The case has been made here repeatedly over years that the business and operating model of book publishing as it has been throughout my 50+-year career is irretrievably broken. And it is increasingly obvious that this is the case across all “content” businesses — newspapers, magazines, movies, TV, and radio — and for very much the same reasons.
The primary challenge is that no content ever becomes unavailable anymore. So every book in the history of publishing is competing for attention with everything “newly available”. The other delivery forms suffer from a variation of this theme. For TV and movies, it is the same problem; all the content from the past is suddenly competing for attention every single day. For newspapers, the challenge is the loss of territorial exclusivity: once you’ve read the story of the latest bill passed by Congress or the account of last night’s game involving your favorite team in one of the prominent national and international sources of news (led by The New York Times and the Washington Post), you have no need to get that news again in your local daily paper. The failure of local papers demonstrates that most have no sustainable commercial proposition with local news alone. And magazines, being collections of shorter pieces, are now seeing each of them competing on their own against a virtually limitless supply of article postings and blogs from literally millions of sources.
In the book business specifically, this means that the world publishers (and I) grew up in, where those serious about the business exposed their titles through a retail network that didn’t allow amateurs and newcomers easy access but which was where just about all books were bought, has become an online purchasing environment open to everybody. In 1990, there were half-a-million books in English theoretically available, and the chances were that something first issued five years before, let alone 25 or 50 years earlier, was not part of the mix anymore. Today Ingram has about 20 million titles in their print-on-demand database that they can deliver tomorrow from an order delivered today.
So the competitive set for each new title coming into the world has increased 40 times. And the publishers no longer have any moat around the retailing marketplace protecting them.
The good news for longtime publishers is that their entire backlist — not just those titles they keep alive in the stores — now contributes to sales and profits. But the really bad news is that establishing a new title keeps getting harder every single day. The first instance of a publisher announcing that they’ve given up trying to do it that I’m aware of occurred last week when McGraw-Hill announced they’d no longer be issuing new business titles. (Although they hastened to tout the extensive backlist they’ll continue to promote and sell.)
Every multi-book writer trying to sell her next book knows this. Every agent trying to remain active in the business knows this. And a new proposition — the “hybrid” publisher, which charges the author the direct cost of putting their book out in return for a higher royalty — has become a growing part of the new title mix, along with authors who just try to do it themselves using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Ingram’s Spark to handle the mechanics of printing, distribution, and collecting the dollars from the consumers.
Critical players among the new cast of characters are a breed called “Internet Influencers”, who are people with growing followings who are guides to the world of content for their own audiences. Book publishers (and other content purveyors and marketers) are well aware of them. They attempt to find them, understand their audiences, and get them to mention or push the new books coming out that are relevant to their followers. Indeed, the one growing part of a book publishers’ team is their staff of “digital marketers” (while sales reps who call on stores are more and more dispensable). Those marketers largely live on their ability to find and promote to those influencers.
But there has been a structural deficiency to this arrangement. The influencers are the key to making book sales happen, but there has been no mechanism to enable them to share in the revenue their efforts make possible, and to incentivize them to do more of it. That is about to change. A new publishing model, created by a start-up called Bindery Books, is in its early days empowering the influencers (a group Bindery calls “tastemakers”) to lead imprints and select books they know will resonate with their readers and earn a stake in the books’ revenues.
Publishers Weekly just did an article on Bindery that explains their process. First they give the influencers a structure to enable paid subscribers to an influencer’s membership community (like a Patreon for book curators.) This is tiered at very manageable $5, $12, and $25 monthly fees. Large enough curators can divert half their subscription revenue to fund the acquisition and production of new books, inviting their members to have a front row seat to the publishing process and a feeling of investment upon publication.
They are starting with what seems a very generous $10,000 standard author advance for books a “tastemaker” imprint wants to issue. Then Bindery provides the necessary organizational and management structure to publish the book and make it available in both digital and print formats. No surprise that Ingram is a key provider of services to support those efforts, including sales and distribution to the book trade. The influencers are in for 25 percent of the revenue for the books they publish. Authors get half. Bindery takes the balance. And thus, the real enablers of new publishing projects, their creators and the marketers to their core audience, are rewarded much more generously than they are in the traditional model.
And it seems very possible, perhaps even highly likely, that a large number of decentralized communities of interest will “find” books to be worthy of publishing that the traditional community of “professionals” would have missed.
Agents are submitting proposals to Bindery. Influencers are just starting to establish their subscription bases and book imprints. Bindery is still putting together its internal team to manage their trade business. It will be some months before we get a real read on how effective this new way of organizing the world for publishing new books will be.
But the harder it gets for agents to place their books with traditional publishers, the more taking a shot with a new proposition like Bindery will make sense to them. And with the influencers that publishers already recognize as the key drivers for book sales in the new world we’re living in vested the way they are, one has to assume this model has a real chance to succeed.
As Bindery’s own website makes clear, I am among an advisory board to the company. But so far there is nothing for me to take credit for. The Bindery executive team dreamed up this new approach and have built the engine to deliver it. I have a bit of an inside view, but I am waiting along with everybody else to see how this new approach works.
It is perhaps worth emphasizing that Bindery is not primarily aiming to serve the millions of self-published authors who are now part of the landscape. Rather, they are trying to put a new marketing reality to work for the books with the best chances of success, which is why they are paying advances and working to get submissions from agents. Perhaps over time, the influencers/tastemakers will put their large followings to work reading the broad range of over-the-transom manuscripts that any way to publish will attract. Bindery’s approach is aimed at the books publishers would want to buy, giving them an extra boost and rewarding the new marketing channel that has partially replaced what has been lost in the old retail marketplace.