How Publishers Can Build on Self-Publishing’s Victories

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

publishers, self-publishing, authors, amazon, marketingIn recent articles, I have pointed with optimism to the green-shoots of recovery for the book industry after a bruising and challenging seven years.

Print sales are on the way up, or at least finally not falling, depending on whom you speak to. Consumer ebook sales are dropping, but likely to be stabilizing against their huge initial growth, and non-consumer ebook sales are on the rise. The threat of the super-markets are no longer as strong as they look increasingly elsewhere. We have finally accepted digitization, and it is now a core part of most publishers’ businesses. The often acrimonious divide between self- and traditional publishing has quietened, as they sit, with caution, alongside each other. And with Amazon—though still challenging—we understand the pros and cons and are learning to work with or around them.

It would be wrong, however, to think that all is now rosy. There are still fundamental issues with the traditional publishing business model; we’re not going to see a surge of new bookshops filling high-streets any time soon, and the all-powerful customer will continue to demand more for less, or preferably for free. We are long past any return to the past. But we do now have a brief time to exhale while moving toward the future.

Publishers have long had a reputation for chasing horses that have already bolted. See in recent times the flood of wizards and Scandinavian murders, through to erotic fiction and coloring books. And there is a current danger that publishers may start congratulating themselves on repeating what has proven successful elsewhere.

Social media has been a phenomenon in recent years, so now most publishers have an active presence on all the major platforms. Moreover, events have boosted other creative industries, so now most publishers do events. The key word here is “do,” which implies repetition. There are many other examples, but perhaps the most useful one is from self-publishing.

Many self-published authors have taught traditional publishers an ego-puncturing lesson over the last few years. From being close to the customer, building fanbases, tireless and innovation promotion, through to metadata, pricing and even just business-sense, some self-published authors have led the way and made millions in the process. At times they have made the traditional sector appear what we are—an industry dreamed up by English graduates—and we should be grateful for the embarrassment

That said, one of the most dangerous things traditional publishers could now do is simply replicate what the self-published authors did successfully, while adding nothing else. While this would generate an ego-reinflating uplift, it would only be temporary. Ultimately, without book publishers actively showing the value that they can add, there is no need for them to exist.

Keeping with the self-publishing example, we should replicate from the relevant lessons we have been taught—but only as the starting point. From that base, we should then demonstrate to authors, and sub-consciously to customers, the unique values that traditional publishers offer: from production expertise, to global licensing, to bookshop relationships, to sales and distribution networks and hopefully much more.

Traditional publishers are owners of vast conceptual assets and are in a very exciting position: we hold the licenses to massive amounts of fantastic creative work produced for us. We need to demonstrate that we can match what others are doing successfully and then add value to the products, sales and marketing that is unique to us.

The first step is asking the question that maybe some publishers fear asking: what do they uniquely offer? And once they have an answer, as hopefully they do, they should be loud and proud about it. Book publishers have a big opportunity, and rather than shying away from it, we should embrace the challenge of proving ourselves.

In summary, it is great that we have opened our eyes to what is proving successful elsewhere. But repetition is the starting point rather than the end result. It is the clearly defined and unique value that we as traditional publishers add that will define the future of our industry for many generations to come.

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4 thoughts on “How Publishers Can Build on Self-Publishing’s Victories

  1. Michael W. Perry

    It’s good to see an upbeat article in an industry dominated by doom and gloom. Independent authors—I’m one—are as much an opportunity as a threat. The willingness of some to innovate and take risks could suggest to wiser publishers what the future is likely to be.

    I’m told that one traditional publisher, impressed by the enormous success of a novel that was submitted unsolicited and without an agent, adopted a policy of taking all submissions seriously. Traditional publishers might want to adopt a similar policy with self-published books. They should have staff tasked with following genre-fan websites for books that are creating a buzz and with reading independent authors, looking for that something special.

    Keep in mind that most self-publishing authors have mixed feelings about what they’re doing. On one hand, they like the independence that gives them to choose their own content, titles and book covers, along with those greater (as a percentage) royalties. On the other hand, wearing all the publishing hats can grow tiresome for authors who like some aspects of publishing but not others. Some might be happy to hear an offer from a publisher who’d let them ‘just write’ and forget the other hassles, particularly if that publisher would show a willingness to listen to an author’s wishes for a cover and book title.

    J. R. R. Tolkien’s published letters offer an illustration of the latter gone wrong. In one, he laments the utter stupidity of an American publisher who’s gone with a cover for one of the three volumes in The Lord of the Rings that shows a fruit tree. What’s that got to do with the plot of that book?, Tolkien complains. He’s right and publishers who make those mistakes today will find they can’t attract successful independent authors.

    Indeed, “the times they are a changin,” as Bob Dylan sang. More power, and hence more right to make decisions, is coming to authors. Publishers who realize that will do well. Publishers who don’t, won’t.

    Here’s Dylan singing what should become should be the theme song for publishers.

    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Michael for the comment and the link to a Dylan song! You are right about publishers not being able to keep authors at arm’s length any more – the number of large publishers building royalties tracking systems for their authors is further evidence of this. Publishers now have to prove what they offer to the author, which is a good thing for all.

  2. Glenn McCreedy

    The most important force driving the need for traditional publishers to build on, and move beyond, the successes of self-publishing’s victories is indicated here: “There are still fundamental issues with the traditional publishing business model….the all-powerful customer will continue to demand more for less, or preferably for free.”

    Look to the transformation of digital music and video that has occurred and one can see that driving force reflected in what’s happening in book publishing. Indie authors have tuned into and exploited “Free” for years. But even that strategy’s results have diminished with the vast numbers of digital books and competition for readers’ attention. Consumers want to discover new authors they want to read and many are not willing to shell out the money to do that. Discovery sites and social media only partially fulfill that need. The impact of “Free” will only grow. All parties in publishing need to acknowledge this trend and develop new strategies to give consumers what they want and still turn a profit.

    1. Tom ChalmersTom Chalmers Post author

      Thanks Glenn and the comparison with the music industry is an interesting one – thought there are some differences we can learn from how they turned the sector around and back to growth. Demand is there, as is the demand for free, so I agree we need to accept it and find the best way to represent value to the customer that they are prepared to pay for.



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