Thursday, March 05, 2009

Creaking Forward

It's an exciting time to be writing about the future of publishing, that's for sure. Some people are trying to race to some non-existent finish line, while others are sitting out of the race and sticking their tongue out. And no, of course I am not referring to my partner in crime here at SoTB, Christopher, who won't won't WON'T use a Kindle - you can't make him!

Anyhow, I meant to post yesterday about Cory Doctorow's article in Locus Magazine on the value of a publisher's sales force. Doctorow is of course most known for his manic blog, Boing Boing, which I don't have the energy for. It's just too much content for me, I'm afraid, but there's no doubt that it has clever writing and useful links and interesting news. All of it, all the time, constantly humming. But I digress.

Doctorow makes the point that an author is only as good as her or his sales force, the women and men going out and selling the book into bookstores, getting it onto shelves:
That is, a small army of motivated, personable, committed salespeople who are on a first-name basis with every single bookstore owner/buyer in the country, people who lay down a lot of shoe-leather as they slog from one shop to the next, clutching a case filled with advance reader copies, cover-flats, and catalogs.

Now it's surprising to see Doctorow get all Mad Men on us here, painting this dreamy picture of ol' Willy Loman knockin' on doors, charming the ladies and glad-handing the mens, but in the article, he goes on to talk up all the ways we have seen the process of publishing a book get splintered through outsourcing. Big publishers have become as lean as possible, sending all the pieces of the process out to freelancers, but then Doctorow gets to the point:

Here, then, is the major challenge and opportunity of networked, author-driven, revolutionary publishing for this century: how do you turn the Internet into a machine for introducing books to physical, real-world stores? How do you use the Internet to introduce books to online stores that don't specialize in books, like ThinkGeek?


Here is someone who has been on the vanguard of the information age for awhile who is revealing the limitations of the internet. It can get people talking, but can it ultimately get enough people buying?

I'm pretty fascinated by this taking apart of the machine, examining each piece to see if we're getting maximum efficiency. Doctorow dispels the myth of some "techno-utopians" who think anyone can now publish a book and get it to readers and we don't need The Man anymore! Goodbye big publishers! It isn't that simple. The true, sustainable value, in my mind, is in smaller operations, independent presses that can be nimble and creative, with real work horses powering them forward, dedicated to a good product (editing and design) and impassioned enough to generate attention (publicity and marketing). As Doctorow points out, such a press can establish enough of a presence to get into bookstores and non-traditional venues, with a catalog of books. The internet can allow things to splinter but if it becomes every man for himself, venues for selling books, whatever they may be, are going to get discouraged from selling and move on.

And for a future talking point very soon: Shelf Awareness reported on this announcement from publisher Thomas Nelson: "Under the NelsonFree program, anyone who buys the traditional book will have free access online to a downloadable audio version of the book and downloadable e-book files of the book, including EPub, MobiPocket and PDF." This of course is similar to records coming with free downloads - a set-up I really appreciate. Shelf Awareness has responses to this idea in today's installment. My initial response is interest, my very quick second response is Thomas Nelson?! No no no no no no no. Can someone cool do this please? Because they're kind of lame - Bible publishers who also do inspirational titles from celebrities. Yeck.

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