The best YAs are as good as anything out there, but to presume only a thirty year old would want to read Dickens, Austin or Nabokov is silly. One way to make literature accessible to kids is to write to their level; another way is to make them struggle with texts until they’re no longer daunted by them.

    This is where poetry has foundered, by the way; loss of poetry instruction in elementary school and high school has led to a loss of readers later in life.

    If I was in the publishing industry, I’d be lobbying for a LOT more public investment in education, and a lot more literature, too.

  20. Charlie
    Posted July 20, 2009 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    You know I used to be on board with the Anti-DRM crowd until I realized that they were more interested in demonetizing art where the artist is concerned so that they can pass the savings onto themselves and the companies that physically print and distribute that material. This sort of philosophy is nothing short of the beginning of the death of art. It seems in many of the posts I’ve read, that many people would love nothing more than to remove all support for the arts for their own meager benefit. Even the abominable conditions of Europe during the Renaissance allotted room for functioning artists through benefactors, but it seems that many of your readers would deride even that much. It’s as if they’ve never heard the term “starving artist.” I have news for you, most artists don’t make a living doing what they love, nor do they expect to. Not only does it seem that some of your readers are happy about this, but are borderline aggressive towards the idea of artists making money. It would be easy for a dim wit to point to millionaire artists and say that their salaries are bloated so “why should I care?” But that ignores the fact that most artists never see even a trickle of that money.
    Sadly it seems that these people do not understand art, and therefore assign no value to it. It is this sort of thinking that has turned our institutions of higher education into glorified vocational training schools. This is the contribution the “shopper” generation has to offer. The only value found in life is through massive, gluttonous consumption. People want books for free, not to read them, but to satiate their desire to download them. You are nothing more than foragers who have run out of rubbish bins to scavenge, and with nothing to add to the world, you seek only to take.

  21. Posted July 20, 2009 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help but make one glib conversation which is that one commenter complains that I’m being self-serving by describing the problem as being one for which I have the solution, and another complaining that I clearly have no solution. Both are right—I do have a model that I think will work across a fairly broad array of of writers and readers, one that should increase the overall revenue obtained by a writer albeit necessitating a level of participation in the reading/writing community on average greater than before. But I don’t claim it will be universally applicable, which is why I make my comments more general, such that others can see directions of their own in them. There is also a natural expectation of brevity—this is a 400 word editorial, not a white paper.

    A more general observation, inspired by many comments here, but inspired too by comments I see everywhere. When people argue for change in publishing, a great many people term this call for change “doom-saying.” A call for change presumes change is possible and hence is an optimistic act. I believe that many of those who castigate others for doom-prophesying are themselves the true Jonahs, ones that cannot see a future except as a mirror of the past.

    As with some much in life, we shall have to wait to see how all the claims here, mine and yours, dear readers, hold up.

  22. Posted July 21, 2009 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    621

    Charlie,

    That makes no sense. We want no DRM, so sales will go up. More books will be sold. How is that equivalent to wanting less money for artists?

    There are plenty of books I haven’t bought because of :-

    DRM
    Georestrictions
    Crazy pricing

    e.g. Sales that are completely and utterly _lost_ until such time as this changes. Some of them will be lost still, as will no longer give a crap about that book later on, or will have seen enough opinions to say it is rubbish, etc., whereas I might have bought it previously.

    The pro-DRM crowd (which includes some authors of course) are actually conspiring against the poor starving artistes who are not Stephen King etc. to take money away from them, in reality.

    Books with no DRM are of course cheaper to produce, and support.

    The people we do want to remove income from are the DRM providers, actually.

  23. Michael Duncan
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    The only way that this intellectually empty essay could be better is if it had a meaningless graph with unnumerated axes. Perhaps Richard could make the x-axis = TIME and the y-axis = SOCIAL READING.

    (And an aside to Richard’s defense in the comments: Brevity is not the same as empty platitudes. If you can’t explain why your much-touted startup is important in 400 words, then it probably will not be successful. We don’t need a white paper, but we do need an original and monetizable idea.)

  24. Joy
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m dismayed at the personal attacks on the author (who I don’t know and have no personal interest in defending). Shooting the messenger doesn’t kill the message — that to survive, traditional publishing should focus not just on books, but on the conversations between readers and writers. To Evan’s point, those conversations are nothing new. But building a business model around them (and transforming the traditional publishing model) is.

    I’ve sold plenty of writing in the form of books, magazine articles, essays, and reviews. But unpaid blogging is my chief writing joy because it connects me directly with readers and other writers. But I feel squeamish about publishers finding a way to monetize that, unless they can add substantial value to the conversation or the ease-of-access.

  25. tinbox
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Nash,
    David Rees was published by SoftSkull and now Jamba Juice is ripping off GYWO in broad daylight. Surely publishers still need to enforce their economic rights, no? Any thoughts?

