Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Another big name author has followed the money and moved from his long term publisher. Richard Ford has moved from Knopf to Ecco after 17 years, and he follows Tom Wolfe who earlier in the year moved from FSG to Little Brown. Who can blame them? This is not a trend, as authors do move around periodically (and take their editors with them). It will have little impact on traditional publishing. The mid-market and specialty author is not suddenly going to be in a better competitive position vis-a-vis the publishing houses. What strikes me as curious, though, is that we haven't seen incursions by web companies such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Ebay into the original content business. Yet.

It seems so logical that one or a few of these companies will experiment in some way with branded authors. We all know the author brand is primary and we also know that some authors have become aggressive in expanding their brand - Patterson as the prime example. It may be inevitable that a major author(s) signs a three book deal with Google or Amazon. According to Publisher's Lunch, Wolfe received between $5mm and $7mm (these numbers from several sources) for his deal. It is a sad reflection on the publishing industry that these figures represent little more than gas money for the larger internet companies. Skills in book production, design, marketing and promotion, etc. are readily available and would not represent an impediment to success. It is really the expanded catalog of skills and expertise that an internet company could bring to bear that could be really interesting for authors and consumers.

Launching Major Author X via 'GooglePub' or similar would transcend the traditional publishing model and, perhaps, return it to something more like the publishing of the late 18oos where serialization (blogging) and direct reader involvement (social networking) were fundamental elements of trade publishing. (Remember Doyle trying to kill off Holmes, resulting in near riots from readers?) One of the most interesting aspects of the Radiohead experiment was that they finished their album only two weeks before it was available for download. In the world of publishing, the length of time from finished manuscript to bookstore can be years. Not only would consumer access be much faster in a 'GooglePub' world but the engagement with the author and the authors' work could be far more intense (and positive) for both author and reader.

Imagine the author maintaining an ongoing rapport with readers as the book is written. The author blogs about the process, posts excerpts, background material relevant to the story, and plot and character notes. The author publishes finished excerpts (ie. serialization), as development continues. Perhaps derivative titles or sequels are also initiated. Audio, Podcasts and video is made available. At the launch of the title, the book will have been exposed to millions of readers - perhaps all of the title has been published in parts or not - but the excitement will be significant. During this time, site traffic will also have grown and perhaps an advertising revenue share for the author will also augment their annual guarantees.

As in the Radiohead example, a physical version will be produced but, even here, the model could change. Perhaps 'GooglePub' strikes separate deals with B&N, Borders or others who produce their own versions of the titles by selecting from the wealth of content available as a direct result of the content created during the process. Basically, the author and 'GooglePub' leave it up to the physical publisher to create the physical product and just take a (painless) cut of revenues.

Publishers can't compete with this model. By the same token, the process could give rise to a new caste of publishing staffers who are familiar with the web-publishing model, social networking and engagement and who become required assets as authors migrate their brands to the internet. An interesting scenario: How prepared are large trade houses if their top-ten branded authors defect to 'GooglePub'?


Anonymous said...


Talk about encompassing the worst fears of major publishers in a single post!

I think you have hit on an excellent notion here. One question would be why major publishers couldn't simply enter into partnerships with google/ebay/yahoo to do this?

In some ways they have the back list content to make this happen (and the back list is probably the key asset they have for established authors) and the web firms the know how. It would be a good marriage. At least you would think.

From the perspective of an Irish Publisher, not large enough to retain the biggest native stars (they always get snapped up by the multinationals eventually), this is not an unfamiliar position you describe!


Susan Ruszala said...

Hi Michael,

Check out futureofthebook.org--they have a couple of experiments happening right now where authors are engaging readers as they develop their texts. Good stuff!