Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The author and the audience

In an earlier post, The Player and the Audience, I linked to a 2008 post by animator Mark Mayerson on The Final Customer. Here’s a digest version of what he had to say:
When you get your hair cut, you are the final customer. You’re not getting your hair cut so that you can somehow resell it to someone else. But many of us work for companies whose customers are not the final customer. If you work in animation, your company’s customer may be another studio, TV broadcaster, film distributor, or retailer. They are the people who ultimately sell your work to the audience. If any of your customers misread the market, your company will suffer and you may be laid off as a result. The people working in animation production are helpless to control their fates.
Animation artists are too far down the supply chain. We are dependent on too many people between us and the audience. In the next year or two, we are going to see many companies shrinking their workforces and others disappearing all together. Many unemployed artists will struggle to survive until companies start expanding again, at which point they will be happy to return to work. The smart ones will try and figure out a way to sell something to the final customer, because that’s the most secure place to be in the long run.
To produce animation independently is particularly demanding, but writing is more usually a solo pursuit. The current issue of The New Yorker has an article by Ken Auletta about the changes facing the book publishing business, and about Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle in particular. It’s a piece that gets more interesting as it goes on. After going through all the stuff on techy platform battles, and publishers arguing price levels with online retailers, it gets to the vital point:
Amazon seems to believe that in the digital world it might not need publishers at all. In December, the Simon & Schuster author Stephen Covey sold Amazon the exclusive digital rights to two of his best-sellers, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and “Principle-Centered Leadership.” The books were sold on Amazon by RosettaBooks, and Covey got more than half the net proceeds. One publisher said, “What it did for us was confirm that Amazon sees itself as much as a competitor as a retailer. They have aspirations to be a publisher.”
A close associate of Bezos puts it more starkly: “What Amazon really wanted to do was make the price of e-books so low that people would no longer buy hardcover books. Then the next shoe to drop would be to cut publishers out and go right to authors.”
Any author or rights holder can self-publish on the Kindle. The contract is non-exclusive, so a book can also be made available for other devices, and the agreement can be terminated at any time by either party. The self-publisher sets the list price (within certain restrictions) and receives a 35% royalty.

Not every book will be well suited to reading on electronic devices. One of the people quoted in the New Yorker article is Jason Epstein, former editorial director of Random House. In a TV interview earlier this year he made clear that his preferred digital future was one where the words still ended up on paper, via print on demand, and he’s involved in such a business. This version of the digital future holds most of the same implications for big publishers as the e-book future: companies without need for warehouses, without teams of reps touring bookshops hawking their wares, and without the same status as gatekeepers to the market. Epstein has set out his thoughts on this in greater detail in The New York Review of Books.

As well as describing how he imagines the future of publishing, Jason Epstein also gives a useful short analysis of the reasons for the shift in recent decades from reliance on backlist sales to emphasis on short term bestsellers. The biggest factor in selling a book today is retail visibility, but the majority of books in print have little high street visibility. The future of bookshops seems more difficult to imagine than the future of publishing mechanisms. Although some of the difficulties of distribution will ease, most authors will still face the familiar problem of finding an audience willing to pay. An unknown book sitting in an electronic catalogue will sell just as few copies as an unknown book taking up space in a publisher’s warehouse.

Time to try on the flamenco dresses, boys.

And don’t forget to buy my book!

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