My Book Industry Blueprint (v0.2a1)

MCMTuesday, May 26, 2009

The publishing industry is broken, and not just in a "that glass is chipped but if you drink out of the other side you're fine" sorta way. It's beyond repair, on its last legs, drawing its final breath. The fate of civilization rests in your hands, and you only have about ten minutes to figure out how to fix things, before literature becomes a footnote in the history boo— oh wait.

Well anyway, since this isn't an interactive post, I'll forgo pretending to ask you what you think and just tell you what I think, and you can send me snarky emails as usual. (Yes you, Paul, I'm talking to you.) Herein lies my blueprint for making a better book industry:


  • The definition of "publishing" is inflammatory and makes us spin our wheels uselessly. Apples? Oranges? Mangoes? Who cares. They're all fruits. Let's just call it "the book industry" and be done with it.
  • eBooks are a valid medium. I don't care how you feel about the feel of paper in the morning on your breakfast cereal with your dog at your feet: the smell of pulp is not a viable reason to exclude an entire segment of the market.
  • Nobody gets paid the way you think they should. Forget about advances and returns and royalties and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. Ain't none of that in this brave new world.
  • "Professional" means you're good at what you do. It's a meritocracy, so you can have the nicest business cards, but if you can't seal the deal, it doesn't count for anything.
  • This is being written for writers, but everyone else can play along. You just don't get to know the special handshake. Please, stop crying.

Step 1: Writers Write

Obvious, isn't it? Writers should write the books they want to write. If your passion is a Harry Potter rip-off, that's fine. If you prefer a super-literary tale of a woman slowly dying in the bottom of a pitch black well with only an ant to keep her company, that's fine too (please keep your distance though). The books come first, everything else comes after. Right now, the industry says "OMG everyone loves Twilight! We need more Twilight!" and they find a handful of authors who can write tomes of sexually repressed emo vampire romance stories on the cheap. Some editors pick authors based on literary merit, but that's commonly referred to as "taking a risk", which suggests it's just as common and comfortable as seeing if an umbrella is really as useful as a parachute while skydiving. Right now, things are filtered in the first step, which is immediately reducing the potential for greatness. Writers need to write first and ask questions later.

Step 2: Editors Edit

Your book needs editing before it can be read by a wide audience, because the wide audience is quite possibly going to learn to spell from your story, and I swear to god if you propagate the "there/they're/their" confusion any further, I'm going to beat you with a stick. EVERYTHING needs to be edited. This can be done by anything from critique groups to hired gun grammar Nazis, just as long as you don't ask your mom to do it. You don't want your mom concentrating on how bad you are at sentence structure. She'll start drinking again, and nobody wants that.

In the end, though, this system requires an Editor. And this is not the Editor of Olde, who liveth in a Publishing Companie and refuseth to use email and writeth longhand with the Blood of Innocents. No, this is a New Editor who is a free agent, prowling critique groups and mailing lists and magazines, hunting for talent they think they can turn into something great. They won't pay you a cent for your work (this time on purpose!) but they also won't take a salary. They'll take a percentage of whatever you bring in, so their survival is tied to how good a book they can help you produce. Picking an editor will give you access to infinite knowledge, sure, but also their social network... and their social network is probably worth more than an advance anyway.

(Just for the sake of thoroughness, let's say you don't get an editor. You're not dead in the water (or are you?), you're just unattached. You need to keep writing, improving, and building an audience. Anyone can get an audience these days, because it's so easy for nutbars people to find each other on the internet. Not having an editor does not preclude you from continuing down this schematic, it just adjusts what kinds of things you can do with your novel about one-legged water sprites in the bowels of a post-apocalyptic coconut tree.)

Step 3: Finding Your Trajectory

All right: you've got your book and it's as polished as it can be. Now you need to figure out where it fits. Let's assume that 98% of books do not have mass market appeal, and do not need huge print runs. Your book is almost certainly not in the last 2%. Phew! That's a lot of stress removed (whether you like it or not).

