Thursday, September 25, 2008

Independent publishing: local goes global

Yesterday I talked about the Mount Everest of problems the traditional publishing industry is up against. A major source of their competition in coming years will be free fiction online (some of it actually being good stuff, though most isn't -- the trick is to hunt down the gems), and their inability, within their current business model to supply what the customer really wants.

Readers want ten times the choice they're getting at the bookstore right now; and they want books they can afford, which is why they're haunting the book exchange, the used book store, (and other online stores), and also looking at ebooks as a viable alternative.

Used book stores are as wide and varied as ebook stores. They can be piles of waste paper, like the local one (where the books are $8 and so battered, they're falling to pieces), or they can be like Title Wave in Anchorage, AK, which was the best one I ever used. I bought crates of books there. Title Wave was three floors of books, fiction and non-, every subject under the sun; comfy chairs, and about 200,000 different titles under the same roof! It was book buyer paradise ... with the average price of an "near as-new" book being about 50% of the retail price of a brand new one.

Used book stores are like goldmines; and doubly so when they're on line. itself deals in mountains of used books, and then there's, and so on. There are so many of these used book bazaars, so long as you don't mind paying $12.50 for shipping to get a title from the US/Canada to Aus, you're in luck. Now, a $5 used book plus international shipping is still under $20, and it's probably (!) a hardcover ... a brand new paperback, here, is $25, plus or minus a few; a new hardcover is $40 - $60, so the online deal looks sweet. Plus, the inventory you're looking at at the online stores is listed in the millions of titles. Ahhhhhh.

But here's the publishing industry's problem: every time someone buys a used book, they didn't buy a new one. Duh. Yes, but it was Ernest K. Gann's "Soldier of Fortune" I wanted, not some bloody thing by King or Lustbader or Clancy. The book I wanted hasn't been in print since the 1960s! But I found it at for $3 ... in as-new hardcover.

The more this happens, the worse the situation will get for traditional publishers.

They'll be asking, who the hell wants to read a book written 50 years ago? Well ... how about someone who read it yonks ago and loved it, like me.

Or ... someone who's 75 years old now, retired, plenty of time to read, and (!) computer literate, with a handy little piece of plastic with the word "Visa" printed in one corner. The marketplace is getting older along with the rest of the population, and high percentages of retirees are living on the Internet, loving the freedom of it, like the rest of us. They're probably on a tight budget, looking for a bargain ... looking for a book they loved years ago, but lost their copy (traded, sold, whatever). They want specifically Taylor Caldwell's "Captains and the Kings," not something by Mary Higgins Clarke or Terry Goodkind or Matthew Reilley, goddamn it.

Book buyers are heading to the Internet in a natural process; trying to stop them would be like trying to hold back the tide with a broom ... but if reports are true, traditional publishers did look at this as a viable option! A little while ago we heard they were examining ways to ban online and electronic publishing. Good luck.

Part of the process is the shift from buying old books, used, from places like, to buying reissues -- reprints -- which are produced POD; and then ... yep ... looking at new books which are being done POD.

POD has come of age at last. Print On Demand really does mean that a copy is printed when someone orders one. A writer can go into publication for minimal investment; and millions of them, globally, are doing just this.

The physical quality of POD books is now equal to the quality of store-bought product. In most cases, you can't tell the difference. Where you can tell, the POD product is actually superior, because it's not printed on crappy paper. It'll be laser printed onto cream-tinted bond paper, which has a lifetime a helluva lot longer than the "bog" stock used by traditional paperback printshops. The covers and dustjackets on POD books should be indistinguishable from the mass-produced variety.

The potential downsides, however, are several. Price: the book will be a little more expensive, and when we're trying to get product into readers' hands at LOWER prices, this is not good news. Only real, genuine booklovers are going to hunt down POD titles and pay bookstore-equivalent titles; although there is also the ebook option these days -- and I can report from personal experience, two out of three online-shoppers are going that road.

The other potential downside to POD books is the omnipresent question, "How good is it?" Can this writer actually string words together in a lucid manner? Does he or she actually have a story to tell? Did an editorially savvy person go over this piece with a fine tooth comb before it was printed? Did six people proofread it with real, human eyes?

Here, let me reiterate what I said yesterday: buying online, especially e- and POD books, the key is "due diligence." Find out before you put your money down...

And don't be surprised when the writing, editing and proofing are tip-top .. because, when professional writers, editors, artists and publishers get into this game, watch out!

This is happening more and more often as time goes by, and the reason is in the investment capital. Financial diseases that make the big companies sick will kill small ones. Publishers on a shoestring (those who do 6 - 10 titles per year, with a printrun of 4,000 of each title) can't afford the ad campaigns to compete with the New York and London monsters; also, national distributors won't often carry their product, because they don't publish enough, and can't offer discounts of up to 90% off the retail price. (Demanding those discounts is a watertight way to make the smaller publisher just go away and stop asking. It's been done. Often.)

By contrast, Internet marketing is cheap, and the WWW goes everywhere. Customers who're looking for a good read tend to come to you. They'll still look at 200 books before deciding which to buy, but they're shopping the web by their millions, and a tiny percentage of something huge is still considerable ... which is what market share is all about.

As a reader looking for new writers with new voices, you could do a lot worse that explore the online publishers. Jut do your "due diligence," don't get caught with crap. Even if you do get "caught" occasionally, you'll only lose funds to the tune of $3 or $5 -- ebooks are dirt cheap. Go for it: enjoy the hunt, and unashamedly wallow in the pleasure when you find something fantastic.

As a writer ... any writer, anywhere ... you'll already be wondering if POD is for you. A better question is, "Is self-publishing for me?" If you're with a publisher who is using POD services, you don't have this worry. Your publisher is supplying editorial and technical services -- they just send the printjob to someplace like, and you can battle on as usual.

But if you don't have a publisher and are thinking of going it alone, then "POD" has actually become a euphemism for "self-publishing." And this opens a whole new can of worms. Before you go this road, there's four points to look at:

#1. On a technical level, are you up to the task? In other words, do you write well enough? No one is going to make the hard decisions for you when you self-publish. If you have the confidence in yourself, go ahead. If not ... learn.

#2. Editing is critical. Do you edit well enough, can you edit your own work, do you know an editor who will help, can you afford to pay a ton of money for professional editing? This one is a minefield, and no one can answer these questions for you.

#3. Software. Do you own good enough software? Can you drive it properly? Do you know how to design and lay out a book? Do you understand about ISBNs and font issues, and all the thousand-odd little things which go into this job? No one knows but you. If you do ... go for it. If not ... (again) learn.

4. Distribution. Know how you're going to sell the book before you even think about putting the time and money into publishing it. Nothing is more sad than a fine book which sells few copies, or none at all. It happens with distressing frequency ... don't let it happen to you. Before you even type the first sentence of Chapter One, get your distribution figured out.

And that's what I'll be talking about tomorrow. I just ran out of time, and must suspend this yet again. Tomorrow, I'll pick up the threads and tackle a critical subject: how the hell do you market a book, when you don't have a publicist or an advertising budget to speak of, and distributors are out of the question??!


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