Publishing Mysteries

A look at modern day mysteries of the publishing world.

There are many things that just don’t make sense to me that should. I’m not talking about MacGuyver trivia, how to tap dance, or 18th century French philosophy. I expect to be clueless about those things. I’m talking about things in my general sweet spots.

Oh, sure. I have my own theories, but there’s a big gap between thinking and knowing. To paraphrase Brandt in The Big Lebowski, “Well Dude, I just don’t know.”

How can major publishers expect authors to pay for PR firms and their own ads?

So, my readers, acolytes, followers, and Tweeps, I present to you a new series of posts. In it, I’m going to be examining these modern day mysteries. I have two goals for this series and each post in it:

  • To generate discussion about topics of interest
  • To ultimately garner a better understanding of these topics

Today’s focus is the publishing world–a topic that will probably get me in a decent amount of trouble.

Before beginning, though, perhaps I should read a book like This Business of Books: A Complete Overview of the Industry from Concept Through Sales by Claudia Suzanne. One problem, though: the book was written in 2004 and I don’t see how that book isn’t at least partially dated at this point.

No matter. I’m pretty sure that I can get better answers to these questions by crowdsourcing than by reading yet another book.

Marketing

Before unveiling the first mystery, a little background is in order for those of you not familiar with the economics of the publishing industry. Publishing houses expect authors to do the lion’s share of the marketing and promotion of their books. At the same time, publishers keep about 90 percent of the royalties, at least for non-rock star authors like me. Rock star authors have better deals–and perhaps they should. People who keep churning out best-sellers are pretty much sure things.

Strangely, I’m comfortable with the status quo.

With that out of the way, yesterday I actually saw a large ad in this week’s BusinessWeek Robert’s Rules of Innovation by Robert F. Brands. I assumed (incorrectly) that his publisher paid for the ad. Nope. Brands himself did. I don’t know what the magazine charged him, but I’ll bet you a coke that it was easily in excess of $3,000 USD.

Here’s what I don’t understand. How can major publishers expect authors to pay for PR firms and their own advertisements?

I ask this question because I have been told that I would have to foot the bill for these things, even though most of the proceeds from those expenditures would not go to me. What’s more, I not unique here. Since becoming an author last year, I’ve probably met or spoken to 40 other authors who, by and large, have the same question.

Along these lines, I have one more question: Wouldn’t publishers be better off by doing fewer books?

Let’s do some simple math here. Let’s say that a major publisher puts out 20 books per month and can’t effectively market any of them. The publisher relies on a few authors to hit the jackpot. In essence, the “winners” finance those whose books lose money. This is not unlike a VC firm betting on ten companies, hoping that one hits it big.

Wouldn’t publishers make more money if they did half as many books and actually marketed them effectively? Think about the time and expenses involved with publishing a book, detailed pretty extensively here.

If you think that marketing doesn’t matter and that the cream always rises to the top, I encourage you to read the story about Maria Carey’s rise to fame, detailed in Greg Kot’s excellent book Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. Let’s just say that we only know who she is because key people in the music industry (including her ex-husband) spent millions of dollars telling us who she is.

Pricing

OK. Enough browbeating publishers for now. How is it that Amazon.com can charge more for the Kindle edition of The Next Wave of Technologies than the hard copy? I assume that my book is not alone here. There are something like 480,000 books on the Kindle as of this writing and I don’t have access to a database to write what is probably a very simple query.

While this anomaly may be temporary, doesn’t it violate every basic rule of economics? The marginal cost of making a digital copy available is effectively zero; physical books do not follow that law.

Feedback

I’d love to know what I’m missing here. Am I just being simplistic or dense?

philanimated

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19 Comments

  1. Fernando

    Seems to me that the answer to the “why do they make authors market their work?” has to be: Because they can. There are oodles of authors ready and willing to work within that framework just to get their work published. Very little risk for the publishers and the possibility for huge rewards if they hit on a “winner”. Once the winners find themselves, so-to-speak, the publishers can focus their marketing dollars on “sure things”. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

    The Kindle thing is not so clear. I have owned a Kindle since day-one and love it. However, this is the first time that I have heard of a title that costs more than the printed version. Typically most Kindle books max out around $10. Could this be a mistake?

