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9 Ways Big Pub Is Like Big Pharma

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Sometimes it seems as if the only writer more miserable than an unpublished author is a published one.

When two authors speak, it is customary -- almost expected -- for them eventually to work their way around to the shocking incompetence of their publisher. The publisher screwed up the cover. It didn't get the books to the signing venue. It won't share sales information in real time. It expected the author to do all her own marketing. It overpriced the ebook. It's not interested in building the author's career.

Interestingly, however, most authors like their editors. One has the sense that if Gallup did a survey of author sentiment on book publishers, they'd find that the results closely parallel the polling on Congress. Nearly everyone may hate Congress, but at the same time nearly everyone likes his own congressman.

Similarly, it seems, every author loves her editor but every author hates book publishing.

I exaggerate, of course. It's not really every author who feels this way. It's only every author on the mid-list. If those big-selling brand-name authors are crying about publishing, they're crying all the way to the bank. Big publishing serves them well.

Mid-list authors, on the other hand, are the perennial orphans of Big Pub. When they fail commercially -- which is most of the time -- they are denigrated, pitied or, worst of all, ignored. On rare occasions when they find themselves elevated to commercial success, suddenly every publisher who ever gave them a nickel shows up claiming paternity for their achievement.

Leaving aside the issue of where credit is due, however, let's consider the possibility that the decisions publishers make vis à vis this group are pretty logical. Let's consider Big Pub in the context of Big Pharma -- an industry that in recent years has faced similar challenges to Big Pub and addressed them with similar business practices.

Let us count the ways that Big Pub parallels Big Pharma:

  1. Their death is exaggerated.
  2. People keep predicting the death of Big Pub but somehow Big Pub soldiers on. Big Pharma, too.

  3. Their life blood is intellectual property.
  4. The reason investors worry about Big Pharma is that they're exposed to expiring patents. One similar worry for Big Pub is that their big-name authors will defect or die.

  5. They gotta feed the overhead beast.
  6. Big is big. Big buildings. Big electric bills. Lots of people to pay. If it won't scale, it's unlikely to help Big Pub or Big Pharma defray these costs in any appreciable manner.

  7. Niches won't pay those bills.
  8. Therefore, some very specific drug that will only heal a thousand sick folks a year isn't going to keep the lights on. Neither is some tiny little book from an unknown author.

  9. Most of the money comes from old deals.
  10. Backlist, meet Lipitor.

  11. Hard to make a blockbuster in a long-tail world.
  12. In Big Pharma they talk about the distinction between small-molecule and big-molecule drugs. The former can be taken orally, which is where most profits lie. But it's harder and harder to find small-molecule drugs that fulfill the needs of millions of people, which is why Big Pharma sometimes gets into trouble for trying to trade people up to newer and more expensive drugs that offer no real benefits to patients.

    In Big Pub they talk about the distinction between small books and big books. But it's harder than ever to turn a small book into a big one, which is why Big Pub often gets into trouble for paying semi-literate celebrities millions of dollars for the book someone else will write in their name.

  13. The entrepreneurs have left the building.
  14. Big Pharma and Big Pub always introduce new products, but no longer are they fundamentally creators of new product. They're distribution machines, best at selling those things they're already accustomed to moving out the door. Think James Patterson. In the extra-strength dose.

  15. Their best customers are squeezing them.
  16. One day you're selling drugs to a million little pharmacists and telling them what they'll pay. The next day you're selling to a handful of giant chain stores, and they're telling you what they'll pay. No doubt Big Pharma feels the same way about Walgreen's that Big Pub feels about Amazon. Can't live with 'em -- uh, you know.

  17. So long as you own the channel of distribution, others can do your R & D.

Big Pub faces criticism for ignoring a lot of worthy authors, as Big Pharma gets criticism for creating fewer and fewer new drugs on its own. But most books fail commercially no matter who publishes them, just as most new drugs die in trials. As barriers to entry fall -- self-publishing, start-up biotech -- maybe it's perfectly rational for Big Pub and Big Pharma to wait to see what rises to the top of the market and then swoop in with cash to buy it.

If you're a scientist with a great new drug idea or an author who just knows she's the next Stephanie Meyers, you may not be happy to learn that Big Pharma or Big Pub will not beat a path to your door until you've already cleared half the forest yourself. But your unhappiness won't change anything. Those guys in the big office tower have their own mouths to feed.