What Does Innovation Look Like for Literary Publishing? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I curate new smart reads about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams


“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

Literature Is Not the Same Thing as Publishing by Chris Fischbach

The publisher of Coffee House Press—a small, independent publisher based in Minneapolis—writes an essay at VQR on the evolution of their goals:

At Coffee House, we interrogated all our assumptions about the industry, how we do business, how we reach our goals. The largest assumption? That we publish books. Everything changed when we decided no, publishing books is not our goal; it’s a tactic we use to achieve our actual goal, which is to connect writers and readers. 

Connecting writers and readers over the course of the decades, and continuing to do that, means delivering content however and wherever the reader or writer wants. But what is a publisher if you take books out of the equation? What’s the next step? 

What does innovation look like in the context of literary publishing? Hint: It’s not e-books. 

Fischbach offers specific examples of “not publishing books” that achieve the press’s mission. He also offers other excellent examples in the literary community, such as Tin House and Two Dollar Radio.

Questions raised:

  • I’m not sure that publishing proper has reached a point where literature is more about engagement, less about product. But what do you think?
  • What other publishers are flourishing under the engagement model rather than the product model?
  • How well can a corporate publisher apply the same engagement strategy as a smaller press like Coffee House?

Publishers’ Deal With the Devil by Ben Thompson

This is likely to be the only reference I ever make to the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute. Over at the Stratechery blog, Thompson concludes that publishers dug their own grave on this one, by insisting on DRM on ebooks:

Publishers could break the back of the Amazon monopsony today were they to start selling all of their books without DRM. Can’t find the book you want on Amazon? How about you simply visit the publisher’s site and buy it there. Or, as is more likely, visit the site of your favorite author.

Ah, but that’s the rub. The publishers need Amazon because they need the Kindle’s DRM, because they know without that artificial friction their contribution to a book’s fixed costs would become untenable.

Thompson goes on to say that the economics of publishers are wholly incompatible with the Internet, and proposes an unconventional way for them to thrive in the future.

Questions raised:

  • Is it possible that publishers may back off on their DRM stance?
  • Is boiling the entire situation down to DRM an oversimplification?

Subscription Services for Ebooks Progress to Becoming a Real Experiment by Mike Shatzkin

Another one of the Big Five publishers recently joined Oyster, making it the second one to do so. (The biggest New York house, Penguin Random House, has not joined.) Industry analyst Mike Shatzkin updates his thinking on whether these services have a future or not. If you listened to this podcast I co-hosted on ebook subscription services, then you know I am skeptical, unless the service is focused on a niche or community (rather than a mass-market approach, such as Oyster).

Questions raised:

  • What will it take for ebook subscription services to become widely popular with readers?
  • How problematic is it that current subscription services rely on “health club economics” to ensure profitability?
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