The Publishing Shake-Up is What The Recording Industry Experienced 10 Years Ago
As we’ve all read, the publishing industry is undergoing profound changes. The ever-shrinking San Francisco Chronicle is a testament to that fact. The publishing shakeup is similar to what took place in the recording industry ten years ago. They stood on the tracks, hypnotized by the oncoming headlight of the digital train. In both recording and publishing, the paradigm shift was preceded by massive corporate consolidations, where mega-entities swallowed up a sea of smaller players.
Gone are the days in the music industry when innovative labels were willing to take a chance on relatively unknown artists like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, while they found their artistic voice over the course of 2-3 minimally selling albums. And similarly in publishing, there are now only six major global players, sometimes referred to as the "six sisters": Bertelsmann, CBS, Hachette, News Corporation, Pearson, and Verlagsgruppe. Only one is American. CBS owns Simon & Schuster. Together, these companies control the lion’s share of the book publishing market. Bertelsmann alone owns over 70 previously independent imprints, including Random House, Knopf, Ballantine, Crown, Pantheon, Vintage, Bantam, Dell, Doubleday, Anchor, Del Ray, Fodor's and Fawcett. Where an author might have previously contacted each of these houses individually, queries now tend to funnel-up to the parent organization. And bottom-line concerns are paramount.
Rewriting the Publishing Paradigm
But new and exciting alternatives are coming to fruition. In the traditional publishing paradigm, you wrote a book, then looked through a literary agency guide to find like-minded agents, then it generally took 6-12 months to get a nibble. If you were lucky, an enthusiastic agent shopped your book, which took many more months, and then if you continued to be lucky, an interested publisher emerged. At that point, you were looking at up to two years before the book would appear in stores. As an unknown author, you’d probably be at the bottom of the publisher's priority list--arranging, and in some cases even funding, your own publicity and book tours.
Contrast this with current developments in the online world. Amazon recently purchased a Print-On-Demand facility called CreateSpace. Gone are the days of self-publishing entities that produced expensive books of dubious quality, and required authors to order and store hundreds or thousands of copies, in the hopes that they might somehow be sold.
A CreateSpace book cover can be designed online using a variety of their templates, or an author can hire their graphics people to design the cover, or an independent graphics contractor can step in. Once the cover is finished, it's simply a matter of uploading the text file and cover file, waiting a day or two for approval, ordering a proof copy, approving it, and then giving the go-ahead for online sales. With Amazon's CreateSpace partnership, the book presented at Amazon.com is indistinguishable from those coming out of the majors. The paper quality is sometimes even better. Contrasted with the likely two year turnaround for a book to appear on Amazon under the old publishing paradigm, a POD book can conceivably be online in a matter of weeks. We can now order a copy of our novel THE SHROUD at 10 AM, and by 2 PM that same day get an email that it has shipped. In four hours or less, they've processed the online order, printed and bound the book, packaged it, and shipped it. With no agent, publisher, warehousing, or brick-and-mortar store in the equation.
As a result of the quality of the product, and the major players involved in POD in this era, the stigma of self-publishing is quickly falling by the wayside. There are a handful of notable success stories, of those who have completely bypassed traditional publishing. Scott Sigler is a San Francisco writer of horror fiction. After having his novels repeatedly rejected by agents and publishers, he simply put them aside for a time, concentrating on his day job of social media marketing. Then one day it occurred to him that he might combine these job skills with his fiction work. He began recording and offering free audio podcasts of one of his novels, with a new chapter offered each week. After just a few months of promoting this serial offering online, he had subscribers in the tens of thousands. That loyal fan base eventually caught the eye of traditional publishers, and they signed him to a book deal, and they've now signed him to a fairly large motion picture deal. And why not, he'd done all the hard work for them. Some have asked Sigler why anyone would subsequently go out and buy a hard copy version of a book that they'd already downloaded for free, and his answer was--"Because I asked them to." As a result of offering his book to them for free, his fans were extremely loyal.
And then there's Petaluma writer/physicist Ransom Stephens, who published his novel as a free download on the online sharing site, Scribd.com. The book became such a hit there, that he too eventually attracted a traditional publisher. And here again, I think that many of his original readers bought the hard copy of the book as a simple act of loyalty.
But these two experiences raise the obvious question--is the digital distribution paradigm still just a means of attracting and securing a traditional publishing deal? With success stories like these, why not bypass traditional publishing entirely? I'm not sure anyone can really predict the course of publishing in the next 3-4 years, particularly in the era of the iPad and smartphones. But as Ransom Stephens points out in this very fascinating article on the state of publishing, authors like Dan Brown and Stephen King will very soon no longer need traditional publishers.
Between their existent notoriety, and facilities like Facebook, they can easily keep their fans aware of their latest works, and offer them as print-on-demand books or digital downloads, reaping most of the profits themselves. Meanwhile on the tail end of this "Long Tail Economics" graph, one sees that the potential demand for someone's poorly written family memoir is very slight. It actually works fine within the paradigm of print-on-demand, but is completely incompatible with the traditional paradigm of agent, publisher, brick-and-mortor book store, and book tour. The only authors on this graph that could arguably benefit from the current paradigm of publishing, are writers such as ourselves--relative unknowns, who need a marketing and PR machine to get the book and the author into the public eye, to arrange book readings and media appearances, etc. In short, to take care of all the things that would allow us the free time to write. But in reality, it is just such mid-list authors that are increasingly being ignored and/or cut loose in the traditional publishing world. And as Stephens points out, this will be greatly to their peril, because this market will increasingly be their only remaining business niche.
What We Learned with The Shroud
So this takes us up to the present in terms of our own book--finding ways to make people aware of the book, and then convincing them to buy it. You can't really take the outcomes I've just cited, and then replicate them in recipe fashion. One has to continually chart new territory. But from my own experience, the one path that no longer seems to work for new authors is the tried and true one of old publishing. So we're still finding our way in this. We've produced a video "book trailer," have established a Facebook and Twitter page, have placed a Facebook ad (which has been presented nearly a million times so-far), have created a Kindle version of the book, have enabled Amazon's "search inside" feature, where readers can preview and search the book online, and have consulted locally on the latest in social media marketing with James Marshall Berry, and also Donna Piranha of WordMice. Meanwhile we've racked up some fairly glowing reviews on Amazon, including from Christine. But so far, the actual book sales have been relatively minimal outside of our circle of extended friends. So we're still exploring ways of creating more of a viral buzz .
And for those interested in the actual costs and profit margin for the book, we're charging $12.95 on Amazon for the paperback, and $6.95 for the Kindle version. As the authors, we can purchase a copy of the book directly from CreateSpace for $5.60. If we were to order ten books at a time, with the shipping charge, it comes out to about $6/copy. So selling directly to local area bookstores, that would amount to a pretty good take on the list price of $12.95. Meanwhile, for copies sold on Amazon, we receive slightly over $2 per book in terms of royalty. But that's still significantly more than most traditional publishing royalties.
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