Saturday, January 23, 2010

Publishing the new, old way. Part II

Enormous changes are taking place in publishing even as I type. Last Tuesday Publishers Lunch broke a story that Apple has been negotiating with the Big Six (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins) to supply content for what we all assume is the imminent arrival of a tablet device, possibly to be announced this Wednesday. The next day, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon was changing the deal with its Desktop Publishing clients (individuals and small publishers), from a 65/35 split in Amazon's favor to a 70/30 split in the client's favor, starting in June. It's worth noting that the current Amazon deal with the Big Six is reported to be a 50/50 split. A day later, the news broke that Amazon was releasing an SDK (Software Development Kit) for the Kindle, thereby inviting developers to generate apps (applications) for the Kindle, akin to the enormously successful Apple App program for the iPhone and iTouch. What does it all mean? It means that Apple and Amazon are wrestling, and when Titans struggle, the world shakes. Meanwhile, the Gaea (mother of the Titans) of the techno-cosmos is Google, which will launch a Google Partners program in the first or second quarter of 2010 offering a 70/30 (in the client's favor) split to deliver books from their cloud to any device. IMO, this is the game changer. In any event, when corporations the size of these move this quickly, something big is happening. We live in interesting times.

For those of you who found everything I wrote in the previous paragraph either incomprehensible or noxious, there is good news. From my perch on the bleeding edge of the lunatic fringe, as volatile and unsettled as the publishing environment is these days, some fundamentals are adamantine. Let's review the basics. Publishing is a mechanism for "making public." That's not what writers and artists do. They "make." That is not changing. Editors are not publishers. Editors help writers and artists "make better" what they "make." That is not changing. When writers and artists and editors are done making what they make, then publishers do what they do. If you are a publisher, these are truly interesting times, because the old model is in deep, deep trouble in the face of economic and technological developments. If you are a writer or artist, it's the same old same old. You just need to make the best book you can make. If you are an editor, you need to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of the gate keepers entombed in the old publishing model and the brave new world of the unfiltered (read "unedited") deluge enabled by the internet. If you are a publisher, you need to look deep and hard at what is happening, and fish or cut bait.

But, my friends and colleagues, take comfort from the fact that writers and artists do what they do and editors do what they do and nothing about that has changed. All that is in play is who gets paid for what by whom. It is not my intention to suggest this is not important, but it isn't the most important aspect of what we do. This is good because it is definitely not in our control, and, I submit, you should never let the most important thing you do be in somebody else's control.

So, new models are emerging, but elements of the old model remain. Now anybody can publish, i.e. make public, anything. But readers won't settle for anything. Incoherent ramblings won't cut it, however freely available. Quality—however you define it—is as valuable as ever. How you get paid for that is in play. The upheaval we are living through is about marketing, sales, and distribution, not content. I take great comfort in that.

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