My most recent post noted the rise of what I called “enterprise self-publishing”. It increasingly looks to me like enterprise-driven book publishing will become the dominant provider of books over the next decade. What distinguishes it is book publishing as a function in support of other efforts, rather than as a stand-alone business intended to make money.
That prediction is based on the belief that virtually every enterprise of any substantial scale — from the size of a single-location retailer or a three-partner law or accounting firm or real estate agency all the way up to experts, manufacturers, and distributors whose operations employ many people and work out of many locations and certainly including all “cause” enterprises and not-for-profits — will over the next 5 or 10 years put book publishing into their business’s toolkit. They’ll be discovering gradually then suddenly that the distance between publishing a blog and publishing a book is — literally — vanishingly small.
Still, to critically evaluate that proposition, one needs to examine two things. The first is “what are the characteristics of a ‘book’ that make it worthy of this focus?” And the second is, “how could publishing books be beneficial to an enterprise that is actually trying to do something else?”
The definition of a “book” derives from its physical form which is a series of printed pages, usually bound with a “spine” rather than just with a staple. That means a printed book is usually a minimum of 64 pages, although there’s no law that it has to be, and the world of books, especially those for kids, has lots of exceptions.
Until the 20th century, books were often the business of printers. Back then, the most expensive part of the publishing process was delivering an initial inventory in a press run of a practical size. The 20th century saw the growth of book retailing through stores. That elevated the relative importance of other components of the publishing process — choosing the books, editing the books, seeing to their design and presentation, and finding an audience for them — and diminished the dominance of printers as publishers.
The persistent things about a book’s identity as publishing evolved were that it was a stand-alone, advertising-free (with some exceptions) bound volume that was meant to appeal to an audience that would cover its cost and provide a profit by purchasing their own copies. In the 20th century, that audience was increasingly found through bookstores. And, in fact, it was bookstores increasing the popularity of books that, along with a lot of Andrew Carnegie’s money (in the United States), was largely responsible for the build-out of a public library network that also purchased their own copies of publishing’s increasing output.
Driven by ubiquity and permanence, books also carried a certain presumption of legitimacy and prestige. With limited exceptions, books were not “dated” like other printed media so, once published, they could stay in the marketplace for a very long time (and on a library’s shelf almost “forever”). Since almost all books did require a “first printing”, the cash investment to deliver a book was not trivial. Publishers didn’t make that investment casually, so the publication of a book — which until very recently really required the investment of a publisher — in and of itself signified an accomplishment for the author.
Although books could be, and were, published on any subject or any aspect of any subject, the form itself became a product category. It had that prestige. They were most widely available through bookstores, places with their own aura and appreciation as “special” spaces by many people.
The bookstores organized themselves internally by topic to facilitate consumer interaction and it was the bookstore’s allocation of space by age appeal, topic, and price that created its own unique personality. That organization, along with knowledgeable clerks, enabled “discovery” of the right book(s) among tens of thousands by the bookstore’s customers. Throughout the 20th century, the combination of limited bookstore shelf space (it waxed and waned, but it was always “competitive” to get each new book its share of it) and the absolute requirement that a book get its start in bookstores to be commercially viable, led to limits on the number of titles available and created a “moat” protecting serious publishers from outside competition. You had to have the ability to talk to thousands of bookstores and then the operational ability to keep books printed and delivered in order to play. Neither requirement was trivial. They required detail-oriented organizations to do the work.
All of that has changed. A book doesn’t have to be printed and bound anymore. Those that do can often be delivered one at a time, reducing the required inventory investment to near zero. Bookstores don’t sell most of the books. More than half the books are sold through online discovery and ordering, which means there is no more “protected space” for dedicated publishers.
Other characteristics separate books from all other content. They (frequently) carry a unique identifier, an ISBN, that facilitates their discovery. Books are catalogued, both by industry-wide databases (“Books in Print”) and by topic via a variety of scholarly and popular vertical observers. And you can search a topic on Amazon, as many people often do, and you’ll find lots of books but you won’t find blog posts or magazine articles.
The salient point is simple. Issuing content as a “book” confers status and publicity that would not attach to that same content if it weren’t “published” that way.
And now that status and ongoing publicity is available to any enterprise that wants to employ it for very little more than the cost of creating the content itself. Using the services of Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and IngramSpark, enterprises can imitate literally millions of authors who have put their own books into the marketplace, and into the hands of multiple millions of consumers, without an organization. Indeed, most of the enterprises will have more resources to promote their books than individual authors do! And they’ll be promoting their enterprise by promoting their book which, for many, will be the central point.
They will be promoting their knowledge and capabilities through the stories they can tell and the things they can document and explain. They can promote their own owners and staffs and trading partners through the content itself or by designating them as “authors”. They can spread understandings they want the press covering their field or their potential customers to have about the world they occupy and their role and capabilities within it. They can create products that have real perceived value to sell or give away.
While Amazon and Ingram are the backbone points of entry to publishing for all who would do it and don’t want to build big capabilities to do so, there is a whole ecosystem of freelancers, consultants, and service organizations that provide the necessary support services: finding the right books, delivering writers, designing books to look great, selling “rights” where those opportunities make more sense than selling “books”, and maximizing the impact of publishing output in all the places where that can make sense. I teamed up with Dan Gerstein’s Gotham Ghostwriters to expand what they provide beyond the content creation itself to the broader suite of services that publishing can employ. But Gotham Publishing Solutions is just joining what is already a very crowded field of talented and experienced service providers. Pioneers like the consultant Jane Friedman (to distinguish her from the publishing executive Jane Friedman) have been advising authors about these things for years; I’d bet Jane’s client list has been getting more enterprise-based over time. It certainly will.
I think the next thing to think about in this little developing series is “ok then, what’s the impact of all this on the incumbents?” That will require a lot of assumptions and then a lot of guessing. But I was encouraged about the thinking in this piece by the news while I was developing it that Substack was going to start signing up book authors away from publishing companies.
My first thought was “of course, Substack can do book publishing competitively a lot easier than any book publisher can build a blog-monetization and publicizing machine”. Think of Substack as an “accelerator” of this effect. The only thing we know for sure is that the more entities that figure out how to put new books into the marketplace with unique marketing efforts supporting them, the less comfortable life will be for those who have built their enterprises around the profits they could derive from books in a world which has now fundamentally changed. And which is loaded with new competition that is playing a completely different game than the one we have known for the past 100 years.