What the heck’s happening in book publishing? (EAC-BC meeting)

Freelance writer, editor, indexer, and teacher Lana Okerlund moderated a lively panel discussion at the November EAC-BC meeting that featured Nancy Flight, associate publisher at Greystone Books; Barbara Pulling, freelance editor; and Laraine Coates, marketing manager at UBC Press. “There are lots of pronouncements about book publishing,” Okerlund began, “with some saying, ‘Oh, it’s doomed,’ and others saying that it’s undergoing a renaissance. What’s the state of publishing now, and what’s the role of the editor?”

Flight named some of the challenges in trade publishing today: publishers have had to scramble to get resources to publish ebooks, even though sales of ebooks are flattening out and in some cases even declining. Print books are also declining: unit sales are up slightly, but because of the pressure to keep list prices low, revenues are down. Independent bookstores are gone, so there are fewer places to sell books, and Chapters-Indigo is devoting much less space to books. Review pages in the newspaper are being cut as well, leaving fewer options for places to publicize books. The environment is hugely challenging for publishers, explained Flight, and it led to the bankruptcy just over a year ago of D&M Publishers, of which Greystone was a part. “We’ve all risen from the ashes, miraculously,” she said, “but in scattered form.” Greystone joined the Heritage Group while Douglas & McIntyre was purchased by Harbour Publishing, and many of the D&M staff started their own publishing ventures based on different publishing models.

The landscape “is so fluid right now,” said Pulling. “It changes from week to week.” There are a lot of prognosticators talking about the end of the traditional model of publishing, said Pulling. The rise of self-publishing—from its accessibility to its cachet—has led to a lot of hype and empty promises, she warned. “Everybody’s a publisher, everybody’s a consultant. It raises a lot of ethical issues.”

The scholarly environment faces some different challenges, said Coates. It can be quick to accept new things but sometimes moves very slowly. Because the main market of scholarly presses has been research libraries, the ebook issue is just now emerging, and the push is coming from the authors, who want to present their research in new ways that a book can’t really accommodate. She gave as examples researchers who want to release large amounts of their data or authors of Aboriginal studies titles who want to make dozens of audio files available. “Is confining ourselves to the book our mandate?” she asked. “And who has editorial control?”

Okerlund asked the panel if, given the rise in ebooks and related media, editors are now expected to be more like TV producers. Beyond a core of editorial skills, what other skills are editors expected to have?

“I’m still pretty old-fashioned,” answered Flight. “The same old skills are still going to be important in this new landscape.” She noted an interesting statistic that ebook sales are generally down, but ebooks for kids in particular have fallen 45% in the first half of 2013. As for other ebook bells and whistles, Greystone has done precisely one enhanced ebook, and that was years ago. They didn’t find the effort of that project worth their while. Coates agreed, saying “Can’t we just call it [the enhanced ebook] a website at this point? Because that’s what it really is.” Where editorial skills are going to be vital, she said, was in the realm of discoverability. Publishers need editors to help with metadata tagging and identifying important themes and information. Scholarly presses are now being called upon to provide abstracts not just for a book but also for each chapter, and editors have the skills to help with these kinds of tasks.

Pulling mentioned a growing interest in digital narratives, such as Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths, interactive online novels that have readers contribute threads to the stories. Inanimate Alice was picked up by schools as a teaching tool and is considered one of the early examples of transmedia storytelling. “Who is playing an editors’ role in the digital narrative?” asked Pulling. “Well, nobody. That role will emerge.”

Okerlund asked if authors are expected to bring more to the table. Flight replied, “Authors have to have a profile. If they don’t, they are really at a huge disadvantage. We’re not as willing to take a chance on a first-time author or someone without a profile.” Pulling expressed concern for the authors, particularly in the “Wild West” of self-publishing. “What happens to the writers?” she asked. In the traditional publishing model, if you put together a successful proposal, the publisher will edit your book. But now “Writers are paying for editing. Writers are being asked to write for free. They need to be able to market; they need to know social media. It’s very difficult for writers right now. Everybody’s trying to get something for nothing.” She also said that although self-publishing offers opportunity in some ways, “there’s so much propaganda out there about self-publishing.” Outfits like Smashwords and Amazon, she explained, have “done so much damage. It’s like throwing stuff to the wall and seeing what sticks, and they’re just making money on volume.”

