Economics, Sociology and the Future of Publishing

10 Feb

The idea of becoming a publisher was first broached to me a little more than three months ago.  Since then, it seems, every conversation I have, article I read, or headline I happen to glance at seems to call into question the wisdom of my decision.  Just this week, a friend – someone who himself has had considerable experience as a publisher – pointed to a series of technological developments that will likely render publishers extinct.  This latest wonder is brought to us from Apple which offers up a service to allow an individual to produce a really fine looking electronic book.  My friend thinks this will be a game-changer, the way easy Kindle publication was not. Before you start sputtering and saying – What about <insert favorite indie success story here>?  — Patience.  I’ll get to that.

Whenever someone says technology will let us do X, Y or Z, I recall a Bizarro cartoon that I kept taped to my computer for many years.  It shows a couple of grease-covered mechanics, surrounded by the latest in automotive diagnostic and repair equipment, looking down on a car engine in flames.  They explain to the customer – We have the technology; we just don’t know how to use it.  I’m amazed by what technology can do – but I’m never surprised when it fails to perform as promised.

My basic proposition is this – if publishers didn’t exist, writers would need to invent them.  And increasingly, that is exactly what successful self-publishers (indie publishers if the label makes you feel better) are doing.  The explanation is simple.  The laws of economics demand it.

Division of labour to maximize economic efficiency goes back to the dawn of time.  We have hunters.  And we have gatherers.  Soon we have tool-makers and tool-users.  Then we have people to guard the fire and people to splint the bones and so on.  Theoretically, one person could do all those things.  It’s why we coined the term – Jack of all trades, master of none.  It is far more efficient to parse out the jobs to the people who do them best.  More efficient means more calories; more calories mean a better chance of surviving.  An evolutionary psychologist (a tricky profession at best), might argue that division of labour is an evolutionary imperative.

Division of labour leads to relative advantage.  Think of it this way: I can produce flint tools efficiently, producing a stone ax with a mere thirty strokes with only one broken tool in twenty.  Blarg over there can produce axes that are just as good as mine but he takes fifty strokes and breaks one in fifteen.  My caloric expenditure per tool is 100, whereas Blarg spends 180 for the same product.  I can consistently sell my axes for a smaller share of the mastodon than Blarg.  He can compete for a while – selling at a loss – but eventually he will go into another line of work or risk starving to death.  Fortunately for Blarg, he has wicked mushroom identification skills, whereas half the mushrooms I pick are poisonous.  Pretty obvious who the mushroom specialist should be.

Relative advantage is pretty much the basis of all trade and the source of most of the wealth created over the last fifty years.  And make no mistake, the world – the vast majority of the people in it – is getting richer all the time.  That prosperity may kill us all – but that’s another story.

Yet, somehow people think the division of labour doesn’t provide any advantage when it comes to creating a book.  Or that clever technology can somehow stand in for specialized skills.  What’s more, it will allow for the production of a quality product for $0.99.

Suppose you wanted to make a chair.  First you would have design it.  No drafting skills – no problem.  I’m sure there is an app for that. It will be a generic chair but who needs something fancy?  Then you have to pick out the wood.  What kind of wood makes the best chairs?  Look it up on Google.  There will be options and almost certainly a difference of opinion.  Pick one.  Let’s cut that wood into chair pieces.  Don’t know how to use power tools (or like me, pathologically afraid of losing a finger)?  There must be an app for that, too.  Plug your design into a computer driven lathe, dump in the wood and press start.  After that, assembling the chair should be a snap.  The way assembling Ikea furniture is a snap.  No tears, no broken fingernails, no bookshelves that lean ever so slightly to the left.

Voila!  A chair.  Oh, wait, there’s still the varnishing to do.  And what about upholstery? No app?  How about a three weekend course at the local community college?

Okay, it’s not a thing of beauty.  But it’s a lot like a chair and you can sit on it if you don’t mind the wobble.  And someone will buy it if the price is low enough.  Say, free.

It’s not that I don’t think people can’t master the art of chair building.  Or guitar making.  I have friends who do both very well.  And it only took them ten or twenty years to learn how to do it.  Some of my guitar-making friends even can play the guitar – though not at a professional level.  That’s another 10 to 20 year project.

So what is it that a publisher does?  And why is it still valuable?  The publisher has two basic functions.  The first is the one everyone hates.  Gatekeeper.

How many writers have said: That editor doesn’t know good writing when he sees it?  Or rejecting my story is only a matter of her personal opinion.  Okay, you can all put your hands down now.

There is a tremendous urge to by-pass gatekeepers (though isn’t thrilling when the doorman lets you in while keeping a line of would-be patrons waiting in the rain?).  You think, my book is good enough and it’s only being kept out of the market for nefarious reasons.  Or, slightly more rational, my book is good enough and would be published but publishers take too long and take too big a share of the money.

However, gatekeeper is a useful function.  A good gatekeeper can save you the embarrassment of exposing your work when it is JUST NOT READY.  They can also – like the doorman at the high-end club – make you feel part of an exclusive group. 

