pressIf anyone can publish their own blog, their own CD,their own art portfolio, and their own film, why can’t everyone publish their own book?

Yes, I know there are so-called ‘vanity’ publishers who will print small runs of your book for an outrageous price. What I’m talking about is the analogue of the independent online music seller — a company that will catalogue and promote your book, and will print and send it out to buyers on demand, just-in-time, with no up front money from you, and with author royalties rising with volume sold, as economies of scale begin to kick in.

This process would then allow professional editors and volume publishers to browse independently produced books to find works that they could add value to, produce in significant volume profitably, and distribute through national book chains and major online distributors.

The manuscript would be available free in soft copy online. That poses no threat to author revenues. No one in their right mind would read a complete book online, or print one out on a laser printer. The reason why people need their books professionally printed and bound is simply for readibility. I’ve been sent complete book manuscripts by e-mail, and in every case if I’m inclined to read the whole thing after browsing the first few pages, I’ll buy the book rather than read my ‘free’ copy online.

The next stage in evolution would be the emergence of specialty publishers. There are some specialty publishers for writers of progressive non-fiction — Canada’s New Society Publishers, for example. But take a look at the most successful recent progressive works and you’ll find they all have different publishers: Conason’s book was published by Thomas Dunne, Tom Tomorrow’s by St. Martin’s, Alterman’s by Basic Books, Franken’s by EP Dutton, Krugman’s by Norton and Moore’s by Regan. Why isn’t there a single progressive book publisher that writers of such works would automatically turn to first? Then progressive organizations — like Salon.com — would have a preferred book publisher for their writers, and readers of such books would be able to preview that publisher’s works. This kind of specialization has touched every other business, so why not book publishing?

And this kind of innovation has transformed the independent, non-mass-circulation sector of every other entertainment and media industry except book publishing? Why? How has the agonizing (for both writers and publishers) cattle call book idea submission process stayed unchanged when the economics that required it no longer apply?  It’s not as if books still need to be typeset by hand — today small runs and even copy-by-copy customization are almost as cheap as mass production.

And today books, like music and other artistic creations, can be virally marketed and promoted by word of mouth (including blogs), using the Internet’s ubiquitous communication, reproduction and filtering tools. Rather than the publisher having to ‘create’ a market for a book, they can simply recognize, from the grassroots popularity a book receives by word of mouth, when a book is a sure-fire blockbuster, and simply buy the rights for mass production at that time.

Of course, I have a vested interest in development of such innovation, since I’m writing a book. But there are millions of bloggers out there, and we’re all writers, including many damn fine writers, not a few of whom have aspirations to make a living writing, or to produce major works that don’t lend themselves to online reading.

If you are, or know, an independent book publisher or retailer, tell me what you think of this idea. Instead of having to read hundreds of unsolicited, mostly bad, manuscripts, wouldn’t you rather have access to an online market that would take the drudgery out of filtering good writing from bad, and take the guesswork out of picking popular books from those destined for eternal obscurity?

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  1. O RLY YA RLY says:

    Won’t the gathering of progressive publishing with one big publisher result in preaching to the converted?

  2. Dave, There is a lot to this discussion. Maybe I’ll write a more detailed answer on my blog…The model you describe is very close to the model of my former employer, iUniverse. The founder’s vision was to provide the kind of affordable access that you describe. The idea was strong enough to get quite a few millions in backing from Barnes & Noble and quite a few millions more from Warburg.The company tried to address the “preferred publisher” angle you describe by building numerous partnerships with writers groups (Author’s Guild, Writer’s Guild, etc.)We addressed the cost issue with an entry point of $99, and for that you got your manuscript into book form, an ISBN number, and your book distributed into every major book database so that it could be ordered from any retailer or online seller. We converted all books into ebooks that were available online, in their entirety, for free (but in a way that they couldn’t be easily downloaded in their entirety unless purchased.) We advocated ebook versions be sold as an adjuncts to print, that is, sold for a modest fee when purchased with a print book.I was Dir of Mfg and Supply Chain there for two years. We were the first (maybe the only) such publisher to have a fully outsourced, zero-inventory, just-in-time delivery mechanism and we manufactured and shipped virtually all of our books within a 48-hour period after order.We ultimately had quite a few books become good sellers and get national exposure, but the publisher’s role is far more than just the mechanics of book publishing and distribution. And I think that is where the company found it’s real difficulty — the “real” author wasn’t ready to abandon the “traditional” publisher for a more efficient market and distribution mechanism.But the vision is still interesting, and the market may eventually grow to support it.– twf

  3. Jon Husband says:

    Check out http://www.lulu.com, Marketplace for a World of Digital Content.The founder of Lulu Enterprises is Robert Young, co-founder and former chairman of Red Hat.The collaborative music site nowRECORDING.com is also part of the Lulu initiative.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Harald: I think most books preach to the converted already, and this will make it easier for writers and readers of like minds to find each other. Bookstores and their e-quivalents will always allow you to browse other viewpoints.Terry: I’ll look forward to reading more. Liked your piece on e-paper. Don’t know how I forgot to blogroll you last time I visited — I’ll rectify that soon.Jon: Thanks. Lulu is interesting, though I find their site kind of confusing and ambiguous. Sounds like a step in the right direction, though, if I’m reading it right.

  5. natasha says:

    I don’t really have much to contribute to this, but I would suggest running the idea by the Nielsen Haydens, longtime editors and the proprieters of Making Light and Electrolite.Which, btw, are great blogs.

  6. Gil Friend says:

    I believe xLibris.com did this as well.Why did iUniverse and xLibris fail (this time around)?

  7. Gil Friend says:

    I spoke too soon. Both appear to still be live. (I read terry as speaking in thge past tense.)

  8. David Jones says:

    I looked at the Lulu site. Very impressive. Can someone testify to the merits / results of their approach?http://ecademy.com/account.php?op=view&id=35064

  9. Gil,iUniverse is definitely still in business. I should have been more clear. Sorry. Xlibris, 1stBooks, BookSurge, and others are still around as well. iUniverse had a unique marketing postion however (at the time), and our manufacturing and delivery mechanism were distinctly different, as well. Our relationship with B&N allowed us to get a modicum of shelf space (the absence of which is the ultimate barrier to all the Internet-based self-publishers) and our supply channel was far more efficient.For the record, iUniverse has moved to try and become a more “traditional” publisher, dropping some of the more aggressive approaches to technology and process, and aligning with mid-sized house Kensington to focus on several niche markets.David J.,I looked at lulu as well. It looks like they have taken many of the steps Dave suggested, and many that iUniverse had in their original offering. I think the most important page on the site is the ISBN page that explains very clearly what you don’t get with their service. Basically, you don’t get shelf space, you don’t get stocked, and you don’t get listed as “available to ship” in most bookstores (typically shown as 4-6 weeks.) These are the primary barriers all the aforementioned companies struggle to overcome.

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