Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

The word ‘customer’ has a certain grubby, commercial ring to many people working in the arts and the public sector. I say this having striven all my life to work in those sectors, and as someone wary of the ‘people as sources of money’ thinking that can attach to the word.

Not what the word 'customer' is all about

Not all the word ‘customer’ is about

The problem is that ‘customer’ actually has two different and related uses. Sure, it can mean someone with whom you’re entering into a commercial transaction, providing something for money (lets call this an A-customer). But in the absence of any other word to fill its place, many organisations and systems thinkers also use ‘customer’ to refer to anyone to whom you’re providing a good or service (lets call this a B-customer).

Amazon and Hachette and customers

If you pay any attention to books as an industry then you know that there’s currently a dispute between online bookseller Amazon and publisher Hachette. If you follow any authors or book bloggers you may also be aware that it’s become incredibly divisive within the industry, with fierce words put forth on all sides.

For me, the deciding factor in this is customers. Putting the customer first isn’t just empty rhetoric – in the long run it’s what leads organisations to success. Publishing is going to keep changing, evolving towards systems that serve B-customers better because that’s how they’ll get the money out of A-customers. Any argument about publishing that doesn’t begin and end with the reader experience, taking authors into account along the way, is flawed. Publishing exists to provide readers with books, and if you don’t remember that then you’re doing it wrong.

I’m seeing a lot of arguments, especially on the Hachette side, that are doing it wrong.

TV streaming and who’s the customer

This ‘customers first’ thinking is also why I think streaming services are going to win out over traditional TV channels.

Traditional channels have viewers as their B-customers, the viewers of their shows. But their A-customers, the people paying for it, are the advertisers. As someone recently pointed out to me, if you’re not paying for something then you’re not the customer, you’re the product. As a result, those A-customer advertisers have pulled TV in directions that are less satisfying for the B-customer viewers, the shows drowned out by the volume of adverts. Given other cheap options, viewers will go for a more satisfying experience, and the service will die.

But I don’t want to be a customer!

There’s no point burying our heads in the sand. If you want to sell books, if you want to read better books, if you want to make smarter decisions about your work whatever that work is, then you need to be thinking about A-customers and B-customers. Even great art works by serving people’s needs and desires. And no-one but customers is going to pay your bills.


Picture by Images of Money via Flickr creative commons

I’ve reached the point in my life where I’m too old and too damned weary not to do what I think is right.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some grey-haired, wizened finger struggling to type with fingers shrivelled by age. But after many years of doing what I thought was expected of me I don’t want that burden any more. I don’t want to live beneath the weight of others’ expectations or my own discomfort at the compromises I’ve made. I want to work in a way that is meaningful and authentic to me, my values, my view of the world, not one boxed in by managers and executives.

So many depictions of characters in popular culture tell us that you reach a point in life where you have to let go of some of your ideals, where you compromise with ‘the man’ and you realise that it’s not so bad after all. But for me it’s the other way around. After years of office work I realised that the cost of that compromise was wearing myself down from the inside with my own discomfort, that doing something I was happy with mattered more than stability and security.

That’s why, if I can, I want to try to make money self-publishing. Not because it’s the easy option, or because other routes have failed me – I haven’t even tried them yet – but because it’s what I believe in and, if I can, I’d like to do things my way. I believe that creators should retain control of their work. That the mechanisms of publishing and IP laws should protect artists not companies. That we should all take responsibility for our own lives.

This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t go with a big publisher if the option presented itself on a platter. But that’s unlikely right now. What is certain is that I’m going to have to put a lot of work and a lot of emotional energy into getting anywhere, and I’d rather put that energy into what I believe in.

The responses I’ve already had following yesterday’s post are a big help in giving me the confidence and guidance I need. So thank you to those who’ve shared their knowledge. Now comes the hard work of acting on it.

But at least I’ll be doing it my way.

The music industry’s a pretty good harbinger of where publishing’s going. Books might be a decade behind records in the shift to digital, but many of the same issues are arising. So the news that digital sales are now half the UK music industry’s income brings relevant lessons for those putting words on the page.

What, this picture again? Yes, because I enjoy its melancholy beauty. And also because I really need to do other work.

