This is a cross-posting of an article that originally appeared on the Smashwords Blog on 4/21/09.
In my last post, I wrote an allegory on why book publishing is like venture capital. Publishers, in exchange for investing their cash, talent and connections, become part owners of the author’s book project. Authors agree to share ownership in exchange for the privilege of publication and the opportunity for commercial success.
In part two of my post, I’ll explore how the risk of publishing is now shifting to the author, with dramatic consequences for the future of publishing. Just as Silicon Valley tech startups no longer need venture capitalists to launch their companies, authors no longer need publishers to publish.
First, I’ll start by stating the obvious. Publishing is a tough business. It’s difficult to predict the fickle whims of the marketplace. You never know which book will be the next breakout hit, and which will be the next bomb.
Publishing is expensive, what with the rent on those New York skyscraper headquarters of the top publishers, and all the expensive tree killing, tree pulping and carbon-based fuel it takes to move around the glossy bits of paper. And then you’ve got the bookstores which somehow hoodwinked publishers into allowing bookselling to become a consignment business. Retailers order more books than they know they can sell, only to ship the unsold inventory back to the publisher for a full refund.
The challenges faced by publishers often obscure the contributions of many super-wonderful smart people in publishing who are truly committed to helping authors and their books succeed (more on the future for these folks later in the post).
In recent years, publishing, like all media business, has struggled to compete against an explosion of alternate (and often free) media product vying for their customer’s ever-shrinking mind share and wallet. If you examine the sales figures from the AAP (click here to view the PDF) from the last six years, book publishing has actually shrunk here in the U.S. if you adjust for inflation.
The Big Squeeze
With the tough business conditions, made worse by those freeloading big box consignment bookstores (who themselves are now getting their lunches eaten by Amazon), publishers have been forced to cut back on some investments. This means fewer signings of new and unproven authors; fewer signings of authors whose books are perceived to have limited “commercial” potential (even if the author is otherwise brilliant); and fewer post-publication promotional dollars to lavish on anyone but the most commercially promising authors.
Sure, a commercial publisher has an obligation to their shareholders, employees and customers to run their business for profitability. The flip side of this, however, is that authors can find themselves holding the short end of the stick.
Many commercially published authors must now assume personal responsibility for post-publication book promotion efforts that were once the sole domain of the publisher. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle, except that most authors are already poorly compensated to begin with.
I’ve read that most commercially published authors maintain day jobs to support their writing. If true, it would mean the bulk of book authorship is done on a volunteer basis.
While few of us authors would turn down a six figure advance for our book, author Walter Kern, profiled in this interesting New York Times Sunday Book Review feature, determined that even with a six figure advance on his book, it meant he had worked for less than minimum wage given the time it took to produce and publish his book.
The Tools of Liberation
As I alluded in my venture capital post, at one time it was virtually impossible to publish without a publisher. Today, the game has changed. New tools for publishing, marketing, distribution and selling are available to indie authors and indie publishers, and many of these tools are available at little to no cost.
Of course, just because you’re a published author doesn’t mean you’ve written a quality book. With the decision to publish shifting to the author, it’s now the author’s responsibility to invest the money and effort necessary to produce a quality work that satisfies readers.
The Future of Publishing: Risk, Reward and Power Shift to Authors
Increasingly, authors who aspire toward commercial publication will need to prove a market exists for their product before a traditional publisher will consider them. As authors assume more of the risk of publishing, they may also reap a greater share of the rewards upon commercial success.
Some authors, by choice or necessity, will publish without the benefit of professional editing, cover design, marketing, distribution and sales support. Others will opt to invest the funds necessary to purchase these important services, often supplied by experienced professionals who previously worked for the commercial book publishers.
Self-publishing will become a vast farm league for commercial publishers. Commercial publishers, including many new indie publishers, will compete against one another to identify, recruit and publish the most promising authors. Some authors who achieve commercial success on their own may choose to remain indie.
Under this new model, the power center shifts from publisher to author, and the traditional lines between the two blur. Authors become their own publishers. Commercial publishers remain publishers, but also become service providers.
It’s only a matter of time before large media companies and book publishers start partnering more closely with the self-publishing companies, because they aggregate the farm league authors. Not only do the farm league authors provide publishers a rich pool of talent, they also provide the opportunity for publishers to supply paid services to those authors willing to invest to improve the quality of their books.
Some of the more successful self publishing services are already operating under this model. They may go on to become the next big publishers if they remain independent. Author Solutions or Lulu IPO anyone?
Mark Coker is an author, the founder of Dovetail Public Relations and the founder of Smashwords.