Home Bits of Destruction Hit the Book Publishing Business: Part 4

Bits of Destruction Hit the Book Publishing Business: Part 4

In this fourth part of our investigation into the ongoing changes in the book publishing business, we look at the author’s point of view. What are they getting today? What would they like to get? What can they reasonably expect to get as this drama unfolds? Authors are the creative juice of the whole eco-system. If they don’t create material that people want to read, no one will make any money.

Their struggles in the old model have been well documented (of course, we should have expected them to write about their experiences): the starving writer up in the garret who uses rejection letters from publishers for wallpaper is an established literary hack. In the new world of print on demand, e-books and social media marketing, the author takes center stage. Those with an appetite for it can really take control of their work and commercial fortune.

Part 4 in Our Series

In Part 1, we looked at the three big waves crashing down on the traditional book publishing business: Google Search, e-books, and print on demand. In Part 2, we tried a bit of science fiction, speculating on how this might play out for all participants: readers, authors, printers, publishers, retailers, and e-book device vendors. In Part 3, we looked at the economics of returnability and the impact of the Espresso Book Machine on the supply chain. In Part 4 here, we focus on authors, without whom we would have nothing to read.

Narrative or Reference?

The impact of digitization depends on the type of book you’re talking about:

  1. Narrative books, such as novels, biographies and other stories. The printed book is an ideal format for narrative books. Amazon had to recreate the print-reading experience to make the Kindle work for narrative books. Using an e-book device scores on many counts: choice, delivery, price (possibly), storage; but whether it beats the experience of reading a good old fashioned book is still unclear. In any case, narrative books are not well suited to typical online or mobile devices. Reading a novel on a laptop browser or iPhone is a degraded experience.
  2. Reference books, such as education, scientific/technical/medical, and business books. Historically, these have been squeezed into the book format because no better alternative existed. The online experience could be far better than print in this case. Online, you can search, link to related works, drill down into details, see and hear rich media, etc.

Thus, we expect the impact of digitization will be much bigger and more immediate on reference books than on narrative books. Both will be affected, but reference books may see a music industry-style wave of change, while the change to narrative books may be slower and more nuanced.

New or Established Author?

This is another huge factor. This quote from an excellent report by Gilbane on “Beyond E-Books” says a lot about the business from the author’s perspective:

“During the 2009 O’Reilly TOC Conference, Jason Fried of 37signals described the book that he and his colleagues had written based on lessons learned from creating and servicing their successful project management and collaboration product named Basecamp. They published their book with Lulu.com and report sales of almost $500,000 in the last several years. This enabled them to reach number three on the Lulu bestseller list at one point. Ideally, this story would have a happy ending, and they would publish their next book with Lulu.com. Alas, the success of their previous book motivated a traditional publisher to offer them a significant advance for their second book. The offer was too tempting to refuse. They now have to hope that the traditional economic model, with 10 to 20% royalties, will generate more than Lulu.com’s 80-20 split. In essence, they are wagering that the traditional publisher will be able to sell at least four times the number of books that Lulu.com would have sold.

“When asked about this, Young was nonplussed. He simply stated that his goal was to publish their third book and to make them loyal authors in the future. It is his number one goal to help his authors become successful.”

This will be music to the ears of traditional publishers. They can leave first-time authors to self-publish via print on demand (POD), because once the authors are established, they will want the kudos, branding, and distribution that only traditional publishers can deliver.

Well, perhaps. We are still in the very early stages of this wave of change.

Get Me Into the Book Store

Publication doesn’t feel real to an author until they see their book in a traditional bookstore. Seeing it on Amazon.com is nice, but everyone knows that shelf space is unlimited online. The real prize is occupying scarce shelf space at Barnes & Nobel and independent bookstores. What the author wants to know from their publisher is, “How are you going to get me into that bookstore?”

Pure online players will respond with something along the lines of, “Well, if a lot of readers find you online, then enough of them will buy your book for a traditional publisher to become interested in you, and then that publisher will get you into bookstores.” That is a relatively weak answer.

But the traditional model of stuffing shelves with “returnable” books, many of which end up getting shredded by the publisher, is clearly unsustainable, as we explored in Part 3.

How this will play out is far from clear. But one thing is clear: the landscape will look quite different.

And Do It NOW!

If you are writing a timeless classic, then the traditional three- to four-month lag between the completion of the manuscript and the book’s appearance in bookstores is fine. If you are writing about something timely, that just won’t cut it anymore. Bloggers and online writers will steal your thunder before your book hits the shelves. The immediacy of print on demand and e-books eliminates this time lag.

Write About What You Know

Writers do love to write, so it is not surprising that some are starting to document their experiences in the new world of POD and e-books. One that caught our eye is Literary Adventures in POD, but there are many more.

Literary Agent 2.0

In the old model, first-time authors usually had to find an agent, who then found a publisher. This site has good FAQs on the process and on deals.

These relationships — between author and agent, and agent and publisher — are often very personal. As such, they can be totally wonderful or totally awful, and there are plenty of tales of both. They are typical “Let’s do lunch” relationships. So, bringing Web technology to this match-making experience is logical; one venture that has done this is Creative Byline.

Four Big Changes for Authors

  1. Fewer advances. The lack of an advance will be compensated for by…
  2. A bigger share of the pie. We expect this to grow from 10% to 30% (or more) of the retail price. The retail price will likely drop, too, and so authors will have to…
  3. Create the finished product themselves. Authors will have to pay for cover art and editing out of pocket, as well as…
  4. Become savvier about online marketing. A lot of tools are out there: social media, affiliate networks, email lists, SEO/SEM, and so on. Some authors will leave this up to intermediaries (the next form of publishers), and some will do it themselves.

The future of authors can thus be summed up as: do more of the work, get a bigger percentage of the retail price (which will be lower), and hustle online.

We would love to hear from authors about their experiences.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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