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Learning from Books — Lessons for STM Publishers

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Mass-market book publishing is undergoing major upheaval more quickly than the experts expected.

Back when book publishers controlled distribution, manufacturing, sales, and marketing, the money flowed. Authors benefited because advances were fairly lucrative. Bookstores benefited because consignment sales limited their risk while local control stabilized their coffers. Readers . . . well, readers didn’t have any options, so they assumed that they were reading the best of what was available. The publisher, as gatekeeper to the means of communication, also was unquestionably the gatekeeper on taste.

It was the age of information scarcity, so gatekeepers on manufacturing were also gatekeepers on taste.

Now, digital publishing (including it’s cousin, print-on-demand [POD] publishing) — with its boundless capacity, disaggregated production value chain, and liberated distribution channels — is eroding these boundaries, and very quickly.

Last week, Smashwords announced to its authors (I happen to be one) that it has struck a deal with Barnes & Noble to become its e-book source. This is very significant, giving Barnes & Noble a way to begin competing in the e-book space with Amazon. In July, Barnes & Noble announced a partnership to provide e-books to the Plastic Logic Reader, and also plans to make its e-books available for iPhone and Blackberry platforms.

This is major news for independent authors, many of whom use Smashwords to reach a larger audience. It’s also major news for Smashwords, which now gains a major retail partner for its platform (back in February, I talked about how nifty Smashwords is).

Even the keynote for an upcoming Writer’s Digest conference is sensing how profoundly different the environment for authors and publishers is these days. In a free-wheeling blog post, Mike Shatzkin observes how digital publishing has lowered barriers to entry for everyone involved:

This ease of entry is part of what bedevils the established publishers. They’re still gatekeepers, but the gate isn’t attached to a fence or wall anymore so aspirants just walk around it. That doesn’t mean that getting published by a real publisher is of no value; it is still the only way to sell significant numbers of copies, and it will remain that for some time to come. But most books, even those published by legitimate publishers, don’t sell large numbers of copies.

And this is where another devilish issue arises for publishers — they aren’t nearly as good at marketing as they thought they were.

When you own distribution, manufacturing, etc., you’re marketing to a resource-poor audience with few alternatives. Any marketing you do will likely work, so you begin to think you’re a brilliant marketer.

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel and claiming you’re a marksman.

But when the barrel vanishes and the fish are back in their natural habitat — when those other advantages erode and your marketing has to compete as marketing — your limitations and vulnerabilities as a marketer emerge.

And this is why publishers are now looking for help — from authors.

Doing all this heavy lifting for their publishers is one of the biggest complaints of traditionally published authors — the amount of marketing support from publishers is nearly zero, so it all falls on the author. With a small advance that probably won’t even pay out, more authors are becoming disillusioned and angry.

Part of the anger is caused by the fact that, as M.J. Rose of Authorbuzz observes, publishers aren’t paying authors for all the direct and indirect costs they’re incurring at the request of publishers:

We now have a situation where publishers are financially benefiting from the author’s efforts but the author is still getting paid the old way, without regard to how much we personally invest. There’s just no consideration for the checks we’re writing out of our own pockets for marketing or PR services. Accordingly, it’s blatantly and patently unfair for us to invest in our own books and then wait for our advances to earn out based on the same royalties rates we’ve always gotten.

So, authors are more important to publishers, have more options to reach people without using publishers, and new types of digital distributors are out-innovating publishers.

New groups, review sites, rating systems (star-ratings and customer reviews), and sharing sites provide new gate-keeping services, some — especially customer reviews –  being seen as more legitimate than traditional sources.

What can mass-market publishers offer in response? They slow things down, take too much money in their cut, and exhibit dubious market judgment.

It’s a grim scenario.

It makes me glad I chose to publish my books independently. My second novel is due out in a week or two. Talk about freedom.

What lessons can STM publishers derive from this?

Gate-keeping and marketing are what the digital revolution is leaving with us. If we fail at either of these, authors will stop relying on us.

Full stop.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-score, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Learning from Books — Lessons for STM Publishers

  1. Or will it just mean that author’s who get rejected by the big publishers too often give up and go it alone? Perhaps that will save book publishers some money as they can spend less time on their slush piles?

