When I was younger – much younger – I had the pleasure of consulting to McGraw-Hill Publishing. The client wanted to make their editors more productive. More productive editors meant more books published and obviously more books published meant more profits for McGraw-Hill.
I’m not going to reveal any of the confidential information I learned about publishing itself, McGraw-Hill, the many talented editors I interviewed, or about the many frustrated authors I met while conducting that project. Those tidbits will be reserved for a future blog, or better yet, characters in an upcoming murder mystery.
What I will offer is that I learned a valuable lesson about how traditional book publishing works.
It’s a risky business that only has room for a limited few of the [choose one: most talented / luckiest / most connected] authors in the writer’s universe. It is a slow process, often taking more than a year from the day the publishing company agrees to publish a book to the day the book appears on bookstore shelves.
It is those shelves that define the traditional publishing business. There is only so much room on them, and publishers want to get the best books onto those shelves.
Traditional publishing is based on the economics of bringing a book to market. This requires understanding how popular the book will be, what size the market segment the book targets is, and the likelihood that members of that targeted market segment will see the book and buy it. Under this approach to marketing books, freshness was always critical. The easiest way to see this is to look at the paperback book rack at your local grocery store.
Here you see a collection of titles with flashy, eye-catching book covers. Every few days, or weeks at the most, the mix of these books changes. Old, stale titles are removed; new, fresh titles are put in their place. The entire theory is the “produce” model of selling. In the produce aisle, the grocer has to constantly replace over-ripened, damaged, or aged fruits and vegetables with fresh produce. No customer wants to buy old fruit.
The same model existed for the traditional publishing system.
There are several problems with this shelf model. First, the shelves are limited in capacity. They can only hold a finite number of books at a time, so each book competes with other books for space on that shelf. Second, the decision to put the book on the shelf is based on a small number of decision-makers evaluating the potential sale of that book. An author must trust that this small group of people actually reflect the market as it will exist in a year or so.
Now, however, we have another path to publishing success, one that totally bypasses any of the traditional obstacles of physical book publishing. We now have the internet.
Unlike the traditional publishing route, through major book publishing houses, the internet allows the distributors of books, rather than the publishers of books, to be in control of the marketplace. Companies such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Draft2Digital can take content, convert it to data and sending it across networks of inter-connected devices. Thus my story can be sent from me to an on-line distributor and then to you without going through the physical process of producing a material object, otherwise known as a book. But, magically, this can also happen! The data can be sent to another device that produces a physical book that can be sent to a reader on demand.
The advantage of this system is that the “produce aisle” becomes nearly unlimited in size. Its products last forever. It is not the location of the electronic book that is crucial to its successful sale, but rather to the ability of the buyer to find the book. While it is to the advantage of some vendors to limit the reader’s access to books, it is far more likely that internet uses will find new methods to find what they want, despite the efforts of monopolists to limit access.
This method of book distribution works because it is not based on the costs of delivering a large number of inventory to an audience that might not mature, It increments the cost of producing a book to one individual at a time, either in an electronic version or a physical version. The cost of marketing the book is thus controlled by the buyer response to the book.
This takes the book distribution process out of the hands of a few major companies and puts it into the hands of millions of potential writers.
This doesn’t mean that it’s easy. There is a lot of technology, science, and structure built into any book marketing and distribution process. But for the first time in history, the little guy has a chance to compete. The same technological advances that makes one-to-one publishing possible also makes it possible for the average author to acquire enough knowledge, skills, and capabilities to produce books worth a reader’s time and investment.
You don’t need big publishing companies to become a successful author. You don’t need to be the most talented, or the luckiest, or the most connected. You just need to have the drive, motivation, and desire to write, listen to feedback, and take a change. And with the technology available today, you can have a chance at success.
And that’s the kind of world I enjoy living in.