By Scott Bury
The Hobbit. Game of Thrones. The Twilight saga. Harry Potter. Snow White and the Huntsman. Oz, the Great and Powerful. Once Upon a Time.
Hollywood continues to score hits in the science fiction and fantasy genres, on both the big and small screens. There is an appetite for this kind of fiction.
And browsing around bookstores, grocery stores and the immense emporia that masquerade as drugstores these days reveals an appetite among the public for fantasy, too. Like Hollywood, when the Big Six (I accidentally typed “Bix” there — maybe that should be the new short form for the six most over-bloated international conglomerates that dominate print publishing these days) notice something that sells, like sexy vampires, they trip over each other trying to put more of the same out there.
The strategy works, to a point; or it works for commercial publishers, in that it makes money.
But does it work as well for readers? For those who want more of the same thing over and over, I guess so. Personally, I think of it like I do the prospect of eating the same meal for supper every day.
That’s what the commercial publishers do, though. Comprising people with no better ability to predict the future than anyone else, they look at what sells and, in an era of rocketing technological change, shrinking profit margins and markets going digital faster than ice melting in my coffee, look for new books that are the same as the best-sellers of yesterday. Given the gestation period of your average book and the time required for sales figures to come back from the market front, these poor souls are picking products like Perseus aiming his arrow at the Gorgon’s face in the reflection of his bronze shield.
The big lie
At one time, the publishing company’s business model made sense. Printing and distributing books is expensive. It takes an organization with some capital to take a manuscript to pay all the people needed to turn a manuscript into something that an audience will want to read: at least three different editors, a proofreader and designer. Printing paper only made sense when you produced at least a few thousand copies so the unit cost would be low enough for buyers to pay it. All this has to be done before an audience has bought a single copy.
But back in the day, the model worked, and some authors even got paid an advance on their sales royalties when they gave their manuscript to the publisher.
Because the publisher fronted all these costs, they controlled the process and, to varying degrees, the content, as well. And because they paid the editors, the publishers could enforce their own standards of editorial quality. At one time, a publisher’s colophon — their corporate symbol on the book spine and title page — meant a certain quality. Penguin and Knopf, for example, had a cachet of literature.
Things are different today, and it’s not just because of e-books and Amazon. The concurrent corporate merger dance is at least as important, because with fewer players in the market, there is necessarily less differentiation. That’s just one of the lessons of Economics 101.
And a commercial publisher’s selection of a manuscript from the slush pile doesn’t mean it’s good, either. “Good” isn’t one of the criteria: the publishers are mega-corporations, and Economics 101 tells us that their sole criterion is: will it make money?
You can argue that better books, overall, sell better, and I can point to any number of terrible best-sellers. Whether quality is subjective or not, sales are measured by a different standard than quality. Sales is easy to measure. Quality is not.
That doesn’t hinder the commercial publishers. They keep telling readers — and writers — the Big Lie: that they select only good manuscripts to publish, and that’s why readers have to pay 10 to 15 bucks for a book. Then they’ll give us another story about sexy vampires, or cute dragons, or rip-off of whatever was the big hit two years ago.
It’s time for a new way.
Proposing a new publishing model
Writers can perform all the functions of a commercial publisher, and independent authors do so already. Every member of this Guild has proven that.
I suggest a cooperative model of publishing, where authors control the process.
Typically, a writer can also be a good editor, or a good proofreader (these are very different skills). Some are also good cover designers — David C. Cassidy [link: ] designed the cover of my second (non-fantasy) novel, One Shade of Red, for example, and Lisa Damerst designed the cover of The Bones of the Earth. In return, I edited their manuscripts.
This is an example of the kind of cooperation I want to encourage in the independent publishing world. As professional artists, we writers can trade our skills. We can trade editing skills for cover design, publicity for pre-publishing analysis, marketing savvy for layout or e-pub preparation.
With a large enough group of authors willing to cooperate, we can become a de facto publishing entity — one that leaves control, responsibility and revenue in the hands of the authors.
There are variations of ways this could work: authors can swap duties, like I did; they could negotiate fees for different services; or they could even work for a share of royalties — much like commercial publishers, but with the author in charge of the money.
I’d like to hear from writers, but also readers about this idea. What do you think: do authors need publishers, anymore? Do readers?
Scott Bury is author of fantasy titles The Bones of the Earth and Dark Clouds, as well as the romantic-erotic comedy One Shade of Red. His blog is Written Words.