Saturday, March 16, 2013

Big Publishers Forming Imprints With ASI: You're Doing It Wrong. Here's How To Turn The Titanic Around

I have been VERY vocal in my criticism of the many mainstream publishing outfits who've decided to form new, vanity publishing imprints in partnership with Author Services, Inc. (also known as "ASI" and "Author House", among many other aliases). This begs the question: if those vanity partnerships are so wrong, what should publishers be doing instead?

I have the answer, and it's pretty damned simple. You'll see for yourself when I lay it out below: there's nothing terribly Earth-shattering or insightful in it, it's all just plain old common sense. But no plan, no matter how sensible, will ever get any traction with big publishers unless they can accept some attitude adjustment first.

Note that in this post, where I refer to Big Pub, I'm talking about the Big Five mainstream publishing houses.

Partnering With A Vanity Press Will NEVER Work

What you've decided to offer via your various partnerships with ASI is such a transparent ripoff of authors, you really ought to have known better. It's painfully obvious to everyone (other than Big Pub, apparently) that this is a facile money-grab undertaken by outfits that are desperate to get a piece of the growing indie market share, but are so unwilling to invest anything of value or meaning in the endeavor that they've outsourced the entire enterprise to a disreputable vanity press.

ASI has been in the business of overcharging would-be authors for "publishing services" while also stripping them of their intellectual property rights for decades. Do you really have so little respect for writers that you thought we wouldn't realize inserting yourself between us and ASI can only accomplish one thing: to further increase ASI's already excessive fees to cover Big Pub's cut?

Readers Are Your Customers

For many decades publishers have viewed booksellers as their customers, not readers. Publishers sold their books to booksellers, who in turn sold them to readers. This business model makes readers the customers of booksellers. It's a business model that is now failing in the face of so much technological and cultural disruption, yet big, mainstream publishers seem at a loss to shift their focus from booksellers to readers. They've made careers of knowing what bookseller purchasing agents want, they've never had to give much thought to what readers want. That's always been the booksellers' job.

Well guess what? Amazon, the biggest bookseller of them all, is eating your lunch precisely because it has only ever focused on what its customers---in this case, readers---want. Its in-house imprints are informed by reader tastes and wants, and if you want to survive, your imprints must be similarly informed.

Authors Are Your Lifeblood

It's not just aspiring authors who are going indie in droves. Increasing numbers of well-known, mainstream-published, bestselling authors are jumping their mainstream publishing ships in pursuit of the greater control and profit afforded to indies. When JK Rowling decided to take her ball and go home, it should've been a wakeup call to your entire industry.

Popular, established authors don't need you anymore. There is nothing you can offer the Rowlings of the world that they cannot obtain on their own more cheaply, more efficiently and faster than you can provide any of it.

And this is why continuing with business as usual is a slow suicide march for Big Pub: you turn away from anything you feel appeals to anything less than a NYT bestseller -sized audience for fear such books won't earn enough to keep you afloat, yet authors who do succeed in scaling such lofty heights are as likely as not to ditch you as soon as they've gained a foothold with readers.

And your ill-advised partnerships with ASI have given authors and aspiring authors good cause to look at you with a very jaundiced eye. What more proof do any of us need that you don't view writers as your partners, but merely as profit centers to be exploited?

When an author or would-be author asks you (as they are starting to do with regularity), "What can you offer me or my career that going indie can't?" you better have a good answer. Because right now, what you have to offer most first-time authors is ridiculously slow publication schedules, unfair contract terms, laughable efforts at promotion, and advances so small that they may not even cover one month's expenses for a writer who toiled months or years on the manuscript you hope to profit from.

Either that, or the "opportunity" to have the bones of their dreams picked clean by ASI.

You DO Have Something To Offer, But It's Not What You Think

Up until recently you've done a great job of convincing writers that what you have to offer is an odds-on opportunity for fame and riches, and that without you fame and riches are impossible things for any author to achieve.

When you lost your stranglehold on the distribution piece of the bookselling business, it was time to come out from behind the curtain and dispense with this Great and Powerful Oz shtick. Thanks to several well-publicized instances of indie authors reaching sales figures to match those of your strongest authors, and MANY well-publicized (within indie author circles, at least) instances of indie author earnings FAR exceeding those of authors who've signed with Big Pub, the cat's out of the bag and authors are paying very close attention to the man behind the curtain.

The good news is, enough writers have become self-publishers that as a group, they're pretty well informed about the harsh realities of publishing and bookselling. They know from firsthand experience what's involved in producing a book and bringing it to market, both in terms of effort and expense. They know it's not free and they know it's not easy.

The bad news is, they're no longer buying what you're selling because they also know it's a myth: signing with Big Pub guarantees nothing in terms of a book's success or failure. All that it does guarantee is that the book will be mired in Big Pub's outdated, slow, inefficient production, distribution, sales and marketing processes.

