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An Author Speaks Directly To Publishers: Kathrin Passig’s Commentary In Berlin

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Author and jouranlist Kathrin Passig speaks at Berlin's Publishers' Forum. Image: Adam Janish for Klopotek
Author and jouranlist Kathrin Passig speaks at Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum. Image: Adam Janisch for Klopotek

‘You’re Giving Amazon Another Advantage’

I know you’re all very nice people that are a pleasure to work with, and I know you do things in this roundabout way because you love talking and I even love talking to you…

But when you offer workflows that are slower, less functional and more complicated than what people use in their everyday lives, you are no longer helping authors.

SONY DSCIt’s hard to think of an author who could have delivered this message to publishers as effectively as the German writer Kathrin Passig did on Monday in Berlin.

Passig had been handed a dream assignment, tantamount to performing the #authorsay exercise in person. You’ll remember the #authorsay survey of traditionally published writers. It was created by Harry Bingham and Jane Friedman, and its results were reported first by The Bookseller.

In a show of courage, Publishers’ Forum director Rüdiger Wischenbart had decided to open Klopotek’s  two-day industry conference in Berlin not with suits ‘n’ sales onstage but with the quiet, penetrating, relentless roam of a woman dressed in black.

Passig paced like a TED Talker in search of the logo. Unbeknown to many of the nearly 300 people in the room at Berlin’s Sofitel Kurfuerstendamm, Passig was speaking from a prepared text. Her care in tone and tenor were evident:

You might say: Authors can’t deal with anything technical. But they can, they use a lot of software in their private lives and in their other jobs. They write blogs, they collaborate with others, they use all kinds of tools that are more sophisticated than what they have in working with you.

Kathrin Passig address Publishers' Forum Monday in Berlin. Image: Adam Janische for Klopotek
Kathrin Passig address Publishers’ Forum Monday in Berlin. Image: Adam Janisch for Klopotek

“You” in her lexicon here is the traditional publishing establishment that makes up the biggest part of the Publishers’ Forum audience.

And the experience she’d arrived to tell these publishing players about has to do with her production of a book in February, a compilation project, a book created from a collaborative blog site’s posts.

3 Keys To Passig’s Approach At Publishers Forum

  1. Passig was the opening speaker, in a 30-minute appearance. Publishers Forum is a major two-day conference regarded by many of us as central to our understanding of the Continental European publishing marketing’s development. Opening an industry-facing event of this kind (as opposed to a conference for authors) — and with an incisive perspective from an author’s viewpoint of where publishing is making mistakes — is hardly the norm.  This was a bold move by Wischenbart, Klopotek and Passig, well played. It would be discussed throughout the conference.
  2. Passig’s delivery was free of the sort of politicized emotionality that we see so frequently in this discussion in the US and, often, in the UK, as well. By that, I mean that at no point did Passig get off any “We authors told you so” digs. There was no “What’s wrong with you publishers?” verbiage. Her tone was not accusatory. It was candid, sometimes regretful, measured. Thus, her appearance stood outside of hot-button views (from any quarter) about the publisher-author relationship today. She had precious little baggage in her way.
  3. Passig presented a precise set of observations in her work in four areas and explained each of the areas and their implications for how publishers and authors can work together. These were not attitudinal complaints, in other words, but hands-on, tangible factors in process and procedure that she believes have shown her where publishers appear to be falling dangerously behind the digital times.

Here is a quick look at each of the four areas, with a bit of her commentary.

Collaboration:

People are collaborating more on text than they did ten years ago. This is a trend that originated in software development…Since the late 1990s, writers have been starting to adopt similar tools, especially since the practice went mainstream after the introduction of Google Docs ten years ago. I did all my writing after 2005 using Google Docs together with coauthors.

