Gutenberg’s Web

Biographer Susan Ronald puts forward a new commissioning model for publishers, based on the film industry, which she argues will cut publishing overheads and allow publishers to take greater commissioning risks.

When Johannes Gutenberg (1400-68) invented his printing press from movable type, the first great revolution in printing and publishing occurred. Everyone agrees so far, right? What many of us forget, or perhaps didn’t know, is that his invention created such a tidal wave of unemployment in the monasteries that it spelled the beginning of the end for monastic manuscripts, and their scriptoria, and contributed more than some would care to admit, to the fall of the monastic orders and the rise of newer Christian thought. Pretty powerful statement, but true. Simplistically put, with the invention of cheap print – popularised in England by Gutenberg’s near contemporary William Caxton (1421-1491) – the Church no longer controlled the written word. At first the Church thought that Gutenberg’s mass produced bibles wouldn’t catch on. After all, they weren’t a patch on the illuminated manuscripts of the scriptoria. But when Gutenberg, and later Caxton, figured out that anyone who had thoughts could transfer them to paper, the printing press became that well-known tool of thinkers, visionaries, entertainers, governments, and revolutionaries to spread The Written Word.

Does that ring any bells? Alarm or otherwise?

Publishing today thinks it’s at a similar crossroads. It fears it is looking at the abyss. Soothsayers and marketeers try to predict the reading markets’ tealeaves two years or so hence. Sales people in July are meeting bookshops for sales next February. Some watch the steady falls, with intermittent rises, of the stock markets hoping for an answer. All of us know a terrorist attack or deep recession could wipe out any prognostication. So I say there’s only thing that’s certain: no one is successfully predicting the long-term future of publishing. For those who are old enough to recall the story once told of Chicken Little – the eponymous feathered friend so popular in The Great Depression for running around like a chicken-without- a-head shouting ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ when it rained – there’s a resonance of Chicken Little’s panic in today’s market. Fewer books are being published. ‘Celebrity’ biographies abound. Publishers are all looking for that magic bullet that will boost sales and make them come out on top in the New E-Age of publishing. E-publishing and even POD are no less threatening to the publishers’ well-being than Gutenberg’s press was to the monasteries (once the monks clicked on what was going on).

But let’s stop the panic for a moment and look at the fundamentals. In the UK, well over 60% of authors would be on the breadline in a recent survey conducted by The Society of Authors if they depended solely on their earnings from their books. Well, if this is so, and I’ve no doubt it is, then how do the vast majority of authors make a go of it? And since publishers are squeezed on their profit margins, then where does all the money go? The usual answers blaming agents, discounting, distribution costs, fuel surcharges, the e-revolution or threat, depending on your viewpoint, don’t fully address the fundamentals. So what does? The answer is simple: the business model for the publishing world is supremely flawed.

Why do I think this? In the rush to stay on top of the heap, all publishers are embracing the ‘e-book’ which many secretly, like the monks of old, still feel won’t take off. Amazon has invested millions in its Kindle reader that downloads e-books at a fraction of the hardcover price in the USA, and we’re told it will be launched later this year in the UK. Sales, though, remain poor, with some publishers and authors fixed in the 19th century notion that books are cultural furniture for our rooms, rather than the cultural furniture for our minds in the 21st.

Still many publishers, as we know, are following the market rather than making it, chasing the latest A, B, C, or otherwise list of celebrities for their ‘story’. I can just imagine the pitch, ‘never mind dear if you can read or write, the easiest thing for us to do is to get a good starving author to tell your story’. And they’re right. Katy Price has done a great job with Jordan’s books, and I don’t begrudge her the success she’s had one jot. What gets my goat is that I simply don’t think it’s in the industry’s interests for publishers or editors to adopt this kind of attitude where the provider of ‘content’ is a devalued hack.

Then there are the multi-million pound bets (let’s call them what they are) that the big publishers make on the real celebrity books: Alan Greenspan (ouch); Barbara Walters (double ouch); the raft of autobiographies from ‘former politicians’ from Prezza and Cherie to Hillary Clinton on both sides of the Atlantic (forgetting of course that a week is a long time in politics); and the de rigueur Hollywood stars, be they in Hollywood or not, like the forthcoming ‘War of the Bonds’ between Sean Connery and Roger Moore slated for this Christmas. Again, I don’t begrudge any of them their successes, or in some cases, their failures… Instead I keep asking myself ‘if publishing is in the pits, then why can’t it smell the roses?’

