Bob Mayer has an interesting post up this morning about how traditional publishing meets, or does not meet, the needs of the most important element of the entire publishing world... the Reader.
What caught my attention in his post is the statistic that 90% of traditionally published books "fail" for various reasons. "Fail" in this case is a purposefully nebulous term, likely referring to whether or not a book sells enough for the publisher to contract for another one. The 90% is just a ballpark figure, but I think it's pretty close.
Close enough for this discussion, anyway, so let’s get to it.
Major League Baseball is a game where players “fail” most of the time. Getting a hit 30% of the time makes you a “300 hitter” and an excellent baseball player (especially if you are a Designated Hitter) even though you are technically “failing” 70% of the time. Major League Baseball has no room for “100 hitters.” Failing 90% of the time means you can sit and watch… on TV, or you can buy a ticket, but you are not welcome on the playing field.
If 90% of books published by traditional publishers “fail,” doesn’t that imply that traditional publishers are just very bad at the business of publishing? I mean, that is their primary function, right?
If 90% of an ad agency’s campaigns failed, they’d go out of business in short order, no? If 90% of a software developer’s products failed on the market… etc…
Most of the reasons for the massive amount of "failure" in big time publishing have to do with the same flaws you can see in any large corporate entity that has existed long enough to become top heavy. When the need to pay exorbitant salaries to the "decision makers" and dividends to stakeholders exceeds the need to take adequate care of the producers (in this case, the writers), the "Blockbuster Mentality" takes hold. See "the movie industry" or just read my previous post about "the Homogenization of Art" for a closer look at this state of affairs.
There's a ton to go into here which has already been gone into many times before (including by me in that second link above). So I'm just going to skip to the point of what the digital revolution and this sudden loss of the strangle hold on distribution means to the big business of traditional publishing.
It means they need to perform better. They need to give readers what they want at an affordable price. And that is something which, in their present form, they can't really do. In the short term, yes, of course they can deliver the goods. But in the long term, big corporations are simply paying the wrong people. They are driving writers away and leaving readers in the lurch because they are too fat and too top heavy to give the producers what they deserve and the customers what they want (beyond the blockbuster, that is).
I'm not suggesting big publishers will go away. But they will change from their present form (which is basically a gluttonous jerk stuffing his face with all the shrimp at the buffet, a person few people have much use for or inclination to hang out with).
|Care for a wafer thin mint? It is wafer thin...|
Why will they have to change? Simple, they’ve suddenly got competition. From the people they stopped taking care of. From the people on who’s shrimp they have gorged. From the people they can no longer properly embrace (because they now have those little T-Rex arms).
They have cut themselves off from writers.
I have virtually the same ability to distribute my work as a traditional publisher (not completely, but close enough to make a book a success. A few short years ago that was not the case. But now it is. Suddenly, and I think, irrevocably, it is now the case. I published my first novel last fall.
I’ve been lucky, sure, but nevertheless, readers are finding my work and really enjoying it. I'm delighted by the results in more ways that I can count. But the bottom line is, my first book is a success, in large part because I did it myself. I told the story I wanted to tell, hired my own cover artist, my own editor to make it look and feel the way I wanted it to feel... I did everything with my own will, talent, and sensibility. And it's a success. As a publisher, I'm 1-for-1, batting a thousand.
But if my next 9 books are failures, I doubt I will be able to remain in the publishing business. In fact, it seems unlikely I would even get to 9 failures out of ten before the need for food and shelter intervene. But something tells me I can continue to do a lot better than a “traditional” batting average on my own. And that tells me that big publishing might want to make some changes, maybe choke up on the bat a little bit. Because succeeding only 10% of the time only works in industries where there is no competition. Not in baseball. And now, at last, not in publishing.
There are a lot of writers in the world who can do better than 10 percent. Watch us.