In a recent post on “Writing on the Ether,” Porter Anderson suggested that we (folks in the publishing industry) might take advantage of the lull this time of year offers–what some call “the silly season”–to “do some wising up.” While Porter is mostly talking about Amazon, I’d frame the “wising up” that’s needed more broadly. What business are we in, exactly?
The reflexive answer to this question is often “the book business.” This orientation emphasizes the creative role authors, agents, editors, designers, marketers, and publicists all play in producing a book and making prospective readers aware of it.
Somewhere on the other end of the spectrum (not often voiced) is the response, “No, we’re not in the book business–that’s incidental–we’re in the business of connecting people to content that matters (to them and to us).” This emphasis is at odds with the linear concept of the publishing process , focusing as it does on relationships, user experience, and on what’s valued and why.
These two ends of the spectrum have always been part of the publishing industry and can easily be seen in the traditional role of the editor (I was one for many years.) On the one hand, editors desperately want their books to be read, to offer educational value, a transformative experience of the literary art form, whatever. On the other hand, editors are snobs–If the reading public is too dim or distracted to see the value in the work the editor champions, then the hell with them. Disdain for best-seller lists and envy over who’s on them go hand in hand.
This dual personality isn’t something that is suffered by Amazon and other successful online retailers of books (Christianbooks.com is one extraordinary and little known example). Regardless of Amazon’s foray into publishing, their whole ethos is that of a retailer, whether they’re selling books, toaster ovens, or cloud data storage.
The choice publishers have to make is whether or not they really want to be retailers. Compromises, like Random House’s Biographile.com aren’t encouraging, from my point of view. While it’s a lovely, content-rich site, well-curated and well-edited, it’s a hedge. When prospective customers decide they want to buy a book they’re shuffled off to third-party retailers. This just seems wrong-headed to me, for a few reasons:
My concern is that experiments such as this will only discourage publishers from discovering whether there is a viable role they might play as retailers. And the clock is ticking.
I don’t mean to pick on Biographile.com or Random House, a publisher with an extraordinary abundance of very smart and savvy people. This may be an intermediate move in the direction of direct selling. In any case, the investment in marketing platforms that are not retail sites highlights the fundamental question facing our industry. Is there a viable middle ground between the traditional publisher role and that of the true retailer? And, if not, to what side of the publisher-retailer spectrum will you (me, us) drift?
At some point in the not-too-distant future, when Amazon has a large enough market share, the question may be moot.
N.B.: On Mike Shatzkin’s blog post “Selling Direct Will Become An Essential Capability for Publishers to Have,” there’s much more food for thought on this question, and a great array of reader comments.