Felix Writes: The Problem With Publishing

DigitalThoughts / The Problem With Publishing

I've just returned from the Gaudeamus book fair. I won't bother you with a report -- it's much like in other years. Fewer experiments, perhaps, and less multimedia, but many interesting books. (Also some sweet tablets and e-book readers from a local brand. Why must these toys be so tempting? I don't really need or want one.)

Anyway, unlike with previous editions, I focused on meeting friends. One of them happens to be an experienced publisher, and he complained about difficulties. Which at first surprised me, considering the size of the crowd, and the general vibrancy of the Romanian book market.

But then he said something that made it clear what the problem is.

I wrote about it before, but if you are in the publishing business, you're not just competing with others in the same medium, be it books, games or whatever. You're also competing with all the other forms of entertainment out there, and there's a mindboggling amount of it. That still wouldn't be that much of a problem -- business pretty much implies competition. But remember what a publisher's business is.

It's to intermediate between authors and their audience. And guess what: last winter's best selling author on Amazon was self-published.

Now, imagine that you go to Mr. Wilkinson (who is younger than I am, and firmly in the Generation Y age bracket) and tell him, "you're not a real author until you went through me to publish, and I won't publish your book if it's been out on the Internet already". My guess is that he'll look sideways at you and ask, "who the hell are you, old fart? I've sold more copies of a single book than you have in your entire carreer." And if you're a Romanian publisher, he's probably right, as typical print runs are, what, 1000 copies?

This guy doesn't need you. Like, at all. He might come to you anyway, but see, you want exclusivity. And that would actively hurt his sales.

"But," you're going to ask, "if I can't offer my readers exclusive content, what are they going to pay me for?" Ah-ha-ha. Good. You've remembered the other side of the equation: the public. And the same overabundance of entertainment that's such a boon for them is also a problem: finding quality content can be hard. This is where publishers can still help.

Not as gatekeepers, but as curators.

Oh, and don't tell me I'm not a writer until I've been published "officially". First of all, I have been. (By a now-defunct computer magazine, but that's besides the point.) Second, that's a quaint and offensive stance. And I'm not easily offended. If I write stuff people enjoy reading, that makes me a writer. Not that labels matter much anymore.

What matters is making yourself useful. So please, for your own sake, get down from that high horse and see what people really need.