The New York Times carried a story on the front page of its Friday Business section about a book. This book is a novel entitled (appropriately for this piece) “The Big Disruption” by Jessica Powell. Of course, it is about Silicon Valley, which explains its positioning and why Times columist Farhad Manjoo was interested enough to give it hundreds of words in a story that jumps to Page Two.
Which major publisher’s publicity department accomplished this coup? None. The book is being published as the first full-length book from Medium, a really useful blogging platform that I have utilized for my climate change writing. And the ebook offered can be read through a web browser for free.
The way they’ve done it, Medium has demonstrated both what book publishers have to fear from the new publishing environment and, at the same time, why they aren’t superfluous quite yet. Publishing a book successfully requires skills Medium hasn’t learned, even if they have capabilities to reach an audience and promote their wares in ways most publishers could only envy.
Without being an insider, it isn’t hard to understand why Medium chose to “publish” the “book” in this way. This wasn’t a “commercial” enterprise primarily about making money. It was (without any intention to be pejorative) a “vanity” exercise. It was about getting the book spread as far and as wide as possible and getting as many people to read it as possible. And it was about building the Medium brand.
Digital allows them to “give it away” free at no incremental copy cost.
But, counterintuitive though it may be, doing that exclusively is actually not the way to achieve the vanity objectives of maximum readership and maximum impact.
Our team is working right now with a tech entrepreneur with a message, partly encapsulated in a book, that he wants disseminated as broadly as possible. He is reluctant to “sell” his rights to a publisher because he wants to give his book away, certainly as an ebook, and doesn’t want to have to pay a publisher for each copy when he does that.
Working with us, he’s seeing that he can have his cake and eat it too. The world of publishing in 2018 enables him to have ebooks on every platform and printed books available for every store or library through established sources of supply, without giving up any rights and without compromising his ability to give books away in any manner he chooses.
Of course, printed books cost money (even though with print-on-demand there is no need for an inventory “investment”), so they have to have a consumer price or be subsidized. And putting ebooks on conventional platforms also requires some sort of charge. Kindle and Nook and Kobo and Google and Apple aren’t interested in letting their platforms be used for lots of downloads that produce no revenue.
But it is an absolute guarantee that if the book promoted in the Times on Friday were available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Apple, which at least at this moment it is not, it would have started selling copies through those outlets the minute the Times story appeared. And it is also an absolute guarantee that there are people who will find reading the book on a web browser on Medium to be more trouble than it is worth. So people who would have read a “real” ebook or a printed book will not read all of “The Big Disruption”, even if they enjoy the first bits they see online.
The opportunities for broad distribution that Medium missed and no legitimate publisher would have show why publishers and their expertise still count for something. But the fact that Medium is typical of many of today’s content-producers, in that they can reach an audience without a publisher’s help, shows the challenges for publishers today. They’re not the only way to get book content to the public.
And, in fact, if Medium does this again they may learn how to extend beyond the audience they can reach for free downloads. With very little effort or savvy, they can set their digital file up to be an ebook across all platforms and a printed book available to all bookstores and libraries. In fact, with minimal additional effort and investment, they could also make their content available for spoken word delivery as well. Since their primary interests are brand extension and audience education, this knowledge will be used to satisfy the same urges that led them to create content and publish it in the first place.
The magic trick of ubiquitous availability really isn’t magic at all. It is facilitated by two big companies: Amazon and Ingram. (And if you prefer convenience to margin, you can do it all through Ingram. You’d just give up a bit of your Amazon revenue for the service of having Ingram handle it.) Amazon through Kindle and CreateSpace and Ingram through IngramSpark both offer a simple web interface for uploading content and controlling its publication, including pricing, for any publishing entity.
As more and more corporations and universities and cause organizations and web entities learn the tricks and techniques for publishing ebooks, publishers will find many sources that they would have signed up books from in the past no longer interested in the conventional route. Surely a profit-seeking publisher would have loved to handle a novel with a Silicon Valley audience that was of such interest that it warranted front page of the Business section coverage from the single best outlet to reach book readers in the country.
The expertise of a publisher is still useful, even with the by-the-book infrastructure available from Amazon and Ingram. That is demonstrated by the opportunities Medium didn’t exploit. But that expertise is ubiquitous; there are lots of publishing veterans available to help who know the game. There is already a pool of knowledgeable publishers helping what were previously outsiders work the publishing world successfully.
They will perpetuate a trend that has been developing for two decades. The overall publishing business keeps getting bigger. But the lock that commercial publishers have had on the most desirable intellectual property has been broken and the commercial publishers’ share of the total book business keeps getting smaller.
This will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future.
In a similar vein, I keep seeing great books being created that their creators don’t realize are commercially viable books. The most recent is the extensive New York Times examination of the Trump family fortune that has been published twice in the paper, the second time this past Sunday as a special section. Failing to publish this same material as an ebook with print available “on-demand” just demonstrates that the thinkers at the Times do not yet appreciate the power of a book publishing strategy utilizing the tools offered by Amazon and Ingram. They are certainly not unique in that failing among legacy publishing entities.