    Surely publication by an established publisher is something that most authors still aspire too? As well as the possibly misguided hope that they may make some money, I think most people who want to have a book published are doing it to prove that they can write something of a certain quality. But if you go the self-publishing route, doesn’t that mean you could be distributing something of questionable quality? There’s no-one except yourself making a decision on whether to publish after all. If you just want to get a message out to the world, then it’s probably easier to do this on the internet and distribute for free rather than go to the trouble of self-publishing.

    Posted by Mark Lord | Sep 2, 2009, 9:25 am
    • There are plenty of awful self-published books, and some good books by authors who were worn down by the traditional publishing route. There is no doubt about it. But there’s a growing number of successful, professional, commendable self-published books. And the trends of distribution, manufacturing, marketing, and finances all point toward the growth of independent publishing.

      Part of the reason I self-published was to experiment, to immerse myself in what seemed to be an emerging (and logical) trend. Now that I’ve been doing this for over 6 months, I’ve learned a few things.

      For one, I think even established authors are taking another look at their options these days. Authors are publishing their royalty statements to show just what kind of deal they’re getting as “best-selling” authors (and, it ain’t so good); complaining about publisher lack of support; experimenting with independent and traditional approaches simultaneously (and finding a lot of positives in the independent approach); and making hard comparisons between the numbers and creative freedom.

      Independent or self-publishing has been stigmatized as just “slush pile,” and much of it consisted of bad memoirs by grandpa, unreadable books about spiritual journeys, etc. But as high-quality authors have stepped forward, that stigma has faded, and in some cases has been eliminated. The best independent authors hire designers for their covers, editors for their content, and get feedback from multiple readers in their target audience before publishing. I’ve recently become part of a cooperative of very good independent authors called Backword Books. Take a look at those titles — plot- and character-driven, by excellent writers, with plenty to appeal to various audiences. This is what independent publishing is beginning to look like.

      As I said in the post, this is happening faster than people expected. It’s hard for readers to keep up with the changing landscape. I hope this helped.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Sep 2, 2009, 12:01 pm
      • Kent, I’d be interested to know what sort of sales these authors are getting. Everything I have read up until now points to a few hundred copies at best for most self-published authors. Do you have any information you can share?
        Thanks
        Mark

        Posted by Mark Lord | Sep 2, 2009, 12:04 pm
        • Ah, the key question. Considering each book is a “hard sale” (not on consignment), you have to compare net sales to get apples-to-apples. Also, independent authors often publish in multiple media — print, e-book (Kindle, Scribd, Smashwords). That said, sales range from the millions (“The Shack” is self-published) to the hundreds to the tens. It all depends. Some authors have books (often how-to or expert books) that sell thousands and tie into the author’s services. Personally, I’ve sold a few hundred copies in 6 months, all hard sales, no returns. That’s probably a fair mid-list book, net sales-wise.

          Most traditional authors don’t earn out even $5K advances with their sales, and I’d hate to see the list of books currently with agents who are “running the clock” on their authors, realizing their books weren’t as marketable as they’d hoped but with time left on their agreement to represent them. Well, I take that back — I’d love to see that list.

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Sep 2, 2009, 12:21 pm
  2. re. ‘slush piles’: could be. could it also be that authors’ tolerance for rejection will diminish — one or two strikes & you’re ‘out’?

    my hope is that if this trend of de-centralizing publishing/gatekeeping continues, self-publishing authors won’t ‘cheap out’. i’ve read a couple of self-published books by authors who really can write — but whose work would have been so much better had they hired an editor. i’m not an editor, and in principle couldn’t care less about editors’ job security. it’s simply a necessary service — and priceless when performed well. that second set of professional eyes is hugely important for a text’s transition from the author’s brain to the reader’s.

    Posted by thorn | Sep 2, 2009, 12:04 pm
    • I agree, having a good editor makes a huge difference. The first draft of my first novel was, by comparison to the finished book, a disaster, until some editorial brains gave me some guidance. I couldn’t see past the end of my nose. I needed that objective view.

      That said, once I had it, I could execute to it. I still rely on it, but the adjustments are more subtle now. I’ve dialed it in. I would never go out without it, but its role has changed. Admittedly, I’m writing a series, so major advice about character development, tone, style, and whatnot was necessary early. Now, it’s about remaining true to character, refining new characters, and those little things an author thinks will be apparent to a reader but aren’t.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Sep 2, 2009, 12:26 pm
  3. There are major publishers who are experimenting with profit-sharing. This certainly may be something that works in the scholarly publishing world as well. You’ll note that one of our journals pays authors a royalty based on the usage of their articles.

