April 28th, 2011

Workflow in Publishing

Recently, ethelmay commented:

"The proofing tools for marking up PDFs are not well designed ... marking by hand takes a lot less effort, even when it isn't faster. Proofreading in Word isn't so bad, but of course most people's final product isn't in Word... one packager request[ed] a list of corrections in Word rather than marking up the PDF. Now THAT took a hideous amount of time ... More recently I have been able to export a list of corrections from Acrobat into Word to satisfy this requirement. Still a bit tedious, but much much faster, as the page numbers go in automatically."

I have _utter and complete trust_ in ethelmay's accuracy. You should, too.

I've been trying to make the following assertion: workflow time savings mean Cox et al are able to pre-read or sort-of proofread at a rate much, much faster than proofreading for what Eisler terms "legacy publishers". (At this point, I'm sort of hoping that Ms. Cox or someone doing this work will weigh in and tell me I'm totally full of it, completely right, or somewhere in between, ideally with backing details. If I don't hear from someone soon spontaneously, I might even contact someone and just _ask_ them.)

First, two definitions. Workflow is the sequence of tasks that something goes through in order to become a finished product. In this case, I'm describing the "manuscript" as submitted by the author as the starting point, the "proofreader" as supplying a service that definitely includes noticing when you wrote elicit but meant illicit or their when you meant they're and probably includes some number of other observations but probably does not include insisting that you change dialect in dialog to be Standard English. It also includes noticing that some part of your technical process lost or mangled text.

As ethelmay observed, proofreading is an activity that can be assessed in a variety of different ways (other than output): how "easy" it is and how "fast" you can do it. "Easy" is a product of factors like: how many errors are there, how does the customer want the resulting output formatted, how familiar is the proofreader with the systems involved. "Fast" depends on related but not identical factors. If proofreading is easy (not very many errors, inline corrections to a simply formatted file in a word processor or other piece of software with which one is very familiar) and can be done fast (because you read quickly, have a knack for spotting errors, and have done a lot of work of exactly this nature before), a proofreader can charge a lower per word or per page rate and still make a living wage per hour. If proofreading is hard and/or slow (many errors, corrections must be made in a separate document including descriptive references back to the original document, any or all of the files are in software with which one is not particularly familiar and/or is buggy or difficult to use even for an expert), the per word or per page rate must be much higher.

Another factor, which I am _purposely_ ignoring, is the issue of proofreading non-text or non-flowing text -- proofreading poetry or tables or anything like that is an entirely different matter but one which does not typically come up among fiction authors proposing to selfpub in order to get a larger fraction of the book revenue for themselves.

Finally, the output of some proofreaders will be "better" than the output of other proofreaders, for any given definition of "better". That is, some proofreaders will miss two ands in a row, or let a too/two slide on by, while other proofreaders would never, ever, ever allow that to happen. To some degree, the more attention is paid, the slower the process (some people are faster at a given rate of accuracy than others, just like typists). It is reasonable to expect that a more careful and thorough proofreader would expect a higher per word or per page rate to reflect their slower production and/or higher quality, in much the same way that Hondas command a higher resale value and thus a higher initial sales price because they break down less frequently than many other makes. It is _also_ reasonable to expect that some customers will decide they're okay with the lower reliability, and buy a Kia instead, and thus also pay someone to do a worse job proofreading if they're a lot cheaper and "good enough". (Notice me not getting into why anyone pays a ton of money for a highly unreliable vehicle. Me, not going there.)

Eisler's term "legacy publisher" is very evocative in this context. Offset presses which can produce paper books cheaply are not the kind of thing you update every year or two -- but word processors have been. Workflow which _must_ terminate in something acceptable to an offset press from the late 1980s (say) may -start- in Word, but have to go through a lot of conversions on the way to the press. Each conversion costs money, and risks disrupting the design of the book. Proofreading the results of these conversions often involves dealing with an ancient and/or awkward interface.

Judging by this:


at least some selfpublished authors are consciously composing in their destination format. Conversions which happen after submission to Smashwords aren't really available to the selfpubber to adjust, other than whatever you might choose to do to a mobi file that you then submit on Amazon. That's not to say that these things can't totally destroy an ebook, just that you cannot pay a proofreader to catch those problems and then try to fix them.

Derrico also notes that rather than using Word, you can create an HTML file and thus eliminate some of the conversion steps that happen after submission and which allow you to create a better looking/better functioning ebook. There's nothing stopping an author from composing their book in vi or emacs or some other editor with HTML (or, to be fair, using much more appropriate tools for this purpose) and then uploading that to Amazon or wherever (<-- I know this because I've done it).

