Can Book Publishing Retain Its Most Precious Asset?

Think about the book publishing business, and what image comes first to mind? How about tweedy? Tweed jackets, oriental rugs, leather chairs, wood-paneled offices.

But when Stephen King’s novella “Riding the Bullet” was published electronically a couple months back, and upwards of half a million people downloaded it, the tweedy image went right out the window. It’s hard to be tweedy when you’re in the middle of a hurricane.

Make no mistake, the publishing industry is in the midst of a hurricane. What gave the publishing industry its clout for many years was its power of distribution. Tweedy as the publishers were, they had a pipeline to the bookstores. And with the power of distribution came the leverage to demand total control of authors. When an author sold a book to a tweedy publisher, he or she usually gave up to the publisher control of all print-related rights, such as sale of excerpts to magazines or republishing the book in foreign languages, forever and ever, regardless of whether the publisher hit its sales goals or not.

The Internet changes the entire dynamics of publishing. When Stephen King’s words can be packaged into a PDF file and downloaded by anyone with a computer in a few minutes, one must begin to question what his publisher, Simon & Schuster, is doing to earn its share of the income pie.

Already, there is evidence that highly respected authors are asking that question. Online publisher Fatbrain has published the writings of famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. If you had any doubts about how seriously the tweeds view such demonstrations of author independence, all you had to do was watch Simon & Schuster give Fatbrain the silent treatment when it sought to distribute Stephen King’s e-book.

Even yours truly is finding himself feeling restless. I have had six books published by three highly respected publishers (Doubleday, HarperCollins, and Inc. Publishing). But when I completed my most recent book last month, “Better Than Money: Build Your Fortune Using Stock Options and Other Equity Incentives — in Up and Down Markets,” I decided to carve out my own distribution path on the Internet.

Now, I can tell you firsthand that the emerging author-as-publisher model is no piece of cake. I haven’t exactly relished the tedium of obtaining ISBN numbers and applying for merchant account (credit card) privileges. Certainly I’d rather spend my time writing than negotiating with online distributors and graphic designers. And all the marvels of electronic sales and downloading are still a ways from perfection.

But every time I get frustrated with the process of publishing in the electronic age, I marvel at the idea that it is even within my reach. Ask any published author what his or her biggest source of frustration is, and you’ll invariably be told about the bumbling and incompetence of the established publishers — their sluggishness in producing and printing books, failure to obtain publicity for highly sellable books, inability to keep bookstores stocked after the author has done promotion, and general lack of responsiveness to author suggestions to increase sales. In their tweedy ways, too many publishers have looked down their noses at sound business techniques, as well as at the providers of their content.

There are signs that at least a few publishers are seeing the threat posed to their traditional ways by the Internet. Look at sites from Simon & Schuster and Little, Brown and Co., for example, and you’ll see signs of web savviness. Simon & Schuster makes a big pitch for e-books, even if the options for accessing them aren’t entirely clear. Little, Brown promotes live chats with authors and free excerpts of popular books. Others, like Harper-Collins and John Wiley & Sons, seem to be stuck in neutral, focusing entirely on describing their latest printed bound volumes.

I don’t envy the challenge facing publishers. They need to do something much more difficult than shedding their tweedy ways — they need to demonstrate their value in the knowledge-distribution food chain. And they need to do that in the face of a daunting reality: The Internet opens up for authors, the publishers’ main asset, the heady possibility of freedom — freedom to communicate directly with readers around the world, freedom to publish their works quickly, and freedom at long last to earn a much larger share of each publishing dollar.

It’s heady stuff. Once people catch the scent of freedom in the air, it’s hard to get them to listen to reason.

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