It seems The Honeypot of Self-Publishing is getting sweeter and sweeter by the day for the publishing industry. The appearance of just one self-published book on the New York Times Bestseller list would have raised quite a few eyebrows not too many years ago, and, yet, just a few weeks ago (Aug 5th), no less than seven titles by four different authors graced the list. Of course, we are talking about the New York Times e-book fiction list, but nonetheless it reflects how times have changed. Even the most recent combined New York Times list of bestselling ebook and paper editions (Sept 9th) sees Maya Banks’ Softly at Sunrise at number 21. William P. Young’s The Shack dominated many bestseller lists for more than a year as recently as 2008/9. As more readers migrate and become accustomed to buying books in e-format, this growing presence for self-published authors looks like it will continue and thrive.
While such successes may help to copper fasten the belief the self-publishing community has in its books having a rightful place in the book market—despite the stigmas and ever-present detractors from the legacy side of the book industry; readers still judge a book by its cover, blurb and marketing hyperbole, but most readers don’t give one iota how a book is published once it reaches their hands and proves to be a good read. They still burst with the same enthusiasm to share their reading experience with other readers. The legacy of publishing will always be that it began as both curator and educator, and however tainted that self-proclamation is perceived now by young and technically savvy authors, publishers earned it by rite of passage, dedication and survival through 500 years of the book industry. Maybe they have a right to shout about the legacy they built now that it is being truly tested by the Digital Sword of Damocles.
Publishers do love their brands and imprints—more than the readers who buy their titles—and the success of many independent and self-published authors may be testing that old love affair. It is teaching publishers a thing or two about the importance of author brands and the value of connecting with readers through social communities—whatever way the content is packaged and delivered. But the rise of self-publishing has also taught publishers a great deal more.
What is the Self-Publishing Honeypot and why are publishers starting to see how sweet it is?
The Self-Publishing Honeypot has many of the answers publishers have been struggling to get to grips with (or ignore) over the past twenty to thirty years. It has already taught publishers more in the past ten years than they have learned (or remembered) in the last five hundred years of publishing. Some will argue my assertion that The Self-Publishing Honeypot has much to teach them, but I still think it is still important to remind them that the solutions to many challenges are never too far away from home. Much of it has to do with the connections and relationships publishers have (or want to have) with their authors and readers. The Self-Publishing Honeypot might comprise of all authors and service providers, but as in every facet of life, the cream and success rises to the top, and often that is all we tend to see and remember, rightly or wrongly.
Here is what publishers are just starting to learn (or relearn):
· There exists a new, small breed of savvy authors who know as much about how to sell books—if not more—than publishers
· Pricing flexibility can still lead to profit
· If you really want to base your business strategy up solely as a market receptacle—rather than be proactive and promote literary trends—then you need to get a book to market as quickly as possible
· There exists a new breed of publishing services, operating as competitors to publishers, far more adept and comfortable embracing digital changes in the industry
· There are more streams of monetization in the industry than just publishing and selling books, like offering publishing services externally and establishing writing academies of excellence
· Self-publishing—as a way of identifying new writing talent with an already proven sales success—is one strong alternative to the dreaded slush pile publishers have already given up on as a reliable method to contract new authors
· Recruiting the best of self-published authors is another way publishers can still claim to be gatekeepers and curators of literature while still delivering what readers want
· Agents—perceived by some publishes to be their content suppliers and servants—like authors, are beginning to re-evaluate their roles in the industry, bypass publishers and go direct to readers via book packagers, distributors and (e)retailers
· Running a business which is entirely dependent on the success of less than 10% of your clients can only lead to an uncertain and perilous future. Publishers are quick to remind us of the unique nature of their roles and how much publishing is a risk, but even the betting industry ensures the risks taken are stacked wholly in its favour
Large publishers—when caught in choppy and dangerous waters—are often compared to large oil tankers. You might see the danger ahead at the same time as everyone else, but the bigger the vessel, the longer it takes to steer away from the rocks, no matter how skilled the crew. Smaller publishers, like tugboats and schooners, can appear to be swift, quick-witted, innovative and capable of surviving in the long term, but once the large vessels finally turn into safer waters, they soon catch up. Large publishers in the past couple of years or so are certainly showing signs that they have shaken off a lot of the digital paralysis that had struck them.
