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February 1, 2010

The elephant in the room—publishers and e-books

Two years ago, Nate Anderson wrote this on ars technica:

The book business, though far older than the recorded music business, is still lucky enough to have time on its side: no e-book reader currently offers a better reading experience than paper.

That’s what makes Apple’s iPad announcement so important. Books will now face stiff competition from e-books as the e-book experience improves.

Elephant in the room // flickr: mobilestreetlife

Elephant in the room // flickr: mobilestreetlife

Meanwhile, the publishing industry (with the notable exception of O’Reilly Media) is desperately trying to avoid the inevitable. (For a slighty happier take, see BusinessWeek.)

Publishers are supposed to filter, edit, produce, distribute, and market content. pre-Internet, all of these things were difficult and required significant financial resources. Today, many are easy and all are cheap.

There’s only one other thing.


But the revenue split between publishers and authors does not—yet—reflect the division of labor. The business relationships are still built on the idea that authors can’t exist without publishers. In fact, it’s the reverse that’s true.

Only the big publishers can get your book into every bookstore in the country. However, I’ve got news for you: Unless your name is on an elite shortlist with the likes of Dan Brown, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, and J.K. Rowling, it probably doesn’t matter.

If you know your audience, you can reach them at least as well as a big publisher can. And you need to reach a lot fewer people to succeed as an independent. The general rule of thumb is a 10-to-1 ratio. You’ll make the same amount selling 10,000 books through a traditional publisher as 1,000 books on your own.

It’s not so difficult to hire freelancers (especially in this economy) to edit and produce your book, if that’s not your cup of tea. Distribution is doable—Amazon is easy, bookstores a little more challenging. This is where e-books will accelerate the change—the challenges of shelf space and returns simply disappear.

And even if you have a publisher, they will expect you to do most of the marketing.

So, what will successful publishers look like in 2020?

  • They will provide editorial and production support for writers who do not want to deal with technical issues.
  • They will support authors in marketing by helping them with blogging platforms and other social media efforts.
  • They will get a much smaller cut of revenues than they currently do.

Actually, that looks a lot like Lulu.