Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Do we still need commercial publishers?

You have to love disruptive technology (and the humans who create disruption by exploiting the technology).  It really forces you to consider what things need to be maintained, the threat of the technology notwithstanding, and the reasons why that is necessary.  Others might not agree with those reasons, pointing out there may be different ways to achieve the same results.  Who knows how it will really play out?

In an Op-Ed in today's NY Times Richard Russo, an author, has an extended rag against Amazon.com, which is squeezing out independent booksellers, using nefarious business practices to hasten the process.  And with that Amazon is supposedly destroying a literary culture that accompanies the world of the independent bookseller.  Russo wants to hold onto this culture.  So he has cast Amazon as the villain.

I want to respond to that piece, both as occasional consumer of books and as an author of sort of economics content as well as an author wannabe of other content.

* * * * *

After my first year in grad school at Northwestern, I started to watch "serious" films on a somewhat regular basis.  Northwestern had a series in the Norris Center Union.  Facets Multimedia provided many excellent alternative films.  There were other outlets as well to indulge this interest once in a while (The Art Institute, The Biograph).  Given this interest, I became a regular reader of Dave Kehr's column in The Reader.  It seemed to me that my tastes in film were remarkably similar to his (and not that similar to Siskel and Ebert, plus I didn't get a TV till my third year in grad school).  Given that, I used Kehr's column to suggest what films I'd see. 

It is different for me with book reviews now, where I mainly read them as things unto themselves, make a little penetration into the subject matter and then move on, and I have less loyalty to any particular reviewer.  And even the reviewers I revere, I read for their writing of the review, not for their recommendation of the book.  My path into books is more eclectic.  For fiction it is sometimes the gift of a friend that determines it.  Likewise for non-fiction that might be work related, it is sometimes the recommendation of a colleague that triggers the reading.  Or, based on something I read previously, and then some serendipitous incident connecting that with a new work, I begin to read that. 

For me these pathways suffice.  I'm someone who likes to discover things by puttering with them on my own.  Even when we had an independent bookseller in Champaign, Pages for All Ages, a store I frequented with some regularity, I didn't use their expertise to identify titles I (or my children) might want to read.  I only asked for help to locate titles I already knew about in their store.

What about somebody else who would like more hand holding?  Do peer networks solve the problem?  I don't know, but just last week a friend from high school asked for book recommendations on her Facebook wall.  So it seems possible, though it could be simply the blind leading the blind, and therefore ultimately not satisfying.

The University Library here as an online chat function called, Ask A Librarian.  I believe that recent budget cuts have forced reduction in the staffing of this service, but it is still up and running.  The Champaign Public Library has a similar functionality.  In neither case do I believe there has been any analysis of whether the service is being run at the right scale.  For example, perhaps all the CIC member universities could offer a single pooled Ask A Librarian service.  Likewise, perhaps local public libraries from around the state could offered such a pooled service for their readers.  Maybe in this manner an effective service that matches the volume of use could be found.

There is a different matter apart from whether such services can be economical.  In the current conception, those who staff the services remain anonymous to the user and therefore the services are not customized to the user's tastes.  Each transaction is treated as novel, a thing unto itself.  There is no reliance on the history of previous such transactions, so no room for the Librarian to offer up recommendations in advance of the solicited request nor any way to tailor the responses to the particular user.  Russo envisions a bookseller who knows his customers.  This bookseller provides a Yente function between the customers and books yet unread by them.  Teachers, perhaps more than Librarians, might perform this Yente function for their students.  (As universities seek to find ways to be of more value to students and alumni perhaps this role will increase.)   Might there be somebody else to perform the Yente function for those who are no longer students nor alumni heavily tied to their Alma Mater?  If there is does the function need to be tied to selling books? 

Let me use those questions as a way to segue into this arena from the author perspective.  I have essentially two different sites for my economics content, even though they have much the same stuff.  One is The Economics Metaphor.  People find this site mainly by regular Google searches.  (For example, do a search on economics production table.)  The other is the ProfArvan channel in YouTube.  People find those videos (and links to related Excel files) mainly from within YouTube, either by referral or search.  I've gotten the occasional question from viewers there (invariably these are students currently taking microeconomics and not from me).  I've been pretty dutiful in responding.  So far I've not gotten multiple comments from the same person on different videos.  But that certainly seems possible.  The queries I do get refer to content I've created.  But it certainly seems possible that if my videos were reviews of other content that I could get queries of the sort meant for a Yente.

Can the author or the Yente make a living by direct marketing their work in this manner?    Note, I'm not asking if authors like Mr. Russo can make as much as they currently make from their book contracts.  I'm asking whether they can make enough to sustain themselves, and thus whether there is a viable model to do this without Amazon and without a commercial publisher as well.

There seem to me three potential models where this might be possible.
  1. Ad supported content.
  2. A "shareware" approach where users are asked for contributions, perhaps with some additional ways of limiting access to IP addresses after a certain number of page views. 
  3. A "serialization" of free content (certain chapters of the book) where the remaining content is sold in the traditional way. 
It also seems possible to mix and match these approaches.  The first two of these assume Web delivery of the content.  The third allows for the preferred format of the reader.  All three would seem to require some middle player between author and audience and thus a potential for the middle player to monopolize, in the manner that Russo takes Amazon to task.  But, for example, if Google is the provider of ads in alternative (1) and if book publishing in this way represents only a sliver of Google's market for ads in Web content more generally, then the fear of them specifically monopolizing book publishing is less.  In other words, this would be a kind of judo approach and thus might be comparatively immune from the monopolization issue.

