The BS Column: Legacy publishing and the new game

(Published in the Business Standard, November 27, 2012)

Pink-Eye of Sauron

There’s a scene in any self-respecting adventure film where the good guys, horribly outnumbered, merge forces to make one last, brave, desperate stand against the arch-villain.

The outcome depends on whether you’re watching Lord of the Rings (good triumphs, the world will not be ruled by a giant conjunctivitis-stricken eye), or A Bridge Too Far (evil has more ammo, sorry). The publishing industry, contemplating another big merger in the wake of the Penguin-Random House merger, hasn’t yet written the end to its own story.

As rumours suggest that HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster might be the next giant conglomerate created by this season’s enthusiasm for mergers, it seems unlikely that any of these partnerships will be enough to take on Amazon. Though the bookselling business is no longer the online retail giant’s mainstay, it is a formidable player, dominating the ebook marketplace and using its massive marketshare to dictate pricing structures.

The Author’s Guild in the US has expressed concerns about whether the mergers will work well for writers. “Survival of the largest appears to be the message here. A mega-publisher would have additional negotiating leverage with the bookselling giants, but that leverage would come at a high cost for the literary market and therefore for readers,” warned Scott Turow, bestselling author and president of the Guild.

The Indian market has been insulated from much of the last decade’s discussion about Amazon’s dominance, but that is likely to change, now that our own ebooks market is opening up, at least in English language publishing. Mergers have had a less direct impact on authors here—one of the few advantages of being in modern-day colonies is that it takes a while for the ripples from the Empire to reach its outposts.

In terms of trade publishing, several international companies (Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Picador, Bloomsbury) are either big players in the Indian market, or have made recent entries. Local publishing houses include Rupa/ Aleph, Roli and Westland among others, not counting academic presses and indies. Most Indian authors writing in English don’t question the importance of the Western marketplace; selling to a publisher in the UK, the US, Canada and Europe is seen as desirable, and in the absence of the necessary infrastructure, few authors consider the possibility of selling their books to the equally large potential markets of, say, China and Russia.

How the new, large conglomerates will fare is a complex question, and the answers will only become apparent over a period of time. But the mergers underline the growing divide between old and new publishing. The differences between the two are sharp, something Indian authors will have to consider over the next few years.

Old publishing has been dependent on bricks-and-mortar bookstores and libraries, and is vulnerable when these either disappear (as in the West) or don’t exist in quantity, as is the case with libraries in countries like India. New publishing, which includes some indie publishers, many science-fiction and genre publishers, and some self-publishers, tends to exploit the versatility of ebooks and understands that we now have at least one generation of readers who have grown up reading on screens, not on the page.

Old publishing used to prioritise authors, and many of the old school publishing firms focused for years on the excellence and high quality of the literature they published. Old publishing has found it increasingly difficult to continue supporting some kinds of writing—non-fiction books that demand long gestation periods, experimental fiction that requires nurturing—given the easy availability of pulp fiction and bestsellers, especially in the self-help, spiritual and religious markets and in romance/ horror fiction.

New publishing doesn’t treat authors as brands so much as it treats them like memes. Self-publishing has a much higher failure rate than conventional publishing does, but it also allows many more authors to get into the publishing game. Every so often, some authors become the literary equivalent of a Gangnam-style video, making it to the top and spawning copycat successes. In both old and new publishing, mid-list authors are unlikely to do well—they are lost on a larger publishing house’s list, and often have to work hard to find their audiences even if they’re being supported by a good genre or indie publisher.

While the challenges ahead of publishers are daunting, especially in terms of handling brutal squeezes on their pricing from large bookstores and retailers including Amazon, many of the other problems publishing faces comes from the industry’s slow, lumbering approach to change.

For authors, the challenge is sharply different. Except for a handful of indie publishing houses, the industry has begun to treat authors, even well-established ones, as content creators rather than creative stars, useful stocks in the publisher or retailer’s portfolio. Google—which has its own, controversial book publishing programme—has an interesting approach, offering authors the ability to curate all of their writings with their new Google Author Rank programme. If authors want visibility, independence and some clout, they’ll have to use tools like these to make their own way.





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