Goodbye Gambling Editor, Hello Producing Editor

Or, Parsing out the curatorial function of publishing in the digital age.

I read an article this week (and can’t find it again to link, sorry) about how the main function publishers will have to prove to the public (and to authors, via demand for it from the public) that they can perform better than the market in order to survive the digital revolution is that of curator.  That is, finding those gems and extracting them from the loam of all the bad writing out there, polishing them up, and setting them into the proper frame to best showcase their brilliance.

I don’t disagree with this.  I think this type of editorial control and gatekeeping is important to a lot of people still.  Let me reiterate from my post last week that I live with one.  My husband is very supportive of my choice to try ebook self-publishing first and is fascinated by the new digital market as a capitalist, but as a consumer he still prefers the old vetting methods.

This got me to thinking, though, about the ridiculousness of the old method as it applies to our current world. 

Editing—acquisition editing, selection editing; that and not line- or copy-editing is what I mean by editor/editing throughout this post unless specified otherwise—was always a gamble.  It was based on the idea of one person having good taste and a good sense of the public’s taste.  The old model of publishing was based on that taste level, on that person’s ability to read the tea leaves. 

The old model was the best it could be at the time, but in our current technological climate it is, frankly, laughable. 

Bear with me for a brief tangent.  I saw an article about how in our “green” and “sustainable business” culture, if print newspapers hadn’t been grandfathered in they would never be allowed to start, at least not on a massive scale.  Think about it:  every day you print thousands of pages and then drive them all over the city—perhaps the country, as in the case of the big papers—and people read them once then dispose of them.  Holy crap.  Imagine someone proposed that business model now.  They would be call rapers of the rainforest and crucified by the environmentalists.  News should be consumed online, if you can access it online. 

Now imagine we don’t have a system of books and publishers now, and some start-up company proposes to run a print book business in the traditional way.  Print the number of copies the publisher thinks might sell, and distribute them all over the country, and then take them back and dispose of them if they don’t sell in 6 weeks.  Um.  Holy crap.  That is NOT sustainable. Not ecologically, and not economically.  Via the editor’s gamble, the publisher could lose all the money for printing those copies that don’t sell, the money for shipping them to stores and taking them back, AND the potential profit that they would have made if the book had done well or if in its stead they had published a book that DID catch on.

That’s…irresponsible.  It’s based on the idea that supply creates its own demand, applied recklessly to the art and entertainment culture where economic theories cannot adequately explain consumer behavior.

Just like in Hollywood, in print publishing there is a long and glorious tradition of the flop, the project everyone at the studio/publisher thought would do well, that didn’t, and its opposite number, the surprise hit that comes out of nowhere and catches the public’s attention.    

The gambler doesn’t always win.  But with a shared monopoly on the market, the gambling editor didn’t need to win, just break even.  When their offerings were the only ones on the table, consumer choice was less important–if that editor had “the best of a bunch of bad options” then they came out ahead. 

We don’t live in that world anymore.  Books now compete with cable TV’s hundreds of channels, video games, social networking websites like Facebook, and internet entertainment sites like youtube for the public’s attention…not to mention the self-publishing writers who may be more what the public is looking for than that gambler recognized.  In this day and age, a book has to be good to get someone’s attention and be more worth their while to read–even on that road trip or in that doctor’s office–than whatever they can find on the internet to watch or read or play instead.

I don’t know that traditional publishers can’t find a place in the digital world, but they will have to change their M.O. to be more flexible, market-responsive, and niche.

What I want to know is, why did the editor never catch on in print publishing as a trendsetter, as the person whose taste and point of view you wanted to follow the way they did in fashion—Anna Wintour, anyone?—and the way producers have in music?  I refer especially to the trend in club music for the producers to “stamp” their songs; I have at least one friend who knows that if “Red Wine” is the production stamp then she’ll probably like the song, so she listens for it. 

If you’re going to set up the publishers/editors as arbiters of taste, then at least give them some power to be seen by the public as such.

