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).


Krista D. Ball said...

Really great presentation.

I believe that both self-publishing, small press, and large press are needed. I like the balance and different opportunities that all offer.

By having all options, readers can choose what they want and need. Likewise, authors can gain further control over different parts of their publishing careers.

Jaye Valentine said...

To survive and thrive in this new world order, they [publishers] need to serve their authors better than their authors can serve themselves.

That is one POWERFUL statement. Well done, sir. Well done.

bluefrog said...

Nice presentation. I don't know why publishers aren't getting it. I have Penguin to thank for introducing me to indie books - I was so angry that the ebook of a title I wanted didn't come out the same day as the hardback that I went and found other options. That was in April, and I've been reading almost exclusively indie books since. Reading the samples weeds out anything really bad, and of the books that have passed that test, the ratio of good to bad hasn't been any different than traditionally published stuff. And if I'm disappointed by a book that cost me $2.99, I take it a lot better than being disappointed by a book that cost me $25. I'm still spending my same book budget, and getting a lot more books. Publishers are biting the hand that feeds them, and they need to figure that out soon.

Krista D. Ball said...

Really good point. My book budget is getting a lot more bang for its buck.

There are obviously some big names that I still buy and would, even if they put out their version of the phone book (Jim Butcher, for example). However, the smaller guys are offering very competitive pricing, which means I can buy more and still not spend over my budget.

Let's see. 15 books a year on authors I don't know and might like. Or, 150 books a year on authors I don't know and might like.

It's an easy decision. I'm more likely to find authors I love in the 150 books a year option!!

DesGreene said...

Retail distributers who add value by not just hosting your ebook but provide better access to readers are the future of indie writers/publishers.

The ease of epublishing has sent a surge of content onto the web but this surge has not been accompanied by a similar marketing advance.

KLNappier said...

Kudos to Mark on his PowerPoint. In particular, Slide 23 hit a chord with me. For the past few years, I've been telling authors & friends that there's no reason for me to return to a traditional publisher unless one can demonstrate why I'd be better off there than remaining indie.

Kenneth C. Crowe said...

That was a great presentation Mark with significant suggestions for publishers. Most likely, someone in a garage is setting out to follow your advice for publishers becoming in the process the Epublisher of the future now.
Congratulations again,
Ken Crowe

Caffey said...

Hi Im Cathie, a reader and love the indie books Ive read here at Smashwoeds I love reading Regency and Victorian romances lately, theyve been so what my mood has been wanting to read. My mood changes but lately its been here Ive found the unique reads I would have otherwised missed So thank you authors and Smashwords Like someone else said, having that balance of reads from many different pubs as well as our favorites, Ive been having a great summer of reading and so glad to find it here

Bud Kelly said...

Mark, you are dead nuts on!

As a lifelong photographer who was heard to utter the following words in the mid-nineties:

"Digital will NEVER replace film!"

I can tell you that I am having a deja vu.

I cannot even enumerate the number of ways that digital books are superior to paper books. And they will get better and better and better.

I have been writing all of my life. For the past three decades I just continued writing for my own satisfaction because I was so turned off by the supercilious, rude, incompetent, venal people who are the editors and publishers that run the entire industry. I cannot and will not do business with that caliber of individual. Now, suddenly, my life is turned around. I have published two books as ebooks, and have half a dozen more in the hopper. I have enough collected material to keep me publishing for the next few years, and it's good writing. Now I get my shot at finding out how commercially valuable it is, without having to deal with the yahoos that decide what and how things are published, while at the same time not being able to write a decent sentence themselves.

Life is good, and getting better!


Bud Kelly in San Diego, CA

Bud Kelly said...

That Bud Kelly is a genius!

Bud Kelly, San Diego, CA