Parallel Workflows:

Collaborative writing since the introduction of Google Docs also means that several people can work on a book simultaneously. In fact it means they have to work simultaneously, because for example with the editor’s changes there simply is no feasible way you can coordinate the work in a sequential manner when there is more than one author. All authors have to be literally on the same page to see all edits and decide on how to implement them…..Even though there are a lot of useful tools now for collaboration between distributed coworkers, it has been my experience that publishing houses do not use them…The workflow at publishing houses is still shaped by the tradition of having stacks of paper going from desk to desk. After the author comes the editor, after the editor comes the proofreader, after the proofreader comes the typesetter, etc. This is not a process that is being used because it is the best possible way to do it. It is an artifact of working with paper. Twenty years ago there simply was no other way to do it.

Text Processing 

A lot of what happens in publishing houses is done manually and often in a surprisingly non-digital manner. Whenever you ask me to submit a book in Microsoft Word format, I know there will be a lot of manual work involved on your side, because you can’t automate much of anything in Word, or work on a Word document with other software. And then you have handwritten corrections of the galley proofs, and someone who collates all those edits and corrections by hand into another paper version, and the typesetter will introduce new errors implementing these hand-written changes…A huge problem in publishing workflows is the fact that you do not have a master copy of the text that remains accessible and editable during the whole process. As soon as the book goes from what is usually a Microsoft Word document to what is usually an Indesign document, you lose the ability to have more than one person working on the text…In the worst case even the editor loses all ability to work on the text, or no one at the publishing house can work on the text anymore because typesetting is done by an external agent.

Documentation of Standards

One final problem is that knowledge about standards, options or constraints in publishing is often undocumented, or the documentation is very hard to find. It’s what people in knowledge management call “tacit knowledge”. Tacit knowledge is not transparent to the outsider and the only way you can find out about it is to ask. When you’re an author, things are even more difficult, because most of the time you are so far removed from the people doing the actual typesetting, marketing or whatever that you won’t get much of an answer. There are too many layers of publishing house between your question and the answer. And in a collaborative setting you have to first ask someone and then let the other contributors know. That is a cumbersome and error-prone process… It’s a lot easier if all the rules are explicit.

It’s important to note that in some cases, the points Passig was making will be more germane to publishers in her own market — and to the processes used by authors in her market — than to those in other places. What’s more, there are, I’m sure, exceptions to each point she’s making; the German publishing establishment is no more monolithic than the American or UK or Indian or Chinese establishments.

The real point here is her approach: Practical and precise, unemotional and apolitical.

And to their credit the conference delegates from some of Europe’s most powerful publishing concerns — and many international colleagues who flew to Berlin for Publishers Forum — handled her talk well. They were attentive and respectful. A Q&A session didn’t catch fire, but the tradition of audience interaction in these settings is frequently less boisterous than you might find in the States or in the UK.

Delegates to Publishers Forum 2015 listen to Kathrin Passig on Monday in Berlin. Image: Adam Janische for Klopotek
Delegates to Publishers Forum 2015 listen to Kathrin Passig on Monday in Berlin. Image: Adam Janisch for Klopotek

Making Common Cause

If anything, one of Passig’s smartest points involved her recognition that publishers may not realize how Amazon can weaken them in attracting customers.

She had started by comparing her experience of digital publishing with Germany’s Sobooks.de and then Amazon’s KDP system. With Sobooks, she reported, more than 100 emails were needed over a six-day period. With Amazon, only one day and 15 minutes were needed.

And in light of that kind of self-publishing experience, this practiced journalist and author — now a hybrid, thanks to her earlier traditional publishing experience — could say to her audience of experts:

You are making things more difficult for us, you’re making things more difficult for yourself, and you’re giving Amazon another advantage. I like Amazon, but they have a lot of advantages as it is and they don’t need you helping them.

In the two days that followed, we’d hear much more from publishing’s players  than from authors — which is correct in the case of the Klopotek-produced conference. But that makes it all the more impressive that the leadership of Publishers Forum was able and willing to tap such an engaging personality with such meaningful and non-emotive input.

This is why and how, in fact, that Passig was able to key her comments not on ideas of criticism or accusation or frustration but on collaboration. She called her talk: “Collaboration: New Ways of Working Together Require New Workflows. An Author’s Experience.”

It was a good moment of the kind that can only help the people of publishing get together around their workbenches and start sorting out the digital pathways ahead. TC mark

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