Independent Authors And The Bookware Biz

In a recent post I rejected the idea that self-published authors always need to own their own ISBN’s. My rationale was primarily financial, but it was also influenced by my belief that independent authors should not try to mimic the publishing industry’s traditional business model:

Still, as a self-publishing author I think it’s important to remember that what I’m doing is not what most people in the greater publishing industry are doing.

I may be looking to use the same sales channels that everybody else is using, and I may be packaging my content in the same delivery vehicle (a book), but in terms of scale there are significant difference that shouldn’t be ignored.

It’s understandable that independent authors would look to the book industry for a template upon which to base their own self-publishing efforts. It’s understandable, but it’s also a mistake. To see why, imagine for a moment that you’re a potter. Your goal is to make your own pottery in your own studio, and to sell that pottery in a small shop. Would it make sense to base your manufacturing and sales decisions on the business models used by Corningware or Dansk? Or might you find more practical utility in mimicking the business models of other local artisans, even if they produced paintings and jewelry?


Scale Confusion
The problem with appealing to the publishing industry for a road map is that doing so confuses multiple roles. In traditional publishing the author is almost always distinct from all other functions including manufacturing, marketing, distribution and sales. In that sense — where the author’s role is limited to that of content provider — there is a similarity between publisher-dependent authors and independent authors, even if there are disparities in scale.

In every other respect, however, the differences are beyond stark. Publisher-dependent authors don’t have to meet any of the responsibilities (or make most of the choices) that self-publishing authors have to face. I’m not saying that’s good or bad: what I am saying is that it makes all the difference in how self-published authors should approach the business of publishing.

Like the potter, the self-publishing author is responsible for making a lot of things happen that simply will not scale without an infusion of millions of dollars. Again, there’s no comparison between the self-publishing author and the industrial-grade publisher in every respect other than content. The two are not different-sized apples, but rather home-grown apples versus oranges from a corporate grove the size of Dade County.

The Morphing Publishing Model
Confusing the issue even more is the degree to which industrial-grade publishers and publisher-dependent authors have begun to morph away from their own traditional business model. Because of the internet, mainstream publishers recognize that the model they have relied on for decades (if not hundreds of years) is dead. What sense, then, can it possibly make for independent authors to appeal to mainstream publishing for answers? Obviously, none.

Mainstream publishers and self-publishing authors may indeed produce the same retail products, but that’s as useful as noting that the potter and the dinnerware manufacturer both make bowls. Complicating matters further is the fact that publishers and independent authors can now create virtual products that have no analog in the bowl business. Again, as far as I can tell, independent authors gain little or nothing by looking at how book publishers large and small conduct their business.

A Proper Publishing Parallel
I understand the romance of publishing, and the importance of the book as a cultural object. But those attributes are part of the fantasy and mystique of book publishing, not the cold-hearted reality. The only thing that really matters is whether you can survive economically, and that’s true whether you’re a writer or potter of any size.

Just as the independent potter can probably learn the most from other local artisans selling art, the independent author should look at how other independent content creators sell their products. And here I do not equate content with books, but rather with any text, sound or images that a single person can create and sell, either online or as physical product.

Having worked in the software industry, I’ve watched game development evolve along lines similar to publishing, albeit at a vastly accelerated pace. Commercial PC gaming began with small-scale development in the early days, including one-person designers who turned out hand-craft projects. Only a few decades later the computer-game and video-game markets were dominated by large-scale producers and multi-million-dollar titles. While broadband was eagerly anticipated by established producers as a cheaper distribution pipeline, it also unleashed a new cycle of small-team and single-developer titles in the casual-gaming, social-gaming and games-as-apps markets.

Software as a product embodies all of the aspects of content listed above: text, sound and image. If you include non-gaming apps and e-books-as-apps, the overlap between what independent authors are trying to do and what independent software developers are doing is complete. (Even demand for physical books can be likened to customers choosing to boxed or CD/DVD version of a program rather than a download. And if you’re thinking software is different from a book because software runs on a machine, I disagree. All books deliver code written for the human CPU.)

Books and software are also both published. From the consumer’s perspective, independent software development has a long-established history of acceptance, if not also respect. Independent software developers face the same pricing pressures and economic hurdles that independent authors face, and the same obstacles in trying to get products placed on store shelves or accepted by mainstream publishers.

In every respect I can think of, software publishing is either a similar or better business parallel to independent authorship than traditional book publishing. And software publishing has the emotional advantage of being unencumbered by the romance, traditions, expectations and paternalism of the book publishing world.

Software as Solution
In the post about ISBN’s referenced above I openly questioned the value of ISBN’s for independent authors. Among other observations, I noted:

The ISBN system was created in the pre-internet days. It solves a problem related to tracking and inventory, not a problem related to marketing and sales. The modern internet search engine, primed with a few keywords, can now connect 99.99% of the people who want to find my title with a point of sale. What else do I need?

As far as I know, independent software developers don’t register their work with a monopolistic service like R.R. Bowker. They don’t pay fees to be listed in databases that were created to facilitate the business practices of large corporations across international borders. Rather, they use the internet, their own web sites, and various online markets in order to sell their wares. It’s a tough, competitive business, and for every economic success story there are thousands if not tens of thousands of economic failures. But it’s also a business (or hobby) that allows and invites complete creative freedom.

