20 November 2007

Defining the Product

One of the biggest problems in publishing is its inability to define its product. This has multiple dimensions — see below — and one obvious corollary: Traditional methods of selling depend upon selling a defined product. This explains, at least in part, the continued inability of the publishing industry to generate the returns that venture capitalists (among others) expect.

Some of the dimensions of product indefiniteness in publishing include:

  • The packaging. As I've argued here before, ordinarily publishers base their prices upon the packaging of the content. One doesn't see Stephen King's books costing more than John Updike's, merely because King's sell more; instead, any price difference depends upon the packaging (primarily binding, number of pages, trim size) used to deliver the content. This distinction makes little or no sense in the marketplace. Picador, a UK publisher of literary fiction (comparable to FS&G in the US), has announced plans to focus on more-affordable trade paperbacks for new novels. Of course, what has gone unmentioned in this little news story is that the author's royalty rate is substantially lower per copy — on both a percentage and absolute basis — for a trade paperback than for a hardcover.
  • Then, too, there's the "marketing category" issue. One of the first things that we're told in school is not to judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, both the publishing industry and critics do exactly that, particularly at award time. If a book doesn't "look" literary, it won't be judged by literary standards; similarly, a book that does look literary won't be judged by the standards of publishing categories in which it might be more comfortable. The 2007 National Book Awards provide a disturbing example. I've just read a book that is at least the equal of three of the five finalists, but didn't have a chance to even be nominated... because it's in the speculative fiction ghetto. Conversely, works with a speculative flavor that do get onto "mainstream" awards lists tend to be relatively weak, both in comparison to the author's other works (Roth comes to mind) and compared to works from some of the masters of speculative fiction (Le Guin comes to mind).
  • Lurking behind all of this is the question of branding. Publishers are finally starting to pay more attention to branding... all too often by claiming the author's brand as their own. Recent contract offers that I've seen from more than one imprint of one foreign-owned conglomerate try to prevent the author from publishing fiction with anyone else after reimposing an even-more-rapacious-than-usual option clause. The problem with this is that readers don't buy based on publisher (OK, perhaps in graphic novels there's a greater influence, and perhaps in a couple of marketing categories there's a greater influence, but in both instances that has more to do with series than publisher identity). I am not specifying that publisher here because it's not in the best interests of the authors who have been offered these contracts to go public. Yet.

The implications of these problems are twofold. The first, and most obvious one, is that it's hard to sell iceboxes to Inuit if one cannot define the icebox! The second... will wait for another time; you can avoid turning this into a cliffhanger by thinking about the first sale doctrine in copyright law and Barbie.