The Future of Publishing, Part 1 of 3
By Ransom Stephens, Ph.D.Is the bound pile of pages we call a book merely a souvenir from a mental vacation you took in a world created by an author? Does the publishing industry still possess the skills that writers and readers need to foster the exchange of stories and free time? If established publishers aren’t the conduit, then who? What will novels look like in a decade?
Some writers don’t need the publishing industry as it exists today and has existed for the last century, some still do. But the writers who need the publishing industry are not the writers who the publishing industry needs.
The publisher’s role is to connect readers to the books that they want. Independent of this role publishers have no valid reason to exist. Many business practices of the publishing industry have not been updated in half a century. They fail on time of delivery, don’t have current Enterprise Resource Processes (ERP), lack modern targeted marketing competence and waste resources. On the other hand, legacy publishing is still unsurpassed at putting authors in the media spotlight and handling the morass of details involved in book development, promotion and marketing. The problem is that most of the time they don’t use their prowess to support the clients or customers that are most important to their long term health. That said, they’re still making lots of money.
It is unlikely that any of the six large publishers, the so called Six Sisters of Publishing, will lead the way to the next paradigm. We can state this with confidence without even referring to a specific publisher or practice because, historically, the established players in any industry do not fare well through technological disruptions.
Every business is faced with four fundamental tasks: product development, manufacturing and distribution, records and administration and marketing and promotion. In this three part series, we’ll examine how each is performed in legacy publishing, in cutting edge publishing, and in the crystal ball of the future. For the former case, by “legacy,” I mean “those processes that are practiced because it has always been thus.” For the cutting edge case we’ll use the example of Numina Press, LLC, which by pure coincidence is the publisher of my novel, The God Patent (obviously, you should click www.TheGodPatent.com and get yourself a copy before continuing).
For the future case, we’ll do what all crystal ball gazers do: make it up as we go along.
Books are developed to the advanced prototype stage by independent contractors, (a.k.a., authors). In all but the rarest cases, fiction manuscripts are well past the beta stage before the publisher ever sees them. When proposals for nonfiction titles are acquired the author is expected to do at least 95% of the development (i.e., research, writing, editing, fact checking, etc.).
The first role of the publisher is title acquisition and the first line of defense against the manuscript onslaught is the gatekeeper. The process itself is sometimes called the “cultural filter.” It’s an unfortunate term that rings of snobbery at best and censorship at worst, though the process does fit the definition of a filter.
With centuries of experience, legacy publishers are as good at selecting marketable titles as is possible for any small opinion sample. Individually, they are the best in the world. That what they attempt is impossible is reflected by the fact that far fewer than 25% of published titles are profitable. The fundamental problem is that art in general and literature in particular is quintessentially subjective. Above the basically objective thresholds of writing clarity and sentence and paragraph mechanics, the literary merit and marketability of a title by an unproven author is simply not discernible a priori. Literary merit can only be positively judged after a title has been in print for months, years or decades.
The acquisition process involves separate layers of filtering at the agent, the editor, and the selection committee. It is a probabilistic chain of subjective judgment. The probability of an agent judging a specific query intriguing multiplied by the probability that the first few pages of the manuscript hold that intrigue, then another probability for the complete work. More probabilities are multiplied as the process is repeated at the publishing house.
Given their sub 25% success rate, one wonders what the actual fraction of successful titles in the original pile could be. In other words, how efficient is the acquisition process at accepting titles that would be successful if they were published? Consider the extreme possibilities. A perfect cultural filter catches 100% of the profitable titles and the unprofitable titles that the filter admits are the minimum possible noise required to catch the signal in its entirety. At the opposite end of the spectrum, assuming the manuscripts surpass the threshold of mechanics and clarity, a truly random filter would yield the same ratio of profitable to unprofitable titles in the accepted stack as in the rejected stack.
Where in this spectrum does the legacy, plutocratic cultural filter sit?
What if a publisher could publish every manuscript that came over the transom? What if they could go back in time and choose only those titles for publication that the market will welcome? This is, in some sense, what Numina Press does.
Simulation is a trick used in high tech to make the product development process more efficient; without it, you couldn’t afford the instrument on which you’re reading right now. Using technology in these ways is old hat in Silicon Valley – which might be a hint of where the future of publishing lies.
Numina Press’s editor-in-chief, Yanina Gotsulsky, watched the performance of The God Patent as an e-novel at Scribd.com. When it spent 13 straight weeks in the Top 10 Most Read Fiction with over 10,000 people showing interest, Numina sent me an email asking for publishing rights.
Market testing a manuscript as an e-book provides a democratic cultural filter that gauges the market appeal of a title before it goes to print, before the publisher has spent a cent. In the case of Numina Press, there is a qualifier, the same as that of legacy publishing: Ms. Gotsulsky is a self-described literary snob who won’t publish something unless it meets her specifications.
The point is that, while professional acquisition editors are better at choosing worthy titles than anyone, they are not nearly as good as everyone.
Ransom Stephens, Ph.D., writer, physicist, and public speaker, has had a front row seat for three industry upheavals: the collapse of the established computer industry in the mid ‘80s; the transition of the World Wide Web from a physicists’ tool to an economic cornerstone in the early ‘90s; the introduction of 3G and 4G technologies in the mid 00’s; and sees established publishers making the same mistakes that killed other legacy institutions. The San Francisco Chronicle called Ransom’s novel, The God Patent, “the first debut novel to emerge from the new paradigm of online publishing.” (www.TheGodPatent.com).