The Shatzkin Files

I came home from the Charleston Conference with a couple of new thoughts

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One great benefit of stepping outside your own world — which for me is the world of general trade publishing — is that you can get a jolt of perspective when you do. It really took only a few minutes of listening to Annette Thomas, the global head of professional and college publishing for Macmillan, at the Charleston Conference to underscore an important point. Thomas was talking about how Macmillan had to solve the problem of linking together content that was delivered in journal articles with that delivered in books, a format distinction she correctly saw made no sense to somebody who just wanted the information regardless of the form in which it was initially delivered.

In professional and academic publishing, it is pretty much a requirement to understand the context of all content. Any observation, discovery, or opinion needs to be connected to the other knowledge and information that relates to it to have validity. Scholarship and professional knowledge all live in a world where the total body of relevant information is the key to understanding the value of any new contribution. (And, indeed, the creators of any new contribution are carefully placing their work in the context of all that came before it.)

This is not true for trade publishing, where — more often than not — each book being read is judged and appreciated for what exists between its own covers.

This brings me to two observations about how publishing is changing and how trade publishers need to think differently that are relevant and have not been said to death (if, in fact, they’ve been said by anybody else at all.)

We often observe that book publishing is many businesses, by which we usually mean that academic or professional or college textbook publishing has little to do with “trade”. But it is also true that trade publishing is many businesses. Even within fiction, the publishing skills and markets for genres like romance and science fiction are quite different than for literary fiction.

But non-fiction is even more diverse. And some of it has a lot to learn from professional publishing.

What the top professional publishers will tell you is that the challenge for them is to deliver content within the workflow. That means that accountants or construction engineers are trying to get particular things done and what they look to publishers to do is to help them accomplish their tasks. That means software. And the content they need should be provided within that workflow so they have the knowledge they’re looking for when they want to apply it.

Well, some consumer publishing also addresses content needs that arise in a workflow. Consumers of gardening books, knitting books, and cookbooks are all using the knowledge they present within a workflow context.

What that means to me is that we’re not far away from these tasks being addressed by workflow tools: apps. Your gardening app, for example, will help define your challenge. It will ask you questions. How big is your front yard? How big is your back yard? How much sun do they get? How much time do you have to spend with this? Do you want flowers, shrubs, or vegetables?

Then the app will tell you, “Mike, it’s March 15, dig a hole.” “Mike it’s April 10, drop a seed in the hole.” “Mike it’s April 28 and we see it hasn’t rained in your neighborhood for a week. Water your garden.” Etcetera.

When that day comes, the publisher with the really terrific gardening book better hope they’ve made a good licensing deal with the owner of the app. Power will have shifted.

(One example of what the future may bring a lot more of are the Audubon Mobile Field Guides, which were done by Green Mountain Digital. These are region-specific species guides that contain reference content, maps, bird calls, etc. and provide real time access to bird sightings. Brendan Cahill of Green Mountain will speak on a “new business models” panel at Digital Book World.)

If I were a publisher of books that address a challenge that is actually handled through a workflow, I’d start now trying to be the licensor, not the licensee.

And that brings me to the second observation.

When you read self-published books (and I do: some of the big bestsellers anyway), you become aware by omission of what a publishers would do to improve them. The lack of copy-editing and proofreading is often what is most apparent, but more acute readers also see the deficiencies in development that good editors correct before a book goes to press.

Because major publishers tend to spend a fair amount of money acquiring most of the titles they do and — correctly or not — see it is a major expense (drain on overheads) to publish each and every title, they tend to be careful about making sure each book is really ready for prime time before they print it. That means there is almost always some editorial input from somebody with commercial responsibility (the acquiring editor or somebody who works for the AE) but there is also certainly professional copy-editing and proofreading of every single book. My highly anecdotal view of self-published books is that for them there is no such guarantee.

I have advocated previously that big publishers should see the value of branding their work as “professional”, which I believe argues for minimizing the number of brands they ask consumers to remember. Nuanced brands make sense in a B2B world (for buyers and reviewers) but are likely to just confuse or be ignored by consumers. But as more and more self-published material makes its way to the public and even onto bestseller lists, the reading public (at least those of us who care about grammar, syntax, and punctuation) might be well served by branding that says, in effect, “this book has been edited, copy-edited, and proofread by professionals”.

But now I’m seeing that thinking isn’t granular enough. If a publisher adopted that suggestion, they’d be locking themselves into maintaining those high quality standards across everything they do. In the long run, is that the right idea?