Some of the smaller publishers are doing this.  Pyr, for example, is disproportionately represented in the annual science fiction and fantasy year-end lists for the size of their imprint, and I think that has to do with their editor having a very strong point of view.  Lou Anders works as a curatorial type of editor, and he has been successful in making Pyr an imprint people notice for serving that function.  I have fantasy-reading friends who have commented “I am more likely to buy a book that looks interesting when I see it’s from Pyr.”  THAT is the kind of function that publishers and editors need to have.

The editor can’t just be about quality control (which, anyway, has slipped or was perhaps never that great to begin with, because half the new books I read these days have some glaring and egregious errors, such that the ones that don’t make me assume the credit is due to the writer and not editorial process).  The editor has to be about having a point of view that resonates with people—with some people—who will then use that acquisition editor as a curator.  Not because that editor buys what s/he thinks will sell, but because s/he buys what their personal taste says is good, and they have a following of people who share their taste.

In the digital age, hedging your bets is much easier than it used to be.  A publisher no longer has to rely on what they think will sell; release the ebook 6 months before print, and you can base a print run off of how you know it sells.  Or move print entirely to print-on-demand.  Or move to digital-only publishing.  In any of those cases, the main cost to the publisher aside from what they pay the author is for the work of their staff to edit the manuscript, format it for ebook and (maybe) for digital printing, buy the cover art and get the cover design worked up, and promote it. 

Yes, that’s an investment of publisher money into the product.  But I would bet it’s a lot less than the investment that also included printing, shipping, warehousing, and ultimately return costs.

And let me point out one other thing Pyr does well:  they are not based in New York.  They’re in the dirty south somewhere—Atlanta, maybe?  Maybe Birmingham?—and therefore their overheads are much, much, much more reasonable.  Office space is a fraction of what it would cost in Manhattan.  Staff are either paid less or make the same but feel like they’re making bank (versus feeling chronically underpaid the way editors and publicists at Big 6 all talk about) because costs of living are so much lower in the south.  That salary discrepancy either lowers your overhead or gives you less turnover in staff, because people think they’ve found a good thing rather than using their position with you as a step in negotiating a better job with one of your competitors.  (Actually, I think that kind of turnover is why editors never did develop curatorial reputations. The imprints tried to but it doesn’t work if the acquisitions team changes every two years.)

All of that matters.  If a bookd costs a publisher $5000 in overhead costs in NYC but $1000 in Atlanta, then the NYC publisher has to sell five times as many copies to be in profit. 

In this digital age, there is zero relevance to being in New York as a publisher.  The internet reaches everyone.  Digital spans the globe.  You want to talk to that author face to face?  Why fly them up when you can Skype them instead?  You need someone to read your slush pile?  It’s all electronic, so that person could be a telecommuter living large in Podunk, Mississippi off of what to you in Manhattan is a week’s wages. 

I know splintering publishing away from the “publishing district” in New York is not very glamorous, but it’s an economic reality that if you are making slim profits on a per-project basis and depending on a large number of small profits to make your money, then the most expensive place to live and do business in America is not the best option in a time when telecommunications make the physical location of your office irrelevant.

So, in my opinion, if publishers want to survive by performing the curatorial function, they need to look at what some of the smaller presses are doing:  branding not just their authors but also their editor and/or imprint, not working out of New York, and allowing the digital market to inform print runs.  And also doing what self-publishing digital authors are doing, and taking the long view of a book’s life span.  Sure, a book may not sell great today.  But ebooks have no shelf life, so if it takes off in six months or six years instead of in the necessary six weeks of the old model, then you’ll make that profit on it eventually. 

Now the only problem left is how to entice the good authors to offer you their work.  The money aspect is another post.  For now, I would simply suggest that an editor who is known as a great producer—one who really makes those uncut gems sparkle before they go public—is going to be more likely to entice an author to work with him or her, because, in the end, writers want their work to be the best it can be.  If an editor is known for doing that, it helps attract not only the public who buys the work s/he curates but also the best content producers.

This is the third in a series of articles about the digital revolution in publishing.  I welcome any comments, links, dissension, and, of course, if you liked the perspective please check back for future installments!  I plan to blog about this at least once a week for the next couple months.  Thanks for stopping by! ~Lily 

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