I have read many lamentations about the evils of Amazon but have yet to see anyone effectively rebut Matt Yglesias’s points in “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers.” The section about marketing is particularly interesting, since seemingly everyone agrees:
When I was a kid, my father was a novelist as were both of my grandparents. So I heard a lot of stories about how useless publishers are at marketing books. Then I got to know other people who wrote books and they had the same complaints. Then I wrote a book, and their complaints became my complaints. But it’s easy to whine that other people aren’t marketing your product effectively. It took the Amazon/Hachette dispute to conclusively prove that the whiners are correct. [. . .]
The real risk for publishers is that major authors might discover that they do have the ability to market books.
Publishers also appear to be bad at identifying which books readers want to read and which books readers don’t want to read; we’re now going to find that out by writers writing and then releasing their books into the wild.
Incidentally, though, it’s hard for me to find good books that are either self-published or conventionally published; if you have any suggestions please email me.
See also “Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz.”
Yglesias is basically right about the problem, but I thought his conclusion was timid and weak: “In the new regime it will be easier for writers to find readers and reach larger audiences. They just won’t find them through the exact same set of middlemen who currently sit astride the pipeline.”
Sure, it will be even easier for writers with existing platforms to do so—writers like George R.R. Martin, with a huge fan base, and writers of sociopolitical ephemera like Yglesias himself, since he has a finite but reliable regular readership. But lower down the food chain, it’s more complicated. Writers of fiction no longer need the imprimatur of a big publisher to sell their wares, but nonfiction writers may; when you’re trying to book an author appearance and lecture at, for example, a museum where hundreds of people will attend, it’s still better to be able to say “I wrote this book about Charlemagne, and it’s published by HarperCollins,” than it is to say “I wrote this book about Charlemagne and published it through Lulu.” In the years ahead, there will still be middlemen; it’s not too early for Yglesias to speculate about who they may be.
Of course, the first step toward figuring out how to market books is to stop talking about the publishing industry and think instead about publishing industries. A novel isn’t a history book, which isn’t a political tome, which isn’t a volume of poetry, and so on. Each type, and each book within that type, has a niche that marketers need to identify. If the “new regime” doesn’t do that, most writers aren’t going to see a heck of a lot of difference.
Ygeslas certainly makes a lot of surprising claims embroidered with pretty words, but they are not linked into a coherent argument and backed by evidence. A recent discussion of the economics of publishing which respects its readers is Charlie Stross’ Common Misconceptions about Publishing (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/04/common-misconceptions-about-pu-1.html).
Just as a machinist can be more productive by making one thing at a time and letting others produce materials, procure materials, prepare materials, finish his work, organize the warehouse, market product, keep accounts, and keep the whole system organized, a novelist can be more productive by focusing on writing and letting ten other people do the other half of the work of delivering a moderately successful novel to its audience. A publishing house also distributes risk in a very uncertain industry. The author gets a known minimum payment whether his piece does poorly or badly, and the press sells so many pieces that the few which do very well will make up for the majority which fail to attract a large audience. My experience writing for magazines and journals tends to support Stross’ remarks on writing commercial novels, but where a writer like Ygeslas demands that you trust him, Stross provides evidence which one can test.
Some reasonable people certainly have more critical views of the publishing sector than Stross has, but Ygeslas avoids many of these vulnerable points and makes many claims which I doubt he believes (one could debate how many publishers provide these services, but does he really think that software or any bum in the street can do professional copyediting and style editing and fact checking and cover design and indexing and layout?). One Does Not Argue with Trolls.
I suspect that the real marketing problems have more to do with the small margins of the publishing industry, the low entry costs, and the idiosyncrasy of the product. Finding the 500 people who want to buy a book on textile fragments from Late Roman Egypt has never been easy, but a publisher which can publish a similar book every three years may find it more rewarding to identify them than an academic who publishes one every ten.