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A Report from BEA & Publishing University

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(Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a post to the PMA Chat Group.)
I attended several sessions of Publishing University, but I took few notes. I wanted to focus on the larger perspective, so I pretty much sat and tried to absorb. I came away from Publishing University and BookExpo with several general thoughts, which I will share here. These are not new ideas, but it seems to me that Chicago emphasized their urgency. Publishing University and BookExpo were eye-openers more than anything else.

This business is changing, and changing very rapidly. I looked down to put my dominoes in line, and when I looked back up, the world was different. Future shock has become present shock. I often feel dizzy from the blur of the landscape. I need to stay young and flexible. When I started out, I expected to get “there” someday and let the momentum carry me on. Now I face the prospect that my momentum will carry me in the wrong direction unless I become much more conversant with the changes around me.

Publishing is a business. I have to treat it as one. Once upon a time, I might have been able to hang out a shingle and do my books as a labor of love. Books are still labors of love, but I need now, more than ever, to conduct my business professionally and formally. I have to plan further ahead, often three or more years in advance. I have to be able to talk about profit-and-loss statements, cashflow reports, and all those other documents that I always considered yucky. I have to consider the marketability of every title. I have to project sales and develop budgets in an uphill environment. I have to be systematic. I have to tell my right mind to shut up and let my left brain get a word in.

Meanwhile, the world I do business in is changing. My margins are low, my costs are increasing, returns muddle my financial reports. That “seat-of-the-pants” management I used to practice now just makes my fanny hot. I look at that increasingly quantified world I am up “against”: computerized sales and inventory systems that give gospel status to the spreadsheets used by bookstores, distributors, and wholesalers; accountants and beancounters newly deified in corporate offices; books with shelf lives comparable to that of broccoli; chain and store buyers whose tenure is measured by the “sell-through” of the books they put on the shelves. I have to understand these changes and be prepared to respond to them. I won’t do very well if I continue to say: “This is a good book; it will sell.” If the rules change, I have to change if I want to keep on playing the game.

I might be discouraged if it weren’t for the opportunities that Publishing University/BookExpo also highlighted. Again, the fundamental fact is that this business is changing. There are many opportunities emerging now for me to pick from. The challenge for me is to choose wisely. Many of these new opportunities already exist on the Internet, on CD-ROMs, in publishing-on-demand. Many more are brewing-electronic books, Lightning Print technologies, smart paper, laptop readers, etc. Where do I go? Do I choose one direction and risk breaking all my eggs? Can I be ready for all of these when they are ready for me? Can I climb on some platform that will prepare me to take advantage of all these changes?

These technological changes, I think, are going to have major impacts on publishing as I know it. I am not sure that small publishers, in their present form, will even be here in 10 or 15 years. Publishing may well become more of a service instead of a product industry. Authors will not need publishers when the costs of producing books drop as far as some of this new technology promises to take them. Publishers will still exist, but many of us are likely to become information brokers and packagers instead of producers of tangible properties. The book buyer may well become a licensed user. Publishers and author/publishers may well conduct business directly with end users, while middlemen like Ingram may become information recirculators more than product distributors. At some point, I would not be surprised to see Ingram becoming a publisher and an electronic competitor of the bookstores that are now its customers.

These are the interesting times of that trite Chinese proverb. I have never been so excited by confusion! I look forward to exploring these ideas on the list and at future Publishing Universities. Isn’t confusion wonderful? I went to Publishing University/BookExpo feeling a little down. My business has not been good in the last couple of years (not that it ever was as good as it should have been). The wave was curling and I was floating well outside the break line. I came back a lot more encouraged. That breaking wave? It was just a forerunner of the big set that is building a little farther out. There are a lot of things happening in this business. Sitting alone at my desk, I often miss the significance of this development or that new technology. Publishing University/BookExpo was a great opportunity for me to take stock, to shmooze with others who had different perspectives and experiences, and to get out of myself. This alone was worth the trip.

Enough of this. It’s so out of my character. Next thing you know, I’ll be challenging for the positive-thinking crown!

Robert Goodman

Silvercat Publications, San Diego, California

Publishing, editing, and written communication services

phone: 619/299-6774; fax: 619/299-9119, e-mail: rg@silvercat.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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