    I’m not sure how relevant some of the lessons from the mainstream publishing houses are though. In my own experience, there’s generally a huge difference in the material we produce and the authors who write for us, and someone who is writing fiction/non-fiction as their primary occupation. For example, our authors are scientists, and any book they do is an extra, on top of their “real” job. Putting together a comprehensive reference book on a subject takes a huge amount of work beyond what you’d put into a novel; fact-checking, reference-checking, indexing, creating and editing figures, formatting tables, putting together appendices of material safety sheet data, etc., not to mention design, typography and things like that. Most of our authors are already far too busy to begin with, so putting together a book is beyond what they can possibly fit into their schedules. They expect us to do a lot of the heavy lifting. We can create a better, more coherent and more physically attractive book than they can on their own. What we offer goes beyond gatekeeping and marketing.

    That question of quality is important here–that’s something we can provide that they can’t get through dabbling in their spare time and using POD technology. Most authors are writing books with us because it’s good for the field in which they work, and because it adds a level of prestige to their careers. They want the book to be beautiful, they want it to include a website of movies and teaching tools. They want lots and lots of high quality color images. As I understand it, color is prohibitively expensive for a lot of POD systems (Kent, do you know if this is still the case–If so, then it’s often a non-starter for science books that need color illustrations). Most authors aren’t writing books with us because they hope to get rich from them. They do get paid royalties, and are appreciative of the extra income, but given the size of the niche markets we serve, no one is turning into Stephen King. The profit motive is far below the desire to be the definitive voice on a subject.

    As far as promotion, we do ask our authors to help promote their books, although no one does a book tour to promote a new lab manual. The online activities you mention are not something that costs an author out of pocket. We do everything possible to save our authors work, and to keep them happy, and given the number who return to publish subsequent editions or new books, I haven’t seen this disgruntled undercurrent you’re seeing.

    Scientists do self-publish books, though they’re often for very small niche markets, things we couldn’t afford to take on. There’s also the small but very vocal minority who prefer to keep things open and freely accessible–that’s a more likely trend to watch for, the creation of free online resources, rather than self-published books sold for profit.

    Posted by David Crotty | Sep 2, 2009, 12:32 pm
    • The profit-sharing publisher you mention, HarperStudio, is responding to the changes in the market. Good for them! They’re obviously aware of what’s at stake, and how the math has changed.

      Independent publishing in the sciences is, I think, very different from mass-market fiction. As I noted in the post, we can keep our place if we’re good gatekeepers and marketers, but we’ll probably want to re-examine our abilities given the new options. HarperStudio changed their model after waking up to the modern world. We might want to think differently, too.

      And you’re right, POD for color is still prohibitively expensive. Some university presses are using POD themselves to avoid warehousing and returns, mostly for humanities titles. There are a lot of options out there, and dabbling in them is probably a good idea.

      Most important is your point about authors just skipping the book outright and going for the blog or online resource approach. We have a mental model of books as a “cut above,” an enduring, important resource, but the book’s utility in reference, education, and specialist information exchange could change quickly. Why not make a great iPhone application instead?

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Sep 2, 2009, 12:48 pm
  4. Two interesting blogs on the topic of self-publishing:

    Writer Beware
    http://accrispin.blogspot.com/
    Just like the title says: Writer Beware.

    Self-publishing review
    http://theselfpublishingreview.blogspot.com/
    The blog’s author, an editorial professional, reads and reviews self-pub books.

    Posted by Leslie Shortlidge | Sep 2, 2009, 12:44 pm
  5. Hi Kent, I appreciate this followup on Smashwords!

    Further to MJ’s point on the topic of risk, I wrote a two-part post a few months ago that might contribute the discussion. The first is an allegory for how publishers are like venture capitalists (it’s also a word game to play in your word processor), and the second talks about how in the future, more of the risk of publishing will shift to the author.

    http://blog.smashwords.com/2009/04/why-book-publishing-is-like-venture.html

    http://blog.smashwords.com/2009/04/future-of-book-publishing-risk-shifts.html

    Posted by Mark Coker | Sep 3, 2009, 5:31 pm

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