Preserving the Future: A Modest Proposal

glove2My wife Sherron has thrown down the gauntlet.

The other night she told me:  “Listen, you’ve had your fun insulting editors and publishers, belittling their intelligence, always going after them.  Now, how about something constructive?  You’ve got ideas on how to improve things and make the system run better so let’s hear them, wise guy.”

Right.  Here goes.

First of all, it must be acknowledged that, by any standards, the corporate book publishing  model has been a complete failure.  Publishers are losing money, cutting staff, consolidating…and book sales have taken a big dip (according to one stat I saw on Mediabistro, down a whopping 13% in November, 2008 from the previous year).

And this notion that there are editors out there with the wisdom and far-sightedness of Solomon, who are somehow able to identify and manufacture the next monster bestseller is a complete fallacy.  Moronic, in fact.  Has no basis in reality whatsoever.  Look at what happened to Andrew Davidson (author of Gargoyle; Random House); guy gets a hefty advance, the book is promoted up the yin-yang…and it barely makes a ripple.  Certainly no threat to becoming the next Da Vinci Code, right?

lusiYou can’t pie chart a bestseller, you can’t graph which book is going to break through big time–and which ones are going to flounder and sink like the Lusitania.  Please recall that the enormous, worldwide success of J.K. Rowling resulted, largely, from strong word of mouth, parents passing along copies and recommendations of The Philosopher’s Stone until a genuine groundswell was created.

You can’t consistently create a bestseller but what you can do is use the new technologies out there so that, as a publisher, all your eggs aren’t crammed into one basket.  Changing the metaphor, why settle for the equivalent of a single shot, old style flintlock, when POD offers you the opportunity to wield a state of the art shotgun?

Print-on-demand (POD) gives you that capability.  Unlike the old, offset press method of publishing, POD is flexible, far less time-consuming and energy intensive and cheap to boot.  You can print as many copies of a particular title as you want, from 1…to ten million.

Instead of throwing big dough at a title/author that is, by no means, a sure thing, why not spread that loot around a little?  Rather than sign up five authors at a million plus each, why not give 100 writers a chance, paying them smaller upfront fees but rewarding them with a  higher royalty rate.  That payment regimen has worked with small and indie presses for years–and, believe me, you’ll be astonished at how little an author will accept in their desperation to get a book in print.  It’s depressing, really.  Pathetic.

Ah…sorry.  Wandered off topic.  Where was I?

Okay, now you’ve got 100 different authors with a hundred different books, 95 more opportunities to find the next Steve King than you had under your stupid corporate model.   And you don’t give your 100 hopefuls ridiculous print runs, you start modestly.  That way you won’t be stuck with massive returns, which then have to be remaindered, warehoused and pulped, more money down the drain.


You can print as few as  500 or 1,000 copies per author and then emulate what the movie companies do when they offer films as limited releases, to gauge audience reactions and get some idea as to a project’s potential appeal.

Thinking along the same lines, publishers could send out review copies to newspapers, magazines and bloggers and, simultaneously, “test market” books in selected stores (or by offering them as downloads through e-Readers like Kindle et all).  Let the readers and the book-lovers determine which authors have wider appeal and then do another, larger printing to meet the demand (the author happily cashing in at the higher royalty rate).

Some might opine that under a royalty-based system the publisher would be tempted to cheat, since they’re the ones controlling the books.  I would argue that Bookscan and related technologies, as well as computerized inventories and the publishers’ selfish desire for authors to score a hit and sell a gazillion books makes the possibility of fraud quite remote.

axWhat I like about this system is that it allows a wider array of authors to develop a following, while not feeling the pressure of a big money contract hanging over them.  The risks are shared between the writer and the publisher…and as far as I can tell the whole thing seems like  a win-win scenario.

Corporate publishers have been slow out of the blocks when it comes to new technologies, especially POD.  Instead of utilizing  POD as I have suggested, some in the industry have chosen a more short-sighted and morally questionable approach.  In my view, they’re misusing POD by going after relatively small peanuts, offering print-on-demand services to aspiring and amateur scribblers who have yet to make the grade, encouraging them to sign up and print their own books.  Oh, and, let us not forget, that means said scribblers have to sell and distribute their own books.  The big boys deigning to offer no other assistance, content to serve as a glorified copy shop for dingbats desperate for a for-real-and-true book to wave in front of their friends (“See?  See?  Told ya I was a writer!”).