    Anyway, as always, enjoyed the post.

    Reply
  2. Scott Berkun

    Fernando is right: because they can. I don’t think there is any mystery here. A few beers with any editor will tell you both a) how financially challenged most publishers currently are, b) how secretive most authors are about royalties and the processes involved c) how much general ignorance is of the opportunities for self-publishing and self marketing. Most authors feel very happy to get a contract *at all* and have little leverage or bargaining power.

    There is still a stigma around self-publishing but that is changing. The web by itself has changed that (e.g. all blogs are effectively self-publishing). But this is one bit of leverage all would-be authors have – it’s easier than ever to go their own way.

    On the second question – marketing is real mystery. Even marketers rarely admit how unpredictable and unreliable marketing $$$$ are. That’s not to say marketing is worthless – far from it. It’s important. But it’s ability to drive sales is influenced by many factors that are very hard to control.

    I think if you pinned a publishing exec down, they’d admit they have a very hard time predicting which books will do well and which won’t, or even what factors are most critical marketing-wise. Publishing at scale is in part a brute force tactic for compensating for these fears, I think. It’s the AK-47 theory of product planning: if you don’t have good aim, might as well fire a lot of bullets.

    But generally, and this is true for all industries, there is a surplus of stupidity. Lots of things happen for dumb reasons, reasons the people who are doing it don’t necessarily entirely understand (‘we’ve always done this’ , “it’s our policy’, ‘that’s not our decision’) or feel empowered to change on their own. There tends to be more of this in industries in decline, or are led by people with models of thinking decades old.

    My publisher, O’Reilly Media, has certainly managed the changing technologies much better than the field has. They even run a conference on the future of the publishing industry, and it’s interesting to ask why no other publisher is investing in their own future in the same way that O’Reilly seems to be.

    Reply
  3. philsimon

    Thanks for the comments, Scott and Fernando.

    I’ll be posting in the future about the differences between self-publishing and “traditional” publishing, but I agree with both of you guys.

    I personally think that many traditional publishers reinforce the self-publishing stigma for reasons of self-preservation.

    I am very impressed with what O’Reilly seems to be doing and only wish that my own two publishers would be a bit more progressive.

    Authors with established bases won’t need the imprimatur of big firms as much as they historically have.

    Reply
  4. kalen

    I don’t *make* my authors do anything but I promise you, the most successful books on our list are the ones where the author works in partnership with me to promote their work. The days of turning in your manuscript and then moving on to other things are over. And I’ve never understood why an author *wouldn’t* want to take an active role in the marketing of their book. It’s your baby, not mine. I’ll do the best I can with it, but at the end of the day, I’m not the one who wrote it. I’ve got 45 books a year I’m working with. You’ve got one. (Or two or five or ten.)

    Reply
  5. philsimon

    Kalen – Thanks for the comment.

    I can tell you that I’m a hardworking guy. You know this. Still, there are limits to what individuals can do, even those with huge mouths like yours truly.

    I just don’t understand why publishers don’t do more.

    Reply
  6. kalen

    You and Scott are two of the hardest working authors in the publishing business, without a doubt.

    Publishing is in a mess right now–not only are we struggling with the current economic situation and trying to keep things afloat (or heaven forbid, thrive) with the legacy technologies, but we’re all scrambling to enter the Brave New World of eBook publishing. My company had significant layoffs last year and two weeks furlough. Our division (3 of us working on 45 books) was lucky to escape layoffs or shuttering.

    What I’m seeing is a chicken-and-egg thing–we’re putting more books out there in the hopes of stemming the bleeding, but it becomes challenging to give each book their due. There’s no easy answer but I know that when I am Supreme Ruler of the Universe, I will approach it a bit differently. I think it would be smart to trim one’s list to the books you’re truly committed to, dig in, and sell the hell out of them. I will also be getting rid of the Designated Hitter.