I should mention a fourth possible model - which you might call the faculty model.  The content is given away for free, in toto.  The author is hired by an academic institution, as a writer in residence.  The writer earns a salary stream, but doesn't get royalties.  The author does other functions, like giving talks or teaching classes.  The author's reputation presumably is related to the volume of traffic that is generated, as well as by how the work is perceived by certain critical reviewers and Yentes.  I note that at places like Illinois the creation of those YouTube videos would not count as scholarly work for promotion and tenure or for salary review, at present.  So there needs to be some thought of whether it should so count. 

I do not bring up the fourth model to make the case that academia should go this route.  (Under the "textbook model" authors of textbooks don't get to count the work for P&T and salary review but do get the royalties from sales of the textbook.  Personally, I believe the academic institution should be flexible enough to reward this type of content creation, but I do recognize there are decades of tradition steeped in the textbook model to overcome in order to reach that outcome.)  Rather I do it because part of the contractual relationship between author and commercial publisher has to do with risk redistribution.  Typically, the publisher bears much if not all of the downside risk.  For doing this, the publisher receives the bulk of the upside risk.  It might seem that in a salary model the institution bears all the risk.  This is not quite right, however.   Faculty who are "hot" commodities can get hired away by other institutions, which puts pressure on the home institution to match the outside offer.  Either way, the faculty member who generates a strong reputation gets to share in the upside.  Those without tenure are all too well aware of the downside.  And even among the tenured faculty, salaries tend to vary directly with productivity.  This to say that the salary model conceivably offers an alternative approach to the traditional publishing model in the way it handles the risk shifting.  The salary model also *may* take money out of the equation for the author on a more consistent basis and thus allow the author to better focus on the creative aspects of the work.

Traditional publishing provides two other functions that I'm aware of that are not directly related to distribution.  The editing function is probably still indispensable, for any work that is apt to get a sufficiently high volume of readers.  If authors became employees, what would happen to editors?  I really don't know.  But I conjecture that function would be maintained in the way that scholarly journals and societies are currently maintained, with an emphasis on institutional membership.  In other words, the editors would be salaried employees, not of individual academic institutions but rather of consortia in which these institutions are members.

The other function is marketing.  The publishers promote their new releases in a variety of ways.  It seems to me that for established authors, much of this cost is pure dissipation.  The word can easily get around anyway.  This is an argument that if there is ever a move to these direct distribution forms of publishing, it should be the established authors who do it first.

Do up and coming authors need the commercial marketing to get over the hump?  Perhaps they do, but that doesn't mean the publishers will be able to identify an up and coming author.  Last year when I attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival I had a lengthy but preliminary discussion about this with one of my teachers, Carol.  She said it was virtually impossible for somebody like me with no track record of a successful commercial work to get the attention of a real publisher.  I had to market myself first, in so doing prove some viability by demonstrating an audience, and only then might I get a publisher to take a look.  So there is definitely a chicken and egg problem here.  The publishers won't invest at all in the complete unknown.  That's like throwing money down a whole.  And if I'm right that they really don't need to invest in the very well known, that leaves only that gray area in the middle  - the somewhat known but still not a household name.  But there's likely not too much marketing going into that slice either, because the big bucks are in the very well known.  So do the big marketing there, though unnecessary because word of mouth via social networks are sufficient, as a way to justify getting a big cut of the revenues. 

* * * * *

The textbook market also has the peculiarity that while it is college students who purchase the textbooks, in the main they don't have a choice of which textbook to buy.  They are constrained by which textbook the instructor requires.  The choice left to the students is the outlet from which to buy the required book.  In contrast, students who do come to view my videos are treating then as ancillary content that is not tied to their textbook.  It's for this sort of content where direct marketing makes the most sense.  Further if there were revenues to be made by authors for such content, it would demonstrate a type of failure of textbooks or of the instructors that use them. Or it would show that some topics are just plain hard and implicitly students want more coverage of those particular topics.  (Supporting this view, my number one watched video is on Income and Substitution effects, a topic students traditionally find quite difficult.  In the top top 10 watched videos only the video on Isoquants has more than 50% of the views that the Income and Substitution Effects video has.)

So the demand for ancillary material is for very modular content.  Both iTunes and Amazon market modular content - if it's music.   Perhaps one or both of them will preempt the do-it-yourself market in other media.  Until then, however, maybe some do-it-yourself-ers will succeed at making some bucks off of their own created content, making enough to keep them at it for a while.  I'd like to see that happen.  It would make the entire process much more democratic.


Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe said...

FYI - no cutbacks in Ask A Librarian. As available as it has ever been and with recently expanded involvement of even more subject specialist librarians.

FWIW - and no reason you should know this - there are consortial groups that offer online reference service. Here's an example - http://www.questionpoint.org/. UIUC Library has participated in and evaluated the utility of more than one over time. But, it isn't just a matter of volume of questions but also type. We found that our patrons were not able to receive adequate assistance for the kinds of questions they were asking - our users have very institution-specific questions and/or troubleshooting access to our e-resources often also requires local knowledge.

Lanny Arvan said...

Thanks for the info. I guess I blew it on that one.

Trying to tie this to the topic in the post, I really don't know whether librarians at local public libraries provide patrons with information anything like what an independent bookseller does. I was just trying to show it is possible the function might be preserved in a way that divorces it from the book selling.