Ill-informed thoughts about the publishing business

Robert Scoble’s inspired idea to create a book on Corporate Blogging in a largely transparent way prompted me to think about the publishing business. Robert is planning to auction the book rights on eBay which seems a creative way to shake up the conventional way of doing things.

My own very limited experience of the publishing business, coupled with a few anecdotes from published friends, do not quality me as any kind of expert. So please view the following half-baked idea in that light and feel free to point out the glaring errors and misrepresentations.

The impression I have is that many publishers operate in a formulaic way. They adopt books that fit a specific category and market them generically. Books are titled to fit neatly into the buying categories of libraries, because that more-or-less ensures a certain minimum number of orders of an initial hardback edition. An edition priced (high) to break even fairly soon. Not much incentive to try to popularise a book with a fresh approach.

I get the impression that a lot of publishers are good at getting books typeset and printed. In days of yore, this was perhaps a more complex task, but not any more. Where they’re not so great is at innovative marketing of books. A formula is followed: take few risks, knock out an expensive hardback. Expect poor sales but aim to break even on even meagre turnover. In the unlikely event it takes off, knock out a cheaper paperback and hope for a jackpot.

Perhaps this stereotype is a bit harsh, and probably applies more to authors in the long tail than to blockbuster writers.

But I don’t see a ton of innovative marketing from publishers. So now that technology makes the design and printing more accessible, it’s fair to question: what value does a publisher add?

The short answer is, a publisher will give you an advance to write the book in the first place. The fact (according to Robert) that most authors don’t exceed their advance suggests that publishers are not very good at exceeding their clients expectations!

I don’t think these difficulties will apply to Robert’s book, and I don’t suppose he needs to make his task any more complicated. Still, it would be fun if he could find time to try something like this, instead of auctioning to a publisher…

Sell (or I suppose auction) the rights in small percentages, so that bloggers themselves can afford to participate. After all, as evangelists bloggers might have a higher degree of faith in the title’s success and/or more incentive to support it than your average conventional publisher. So you might get a bigger advance and enlist an army of promoters to boot. And there’s some pretty good PR talent lurking out in the blogosphere.

Given that Robert is giving his share of the royalties to charity, you could also allow investors to take a stake on behalf of the same cause if they like. I’d be tempted to take that option. Then I’d could feel really atruistic about hyping the resulting book.

I suppose another twist would be to reserve a percentage of the stakes to dole out to those who collaborate most helpfully in the creation of the book, again with the option of donating to charity.

Too complicated? Too simplistic? Probably. But it would be fun if it worked.

5 thoughts on “Ill-informed thoughts about the publishing business

  1. Shannon J Hager

    if all a publisher did was publish the book, Scoble would be much better off publishing himself, perhaps via something like Caf

  2. shel israel

    In thinking through this idea, Robert and I realized thatthe public auction concept has flaws, particularly withpublishers who keep “systems in place.” We also have learned that many want to keep terms of an agreement so close to their vests that the contract could be a tattoo. However, Robert and I maintain that the publishing model is one that is in need of modernization or it is doomed. The publisher who is right for us, will see the benefits of what we are doing and we already have one publisher who has expressed interest and will play by slighly adjusted rules. The irony is that we may have to auction our book off on our own site. EBay has announced it will no longer allow the auctioning off of a blogger’s services. Their position is they will only auction off tangible goods. In that case we may conduct the auction on our own site.

  3. Tom Asacker

    Shannon. With all due respect, publishers do very little marketing. The one significant thing that LARGE publishers do, however – which is also THE problem with the structure of the industry – is load the distribution network and retail shelves with books.

    As an author who has been both published and self-published, I can assure you that unless a large publisher is committed to getting your book prime shelf space (which the retail outlet will only do if they expect a return on that shelf space), the onus is on the author to make the generate the sales.

    Books remain largely an impulse buy at the retail level. I know it feels like we all purchase through based on word-of-mouse, but that’s simply not the case.

    Shel. If you are interested in understanding the ins and outs of one screwed up industry (e.g. author’s make about $1.50 on a product that retails for $20.00 and costs about $1 to produce), please let me know. I’d love to see your book become a raving success.



  4. Aleah Sato

    This post is very near and dear to me as it is something I’m currently deliberating. My friend and photographer, Elizabeth Siegfried ( and I have collaborated on a book of poems and photographs, exploring the loss of our human connection with nature.

    Okay, you can all stop chuckling, as I realize the snowball’s chance in hell I have of making money.

    Nonetheless, we have found an interested publisher who is willing to take on a fine art book (and who has done many fine books to date). They will do the marketing, with limited capabilities I understand.

    So here is why we are considering:

    1) It sucks ass to distribute your own book. Really. Especially if you want to hit international markets, which we do.

    2) There is still more respect given to a book published via a traditional publisher than, say, an e-publisher. Call it haughtiness our stuck-thinking, but it is still true (although slowly changing).

    In any event, it is tough, no matter what route you take.


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