Like a potter studying how a local painter has managed to carve out a niche in the marketplace, independent authors should take a hard look at how software is sold to consumers through search engines, online recommendations, social networks and word of mouth. Nobody hawking blog templates or cell-phone apps or shareware is asking a clearing house for permission to do so. Nobody with a killer app for sale is trying to mate their business model to the practices of Microsoft or Oracle or Apple or IBM. And nobody selling software is asking an agent or editor for permission to make a sale.

Editions and Versions
To the extent that an ISBN or anything else eliminates confusion in the mind of the consumer that’s obviously a good thing. But software manufacturers generally do a good job of eliminating confusion without slaving themselves to an industry-wide registration system. Rather, each software manufacturer keeps track of their own version history, even though they may offer several versions at different price points for different levels of functionality, or in order to meet differing technical requirements for proprietary devices or operating systems.

Not only do software developers keep track of all this, consumers don’t seem to have a problem with that. By the same token, I see no reason why an independent author should not use the same approach when listing the various editions or versions of a work — whether those exist within or outside the ISBN registration system. In fact, going forward I think this kind of autocuration will become a necessity.

Why? Because over time e-books will to run into the same legacy and version issues that bedevil all software. Files that were formatted for the original Kindle or Nook will be replaced by new standards, yet some customers will continue to use those older devices. Like DOS games that can no longer be played on modern computers, electronic books face obsolescence in a way that books themselves never have.

What the independent author wants is what the independent software developer wants: to meet the needs of the customer. To the extent that an ISBN or any other industry identifier makes that possible, either by helping the customer find what they’re looking for or by opening third-party markets, it might be a good thing. But the idea that an independent author needs to provide ISBN’s for all versions of all editions is beyond absurd because it flies in the face of the software industry’s own successful practice.

Owning your Own History

Go to any site that sells software and you’ll find a page that lists the available versions. You might even find legacy versions tucked away somewhere, if not also an exhaustive version history leading back to the program’s origins. If you want something really old you might even be able to find it curated elsewhere.

I believe independent authors should be responsible for their own version and edition histories in the same way, and I don’t think that involves a lot of work. I also think customers will expect authors to provide version and edition information on their sites. But I don’t see this as inevitably leading to confusion, even if independent authors choose to avoid the costs and obligations of the ISBN system.

Why? Because two things are probably never going to change about anything you write: the name of the author and the title of the work. You might create various editions and versions, but the search-engine-friendly identifier of author or title will always remain constant. If customers searching for your work are linked to a page that provides all of the various editions or versions — possibly even bypassing middle-men and middle-markets — how is that bad?

Authors are already (or should be) including links to their home page or book page when they make work available on third-party sties. If a customer can’t find what they’re looking for they can follow that link and see if you have what they need. (Admittedly there are two assumptions here. First, that you’ll always make the most-requested versions/editions readily available. Second, that customers will, over time, get used to looking for bookware in the same way they search for software.)

Minimizing Confusion
If there’s an inherent potential for confusion in anything I’ve proposed I think it springs from the meaning of the words edition and version. In some ways they both mean the same thing: different iterations of whatever the original content was. But I think there are also differences and expectations in the mind of the consumer when these words are used.

The most obvious point to make is that versions usually describe software and editions usually describe physical books. Were these retail galaxies not already blurring together, such distinctions might remain useful. Unfortunately, the line between what is and isn’t a book or an application is getting fuzzier by the day.

Classically, a software version describes two important characteristics. First, the number (or name) of a program tells you if it’s the most recent iteration of the code, which is usually also the most advanced in terms of functionality. Second, versions speak to compatibility. Modern consumers understand that they need to select a version compatible with the hardware they own.

A book’s edition also describes two characteristics. First, there’s the print run of a title — first edition, second edition, etc. This is often most important to collectors, as well as college professors who make teeny-tiny changes to their course texts in order to compel a new round of sales each year. Second, editions are important to customers who may be looking for large print, unabridged original content, or a particular foreword or introduction.

While these two words currently tend to be used for different products, versions and editions speak both to changes in content as well as technological variations. It is this commonality that presents the potential for considerable confusion, but also opens the door for seamlessly merging the self-published book with the consumer’s experience of software.

The practical solution, it seems to me, is to emphasize changes in content through use of the word edition, while using the word version to emphasize device dependence. If the title of your bookware (e-book or physical book) is Blood Lust, editions might include large-print, unabridged, etc. Some or all of those editions might also be offered in various versions that could be read by different devices.

In this context a physical hardcover or softcover book would be a version, not an edition. A large-print edition of Blood Lust might be made available in hardcover, softcover, e-book and audio-book versions. To the extent that this might fly in the face of current publishing convention, I think it’s a change most consumers will find easy to embrace.

The Bookware Business
Whatever the book business is going to become in the future — however it’s going to sustain itself economically — the economics of being an independent author demand that you take action now. Treating your content — both physical books and e-books — as bookware, rather than as something visionary or revered, solves a number of problems. Patterning your bookware business after independent developers who make and sell their own software provides a roadmap while the book industry continues to flail and wander. (Publishers have the capital and cash flow to wait for solutions: you don’t.)

As fickle and treacherous as the software business is, the independent creation of small applications that are sold directly to consumers correlates much more closely to what independent authors are trying to do than anything else I can think of. So the next time you add an app to your smartphone, or a widget to WordPress, take a look at what the people who made that program are doing to attract and keep (and, if applicable, monetize) your interest. You might learn something


This is a reprint from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.

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