The Future of Publishing?

I picked this article up in yesterday’s Publishers Lunch (subscribe at http://www.publishersmarketplace.com). It really struck me as an important indicator of impending change in the way that publishing will work. Would love to hear if those reading this agree.

Chronicle to Profit from Blurb Referrals
We’ve always wondered when traditional publishers would start to actually capitalize on the fast-growing market for self-published books, and now Newsweek has a web-only story that says Chronicle Books will use their slush pile to do just that in conjunction with Bay Area-based Blurb.com.

Newsweek says that in October the publisher will announce “a pioneering ‘mutual referral’ deal” under which “Chronicle will refer unwanted authors to Blurb, who will return an undisclosed cut of the earnings generated from the new accounts.”

Chronicle’s executive director of business development Sarah Williams indicates the deal is “primarily designed to help writers.” She says: “It’s an opportunity for writers to test their product in a digital marketplace where success might bring them back to us.”

So do I have this right? Chronicle is going to take a commission from Blurb.com for sending them customers. OK. Chronicle can certainly recommend them over the 100 or so other sites that offer online self publishing tools to authors, amateur and otherwise. But check me on this and tell me what I am missing:

Chronicle is telling authors they do not want to publish their books, but if the author pays Blurb to publish the book and if the book sells well (enough), Chronicle will now be happy to consider publishing the author’s book.

So if I am an author Chronicle sent to Blurb and I pay to publish my own book and then I expend the energy (and cost) to market it, and then I succeed in building an audience, why exactly would I want to reward Chronicle by offering them my book? And if I do all of this, don’t I deserve a bigger royalty from the publisher?

And maybe Chronicle by doing this starts me the author thinking that this publishing business needs to be redefined. Once upon a time, publishers nurtured authors, built their careers, invested in their work, taking the long view that writers and audiences need to be cultivated. That rarely, if ever, happens today – mostly publishers that answer to quarterly profit requirements cannot afford long term investments in authors (who after all, may not stick around to reward their original publishers with their long term success.)

So now the model is different. Publishers don’t “grow” author careers. For that matter, as Chronicle so plainly now makes clear, publishers don’t want to have much risk at all when it comes to authors.

For years independent and nonprofit publishers have served as “farm teams” for the publishing industry, regularly losing authors they discovered to the better paying and stronger marketing corporate publishing houses. And certainly seeing mainstream publishers discover hot selling books from the ranks of the self publishers is nothing new. But there is something striking about this Chronicle alliance. It tells authors to “go away and come back only once you have proved you can sell.” I am sure many will make the effort. But doesn’t this just tell authors what they have suspected for a long time, that publishers really don’t know what is good, or what will sell, and if they don’t, then what is so special about the editorial function? What defines a publisher other than a bankroll and a distribution system? And then why shouldn’t the economics of publishing change?

So publishers, I ask this question of you: If you show authors the door, and offer them the tools they need to publish themselves, and then they somehow manage to succeed on their own, which some will certainly do (i.e. create a paying audience for their books), what does this mean for publishers?

Are you ready for the next stage in the evolution of publishing?

Book Business and Environmental Economics: Change is Needed

Busy as we all are it is very difficult to pay attention to the many serious issues facing our world. The problems created by our industrialized economy are of such magnitude as to make it seem almost impossible to make significant changes quickly enough to make a difference. And what the Bush administration has done to block, undo or undermine longstanding laws and regulations to protect our natural environment is simply criminal.

Things have gotten bad enough that it’s just impossible for us to continue to go about our daily business without taking some meaningful action to make positive change.

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about the environmental impact of the book business. I read somewhere once that taken as a whole, the printing industry is one of the largest causes of industrial pollution in the United States, even with all the changes in monitoring and controlling environmental effects of industry. And of course books are made of paper, and paper is made from trees. We like to think that the trees used for manufacturing paper are all environmentally stewarded tree farms and managed forests, but that is, of course, not the case.

I would like to commend and recommend The Green Press Initiative (http://www.greenpressinitiative.org/) for their work in addressing issues relating to production and paper use in the book industry. What they are doing is hugely important and can and should have a truly significant impact on downstream environmental effects of the book industry. From their website:

The mission of the Green Press Initiative is to work with publishers, industry stakeholders and authors to create paper-use transformations that will conserve natural resources and preserve endangered forests.

