In the comments section of last week's blog, one perceptive person asked what I (perhaps speaking for all Publishers) would do to help fix the mess that we, the industry, are in. I wouldn't say the industry is a mess (neither did this commenter), but it DOES face some challenges and it IS in a period of transition.
So, while I much prefer to write about manuscripts, and published mystery fiction, and so forth - I've always said I'd discuss "the biz" on this blog, so maybe it's a good time to put forth my modest proposal for the ways that publishers can change, or re-orient themselves. I should mention, however, that any effort for publishers to do this as a group is likely to lead to some sort of lawsuit along the lines of what's going on with the DOJ now in terms of supposed "price fixing" on ebooks. - On that note, and to prevent myself from ranting and raving, has anyone looked into the prices of video games lately? One of my grandkids is crazy about them, and my wife tells me that no matter where she looks - in stores, online, etc. - the price is exactly the same. I wonder what's going on THERE? But we don't see any Department of Justice inquiry into the pricing of video game cartridges ($50 and up), unlike the DOJ investigation into $9.99 ebooks. But I digress.
Herewith my suggestions.
1. We Publishers should be reading our own manuscripts. I've been saying this for years. We have delegated the most important part of our job to agents. This isn't a crack against agents, many of whom are very good. But they add a middleman to an already complicated practice, they drive up the price of acquiring books, and they add yet another (often insurmountable) hurdle for those who are trying to get published. At the agencies, the recent hires and the interns read the queries that come in - I don't see why we can't have editorial assistants, et al., in the publishing companies do the same. We actually do that here, although our volume of queries is manageable. If we ever get to a place where it isn't, I know our assistants would LOVE to be first readers. It's why they joined the business to begin with.
2. We Publishers should be lobbying the media to give books a greater presence. There's no good reason why the news outlets - many of which are now electronic - shouldn't be giving books the same treatment they give movies and music. There's a "revolving" headline on Yahoo - why can't this be about books and reading once in a while? Why can't USA today offer a books page once a week, instead of emailing us about their new advertising program? (No editor I know is taking advantage of that - I'm sure lots of the self-published will, and we'll see what kind of effect it has.) We should have more writers on all the TV shows - from late night, to daytime, to newscasts, to reality TV. I don't think one person or company can convince Yahoo, Conan, John Stewart, et al. to focus more on books by non-celebrities or non-Ivy Leaguers, but working together as an industry, we might. Ditto for schools - from kindergarten through college. Some sort of coordinated effort would be very, very helpful at developing readers at the right time of their lives.
3. We Publishers need to stop basing our decisions on what's popular now and start being more forward-looking. Book publishers are perpetually behind the curve. We see what's successful now and we want books that are like that. (I know of an example where several publishers turned down a manuscript because its narrative style didn't fit the narrative style of the book on which a current popular movie was based.) Given the lag time between acquisition and publication, it just makes no sense to believe that what's popular/well-received now is going to be popular and well received two years hence. And yet far too many decisions are based on this criterion. We Publishers need to be trend-setters, to take chances. And, truthfully, many of us do - but you don't often hear about that amid all the publicity about Janet Evanovich's $50 million advance. I think editors have to always keep any eye on the market (for example, those genre crossovers/admixtures really don't sell, as far as I can tell), I think we have to listen to our inner compass about what is really good and deserves to be published.
4. We Publishers need to consult more with those who work closely with readers - specifically, librarians and bookstores. I've found that bookstore personnel are often somewhat elitist, so they don't make the best advisors- but librarians do have their fingers on the pulse of what people want to read. I think Publishers should do more outreach to ALA and start more of a two-way dialogue. For an organization that is the backbone for so many readers, it has precious little input into the publishing process, and there should be more. But we editors are notoriously narcissistic and controlling - we think we know it all, and we don't want anyone stepping on our toes, or dipping a finger into our little kingdoms. I'm not sure this system (or lack thereof) is currently working.
5. I think the larger Publishers need to set up self-publishing shops. I can see a lot of benefits to this. Good, qualified people would be employed, and the self-published would be able to get everything done by a shop of professionals. I don't see any down side to this, as long as the imprints are kept completely separate from the traditional publishing operations. I also think that the self-published shops should set up a set of criteria under which they will accept a book - they shouldn't take on just anything, any time, to make a buck (which is what a lot of businesses do, and one can't blame they because they are, after all, businesses). I think the self-published might see some benefits of having professional editing, design, production, and distribution; books that aren't deemed good enough for the traditional publishing unit, that didn't quite make the cut, might then be referred to the self-pub part of the house. Even as I'm typing this I see the huge problems that could result, conflicts of interest and all that. And yet, if attached to the Big Six, these units would bring with them a certain level of credibility and prestige that MIGHT allow for reviews in the right places.
6. I think Publishers need to eliminate the returns system. I could foam at the mouth on this subject, so I'll control myself. Right now, publishers are at the mercy of those who place orders. It is conceivable that a bookstore could order 100 copies of Book X and then return 99 of them. Making buyers pay for what they've ordered - and then forcing them to sell at a discount to recoup their investment - would create massive efficiencies and greatly diminish waste. It would also take so many remaindered books off the market, which undercut the full-priced books. (This, of course, refers to traditional printed books - and I am not willing to write those off yet, or any time in the near future.) If your local department store orders too many blouses, do you think the blouse provider gladly takes them back? Nope. This industry is unique in the returns area and it has to stop. "But then, Agatho, who will order the first book by a newbie?" you ask. It is a valid question. But in the online world, the book will be available. AND bookstores will have much greater incentive to drive business into their doors. In my area, there are a couple of B&N's and there used to be several Borders. I never saw any advertising from them - these HUGE retail outlets did almost nothing to drive business into their stores. I don't know a lot about retailing, but I know it sure doesn't work THAT way.