A New (old) publishing model

I’d like to take a previous post and use it as a jumping-off point for prognostication. There’s no denying that the advent of Print On Demand (POD) and eBook publishing are changing the publishing industry. But one of the main advantages for writers—eliminating the gatekeepers—is one of the main drawbacks for consumers—the elimination of the gatekeepers. With hundreds of new eBook titles coming available every day, the perception is that self-publication is synonymous with “poor quality.”

The solution, I believe, is the rise of virtual publishers. Someone with the contacts, the reputation, and the startup funding could build the mechanism to bring order to the chaos—or at least provide an island of stability. And, oddly enough, the shape of that mechanism will look amazingly like traditional publishing.

Consider for a moment what it currently takes to make a successful physical book: It starts with a writer who writes a good book. That writer either gets an agent or finds an editor directly. That editor works with the writer to bring that book to the level they feel is marketable. They work with the publisher’s marketing team to determine the best way to get people to want to read that book; first and foremost they work on convincing the buyers for larger distribution channels (book stores, Amazon, distributors, etc), as well as the marketing directed at readers (a value-add for the distributors). Finally that publisher prints and ships the books.

What has the eBook really eliminated? The last step—printing and shipping. It also provides the opportunity to skip every step in between, but if a writer goes that route they either have to do all the interim steps themselves, or skip them and hope they get lucky. Yes, we hear of novels that started out as eBooks and became overnight sensations, but there is often more to the story than we’re told.

Consider the recent cause célèbre of independent publishing Fifty Shades of Gray that began as Twilight fan fiction, and so garnered attention from the fan-sites before being revised and moved to E. L. James’ personal site to avoid copyright problems. By the time it was released through POD and eBook it had already found an audience. One could say that James had already done her own marketing by building up her following beforehand. She caught a number of good breaks along the way, too, that eventually resulted in a traditional publisher picking up the series—and it wasn’t until then that the series really took off.

Even now, if James were to publish a new novel without a publisher she would need to do a significant amount of marketing to let her fans know it was available and how to find it. Horror writer MichaelBrent Collings makes a living as a self-published writer, but he recently stated that he spends 40-60% of his time on marketing and exploring technology to support his marketing. Most writers don’t go into writing to become marketers. They can learn it, but they may still never be as good at it as a professional.

That’s why the Virtual Publisher model has promise. In this model an individual, be it a writer, agent, editor, marketer, or entrepreneur, takes on the role of a project manager (PM), with a book release as the project. This assumes, of course, they have a manuscript they believe in as the starting point. The PM moves the manuscript through the pre-publication process of editing the book, copy-editing the book, creating a cover, planning the marketing, and lining up the distribution. Each of these tasks can be outsourced to a specialist, who either gets paid a flat fee or by a percentage of revenues. Depending on what they are accustomed to and how much dedication to the project is desired, it may be desirable to link at least some of their compensation to the success of the finished project.

The PM might also act as the revenues disbursement point, unless the team includes an accounting/bookkeeping role. All proceeds come to them, and they divide the money between the various parties according to the contractual agreement. As this is something an agent already does, this makes them one of the more logical candidates to act as the PM or bookkeeper in this model.

Alternately, the role of the PM might be best filled by an editor, who often already has all the contacts needed to put together a quality team.

This model could mean a smaller cut for the writer unless they fill any of the other roles themselves. However, the value-add of the other roles may more than compensate. If, for example, an author could sell 2000 copies of their book by their own efforts, and keep 75% of the proceeds, and under this model would only sell 3000 copies and keep 25% of the proceeds they might be better off going it alone. But if under this model they could sell 10,000 copies of their book, that 25% suddenly represents a much greater income—and frees them to spend more time writing the next novel, creating a shorter business cycle and increasing income.

The key here is leveraging the skills of others who already know how to perform their respective tasks, and can do them better and more efficiently than even a jack-of-all-trades writer.

The other advantage is the ability to build a brand name. If a particular PM is able to build a stable of writers under a specific brand they increase their ability to market and cross-market each novel. Consumers come to recognize that brand is reliable and return to it again and again rather than exploring on their own to find good books in the sea of individual self-published writers.

That in turn makes it easier for the PM to attract good writers and good freelancers in the other roles. And yet the virtual publisher, while easily scalable, maintains very low overhead.

There are publishers already exploring this model in varying forms. TM Publishing produces four separate free e-magazines in different genres as the marketing piece of their eBook publishing business. At least one traditional publisher is experimenting with this model, but by largely putting the costs of publication on the writer. Other companies already exist that will provide many of the pre-publishing services of a traditional publisher a la carte for a fee. Marketing, however, is not one of them.

The model I’ve proposed steps things up a notch. By creating a virtual publisher with a brand to build and maintain we push quality back into prominence. Only those novels the PM or editor believes in will get selected, which still leaves an army of would-be writers self-publishing, but it gives the consumer places to go to help locate quality books. Just as content filtration/aggregation sites have begun to help locate the best content on the internet, virtual publishers could help solve the same problem for the forest of eBooks growing up across the web.