Saturday, March 5, 2011

Goodbye Big Publishers? The book world is changing...

There's been a lot of chatter lately about the demise of 'traditional' publishing as more and more bookstore chains go under and 'big' publishers consolidate. Change of course is inevitable, and much of the talk of ebooks displacing print books appears to be coming true. But with change there is pain in restructuring, and some standards that many will bemoan as they disappear.

Big publishers as gatekeepers kept a lot of would-be authors from ever getting published. This may not necessarily have been a bad thing. Doing so helped ensure readers were provided with products they could be reasonable sure met minimum quality standards. This was done by creating an efficient machine run by professionally trained editors, cover artists, marketing and sales gurus, management and accounting staff, and technology experts to...

1) Choose and edit books to be engaging and well-written
2) Package books in enticing covers that matched their marketing venue
3) Develop and maintain marketing venues to attract and service readers looking for worthy books.

When Amazon and Smashwords and other services provided a quick and cheap and easy way to get books published, average-Joe authors suddenly gained direct access to make any book – no matter how innovative or terrible – almost instantly available to readers. This effectively eliminated the big publishers as gatekeepers ‘standing in the way’ of all the average-Joe wannabe authors out there.

However, distribution services like Amazon and Smashwords do not provide the publishing house production services of editing and cover art, nor do they provide any marketing beyond the basic web site product sales page with inherent category search. When it comes time for average-Joe author to figure out how he’s going to get his book professionally edited and formatted, and his cover professionally produced, he has two choices. He can either buy all the necessary software and learn how to do it all himself, or he can pony up a couple thousand dollars to pay others to do it. Which option will average-Joe author choose? For most people who want to get published, the do-it-yourself route (done right) looks like way more trouble than it’s worth and way more expensive that it’s worth. So most people will either throw up their hands and give up, or just pick the quick-easy-free way to get their book published, which involves no editing and just a rudimentary ‘freebie’ self-designed cover. To justify this, average-Joe author rationalizes that readers don’t really care about typos on every page, or whether the story makes sense, or whether it’s interesting, or whether the cover looks like a two-year-old did it with Crayons.

Once in the marketplace, average-Joe author’s book will have no respected reputation of a big publisher to stand behind it and promise the reader that it’s going to be worth the time and money to read. And not only will average-Joe author’s unknown-quality book be competing with way more books from other average-Joe authors, it will be competing for attention and money from a slowly shrinking readership that is shrinking due to other entertainment options (video games, TV, and other electronic distractions). Thus the average reader will be overwhelmed by a flood of books by unknown authors without any reputation whatsoever to promise that their books are worthy products.

Some self-published authors are enjoying success – an exception to the rule of self-publishing as a model in failure. Those frequently mentioned include J. A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and Ruth Ann Nordin, to name a few. These authors seem to have one or two things in common.
Konrath has had previous experience with a big publisher and a resulting author reputation to build on.

Hocking had one book published by a small indy publisher, and then apparently took the reigns with the rest of her books. She’s a prolific writer with several multi-book series. All her series feature similar short one-word catchy titles and color-coded generic cookie-cutter covers that are visually interesting but similar enough to ‘brand’ her series so that the title and cover instantly say ‘Amanda Hocking.’ Her assembly-line style theme and packaging to streamline her production process as well as make her books instantly recognizable is smart marketing.

Ruth Ann Nordin has nearly fifteen titles and uses purchased photos to create her covers. She may even have a service produce her covers. In the beginning, she probably spent more on her covers than she made in sales royalties, but at least she didn’t go the cheesy route and use crappy covers that screamed ‘amateur.’ She also has been blogging for quite a few years to promote her writing and to promote self-publishing. Now her investment in time and money appears to be paying off.

The point of all this is, getting published or going the self-published route both take a tremendous amount of time and effort. With one, you have to sell your work first, then wait a long time to get your work published. With the other, you have to publish your work, then wait a long time to sell it. Either way requires perseverance and a tremendous faith in the work. Anyone who is easily discouraged will give up before success is realized. Anyone who looks for the quick and easy solution without taking pride in their work to ensure it delivers in both packaging and content will fail because the product will be perceived as inferior. Anyone who thinks it will be a piece of cake becoming a successful author – and in this reference, ‘successful’ means selling more than 5,000 copies of a title – is in for a disappointment. Only the author who has good product and sticks with it to look for great ways to publicize and sell that work will see the kind of success the ‘exceptions to the rule’ appear to be now enjoying.


  1. Never give up, and keep writing.

  2. What Walter just said and something else I'd like to add that I believe the great Winston Churchill once said--Never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up!


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