In fact, almost all of the big six publishers have developed sophisticated digital programs in-house or are forming programs with external partners. Penguin and HarperCollins have been particularly strong recently in this area. There was a time—not too long ago—when much criticism could be laid at the door of large publishers for not being receptive to digital publishing. That is certainly not the case now and it was brought home loud and clear at this year’s London Book Fair. Publishers are serious about developing their digital wings, knowing it will very soon be the primary engine room of their business, but more than that, publishers for the first time thinking beyond the confines of what legacy publishing was. Just a couple of days ago, Ideal Logical founder, Mike Shatzkin, recounted a lunchtime meeting with HarperCollins CEO, Brain Murray:
[Brian Murray] expressed dissatisfaction with the term “legacy” to describe the publishers who had been successful since before the digital revolution began. For one thing, he felt that sounded too much like “the past”. We need to come up with a different term,” was his assessment and he suggested that perhaps “full-service” was more apt. I find I keep coming back to “full service” as an accurate description of the publisher’s relationship to an author. That’s what the long-established publishers have evolved to be."
So, which publishers already have their hands firmly in the Self-Publishing Honeypot?
· Thomas Nelson (bought by HarperCollins this year) operate self-publishing imprint Westbow Press (powered by ASI)
· Self-help publisher Hay House run self-publishing imprint Balboa Press (powered by ASI)
· Harlequin, one of the world’s largest romance publishers, operate self-publishing imprint DellArte Press (powered by ASI)
· Troubador, a UK academic and business publisher, operate Matador
· Fontaine Press in Australia run Vivid Publishing, a self and assisted publishing imprint
· Penguin, one of the big six publishers, have run Book Country, a self-publishing imprint for the last two years. This year, Pearson, owners of Penguin, bought ASI and made it a Penguin Group company
· Berrett-Koehler operate the paid publishing service, Open Book Editions
· Magazine and writers’ most famous publishing brand, Writers Digest, operate self-publishing imprint Abbott Press (powered by ASI)
· Hillcrest Media took over US self-publishing service Mill City Press a few years ago and are developing a number of hybrid imprints
· LifeWay operate Crossbooks (another ASI powered self-publishing imprint)
· Amazon, the most famous online retailer in the world operate a number of publishing imprints (including the Kindle publishing platform), but it also owns one of the most well known DIY self-publishing imprint for authors, CreateSpace
This is by no means a definite list. The borders between legacy and self-publishing are constantly blurring. As each year goes by, more publishers are developing self-publishing imprints, and, interestingly, we are also seeing a number of companies offering self-publishing services cross the divide to offer traditional publishing contracts with trade distribution and complete marketing, or, what HarperCollins’ CEO would call—full service publishing.
It is very clear that the largest global company offering self-publishing services to authors—Author Solutions Inc, now a Penguin company—has played a big hand over the past three years in promoting its resources to publishers as well as authors. So now we know which publishers have already climbed into the Self-Publishing Honeypot. It might be worth taking a look at the publishers who are staring very intently at that sweet Self-Publishing Honeypot. A few have stuck their fingers inside without actually pulling a large spoon from their back pockets. Honey sticks once you touch it and it is hard not to smear anything you touch afterwards even if you were just having a quick taste.
Which publishers have sticky fingers?
HarperCollins have been fooling around with honey for a lot longer than many might think. HC first dabbled with the sticky stuff several years ago when it launched Autonomy, an online author community originally set up to talent-spot the latest magnums for HC’s imprints. Scott Pack, a former Buyer Manager with Waterstones, eventual kingpin at independent publisher, The Friday Project, was tasked with being ‘the bloke that sort of runs Autonomy’. It pretty much sums up HC’s author community. At best, it has been chaotic and has led to a number of authors signing deals with HC imprints, but on the whole, Authonomy has withered into a quasi literary-political coliseum where authors are fed to other authors under pain of death if they don’t review, say or vote for another author’s uploaded book. All is fair in love and war and forgiven if an author can hit the top three spots on the HC editors’ pick at the end of each month. Of course, the community is also under daily attach from adverts for self-publishing services like CreateSpace and the vagaries of self-publishing providers actively trawling the community with direct marketing messages for authors. It’s getting your hands sticky, but in a nice, clean and unstuck way.
HarperCollins got even further low-down and sticky this year when they purchased Thomas Nelson (along with ASI powered imprint, Westbow Press) and lumped it in with fellow Christian imprint, Zondervan Publishing. Grand bedfellows, but sooner or later HC will stop being so damn esoteric and abstract and just buy or launch a bloody self-publishing imprint of their own!
