Book Publishing For Everyone

I’m thinking about books this week because there are suddenly so many options from which to choose.  Take a look at the services being offered on, which is one of the most successful of a flock of new Web-based self-publishing houses. Other companies in this market include iUniverse, Blurb, Outskirts Press, AuthorHouse, BookSurge and CreateSpace.

For just a few dollars, you can select from a wide range of templates, upload your copy and images and publish for yourself, your friends or the entire world.  Lulu publishes on demand, which means you don’t have to maintain a garage full of bound copies.  It’s a little more expensive than keeping an inventory, but you can’t beat the flexibility. There’s also less chance of hard-coding errors into thousands of copies.

Just Like the Pros

Over the last couple of years, Lulu has added an impressive range of publishing, marketing and distribution services.  For example, a custom cover design can be had for as little as $80 and professional copyediting and design services are relatively cheap. The availability of high quality offshore resources has been a big factor there.

You set your own price and pocket the difference. Quantity one pricing for some books can be as low as $10 to $15 and significant quantity discounts apply.  For a book that sells a few thousand copies, you can make a lot more money publishing yourself than going to a commercial publisher.

There’s also the advantage of time. Boston Globe columnist Scott Kirsner has published two books using CreateSpace, which is run by Amazon. For his latest book, Fans, Friends And Followers, “I wanted the book to be available soon after I finished researching and writing it, not six or twelve or eighteen months later, as is typical with traditional publishers,” he wrote me an e-mail. “As a journalist, I receive review copies of lots of books, and I’d say about half of them have gone stale by the time they get into my hands.”

Scott also cites the superior margins of self-publishing.  While commercial publishers typically pay royalties of no more than 10% of the cover price, self-publishing can yield margins of 50% or better.  One publisher of children’s books and I met last fall pays $2 dollars per copy to have her books printed in Hong Kong and sells them for $19 at fairs and book shows.

Not a Panacea

With economics like that, you might wonder why more authors and businesses don’t self publish.  There are some good reasons.

For starters, self-publishing takes a lot of time.  In addition to writing a manuscript, authors must shepherd their masterpiece through editing and production, which involves many hours of detail work.  Unless you have crack copyediting skills, or pay copy editors and proofreaders to do a thorough job, errors are bound to make their way into the final product.  The Web may be a forgiving medium, but print is less so.  Grammatical and typographical errors can undermine the value of your prose and make your effort look amateurish.

Marketing and distribution are also major challenges for self publishers.  While most services offer their own bookstores and promotional venues, the reality is that it’s nearly impossible to get into Barnes & Noble with a self-published title.  Some publishers make it possible to secure a coveted ISBN (International Standard Book Number), which buys you entrée into libraries, catalogs and retailers, most of whom don’t sell books without this standardized code. However, there’s no guarantee of success. Professional book reviewers are also less likely to pay attention to a book that doesn’t carry an ISBN code.

Finally, there is the legitimacy that a name brand publisher can bestow upon a book. While Simon & Schuster or McGraw-Hill can’t make a bad book into a hit, they have the relationships and sales power to move large quantities through simple bookstore presence.

These factors may matter to you little to you, however.  Books have been called “one-pound business cards” because they confer credibility that creates business opportunities.  They’re a great promotion to send to customers and prospects and they have leave-behind value that collateral simply doesn’t.  Now they’re also simpler than ever to produce.

And in case you’re wondering, I’ve worked with a professional publishing house on all three of my books. Quill Driver Books (a subsidiary of Linden Publishing), has consistently delivered fast turnaround, personal service and a professional job. If they didn’t, I’d probably be publishing myself!

Why Marketers Should Think Like Publishers

Hubspot just posted an interview with me about Why Marketers Should ‘Think Like Publishers’. I think this is a crucial barrier for many marketers, who have been taught to think of themselves as media influencers. While that role is still important, today marketers can actually become the media if they so choose. But that requires that they think differently about how they present information and target their audiences. I have some thoughts about that in the interview.

Thanks to HubSpot for the opportunity to voice these views. Hubspot has pioneered the concept of “inbound marketing,” in which the goal is to present compelling content that attracts visitors to a business rather than spewing messages at people. The company’s business has tripled in the last year, indicating that there are still opportunities for growth in this challenging economy.