You need to take a realistic look at your niche and find a production methodology that fits. For example:

  • non-fiction self help books might use print on demand with a strong eBook component;
  • romance novels aimed at women aged 50+ might need cheap bulk printing only;
  • a serialized series might work best as a straight-to-website production, with a tip jar or subscription system;
  • picture books about cute puppies and ponies might only need to be printed on your inkjet and stapled to your eyeballs to achieve the suffering you desire.

My SteamDuck series sells exclusively in digital form, to the point where the print option actually does more harm than good, which may seem counter-intuitive... but that's precisely the point. There is no "right way" to sell your book, there are only variations of Badness. Your editor will probably have experience in the trajectories they recommend, and you should be as bloody-minded about your choices as you can be. It's far better to dominate your niche than to fail at dreams of mass-market stardom. Nobody likes a failure.

Step 4: Marketing

You will have to find a marketing team that specializes in your content niche. Note that these marketers should be platform agnostic, because having a marketer who's a print snob is going to limit what they're going to do for you. If you're writing a cyberpunk mystery, you want someone who lives and breathes that genre. If you're writing vampire erotica, you want someone who isn't ashamed of their lacy goth tendencies. Even high-literary books are a niche, aimed at people who don't want the world to make any sense.

Your marketing team will formulate a plan with your trajectory in mind, and they'll get the word out in the right places. They'll get your cover designed by a freelancer (or an under-paid staff designer who has a flask at the back of his middle desk drawer, right beside the crystal meth). They'll develop an "angle" for your book and make sure it's the kind of angle your audience can't live without. They'll make you a trailer that will hopefully not consist of their niece stumbling through a few random sentences, spoken into their MacBook microphone while ugly stock photos cross-dissolve unrelatedly. They will get you ready for prime time.

If the marketing company filters their intake, they'll probably cover costs in exchange for a share of profits (more likely if you or your editor are trusted). If they're open to anyone, they'll charge you for the service. But it's not like you really wanted your firstborn anyway, right? You can choose to forgo the marketing stage (hiring a cover designer yourself), but chances are your editor won't let you unless you are remarkably multi-disciplinary, or they're stupid, or both.

Step 5: Execution

Depending on your trajectory, you will need to work with a production house. These are companies that specialize in a method of releasing books (note: this has nothing to do with subject matter). These people are allowed to be print snobs, eBook snobs, or indifferent people who just act snobbish because it's the norm. They'll get your book ready in whatever format you need, whether it's eBook, PDF for Print on Demand, PDF for a larger print run, or HTML for your website. They'll take care of layout and formatting so you don't "accidentally" switch fonts every paragraph, and by the time they're done, you'll have all you need to put things into motion.

On the simple end of the scale, you'll get some files and execute your plans for world domination all by your lonesome. On the other end, you'll have a distribution agreement with them, and they'll get your books to all the places it needs to go. There are dozens of options between those two extremes, dictated by your trajectory and marketing plan. Companies like Lulu perform this function now, as do SmashWords, Shortcovers or Amazon's Kindle division. Major publishers do this too (on a large scale), but they currently care about what they release (theoretically). Under this system, the medium and the message are two different things, and should not be confused.

Step 6: Selling to Actual People

Throughout this entire process, there have been minimal filters applied, meaning it's been much easier for good writing to get released. Unfortunately, this also gives bad writing more freedom, and as you know, bad writing multiplies like rabbits and leaves little brown puds all over the ground where you least expect it. Now that EVERYTHING is out there, we need to filter it. How do we do that? A reality show would work great, but unless the books sing, I just don't see the appeal...

There are a few options, but we'll start with the most controversial: indie book stores! What's needed are curators of content. People who search through the masses and pick out what's good and wonderful, and will promote it to their customers. They'll have limited stock, sure, but the stock they have they'll move, because they're not just sticking it on a shelf blindly. Give them access to integrated online ordering sites and next-day print on demand, and they can pick the most eclectic selection of titles you can imagine.

