Breaking From Tradition
As CEO and president of iUniverse, Susan Driscoll has helped the pay-to-be-published online publisher to become an attractive alternative to the sort of traditional publishing houses at which she once held executive-level positions, including HarperCollins, Henry Holt and Holtzbrinck Publishers. An affordable avenue for aspiring authors seeking to get published, iUniverse has become one of the largest self-publishing companies since its launch in 1999. Driscoll, who co-penned the book “Get Published” last year, not only is the top executive at the company, but also a mentor to iUniverse’s roster of authors.
Where do you see book publishing heading in the next five to 10 years? What part will print-on-demand (POD) play in that world?
Susan Driscoll: I think book publishing—for at least the next decade or two—will be a stable industry. I don’t think it’s declining. Everyone’s worried about the decline in readership. As the baby-boom generation ages, they’ll have more leisure time—and more time to read.
Beyond that, I think there are major changes coming. The computer generation and the people who are used to getting their information in other ways will be the main audience. In 20 to 30 years, there’s going to be some radical shifts.
I really think POD is a printing technology that could change the industry. As the technology evolves, more and more books are going to be printed on-demand. With the returns problems that publishers have, they’re really focused on more control.
What’s happening now is that we’re able to attract authors by selling more copies. We can do a small, offset printing to start off with and fill in with digital printing. Instead of doing a reprint, we can just fill in with the on-demand. It’s opened a lot more doors because it’s easier to go from one method to the other.
What are traditional book publishers not doing so well in your eyes?
Driscoll: I think traditional publishers are giant machines that are made to push books into bookstores, and then they hope that they sell. That model is changing. People are going to other places to get their books now. Publishers realize that. … But publishers are slow to adapt to a whole other method of distribution. For a niche audience, you can sell directly to them. It’s still a very best-seller [based] market, and I think [traditional book publishers] are losing a lot of opportunities for a lot of really good books. That’s our opportunity at iUniverse.
How does the CEO job at iUniverse differ from those of your peers at the traditional publishers?
Driscoll: Most of my job is dealing directly with authors. People in my position at larger houses have others to do that. They’re many steps removed from the author. There’s a publicist or a publisher who deals with that. … I get to be involved. That’s the part of publishing I love best.
It’s much smaller. It’s not the same size infrastructure. … We don’t have to worry about receivables with wholesalers. The whole industry has been turned upside down. Big publishers have to worry so much about whether the wholesalers will pay their bills. We know when we print our book, there’s going to be a buyer for it. In that regard, my job is
How does iUniverse’s relationship with Barnes & Noble work and what are the benefits of that relationship?
Driscoll: It’s a strategic alliance. [Barnes & Noble CEO] Steve Riggio is the chairman of our board. We get a lot of support from Barnes & Noble. We learn a lot from them. It’s a really positive relationship that’s allowed us to put books into stores.
We follow a different model of publishing. It’s not about trying to push books into stores and then taking them back. We give authors table space on the floor [at Barnes & Noble] as a reward. We do about 400 books a month. The volume [of books published] is completely different. Even the larger publishers don’t publish that many.
What purpose does your blog serve?
Driscoll: I do the blog to educate authors. … Most people don’t understand the fundamentals of publishing or writing. Writing the blog gives me the means to share that wisdom. … I think I have a broad understanding of the entire business. Publishing is very segmented, and, unless you’re at the top, you don’t get the whole view. I’ve been lucky to have had jobs all across the board, so I have a broad perspective of the business.
What advice would you give to other executives in the business?
Driscoll: I think it comes from being in publishing for many years now: Don’t rush to be the first to market. Nothing in publishing changes overnight. Nothing. I’ve worked for the large publishing houses, and I was involved in e-books and CD-ROMs in their early days.
Don’t react too quickly, but, at the same time, you have to be open to change. Change is going to happen. Look at other industries that are weathering change, such as the music industry and the film industry. We have to adapt, but we can’t just jump in. We have to use some caution [in] adapting to change. BB
Peter Beisser is a regular contributor to Book Business. He previously was the managing editor of several North American Publishing Co. titles.