Additionally, North American Publishing Company (NAPCO) has created a website devoted to environmental issues in the printing and book industries called Environmental Sustainability in Print and Publishing (http://www.sustainprint.com/), which is described as “a central source for information and resources for publishers and printers across all segments of the industry.”

What I have been thinking most about is the waste that is built into the publishing and distribution system. More books are printed annually than can possibly be absorbed by the retail stores that account for the bulk of trade book sales. And of the books that are “placed” in stores by publishers and distributors, at least 30% of them or more are returned unsold by retailers. What happens to them after they are returned? Some of the largest publishers do not bother sorting or putting any returned books back into new inventory; it’s less expensive for them to sell them as remainders into the secondary market, where they are redistributed at lower prices. For most smaller and medium sized publishers, and their distributors, systems have been developed to sort through returns. Some are discarded or sold as “hurts” because they have become too damaged or shopworn to be sold at retail as new. The rest are returned to new inventory to be re-sold and shipped to buyers unless or until demand subsides, at which point they will be sold off as remainders or recycled or dumped into landfills if, as often is the case, the secondary channel is too full and these books are deemed as completely unsalable.

For years, many in the book business have questioned whether this system is efficient or effective, and there have been endless discussions about how to limit returns, or eliminate them altogether. This is not something that publishers can initiate by themselves. Since retailers ultimately control the distribution channel, it will be up to them to determine whether the traditional returns system can and should be changed.

I would argue that reducing or even eliminating waste in the book business is not simply a matter of measuring the direct costs to the enterprise, although direct costs must be a primary element in any business decision, but that all of our actions and decisions must include a measurement of environmental and social costs. This is not a form of soft economics, but rather a correction in the way traditional economic analysis has been applied to business decision making. Environmental costs are not directly on the balance sheet, but they are always there indirectly and they are a real cost to any enterprise.

My next post will explore both direct and indirect costs and environmental impacts of book business practices, focusing on returns, and will explore simple systematic changes that can make a positive difference to publishers, distributors, retailers and the natural world we all inhabit.

In the meantime, I would welcome input, especially by those who have been actively trying to make environmental and ecological analysis a part of everyday business thinking, planning and decision making.

Posted by David Wilk on 05/15 at 09:50 PM
DistributionNew Business ModelsProduction and printingPublishing and business in general • (66) CommentsPermalink

New Business Models for Authors and Publishers

We have spent a lot of time working on new publishing models over a long period of time. In fact we can take some credit for understanding that new business models for publishing have been made possible by the changes in the retail landscape and the rise of popular tools for book production. Today it is cheaper than ever to create and publish a book – and harder than ever to sell one. But in these times of change and dislocation, new opportunities arise. The definition of publishing (“to make public”) has not changed – but the relationships between publisher, author and markets can definitely be changed now, and for the most part, for the better. If you are an author or a publisher, or a business that creates or owns content, and you would like to explore different ways to publish, market, and distribute, please contact us.

Posted by David Wilk on 01/11 at 11:10 PM
New Business Models • (55) CommentsPermalink
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one of my favorite and most regular visits

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Publishing Insider
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Fresh Eyes Now
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Book Slut

The Long Tail
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Galley Cat
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Conversations in the Book Trade
interesting site

Flaming Grasshopper
Chelsea Green Press’ ongoing blog

Publishing 2.0: the (r)Evolution of Media
A blog about the (r)evolution of media, driven by the migration of media to the Web and new digital technologies by Scott Karp.  Highly recommended.

An e-book business site, but their blog covers book business stories as well.

The Digitalist 

"The Digitalist was originally conceived as an internal sounding board, discussion forum and blog for the publisher Pan Macmillan to start thinking about a range of digital issues it faced. It still is. Only now it’s open for everyone to join the debate about books, publishing, the web, and the future."  Highly Recommended reading for anyone interested in the future of publishing.

Teleread "Bring the E-books Home"

David Rothman’s outstanding blog covering all things related to e-books, now with the assistance of Paul Biba.

Invention Arts

Really smart people thinking hard about books, publishing and the emerging social conversation.  Creators of Aerbook: an author platform service for the social web. Highly recommended.


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