Pulling sees ethical issues not only in those business practices but also in the whole idea of editing a work to be self-published, without context. “It’s very difficult to edit a book in a vacuum,” she said. “You have to find a way to create a context for each book,” which can be hard when “you have people come to you with things that aren’t really books.” She added, “Writers are getting the message that they need an editor, but some writers have gotten terrible advice from people who claim to be editors. Book editing is a specialized skill, and you have to know about certain book conventions. Whether it’s an ebook or a print book, if something is 300,000 words long, and it’s a novel, who’s going to read that?” A good, conscientious book editor can help an author see a larger context for their writing and tailor their book to that, with a strong overall narrative arc. “It’s incumbent upon you as a freelancer to educate clients about self-publishing,” said Pulling. Coates added, “We have a real PR problem now in publishing and editing. We’ve gotten behind in being out there publicly and talking about what we do. The people pushing self-publishing are way ahead of us. I think it’s sad that writers can’t just be writers. I can’t imagine how writing must suffer because of that.”

Both Flight and Pulling noted that a chief complaint of published authors was that their publishers didn’t do enough marketing. But, as Pulling explained, “unless it’s somebody who is set up to promote themselves all the time, it’s not as easy as it looks.” Coates said that when it comes to marketing, UBC Press tries everything. “Our audiences are all over the place,” she explained. “We have readers and authors who aren’t on email to people who DM on Twitter. It’s subject specific: some have huge online communities.” Books built around associations and societies are great, she explained, because they can get excerpts and other promotional content to their existing audiences. She’s also found Twitter to be a great tool: “It’s so immediate. Otherwise it’s hard to make that immediate connection with readers.”

Okerlund asked the panel about some of the new publishing models that have cropped up, from LifeTree Media to Figure 1 Publishing and Page Two Strategies. Figure 1 (started by D&M alums Chris Labonté, Peter Cocking, and Richard Nadeau), Pulling explained, does custom publishing—mostly business books, art books, cookbooks, and books commissioned by the client. Page Two, said Pulling, is “doing everything.” Former D&Mers Trena White and Jesse Finkelstein bring their clients a depth of experience in publishing. They have a partnership with a literary agency but also consult with authors about self-publishing. They will also help companies get set up with their own publishing programs. Another company with an interesting model is OR Books, which offers its socially and politically progressive titles directly through their website, either as ebooks or print-on-demand books.

The scholarly model, said Coates, has had to respond to calls from scholars and readers to make books available for free as open-access titles. The push does have its merits, she explained: “Our authors and we are funded by SSHRC [the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada]. So it makes sense for people to say, ‘If we’re giving all this money to researchers and publishers, why are they selling the books?'” The answer, she said, lies simply in the fact that the people issuing the call for open access don’t realize how many resources go into producing a book.

So where do we go from here? According to Pulling, “Small publishers will be okay, as long as the funding holds.” Flight elaborated: “There used to be a lot of mid-sized publishers in Canada, but one after another has been swallowed up or gone out of business.” About Greystone since its rebirth, Flight explained, “We’re smaller now. We’re just doing everything we’ve always done, but more so. We put a lot more energy into identifying our market.” She added, “It’s a good time to be a small publisher, if you know your niche. There’s not a lot of overhead, and there’s collegiality. At Greystone we’ve been very happy in our smaller configuration, and things are going very well.”

Pulling encouraged us to be more vocal and active politically. “One of the things we should do in Vancouver is write to the government and get them to do something about the rent in this city. We don’t have independent bookstores, beyond the specialty stores like Banyen or Kidsbooks. And at the same time Gregor Robertson is celebrating Amazon’s new warehouse here?” She also urged us to make it clear to our elected representatives how much we value arts funding. One opportunity to make our voices heard is coming up at the Canada Council’s National Forum on the Literary Arts, happening in February 2014.