  26. NicBoshart
    Posted July 22, 2009 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Again, someone points out the machine is broken, and everyone jumps on them. What is everybody so scared of? That we may have to downsize the monopolistic large publishers? That indies and unknown authors may get a fair shake and may be able to find an audience?

    Are people always going to want books? Ten, twenty years from now, I can guarantee you that 90% of Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, and Danielle Steele will be read off of a screen.

    This isn’t about people who love to hold a book now, it’s about people who have grown up with screens, are used to digital devices, and love reading and communicating. It’s not about me in my reading corner with a cup of tea, it’s about people who now are used to talking about and sharing things that they’re doing, and having a say in what sort of things are being developed for them.

    @Will – I read YA before anything. My small-town school didn’t have enough books to keep up, they ordered me garbage fantasy novels. Selections from my book shelf: Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Rimbaud… I think you get it.

  27. Cheese
    Posted July 22, 2009 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Amen, Nic. Thanks for your insightful and forward thinking comment. (Even if your post-script is a little showy). The future is in front of us, people, not behind.

  28. Posted July 22, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Michael, this website wanted, deserved, and got an editorial. Not an investor pitch. If you want an investor pitch, you check my bio, click on the link, and contact me directly. Although the fact that you call this intellectually empty also suggests that the last thing you want to read is a business plan. I suspect you’re exemplifying a point I made in the editorial itself, which is that readers want to write. If you find my piece vacuous, write your own editorial and submit it to the editors of Publishing Perspectives. Or publish itself elsewhere, on your blog, at the Huffington Post, or the Guardian, or Publishers Weekly, or wherever you would prefer.

  29. Posted July 25, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    As a Soft Skull author (A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America) I can honestly, unequivocally say that Richard Nash is one of the hardest working, smartest, and visionary publishers in the biz. (It should be noted that he won the Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Indie Publishing. )

    I’m not an industry insider, but in my experience Richard really knows what he’s doing. He can talk the talk and walk the walk. So we’ll all just have to wait and see what happens. I don’t hear any better ideas out there.

  30. Posted July 27, 2009 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    I am concerned about science publishing. And what is going on there should be a concern for everyone.
    The “ethical” standards for 5000 scientific journals world-wide published by all main publishing houses are now set by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). These publishers joined COPE with all their journals last years as members of COPE. This is a tragedy for science.
    See this horror:
    http://ca.geocities.com/uoftfraud/committee.htm

  31. Posted August 4, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    What the hell? Was this linked from Drudgereport or something? Why the negativity? While I agree that this doesn’t offer a lot of solutions, the pile-on hardly seems warranted.

  32. Posted November 17, 2009 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    Of course it’s inevitable business models will need to evolve in order to survive.

  33. Posted July 2, 2010 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    Richard, I didn’t get a chance to talk to you after your panel discussion at BEA10. I thought your comments were absolutely brilliant!

    Here are a couple of thoughts on some possible trends:

    http://www.prweb.com/releases/changeleadershipgroup/sellingchange/prweb4169074.htm

13 Trackbacks

  1. [...] We’re also going to have to recognize that reading increasingly is writing — readers are writing back in all sorts of ways, commenting on books, re-mixing books as in fan fiction, or creating from scratch, and publishers, rather than barring this activity, or hiding from it, need to embrace it and find ways to serve it. Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved (As It Is) [...]

  2. [...] so you know, book publishing is also in trouble. Amazing all the harm that has flowed from Big Business’ post-RJR-Nabisco refusal to focus on [...]

  3. [...] We’re also going to have to recognize that reading increasingly is writing — readers are writing back in all sorts of ways, commenting on books, re-mixing books as in fan fiction, or creating from scratch, and publishers, rather than barring this activity, or hiding from it, need to embrace it and find ways to serve it. Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved (As It Is) [...]

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  6. By Stop Press for July 20th | booktwo.org on July 20, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    [...] Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved (As It Is) | Publishing Perspectives Richard Nash on fine form, saying what a lot of people have been saying in private. [...]

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  8. [...] 21, 2009 in Uncategorized Writing for Publishing Perspectives, Nash, former publisher of Soft Skull Press, argues that [...]

  9. [...] Cursor – that aims to create a social publishing community [Publishers Weekly] [RNash.com] [Publishing Perspectives] [Media [...]

  10. [...] on Why Publishing Cannot Be Saved August 4, 2009 I’ve been meaning to post a link to this article by Richard Nash on new directions in publishing, but I’ve been backlogged since returning from vacation. Richard Nash is the former head of [...]

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    [...] …boss Richard Nash insists the (for-profit) book business “cannot be saved (as it is).” [...]

  13. [...] Some people have advocated blowing it all up. I don’t think that’s a valid supposition, if for no other reason than the fact there is real operational value in the publishing chain, and lots of quality people doing great work. The problem is they’re doing it vertically (manufacturing model) at a time when they need to be doing it horizontally (information model). [...]

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