Ever since I did some looking around to understand how academic publishers were adjusting to ebooks (answer: .pdf, Ingram and/or really smart people who can shepherd something through two parallel workflows), I've been aware of the legacy aspects of publishers workflow. Never mind shipping the damn paper around and warehousing it. As long as workflow is pointed at the inputs for those presses, it will be a twisted, demonic mess resistant to every effort to simplify it and make it more efficient and effective.

To sum up: "proofreading" services aimed at selfpubbers on Smashwords and/or kindle who have composed a Word document or HTML document benefit from three things. (1) Simplification of workflow. (2) A familiar destination format that is easily modified "in place" (Word, HTML, etc.). (3) Assuming you've selected your clients carefully, a product which does not need extensive correction. The result of these three things means a "proofreading" service can charge a dramatically lower per word/per page rate and still make a per hour rate comparable to someone suffering with legacy workflows. If they hit the speed/quality sweet spot, they'll have repeat customers. I do not think that this is a controversial statement (altho it might be wrong in some key element(s)) and I don't think that as a business this can be reasonably regarded as exploitative.

I also don't expect the impact on "legacy publishers" to be that significant, but I'll get into that later.

Why Selfpubbers Won't Displace "Legacy Publishers"

I'm going to try to get through the background as quickly as possible, but I have to cover it or my argument is liable to be misinterpreted.

There is a group of publishers referred to as the "Big 6". Each of the Big 6 is made up of a lot of different imprints, many of which used to be independent companies. Thus, all of the members of the Big 6 are rollups or conglomerates. Authors who decided not to also be their own publisher signed contracts with people to publish and distribute their work. The contents of those contracts have some stability but are customizable and the stability has changed over time. That is, at any one point in time, virtually all contracts will specify compensation, which rights (hardcover, paperback, audiobook, digital, etc.) are included and so forth, and those terms will tend to be the same for everyone signing contracts that month/year. An individual author can get changes made, if they think to do so and are able to convince the publisher to agree to them.

A fairly typical part of the contract describes what happens if the publisher chooses not to keep (say) a book in print. It is common (but by no means universal) for rights to revert to the author if the publisher does not keep a book in print for a certain period of time. This is all subject to some technical definitions that really, really, really piss people off on occasion.

Digital rights, or rights to ebook publication and, more recently, multimedia/interactive book rights are a relatively recent addition to standard contracts. Authors whose contracts have been in place for a decade, say, may well own the digital rights to their entire backlist. The Big 6 is worried about this and have tried a number of things to make sure they control those digital rights: litigation (so far wildly unsuccessful), applying pressure to authors to sign a new contract for the backlist digital rights in order to continue with the publisher, etc. They are unlikely to be successful in gaining access to all of their backlist titles.

Prior to Amazon (and I don't mean kindle, I mean Amazon), the publishing world was rapidly heading towards twin destinations: bestsellers and niche markets. Bestsellers sold to everyone; niche markets each presented a unique but solvable marketing problem. The midlist -- books without an obsessive, identifiable fan base, but which people bought and enjoyed just not in the hordes that would make them bestsellers -- and the backlist -- books which _had_ sold well, but were no longer new -- were dying a horrible and not particularly slow death. Amazon changed that, because suddenly, shelf space was infinite. The midlist revived, the backlist thrived and there were no returns. Sweet, sweet profitability for publishers.

The successful ereader/ebook revolution presents publishers with a massive risk and, simultaneously, an unbelievable golden ring. If they cannot lock down digital rights to any of their backlist, and new authors switch to selfpublishing, they are goners. As long as they can slow the transition down, they can guarantee that when the year comes that most people buy their books in e-form rather than p-form, they'll have years of recently published, mildly to wildly popular titles that they own the digital rights to.

They've been pretty good at this so far.

To the extent they can, by hook or by crook, get even more digital rights, that's gravey.

Konrath and others have been quite emphatic about several things. (1) Selfpublishing has a big component of luck to it. (2) It helps to write a good book and present it well. (3) It really helps to have lots of other books for sale, so that when someone _likes_ one of your books, they can run right out and buy all the rest at the same time.

There is no way that any one self pubber, small group of self pubbers, or even all the self pubbers, add up to as big a backlist as what even 1 of the big 6 have access to.

The Big 6 aren't going away.

That said, the Big 6 don't own all of "legacy publishing". There's always been a fair amount of churn. Small publishers sprout up and die or sell out to some other publisher -- or start rolling up other publishers. That's where the Big 6 came from, after all. Konrath is already feeling the pain of managing his backlist and explains how he hires services to help with this and talks about paying someone 15% to just take over the job as a whole. He calls it e-stribution and believes agents will be doing it.

