In defense of traditional* book publishing, part 1

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A couple of weeks ago, self-publishing guru Guy Kawasaki released on LinkedIn his top ten reasons why authors should self-publish their books. Kawasaki is the coauthor of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur

The words “traditional publishing” have come to mean different things for different people over the past decade.  The most basic definition of “traditional publishing” is probably found in what it’s not. Traditional publishing is not self-publishing. Traditional publishing requires a publisher, which consists of a team of editorial, production and marketing staff members who project manager a book from its idea through its life as a product – either printed, e, app, all of the above or some other form. Traditional publishing, though not always, typically finds its home in physical books. However, even the most traditional of the traditional (very subjective), a university press, spearheaded the process of creating and publishing an instant volume – in both paper and e – in response to the gun violence debate following Newtown (Reducing Gun Violence in America, The Johns Hopkins University Press).

Surprised?

You might be if you glean your publishing knowledge from Kawasaki. Kawasaki’s ten points are simple and espouse the value added to an author when he or she self-publishes instead of publishing the “traditional” way. While I don’t wholly disagree that self-publishing is a stellar technological advancement for the same reasons Kawasaki cites – tablet adoption is growing, people want connectivity, knowledge needs to be shared – I do think his advice leads the vast majority of potential readers in the wrong direction. And, here’s why.

1. Content and design control. Kawasaki implies that traditional publishing removes the author’s ability to produce the book – in both content and design – that he or she hoped to write. This is the major critique I hear from people who talk about the business of publishing but know little about it. If publishers held all control over content and design, books would never be written and there would be far fewer authors. The sheer time and energy it would take for a publisher to exercise direct editorial and design control over every new book would run publishers out of business and authors to the grave. Yet, authors have not stopped pitching their books – in idea, draft, almost-done and totally complete forms – to publishers. The idea that books passed off to publishers somehow wind up in a dark pit only to emerge as horribly altered versions of their initial selves is an erroneous reality that is a byproduct of the self-centric tech revolution. Relinquishing control of one’s creation is an essential and necessary part of the creative process, and Kawasaki admits that even he must do this at different stages to ensure a good product is published.

2. Time to market. Kawasaki implies that once a book is turned into a publisher, it can take longer than an author would like to have the book released. This is true, since time is a subjective reality, especially during the creative process. As soon as I click the “Publish” button, this blog will be live. Sharing content has never been easier, but books are not blogs. One of the most, if not the only, important variable of marketing a product is timing. In The Tipping PointGladwell argues that the power of context plays a crucial role in determining the “epidemic” adoptability of any one idea or practice. The simple fact that an author has thought about a topic, written a book on that topic and, most importantly, taken the time and invested the energy to publish this book, does not automatically create context for the ideas presented. A measure of value added by publishers is that publishing staff members not only live and breathe the ideas generated by authors, but they often conduct formal and informal research about the cultural salience of the topics. There are cultural reasons behind a publisher’s decision to hold or rush a book’s printing. And, there are editorial reasons as well. Authors are often free to submit drafts of manuscripts that would otherwise, in a self-publishing model, need to be crowd-sourced or peer reviewed at the author’s effort and expense. Copyediting does not equate to content editing. Regardless of the author’s location or experience, they still exist in a rabbit hole. Publishers remove their work from the rabbit hole and work with the author to develop a timeline that will help, not harm, the final product.

3. Longevity. Kawasaki implies two things here. The first is that traditional publishers will let a book go out of print at some point. The second is that publishers stop marketing books after they become financially worthless. This assumes both broad and specific distortions about the nature of publishers. A publisher who adds value to a book and its author will not accept a manuscript that does not fit within the publisher’s essential mission. To do so would affect the brand of the publisher while harming the author’s and the book’s potential marketability. And, the consumer is left to read a crummy book. If missions do not connect, all stakeholders suffer. This means that regardless of a book’s fiscal worth, the publisher will always maintain a stake in the books it publishes. Authors are members of the family. In university presses, this is often even more true as scholars seek the aid of publishers when it comes to professional advancement through tenure or other similar avenues. To place a book out-of-print in the early timeline Kawasaki assumes here should never be part of the publisher’s game plan, especially given access to POD options when it comes to physical copies. Publisher, however, must also be looking forward. An author would never write one book with the assumption that it would be the only book he or she would ever write. In the same way that the author’s next project necessarily shifts attention away from the previous endeavor, without ever fully removing it, publishers too balance their front-, mid- and backlists in a way that balances realistic expectations of each book’s performance. Even from a strictly financial standpoint, releasing backlist books from inventory would harm publishers as those titles continue to make up a majority of the revenue shares.

4. Revisions. Kawasaki is correct. There is very little that can be done for a printed book with errors. Yet, Kawasaki assumes that publishers only conduct traditional print runs while refusing to work with ebook vendors or POD companies. None of these assumptions are true. Additionally, self-publishers and traditional publishers face the same feedback loop issues when releasing a new book. Each still requires others to point out errors. This is true for each media form, from books to blogs and newspapers to television. There are a handful of stylistic and grammatical errors in Kawaski’s blog. Although it’s been on the market for more than three weeks, none of them have been fixed, and they probably never will be. My post likely contains errors that will never be fixed. If the judgment about a book’s worth rests in perfect copy or stylist editing, then readers have missed the point entirely. Traditional publishers and self-publishers stand on the same ground here in seeking a correct product – both have access to correct errors in electronic book versions and must pay money to reprint corrected hard-copy versions.

5. Higher royalty. “Self-publishers can make more money.” I agree with this statement, especially since it purposely separates “royalties” from total net dollars earned during the publishing process. Amazon’s KDP suite, as an example, offers publishers two royalty structures. But, as might be expected, the 70 percent model comes with various stipulations attached. For example, at 70 percent, authors cannot price books below $2.99 or above $9.99. Amazon also charges a delivery fee for each electronic book sold based on the item’s file size. Granted this is a nominal, fixed fee that influences the the royalty rate by only about $0.10 per megabyte of the file size. One source that tracked the ePub file size (Kindle uses a different file type) found the majority of ebooks to be between one and five megabytes. The 70 percent model also limits the royalty structure for sales outside of the United States and requires the book’s price to be at least 20 percent lower than the price of the book’s physical alternative. And, Amazon reserves the right to change your book’s price in order to make it competitive across markets. A traditional publisher who charges $20.00 for a physical book will return about $2.00 to the author, on a 10 percent royalty model. This is in addition to any rights deals brokered and ebook sales a publisher may return to the author. Authors may also receive an advance, traditionally against royalties, that exists independent of sales figures. Depending on a number of factors, a self-published author might make a higher royalty percentage on each copy sold, but it would take a special case to make this assumption generalizable across the book market. Additionally, the cost of publicity is passed off to the publisher in a traditional model. While the author does not get a royalty for the cost of good sold on a gratis book, they are also not responsible for footing the bill of any free copies shipped. Book publishing requires some freebies, and someone needs to pay for them.

The previous point focused solely on comparing a self-published ebook to all items potentially published by a traditional publisher. I recognize this is not a fair comparison. Nor was it in Kawaski’s article. Kawasaki seamlessly weaves at tale that connects self-publishing, Amazon and ebooks into a one-stop publishing solution. For many, this might be the best option. For others, traditional publishing may be better. Kawasaki assumes several things about traditional publishers that are grossly untrue. In the next post, I’ll discuss Kawasaki’s final five points: price control, global distribution, control of foreign rights, analytics and deal flexibility.