    Reply
  7. Kathy Sierra

    Your Mariah Carey example (i.e. it’s not always the “cream” that rises to the top) may apply for much of fiction, but I don’t think it applies well to most non-fiction, especially in the tech and/or how-to genres.

    In the non-fiction world, I believe there are two big problems in publishing:

    1) way overestimating the importance of marketing

    2) way underestimating the ability to greatly influence a book’s chance for success (as the book is being designed and written, not *after* it’s out)

    The system is badly broken in non-fiction especially, where the assumption for authors is something like this: “There’s no guarantee you’ll have a bestseller or even earn out your advance, so don’t do it for the money… do it for your reputation.” This leads to a book that is almost guaranteed to NOT do well. In a venn diagram of TOC-that-makes-the-author-look-good and a TOC-that-helps-the-reader-get-good, the overlap is often tiny.

    For far too long, we’ve been defining “cream” — or “quality” or “perceived value” — as an attribute of the book/work itself. For me, “cream” does not live in the book. It lives in the reader and more specifically, what the reader DOES as a result of the book.

    We tell our authors: quit trying to make a better book. Make a better *reader* of your book.

    When that happens, the marketing, self-promotion, etc. becomes mostly unimportant. With the exception of markets where readers for that topic simply don’t have any useful way to communicate and/or make recommendations to one another, most books will do just fine with an initial seeding of people who are directly in the target audience sweet spot.

    An “influential” saying, “This book is great” is worth far, far, far LESS than a person in the target audience who says, “OMG — look at this great thing I did! Oh, and I learned it from this book…”

    The best books are not those where readers are impressed with the book or the authors. The best books? Those where the reader finishes it a little more impressed with… himself.

    Cheers 🙂 Thanks for bringing up this topic!

    Reply
  8. Jill Dyche

    I like to think that the books I’ve written and those that I’ve contributed to are all gripping reads chock-full of from-the-trenches tips and innovative ideas. But the truth is that some of these books are better than others. And, uncanny as it is, the better the book, the better it’s sold.

    I know an author who wrote a very well-titled book that was geared “for the masses” and sold very well. After a panel appearance together at a conference recently, he turned to me and asked if he could have my editor’s e-mail address. Seems his book had done well, but “not *that* well,” and he wanted his next to do better. With another publisher.

    Insisting on the “write a good book and it will sell itself” philosophy would brand me as an ingenue (and I’m anything but). Surely an author being charismatic and photogenic and a erudite speaker doesn’t hurt either. In which case, Phil, congratulations, you’ve got a bestseller on your hands!

    Jill Dyche

    Reply
  9. philsimon

    It’s a sad state of affairs when any industry decides to throw a bunch of stuff against the wall to see what will stick, especially when (warning: potential rant coming) we have so much data to at least hazard a guess.

    I mean, come on! This isn’t the 1920s. While there may be as much (or more) art to predicting book sales than science, you can’t tell me that the status quo makes any business sense.

    Reply
    • Drew

      As a book designer of non-fiction genre titles, I have some level of “insider knowledge” about this topic – mainly from the publisher’s side. Now, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some very skillful publishers in my time and it would seem that no matter what the data suggests, no-one can predict the sales volume of an untested product. Period. Sure, some authors/topics are MORE LIKELY to sell better than others, but that’s as good as it gets. Honestly. Publishers are often surprised (delightedly) when an also-ran title in their front list actually makes it onto the bestseller list.
      The reason for this is: Rule 1. The public are fickle.
      The way I see it, publishing is an activity that sits uncomfortably between the manufacturing/distribution industry and the creative industry. These two industries have very different business models: one model’s success comes from calculated percentages and surety, and the other model’s success comes from innovation and risk. A good publisher is always looking for ways to make these two models work in concert.
      To continue innovation, publishers have to keep on trying new angles, new ideas and new markets. In fact, imagine a world where publishers only published Sure Things? It doesn’t bear thinking about! Sadly, this trial and error often can look rather like a scatter gun approach, but take it from me, it is very measured albeit with a degree of unknown risk thrown in.
      And, as commented elsewhere, O’Reilly is a publisher who seems to be tackling the problem of bringing together these two disparate business models in ways that overcome the fickleness of the reading public. More publishers need to take note!
      ‘Communities’ are the key here. Get your innovative, well manufactured and distributed product in front of the right people, and they will do the “selling” for you. And indeed, authors themselves, with their connection to the topic and therefore their connection with the topic’s ‘community’, are well-placed to do just that.