But I have my doubts these tactics will work.  Writers, as a rule, tend not be be made of money so you can only milk that teat so long.  Besides,  iUniverse and Lulu have been around a lot longer and have seized a sizable slice of the market share.  But it’s an enticing proposition, turning the old regime on its ear:   writers paying publishers, rather than vice versa.  Zowie!  And if there are enough stupid, starry-eyed authors out there, who knows?  Those rotten bastards could stand to rake in a nice stipend.

But those same publishers could make a helluva lot more if they abandoned their home run/big book mentality and settled for hitting singles and doubles for awhile…especially in these precipitous economic times.

boxI’m not saying my business strategy is completely original or perfect and if you have any thoughts on its weaknesses, how it could be improved, drop a line or two in the “Comments” box below.

Let’s see if we can put our heads together as bibliophiles and devotees of the printed word  and save publishing from the worst aspects of itself.

If it means a wider, more diverse cross-section of authors make it into print, having more books out there, more choices for readers, our efforts will be worth it.

Hey, you suits  in New York and Toronto!  Are you listening?

What do you say?



  1. Ian Sales

    A couple of points –

    POD is actually more expensive than offset lithographic printing. Even worse, the unit cost for POD remains the same, while it drops for litho. That’s why POD books are generally more expensive. Where POD wins is in the fact you don’t have to carry stock – you just print a copy when someone orders it.

    Also, distributors take a hefty discount on books, which means that the publisher and the author actually get very little of the final sale price. But you need that distribution to sell your book. The bulk of books are still sold in supermarkets and at railway stations/airports. Until book sales have moved almost entirely onto the Web – and so removed the need for distributors – publishers are going have to offer books at 40% or 50% of cover-price to distributors and retailers.

  2. zoewinters

    I know this is going to sound really cold. But I don’t really care whether or not NY publishing survives. I personally think we might all be better off if smaller publishers were running the show. I’m a little tired of all the cookie cutter books out there in wide distribution.

    But that’s just me.

    And also, I think the only GOOD thing about NY publishing for authors, is the advance system and especially when an author gets a really GOOD advance. The playing field is leveling everywhere else. Even in distribution since so many mainstream distribution channels are suffering, and more internet distribution channels are growing.

    There is little a mainstream publisher could do for me that I can’t do for myself unless they wanted to pay me a LOT of money in an advance. With a POD model that wouldn’t happen.

    And hey, I’m already doing that for myself. Don’t need them for that.

    I think the issue may be a growing sense of irrelevance as the world changes. Not sure much can be done for that.

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  4. Pat Bertram

    We seem to be on the same wave length here, Cliff. A couple of days ago I published an article on my blog called “McBooks” where I also suggested that in the future the big publishers will be going with POD publishing. For now, sure, POD books are expensive to produce, but that’s because the machines are in the hands of a few. Look at xerography — those first photocopy machines cost a fortune, but now most of us have a copy machine in our homes.

    I really don’t care if the big publishing houses survive — they print so few books I am interested in reading — but I do think they will eventually find new life in POD publishing. One of the costs of creating a bestseller comes in the promotion — which, as you pointed out, is not always effective — but they could cut this cost (and hence the cost of the book) by throwing hundreds of books into the wind (the elm seed theory of book publishing) and letting the market choose the bestseller.

    Of course, there are so many books on the market now when you include all the self-published ones, that those extra books could cause the whole book business to implode. How would anyone ever know what was worth reading, let alone buying?

    Interesting article, as always.

  5. Charles

    Interesting times, and the technology does allow for new models. At the end of 2005, when I quit working for a mainstream UK publisher, I proposed a ‘little-brother’ list: one editor, minimal design and production costs, short print runs, six books a year, distribution on the back of the mainstream list – a way of publishing the kind of work that the accountants would normally say no to; titles that were well received could move up into the main publishing programme in the next season, and on the other titles at least no one had lost much money. No one, of course, even wanted to discuss it.