I’m beginning to think it isn’t. As we see increasingly that self-published material can reach extremely large audiences, it will probably become important before long for the established publishers to be able to test titles in the marketplace without doing the full editorial job on them. In fact, if Sourcebook’s “agile publishing model” (by which a non-fiction book by my friend and client, futurist David Houle, is being released in ebook chunks for audience feedback before being assembled into a “final” published version that will also be printed) were to gain traction and be used more broadly, it would almost certainly mean that parts of the editing job should be bumped back to the end (or else would have to be done twice).

When the big publishers float through the looking glass and realize that they are really wasting their clout and resources if they don’t crank up to do many more titles than they do now (which they haven’t yet, but I believe they will; and I think Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions is the first sign of recognition of that reality by a major house), they’ll see that not all the books they’ll want to publish in the future can get the same full-on treatment that they give to all the books they publish now. They’ll want to be able to publish an author’s short non-fiction ebook about the topic of their novel — because the author wants them to — without giving it thousands of dollars worth of editorial development its revenue forecasts wouldn’t justify. The solution might be to create secondary brands, or it might be about “badging” each book with the amount of editorial attention it actually got. But one signal of quality might not fit all books.

One remarkable facet of my Charleston trip was something I’m quite sure would never happen to me in New York. I had the same cab driver coming in from the airport on Wednesday and then going back out again on Thursday! I also managed to take off from LaGuardia before the nor’easter hit and come back the following evening after it had come through. I saw a little evidence of what was reported to me was “a blizzard” that I’m not sorry I missed.

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  • Mike, thanks for your nice mention of our apps. One clarification: this summer we changed our name from Green Mountain Digital to NatureShare, which is the name of our new mobile community for the Outdoors. Last week we relaunched our best-selling Audubon Birds app with NatureShare community integration in the Apple App Store

    • Thanks for straightening me out on the new branding, Brendan. And best of luck with the app!


  • NoTalentHack

    Your comments are thought-provoking, as always. As someone who is more closely aligned with the software industry than the publishing industry, my first thought on reading your first observation (gardening app that gives customized advice) is “if I have the app, why would I need a gardening BOOK- even a really terrific one?”.

    • You’re right. We don’t disagree. You probably won’t “need” the book! You might want some of the book’s *content*, but you’d want it delivered on an as-needed basis within the app. I think some books can be sold through this channel because books are “nice” to have on subjects you’re interested in, but the informational needs would really be covered by the app.


      • NoTalentHack

        So does this foretell the end of the non-fiction book publishing industry ? Or are you encouraging book publishers to shift to becoming app creators ?

        Also, a follow up to another part of your article: see the first half of the blog post at for a variation on the agile publishing model.

      • I think “the end of the non-fiction publishing industry” is a bit overstated, but I think that the part of non-fiction book publishing which is highly instructional, and particularly instructional within a workflow, is likely to be replaced by apps over the next decade or two. In general, I think “platforms” are the new intermediaries and gatekeepers. We’re likely to see this first and most dramatically in children’s book publishing, where parents and teachers really seek a controlled environment to put their kids into.


  • Two comments (1) on the software side, I guess the solution is for a firm like Adobe to create a content management system (CMS) which allows authors and editors to work on a shared system for producing text and images and ‘enhancements’. The CMS will then allow publication in varied formats (print books, eBooks, print journals, eJjournals, apps etc) (2) on the editorial side, it seems to me that much of the work (typesetting, copy-editing, graphic design etc) is now outsourced: so self-publishers could make use of the same service providers. This would leave commercial publishers without a commercial advantage in this area.

    • John, I’m not sure your Adobe idea is a solution. What it misses is the workflow piece. It isn’t just about adapting the content; it is also about delivering the bits and chunks of content within the context of the workflow.

      I think increasingly self-publishers will be able to avail themselves of many of the same service providers that work for big publishers now. Perhaps they already do. The big publisher which provides a lot more work will still have an advantage with the outside providers.


      • Speaking as a self-publisher, I have been looking more and more into professional cover design and professional editing. Sometimes I’ve needed creative solutions; for example, I couldn’t find a freelance cover designer who seemed willing to take on the challenge of my anthology about rape in virtual worlds, but I managed to find a grad student at the Art Institute and she did an incredible job.

        But I also think there are other ways for self-publishers to solve some of these problems.