Your Commodities Are Administration, Experience, Expertise And Connections

Your business model is in desperate need of a radical overhaul, to display what you bring to the table in sharp relief for would-be author-clients. Big Pub needs a Public Relations facelift too, to rebuild the trust between yourselves and writers: something it seems you've greatly undervalued, judging by how quick you were to squander it on the likes of ASI. Fortunately for you, acting on the former may ensure the latter takes care of itself---but only if you do it right.

I have blogged here before about the necessity for any indie who's going it alone to have an entrepreneurial spirit and approach, if she hopes to earn a living on her book sales alone. Guy Kawasaki echoes the same opinion in his book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book. But I've also acknowledged here that many, perhaps even most, writers have no desire to be entrepreneurs. There are plenty of exceedingly talented writers out there whose strengths in plotting and characterization far outstrip their skills in bookkeeping, administration, design, production or marketing.

You have people on your payroll right now, as I write this, who are seasoned experts in the very things those authors can't, or don't want to, do by themselves. These are the things you have to offer and you've come by them honestly, so stop trying to hide them like so much stagecraft.

How To Capitalize On Indie Authorship Without Being Evil

Here are the broad strokes of how, were I in your shoes, I would attempt to turn the Titanic around.

(Any Big Pub representatives reading this who'd like to fly me out to New York for some paid consulting time to have me fill in the details, I can be reached at indieauthor at gmail dot com.)

Up until now, in recent decades your business model has required Big Pub to be interested in only two kinds of books: easy moneymakers, and status symbols. Any book that came your way and didn't appear to be either a likely bestseller or winner of a major literary award would be rejected, regardless of any other appealing qualities it might have.

This is why you haven't published a Great American Novel in generations, yet have created a market environment in which the Snookis and Honey Boo Boos of the world will never have much difficulty signing a six- to seven-figure book deal. It's time to let go of your self-assigned role of gatekeepers and arbiters of taste, because you've been exclusively in the business of selling product at a profit far too long to keep denying it. There is no shame in this; you're businesspeople after all, not philanthropists. So own it.

Writers aren't bowing and scraping to you anymore. You can no longer afford to sit on high like so many Pontiffs of Publication, reaching down to bestow your magical favor on the select few while brusquely relegating all other supplicants to the nearest exit.

You need to start PARTNERING with authors, forming business relationships that put the parties on more or less equal footing. You can no longer survive merely as book publishers, you must also become book producers.

Step One: Retool The Factory

If I can find freelancers to provide quality editing, cover design, interior layout and ebook formatting services for under $2500 total, and with turnaround times of 2-3 weeks each (or less), you should be able to acquire these same services at a comparable cost and within comparable timeframes.

If you haven't got the in-house staffing to do it right now, establish a stable of trusted freelancers to whom you can subcontract the work at the same rates they're already getting from individual indie authors. Alternatively, pay them higher rates in exchange for the right to keep them as dedicated resources, taking jobs only from you, to ensure they will be available when you need them.

There are PLENTY of skilled editors, designers and ebook conversion experts out there (many of whom were laid off from fulltime positions with magazines, newspapers and other publishers) who would welcome the chance to have a fully-booked work roster, as well as the opportunity to add the business relationship to their resumes.

You also need to keep some social media / web communications experts on staff. Their job would be to engage in social media and web communication on your brands' behalf, and to train / mentor your author-clients in the most effective uses of social media and web communication. This approach is considerably less expensive---and more effective!---than throwing money at the usual, old-school book promotion methods.

Step Two: Overhaul Distribution

Re-negotiate your contracts with booksellers to eliminate returns. Indie authors and small, independent imprints aren't subject to those impossible terms, and now that chain booksellers are no longer the powerful rulers over your domain they once were, you are no longer subject to their unworkable demands.

You should get the same deal producers of every other product known to man get in the world of retail: the seller orders as many units as they think they can sell in advance, and none are returnable. The seller can discount any unsold product as he sees fit, holding monthly or end of season clearance and 2-for-1 sales, if need be. Once the product has left your warehouse, it's no longer your problem.

Since brick-and-mortar, chain booksellers are an endangered species, MOST of your print book production should be managed with a Print On Demand system, which would eliminate the big chunk of your current overhead expense that goes toward large, upfront print runs.

Step Three: Overhaul Advances

Establish an acquisitions model that doesn't require you to essentially sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into lottery tickets in the hopes that just a couple will pay off each year. Instead of acting as treasure hunters, ever on the lookout for the next blockbuster and willing to throw hundreds of thousands of dollars or more at a single title, acquire a wide range of titles that can respectably clear the net profit threshold, and acquire them at lower cost to put that threshold within easy reach.