      Reply
  10. kathy Sierra

    @phil – to your previous “see what will stick” comment, I could not agree more. And it confuses the hell out of me. This is not gambling and it’s not rocket surgery. Of course there will always be topics that a publisher gets out in front on and is taking a chance that the topic itself will emerge (like, a new programming language that no matter HOW amazing the book is, nobody actually wants to write code in it), but those are still the exceptions.

    I would rather then published fewer books but rather than spending the extra effort and money on marketing, spend them on developing the book and potentially the community / eco-system around the topic itself.

    Reply
  11. Jim Harris

    Interesting debate you’ve started Phil,

    First of all, I have to establish my complete lack of authority on this subject — I have never published a book, nor have I even written a book that I attempted to get published. I am one of the amateur writers (more specifically, a lowly blogger) that Andrew Keen believes is “destroying our economy, our culture, and our values” with my user-generated content.

    However, I am a avid reader of books and own enough of them that I could probably start a rather diverse bookstore since I own so many books on so many subjects.

    I agree with Kathy Sierra’s comment that “the best books are not those where readers are impressed with the book or the authors. The best books? Those where the reader finishes it a little more impressed with…himself.”

    As Seth Godin explained at last year’s O’Reilly TOC Conference:

    – Books are souvenirs
    – Permission is the only asset
    – Conversations are marketing
    – Your goal is words for reader, NOT readers for words
    – It’s NOT about selling books
    – You’re in the IDEA business

    So at the risk of pissing off you and all other authors, here’s my advice:

    Stop whining about what your publisher is or isn’t doing for you, and focus on what you are or aren’t doing for your readers. Complaining authors sound like they are more concerned with themselves than they are with their readers, and big surprise — those authors usually don’t have many readers.

    Best Regards,

    Jim
    .-= Jim Harris´s last blog ..Data, data everywhere, but where is data quality? =-.

    Reply
  12. David Loshin

    I have a few comments, one of which I emailed directly to Phil, but after having published 5 books and wrapping up my 6th, I can at least feel comfortable sharing my opinions on the whol ething. Your mileage may vary, of course. By the way, I have had numerous conversations with numerous editors over the past 16 years, and a lot of these ideas are shared by them as well.

    1) Publishing is a lot like venture capital. The publisher invests some money in seeding the development of many pieces of intellectual property. The publisher uses their own machinery to productize that IP and turn it into somethign that is ready for marketing. the publisher exploits their channels for distributing the product to the sales outlets. They hope that of the many that they invest in, most will break even and a few will be break-out hits, in which case they can justify to their management that they can continue to do it again.

    2) As kalen says, the publisher has an entire catalog of books that they care about, while the author only has one (or a few more in a handful of cases). So they do the best they can in allocating some marketing resources, and they think they are doing a good job. The author, sees their book in the lower left hand corner of some ad in some esoteric magazine and think that very little is being done to market the book. The truth is somewhere in between.

    3)

    Reply
  13. David Loshin

    I have a few comments, one of which I emailed directly to Phil, but after having published 5 books and wrapping up my 6th, I can at least feel comfortable sharing my opinions on the whole thing. By the way, I have had numerous conversations with numerous editors over the past 16 years, and a lot of these ideas are shared by them as well.

