Factors shaking up publishing – industry and individual
Over the past few weeks, several articles relating to writing and publishing have caught my eye and my interest. Some may change the way we write and market our books in months and years to come. Let’s analyze three of them, and see what they have to offer.
1. “How Trump Is Shaking Up the Book Industry: America’s literary bubble is rethinking its identity.”
That’s the title of an article at Politico. Frankly, I couldn’t give a tinker’s damn about the commercial publishing industry’s “identity”. To me, that’s a concept that has little or nothing to do with business. The late Robert Townsend, whose book “Up The Organization” is by far the most effective reference on management and business that I’ve ever read, said (in that book) about excellence:
If you don’t do it excellently, don’t do it at all. Because if it’s not excellent it won’t be profitable or fun, and if you’re not in business for fun or profit, what the hell are you doing here?
Words of wisdom indeed!
One has to ask: when last did “big publishing” focus on producing an excellent product, irrespective of ideology? It seems to me that much of what we hear from the Big Five focuses on their self-proclaimed “mission”, or their social conscience issue du jour, or the publishing industry’s “identity”, as mentioned in the Politico article’s title. All those things completely lose sight of the fact that we’re in business to make a profit, and (to as great an extent as possible) to have fun while doing so. (Anyone who doubts that should try working at a company where everybody’s miserable. I have. Such companies are usually heading for the trash heap of history.)
Contrast that with the Politico article‘s pontifications. Admittedly, by its very name, that publisher examines society and culture through the lens of politics. Nevertheless, just look at the following excerpts, and ask yourself: “What have they got to do with publishing as a business?” (Underlined text is my emphasis.)
Over the past months I spoke with 20 gatekeepers in the fiction world—agents, editors and publishers—to see whether they anticipate a change in the types of stories that shape the American novel. While they were apprehensive about making generalizations, most, if not all, seemed shaken by the realization that they are out of touch with a significant portion of the American electorate.
. . .
There is, however, a vocal minority of agents and editors who have turned in the opposite direction. They too have been stirred by the election, but they are responding by reaching out to the exact voices that Trump’s victory silenced—the foreigner, the disabled person or the transsexual. They worry that the administration will further disenfranchise these communities, many of which have never had a proper footing in the political arena—or in literature. And they hope that fiction might represent these groups at a time when politics cannot.
. . .
To Chris Jackson—who edits Ta-Nehisi Coates and recently opened One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House devoted to providing “a home for authors … who seek to challenge the status quo, subvert dominant narratives, and give us new language to understand our past, present, and future,” the chasm created by the election is rife with opportunities. Not necessarily around the white working class though … What Jackson finds more compelling are the ways in which Trump voters have created space in the political conversation for heretical ways of discussing class, gender and race.
. . .
While Trump’s influence certainly appears to have permeated the most aloof corners of the country’s social consciousness, it’s less clear whether the resulting changes in the fiction world will make any difference. The working-class memoirs, rural love stories or Argentinian thrillers that might come out of this period will probably circulate only within the literary stratosphere. To Howard, who draws on almost four decades of experience, there is no work of fiction strong enough to heal our differences. “The cultural divide between the world that we live in and the world that Trump voters live in is so deep that I don’t think it can be bridged,” he said. “But we need to try.”
Please note the underlined portions of that excerpt. Would someone please tell me what those perspectives have to do with publishers making a living – i.e. a profit – out of what they’re publishing, or helping those who depend on the publishing industry (including authors) to make a living? Where do we see any reference to excellence in business – doing things really well, rather than really ideologically?
If you ask me, I don’t think President Trump has so much “shaken up the book industry” as exposed the fact that it appears to have fundamentally departed from the essential foundation of commercial business – namely, to make a profit. If businesses don’t make a profit, they fail. Period. If we, as authors, write to make a living (as I do), and we don’t make a profit, we fail. Where do you see that realization in the views cited in that article? I don’t . . . and I suspect that’s the reality behind the publishing and book-selling industry’s (and many authors’) woes. Both appear to have lost sight of the reality that, first, last and always, publishing is a business. That’s why so many parts of it are failing.
I’ve cited the realities of business often enough in previous articles, particularly the fact that books are part of the wider entertainment industry. Our books are competing for the consumer’s entertainment dollar with movies, music, computer and other games, even music concerts. These are all regarded by the consumer as something fun and/or interesting. If books are not fun or interesting, they’re going to abandon them for things that are. What are we doing about that? What is big publishing doing? If we aren’t facing up to that reality, we’re essentially failing at business – and, what’s more, we deserve to fail.
2. “Affiliate marketing is approaching a crisis point.”
