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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

As Publishing Evolves The Value Proposition Increases

Yesterday I rambled on about self-publishing and how the gigantic increase in this area is affecting the traditional publishing world.  Award winning authors like Terry Fallis have bridged the gap and turned self-publishing into a way to break into the traditional publishing world.

But what I'm really forseeing is the merging of these two worlds -- the traditional manner of getting a book to consumers, and the multiple ways that exist for that to happen using "direct" delivery.

Here's the real trick, at least in my mind:  How and where publishers and booksellers can continue to add value in a self-publish and self-serve world.

Photo: "End of an Era"

Publishers offer a true and conrete value to a book.  First, they sift through incredibly large piles of content (known as the slush pile) -- There are huge rooms with shelves and boxes filled to overpacking with manuscripts yet to be looked at in every major publishing house.  Having edited a few anthologies, I can attest to having giant piles of story manuscripts to sift through threatening to completely take over my work space. And having been through the offices of many smaller publishers, I can certainly attest to the boxes and shelves stuffed with manuscripts from hopeful writers.  Given the ability and acceptance of electronic submissions (remember, I grew up in a world where writers actually typed their manuscripts out and snail mailed them to publishers, so to me the slush pile occupies a huge physical space), I can only imagine the number of servers stuff with electronic submissions in publisher databases and that these "piles" are far larger than any physical one ever was.  Thus, the chances of making it through the traditional publishing world are still quite tough.

Of course, simply selecting what to publish is a huge value add for publishers, but then the next step, the editing process, that's where a great deal of value is added to a book.  As a writer, I've been fortunate enough to have worked with some amazing editors over the years.  And if you talk to most writers you'll find there's often a great deal of respect offered between writer and editor. Often, the relationship between the two is a grand collaboration, a partnership, rather than an adversarial one.  Sure, there's always the stereotype of the editor's red pen struggling against the writer's purple prose passages in a Darth Vader vs Luke Skywalker type battle.  But I ultimately see more good come out of these relationships.  Check the acknowledgements in the back of most books and you'll see a tip of the hat to the author's editor.

Publishers add additional value, of course, in the layout, design, marketing, cataloging and selling of the title -- but I won't get into that right here, because that would likely take many more paragraphs.

Similar to the value that publishers offer through selecting and refining the author's words, the bookseller, too, adds value.  (And yes, I'll admit to being a little biased in this regard, but if you disagree go write your own blog post)  A reader now has more choice than ever before when it comes to reading.  Take a look at the fantastic article by Hugh McGuire on the Tools of Change Blog called Sifting Through All These Books.

Even if you forget about the self-published books, since 2002 we've seen a 105% increase in poetry and drama books (11,766), 80% increase in the number of biographies published (12,313), an 80% increase in general fiction titles (45,181), a 75% increase in literature (10,843), a 50% increase in religion titles (19,310), and a 30% increase in science books (15.428). There have been declines in only three of the twenty-five categories tracked by Bowker: Agriculture (down 6%), computers (down 32%), and languages (down 32%). Across the spectrum, we've seen a 32% increase in all titles published since 2002, all without an appreciable increase (that I know of) in the number of people who actually buy books, let alone read them.  - from McGuire's article on TOC blog

In the article, McGuire points out the overwhelming supply that far outweighs the demand.  Yes, this is despite the fact that the lists produced from publishers are already culled.  McGuire then goes into ways in which huge volumes of content can be shared so that the good stuff can be found, comparing books to blogs.

What becomes valuable, then, are ways to save customers having to sort through all the options and land on something worth reading.

Arguably, booksellers have already been doing that -- similar to the way a publisher culls down from a gigantic pile of submissions to a list of titles to publish each season, a bookseller similarly culls that down to an even smaller selection from a publisher's catalog.  When a bookseller goes through a publisher's offering they're considering several things -- among them is the question:  Is this book something I think my customers will like?

That's a very key question, and booksellers now have access to great tools to help them out. Because perhaps there are titles that I, as a bookseller, overlooked from a catalog but that are selling well in other locations in Canada.  BookNet Canada Sales Data offers a fantastic way for me to help me manage some of my inventory selection, ensure I'm not missing out on trends and other sleeper titles I might have overlooked when doing my culling. Having access to such information as a bookseller is virtually priceless and allows me to add tremendous value to my store and customers.

But there's an additional value add that you can see more easily, particularly when it comes to speciality retailers. If you go into a bookstore in Toronto like Books for Business, Mabel's Fables or BakkaPhoenix what do you get?

Well, for one, you get a speciality retailer who really knows a particular line of books from various publishers. You get expertise in a particular area that can quickly and dramatically help you save time when trying to find the perfect book to suit your need.

That's not to say that a standard bookstore isn't going to offer you the same great service, the same great expertise -- but chances are, if I'm looking for a recommendation for a great book for a father to read to his daughter, I'll get the best chance of scoring at a speciality children's bookstore than I would in any other bookshop.  No slam against other booksellers intended.  It's simply that the odds are better there.

However, local community bookstores that don't specialize in a product might specialize in something else. Perhaps what they specialize in isn't the product, but the customer. One of my favourite joys as a bookseller is getting to know a particular customer's likes and hates. Getting a feel for the type of thing that you know a customer is going to absolutely adore so that when a new title in a particular genre or subject area comes in, you almost immediately picture that customer reading it.  Based on my experience having done this, I'm pretty sure that the customer ends up satisfied and that's why they keep returning. It's particularly gratifiying when you help that customer discover a new book or a new author that they otherwise wouldn't have normally discovered, except perhaps by chance. And it's one of the things that has most motivated me as a bookseller.

I've rambled on a bit about the types of value that both publishers and booksellers add to the supply chain and could potentially add to a world where the shot-gun approach to publishing and book production, now made even more complex by the ease of the fantastic D-I-Y methods that exist means there's more to select from than ever before.

All I'm really trying to say is that I think that part of the evolution needs to seriously consider where the greatest value is that each entity in the chain provides, and to ensure that, moving forward focus is kept on what those values are and the most efficient way to deliver them so that all parties, from the writer, editor and others at the creation stage, to the publisher, distributor and marketer and all those in the packaging stage, to the bookseller and those at the curation stage, right down to the consumer and reader of the content are getting the most out of the experience.

And I'll keep these rose coloured glasses on as I continue to noodle over this concept, assuming that somewhere in this mess there are ways for every traditional entity in the publishing world to exist alongside the newer distribution models -- and no, the traditional outlets will not continue the way they exist today, because a serious evolutionary change needs to take place -- but I believe there's a way for all to exist and prosper in a newly evolved world that allows the cream (particularly the cream as defined by the end consumer), to rise to the top.

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