For the bigger market, you still have recommendations at Amazon to direct your audience. And big bookstore chains can still exist, offering eBook sales in-store and a giant sea of comfy chairs to sit on and browse. They can even send employees around to kick you in the shins at random, so it feels just as hostile.

Reviewers will become "niched", analysing books they actually care about. No more will you read a review of your favourite sci fi epic, picked apart by a crotchety old man who still doesn't understand why phonographs are so popular with the young folk. You'll be reading reviews according to a baseline standard you can appreciate, so you can trust the opinions expressed. Mix that with "readers who liked this also read..." and you've got a pretty broad literary horizon expanding before you.

This doesn't even mean the end of the "New York Times Best Seller" either, because there will always be books that are so popular they cross niches and become must-reads for everyone. Let's say your book called "Lemur Pudding" is one of those books... it was a limited-run print on demand title with an eBook component, aimed at the romantic historical fiction crowd. One day, Brad Pitt is seen reading it in a book store (guarding his shins ably) and the next day, orders have skyrocketed. All you do is take your PDF files to the "mass production" people and get things rolling. You may need to adjust your marketing strategy, but probably not. As the owner of your destiny, you can switch approaches as required, making sure "Lemur Pudding" can be all it probably has no business being.

Step 7: Getting Paid

Remember how I said nothing works the way it used to? Well all those bookstores that are selling your books are going to have to deal with "no returns" (returns are the practice wherein a book store says they want 100 books, only sell 5, and then get to ship the 95 extras back to you and you're expected to refund their money). Returns are silly. They can get more stock in a few days, and if they're not willing to take a little risk, they should get a government job. What a bunch of pansies.

But you, you author-person, you can wipe that smile off your face because you're not getting a cut of the cover price anymore. If you're doing print on demand, you're taking your cut after the production price and the reseller margin. An $8 book might net you $2, which you then have to split with your editor and marketer (and maybe others, depending on how silver-tongued you were in the earlier steps). So for each book you sell, you get $1. You only need to sell 40,000 of them to make a living! Yes!

Now before you go crying about how you used to earn more money getting an advance like in the old days, remember this: if you wrote a book and it didn't break even for the publisher, there's a pretty good chance you wouldn't get published ever again. At least in this system, you can choose to try again.

But here's where the trajectory comes back into play: if you can't sell your book to 40,000 people in your niche, what business do you have printing the book in the first place? The profit on an eBook is $5, so you only need to sell 8,000 to make a living. If your marketers are any good, you can probably find 8,000 distant relatives you can con into buying your book. You need to be looking at this as bloody-mindedly as you can. The only special prize for stubbornly having your book in the format you wanted is called the "Moron Award", but you have to pay dearly for it.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The last thing you need to remember about this system is that it's not one that suffers lazy bums. Just because you wrote one book doesn't mean you get to put your feet up and cash in for the rest of your life. You need to take what you learned, write a new book, and do it better. As time goes on, the methodology will change, and things will re-align in interesting new ways. But if the writing is separate from the editing is separate from the marketing is separate from the production, you can swap out components and not damage too much.

Over the last century, the publishing industry consolidated itself to put as much of the process in-house as it could. It worked because the process was largely homogenous. These days, there are too many outlets and too many sub-genres for a company of any decent size to manage, and it's dragging them down. My proposal is to disassemble the publishing industry and put it back together in a way that can adapt more freely. The only way to save literature is to kill the parasite that's dragging it down, and that parasite is the industry.

That's my approach anyway. And so far, it's working pretty damn well. You can disagree with me, you can wave your fist and fight for the traditional publishers to your dying breath, you can shake your head and go back to your glass tower... but if you choose to ignore everything I've written here, just remember this last bit of wisdom: You're a stupidhead.

Bring it on, Paul.

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