Publisher Beware

WHENEVER REVOLUTIONARY change threatens, (which is — like — all the time ), the Old Guard whistles in the dark past the graveyard. And, for a time, their self-deception seems to be borne out. The scorn with which members of the ancien regime deride the new seems fair to blister the finish on the hardest of power coatings. To little avail. Change is not necessarily a human choice, but a natural phenomenon, and admits to control by no one.

The metaphor I like to use is a comparison to the advent of steamships in intercontinental trade.

It was not until 1869 that steam power was finally established as the queen of the seas. But prior to that, there had to have been warning signs. After all, American shipyards stopped building clipper ships in the late 1850s. From the advent of the clipper in the years before the American Revolution (and contemporary to the development of steam) to the time of the American Civil War or shortly thereafter, there was a competition between the two in long-distance trade, with steam eventually winning out upon the opening of the Suez canal in 1869. Even today, the China clipper remains the pinnacle of beauty and function in wind-powered vessels of its size.

But we no longer power our civilization with fitful, unreliable, inefficient wind (except in the fevered backwaters of lefty brain fart pipe dreams). All during that time, there had to have been proponents of steam proudly proclaiming that “wind power is dead!” and those in favor of wind “you’ll never make China in x weeks with steam!” Both were eventually proven to be wrong. Today, only nuclear ships run on steam, and wind probably powers more recreational vessels than it ever did working cargo ships. But nobody back then could have ever predicted either, and more the fools they for trying.

But Alger, (she says, playing the good little shill like a cute and sexy doll should), you’re the one writing science fiction, which is all about predicting the future!

Well, no, Dolly. Actually, it’s not. Science fiction is about playing with ideas. Throwing the setting into the future is seen as potentially liberating, but not absolutely necessary. And, I might remind you, that the stories about you are set, now, fourteen years in the past. So your point is…?

Barefoot.

Bare…?

Bootless.

Well, see, there you go again. If you don’t have boots doesn’t mean you’re unshod. It just means you’re… Well. Bootless.

ANY way…

Anyway. Nobody back in the early 1800s could have predicted the way things worked out between steam and sail — not even Jules Verne — and their efforts to do so might have… You know when you were a kid, first learning to play baseball, and you kept fouling out down the first base line, and they told you, “If you can just straighten that out, you’ll have a home run”?

Well… No.

Oh. Was that just me? I never knew. The point is that I wasted a lot of time and energy hitting those long balls out-of-bounds. Well, as it turned out, the effort spent learning baseball was pretty much wasted anyway, but that’s another story. Which makes the point that, if all that effort that went into predicting how things would turn out in the competition between steam and sail were converted to, you know, developing new inventions or new businesses instead…

It probably wouldn’t have changed things much.

Well, there is that.

ANY way… I tell you that to tell you this: Today, the powers that think they be (TPTTTB) in the publishing world are whistling in the dark past the graveyard of independent publishing. They want to persuade themselves that they can control it, that they can survive the change it presages, that it’s a short-lived phenomenon — a fad — and all the similar wheezes you’ve heard and read in recent years. Must feel about like the carriage trade did when the wits on the sidewalk were snarking at the fools puttering by in Model-Ts, shouting, “Get a horse!” Warmed the cockles of their hearts, it must have, to hear their chosen mode of transport thus defended and even praised.

Yeah. Right. People have always been so capable of self-deception. And always will be.

But, me, I’ve seen this happen before — in my own lifetime — and I’m here to tell you, don’t nobody know nuffin’ about what’s to come. About all that can be accurately said is that things will never be the same again. But then, they never are. Or, as Dolly put it…

See, she was heading through a perilous, strait and narrow place, and a grizzled old gaffer of a Lesser Elf was sunning himself on a rock by the side of the road and tried to warn her off. “Dinna gang in there, lass. Folk wit gang in there dinna coom oot th’ same.” (All my elves are from Glasgow — not.)

And Dolly barely paused in her headlong progress, and says…

“Oh, that’s alright. I haven’t been the same for years.”

… and plunges on.

When I started out as a young tad, knee high to a very tall grasshopper, one of my mentors said to me — this would have been in 1981 or so — to watch out for ink jet technology. Because, as he said, “In ten years, you’ll be able to walk into Kmart and there’ll be a kiosk where you can get anything printed on the spot, using an ink jet printer. It’s going to put us (commercial offset printers) out of business.”

