In his lecture on March 31st at the Midtown Executive Club, Michael Healy, Pace’s David J. Pecker Distinguished Visiting Professor in Publishing and the Executive Director of the Book Rights Registry, spoke to students and publishing professionals about the position in which the publishing industry finds itself as a result of the digital revolution. The power of book distribution has fallen into the hands of only a few large conglomerates, fueled by digital growth and new technologies. The collapse of Borders bookstore and the falling share prices of Barnes and Noble serve to consolidate the strength of companies like Apple and Google, who are reshaping the landscape of book sales. But they’re also playing a role in dictating the future of how authors, that most critical of publishing resources, are increasingly turning to self-publishing as digital avenues of distribution.
Professor Healy notes that the publisher is losing out on both its relationship with customers and therefor with authors as well. It is the retailer who “owns the customer relationship,” and is the “retailer’s brand or author’s brand that is being projected or promoted.” Authors, increasingly disenfranchised with the limited capacity of publishers to effectively forge lasting relationships with customers, are taking the initiative by opting for this self-publishing route. Healy points to Seth Godin and Barry Eisler as two great examples of this minor revolution, but I’m not entirely convinced. For now, marketing and promotion from publishers are by far the most effective and dependable ways for new authors to become introduced for the public at large. Big names like Seth Godin have a tremendous capacity for self-promotion as afforded by their status as public figures, but the vast majority of authors are not as well-known.
The future is what has both Professor Healy and publishing professionals concerned yet cautiously optimistic. With the digital transition comes a shift in how books are marketed. “Armies of sales reps are a thing of the past,” Healy says, “the traditional techniques of promoting books—co-op deals on window displays and table promotions—are disappearing.” So how can publishers promote books in a digital marketplace? If online communities of readers become the filter through which people discover quality content, how can publishers remain relevant and participate in this process? Especially larger publishers, for whom “that is much more of a challenge because the effort and cost required to make a meaningful impact across so many different communities is impossible to sustain.” It could be that authors might find that they’re better off appealing to these increasingly fragmented niche markets directly.
In order to work towards reconciling this fragmentation of the traditional manner in which books are sold and made available to customers, Healy suggests that publishers move away from the business-to-business model that has prevailed for over a century. Marcus Dohle, CEO of Random House, said that the move from B2B to B2C (business to customer) is the “most important challenge facing his company going forward.” Trade publishers have traditionally worked towards herding customers into the welcoming arms of the retailer, with whom the customer develops brand-recognition and loyalty. It is becoming increasingly imperative for publishers to cultivate a relationship with their readers as bookstores struggle with economic realities and as online retailers with a growing market share, build on their customer relationships to become publishers themselves. The potential for these retailers to siphon off the lifeblood, the authors, of traditional publishers only grows as time goes on. Publishers, Healy says, have been “caught napping by the speed with which every facet of reader behavior has changed,” and have a unique opportunity now to dictate their place in the future of bookselling. Whether that place is in the driver’s seat or the trunk has yet to be determined.