        For my first book (which was a nonfiction analysis of pickup artists — i.e., a subculture of guys who trade tips on how to seduce women), I put together focus groups for the first draft. One of the groups was “internet feminists,” one was “guys interested in masculinity” and a third was “random dilettante friends.” Most of these people volunteered because they like my blog, and were willing to sign NDAs and other documentation to protect my interests. Few of them were “experts.” They immeasurably improved the book.

        My first self-published book has sold over a thousand copies — most of them at “normal” market prices — since I published it in March. (It was $8.99 for a while; now it’s $7.99, and the paperback is $14.99). And I just sold the translation rights to a German publisher! My other books are selling okay, too, especially my best-of collection (the best articles and blog posts I’ve written). So I’m doing pretty well, for a self-published author.

        I’d love the chance to negotiate an American book deal, but I kind of doubt that I’ll be offered one — I tried to get one for a while before I published my books, but no one was interested. I’m also honestly uncertain how likely a traditional publisher would be to give me a good advance.

        It is worth noting that I already had established a reputation as a blogger, speaker, and writer for various websites before I self-published. So I’ve had a lot more ability to promote my work from square 1 than most self-published authors do.

      • Clarisse, you would only really have a chance at a commercial book deal with an American publisher if an American agent were representing you. I’d suggest you look at Publishers Marketplace (you have to join, but it is $20 a month and you can join for one month to do this and then quit) and check out their “deal database”. Look for agents that have sold books that look like they’re similar to what you’re doing. Then go after those agents and tell them what you’ve been doing.

        You’re obviously taking a very professional approach, moving your career forward, and making a little money. There’s no reason to stop what you’re doing; it’s progress! But at the same time, you could perhaps be pursuing a bigger payoff and getting some professional help.


      • Thanks, Mike. I actually did try pursuing agents for a while, with no luck.

      • It is not for me to tell you how to spend your time, but I’d only make the point that you keep adding evidence that agents will take seriously with each ebook you publish and each copy you sell.


    • Noah Genner

      1. There are many (some?) companies already doing this quite well. Have a look at Pressbooks ( or The Atavist Platform ( – there are many others.

      PS. I have no ‘investment’ in either platform.

      • Thanks, Noah.

        1. Absolutely right. 2. Many more to come.


      • Thank you for the links. I wish mainstream publishers used database editing systems. I am going through a traditional publishing workflow, with one of the Big 50 publishers, and it is awful. The second set of page proofs arrived 2 weeks ago and have occupied every waking moment since they came. I submitted the content as Word files, Photoshop files and illustrator files. They come back as Xerox pages and a pdf file (from InDesign). I have to mark up the Xerox pages with a red pen. The book designer is a little careless so every alteration has to be checked. The Xerox is of little use in judging image quality. To make an index I have to put the page numbering from the pdf into the Word documents (which were sent back to me reluctantly – and with the captions stripped out). I could go on and on. The whole process would be much easier if all the information was held in a versioned database – which could also deliver the content in different formats.

      • And, of course, a publisher using such a system doesn’t give up the ability to print things and do it the hard way for any author that just can’t play along. I think “author training” is sometimes used as an excuse in publishing houses for postponing going to modern workflows. It’s not a very good one.


      • Some authors are probably ‘untrainable’, technically, and others are probably able to ‘train’ their publishers (if not their outsourced experts eg in book design), so publishers need to be more flexible both with regard to who does what and with regard to who gets paid for what. One size does not fit all.

      • That sounds right to me. The whole value chain will get deconstructed and rethought as we move to a digitally-dominant era.


  • I’m sad to see you make the assumption that Indie books by definition have poor ‘grammar, syntax, and punctuation’, when there are a great many Indie books that are every bit as professional as mainstream books, and many Indie authors who go to great lengths to ensure their work is professionally edited, both structurally, and copy edited. Indie does not mean poor quality, and there is a site called the Awesome Indies where the books listed meet a stringent set of criteria for fiction as evaluated, not by readers, but by publishing industry professionals and approved reviewers who show that they know their stuff. All the books on this list have a branding that says, in effect, “this book has been edited, copy-edited, and proofread by professionals”.

    I have read several traditionally published books (there seems to be an unfortunate & growing tendency to skip structural edits) that would not meet the criteria for listing on the Awesome Indies, so please, do not contribute to the perception that Indie books are by nature unprofessional. It simply isn’t true.

    • The Awesome Indies site sounds like a sound idea. It’s sort of like “peer review”.

      I am sure only a very small percentage of the total independent publishing output gets their stamp of approval.


      • Probably, but a lot of authors don’t know about it yet, either.

        The peer review is also by authors and editors with certain qualifications. An Indie author can’t recommend another Indie author, unless they also have professional qualifications, either through employment in traditional publishing, attainment of a relevant degree or, in the case of some reviewers, an extensive reviewing experience that shows their ability to adequatelyjudge the criteria.

        I won’t buy an Indie book unless it’s listed on the site.

      • Smart curation mechanism. I’m sure it will be joined by others. Thanks for pointing it out.


  • Mike, great to see you in Charleston. I enjoyed your presentation. Thought provoking and insightful, as always.

    We can all agree that great editing is often (but not always) what distinguishes an indie ebook from a traditional book. But there’s more than that. Many of these books are breaking out despite these embarrassing errors. We don’t live in a world of absolutes. The power of a great story will transcend some threshold of friction created by inadequate editing. Readers decide the threshold.

    Smashwords will release about 100,000 titles in 2012. I expect we’ll do more next year, and more the year after. We probably release more books perceived by professionals as “crappy” than anyone. I’m proud of this, because I believe one person’s junk is another person’s treasure. I also believe none of us – not even the smartest editors at the smartest publishers – are qualified to serve as the final arbiters of quality. Only readers are qualified.

    Judging by our sales, the overall quality of the books we’re releasing today is dramatically higher than four years ago when we launched, and the quality will continue to improve over time. Authors are learning to become professional publishers, and our authors who do it the best are hitting all the bestseller lists. We’re doing our part to promote the best practices of the best publishers, and this includes training authors about the value of time-honored professional practices of developmental editing, copy editing, proofing, professional packaging, etc. Our authors are learning. They’re motivated to reach readers.

    Because their ebooks are immortal and forever in virtual print, they’re iterating. They’re reinvesting their time and their earnings to improve their product. Our authors who are doing it the best are becoming the new role models for other indies. When I look at the 180,000 titles at Smashwords today, I see a diamond mine bursting with diamonds in the rough, ready to be polished by our authors, for the benefit of authors, as they learn to apply best practices.

    Publishers have a big challenge here. They must learn to identify, acquire and develop these mines for the benefit of authors before someone else does. They’re running out of time. If their idea of scaling is to go from 200 to 1,000 titles a year, they’re not thinking big enough, and they’ll be swamped in the marketplace by more, better books.

    The challenge before publishers will not be easily met. It’ll require a dramatic change in cultural mindset, from gatekeeper to enabler. For years, publishers expected writers to bow before the altars of publishers. Now, publishers must bow before the altars of authors.

    It’ll require publishers to truly embrace and respect the creative potential in every writer.

    Assuming publishers can adopt the right mindset, they also need to adopt the right approach for engaging with authors. The ASI model is not the right approach. If publishers view authors as pockets to be picked, then publishers become parasites and will perish. Money should flow to the author, not out of the author’s pocket to the publisher.

    The proper approach here is obvious. Publishers should figure out how to invest in authors and earn their money by helping authors sell books. It’s what good publishers have always done. Now they just need to figure out how to make it work for every writer, not just the few.

    • Sorry, Mark, I’ll never believe that a commercial (money-making) publishing enterprise — one that invests in authors rather than having authors invest in the publisher — can serve “every auithor” (as I believe Smashwords can and does). If you’re investing time and money, you have to pick your spots. Providing a universal service can only work if you aren’t making marginal investments in each incremental project.


      • The opportunity is to view investments along a continuum, a spectrum, not a binary on/off. How do you say “yes” to every author, invest something in all of them, understand you’ll lose your investment in most but make it back in the aggregate. It’s a tough nut to crack and requires the right mixture of process, technology, philosophy and scale, though it’s how we’ve made it work. Not entirely different from how publishing works today. As the seeds show promise, invest more. Publishers have the ability to take this where we don’t, and we have the ability to get them to a starting point they can’t reach on their own. Hmmm… I see an opportunity for us to bottle up our secret sauce and deliver it as a service to publishers. We could call it the “Just Say Yes” service. 🙂

      • There’s a degree to which that is done now, of course. The advance decision is fixed, but the marketing investments in each book are dynamic. A publisher can decide to invest more in something that seems to be working; they can cut back on something they see isn’t.

        But making those decisions, even with automation tools, isn’t cheap. It requires knowledgeable people and coordination of an organization. Which is to say that this can work at a level of success and above, but for most authors — probably more like 99% than 90%, it is, I believe, a wild goose chase.


      • Right, though it’s probably more like the one in one thousand black swan. Invisible. It’s hidden in a field of 1 million newly fledged black geese. Only readers can find them. It’s the black swan every publisher misses every day of the year. This is the advantage of 100% exposure.