What, this picture again?
Yes, because I enjoy its melancholy beauty. And because I am lazy.


The sprint of progress

Think how quickly we’ve shifted from CDs to downloads and streaming as the main way of acquiring music. You think that won’t happen to your precious books? That’s what the old vinyl fans said, and sure they’ve still got their specialist shops and collectors bins, but in the space of two decades they’ve become an obscure cultural niche. Change is coming fast.

The Titanic turned

Some people predicted the downfall of the old music industry through the democratising power of digital distribution. It’s a wonderful dream, and one I hope to see fulfilled at some distant time. But companies aren’t vast ships heading inexorably towards the dooming iceberg of progress. They change. They adapt. They find ways to turn a profit. They’ve successfully ridden the wave of digitisation in music and, much as they’re struggling with it right now, they’ll adjust successfully to the changes in publishing.

Did the Earth move for you?

The current period of upheaval has potential to change the balance of power between authors, publishers and readers. But exciting as it is, it’s unlikely to change the fundamental landscape of the industry, at least in the medium term. Authors can now live without big publishers, but the publishers will find ways to make themselves valuable to authors again. What we do right now will affect the details of the future shape of the industry, but much as it might pain me to say this, the broad picture will be pretty similar twenty years from now.

So what?

So this: Things are changing fast. In ten years time publishers and authors will be making more money off e-books than physical ones. But the big publishers will still be making most of the money, even if more diverse voices are making a living pecking away at their market.

Current changes have the power to democratise the industry. But while these changes will happen quickly, that democratisation will take time.

Now I’m off to write a novel. Better make the most of this chaos while it lasts.


Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

Did you know that the vast majority of popular novels sold through Amazon are now ebooks? That independent publishers are making huge inroads into the book market? That all of this is producing very heated and often ill-evidenced debate?

If you’re anything like I was five years ago then you had no idea. But the publishing industry is going through a period of huge disruption, and the choices that we make, as readers as well as writers, will shape its future.

The other name on the spine

Do you pay attention to which publisher’s books you’re reading? Or is the only name you notice on the spine the author’s? It might not sound important, but who publishes a book really matters.

Until recently big publishing houses dominated the market. As is the way with business, the number of companies was shrinking through a history of takeovers and closures. But recent years have seen independent authors and small publishers take off in a big way. While the big publishers still claim to be in control, recent well-evidenced analysis by Hugh Howey – here with commentary by Joe Konrath – indicates that the underdogs now represent around half of popular genre sales in the growing e-book market.

And as self-published authors regularly receive 70% of the price of their e-book, as opposed to maybe 12% when going through a big publisher, that’s big news for the writers in question.

Paper vs electrons

What’s that you say, it’s only e-book sales? Well, yes, but the same data indicates that over 85% of genre bestseller sales through Amazon (and by bestseller I mean top 2500 titles, not just the elite top 100) are now e-books.

Alas, poor paperback, I knew him well...

Alas, poor paperback, I knew him well…

Sure, some types of books, like textbooks and illustrated books, still sell almsot entirely in a dead tree format. And of course this doesn’t cover physical bookshops, where it’s all about pulp and print. But the books seizing the popular imagination, the Dan Browns, George Martins and bodice-ripping romances, are increasingly selling in electronic form.

Stop Knighton! It’s not that straightforward

OK, yes, the situation is far more complicated than this, and because of limits on the available data it’s also very unclear. Commentators on the issue, whether the million-selling Hugh Howey or the Mighty Mur Lafferty, make this point clear – the big publishers aren’t going away any time soon, and neither are paperbacks.

But the lack of clarity is a sign in itself. If it’s not clear what’s going on then that’s a sign of change, of disruption, of a situation that no-one fully understands because it’s not staying still long enough to map out.

What about you?

As a reader, why should you care?

Because this means that your purchases are helping to direct the future of publishing. Because the format and publisher you choose makes a huge difference to how much your favourite author receives. Because all these changes mean far more diversity of books to choose from – sure, it’s a chaotic age, but for my money that makes it a golden one.

And those of you reading this who’ve been published, whether by a company or through self-publishing, what’s your experience been like? Am I discussing interesting trends or talking rot? Has this disruption affected you? Is it good for you or bad? Leave a comment, make your voice heard.


Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons