Some cheese for that whine…. Books and Self-Publishing

Publishing companies have a lot to ‘whine’ about these days. There are a lot of problems they are facing and they don’t seem to be able to figure out how to climb out of the holes they’ve dug for themselves. This is part I of a 3 part series that I’m going to publish on here … each will be on one of the major publishing sectors. They will incorporate some of the major issues facing that sector of publishing today and some solutions that have come up through discussions with classmates, professors, industry professionals and through research and reading.

The Whine….

Today’s book publishing world is filled with amazon and the kindle, authors who no longer see the value in trading their earnings for the offering of a big publishing house and so instead choose to self-publish, Oprah, pricing issues and Google. Each of these issues is changing the industry as we know it, and deserves to be discussed and evaluated (although perhaps not in that order).

I attended a very interesting seminar on this at last years Independent Publishers Conference for authors who were talking about self-publishing, and the best ways to do it. The biggest thing I took away from that seminar, was that authors hate nothing more then signing on with a publisher – just to find out they are a mid-list author and aren’t going to get any of the company’s time and/or money to help push their baby out into the big bad world.

As Thomas Christensen says on,

“There has been a tendency to what I call the hollywoodization of publishing, which involves putting an ever greater percentage of total resources into a smaller number books at the top of the pyramid, to the disadvantage of others, including the so-called midlist books. This, from the corporate point of view, is a sensible conservation of resources. But the result is that the media discourse is saturated with discussion about a few top books.”

Looking At It From All Angles
Basically, from a financial perspective it makes the most sense to publish as many books as possible, and hope that the successes make up for the failures. Unfortunately, it only makes sense from a purely financial perspective – yet that is what publishers have been doing.

In actuality, the more selective a publisher becomes, the more careful their editors have to be to choose only books they feel will succeed (and the more time they will have, sense they will be working on less books, to do research and evaluate the possibility of success).

From a marketing perspective, publishers are essentially diluting their own brand. Think about the last book you read? Can you name who published it? Probably not. Wouldn’t it be better to create a ‘brand’ around a publishing house, for having certain types of authors, a certain quality of writing and producing an all around good book? Indeed, it might almost allow book clubs to be formed around a publisher again, instead of around a celebrity.

Re-thinking a Publishing Brand
Book publishers need to rethink their companies. Many haven’t done a logo redesign since movable type came into existence (and some not since before that). Look at the ‘entertainment’ products that do well today (aren’t books entertainment?) and the companies that make them. Apple is probably the most successful of these. In the companies lifetime, which is much shorter then that of many book companies, they have already ‘updated’ their logo many times – remember the old apple full of rainbow stripes? In addition to allowing books to become more hip, creating a corporate brand would increase cross-selling of books, and add-on sales in bookstores – where it counts.

Part of rethinking the company is rethinking the relationships within it. Thinking about the product and really evaluating how consumers use it, where, and what ‘features’ could be added to make it sell better. All ideas that are classics in the ‘normal’ corporate world, but that have only recently begun to push themselves into the book world (See below: The Kindle). In order to compete in a world with Print on Demand (POD), self-publishing, and digital editions, this means thinking about where you get your content from and what you offer those who create it.

As Kassia Krozer said in her post,

the week that Google effectively sets the royalty to content owners at 60-something percent (there’s a bit of math involved, so, for today, I’m rounding), Random House decides that 25% of net amounts received by the publisher should be the going rate.

If Google is offering 60% – offering 25% isn’t going to cut it. And what are you actually offering these authors in return for their content? For the first time in publishing, authors have choices. And, if there aren’t major advantages to publishing with a publishing company, guess what? They are going to do it themselves. Basically, what an author should ‘gain’ by publishing with a company is bookstore placement, an advertising budget, an editor who will go over their work with a fine tooth comb, and in return, they give up most of the profit and almost all of their control (unless they have a really good agent). Because of the sheer number of books an editor works on these days, only the big titles get a lot of any of the above.

So, while self-publishing means an author has to either separately pay people to do each of the above, or do it themselves, it also means they keep more of the profits (minus costs) and all of the final say.

Some Cheese…
If companies published fewer books, they’d be able to invest in each of them with a bigger percentage of their time and money, creating better product, a better brand image, and making their authors happier. (Of course, there are downsides … ex. bigger risk when a book does flop).

Furthermore, if they worked to create a company brand image, rather then trying to brand authors, they could create cross-selling opportunities among authors with similar audiences rather then publishing books that will directly compete with each other. While similar products will always eat slightly into the sales of other products, books have an advantage over, say … vacuums, where each new model is better and chances are buyers won’t buy multiple vacuums at once.

With books, if a reader likes a book’s style, they will likely want to read more like it. And authors can only write so fast. So, creating a ‘company’ brand, or, basically, creating titles that could be grouped together, creates multiple products that meet the same target customers wants and needs for entertainment. This is most true in fiction categories, but I think it also works for non-fiction (provided you are careful to differentiate between products and try to avoid actually content overlap).

Finally, by creating a publishing or group ‘brand’ that readers can visually differentiate from your competitors, you can actually be more competitive (One genre that has done this, and done it really well is romance). Readers will look for your books and at your books before looking at other publishers books, because they know they can count on you for quality and something they find interesting. I’m not saying that the writing styles have to be the same – each author definitely has their own style and it should stay that way – but by thinking more about the customer, and about the author, and about the ways that books are used, you can create a better product. And the better the product, the more of them you will sell.

Part II
Part III

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5 Comments on “Some cheese for that whine…. Books and Self-Publishing”

  1. […] Some cheese for that whine…. Books and Self-Publishing […]

  2. Susan Wenger Says:

    In THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: AN EDITOR’S GUIDE TO WRITERS, Betsy Lerner points out the flaw of the only-publish-the-bestsellers strategy. That flaw is, publishers have no way of knowing which new authors will hit and which will flop until their books are available to the public. Publishers like money. If they could acquire and publish ONLY the top sellers, they’d be doing it already.

  3. […] series, “Some Cheese with that Whine …”, a follow up to the first part, on books (here). Publishing companies have a lot to ‘whine’ about these days. There are a lot of problems they […]

  4. John Marino Says:

    Thanks for the update. For those considering to self publish please consider BRIO Publishing at We specialize in working with authors who have traditionally published and want to keep the profits.

    Feel free to email if you have any questions.


  5. PublishingMojo Says:

    Look at the ‘entertainment’ products that do well today (aren’t books entertainment?)

    Some books are. If you’re Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, “entertainment” accounts for about 10 per cent of your revenues. The rest comes from “information” (textbooks), which is different business with a different business model. To evolve and survive, publishers must avoid the trap of thinking entertainment and information are the same thing just because they’re made of ink and paper (or used to be).

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