Monday, February 13, 2012

Rethinking The Fiction Publishing Business

jmtimages on Flickr via JISC cc Licensed
Recently, I discussed a few of the issues facing fiction book publishers. My prediction is that their biggest competition will come from authors who bypass publishers and distribute through electronic channels (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and even their personal web sites). Where does this leave the publisher in a post-printing world?

Publishers are mastering the defensive moves. It appears their goal is to protect their current markets. However, this doesn’t look like a successful long term strategy. Even small losses in market share will add up over time, and as electronic book readers become more common, publishers will be easier and easier to bypass.

Is there a way for publishers to profit from the new trends instead of fighting them? What are a publisher’s strengths and how can they be monetized in this new environment? One option would be for the publisher to reconfigure itself as an open access pay-per-use services and editorial company.

Many self-published books suffer from typographical and basic grammatical errors. A publisher could offer proofreading and editing services on a pay per service basis. If this service succeeds, the demand will far outstrip capacity. This can be solved by establishing a services marketplace where independent proofreaders bid on job requests from authors. The publishing company would still offer its own services, but at a premium to the general market. For this extra fee, the author would receive a quality guarantee as well as premium services, such as editing and coaching on writing styles.

Another service would address packaging the book for sale. This might include layout, book covers, and translation into appropriate formats (epub, mobi, etcetera). Similar to CafePress,  authors can open their Author personalized bookstores. These author stores can even offer a hardcopy option through a print-on-demand capability.

Arguably, the most important service that publishers provide is in managing the selection of books and arranging for access to the market. Although the publishing process may not be perfect in finding the best books, it does generally succeed in winnowing out unreadable slush. The presence of a publisher’s imprint is the promise of some level of quality. In contrast, the quality of independent writing varies from outstanding to utter dreck.

From the consumer viewpoint, this new world would be represented through the blogs of editors, or online librarians. These librarians would manage column that touts the best books that the company finds. Each of these recommended books could be purchased through a link to either the publisher’s own services or an exterior service such as Amazon. Even if the link is through Amazon, the return on this could be lucrative. Amazon offers affiliates a percentage of each sale that the affiliate facilitates. It is quite possible that a publishing company could negotiate a higher percentage based on their position in the supply chain and based on the size of the audience that they bring.

This librarian service could also be expanded by allowing individuals to sign up as librarians. This would play to the long-tail concept of e-commerce. For example a specific librarian who specializes in cozy mysteries might build their own following on the publishing portal. Each of these independent librarians would receive an affiliate commission for sales that they generate with some percentage also accruing to the accounts of the publisher who maintains the portal. The most outstanding independent librarians might also be reviewed and credited for finds on the blogs of official corporate librarians.

This eco-system of books would support many different levels and types of books. Readers who visit the portal would find new book suggestions from ‘trusted’ librarians. It would allow independent writers to enter books into the catalog, and these books may or may not be recommended by a librarian. However, other books in the system may have been vetted to various degrees. Some of them have been proofread by the publisher, others have been edited by the publisher. At the highest level are books that the publisher chooses for their ‘Select’ line. These are books that publishers feel have the most potential. Select books would be similar to the books the publisher currently produces. The publisher would offer editing, production, and marketing services for free. Of course, this would include discussions on the blogs of librarians. Depending on the book, Select services might include offline support (printing, book tours, public relations, advertising) and might include an advance to the author to buy exclusivity.

One of the keys to this approach is inclusivity to build a large audience. All writers would be admitted to the eco-system. All librarians, editors, and proofreaders are likewise welcome. However, the publisher would be rewarded for providing the portal and building the audience by earning a percentage of all transactions that pass through the site. Furthermore, there would be built-in incentives for using a larger percentage of the publisher’s official services.

Consider the selection process for librarian recommendations and Select books. These books might come from anywhere, and might be otherwise unconnected to the company. However, in the universe of new submissions, it will be impossible to review every book that exists. When an employee proofreads or edits a book, they may also flag it for consideration by librarians or for consideration for the Select imprint.

Of course, the devil is in the details. In this case one of the most important details is getting buy-in  from consumers so that they want to be part of this publishing portal. No doubt a trial in this line will bring a pivot or two along the way. The secret, however, is to embrace the new world rather than to avoid it. Publishers who see their business as under attack will only seek to defend it. The result will be a rearguard action that gradually gives up more territory. A more successful approach will look to capitalize on publisher’s strengths while accepting the new possibilities offered by new technologies.


  1. Great info. I will bookmark your blog and follow your future content. I think self publishing is a great option for new fiction writers that have not been able to break into traditional publishing. Thanks

    1. Thanks for the note. I look forward to hearing more from you in the future.


  2. Good piece. I'd add that unless an indy author can act as their own publicist - or hire one, that indy publishers can and should serve that role.

    - Wade

  3. This isn't really tenable. The publishing industry (and the Big Six in particular) take a massive percentage, returning only pennies to the author (6-8% in the best of times). You're talking about them reducing themselves to 'for-hire' proofreaders, something a middle-school teacher does in their spare time.

    The Big Six and their ilk aren't prepared to go from "lion's share" to "maybe a few hundred bucks here and there, for some gentle editing." That's not going to happen. As for your second idea, that they would become curators... I'm going to assume people like Wil Wheaton, Mike & Jerry at Penny-Arcade, and all the other tastemakers out there can already promote books they find interesting, and point directly at an author's page. No one should care about the opinion of some proofreader at a NY house, compared to the opinion of an actual person who's opinion the reader/fan already respects.

    1. Del, I agree that profit matters in the end. These folks need someway to pay their mortgages and buy their meals. Although I'm not sure that the publishers current business model is as lopsided as many people think. When you can get public numbers, take a look at their profit margin, and they aren't out of line.

      I don't insist that this vision is correct. I do believe that the old business model is dead and they need to find a new one. However, I'm not quite ready to cave in on this concept [grin]. To me, this is like asking why people would need Facebook when they have geocities, angelfire, and even myspace.

      I agree that the margin as a percentage would drop. However, the publisher would hope to increase volume and decrease costs. Their business model might move from one resembling manufacturing to one resembling retail. The publisher would take a small slice of revenue for matching up independent authors and independent proofreaders.

      Furthermore, I agree with your comments about the independent tastemakers. The problem is how the 'average' consumer reaches those tastemakers. Walk down the street and ask someone who Wil Wheaton is. Ask them about Myspace, then ask then about Facebook. I believe there is room for one player to establish a publishing hub. A place that everyone knows, and a place that people can congregate at in order to find 'tastemakers'.

      Finally, I'm not sure all of the future revenue will come from direct commissions. There is no reason the publisher couldn't sell targeted advertising. There may be the possibility for premium member fees. Monetizing a portal by the 'old rules' of publishing may prove to limiting.

  4. Lots of food for thought here! I've self published two books (as hard copy and as e-books). As they are set on the island of Bute in Scotland, there is a niche market for the product and they have sold well. But there's no doubt I'd welcome the extra options systems such as those you decribe could provide.It's certainly an interesting time to be a writer. I've added your blog to my 'follow' list.

    1. Thanks for visiting!

      Have you found the forums at yet? There is one here that writers use to discuss their issues:

      At the top of that forum is a sticky thread on how and where to publish your ebooks. I started that thread with the first post, but I'm not a writer and I can't claim credit for any of the actual content of the post: