The Future of Book Publishing Is All About Scale
Okay, so you’re sitting in a company meeting of fifteen people. Suddenly all fifteen people are trying to solve a problem that can only be solved by one person in the room, the head of IT. Why are we wasting the time of the other fourteen people in the room?
This is an example of scale. Of matching the best processes and people to the particular task at hand. Some large problems are best solved by a cross-functional team of ten, other simpler ones by a team of two. Many by just one person, who will do the job best if left alone.
What does this have to do with publishing you ask? A great deal, I believe.
There are many problems of scale within the publishing industry. The Huge Conglomerates need as many books as possible to flow through their Huge Factories to have any chance of maintaining viability. Ironically, it is the top three or four Huge Books each year that pay most of their bills. But like those fourteen people in the above meeting who know nothing about why the company wifi has been spotty, many books do not belong in the Huge Factory. Will be lost in the Huge Factory. Cannot pull their weight in the Huge Factory so will not be invited back.
Did you see this article about the decline of literary reading? This is precisely why I founded my own literary fiction imprint Publerati five years ago. This is a problem requiring a creative solution. And that solution has to do with scale. And guess what? Many solutions have already been invented by smart people like those of you reading this right now.
Remember different strokes for different folks? Well, every genre of book requires a unique treatment to maintain viability. For the genre I will call “high-quality demanding fiction,” by which I mean it’s not going to be a passive experience like binge-watching “Madmen,” this solution has to be revamping the business model soup to nuts.
In thinking about this when I started Publerati, my first model change had to be with author royalty rates. Advances for literary fiction do not make sense and in fact impede access for many good writers and books. Hand in hand with that decision, if we are going to continue seeing declining volumes of literary novels and short story collections, the author needs to be paid more for every book sold. For my current authors, they receive 80% of the ebook royalty and 50% of the print royalty. That might rebalance some with time, but it was the place I chose to start.
Okay, great, but how is the publisher going to make any money? The next problem to be solved was production and distribution costs. BookBaby offered me a way to affordably create and publish ebooks through many resellers without taking a cut of the royalty themselves. Perfect.
But then my authors wanted print also. As did I. But I am not interested in preprinted inventory as it would cost too much, not allowing me to pay the royalty rates I determined were givens in step one. I simply cannot be in business with preprinted inventory. I never would have invested in my own company if that were a requirement. Enter the Espresso Book Network, a solution that reminded me of what happened when I worked in the mass market photo industry. A networked delivery method for content when you simply must have a printed book (or photo). This gained us access to many leading indie bookstores, something my authors and I very much wanted. I am counting on this network to expand and improve as machine prices come down and new models come along.
The latest development has been gaining access for paperbacks to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and others using Book Baby’s POD capabilities. For now, I have chosen not to work with Ingram as I fear their scale will end up with me getting lost. Wrong scale. And, if the last remaining Big Bookstore Chain fails, I don’t want to get caught up in that distribution mess. This decision might change down the road, but for now one step at a time.
The inevitable (as I see it) change in the Big Bookstore retail climate will force changes to scale within the Big Factories. More consolidation. Process changes for the genres being published. More small run digital book printing. Advances, but not for all authors. More usage of POD printing and distribution to reach non-traditional outlets.
These new ebook and printing technologies enable us to play a game not formerly available. It makes me think of Airbnb, Uber, and all the other changes made possible by technology, which are creating many new jobs for companies of one. Scale again. Could it be the economic hope for the future is more about micro businesses versus mega? Does the government even capture all this new sharing economy wealth in their labor reports? Is Obamacare allowing individuals to start businesses of one in ways not formerly possible? We can only understand change in hindsight.
I find myself wondering how many people were kicked out or quit on their own from those Big Wasteful Company Meetings during the Big Recession, who are now happier earning a living on their own. Doing what they are passionate about.
It will probably take some time to accurately measure these systemic changes of scale occurring within our new connected economy. And to look back and understand how these changes of scale transformed publishing.