If there is one clear sign that large publishers can dip their fingers in the Self-Publishing Honeypot without actually having to set up a self-publishing imprint; look no further than Bloomsbury and Faber in the UK. Both publishers are developing new revenue streams through education and academies. Bloomsbury are supporting and sponsoring a number of projects through their Writers’ & Artists’ branded website—ranging from consultancy, writing services, to writing conference events for authors. Faber has developed the Faber Academy with numerous writing courses and workshops and have been developing this as long ago as 1989. It may not be out and out self-publishing services, but be aware that publishers are tapping into revenue streams through writers in more ways than you can imagine and they don’t have to have a sign up in the front window of the shop.
Another way for publishers to get their hands sticky without the need to set up self-publishing imprints is by operating affiliate or partnership programs with other self-publishing services. Like the recent fake review scandal in the publishing world—it happens a great deal more than you might imagine! I actually wrote about this as long ago as 2009. Back then I spoke about referral programs run by Chronicle Books and UK military book publisher, Osprey Publishing. Chronicle began a program where its editors would refer rejected authors to Blurb, a DIY self-publishing service, and Osprey, for a period of about a year, ran a program where submitting authors—on occasion—would be referred to AuthorHouse in the UK. Both publishers have since dispensed with the affiliate programs, but this meant that every time Blurb or AuthorHouse signed up to one of their packages, the respective publishing house would receive a referral fee. Legend Press also engaged in referrals to the online writing community, YouWriteOn, some years ago. The practice is not exclusive to publishers, agents have also engaged in the practice as well editing and consultancy services.
Which publishers are staring at The Self-Publishing Honeypot?
In short, everyone! There are few large publishers not considering getting their fingers sticky. Most of them will inevitably at some point in the coming years embrace the concept of the publisher as a company providing content services in one form or another—whether that means developing a self-publishing imprint or just providing consultation, writing courses or academies to budding writers. The Honeypot is mostly made up of writers who won’t submit to legacy publishers or will never be good enough to come through its rigorous process, but they may ironically represent the very financial future of publishers as we know them today. It is a sobering thought and one many may not be willing to accept right now.
Publishers are under pressure from many fronts, and not just because of today’s digital challenges—that is a normal part of modern business, though, publishers would like to think their industry is unique. The Department of Justice in the USA put publishers straight on that misconception very recently. No, the real squeeze for publishers is coming from top and bottom—retailers and authors. Retailers are quickly learning how to become content facilitators and not just sellers in the new digital dawn and authors are becoming publishers by using those facilities. It may not be publishing as we once knew it, but it is publishing as it will be.
So, which big publisher is next to dive into The Self-Publishing Honeypot?
Of course, while the publishing industry is not one for delivering too many surprises, you can never rule out a dark horse emerging from the shadows, but I suspect we will see Bloomsbury and HarperCollins continue to test the edges of the publishing envelope. As publishers better develop their digital platforms, more and more B2B partnerships will be offered to the smaller guys who don’t have the in-house resources. It is only a question of time before publishers open up their gates and migrate to full service content provision for authors at a price. We may not see too much movement in the coming few months because the industry is in a very fluid and fragile state. I suspect we will see some musical chairs soon, but maybe next month’s Frankfurt Book Fair is just a little too early for any big announcements on the acquisition front, but don’t rule it entirely out. Little birds sometimes tweet too loudly before the dawn.
Right now we are seeing a period of consolidation for the publishing industry and it is time to prepare for next year’s spring clean with a little shrinkage. During the 1980’s and 1990’s we saw many large publishers consume small independent publishers, and, since then, we have witnessed Grandpa Publishing find it harder and harder to get up from his seat at the Christmas dinner table. Gluttony is a hard thing to undo and it makes the ship harder to steer. We are going to see a lot more moves like Amazon’s recent grab on Dorchester titles. It is sink or swim and we have entered the digital age where content is king, but the branding publishers were so quick to dilute over many years may be the one thing that can help in a messy phase of industry transition. In truth, Amazon was not interested in the Dorchester brand—it wanted the authors The only brand Amazon is interested in is the Amazon brand and experience because it is product and customer centric, and that means publishers will always have to take a back seat in every deal.
Digitalization and The Self-Publishing Honeypot have already dramatically transformed the publishing landscape and publishers are re-examining their role in the industry. They can learn something from their sweeter cousins or simply choose to feed from the pot as a dessert and preserve what they believe is rightfully theirs. It is time to spread around a little more of the royal jelly. Publishers will be in deep trouble if they are still struggling with digitalisation in twelve months time, because the next big challenge for publishers and authors alike on the horizon in the coming years is how to deal with global translation and its developing technology. By then, The Self-Publishing Honeypot may be empty and authors en mass may have long filed their divorce papers.