Now, at that time, Kinko’s was an established brand, and so-called “quick prints” were mushrooming everywhere, so the wary, sleeping-with-one-eye-open, reliant-on-big-iron printers of an earlier age (offset printing dates back to the 1870s) might be excused for feeling a bit nervous in the service.

But, what very few people saw coming, even at that late date, was microcomputers and what desktop publishing would eventually wreak on the graphic arts industries. The Mac was introduced in 1984 and PageMaker in 1985. But, in 1981, it looked as though minicomputers would rule the day, still calling for investments of big capital, yes, but different kinds of big capital, and probably in addition to the millions of dollars in press and bindery equipment a typical small job shop would have.

In those days, there were all manner of service specialties that surrounded printers.

There were color houses, which specialized in making color separations and laying up platemaking film for complex jobs. There were type houses, which had massive libraries of very expensive type faces and the ability to set type in any form or format from one-word headlines to the galleys for book printing — and could provide you with hot metal, cold metal, negatives, or veloxes. There were specialty platemakers and engravers who provided the dies and plates for letterpress operations — diecutting, dry embossing, hot foil stamping, or just plain ink-to-paper. There were binderies, which could perform all manner of post-press operations from die-cutting, scoring, perforating, folding, and padding to case-bound books and beyond. And there were various types and specialties of trade print shops, large press, web, flexo, silkscreen — each serving a particular niche and the jobs appropriate to it.

Fast forward, eight years, to 1989, and people were beginning to see the tsunami of change far out to sea and starting to scurry — either for the exits or for a new position, to be assumed in hopes of surviving. Two more years and it was done. Fait accompli. Stick a fork in it. Whole swathes of the graphic arts were gone — to dust, like the buggy whip manufacturers of another age.

People took early retirement or went into tending bar. Driving taxis. Some of the change is still shaking out. We at the Patch Factory sold off our last big iron offset press only a year or two ago. We were fortunate in having managers with the foresight to understand the absolute necessity of riding the tsunami, (not attempting to withstand it or get out of its way), and the willingness to capitalize the changes required. We were at the forefront of the change in our area, and ran, for the time that it mattered, the most cutting edge shop in town.

(We’ve outgrown that need, now. It’s no longer that the best available is barely adequate to our task. Commodities will do for us, and the bleeding edge is elsewhere. The wave has come in and receded in our immediate neighborhood and we have a breathing space — though not for long, I’m sure.)

The experience has both tired us and taught us to be wary of complacency. We understand that we must stay abreast of developments in a wider variety of fields than ever. We need to be out there actively looking for tools and opportunities both, or somebody younger, more nimble, or just better at what we do than we will eat our lunch. And I’m too old to go hungry ’til dinner. So I step lively.

Now, the literature industry…

::wobbita:: What’s that? “The literature industry…”?

It’s more than publishing but less than printing? Just acquiring and putting out books used to be the business model. And the powers that think they be (TPTTTB) are trying mightily to force the entire business of producing and selling letters (which is what “literature” means) into that mold. But it’s already broken out of it and the toothpaste just will not go back in the tube. And trying to get it to is a chump’s game. The energy would be much better spent on figuring out how to better provide “value-added” to independent authors. Because, while I can’t predict the shape of the business in the future (but neither can TPTTTB).

But what I can tell you for sure is that, once an author experiences a 70% royalty per copy on an e-book, or receiving the publisher’s cut AND the author’s cut on a trade paperback, he or she is NOT going to go back to 5% hardback or 7% paperback or whatever it is that “traditional” publishers dangle in front of needy, desperate-for-publication authors. And, if the publishers Amanda Green is calling “legacy” publishers want to stay viable, they’d better have a solution that — for a significantly lower percentage of the take and no control over accounting — provides services such as mass market printing and rack jobbing on books that are, essentially, print-ready packages, including covers, typesetting, page design, and the lot from the author on the front end.

Because, if they don’t, somebody smaller, younger, hungrier, smart, faster, and nimbler will come along and eat their lunch.

And, I suspect, they’re too old and fat and lazy to go hungry until dinner.

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