I think the sad part of this whole story is that we've confused a pretty normal part of book publishing (new publishers showing up on the scene whenever there's a change in the business or cultural environment; old publishers selling out to more successful ones, cashing out based on their base of backlist contracts) with a pretty normal part of post-Reagan manufacturing woes in the US. There are real people losing real jobs, many of them jobs that paid enough and had benefits appropriate to raising a family. Those are _manufacturing_ jobs, the exact same people that have been laid off repeatedly around the country as newspaper after newspaper closes down or reduces circulation or contracts out its printing or whatever. The people in the New York City offices that are the target of rage in comments threads about selfpublishing -- those people are probably going to be just fine. (Well, to the extent that all those young women with advanced degrees working for incredibly crappy pay can be described as "just fine". They don't call those high prestige/low pay jobs for no reason at all.)

Konrath's talk about e-stribution and his threat to publish his backlist that he doesn't have rights to as multimedia ebooks (rights _not_ covered in his contract) and his discussion of what precisely is and is not provided to him by publishers and whether it's worth the rate they are offering to pay him -- that's all contract negotiation. Some of the people involved in this discussion appear to recognize this. (Eisler and Konrath make jokes about it.) Others do not, and while I think it's just fine for people to make either of a couple choices, I find it a little sad when people shut down a choice without realizing they're doing so.

Authors make money by selling their work. Someone has to want to buy it. If you're irritating enough, it'll tend to discourage sales. While the gatekeeping function of the Big 6 and publishing houses in general has been weaker recently than it has been in a long while, it is not nothing, and there are some indications that gatekeeping function is rebounding from its nadir. If you are writing for a niche market, you can flip off the Big Boys all you like; you'll sell to who you sell to and no one is going to handle the distribution better anyway. But if you want to reach a national audience, now is not the time to be ranting about the evils of the Big 6 and how Self Publishing Will Destroy Them. Once you become Nora Roberts or Danielle Steele or Mary Higgins Clark or Stephen King or whoever, you can be a jackass and be certain someone will still sign a contract with you (altho you might, like them, decide that being super polite gets you even further).

This may also go a long ways towards explaining why Amanda Hocking signed a big contract recently, and why Zoe Winters has recently become a lot more discreet about plugging selfpublishing.

I am in _no way_ arguing against an individual decision to selfpublish and I think for many authors, that is the right way to start out and/or continue and/or to switch to after starting with a "legacy publisher".

I think any author who has benefited from rights reversion and/or no digital rights in the contract on a book that did pretty well should be putting that book out on Smashwords and Kindle. I would point to Julie Ortolon's Perfect Trilogy on the kindle bestseller list as what I believe to be an example of that working out Really, Really Well. There are a lot of other books currently in a similar situation, but going forward, "legacy publishers" who intend to thrive in the new era are likely to write their contracts to guarantee they benefit from long legs in e-space instead.

googling pbook

I _wish_ I had found this earlier, but I have to go pick T. up now so it will have to wait.

I'm not the first to use the term pbook:


I can't _wait_ to dig into this later tonight!

I think the really big shocker to me is that I can't seem to find anyone willing to visualize in any detail at all an intermediate step between aging printing shops owned by publishers and POD systems. Come on, really?

Think, people: _steel mills_.

Of Diapers and Books

Diapers underwent a meaning change. Where once, diaper meant "piece of cloth", it eventually meant "those things made of something or other possibly including sodium acrylate". Anyone who means something else now has to say, "cloth diaper".

There are a lot of parallels between diapers and books, and I expect those parallels will continue. When the original (really quite awful) Pampers were created, I don't think anyone was envisioning that section of Costco that had massive units of diapers for sale, much less that Amazon would buy Diapers.com and a lot of people would be kind of impressed by that.

I'm not necessarily interested in trying to predict the book equivalent of Costco diapers much less Diapers.com. I am, however, trying to understand what a dramatic change in the demand for paper books will mean for the physical manufacture of those books. I'm completely convinced that the Big 6 and a wide variety of many (but not all) other publishers are going to transition to electronic books successfully. But I don't think they're going to be running their physical plant unaltered.

So what's going to change?

If this guy is to be believed:


"The Big Six NYC publishers use LSI to keep much of their backlist in print. ... LSI will get your books listed in the Ingram catalog, which allows all those bookstores and libraries to order them. Plus, the major online retailers (Amazon, B&N, Powell’s, etc.) will list your books on their sites and can order directly from LSI. The other major US book wholesaler, Baker & Taylor, will also order books for libraries and bookstores directly from LSI."

This is LSI:


Publishers too small to justify their own printing plant already use this service or contract to an outside printing plant. The size of publisher "too small to justify their own printing plant" will likely scale up in a relatively smooth path, with larger publishers already transitioning backlist titles or using LSI to reduce risk on books likely to have a very short life.

