New Ways for Authors

(This first appeared on Book Business, under a different title.)

One of the most fascinating aspects of new technologies is how they open doors for new business models. And this is very true in the evolving world of book publishing.

The book publishing model has many challenges, most notably how the established system of author advances, large superstore pre-orders, and returns limits what will be published. Consolidation has made it more difficult to gamble on new authors, so a significant portion of publishing has become about pumping out more of the same from the well-known writers with celebrity status.

Let’s face it. The best authors throughout history were not celebrity personality types! Writers and readers tend to be people eager for the contemplative life. I have been cringing while reading recent audience-driven articles about producing shorter works to feed increasingly distracted tastes. Great works have not been created to feed reader tastes. They have been written because the author had something important to add to our understanding of human existence.

I’m basically an optimistic pessimist, which means when all hope seems lost, mankind rises to the occasion with something better. And for many authors, publishers, and readers, I think print-on-demand is that meaningful, lasting innovation (along with ebooks).

I recently had an email from a reader who bought a Publerati novel through the Espresso POD network and the feedback was revealing to me. “I was surprised how high-quality the book is. I thought it would be a comb-bound pamphlet.” Wow! This reminded me of when digital photo first came on the scene and was just assumed to be inferior. (Side note: I am fascinated by the twenty-somethings I meet who are reviving vinyl records. They will pay more for what they perceive to be better quality. Innovations always confront a nostalgic backlash, I suppose. Or said another way, it’s cool to be retro and “not popular.”)

So maybe we need to overcome some consumer concerns around the quality of print-on-demand editions. That will take a more concerted industry campaign. The first thing I did was make a new page on the Publerati website with a quality statement along with a list of locations offering our titles. You can see it here and I welcome comments on how to make this better.

But the big opportunity of POD is to save the many excellent writers whose books will never sell in the huge quantities that the consolidated publishing industry needs. And in the POD model, these authors don’t necessarily require an advance. Why should they? Let’s get paid for what we produce, not what we have the potential to produce. Publishers have been burned time and time again with that hyped second novel that was a dud.

By only printing what each local market will support, we have a more responsible and sustainable business model. There is no need to prematurely mark an author’s book out-of-print to stem unexpectedly high returns. Now, the author’s book can be available for as long as the publisher wants and for as long as the reader wants. Isn’t that a much better system? Is that not a benefit publishers can offer mid-list and potential breakout authors?

When I see HarperCollins providing front list titles through the Espresso Book Network, I know change is underway. Change is always underway, but we can only see it after it has happened. The benefits to those on the front-edge of change are disproportionately high. Customers remember “who did it first” and their loyalty can be an immense barrier to entry from imitators slow to the new game.

POD publishing is already opening many new doors. What we cannot see from here is how fast this change will occur and who the early winners will be. I’m hoping many of these winners will be authors who can take more control of their publishing destiny. Enjoy the ride!

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