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Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

Do Readers Care About How Publishing Works? Should They?

Fresh (almost) daily from Julie Barrett


(Yes, yes. My bad. A typo in the headline. I did proof - which meant my session timed out. I should have proofed the headline again. Mea culpa.)

A recent post by Jane at Dear Author (and the load of comments that followed) got me to thinking about this topic.

While I can certainly understand that not everyone needs to know all of the grizzly bits about how the publishing industry grinds their sausage produces and distributes content, it also seems that it would be to the advantage of the reader to understand something about the process. Readers are consumers, after all.

I may as well ask why you should care if the Fed changes the Prime Interest Rate. You're out of debt, you say? How about that interest-bearing checking or savings account? Or that CD you're thinking of opening or rolling over? Changes in the prime rate mean you get more - or less, it seems these days - interest. Yep, you care about that.

Take the news that Simon & Schuster just cut half of their sales staff and replaced them with telemarketers. What does this mean for you, reader? It means that independent and rural bookstores are getting the shaft. Again. You'll have less choice when you walk into some bookstores.

Dear Author's post was about e-books and reader choice. I'm all for reader choice. This is a very good thing. But is too much of a good thing bad? How do you filter through hundreds of e-book sites and thousands of titles? Do you have any guarantee of quality?

Oh, I know what some of you must be thinking: As a commercially published author, I have a vested interest in keeping competition down. Actually, no. The more good books out there (electronic and paper) the better it is for all of us - authors and readers. There are a lot of niches that mass market publishing just isn't equipped to fill. This is where small press comes in. The more good presses, the better choices for the reader. And it's good for the authors because we make money.

Note that I keep using the word good. As I've blogged before, it's so easy to start a publishing business these days (thanks to recent advances in technology) that it seems everyone and their sibling is opening their own small press. That's good, but it isn't Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a show in a barn. How do you acquire, edit, and pay authors? How do your market and distribute books? You can't just build it and customers will come. (Okay, I'll quit the movie metaphors.) As well-intentioned as most of these ventures are, most end up hurting both readers and authors.

They hurt readers because their lack of marketing makes it hard for readers to find them. That also hurts authors, who don't make the money they should off of their work. When these small publishers go under (as is often the case), their contracts with writers can end up in limbo. Writers can't place those books with other publishers until they get the rights reverted back to them. Readers, in turn, lose because they no longer can purchase those works.

Another issue Jane at DA touched on was how writers get paid. She's absolutely correct when she concludes that the advance/royalty model poses the least risk to authors. It benefits readers on the level that virtually all publications that use that model have a high acceptance threshold and manuscripts go through a rigorous editing process. A publisher's job is to sell books, so they're going to accept books they believe have a good chance of selling. Like any other business, they're out to make money.

Of course, this leaves a big gaping hole that niche markets could fill. Smaller publishers don't have the resources to pay authors and market like their larger counterparts. However, there some things they can do - friendly to both authors and readers - that could increase sales. Here are a few things I'd like to see:

  • Look to groups like the SWFA, MWA, and RWA for guidance. The SWFA has sample contracts on their site. This isn't just about payment. Would YOU sign all rights to your work away for the life of the copyright? What happens if the publisher decides to take it out of print or if they go under? How are royalties calculated? How is the publisher accountable to the author for sales figures? There are plenty of small publishers who can't afford to pay market rates, yet manage to run their businesses in a professional matter that benefits everyone.
  • Work with the above organizations to set some standards that will allow e-pubbed authors to join. There are plenty of e-pubbed authors making the same money - or better - as their counterparts in print. It may mean changing the way some publishers do business. Perhaps a writer is eligible to join after making a certain level of royalties. I still see value in advances, though. To me, an advance is a sign from a publisher that they're willing to take a chance on that book. Having paid out the advance, they're going to be more willing to spend time and money to get people to buy it so they can make that advance money back - and then some.
  • Smaller publishers and e-publishers need to make excerpts available on their sites. Many do this already. One of the pleasures of discovering new authors in a bookstore is that I can browse through a book, check random pages, and see if it's something I'd like to take home and read. Features like Amazon's "Look Inside" fulfill that function on the web and can increase sales. that's good for the reader, the writer, and the publisher.
  • Jane suggested better use of metadata. I couldn't agree more. This is especially important when searching out niche books. The only catch is that metadata needs to be relevant to books. This is a function of editorial and marketing. Don't let the authors do this. Think I'm crazy? Try searching for a video on YouTube or a picture on Flickr and see how people attach irrelevant tags to their files to gain views. 
  • Publishers shouldn't rely on authors to generate sales. Sure, we can help, but most of us aren't professional marketers. Your job is to sell books. Mine is to write them.
One consequence of all this may be that the cost of e-books goes up. But would you pay a little more for books if it's easier for you to find quality books that you want to read? Yes, just because a book meets quality standards doesn't mean that everyone will want to read it. However, most of us will admit that our taste doesn't run to everything in the bookstore (or on Amazon), but we'll admit that most books in the bookstore passed a rigorous selection and editing process and that the books stand a darned good chance of not falling apart in our hands as we read them. (E-books won't fall apart in your hands, but they shouldn't be riddled with formatting issues.) That's what I mean by quality.

I've nattered on enough on this topic. Now, it's time for you to weigh in:

Should readers care about how the publishing industry works? If so, to what extent?
Tags: Publishing

Filed under: Publishing            
1/7/2010 4:05:46 PM
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