    1) Publishing is a lot like venture capital. The publisher invests some money in seeding the development of many pieces of intellectual property. The publisher uses their own machinery to productize that IP and turn it into somethign that is ready for marketing. the publisher exploits their channels for distributing the product to the sales outlets. They hope that of the many that they invest in, most will break even and a few will be break-out hits, in which case they can justify to their management that they can continue to do it again.

    2) As kalen says, the publisher has an entire catalog of books that they care about, while the author only has one (or a few more in a handful of cases). So they do the best they can in allocating some marketing resources, and they think they are doing a good job. The author, sees their book in the lower left hand corner of some ad in some esoteric magazine and think that very little is being done to market the book. The truth is somewhere in between.

    3) That being said, what is the author’s motivation to write a book? The first book that I wrote was basically a vanity product – my own vanity. I was approached by an acquisitions editior who had read one of my journal articles and asked if I wanted to write a book. I was very flattered and agreed to do it. It was a lot of work and I thought it was a good piece of work. It did not sell that many copies, but it did get a lukewarm review in an industry journal (no such thing as bad publicity!). It was not until I decided to work on my won that it dawned on me that a published book is a really effective business card – big, heavy, and sits on people’s desks.

    4) And *that* being said, recognize that very few people publishing technical books should expect to make a lot of money from royalties. You have to sell *lots* of books to make a reasonable amount of money, so if you are in it for the money, there are much better things you could be doing with your time.

    5) And with all of *that* being said, there is no one better to market and sell a book than the author, who knows everything that is in the book, why it is valuable, who should be reading it, and why. The author is more likely to sell a copy o fthe book by placing it in the hands of a qualified prospect than thousands of dollars spent on advertising.

    6) With the overwhelming volume of content that is being generated every day, I have to agree with Jill – there will be a flight to value, and if you write high quality stuff people will buy it.

    In summary, my experience is to not have high expectations about what the publisher will do in terms of marketing any one specific work, and the author is always going to be the best marketer. In turn, authors that do a lot of work to market their books will draw attention from the publisher because they *will* invest more in marketing a product that does well to make it do better and try to turn it into a super hit. And there are a handful of ways to make money from writing a book that go beyond royalty payments, but that would be the topic for another time.

    Of course, your mileage may vary.

    Reply
  14. Stray__Cat

    I’m not a book author, even if, sometimes, I think I should write one on how badly the average business is run, but this is another topic …

    I do blog like many others and the few topics which got a large diffusion, brought incoming visitors etc. were those that went viral. That is, more than an ad, more than being mentioned or endorsed, what really works is people willing to pass on the news.

    I, myself, want to pass on when I learn something important, unexpected or overly useful.
    This falls back on Kathy Sierra point; write to make your reader better at and this will be known.

    Classical marketing and promotion is like a fuse. Even the best fuse will do little if there’s no explosive in place.
    .-= Stray__Cat´s last blog ..Why you should get an MBA =-.

    Reply
  15. philsimon

    Excellent comments, all.

    @Jim – I really hope that I didn’t come across as whining. I was just legitimately curious at how a publisher can expect to successfully make money when it takes such as grapeshot approach.

    @David – The more that I learn about this, the more that I agree with you about the VC analogy. I surprised myself by including that in the original post.

    Reply
  16. Robert Brands

    Hi Phil, amazing what Google can do to find all related comments on my book….

    I placed the ad in BW and you were not far off with estimates…Agree wish publishers would do more, but ultimately I do think the Author will benefit from the success, so I did not mind investing in the ad.

    What amazes me is how difficult it is to get visibility:
    The book addresses a big need..to Innovate, if you don’t you perish, based on 25 years in the innovation space and specifically last 10 delivering “at least one new product per year”, creating and building the instant foam dispensing market, like instant foaming hand soap. Robert’s Rules is all about the proven 10 imperatives to Create and Sustain New in business. (www.robertsrulesofinnovation.com )

    Secondly what has surprised me is the lack of interest from Book stores, I personally visited 3 major Barnes and Nobles to organize a local Book launch event and even with me guaranteeing 50-100 books sold, none were interested…how are they going to survive….

