We’ve previously explored what I called “the end of the trade publishing concept”, which stems from the now wide-open opportunity to publish available to anybody with a computer and something to deliver as a book. It feels like we may have reached a new benchmark: admittedly a very fuzzy one. But it looks like it has become very difficult, bordering on impossible, for a commercial entity to make money consistently publishing new titles. Let’s summarize the facts that have changed on the ground that make that the case.
**Thirty years ago, each new book coming into the world in English was competing with 500,000 incumbents that were (at least theoretically) available for purchase. That was the total number of books “in print” in English in the world. Today that number, with a big boost from Ingram’s Lightning print-on-demand capability, has grown to more than nineteen million titles.
**Up until twenty years ago, bookstores sold the lion’s share of the books. Only serious publishers with sales forces, warehouses, inventory, and relationships with retailers could compete for sales. Now bookstores account for as little as 20 percent of the sales. Most sales are made through online promotion and availability that give incumbent publishers no particular edge. So increased title competition has come along with the vanishing of the unique publisher sales and distribution advantage.
**In the pre-Lightning era, publishers had to maintain inventory in a warehouse for any title expected to compete in the marketplace. That requirement cost publishers money, but also served to eliminate competition. No inventory holding is required today to have a title listed as available being able to ship within days, if not hours. That saves incumbent publishers some cash investment, but unleashes a slew of new competition.
**In those bookstore-dominant days, publishers could safely focus their marketing efforts on those titles just about to come out until a few months after publication day. In today’s world, titles can “pop” for myriad reasons that have nothing to do with when they were first issued. The death of an author, the surge in a book on the same subject, the sudden interest of a celebrity — all of these things can make a book suddenly competitive and promotable and no inventory has to be “in place” in stores to support it. Publishers have steadily increased the number of digital marketers on their staffs and now employ a variety of “listening” tools to detect what books on vast backlists should get attention, but the challenge of allocating scarce marketing resources across an increasing array of apparent opportunities grows ever more difficult.
**Throughout the history of trade publishing, there were established venues in which to “work” the titles. You needed to get new titles promoted in the trade press and mentioned in as many of the hundreds (or thousands) of newspaper and magazine book reviews as possible. There were select television and radio shows that effectively promoted books. And if you wanted to keep a backlist title alive, the most important thing you needed to do was keep it stocked on bookstore shelves. Because there were important vehicles that were used repeatedly, established publishers developed longstanding relationships with established promotional outlets. Today, much of that established network has disappeared and a vast amount of the promotional opportunity for books, especially non-fiction, is through vehicles that arise as opportunities for the first time. An established publisher often has no more cred with them than the self-publishing author or fledgling publisher does.
**But perhaps the biggest change of all is that publishers aren’t “necessary” for an author to have a “published book” available for promotion or educational or any other use. With very little cash or know-how, anybody can publish a book these days. Any author who commands an audience through a website or other business network can make a book available without a publisher. So putting a book out through a publisher is now a choice, not the only way to accomplish the task.
And this takes us to the new decision-matrix for an author who is both not a “typical” author but also not a unique one: a business school professor who previously self-published books he wanted to have available for his students, but who now has a title of much broader interest.
The author in this case is Ed Rogoff, a business school dean and professor for many decades. A few years ago, Ed explored self-publishing to make his “Bankable Business Plans for Non-Profits” available for the classes he taught. He wasn’t particularly concerned with the revenue from the book, but he needed it to be available for students in classes he was teaching. A later variation on the Bankable Business Plan idea (the first of which had, indeed, been put out by an established publisher) was BBP for Entreprenurial Ventures. Having that book to show got Ed a new business school home, at the Wagner School at NYU, for that class.
The book leading to the class, rather than the other way around, was a sign of a world turned upside down by the capability to self-publish. And it shows why an academic might self-publish. You can do it fast and you can present your material in the ways best suited to sell a “course”, rather than to “sell books”.
