Guilty Pleasures and Guilty Publishers

OK, I admit it. The New York Times has gotten rid of their notorious “Times Select” racket, and I’ve been busily catching up on all the columns that didn’t make the grade (the moderator likes politics) on Behind the Times. And so I’ve been glancing through Dick Cavett’s blog, and found his difficulties at getting his best selling book shipped to eager bookstores very interesting. Apparently, he had to resort to threats of canceling the book tour that was generating tons of sales for the publisher unless they shipped books to Chicago!

The comments were also very interesting. Many authors wrote in with stories of how impossible it was to get the publisher to ship any books to any bookstores, but they lacked the star-power of a Cavett to get the ball rolling. Several cited disasters with liberal arts incompetents masquerading as businessmen and women mishandling their projects and yes, I’ve experienced this myself, particularly the idiot from Wiley who couldn’t keep straight the project, the book, the times scheduled to discuss matters, and the communications. While I could cope with basic incompetence (I work in Silicon Valley, after all), I had to threaten legal action when she decided unilaterally wreck the project when it was essentially completed by contacting one of my business associates (who ran a lovely datacenter and was going to buy lots and lots of books) that she didn’t want to do the project and he shouldn’t deal with me. She then went on to sign a nobody to try and rip off the same manuscript (I hadn’t given her the good stuff yet, so there wasn’t enough to rip-off, because I had been clued in by my agent to be careful after my prior editor was off’d), and it went on to be a complete failure. Suffice to say she didn’t last long, but I never did business with that publisher again.

But the primary reasons for this lack of execution are economic and global in nature. Yes, execution is CEO-speak for doing, or not doing, the job, and it’s the executives that are ultimately responsible. Cavett found it almost impossible to get his publishing execs on the ball for executing on his agreement, even though executives are supposed to be the ones who make sure things go — that was my job in the last four companies I co-founded. In fact, I remember when execution was always on the top-three lists for CEOs, but last time I saw John Doerr he apparently didn’t think it was that important anymore — hmm, do you start to see a pattern? Sometimes when people hear words like global, they feel they don’t have to do anything because the problem is too large. This may explain the complete disinterest Cavett experienced — they just don’t feel they have to deal with any problem because it’s too big.

So I guess we have to reduce the problem down to a level where they have to take responsibility. So I’ll take a shot at it (anyone is free to comment on a better approach). The reason publishers blow it has much to do with how they have adapted, or not adapted, to Internet publicity and distribution. Book cycles are much shorter than 20 years ago, and demands for books are likely to be stochastic (a foreign word to most liberal arts publishers, but very understandable to technologists). If a publishing house is still doing publishing “the old fashioned way” (e.g. sign an author, wait for a complete manuscript and then do editing, get in-house art to handle the cover, in-house marketing to do the blurbs and publicity, recon the entire work into their own proprietary system, re-edit, rewrite, and finally, after much discussion, order inventory for storage from a book binder), then they’re putting themselves at a great deal of risk because they can’t respond to fluctuating demand easily. And the author loses out because the progression from signing to book takes a great deal of time — perhaps missing a good window of opportunity to establish it before trends shifted. No wonder book publishers only want to sign “pet autobiographies” and “self-help memoirs”, and fixate on block-busters. Perhaps instead of checks, publishers should just buy everybody in the biz lottery tickets, so that maybe somebody will make it big.

Of course, there are ways to adapt to the ever-changing marketplace. One approach is to embrace the long-tail, and not run away from it, perhaps by using some of the technologies available such as “instant book publishing” and software license arrangements (see Fun Friday – College Textbook Sticker Shock). But this would demand a fundamental sea change in how publishers relate to their authors and their business — one that would require just-in-time inventory, Internet updates, Internet publicity (online video, for instance of authors chats), investment in new technologies like kiosks, and so on. Their revenues would be based on licenses to read, and not on tangible inventories, and their financials would look completely different. And that is the real bugbear in the bookselling business.

This will happen, whether publishers want to adapt or not. And the end result will be bankruptcies, mergers, failures, and ultimately a few successes. The real sufferers are the book-buying public who wants to see the long-tail of new book ideas and the authors, who just want to write and sell books to those who want to read them.

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Lynne

Lynne Jolitz is a Silicon Valley OS pioneer, inventor, and startup founder.

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