A photo of author and political commentator An...
Image via Wikipedia

The idea for this post was inspired by a simple crossed-out word on a post by Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic, writing about a coffee-table book of photography he’s self-publishing:

That should send some shivers up the spines of the book publishing marketing industry.

To publish his book, Sullivan’s asking potential readers to pledge a purchase, then using the number of pledges to justify an offset press run and determine a price — the more pledges, the larger the run, and the lower the price per copy.

Sullivan’s entry into self-publishing is just another step toward the day when a major author — a Stephen King, a J.K. Rowling — will cross the threshold and open the floodgates.

In the meantime, book publishers that have lost their monopolies over commerce, distribution, and manufacturing still have one or two areas left to defend — marketing and editorial craft.

Are book publishers taking advantage of this?

Only under withering criticism.

Harlequin recently started an imprint called Harlequin Horizons, where authors who have romance novels that Harlequin won’t publish using a traditional approach can still opt to get self-published using the Horizons imprint. Harlequin has also started an ePub imprint  and an editorial services arm. Some see this as exploiting naive authors, as Harlequin diluting their brand, or as a cynical attempt to make money from their slush pile. It also has the potential to flood the market with more books. As one agent says:

I can’t help but think that more books published (and in the marketplace) is not what the industry needs. It already can’t support the number of books currently being published in any given year.

Yet, publishers are in business to make money, and services trimmed of the headaches and expenses of manufacturing, consignment distribution, and returns are bound to be more profitable. It’s why self-publishing is growing so fast.

But the concerns about a flooded marketplace, a lack of brand credentialing (even for romance novels), and charges of exploiting authors resonate because there are emerging cognates in scholarly publishing. And while they may claim that the changes in distribution, manufacturing, and commerce allows them to move seamlessly into such ventures just like consumer publishers, the problems from lower standards of credentialing are more severe in our world. Consumer publishing can allow for growth in these areas because it’s about entertainment and opinion, for the most part — but even then, the guardians of quality are squawking about Harlequin’s moves, and others. Scholarly publishing is about reporting unbiased facts. Why aren’t we up in arms about some of these same kinds of initiatives?

Even changes in how copyright is realized are making the slope more slippery. In an interesting post, Rob Richards looks back over a decade of DRM and copyright concerns, and concludes that the gaping hole created by the unanticipated expansion of fair use to cover major zones of content exploitation means that publishers will focus on services, so:

. . . mainstream publishing declines into a non-credentialed services industry, with enormous numbers of providers, engaged in fierce and unrelenting competition . . . . Judge Posner & Professor Landes long ago predicted what kinds of literary works were likely to dominate the market in the (effective) absence of copyright: “There would be increased incentives to create faddish, ephemeral, and otherwise transitory works because the gains from being first in the market for such works would be likely to exceed the losses from absence of copyright protection.”

The damage self-publishing might wreak in consumer publishing stems from a flooded market of ephemeral materials, but this effect is largely speculative — the consumer market is already flooded, and many good books have entered the mainstream through self-publishing while many niche titles have thrived. Consumer publishing may survive because credentialing isn’t as important to readers or trust.

The damage self-publishing might wreak in scholarly communications is potentially much greater. Author-pays initiatives can flood the market, cause credentialing confusion, exploit naive authors, and erode trust in scholarly publishing.

Why aren’t we worried about this?

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


2 Thoughts on "What Happens When We Misplace the Credentialing Keys?"

I fail to see how an expansion of the fair use provision in the copyright law might lead to “increased incentives to create faddish, ephemeral, and otherwise transitory works.” Ninety percent of what the consumer publishing industry already produces (and has always produced, since at least the late 18th century) is faddish, ephemeral, and otherwise transitory. Moreover, the vast majority of the declining portion of the population that still read books are only vaguely aware of publisher branding (Harlequin, for their market niche, is the exception). Next time you are out for dinner, ask people what they are reading. Then ask them who published it. Ask who their favorite author is. Then ask who that author’s publisher is. No one outside the industry knows or cares.

This total lack of brand recognition is one reason why self-publishers are able to disrupt the market. A person might hear about a book from a friend (perhaps via a Facebook app), from an Amazon “you might also like” feature, or any number of other places. A self-published book looks no different from a book published by a traditional publisher. As no one looks to see who publishes a book, an “FSG” imprint is for all intents and purposes no more valuable than “MOB” (“My Own Brand”).

Professional and scholarly publishing, however, is a different story. Brand does matter in PSP and consumers of PSP content are aware of publisher branding. And yes, that brand recognition is, in part, driven by credentialing. Those PSP publishers that effectively abrogate credentialing by publishing just about anything they are sent (including, as has been well documented in the Scholarly Kitchen, nonsense articles generated by computers) do so at their own peril. Even more circumspect publishers who engage in volume author-pays publishing with the aim of facilitating post-publication review (effectively, post-publication credentialing) are playing a dangerous game and may end up shifting the locus of brand value to post-publication review services and thus putting themselves in the same leaking boat as consumer publishers.


I agree with your take on this, and want to add two perspectives:

1. Publishers are extending brands with some abandon these days, especially into 2.0 properties (blogs, Twitter, Facebook). Where peer-review begins and ends, what is editorially sanctioned, etc., can become confusing.

2. Consumers can be confused by journal-esque branding, which can be a problem in medical publishing. Put “Journal of” in front of something, and it has greater credibility to the general public. This is a boundary we should also take into account with our brands.

Comments are closed.