Saturday, July 24, 2010

How Indie Ebooks will Transform the Future of Book Publishing

On July 9 in New York I gave a presentation to a group of students participating in NYU's Summer Publishing Institute.

The topic was how indie ebooks will transform the future of publishing.

The presentation is embedded at the bottom of this page for your Powerpointing pleasure.

I started the presentation by quoting lyrics from Rosetta Stoned, possibly one of the best Tool songs ever written. The song is about an ordinary guy who's abducted by space aliens. The aliens tell him:

"You are the Chosen One,
the One who will deliver the message.
A message of hope for those who choose to hear it
and a warning for those who do not."

The lyric basically summed up my presentation to these hundred or so students, all recent grads from around the country who hope to land careers in publishing.

I told them I believe the opportunities for authors and publishers to reach readers are greater today than they've ever been in history. The challenge these future captains of the publishing industry face, I said, is to help publishers take advantage of the change, rather than become victimized by it.

As I explained, some publishers are taking a bunker mentality to this change. They're handing their business decisions over to risk-averse bean counters, and adopting policies and practices detrimental to their authors (fewer acquisitions, fewer risks on unknown or unproven authors, less marketing support) and readers (DRM, artificial ebook scarcity, high prices). Some of these practices that are causing them to act less like publishers, which then causes authors to ask the simple question, "why do I need a publisher?"

I talked about how publishers for the last century or so controlled the means of book production and book distribution. They determined what readers read. In the new world order, now starting to unfold with ebooks, their oligapolistic grip is waning.

The future belongs to the indie author, who can now gain access to the same digital shelves as their traditionally published brethren. With ebooks (and with a little help from Smashwords), access to the digital shelves of major ebook retailers is now becoming fully democratized.

Publishers have a bright future too, if they play their cards right. To survive and thrive in this new world order, they need to serve their authors better than their authors can serve themselves.

Speaking of Bunkers...
Next month, I'm sitting on a panel for the GigaOm Bunker conference in San Francisco, speaking to a related topic, "Disintermediation in Publishing." Should be interesting. I know there's a knee-jerk tendency among some authors to believe that with this huge trend of democratization-of-everything, and the shift in power to indie authors, that authors are best served by cutting out all the traditional middlemen (agents, editors, publishers, distributors, bookstores, etc). Not so, IMHO.

If the middleman adds value to your publishing exploits, they're a catalyst and a partner, not a parasite. Retailers, for example, earn every penny of their margin by connecting book buyers to your books. I'm amazed this epiphany isn't universal. Seems like every week I see some clueless person on a message board comment, "don't sell through retailers, just sell the book on your own web site and keep all the margin for yourself". That short-sighted strategy is about as smart as opening a taco stand on a deserted island. Distributors, which connect your books to bookstores, add value as well (I'm biased, since Smashwords is an ebook distributor).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Smashwords Publishes 15,000th Indie Ebook

Smashwords announced an important milestone today. Late Sunday evening, an indie author published the 15,000th title at Smashwords.

We've experienced tremendous growth in the last two years, thanks to the trust and confidence placed in us by nearly 7,000 indie authors and publishers around the world.

A lot has changed in the last two years. Indie authors are starting to earn the respect they deserve. We still have a long way to go, however.

It helps that more and more indie authors are stepping forward to share their success, and in the process they catch the attention of the industry and spark the imagination of fellow indie authors who can now build upon the success of these early breakout hits. Many of you have been inspired by the success of J.A. Konrath, who diligently shares his indie publishing experiences at his blog, The Newbie's Guide to Publishing.

Today, I have another indie author star to present to you: Smashwords author Brian S. Pratt. In the single month of June, Mr. Pratt earned over $4,000 for himself at just one Smashwords retailer, Barnes & Noble. His books have occupied the top 100 Sci-Fi & Fantasy titles at B&N for several months.

Now before your eyes blur with visions of dancing cherry plums, remember Pratt's experience is atypical for most authors, whether indie-published or traditionally published. However, as I view the sales reports coming in from our retail partners, it's encouraging to see that some of you are starting to earn some decent income. We'll report a new batch of retail sales reports to Smashwords authors the last couple days of this month, concurrent with our Q2 royalty payments. Some of you will be pleased, and others disappointed.

