Stephanie Laurens and the Next Generation of Publishing

Stephanie Laurens’s terrific keynote address from this year’s Romance Writers of America conference is really worth reading. I won’t say it contains earthshaking revelations, but it does lay out the current state of publishing and its prevailing trends in a very clear way — including some great graphics. In so doing, it makes reassuring points about the new centrality of the author.

Laurens does seem somewhat of two minds on the future of the traditional publishing industry — what she calls “offline publishing.” On the one hand, she emphasizes the herculean task that lies ahead of such publishers as they try to adapt:

offline publishers are, unsurprisingly, seeking to transition into the online industry. To successfully transition, a previously offline publisher needs to accomplish two feats — first, refashion their old business into an author-oriented publishing services business, and second, convince authors of their worth in what is emerging as a fiercely competitive field. Those two feats form the challenge that lies squarely before offline publishers wishing to transition into the online sphere.

Two aspects of that challenge deserve special mention. First, remember how things were in the offline industry — author sells her work to publisher. In the online industry, publisher sells its services to author. That is a 180-degree turn around in relationship.

I know many authors are having difficulty getting their heads around that, and unsurprisingly offline publishers are having an even harder time grappling with the change, but to claim a position in the online industry, offline publishers must embrace and internalize this attitudinal switch. (accessed 7/27/12, my emphasis)

Pretty tough tasks, eh? Especially the one I’ve highlighted, which demands alteration of the entire publishing business model. Ouch. How many of you got to “refashion their old business into an author-oriented publishing services business” and thought, Hot damn, is that all?!?

On the other hand, Laurens closes with the idea that authors of the future will have a variety of distribution choices:

author –> readers;

author –> retailers –> readers;

author –> publisher –> readers;

author –> publisher –> retailers –> readers.

See the word “publisher” cropping up a couple times in those options? The speech has just done an awfully good job of explaining the wrenching changes publishers will have to make to stay relevant … and yet they’ll remain a viable distribution option?

Well, maybe. Or maybe the publishers Laurens envisions participating in these future distribution chains are not the same entities that lay claim to the “publisher” title right now, and she’s just too nice and tactful to say so. Perhaps the publishers of tomorrow will be the patricide offspring of today’s struggling industry — companies that don’t have to change themselves because they’re brand new.