I don’t ask forgiveness for mixing my clichés or writing lousy metaphors, I just want to beg your attention for a mo to give the solution to all our problems. Let’s back up again to the fundamentals: soaring unit costs, or uncontrolled fixed costs, are the number one problem in any business affecting profitability in any market. You can adjust your personnel downwards if you have to, should sales be poor in any industry. But, in publishing, it’s not usually the fixed personnel costs that are at the root of the problem: they are just the quick fix to make the bottom line look better. No, the problem is that if your fixed costs at the time of acquisition of your ‘content’ – meaning the multi-million pound ‘Monte Carlo-style Bet’ that a celebrity biography or book (as in Dan Brown’s much-delayed next blockbuster) – doesn’t sell to the projections the finance guys have come up with, then you have one seriously over-cooked goose. It’s no coincidence that the Risk Analysis Model adopted by the best financial modellers is called the ‘Monte Carlo Risk Analysis’. Promise… I’m not Chicken Littl-ing you.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the flawed ‘content’ side of the business model, we have the 60% of starving authors who remain miraculously dedicated to their craft. Some sell their rights for £1,000 and a soggy salad over lunch at the publisher’s local. Others might get lucky and deliver their precious manuscripts for as much as £10,000-20,000 in a year. Even at those dizzying heights of the starving writer market require a second salary as back up, or a day job.

So, what’s my solution? Simple. Change the fundamentals on acquisition. It’s not about format, meaning e-book or Kindle or web publishing or digitalising or any other solution on the production and delivery side. There’s no doubt that’s important. But it’s simple for publishers to figure out what works for them. It’s on the supply-side of the economic curve that publishers need to start thinking creatively. For example, and I say this without axe to grind against any celebrity, but what if the publisher commissioned the celebrity book on the basis of a higher percent of royalties, against something called a ‘Standard Industry Literary Advance’ (SILA – I kind of like that… just made it up). Whaa??? You scoff back… but that would mean that the competition would get the book instead of you?? Well, maybe, but… just think of how you, Mr/s Publisher, could spread your risk over several books instead, by several proven and talented authors, in several markets rather than bankrolling multi-millionaires (sorry Mr or Ms Celebrity) who can afford to invest in that book that will tell us about their ‘legacy’ to society!

Other industries have been operating on an equivalent of my would-be SILA for decades. Look at the film industry: in the 70s George Lucas, then a relative unknown, cut a deal for his first Star Wars film with the equally then unknown Harrison Ford and the international film star Alec Guinness on the basis of the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) minimum wage, pitted against higher royalties of the film. Shortly before his death, Alec Guinness said that he had made – and continued to make – more money from Star Wars than he’d ever done or ever would do from all his other films combined. It’s a model that Disney has used since the 80s to revitalise its then flagging animated features business when it began to hire famous ‘voices’ such as Robin Williams for Aladdin.

Impossible in publishing, you argue? How do you know if you don’t try?

The golden thread running through my thinking here is quality. We all like quality, even if we’re not sure we can afford it. If you have a quality story to tell, and you think that others not only want to know it, but will be somehow enriched by knowing it, you should, as celebrity author, share the publisher’s risk for a greater slice of the reward or sales. If you are expecting millions to top your own millions from an industry to which you are not remotely committed, or have no intentions of setting up a philanthropic fund for the writers who are being squeezed out by the celebrity circus, then frankly you must share in the publisher’s risk for taking you on in the first place and endangering the industry. Similarly, if publishers know of any quality content by good authors who frankly have been subsidising the industry for years, then publishers should commission their works on an ‘above-the-breadline’ SILA basis. Just think what the world would be like then: celebrities who might write their own books, or better yet, share the risk of just how good their stories are to tell? It would be too much to hope that they could become patrons of the craft of writing, I suppose. But, just think, in my world, we might even get the books we all deserve…

But what do I know? I’ve only been a heritage tourism advisor to high net worth individuals, governments and charities in the UK and Europe, North America, Africa, and the Middle East; the author of three books (with handsome reviews); and have been a corporate finance advisor in The City. Surely it’s hubris for me to pretend to know anything about the publishing side of things. Still, I suppose there’s a little comfort I can derive from two facts: Gutenberg was a goldsmith by trade, and knew sod-all about printing when he began, and history does matter.