These financial successes aside, it's important to realize that the promise of monetary gain is the wrong reason to write a book. Many of our indie authors don't sell more than a couple copies. Luckily for book lovers everywhere, most writers write for reasons different than publisher's publish.

The other week, I was speaking with someone who has a retired friend who self-published the family's most cherished kitchen recipes, and their intended audience was not the world at large - it was their children, grandchildren, and their family's future generations. Is this book, which may only ever be read by immediate family members, any less valuable to the world because it lacks a business plan? I think not.

What excites me most about this indie author revolution is the unlimited, unexpected possibility it creates as we work at Smashwords to unleash the creative talents of indie authors.

Traditional publishers have always been challenged to predict which books will become commercial successes. They acquire books they think they can sell. In my view, the Achilles heel of traditional publishers is their myopic fixation on commercial potential. Sure, they have businesses to run, and Manhattan sky rise rents to pay. And yes, they employ brilliant and generous people who are passionate about books. Yet because they're running businesses limited by decades-old business models and cost structures, they're not able to take risks on every author. Nor do they want to.

I created Smashwords so I could take a risk on every author, including the author who writes for an audience of one. Because our platform is self-serve and extremely automated, we enjoy a low cost structure that enables this risk-taking, and also allows us to return up to 85% of all net sales back to the author or publisher.

Critics of self-publishing point to the incredible amount of drek that gets published when you let authors decide what to publish. My response: So what? I blogged about this last year when I addressed the Smashwords Community Filter.

Last month on a publishing mailing list I follow, a participant captured the prevalent concern about the volume of self-published material, and what it means to the future of publishing:

"...And we will be inundated in very cheap bad books. By bad I mean, unedited or poorly edited, badly positioned and largely unmarketed titles. By inundated I mean that it will be very difficult to find the good books in all of the content made available (a problem that we already suffer from but looks to be multiplying). And a very real difficulty in finding and creating an audience for the few good books that will be made available."

Hugh McGuire of BookOven and Bite Size Edits responded with a brilliant observation, one that fits perfectly with my vision of Smashwords and the future of indie authorship:

All this defines pretty well the challenges, well-met, in the world of the web - where anyone can publish what they want in a blog, the vast majority of it is uninteresting to the vast majoriiy of readers (which is why most blogs have readerships of 1-2 people) ... Blogs are, by the numbers, a vast sea of junk.

And yet.

And yet - as a reader, I constantly find wonderful stuff to read on blogs. I read many of your blogs, I read NYTimes blogs, I read BoingBoing - which usually points me to other blogs; I follow Twitter links to more blogs I have not heard of - almost exclusively now I find good blog posts to read through Twitter.

But, still, given the overwhelming preponderance of junk, how is it that I only read wonderful stuff on the web?

The answer is in the link. The link creates a currency for readers and writers to surface wonderful stuff. In the earlier days of blogging, links were an essential part of the ethic: we read each other, we pointed to the stuff we liked; people pointed back. Crucially, you could "see" when someone pointed to you (referrers, technorati, google alerts). And crucially, Google built a kind of reputation exchange, based on the link: the more links you got, the more "important" you were to Google's search; the more important you were to Google's search, the more heavily-weighted your links were in Google's algorithms - conferring your importance to others.

This created an ecosystem of readers and writers, that grew to the point that now blogs are a fact of life - and come in all flavours and shapes, from Samuel Pepys' diary, to the Tools of Change Blog, to Paul Graham, to cat-pictures and everything in between.

Fundamentally, though, the stuff in blogs - and in "books" - is not anything in particular. Blogs - like books - are just a means to transfer words from someone's fingers tips into someone else's eyeballs. Blogs made it easy for anyone to do that. Enter an era of more terrible and irrelevant writing than the world has ever seen. Enter, also, an era of more wonderful and important writing than the world has ever seen.

The good stuff gets found. If there is one thing the web is brilliant at, it's getting millions of people - billions? - to sift through junk to find what is valuable.

What do you think? What's your measure of success?

To read our full press release from this morning, access it here.

Image credit: Worldle