One of the things that has characterized books for me is the incredible diversity of markets they reach. Trade publishing has always had remarkably low barriers to entry compared to other media. It has always been easier to publish a book and make it work on some level than to launch a newspaper or a magazine, or make a movie or a TV show or a record. It costs less and the distribution channels have always been relatively democratic and accessible to outsiders. The cash comes back slowly, and profits are often elusive, but you don’t need a fortune to publish a book.
Because books inherently require a small number of sales to make money (the breakeven point gets raised by big advances to authors, but, if the author guarantee is low, most books will recover core production costs on the sale of a few thousand copies and, in some cases, less than that), they frequently target what any other industry would consider mini-markets. A publisher that mines a niche can profit on something incredibly esoteric. For example, the chances are that Osprey, a military history publisher, has made money on books about wars you’ve never heard of. But their audience has and, because they know their audience, everybody wins.
The giant general trade publishers have built big and expensive machines that can make a book a mass sensation and put it in front of the public in a big way. Other publishers have pursued other models. HarperCollins or Simon & Schuster might pay big money to an author and build an organization that can maximize marketing impact on pub date. Other companies have specialized in a market like craft books or art books or computer books, not paying the same advances and necessarily having a different emphasis in their distribution and marketing strategies.
But what has united all the business models was the commitment to make and market a book, which meant printing inventory. The minimum investment to publish a book was much less than the minimum investment to publish a magazine or a newspaper or to make a film or a record. But there still was an investment.
And that brings us back to something that made books special for their authors: the prestige conferred by somebody (preferably somebody highly professional with a brand name like some publishers have) making a unique investment in their content. That’s an investment that’s not sold as part of a magazine, or on the back of a star’s name, but in one person’s work: the author’s. When the subject of what a book was came up at our conference, one observation from a publisher of books about public affairs was how much the speaking fees of their authors went up when a book of theirs was published. The mere fact of the book conferred credibility on the author that raised their value in the marketplace, regardless of how the book sold. (Or didn’t.)
This is something inherent to the definition of a “book”. This is, also, likely to change.
The core change in publishing economics that will ultimately change the shape of the commercial industry is that the already-low investment required to publish a book has plummeted even further. As printed books become less important, then the investment required to fund them becomes less important too. Already we have seen many authors — I’ve written about John Locke and hosted Hugh Howey on the Digital Book World stage, but there are scores of others — build a career as an author without any significant print sales. We have seen other authors with long backlists, some who had only achieved modest success for publishers, turning the opportunity for higher margins and direct audience contact into financial bonanzas in digital publishing.
Repeated demonstration of the fact that it is totally possible to achieve fame and fortune as a writer without a publisher does not escape the attention of any author.
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In fact, nobody in the value chain in between the author and the reader of a book can be complacent about their position: not the agent or publisher or library, but also, quite obviously, not the bookstore, online or physical. The printer and warehouse operator must expect a shrinking share of the book business. No-inventory publishing, by lowering the barriers to entry for a written book of narrative text nearly to zero, is assuring that an ecosystem built around the reality that book inventory was the industry’s greatest cost will change profoundly.
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We’re going to see a lot of change as players of all sizes, in all parts of the publishing value chain, adjust to the “weightlessness” of a business shedding and shifting its biggest capital requirement: inventory cost. Picking on one tactic or another by one player or another, particularly from the perspective of preserving legacy behavior, is not likely to be very illuminating or helpful.