Let’s End Status Quo Publishing (Part 1)

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


Adobe recently developed a method that allows you to import comments from a PDF directly into InDesign. Theoretically, this can lead to a more efficient input for proofreading alterations and corrections. Scribe has yet to fully test this new feature, so we have not determined how helpful it will be for the proofreading process. However, as with any other new development, it does lead us to consider better practices. Due to the topic of our last newsletter, challenges from our clients, and a desire to continuously improve, we have been giving a lot of consideration to our proofreading method.

Since Scribe’s inception in 1993, we have witnessed the publishing industry go through numerous changes. During that time, we have watched a large number of publishers struggle and some fold. We have witnessed the rise of offshore vendor models, which have devalued the editorial and production process. As companies lay people off, a freelance, or “work for hire,” force has developed. These changes are due to our industry’s struggles to make books profitable, but they all take out one essential element: our connection with readers. Instead of developing our titles to appeal to readers, we attempt to make books less expensive to survive in the world of ever-diminishing revenues. If you cannot increase revenue, so the theory goes, decrease costs. We all claim to value books, but within this system, we are contributing to their commoditization by participating in increasingly anonymous transactions.

I define anonymous transactions as business deals (buying, selling, or performing work) in which the parties do not have contact. A book bought on Amazon is an example of an anonymous transaction because the publisher has no contact with the customer (in fact, Amazon jealously guards all customer information). Another example of anonymous transactions is contracting a vendor who then hires freelancers to perform work. In each case, the customer is removed from the provider. Anonymous transactions cannot lead to success because there is no feedback method (i.e., consumer research) that allows for development (product or professional). Despite that, anonymous transactions have become the status quo method of engagement for publishers.

This cycle is reflected in the development of books. We insist on keeping nonfunctional or outdated processes, and then we lament our failure as being the result of anonymous forces or blame the changing publishing environment. The reality is that publishing has always been a competitive industry and requires a dynamic, creative approach to transactions.

Consider, for example, former Thomas Nelson CEO Sam Moore. Though I never had the honor of knowing him, I was always awed by him. The modern incarnation of Thomas Nelson was the result of Moore selling Bibles door to door, and that has always impressed me. He was incredibly resourceful and creative in his approach to publishing. He had a keen sense of his reading audience, knew what to develop for them, and understood how materials should be presented.

Allen Lane, one of the founders of Penguin Books, was also innovative in how he published books. The titles he published always spoke directly to his varied audience, and he was constantly developing methods to disseminate them. Like Lane and Moore, most of the successful publishers whom we value and respect today developed distinctive programs to cultivate and reach their audiences. A high level of creatively engaging readers can be seen in the nascent years of every long-standing publishing house and is a sign of continued success.

Publishers who struggle often have lost their audience (and maybe their way). Anonymous transactions result in a disconnect between author and audience, which is one of the reasons many see publishers as redundant. If we are not dynamically connecting authors with readers, then what is our value? And if we have no value, is there really a reason for us to exist?

Publishing has always been difficult and under financial constraints—this is nothing new. In order to overcome that, we must end status quo publishing and look to fiscally responsible ways to connect with readers.

In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel states that “reading is writing’s apotheosis.”1 If this is the case, we must not only find new methods to market books but also edit and produce books that resonate with those who read them—as Allen, Moore, and so many others did before us. There are a small percentage of books that generate significant revenue.2 But more often the anonymous transactional world of status quo publishing fails to connect our “products” to readers. Moreover, because of the disconnect, status quo publishing cannot be dynamic, thus it becomes more and more difficult to reach an audience. Continuing to produce books in commoditized ways with no connection to the reader is ultimately hopeless.

We must dedicate ourselves to a dialectic form of publishing that resists the status quo, and we must constantly keep up with our readers by reducing anonymous transactions. Status quo publishing may seem a reasonable way to address the current situation, but it is based on unsustainable, disabling practices and must end before we do.

1. Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 179.

2. There are also developments that occasionally increase revenue and thus skew the financials.