From the monthly archives:

October 2009

What do authors need?

October 28, 2009 · 6 comments

Flickr/editrxMark Coker, founder and CEO of dynamic e-book publishing company Smashwords, is asking “do authors still need publishers?”

In his article for The Huffington Post, Mark argues that an author with the fanbase and platform of Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling or  Dan Brown, could get a much better return from the marketplace by self-publishing. Certainly this is true. I’ve often wondered why more authors of this level of sales success don’t go down the self-publishing path, the same way many successful music acts are producing and distributing their own albums.

Says Coker at his Smashwords blog:

If publishers are going to remain relevant, they need to do what Stephen King can do for himself, only better.

But it’s a bittersweet thought-experiment for the majority of writers who don’t have King’s following, or even a modest platform. Barriers to entry to publishing have reached almost zero, sure. But being able to publish isn’t the same as being able to profitably publish. Production is easy. Distribution is not. Even digital distribution, while frictionless, is not easy to convert to sales without the ability to engage a readership who’ll fork over money for your product.

But the biggest challenge of all is that alchemical mix of promotion and platform, the ability to gather around you a community of willing fans who will sustain your core income and be your best sales force. Stephen King and his frontlist colleagues could easily commercialise their platform now, but I wonder how effective they’d be at it if they had to build up a following from scratch today.

And this is the essential problem with the idea that authors can go straight to the market. Of course they can, in many cases they should because they’ll earn a better income. But are they capable of it, and do they want to?

The author that can make a self-publishing project successful is the author who is an entrepreneur, a small business manager, a savvy marketer, a tireless communicator, and that’s assuming effective distribution is in place. Many of the authors I work with aren’t interested in these things. They are interested in their craft, their artistic practice. They fight for every minute of writing time they can get.

Somehow I feel Mark’s conclusion – that publishers need to do what Stephen King can do for himself, only better - doesn’t quite hit the mark. Instead, I think publishers need to determine what authors don’t want to do for themselves and offer a fair partnership for how they can share both the risks and the rewards of publishing.

Some authors, especially those with established online fanbases, won’t need their publishers to play all the traditional roles a book publisher has played in the past.  And their contracts should reflect this. But others will be willing to cede more rights and receive fewer royalties in exchange for not having to worry about the commercial functions of professional authorship.

The challenge for publishers is that they are no longer the only ones who can offer such services to authors, and will have to think differently about how they offer value to get access to content. In this way I think we’re headed for more bespoke publishing contracts, more customised agreements that reflect the strengths and weakness of each party for the benefit of both.


What does 130,000,000 tonnes of paper look like?

October 25, 2009

Oh wow. I’m currently reading The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed the Course of History by John Man. Here are some staggering numbers I came across in just the first few pages: Today, books pour off presses at the rate of 10,000 million a year. That’s some 50 million tonnes of paper. Add in 8,000 [...]

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It’s not digital publishing. It’s publishing.

October 24, 2009

Richard Nash has a great round-up of the conversations and opinions about digital that took place all over this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. …we’re not replacing one static-priced unit (pBook) with another static-priced unit (eBook), but finding that our single massive unidirectional pBook supply chain is now just one component of a tremendously variegated set [...]

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