There's no reason for ANY advance to ANY first-time author to EVER exceed six figures, and even six figure advances should be so rare as to be newsworthy. Historically, the great majority of books acquired in bidding wars have not earned out; but acquiring them has prevented publishers from spreading their capital (and risk) across many more titles with potential.

Get out of this downward monetary spiral and let your rivals take a bath on those bidding war gambles; it won't be long before all of the Big Five stop acting like they're on a bender in Vegas. A typical advance for a very promising book should be in the mid- five figure range, and many other books could be acquired with far more modest advances. Just think how many more titles you could acquire if you never paid any advances higher than $125k, and the great majority of your advances averaged out at less than $20k.

Step Four: Pluck The Low-Hanging Fruit

Successful indie books are hiding in plain sight all over Amazon, Apple's iBookstore, Smashwords, Goodreads and elsewhere. These are authors who've already proven they know how to write and they know how to grow a readership all on their own; imagine how much MORE successful they might be with your help. They are a proven quantity too, so your investment in their books is very low-risk, nothing at all like acquiring a previously unpublished title you think may hold promise.

Acquiring previously self-published, successful titles allows readers to tell you in advance which books they want to buy. You should be seeking out the authors of bestselling and best-reviewed indie books and offering them contracts---but not in the way you've done it in the past.

Step Five: Overhaul Acquisitions

For every manuscript or self-published book that comes to you for consideration, rather than the simple math of your current thumbs up, thumbs down system, you should consider one of four possible outcomes.

1. Possible Bestseller / Award Winner - Offer the typical, negotiable contract from one of your flagship imprints, with a sizeable up-front advance and back-end profit split. The book will be published in both print and ebook formats, and the author will receive training and support from your social media expert team.

2. Possibly Respectable Seller, Midlist Type Title - These are manuscripts you're currently rejecting on a daily basis, because you can't see a way for these books to recoup the costs you must invest to produce them. Yet countless indie authors are turning modest to impressive profit on books that sell only in the mid-thousands of copies. After you've retooled the factory and made the other changes outlined above, your overheads should be considerably less than they are at present, bringing the bar for profitability within reach for far more books.

Offer these authors the typical, negotiable contract from a new, boutique imprint, with a modest up-front advance and the typical back-end profit split. The book will be published in ebook formats only to minimize upfront costs, and the author will receive training and support from your social media expert team. Any book in this track that proves to be a hit could also be offered in print formats later, with terms either negotiated at the same time as the ebook deal or later/separately.

3. Modest Seller, Quality Work, Motivated & Social Media Savvy Author Who Could Grow - Offer these authors a negotiable contract for an ebook only release from a new, boutique imprint with no upfront advance, and a back-end profit split that's higher than for acquisitions made under items #1 and #2 above. The author will receive the same training and support from your social media expert team as all your other signed authors.

For this type of book, you would essentially be taking what you would've paid as an advance and investing it in the production costs of the book. The backend profit split begins with sale #1 since there's no advance to be repaid. You're partnering with the author in a way that helps him to cultivate a larger following while minimizing your upfront investment and risk.

4. Unpublishable, For Whatever Reason - Reply with an honest rejection, do not offer to sell any professional services.

Step Six: Open A Totally Separate Author Services Division

Open a new business, totally separate from your publishing business, to serve indie authors who wish to remain indie. This business would offer paid pro services from the same stable of in-house or freelance / contract experts you employ on all other books. The key is to ensure your service offerings are priced only slightly higher than what those authors would have to pay if they sought out and contracted for the services themselves.

Your slightly higher price points can be justified on two counts. First, you would be offering a one-stop shop of pre-vetted service providers, saving authors the time and trouble of locating and vetting individual service providers themselves. Second, you could provide a certification seal to service division clients, allowing them to place a seal on their book covers certifying the book has been professionally produced by the experts at [insert company name here]. This certification would be buyers' guarantee that at the minimum, the book they bought has been professionally edited and designed.

Unlike your current ASI clients (if any), these authors are being allowed to remain completely independent and you would merely be offering services they would have to acquire on their own anyway if they intend to stay the course of top-tier indie publication. With this model, the author retains all rights to the work and there's no backend split - you are offering 'for hire' services only.

To eliminate even the appearance of any conflict of interest, anyone to whom you offer 'for hire' services cannot resubmit the book for later publication consideration under items #1-4 above. No writer should be led to believe that if he invests in the for-hire services you have to offer, a publication contract will be forthcoming.

Step Seven: Lather, Rinse and Repeat. Class Dismissed.

April L. Hamilton is the founder and Editor in  Chief of, founder and Editor in Chief of The Digital Media Mom, and Editor in Chief of Kindle Fire on Kindle Nation Daily.

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