A Book Report on Books

This is a reprint of a speech I delivered to my local Toastmasters club yesterday afternoon.
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A while back, fellow member Bob Smith so eloquently answered my Table Topics question about whether as a reader he preferred bound books or e-books with a very politically correct answer of “both for different reasons.” As middle ground as his answer was, his sentiment is shared by many readers, as can be seen by the almost 50-50 split of bound vs. e-books sold on Amazon last year. However, that trend is changing as Amazon’s own numbers project e-book sales to exceed 80% of their business over the next five years.

While this is obviously a change in consumer reading habits, there is another part of the equation that is changing: the publishing industry.

There was a day not so long ago when major publishing houses were bustling and new authors had a really good chance of getting their manuscripts picked up by one of the “biggies,” which led to wide-spread distribution in major bookstores across the country, often around the world.

But times have changed, and now many of the major booksellers are gone, either gobbled up by simple attrition through the marketplace or they were bought out by a larger publisher and their operations condensed under the new umbrella. Lower profits from discounted books has also hurt the major publishers and reduced many of the former power houses to rubble.

In an industry that used to have over 20 major players, now there are just six, aptly named “The Big Six”:

  • Hachette Book Group
  • HarperCollins
  • Macmillan
  • Penguin Group
  • Random House
  • Simon & Schuster

As with any industry, the fewer players there are, the less likely you are to get your foot in the door and be noticed. As a result, many amazingly talented new authors are completely passed over because of the overwhelming number of books being proposed to these six remaining publishing houses.

So what do new authors have to do nowadays if they want to get published?

The unintended, but ultimately beneficial, consequence of this tightening of the publishing portal has given new life to a previously shunned part of the book industry: self-publishing.

Not that long ago, self-published authors were the dearth of the book business – talentless hacks who just wanted to see their names in print even if the books themselves were total crap, which a lot of them were. The self-publishing industry didn’t need to make a bad name for itself – it was already a bad name on its own.

Early self-publishing houses — called vanity presses — would charge authors thousands of dollars to publishing their books, with no regard for whether the book was good enough to sell even a single copy. Authors would often invest their life savings and have nothing to show for it.

But all that has changed now. Today the self-publishing industry has cleaned up its act and become much more respectable. It has mostly eliminated the large upfront costs for authors and has changed instead to a royalty-base system where the publisher does not charge anything up front but instead simply keeps a percentage of each book sale, thus incentivizing them to sell as many books as possible and make as much money as they can for the authors.

Self-publishing is now a respectable and highly viable alternative to fighting for sales in the book publishing arena.

Two major technology advances have allowed for this:

  1. E-books, which do not require printing and binding, so they are cheap to produce. Just create an electronic file – typically a PDF – and make it available for download for Kindle, Nook, or any other e-reader. Anybody can do it. You could publish an e-book from your home computer.
  2. Print-on-demand or POD. You order a book and it’s printed and mailed to you, which means the publisher doesn’t keep inventory or spend valuable dollars on warehouse space.

There is a downside to all of this, however: more work for authors. If authors really want to keep costs down, they have to do a lot of things themselves, such as editing, cover design, and marketing – tasks that were traditionally left to the publisher to perform.

When I published my novel, Absolute Authority, I weighed the two options – traditional and self – before deciding which way to go. I wrote out a list of the pros and cons of each and compared them to find my answer.

Traditional

Pros:

  • Aside from the actual writing of the book, most of the other work is done by the publisher
  • Better marketing exposure
  • No upfront costs

Cons:

  • Hard to get in – tons of competition for just a few contract slots
  • Very little control of the book once it goes to the publisher

Self-Publishing

Pros:

  • Book goes to print faster
  • More control over distribution
  • More profit per book – lower royalty fee than traditional publishing

Cons:

  • Have to edit yourself or pay someone to edit the book
  • Have to scope out own distribution channels
  • All marketing is on the author

In the end, I chose to self-publish my book through Amazon’s own publishing house, which gave me instant listing and marketing through Amazon, the world’s largest bookseller. Because of my extensive marketing background, I knew I could market the book on my own, which I have done successfully. In addition to my listing on Amazon and other e-reader sites, I now have books in several independent booksellers throughout the St. Louis area, and it’s selling fairly well.

With the publishing industry changing, it’s nice to see there are multiple options for authors – new and experienced – to get their work out there. This also gives readers more options of books to read. With e-book prices being so low – many of them under $4.00 – readers can take a chance on an unfamiliar author without spending a lot of money, and might possibly find a literary gem they would have otherwise overlooked.

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