    Robert Brands

    Reply
  17. Kathy Sierra

    Wow — what a fun discussion. And Jim, yes, what you said.

    @David — while I think your points are an accurate picture of what usually happens, I *also* think they’re an accurate description of the problem.

    The books-as-big-business-cards and don’t-expect-to-make-money are a big part of why the tech book business is so broken, and why so many publishers are still largely crossing their fingers hoping for a hit to cover the expenses of the failures and so-so books.

    The books we wrote and the books in the series my husband and I created have over a million copies in print and yet — and yet — the first two publishers we brought it to turned it down. Even when Tim O’Reilly decided to give it a chance, only two or three people in the company thought it was worth it. Borders and Barnes and Noble were both skeptical and negative about the chances, then had to scramble to stock the first one but only AFTER they (to their astonishment) saw it on Amazon’s bestseller list.

    We used science, not art, to figure out how to make books that would sell, and our books are now the most profitable series for O’Reilly. But it required a 180 on the books-as-business-card thinking. In fact, the only business card I should be thinking of when creating a non-fiction book is the reader’s. If I can make HIM better at something, I’m onto a sustainable path that works for *everyone* — author, publisher, and most importantly–the reader. This is as close to a guaranteed bestseller formula as anyone has come up with.

    My husband and I are were always convinced that *reader* awesome trumps *book or author* awesome, but now we have a million data points to back that up.

    Again, bestsellerness (or even really good sellerness) must be baked in! If a publisher wants better sales, they should invest less in marketing and more in R&D. Not process or format or online distribution R&D… but research in how to create books that will enchant, engage, and ultimately… give readers new superpowers.

    We should be reverse-engineering the things (and not just books) that already do this and working out how to apply those attributes to our own books.

    It’s not the *only* way to make a bestseller, of course — plenty of books come out of nowhere and surprise everyone with their popularity. But the reader-awesome approach is the only one we know of that can dramatically improve the odds for virtually any book where there *is* an existing potential market (and in some cases, grow and even help create a market… for example, some people will make choices about which of several competing technologies to learn based solely on the quality/usability of the existing resources.)

    Unfortunately, too many authors mistake high-quality *content* for high-quality *user result*, and assume that writing an awesome/fantastic/wonderful book is the best they can possibly do. But our response continues to be, “awesome is not an attribute of a bestselling *book*… it’s an attribute of a bestselling book’s *readers*.”

    An exercise we give our new authors is to have them write their dream Amazon review. Then we analyze it. Points are deducted each time the reviewer raves about the author. Points are deducted for anything about how great the book is. Points are *awarded* for first-person language where the reader talks about himself, as in “I was finally able to understand [whatever]” or “I was able to get a server running in less than 20 minutes”, etc.

    And THAT is the strongest advice I could possibly give an author at the beginning of a book project: write the book that will generate first-person language from the reader. Because way too many things that make the *author* look good are also *bad* for the reader (too esoteric, advanced, cya edge-cases, too concise, show-off examples, etc.). Put every topic and sub-topic on trial for its life, and ask, “How does this help the reader kick ass?”
    [sorry for hijacking the thread with my book-length comments, Phil. I could not resist.]

    Reply
  18. Perry

    Hi.
    An idea – how about publishers releasing a new publication first as an ebook – and if there is sufficient interest, then going to the time and expense of  published paper products.  Kind of like flying a kite to test the wind…  Would dramatically cut costs, I think. 
    Or maybe not making the entire book available as an ebook, but making select chapters available for preview by the public would help.
    Computer, radio, textile etc. manufacturers quickly realized that as the technology reduced costs, profits could only be maintained by volume selling at lower prices.  Seems to be a lesson in this for book and music publishers.

    Reply

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