Ill-informed thoughts about the publishing business

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

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Robert Scoble’s inspired idea to create a book on Corporate Blogging in a largely transparent way prompted me to think about the publishing business. Robert is planning to auction the book rights on eBay which seems a creative way to shake up the conventional way of doing things.

My own very limited experience of the publishing business, coupled with a few anecdotes from published friends, do not quality me as any kind of expert. So please view the following half-baked idea in that light and feel free to point out the glaring errors and misrepresentations.

The impression I have is that many publishers operate in a formulaic way. They adopt books that fit a specific category and market them generically. Books are titled to fit neatly into the buying categories of libraries, because that more-or-less ensures a certain minimum number of orders of an initial hardback edition. An edition priced (high) to break even fairly soon. Not much incentive to try to popularise a book with a fresh approach.

I get the impression that a lot of publishers are good at getting books typeset and printed. In days of yore, this was perhaps a more complex task, but not any more. Where they’re not so great is at innovative marketing of books. A formula is followed: take few risks, knock out an expensive hardback. Expect poor sales but aim to break even on even meagre turnover. In the unlikely event it takes off, knock out a cheaper paperback and hope for a jackpot.

Perhaps this stereotype is a bit harsh, and probably applies more to authors in the long tail than to blockbuster writers.

But I don’t see a ton of innovative marketing from publishers. So now that technology makes the design and printing more accessible, it’s fair to question: what value does a publisher add?

The short answer is, a publisher will give you an advance to write the book in the first place. The fact (according to Robert) that most authors don’t exceed their advance suggests that publishers are not very good at exceeding their clients expectations!

I don’t think these difficulties will apply to Robert’s book, and I don’t suppose he needs to make his task any more complicated. Still, it would be fun if he could find time to try something like this, instead of auctioning to a publisher…

Sell (or I suppose auction) the rights in small percentages, so that bloggers themselves can afford to participate. After all, as evangelists bloggers might have a higher degree of faith in the title’s success and/or more incentive to support it than your average conventional publisher. So you might get a bigger advance and enlist an army of promoters to boot. And there’s some pretty good PR talent lurking out in the blogosphere.

Given that Robert is giving his share of the royalties to charity, you could also allow investors to take a stake on behalf of the same cause if they like. I’d be tempted to take that option. Then I’d could feel really atruistic about hyping the resulting book.

I suppose another twist would be to reserve a percentage of the stakes to dole out to those who collaborate most helpfully in the creation of the book, again with the option of donating to charity.

Too complicated? Too simplistic? Probably. But it would be fun if it worked.

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