A lot of people are finding their way here now as a result of my post on self-publishing, which is gratifying. Something I touched on a little, and which I think is central to this issue, is the question of how publishers can retain relevance as self-publishing becomes a more attractive option. As I argued previously, you don't see a lot of really great writers going for self-publishing because if you're all that great, someone likely wants to publish you, which is stil pretty advantageous.
However, as authors build audiences on the investments of those publishers (or, sometimes, the lack thereof) it's likely to happen more and more often that they realize they can go it alone and, by taking on a little additional risk, gain significant control of their work. Especially as computerization simplifies the logistics of making and selling books (print and electronic), a process that is only gaining momentum and still has a long way to go, this option will inevitably become more appealing for many mid-tier writers (in terms of fame) who have strong followings, but whose publishers are not, presently, making them rich. I think we're going to see more and more authors building credibility by publishing with mainstream houses in the short term and then striking out on their own after several publications.
If you're a publisher, how do you stay relevant? Well, of course the most important job in front of you is the same as it's always been: curating quality content. People call this "gatekeeping" but let's think of it not as a subtractive proposition, but as adding value. Publishers provide the service of helping pair writers with readers. However, many publishers currently curate in a very silly way: they pick up a menu of books from a variety of categories currently deemed marketable, then spray those books at the market like sperm, praying that one or two will impregnate the blockbuster ovum. This is, in many ways, a Hollywood model, but it doesn't work for Hollywood and it especially doesn't work for books. Shareholders demand growth, and growth is possible, but mostly the sort of slow, steady, sustainable growth that reflects readers' growing interest. (Yes, readers are more engaged than they were previously. We'll talk more about that some other time, but it does seem to be true.)
Some will frame this issue as a question of publishers refusing to take the best books. I'm not sure this is a smart way to look at it -- I think that generally, the best books are being published. The second-best books may sometimes fall through the cracks if they happen to be second-best in a challenging category, and this is an important issue, but it's not likely that your book is so great nobody will buy it. In fact, I would describe the issue more as paying insufficient attention to the marketplace. As I've written here before, most content providers are concerned with pleasing the majority of potential readers. This is, however, a very bad way to make money, especially as social networks and online word of mouth become your most important gateway to readers. If your book is designed to engage the average person, it's not going to passionately engage that many actual people. And actual people are now who sell your book -- they are your Amazon reviewers, your Facebook status updaters, and so on. They are, as they have always been, human beings who lend your book to other human beings. Again, I've written about this before, but if you could sell a book to 1% of the population, that would be a huge deal. The strategy as it stands is too often to throw your book at enough people that 1% of the population might just maybe pick it up. We should be targeting specific, passionate readers who will love the specific writers we're publishing and the books they're writing.
Our friend and occasional contributor Gabriel Blackwell is a perfect example of this (hopefully he won't mind me using him this way). He's got a book manuscript about, in a general sense, the detective fiction of writers like Ross Macdonald, Dashiel Hammet, and Raymond Chandler. The book is really interesting and smart and entertaining, and it's enriched considerably by knowledge of these other works, which can also at times make it a little difficult. A smart publisher should pick this book up. A stupid publisher would look at that synopsis and think, "Shit, how are we supposed to sell a smart, challenging book that trades on knowledge of 1940s detective fiction?" A smart publisher will, at some point, think of it this way: "Awesome, we can sell this to the smart, fun-loving fans of Ross Macdonald, Dashiel Hammet, and Raymond Chandler who enjoy somewhat challenging fiction!" That is not the book's only audience, but it is a clearly defined audience, and one that could be found and communicated with, both in print and online. Seriously, "niche titles" will market themselves in competent hands.
So part of what publishers need to be able to do is to provide smart marketing to their authors. It may be that publishers end up increasingly in the business of launching bright new talents. This would be a good business! It ought to be a core competency of publishers, but generally it isn't: they want writers to bring a reputation with them. But if they can do that, it's increasingly going to become natural for them to just publish themselves, depriving publishers of prime opportunities.
Publishers also need to learn to make attractive books. This is especially an issue for indie presses. I often see indie publishing folk talking as if the mainstream presses have a problem with this, but by and large (outside the mass paperback market) that's simply not the case: typographically, texturally, the books of mainstream presses look better. They have better designs (though not always equally interesting designs), and they use better materials. To some extent this is inevitable! But I get really frustrated with paying full price for tiny, chintsy books with covers that might as well be laminated card stock. I can deal with it in a magazine, but when I see a novel that isn't gorgeous I feel just terrible for its author. One of the reasons mainstream presses are so attractive to me for my current novel, when it's totally polished and ready to submit, is that it's a long book and I want to be sure it's bound properly. I want to be sure it has nice paper and a fairly protective cover.
When print-on-demand services start offering "quality paperback" services, this will of course improve the situation.
I think that generally speaking people know they need to learn InDesign, they know they need to make a readable book. I do not think that people are as successful in this as they could be.
And but the largest thing, the most important thing that I was trying to get at before, is they need to make writers feel less alone (to the extent their writers want that). If you've got four writers working with your press, they need to be encouraged to talk with each other. They need to be encouraged to share ideas, to read each other's work, to grow together. To help each other revise and invent. We've tried, mainly through the blog but also in other ways, to foster this sort of community with Uncanny Valley. I think partly because we don't have a print issue out yet, this hasn't gone as far as I might like it to. But certainly I feel more community among our contributors than I ever have as a contributor to most other magazines. Great art is generally produced by members of communities, I think -- communities that grow and challenge themselves and collaborate and love one another, communities that provide moral support. This is the number one thing I think editors often neglect to foster, and it would not be that hard to change.
As I said before, I want to feel less alone. Often the work that I publish is read by exactly three people before it goes out: Me, my wife, and an editor. Maybe a team of editors, who rarely speak with me in much detail about the work. Once it's published, I sometimes hear from a few of those who read it. I sometimes don't. I don't want perpetual workshop, but I do want productive friendships. If you are reading this now, I would probably like e-mail from you. About writing, reading, editing, whatever. I want to be close to you, or at least to have the chance. I want writers and readers who will help me grow as I transition from the MFA, and into my professional career.
Finally, and this is also about loneliness, publishers need to edit their manuscripts collaboratively and dilligently. My impression is that mainstream and indie presses alike are terrible at this. Certainly I've found no strong connection between the "fame" of a literary magazine and their willingness to edit my work. Some of them do it, some of them don't. When I publish without real editorial help, I get extremely nervous. It makes me worry that my work is weaker than it could be with help, that the editor has published me because it was easy, not because he or she really wanted to. Yes, editing is time-consuming and it might mean you have to publish fewer authors. But a lot of publishers -- periodicals especially -- likely need to do that.
These are some thoughts from someone who often talks big from a position of relative ignorance. They are guessed, not edicts. I would like to hear other guesses, as well.