The terms on which physical books are offered for sale in stores reflect a world in which gadgets were made cheaply by production in vast quantities. In that world, it was common for producers to not demand payment from retailers until the retailers had had lots of time in which to sell the widgets, and to accept returns without fees. The manufacturers only had one setting (make a job lot) and they had no other choice in terms of moving the goods. In a world in which physical books are produced in very small quantities (perhaps one), it is reasonable to expect that the terms would change.

In terms of impact on corporate structure and jobs and so forth, the transition from pbooks to ebooks is close to a manufacturing change that, through automation, other technological changes and so forth, results in the loss of factory jobs.

So when bloggers speculate wildly about print-on-demand (POD) producing pbooks in a future world dominated by ebooks, they are Not Wrong -- but they are also Not Right. Visualizing POD as something that Kinkos might do, or a library might operate to serve patrons (possibly making a book that would survive one or a few readings and then be readily compostable -- hey, I'm not making this stuff up. Someone else is.) is a _massive_ misunderstanding of how POD interacts with an ebook dominant future. The POD in question is a printing plant indistinguishable to someone ignorant of printing plants from the printing plants currently run by the Big 6. It just doesn't happen to be owned by one company (because it no longer makes economic sense to vertically integrate this piece) and it uses a very different printing technology (I'm betting digital offset or direct image offset or whatever it's called, but I don't know for sure).

I've pieced this together from a small number of people who weren't attempting to answer the question I had, so I'm sure some crucial part of this is wrong. I'd be perfectly happy to hear more information on the subject.

ETA: This is an area in which books are really _not_ like music. As a manufacturing business, the transition from vinyl to CD was comparatively smooth, and while automation eroded jobs in CD manufacture, DVDs and so forth have lengthened the lifetime of those factories. OTOH, it's _exactly_ like the disk industry in general, which is falling off a cliff as music, movies and other media, software and so forth are all switching over to digital fulfillment.


Geez. Here I was thinking of Ingram as being the cleverest wholesaler ever. The wikipedia entry calls them a "service provider" to the publishing industry, which I would interpret as, "we're going to do everything you do, and charge you to do it for you so you don't have to do it yourself, while we contemplate whether we're going to actually just take over the whole industry or keep you around as a puppet to do the bits we find expensive and annoying."

The article refers to a PW piece profiling the CEO:


from September 2010.

"over the past five to 10 years, the company has invested tens of millions of dollars to become what Skip Prichard, president and CEO of the Ingram Content Group, called the "centerspoke" of an industry in transition."

I'm thinking my summary is about right.

"Its Lightning Source division now has 4.4 million titles and has added more titles this year than at any time in its history...traditional publishers doing shorter first printings and reprinting using POD; the growth of aggregators that print public domain titles; more self-publishing; and greater use of POD by academic presses."

I kept running into academic presses who turned all their production problems over to Ingram as a result of trying to figure out how to do ebooks.

They've apparently already hollowed out Macmillan: "Macmillan will use Ingram's print-on-demand and distribution infrastructure to manage the publisher's traditional inventory and POD needs for long-tail titles. ... "We expect to take over more publishers' back-end operations as they move from print to digital, and business models change like never before," Prichard said."

Thinking, oh, hey, the distributor (which, let's face it, was in a world of hurt if pbook distribution went into a terminal decline, unless they found an alternative business to be in) is just going to consolidate all the stuff as it disappears? Think again. "About 50 publishers (including Penguin and Macmillan) are using CoreSource to help manage the digital distribution of e-books."

Closing Remarks on the Pbook to Ebook Transition

(1) Don't expect to see Big Publishing or "Legacy Publishers" disappear. They will serve gatekeeping, marketing, and other functions, and they will pay for what they do with a stream of cash coming from their pile of contracts controlling their backlist. Basically a whole lot of no change at all.
(2) Do expect to see some scrambling and additional consolidation.
(3) Chain bookstores are obviously becoming a lot less common. A while back, I saw a web page with pictures: "Let's go to the record store." "Let's go to the video store." "Let's go to the book store", and the headline, "2 down, 1 to go".
(4) It has become a much easier world for small publishers including self published authors. Anything ending in -er is a _comparator_. Know what it is easi-er _than_. It still isn't easy. And it may or may not be cheaper.
(5) Books -- pbooks or ebooks -- will be mostly ordered online (and probably mostly ordered from one vendor in particular). Those books -- pbooks or ebooks -- will be fulfilled primarily by Ingram (<-- I'm really shocked by this. _Really_ shocked. The 800 pound gorilla in the room isn't supposed to be _literally_ invisible. I didn't even dig into their textbook initiative.)
(6) If you work for a printing plant that makes books, and that plant isn't run by Ingram Content Group, you should be worried about your job.

IMO, YMMV, etc.