12 January 2009

A Publishing Squeeze (5)

[continued from 09 Jan 2009]
Like a tube of toothpaste, this publishing squeeze is going to require a little bit of creative smooshing to get all of the product out. And that overextended metaphor may prove more accurate than anyone really wants to think about.

Looking at the four common factors I've described previously, what should the entertainment/publishing industry do to ensure its health — or, maybe, just a minimum of cavities — in both the long and short term? I do not have a crystal ball. However, I can say pretty definitively that some proposals for "strengthening" the entertainment/publishing industry must be ruled out. It's really too bad (but all too predictable) that those worthless proposals actually perpetuate those four common factors. Put as bluntly as I can:

  • The publishing/entertainment industry must let acquirers acquire, editors edit, and S&M dorks engage in S&M.10 That's not to say that acquirers should never talk to editors and/or S&M dorks to get some input or knowledge; it is only to say that ultimately, one must sell steak, because repeat customers get awfully hungry and go elsewhere if they're only offered sizzle. Even, or maybe especially, the vegetarians. This change would have four necessary (but not sufficient) components:
    1. Publishers and other licensors/distributors must drop "agented submissions only" and similar policies. Leaving aside the dubious taste of the people involved, that is allowing the acquisition process to be guided by salescreatures. No matter how much I respect a few individual agents (literary and otherwise), I have to recognize that their role is that of salescreatures. They can be helpful; but they cannot be allowed to be sole gatekeepers.
    2. Continued consolidation must stop. That way lies the dinosaurs — when the dominant population consists of oversized monsters, it only takes one tiny little asteroid or comet to cause a mass extinction. This means that antitrust regulators must look at the full spectrum of markets — not just the market to consumers, but the market for content providers — and recognize that niche markets are just as subject to antitrust problems as the whole "entertainment/publishing industry" is. And this includes aspects other than just the content imprints (film studios, publishers, record labels) — it must include the full spectrum from content creator through agency through content imprint through distributor through retail outlet. As a side effect, this will help with the overall separation-of-roles problems by enabling editors and acquirers to have a better chance to climb the corporate ladder to policymaking positions.
    3. The industry must grow up and start using contemporary economic, financial, and legal measures and concepts in its everyday operation. That means recognizing that with very rare exceptions, a publishing contract is a license, not a sale; that a returnable book in a bookstore is on consignment, not sold; that "net profit" does not require forty-seven pages of small type to define; that ipso facto clauses have been explicitly barred by the Bankruptcy Code for thirty years; that "book" does not include "electronic display" in contracts signed before the early to mid 1990s; and so on.
    4. The industry must recognize and respect content providers as partners, not galley slaves. More so than any other segment of the economy (or, indeed, culture), there is an incredible degree of crossfertilization and synergy among specific pieces of the entertainment/publishing puzzle. For example, just how many ghostwritten autobiographies by athletes could be sold absent public exposure to their success? Conversely, would any Harry Potter films have been even considered without the prior financial success of the novels? Could Star Wars have been made — let alone distributed — without the post-cancellation Trekkie phenomenon? Can I create an endless series of rhetorical questions at the drop of a hat?

    That's just a start, of course.

  • The corporate masters — given the risk profile of the entertainment/publishing industry, we're stuck with corporate and analogous forms for the forseeable future — must adopt success measures appropriate to both the temporal and entropic profiles of entertainment and publishing. Quarterly reports are all well and good; even year-over-year reports are all well and good; but entertainment and publishing are not about commodities and have vastly varying appropriate time scales and synergistic content profiles than do widgets. As exemplars for which there is relatively verifiable public data available, consider The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Donnie Darko. Now compare them to Gigli. (Now throw up.)

    There's an important corrolary here, too: That the success/failure of an individual product in the entertainment/publishing industry cannot be allowed to dominate all considerations. One can't only publish bestsellers, and trying to do so will mean missing out on quite a few. Who would have predicted that a YA book set in a school for wizards, or a YA teen romance with vampires, would have made their authors and publishers rich — especially when there were literarily superior competitors already in the market?

  • Self-publishing (and the equivalent) cannot be allowed to have more than a minor role. During the course of this series of posts, I've gotten half-a-dozen e-mails from misguided proponents of various forms of self-publishing (not just for textual works, either) who continue to spout the party line on self-publishing. Don't kid yourselves: There is indeed a party line on self-publishing. There is a place for self-publishing... but reacting to misintermediation by advocating complete disintermediation is an awful lot like what got us into the current housing crisis. Actually, it's exactly like it. Further, self-publishing is inherently a blurring of roles I believe that the industry as a whole needs to separate.

    Remember, Sturgeon was an optimist.11 That current "regulatory measures" have failed does not mean that no "regulatory measure" would be an improvement over unfiltered slush. I've been in charge of slush piles. I've seen slush. And as bad as a lot of the crap that gets published might be, there is much worse out there that is perfectly capable of making Grisham's Law of Publishing ("Bad fiction drives good fiction out of bookstores") not just probable, but inevitable.

  1. "Sales and marketing," you filthy-minded preverts. Well, given what actually happens at sales conferences, maybe not... and no, I won't name names, but I've still got the negatives.
  2. "Ninety percent of published science fiction is crap. Of course, ninety percent of everything is crap." (exact canonical wording may be slightly different)