When a publisher might not do as good a job as a self-publishing author

From Mike Shatzkin:

We’ve previously explored what I called “the end of the trade publishing concept”, which stems from the now wide-open opportunity to publish available to anybody with a computer and something to deliver as a book. It feels like we may have reached a new benchmark: admittedly a very fuzzy one. But it looks like it has become very difficult, bordering on impossible, for a commercial entity to make money consistently publishing new titles. Let’s summarize the facts that have changed on the ground that make that the case.

**Thirty years ago, each new book coming into the world in English was competing with 500,000 incumbents that were (at least theoretically) available for purchase. That was the total number of books “in print” in English in the world. Today that number, with a big boost from Ingram’s Lightning print-on-demand capability, has grown to more than nineteen million titles.

**Up until twenty years ago, bookstores sold the lion’s share of the books. Only serious publishers with sales forces, warehouses, inventory, and relationships with retailers could compete for sales. Now bookstores account for as little as 20 percent of the sales. Most sales are made through online promotion and availability that give incumbent publishers no particular edge. So increased title competition has come along with the vanishing of the unique publisher sales and distribution advantage.

**In the pre-Lightning era, publishers had to maintain inventory in a warehouse for any title expected to compete in the marketplace. That requirement cost publishers money, but also served to eliminate competition. No inventory holding is required today to have a title listed as available being able to ship within days, if not hours. That saves incumbent publishers some cash investment, but unleashes a slew of new competition.

**In those bookstore-dominant days, publishers could safely focus their marketing efforts on those titles just about to come out until a few months after publication day. In today’s world, titles can “pop” for myriad reasons that have nothing to do with when they were first issued. The death of an author, the surge in a book on the same subject, the sudden interest of a celebrity — all of these things can make a book suddenly competitive and promotable and no inventory has to be “in place” in stores to support it. Publishers have steadily increased the number of digital marketers on their staffs and now employ a variety of “listening” tools to detect what books on vast backlists should get attention, but the challenge of allocating scarce marketing resources across an increasing array of  apparent opportunities grows ever more difficult.

**Throughout the history of trade publishing, there were established venues in which to “work” the titles. You needed to get new titles promoted in the trade press and mentioned in as many of the hundreds (or thousands) of newspaper and magazine book reviews as possible. There were select television and radio shows that effectively promoted books. And if you wanted to keep a backlist title alive, the most important thing you needed to do was keep it stocked on bookstore shelves. Because there were important vehicles that were used repeatedly, established publishers developed longstanding relationships with established promotional outlets. Today, much of that established network has disappeared and a vast amount of the promotional opportunity for books, especially non-fiction, is through vehicles that arise as opportunities for the first time. An established publisher often has no more cred with them than the self-publishing author or fledgling publisher does.

**But perhaps the biggest change of all is that publishers aren’t “necessary” for an author to have a “published book” available for promotion or educational or any other use. With very little cash or know-how, anybody can publish a book these days. Any author who commands an audience through a website or other business network can make a book available without a publisher. So putting a book out through a publisher is now a choice, not the only way to accomplish the task.

And this takes us to the new decision-matrix for an author who is both not a “typical” author but also not a unique one: a business school professor who previously self-published books he wanted to have available for his students, but who now has a title of much broader interest.

The author in this case is Ed Rogoff, a business school dean and professor for many decades. A few years ago, Ed explored self-publishing to make his “Bankable Business Plans for Non-Profits” available for the classes he taught. He wasn’t particularly concerned with the revenue from the book, but he needed it to be available for students in classes he was teaching. A later variation on the Bankable Business Plan idea (the first of which had, indeed, been put out by an established publisher) was BBP for Entreprenurial Ventures. Having that book to show got Ed a new business school home, at the Wagner School at NYU, for that class.

The book leading to the class, rather than the other way around, was a sign of a world turned upside down by the capability to self-publish. And it shows why an academic might self-publish. You can do it fast and you can present your material in the ways best suited to sell a “course”, rather than to “sell books”.

Link to the rest at Mike Shatzkin

8 thoughts on “When a publisher might not do as good a job as a self-publishing author”

  1. It is sobering to think I might be able to market a non-fiction book on writing better than the fiction which forced me to create my own ways of dealing with chronic illness which includes major brain fog and exhaustion and unpredictability.

    Also sobering: that if I did so, my methods could be duplicated so quickly it almost isn’t worth creating that kind of a book in the first place without some prior fame to help in said marketing: for example, I would buy such a writing book if Laura Hillenbrand wrote one, because she has written despite the same draconian limitations I deal with daily. I’ve seen other books supposedly written by people who are disabled or ill; I find it amusing when they state they go for runs or other physically unmanageable activities. Wish I could.

    • Speaking as someone with chronic migraines who hasn’t managed to figure anything out, I would totally buy a book on how to be productively creative while managing a chronic condition. Just had a conversation with my husband last night that amounted to thinking I need to shelve serious creative endeavors this year and focus on getting health as squared away as I can. Very depressing.

  2. I think we’re supposed to ignore how late to the party Shatzkin is and just be glad he showed up.

    I don’t give that kind of credit for being thirteen years late. These were obvious — compelling — issues not later than the first quarter of 2010. Thirteen years is three complete iterations of ‘net-based-access-to-test memes, so it’s not just years but generations. Grandpa showed up for the rave in his wheelchair…

Comments are closed.