Saturday, July 3, 2021

Whose Business Model Is Broken Anyway?

It's been some time since your friend the Doctor has posted here--preoccupied as he has been with sorting out the syntax of authors far and wide--but a publishing story in, of all places, the New York Post, has prompted him to pick up his quill and stab it into the inkwell, with a snort of irritation. 

Once again poor old book publishing, the Post's Keith Kelly tells us, is to be "disrupted," this time by the online platform Substack, which has already taken a whack at disrupting magazine and newspaper publishing by peeling writers away from their media-company employers and offering their content directly to readers via subscription. Now, apparently, it's coming for the book industry. 

Media journalist Zack Greenburg, who has written four books for houses like Penguin Portfolio and Simon & Schuster, will release his new book, We Are All Musicians Now, in weekly installments on Substack. A paid subscription will cost $5 a month or $50 a year (typical of Substack); he will also post other content weekly that readers can get free. In the Post, Greenburg sounds pretty jazzed: "All in all, with the advance money being in the same ballpark, I’d rather go to a place where I can be my own boss with a higher upside than try to force it through an old business model that I think is broken." 

I'm all for exploring new business models, but when I hear someone bashing publishing as "broken," I cock a skeptical eyebrow. As I've said in my own book, What Editors Do, publishing has been declared broken repeatedly since Gutenberg. The industry has plenty of problems, but in fact it has weathered the digital era--and even a worldwide pandemic-- far more successfully than many other media businesses.  To compare Substack's "disruptive" model with conventional books,  let's look at the "value propositions" side by side by doing a little arithmentic. 

A typical book might run 75-100,000 words. Let's say Greenburg's is 80,000, just to make this math simple. And let's say Greenburg posts a 2000-word excerpt each week--that's long for a Substack but we'll assume he's a real fast typist....It'll take 40 weeks, roughly 8 months, to get his whole book posted, by which point a subscriber has paid $40 (or $50 if they went with the annual rate). 

In other words, the subscriber is paying $40-50 for content they could buy for roughly $25-30 in the form of a hardcover book, or $10-15 as an ebook. In either of those formats, they could read the whole thing at once (no waiting a week between chapters); bookmark or search passages--even give it to another person in the case of the print book. 

So Greenburg and Substack propose to charge their consumer a price four or five times what tired old conventional publishing would ask for a more convenient, more enduring version of the same product. But they will dribble it out over several months. Well, that's a new business model all right!  But it's not clear to me that it's any kind of improvement on what "broken" old book publishing has to offer, from a reader's perspective. 

Maybe what Greenburg believes is that it's a better deal for him, and given the markup just described, you'd think it would be. But that's not clear either, given the chunk of subscription revenues that Substack takes in return for what it advances an author. Other authors who got Substack advances have not necessarily found the economics favorable. One, Matthew Yglesias, concluded accepting an advance had cost him nearly $400,000 in subscription revenue.  

I'm no knee-jerk defender of traditional publishing, as readers of earlier posts here are aware. And writers are entitled to make a living however they want--there is no easy way, goodness knows. But bashing the industry as "broken" is a cheap shot, especially if your whizbang new model is a worse deal for readers.

[photograph via] 

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