But what right do they have to be gatekeepers?  It’s simple – they are about to spend a bunch of money on you in the hope they will make a profit.  That’s risky and, all too often, doesn’t pay off.  Given that the publisher is the very last person to get paid, you might understand why they would be a little touchy about which books they accept.

Of course, big publishers avoid the gatekeeper role altogether; they hire senior editors to do that for them (and marketers – don’t forget the power of the sales force).  They concentrate on the second role of the publisher: management.

That’s basically what a publisher spends all of their time doing.  Using the laws of economics – division of labour and relative advantage – to create the best possible books at the lowest economic cost.  They find the editors, the proofreaders, the book designers, the cover artists, the printers, the sales force, the distribution team, the publicists and so on to move the writer’s creation to the market in a way that will cause people to actually want to spend real money for it.  It’s all a matter of finding the best resources, using them efficiently and managing the logistics.

Small publishers like Bundoran Press – which, by the way, is just me – may take on some of those tasks themselves.  I will edit some of the books I buy; others I’ll contract out.  Initially, I will hire people to do some of the design and layout.  I’ve done some work in that field but need to take my time to do a good job.  As I get more proficient and efficient (and have fewer demands on my time), I’ll take some more of that on.  Publicity will be a joint effort with the author (the job of a writer is never done – the subject for a future blog) and I’ll do some of the sales work (with the help of professional web-designers, my wife, who is far better with the public than me and a professional distribution company) but the rest – cover art, distribution, e-book creation, proofreading, printing – will always be sought out and hired. 

I don’t think for a minute that I can do everything needed to create a quality book; I do think I’m pretty good at managing those who can.  Even so, I would never publish my own books (if I ever find time to write again).  Not enough objectivity, not enough faith in my own brilliance, one task too many, or desire of an alternative viewpoint – you can pick the reason that suits you.

Interestingly, a lot of Indie writers have discovered the same thing and wind up hiring editors, book designers, cover artists, even publicists.  Maybe they are younger than me or have more energy – but not surprisingly, most of them jump at the chance to go the traditional route when lucrative contracts are offered.  As one put it – it’s not the money, it’s the freedom to concentrate on what I really want to do: write.

As for the laws of sociology?  Contrary to popular belief, writing is not a solitary profession.  At least, successful writing isn’t.  At the very least, successful writing requires two people, what Umberto Eco calls the Perfect Writer and the Perfect Reader.  Unlike computer code which is binary in nature, either on or off, either 0 or 1, words have multiple coded meanings.  Take the word “fine.”  In the context of “fine food” or “fine wine,” it clearly means “good.”  In the context of an argument with your wife, it can mean almost anything – none of which are “good.”

The writer codes; the reader interprets.  Ideally they are on the same page.  Generally they are not.  Regardless, the act of writing is already sociological in nature – an effort at communication that embeds cultural structures, expectations and controversies within every chapter.  At least it does if it is any good.  Then, in Hemingway’s many senses of the word, it is fine.

The sociological nature of writing – we are holding a conversation with other writers and with society – leads to the necessity of mediation.  I’m not talking here about the legal idea of conflict resolution but rather the cultural one of placing something in the middle of things – the middle of the discussion – and of honing interpretation so the code the writer has encrypted becomes clearer to the reader.

The publisher – or the function of publisher when taken on by the Indie writer – plays a role here too.  By bringing other creative tools and people to bear on the work, he helps the writer become better as a writer, a communicator deeply and fruitfully embedded in the cultural discourse of society. 

And no technological quick fix will ever do that.


P.S If you’d like to support our latest project – an anthology of political science fiction called “Strange Bedfellows” – consider donating to our Indiegogo project.  There are lots of nice benefits and it’s sure to give you a nice warm feeling.

3 Responses to “Economics, Sociology and the Future of Publishing”

  1. Herb Kauderer February 10, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    Great article. The great internet rush to publish has works hitting the public with very few vetting cycles. The more eyes that read a book before publication, the more chances it has to be improved. I believe the role of the editor and gatekeeper are more important than ever in the age of epublishing.

    • haydenbundoran February 10, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

      Thanks, Herb. I think we’re still in for lots of change but I’m certain that ten years from now there will still be a vital role for editors, gatekeepers and publishers.

  2. Annelies Pool February 11, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

    Well-put, Hayden. Like you, I have a great belief in the role of the publishing industry as gatekeeper. At the same time, I do not think that every worthy, commercially-viable manuscript will find a traditional publisher, particularly in today’s publishing climate. Publishers DO reject manuscripts for reasons other than quality. A few years ago, after receiving a number of encouraging rejections (they liked the work but it didn’t fit into their publishing programs), I decided, somewhat reluctantly, to self-publish a collection of columns that had already been published in magazines. But I did exactly what you said: hired professionals to design, edit, proofread and print the work. I was happy with the results in that it increased my readership, advanced my career and I made a small profit on the venture. Now I am in the final stages of a first novel. I plan to submit it to publishers but if that doesn’t work, I will self-publish again. This will be more risky as this work will not have been previously published, so I will again bring in the professionals who, I hope, will help me avoid making a fool out of myself. While self-publishing will never be my first choice, I think it’s preferable to letting years of work languish and I’m glad that today’s technology makes it a viable option.

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