Book Publishers are an Anachronism

Book publishers are still working under an outdated model that doesn’t serve them or their authors. Publishers need to incorporate a wider set of services to move beyond the page.

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

One of the earliest publishers was Cambridge University Press, dating back to 1534. It’s an industry that existed before electricity, the combustion engine, and the industrial revolution. In the past 500 years the publishing industry hasn’t changed much.

Hold on you say, the last twenty years has seen a digital revolution. The internet and digital publishing tools allow more people than ever in history to publish their books and reach a global audience. Very true, the mechanics of publishing have changed significantly. The publishing industry, however, has not.

Book publishers perform several tasks, but they fall primarily into two categories. The first is book production: editing, layout, indexing, registration, and printing. For the most part these are not value adding. Poor editing, poor indexing, and poor printing can harm a book's success, but they don’t drive it. Consumers don’t say, “You need to buy this book, the layout is amazing.” I certainly don’t mean to suggest a lack of appreciation for these skills, but like the accounting department of a manufacturing company, these are support tasks that help the business function, and not a source of value generation for the book itself or the end customer.

The second is marketing. This can include cover design and distribution. The latter, however, is becoming less important as most sales occur on Amazon and other online options including print-on-demand. Book publicity and promotion are the bulk of the work.

And yet this is falling by the wayside. Most books get little or no promotion from a publisher. Small publishers don’t have much in the way of marketing strength. As for bigger publishers, unless you’re a big-name author, the marketing support you do get is primarily around the book launch. Once the excitement of the launch (read: sales) wanes, you’re on your own. The modern advice for authors is: this is a marathon, not a sprint. Yet most publishers don't, often can’t, offer support for the marathon.

But why not? The production services aren’t the value add to the book’s success, the marketing is. Sure, people do judge books by the cover, and a successful launch helps, but that is small compared to the sustained effort it takes to make most books successful.

Up until recently access to a printing press was restricted. Only a handful of companies could afford them and acted as gatekeepers to publish books. Today access to printing presses, print-on-demand, and electronic printing, as well as internet distribution, removes the value publishing houses traditionally offered. Today marketing is the make or break service that is needed for a book’s success but that is the service most lacking.

It goes further. I’ve written elsewhere that content needs to move beyond the medium. Do publishers do much to help? Do agents?

Many print books get turned into audiobooks and/or translated. That’s just an extension of the original book itself. Some top fiction titles get picked up as movies, TV series, or video games. Modern agencies do support this type of licensing deal. What’s needed, however, is more than a one-time deal. If you’re writing a sci-fi / fantasy book a movie deal is a great start; but then you need to keep building the community through engagement, online and in real life. I don’t just mean using social media.

But how do you interact? Do you do AMA (ask me anything) sessions? Do you put out short stories or teaser content? Will you get a panel at Comic Con? Do you build an email list, or maybe an entire online community? These are all marketing techniques, but do publishers or agencies provide support about what, when, and how to do it? A good financial planner doesn’t simply pick stocks, she helps you plan for retirement, generational wealth transfer, and charitable giving. What do most publishers or agencies offer beyond getting your book to market and a launch party? That financial planner who manages your money gets a yearly fee for yearly work. Your publisher gets recurring fees from your sales, but is your publisher providing yearly work?

It’s even more important for non-fiction. Business book / self-help authors, for example, don’t make much money from book sales. Most of their revenue comes from speaking, consulting, and other services. Those can generate 10-100x the revenue from book sales, or more! If the publisher and agent is getting most of the value from book sales, and the author is getting most of the value from non-book sales, there’s a clear misalignment of interests.

Book sales drive an author's reputation, which can drive speaking engagements. Speaking engagements can drive book sales, as bulk book sales can be part of the payment for the speech. Why are publishers and agents only focusing on one half of the equation?

Publishers and agents aren’t the only anachronisms. I’m a member of author groups; those, too, are outdated. The same is true for communities of speakers. So are the podcasting communities, which themselves date back barely more than a decade. Most business podcasters are also authors, consultants (or have some other type of product or service), and/or professional speakers. I rarely meet non-fiction authors who are just an author and don’t do one of the other things. This is to say nothing of online presence, including blogging to social media postings.

Content is no longer constrained to one medium, e.g., just a book. Why then are the partners of content producers, the agents and publishers, limited to providing service within a single medium?

Sport agents used to just negotiate the team contracts of their clients. Today their firms help them not only with team contracts, but also endorsements, acting, singing, investing, and a variety of other services. Those agencies knew that if they stuck only to the team contracts, their clients would move on to full-service agencies.

The publishers and agencies of the future will be multi-modal. Boy band producers (be it US or K-pop or any other genre), for example, find the talent and then manage the trajectory of the band on and off the stage. Books, podcasts, PR, speaking tours, community building, partnerships, online marketing, licensing, and more are all needed by content creators. Tomorrow’s “publishing” houses will provide a full range of services for their clients helping them rapidly expand their overall business, while taking a management fee for themselves. Some authors without business skills will gladly welcome the holistic turnkey approach. Other authors, such as business book authors with an existing brand, may not need full management of their business, they will turn to these new publishers-cum-marking-agencies for a new type of content-as-a-brand marketing and PR, while relying on their own overall management for operations.

Today we see antiquated publishers and agencies, and one-off service firms providing individual services for marketing, PR, community building, podcasting management, etc. Multinational corporations aggregated business units into bigger entities allowing them to leverage their diverse units for larger advantage; so, too, will we soon see these new, modern publishers arise and dominate the industry.