    In 2007 I started my own kitchen-table venture (; the website will be updated with the 2009 titles in early February). Editing, design, typesetting at my desk. £2000 (a timely inheritance) paid for 250 copies each of four titles, digitally printed ten minutes from my house. When I want another 50 or 100 copies, I phone up in the afternoon and collect the following morning. It worked; I lost no money; one of the books won the UK prize for best first novel by a writer over 40 and is now with Bloomsbury. (Small publishers as feeder clubs for big ones – another model.) In 2008 I stepped up a small gear (distributor, author advances, more rights fees) and am now out of pocket; but this year, 2009, I’m pretty sure I’ll make good, and it’s certainly a helluva lot more fun than the regular freelance hackwork I do for the mainstream publishers.

    I think I’ve got the basis of a sustainable model (I get no public funding). Virtually no overheads; print runs kept just below the point where litho becomes more economic (but involves storage); building a brand (as the market folk would say) through distinctive choice of titles (I’m NOT competing with the big boys); getting the independent booksellers onside; access to some media publicity. I don’t make an income out of it, but that’s not the point.

    Mainstream publishing has long been inefficient (its charm). But now, in the UK (where the economics may be different from the US, simply because we have fewer people to sell to), having racked up the overheads (all those marketing and publicity folk), they’ve got themselves into a position in which it’s simply not possible to publish interesting new work, which may need time to find its readership and may never do so, without losing money. So there are spaces opening up for writers and readers to move into, and the technology is helping them do this.

  6. A Random Guy at a Grenade Factory

    Yes, but where’s the part where you tell us about eating Irish babies? Just kidding.

    Sounds like a great idea. Also, don’t cut back on the snark and bitterness. I’m from Murrica, where we just survived 8 years of a sub-moron’s optimism and good intentions. The world needs its erudite cynics, pessimists, and other curmudgeons.

    I like your idea with publishers. Big Publishers: Big Movie Studios::POD: TV. If you don’t adapt, you die. If you’re a dinosaur or General Motors, you’re painfully aware of the fact. Your new business model may not be perfect, but I’ll take imperfect innovation over perfect backwards thinking knuckle-dragging idiocy wrapped in a layer of stupid.

  7. Jane Smith

    Cliff, there are a few interesting ideas here, but a few wrong ones too.

    If publishers paid smaller advances they’d not save much per book (I’m talking here of the non-celebrity books, and the meat-and-potatoes trade that they do): much of their expenditure is in the areas of editing, promoting and selling the books that they publish. Which they’d still have to do if they paid smaller advances, but took on more books: I’m pretty sure that the savings on advances wouldn’t cover the cost of bringing many more new books to the market, and selling them effectively.

    And with POD why bother printing up 500 to 1,000 copies? There are no economies of scale, so it makes better sense to use POD for its original intent–which is to print on demand, after all. Incidentally, the break-even point for offset printing was for ages around the 400 copies mark, so with the numbers you quoted it’s probably going to be cheaper than POD anyway.

  8. eBookGuru

    With our own site, I get the priveledge of working with e-Publishers on a semi-regular basis. I really think that they have the right idea more than the world of publishing does in NY.

    Authors don’t get upfront fees, but they do get big royalties. The better e-Publishers (see my article on the advantages of e-Publishing over selling it yourself which featured Champagne if you want an example of one), put the best of their books out in both ebook and print formats (using print on demand).

    Most of the electronic book publishers that I converse with own companies that are book thriving and growing at an outstanding rate – I think this speaks clearly for the way those big publishers you mentioned will need to go if they wish to survive.


  9. eddie stack

    I agree with Charles on how small publishers are feeders for the big guys. I’ve a small press + published two books POD which were sold both to large companies. In one case, the publisher had turned down the original manuscript. Seems when it was between book covers, some sort of alchemy happened.

  10. Cliff Burns

    Publishing is in BIG trouble. Thrashing about in its death throes, trying to avoid the complete makeover it knows it must make in order to survive. We shall see. Good luck with your writing, Jess, and keep the faith.

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