Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Books Without Publishers - Harry Bingham Guest Post

Further to my roundup of the London Book Fair from a digital author's perspective (The London Book Fair's For Authors Too!), I'm delighted to host a guest blog on the future of publishing by Harry Bingham of The Writer's Workshop:

Books Without Publishers

Just before Christmas, I had lunch with the CEO of one of the UK's biggest publishers. We were talking about how the world was moving from a world of limited shelf space (Waterstones, WH Smith, Tescos) to a world of unlimited shelf space, the digital world, a place where any number of books can happily co-exist.

In the first world, it's pretty obvious why you need things as they are. You need writers and readers, of course. But you need retailers (to create the shelf space). You need publishers (to sell stuff to retailers). And you need agents (to sell stuff to publishers). A cumbersome old way of doing things, but you can see the logic.

In the new world, you still need (duh!) the writer and the reader. You need some kind of interface between the two - Amazon, for example, or an Apple iBookstore - but what else? Why have an agent, if Amazon offers universal terms? Why have a publisher, if the publisher is just on-selling to Amazon? By the time we got to pudding, this Great Publishing CEO was leaning over to me and asking in all seriousness, 'Harry, do you think that publishers will even exist?'

It's a real question, and she's not the only one asking it. I'd say that pretty much every major publisher and literary agent is asking themselves that question and no one truly knows the answer.

Nevertheless, I think there are a few facts you can depend on:
    1.    Editorial quality still counts. You will never get a word of mouth bestseller unless the book itself is very good. That means getting the big things right (plot, character, prose style), but it probably also means the little things too (proper copyeditiing, no typos, commas in all the right places). The Writers' Workshop exists to offer exactly those sort of services and we've never been busier, despite the downturn in conventional publishing.
    2.    Branding still matters. You can't write a wonderful book and put a rubbish cover on it - not even a rubbish e-cover, that doesn't exist beyond a page on a computer screen. Quality cover design is still the first reader-experience of a book and you have to make sure that experience is a positive one. It needs to communicate the right kind of message (eg: "This is a crime novel") and it needs to do so memorably and beautifully.
    3.    Platform still matters. In the old day, your selling platform was a nice review in the Daily Telegraph and a 3-for-2 deal at Waterstones. Those things are becoming progressively less important ... but that doesn't mean you can afford not to replace them. So you need a major digital presence. Blogs. Websites. Forums. Twitter. Whatever is your thing. But aim high. A thousand visitors a month won't do much for you. You need to be aiming to gather an audience in the 10s of thousands - bear in mind that few of them will end up buying your book.
    4.    There will still be 'filters'. In the old-old days, publishing houses filtered out the garbage and printed the good stuff. In the old days (ie: last year) that role largely migrated to literary agents. In the new world (ie: the world of the year after next) there will be increasing opportunities to bypass agents ... but there will still be gatekeepers. Those gatekeepers might be bloggers or webmasters, but whoever they are, they'll still matter. You are going to need to impress them and the quality levels will still be challenging.

But having said all that - the new world looks like being fun. There are companies now who can take a word document and convert it into the right format for Amazon and Apple (with Digital Rights Management protection on it) for a few hundred quid. The tools of paper self-publishing will exist for the digital world - except that retailing is going to be miles easier. I don't know what the new world will hold, but it's a revolution on a scale that publishing hasn't seen in 500 years. Hold on to your hats - the ride starts here

Harry Bingham is an author and boss of The Writers' Workshop (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk).

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