In a recent newsletter, Simon Owens pointed out that affiliate marketing – such as, for example, the Amazon Associates program, in which many Mad Genius Club authors participate – is running into headwinds.
… the recent explosive growth in the [affiliate marketing] industry is propelling us toward a crisis point, one that has massive ramifications for consumers. This is a crisis that the FTC seems ill-equipped to deal with. The agency has issued guidelines on disclosures, writing that “if there’s a connection between an endorser and the marketer that consumers would not expect and it would affect how consumers evaluate the endorsement, that connection should be disclosed.” And to be fair, it has taken a few concrete steps to curb this kind of behavior, sending letters warning of violations and even taking legal action against bad actors.
But publishers of all shapes and sizes are flouting this rule. A study from Princeton University found that 90 percent of YouTube and Pinterest accounts that use affiliate marketing don’t include a disclosure. Presumably, many of these influencers aren’t even aware they’re engaging in blackhat practices, and would even argue that they would endorse these products regardless if there were affiliate links attached.
. . .
… as more and more publishers and influencers get in on the affiliate game, ethical lapses will only permeate, and this growing trend, over time, will erode consumer trust … if the tech community — from platforms to e-retailer sites — doesn’t establish and enforce stricter standards in the future, then nobody can argue that they won’t deserve the consumer and regulatory backlash that’s waiting for them on the horizon.
Those of us who include affiliate marketing links in our publicity material (i.e. newsletters, blogs, articles, and possibly even included in our e-books) should take note. This is an issue that may lead to legislative or regulatory restrictions, which might directly affect our income. Food for thought.
3. “Confirmed: Facebook’s Recent Algorithm Change Is Crushing Conservative Sites, Boosting Liberals”
The point of this article, for us as writers, isn’t conservative or liberal politics. It’s that our marketing efforts on social media are almost completely dependent on how visible our social media platforms allow our marketing and/or products to be. We can’t dictate that, and we’re at their mercy.
Campbell Brown … who now leads Facebook’s news partnerships team, told attendees at a recent technology and publishing conference that Facebook would be censoring news publishers based on its own internal biases:
“This is not us stepping back from news. This is us changing our relationship with publishers and emphasizing something that Facebook has never done before: It’s having a point of view, and it’s leaning into quality news. … We are, for the first time in the history of Facebook, taking a step to try to to define what ‘quality news’ looks like and give that a boost.” (Emphasis added.)
If our perspective as authors, and/or the subject matter of our books, and/or how we cover other opinions, clashes with the point of view espoused by social media outlets or vendors, we may find ourselves censored, and/or our books “muted” in terms of public visibility. To name just a few examples:
- What would happen if our blog platform (e.g. Blogger, WordPress, even many you may never have heard about) decided to “de-platform” (i.e. shut down) bloggers with whose views it/they disagreed?
- What if book review sites such as Goodreads, Shelfari, etc. decided to ignore our books, or remove reviews of them posted by readers?
- What would happen to our sales if a dominant vendor like Amazon.com decided to omit our books from the “Customers who bought this item also bought” lists that are included on the page of every article for sale on its Web site?
Those are some of our most important avenues to reach potential readers. They may become restricted, even closed to us, if their owners and operators decide to promote only (or mostly) products – including books – that meet their definition of “politically correct”.
There’s another facet to this. Publishers and partisan reviewers or commenters may attack books or articles – or their authors – that are, from their perspective, politically incorrect. Take, for example, Moira Greyland’s recent (and very courageous) book, “The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon“. In it, she tells the story of the rampant child sexual abuse perpetrated by liberal SF/fantasy author icon Marion Zimmer Bradley and her husband, convicted pedophile Walter H. Breen. Despite its undeniable, verifiable truth, the book was greeted with outrage and condemnation by many on the liberal side of US politics and publishing – even by the president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, who, if only by virtue of her office, might be expected to espouse political neutrality. Our own Sarah Hoyt has similarly experienced rejection and public condemnation through refusing to kowtow to the demands of the politically correct in the publishing industry. How many more of us may face the same thing in years to come?
(That, by the way, is why I may say I didn’t enjoy a particular book, but I won’t attack its author, or his/her perspectives, beliefs or ideology. For a start, I believe very passionately in free speech. If others’ views and perspectives are different from mine, they’re welcome to them. I welcome the chance to read them – if only to educate myself – and I hope they take the chance to read mine. I hope readers on all sides of the political, social, economic and/or other aisles will compare them, and decide for themselves what’s worthy of their purchasing dollar, and what’s not. I’m not going to try to shut down others’ perspectives, because if I do, they’ll have every right to try to shut down mine. The Golden Rule applies.)
Food for thought from several sources this week. Let us know your reactions in Comments, please. That’s the whole point of Mad Genius Club – to keep the debate going.