Be Careful About Pinning Your Hope on "Communities"

I was a guest on a webcast about social software this week (you can watch it here; it’s free) and the question came up about what publications can do to build community. I responded that they can’t do much and they shouldn’t even try because, with few exceptions, readers aren’t a community.

Then I checked my RSS reader the next morning and noticed this item from Content Ninja that makes the very same point: “You cannot build a community around content.”

“Community” is a poorly understood term (just look at the variety of definitions in online reference sources) and, like many buzzwords, it is being overused right now. Mainstream publishers trying to escape their sinking businesses are clinging to the community life raft, hoping that it offers hope for a future. For some it does, but for many general-interest publications, it’s a waste of time.

Newspapers, for example, have historically defined their communities geographically because that’s the business model that worked. While people who share a common space on the planet are technically a community, they’re the least cohesive kind of community. Outside of a shared interest in certain issues like public safety or schools, residents of a city or town have little in common. They may occasionally form strong communities around common interests like a school bond or tax increase, but those groups invariably dissolve as the issue goes away.

There are readership communities that work. Subscribers to a special interest magazine about needlepoint or scuba diving are a type of community. Those people have intense shared interests and they are much more likely to bond together in an online forum that serves those interests. Publishers of special-interest magazines have the best chance of turning their readership into self-sustaining online communities.

General-interest publishers serving broad audiences don’t. Their strength is creating content and their best chance of building community involves giving people a chance to discuss, comment upon and contribute to their content. USA Today does about the best of any major newspaper at encouraging this kind of reader participation. It encourages readers to comment upon and discuss its stories within the the limited confines of non-threaded discussion, but the readers themselves have no means to create groups, initiate their own discussions or contact each other. There’s nothing wrong with that. USA Today doesn’t have the illusion that two million readers are a community. It’s comfortable with its place in the world.

IDG Reinvents Itself Online

Last week, The New York Times wrote about International Data Group’s (IDG) successful transition from a print to an online model. I was intrgued to read about IDG Chairman Patrick McGovern’s enthusiasm for the economics of new media. Having gotten to know McGovern a bit during my 15-year career at IDG, I asked him to appear on the weekly MediaBlather podcast that I co-host with David Strom. He immediately agreed. That’s the kind of person McGovern is. With all of the weighty issues that he must deal with every day, he is never too busy to chat with a colleague, whether current or past. In fact, McGovern still visits every IDG operation in the U.S. each December to distribute bonuses individually to every employee.

Our interview was about the business issues of IDG’s transition from a print powerhouse to an online specialty publisher. McGovern’s perspective is be inspiring. While the print industry collectively moans about the pain of transitioning from print to online, IDG has quietly taken its medicine and reinvented itself. Today, the company derives less than half its revenue from print titles, and McGovern expects online business to make up 70% of sales by 2012.

At InfoWorld, which was spotlighted in the Times article, the closure of the print edition and shift to a wholly online model actually increased margins from a small net loss to a 37% net profit. “Not only is there survival after going online, but it’s a much better environment,” McGovern told us.

IDG’s strategy is now to launch all new titles online first, build an audience and then take the business to print if the market demands it. “That way, we already have the audience and we can show the advertisers who’s asking for [the print title] and who’s going to read it,” McGovern said. “It takes away the risk.”

What works in the U.S. doesn’t work the same way globally, of course. Scandinavia and Korea are among the regions of the world that are innovating most successfully in online publishing, McGovern told us. In contrast, India is still a healthy print market but with a budding cell phone culture that may make it the first major economy to jump from paper to mobile devices without an intermediate PC stage.

There are some other gems in this interview. One is about IDG’s flirtation with a public offering through its books division a decade ago. McGovern, who has always taken a dim view of the public markets, relates how the experience distracted the group from its traditional market into ancillary businesses where it had no expertise. “If they had stayed private, I think they’d be a larger and more successful company today,” he commented.

We also talked about IDG’s phenomenal success in China, where it publishes a host of consumer titles in addition to its big technology brands. IDG’s venture capital arm now makes more money for the company from investing in Chinese businesses than the rest of the company does from publishing.

If you want to hear an optimistic perspective on the future of media from someone who is leading the charge, listen to this podcast (right click and choose “Save As…” to download to your computer). I think you’ll find it to be 25 minutes well spent.