      • If you didn’t already know about it, take note of the comment above about the “Awesome Indies” site. I think they might be on a track that can cut down the problem from 1 in a thousand to something more manageable.


  • J.M. Porup


    Any sufficiently large organization regresses to the mean. Publishing is no exception. I discovered this the hard way. I used to write travel guidebooks for a large travel publisher. Publishing, like any other profit-run business, is about preventing failure — not about achieving excellence. Now, I’ve never worked with a Big Six publisher, but I imagine the same holds true in New York — successful books happen in spite of publishers, not because of them.

    Indie publishing is an opportunity to do better than the Big Six. How many traditionally published authors bemoan poor editing by editors whose main job is acquisition, not story development? Poor copyediting? Lame covers? And so on.

    As a self-published author, I can choose which development editor to work with. Which line editor. Which copyeditor. Which cover designer. Which interior designer. And when I pay people for their best work, they know it’s because I want quality. They aren’t working for some nameless, faceless behemoth that just needs a box ticked. They actually have to do a good job, or I won’t hire them again.

    Of course, being a self-publisher means the responsibility not to publish crap. It means having to step outside your ego bubble and listen to other people (like your editor) when they say your story needs work. But at the end of the day, this model, for some authors, at least, can produce better quality, and more profit, than many of the books the Big Six publishers are putting out these days.

    J.M. Porup

    • I’ll be glad to stipulate that any author with a brain and the inclination can get all the services s/he needs to do as good or better as any publisher would do producing a fantastic book.

      There are three important caveats.

      The first one is: most don’t.

      The second one is: the effort isn’t trivial or free for those who do.

      And the third is that with the best brains, biggest wallet, and best intentions, somebody doing this for the first time (or even the sixth time) might not have the staff or expertise that a publisher does to do it right.
      And then you have the marketing problem, which isn’t trivial. Just getting into a major publisher’s catalog — let alone being launched with a major publisher’s metadata — provides exposure that very few indie authors can generate on their own.

      We keep discussing indie publishing with a focus on the numerator (the authors who succeed in one way or another) and ignoring the denominator (the number of authors who self-publish to total silence.)

      The failure rate is enormous. And not irrelevant.

      Yes, the big publishers invest in a lot of books on which they do something less than the best job. At least, in those cases, the author had an advance check to take home. When the author fails on his or her own (and I believe they do far more often than published authors fail; don’t you?), they have nothing except cancelled checks for the services they bought.


  • There is a new publisher, sort of, that is looking to do something mentioned here. Self-published books that have to “make the grade” in order to have the publisher imprint. We charge for editing etc, but don’t require the author to use us, exclusively or at all. Provided the book is good enough and has the professionalism behind it, the author can publish themselves with a brand that says, “this book has been edited, copy-edited, and proofread.” It’s called Indie Artist Press and we just opened a few weeks ago. Got a really bad wrap on the Water Cooler because I think most of the folks think that any new face is out to scam people, but we don’t license any rights or take any money on the published works. The only income we get is from contest entries, editing and other services, and (if the author uses someone else for all of these things) the cost of the ISBN at less than half of single-purchase retail from Bowker. Self-publishing is a viable and reasonable option for many folks, and we want readers and booksellers to be able to tell the difference between a book that was written over the course of a weekend and uploaded to a publishing platform with no edits and one that has been given the proper dose of time, talent and effort. We are Indie Artist Press, and we hope to put a new face on self-publishing… it’ll take a minute, we’re sure, but we’re here.

    • Tilly, sounds sensible.

      For the first time in the history of this blog (which will be four years in February), I’ll ask you to reply back with a link to your site so people can take a look for themselves. (I ordinarily don’t encourage self-promotion!) But you should at least add affiliate (referral) fees to the Internet retailers to your revenue model!


      • Hi Mike,

        I thought I’d check back and see if either of my messages ever came through. Doesn’t look like it, so here goes: indieartistpress dot com.

        I’d love to hear what you think.

      • Thank you, Tilly. We’ll check it out.


      • Aha… I think they didn’t go through because of the active link I’d put in when you first responded. As for the referral fees for the revenue model, we’ve considered it. We’re thinking of monetizing for ad space, as well, as an option. That way we’re not profiting from the work done, which might be misconstrued as vanity publishing. Thanks for making the exception on the link. We are very interested in the opinions of those who might benefit from the concept, so if anything looks author “unfriendly” we’re up for constructive criticism.

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