But the book Rogoff is working on now is completely different. It has a much broader audience. And it isn’t something he needs to sell a course or to make available to students. And yet, it is a real question to ponder whether a publisher or a self-publishing effort would be the better strategy.
The book comes out of Rogoff’s life experience, not his academic interests. He was a lifelong hemophiliac, living through the age of AIDS, which generated a long period where blood transfusions — often a necessary component of a hemophiliac’s survival — became a game of Russian Roulette. But, even before AIDS arrived and after reliable testing for it was available (the period that bracketed the greatest mortal danger), being a hemophiliac requires regular attention and concern. It is a condition that, when one has it, means you can’t live what the rest of us consider a normal life.
Then, about ten years ago, Ed suffered a more immediate threat. Because of Hepatitis C which he contracted from a transfusion as a teenager, his liver started to fail. The only solution was a liver transplant. So he got it, and survived it. But, better than that, a new liver meant his hemophilia was cured. Suddenly, deep into his 50s, the Sword of Damocles was removed from its position immediately above his neck. Since the liver transplant, Ed’s life expectancy has been “normal”, which means he has more future in front of him now when we are in our 70s than he had when we met and became friends over 50 years ago.
Ed’s new book is called “Scary Diagnosis”, and it is a guide for people who get a health evaluation that will change their life going forward. It covers the immediate challenges — finding the right doctors and wrapping one’s brain around the diagnosis. But it also covers all the ways life will change and the various kinds of help the diagnosis says you’ll need. The chapter titles pretty much tell the story about how much a “scary diagnosis” leads one to think about.
Chapter 1: The First Shock
Chapter 2: Life or Death
Chapter 3: Vulnerability Squared
Chapter 4: Sick Children
Chapter 5: You Can’t Do It Alone
Chapter 6: Must You Lose Your Dignity
Chapter 7: Distrust and Suspicion
Chapter 8: Selecting and Managing Your Doctor
Chapter 9: Time Warp
Chapter 10: To Share or Not to Share
Chapter 11: Managing the Hospital Experience
Chapter 12: How Friends and Family Treat the Patient
Chapter 13: Coping with Big Bad Bureaucracies
Chapter 14: By Living Your Life You Must Overcome Being a Patient
Chapter 15: Never Forget that You Are in Charge
Chapter 16: Finding Strength and Gratitude
At first, it seemed self-evident to us that Ed would need/want to find a publisher for this. After all, this is a subject of “general interest” for which there are customers in every bookstore.
But then, Ed took another step. He researched the potential partners for marketing the title with him; entities that might want to promote this book in their world. Of course, that is any entity that is focused on any of the many diseases and conditions that deliver a “scary diagnosis.”
It turns out that there are hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. And each of them could deliver a productive relationship from outreach. Each of them could post content or provide a useful endorsement or reach dozens or hundreds or thousands of potential customers for “Scary Diagnosis” on their own.
Reaching out to and then engaging with all these entities is a massive undertaking. The good news is that the challenge isn’t time-sensitive. The advice in the book will be as useful two years after it is published as it will be the day it is first available. But would a publisher with thousands of books to market sustain the effort to connect with all the possibilities for “Scary Diagnosis”? And, if not, would they sell enough through “conventional channels” to make up for not having hundreds of powerful potential teammates?
The book isn’t completely written yet so Ed and his “advisors” have time to contemplate this before commencing on a path, either to engage an agent and seriously look for a publisher partner or to launch a self-publishing effort. Doing the latter does not preclude later going to the publishers, who might come to the book after a lot of its validity and appeal have been established. But it would certainly seem that this is a case where the diligent self-publisher might be the better solution in the long run just because the book will get a sustained marketing effort across far more individual opportunities, all currently outside most publishers’ promotional realms, than a publisher of many books can justify for just one title.
Of course, the decision is made a little easier by the possibility of turning the “conventional” book marketing on the ebook side over to Open Road. That assures a baseline of marketing activity that, except for the initial rollout, is probably as good or better as anything you’d get from any other publisher. As you can see by the link in this paragraph, that was another story.