Monday, November 22, 2010

Understanding Context

Before launching into independent publishing (or any venture), it’s essential to look at CONTEXT. How well do I understand the publishing world as it exists today? How well do I grasp the way that technology and other trends are changing it? What is happening with competition? Can I imagine the future well enough to create a compelling strategy for getting my own work into the world?

The US book publishing industry is large and mature and in flux.  Technology is changing the way in which books are produced, distributed, marketed, promoted and retailed, which creates opportunity for independent efforts and self-publishers. I have found it valuable to look at the “traditional” value chain for books and to contemplate how it is changing.

The Traditional Value Chain for Book Publishing
Author > Agent > Editor/Publisher > Printer > Wholesaler > Retailer > Customer

There are changes to the value chain as technology allows Print on Demand (changing the activities and costs of the printer) and e-books (changing the activities and costs of producing, wholesaling, and retailing books). Not all books are agented, and at least one imprint is switching to an all-digital strategy. So the value chain is definitely shifting, but this captures the most common form.

A New Value Chain for Books
Author > Author Services Provider/Retailer > Customer

There are, of course, many variations on this new value chain. For instance, any given author might choose to engage a freelance developmental editor or copyeditor or book designer independent of an author services company like Author Solutions or With CreateSpace and PubIt, and Barnes and Noble are both author services providers and retailers. So, this diagram captures a simplified view of the changing value chain. 

I’ve found it useful to understand the role of the Publisher and how it has evolved, because this provides clues as to how it will continue to develop.

A Look at the Evolution of Publishing

Mom & Pop industry (1900s–1960s) The first publishers were tastemakers, focused on identifying and nurturing talent. They often invested their own money and took lots of smaller gambles. During the Depression, Publishers established the practice of accepting fully refunded returns by booksellers, due to concerns that retail sales would suffer if the shelves weren’t adequately stocked. By the 1960s, the consolidation era began.

Initial consolidation (1970s–1980s) Characterized by the emergence of the “independents,” or independent booksellers, publisher sales forces, mass marketing strategies, information technology advances, and more efficient inventory management.

SuperBookstores (1980s) Barnes & Noble and Borders, shifting from the mall-based strategy of independents to large-footprint superstores, again caused an industry re-alignment. Large economies of scale qualified them for major volume discounts, and they stocked thousands of titles at deep discounts.  Publishers put more marketing behind titles they knew would sell well.

Conglomerates and the arrival of Online Bookselling (1990s–2000s) By the 1990s, larger conglomerates like Bertelsmann, Pearson, News Corporation and Viacom had taken over both publishing and distribution activities. So a large swath of the industry was now being run by business people who expected growth, and when consumer spending on books flattened, cost cutting ensued. Publishers increased their emphasis on signing superstar writers and that in turn drove increases in advances for these authors (and put downward pressure on advances for non-star authors). The drive for blockbuster titles in turn drove expenses and returns as sales failed to meet expectations. This era was significant for changes in retailing as well: In 1995, arrived on the scene, and their marketing reach and discounting practices contributed to the pressure on independent bookstores, the number of which dropped by 40% between 1993 and 1998. Discounters like Wal-Mart and Costco ushered in a major shift away from consumers buying bestsellers in bookstores.

Market Share of Major Publishers Today
Five publishing houses represent over 50% of the market.
Random House (a subsidiary of Bertelsmann);
Penguin (of Pearson);
Harper Collins (of News Corporation);
Simon & Schuster (of Viacom); and
Hachette Book Group (of Lagardère)

The top ten publishers have approximately 70% market share. The remaining market share is split among hundreds of smaller, specialty or “boutique” publishers. If you start to think about the impact of self-publishing, data from U.S. ISBN agency R.R. Bowker helps to complete the picture. Bowker reported 130,477 active publishers in 2008, a 27-percent increase over 2007. Not surprisingly, most of this increase was within the small-publisher category, according to the Book Industry Study Trends report. So, we have a very entrenched and concentrated set of players making up the majority of the industry, and tens of thousands of small players fragmenting the rest.

One critique of the publishing industry is that it produces too many mediocre books. Now that the costs of producing and marketing a book are so small, that problem gets worse. What players will emerge to curate the masses of self-published books that are flooding the marketplace? To the extent that publishers and retailers have historically played the role of tastemaker and gatekeeper, it will be interesting to see if/how they or other players will become arbiters of quality for the self-published set.

Size of the Industry
While the American Association of Publishers estimates the $$ size of the industry at $24.3 billion, the Book Industry Study Group estimate is closer to $40 billion. What explains the difference? In particular, it would be the sources of data and the methodology that each uses to estimate the revenue.  To me it illustrates a serious problem in the industry generally, which is a lack of comprehensive data about the business.

Print on Demand
The emergence of POD technology is important because upstarts can sell a book online without committing to distribution and physical inventory (and its associated costs) using POD provider. Still, it is challenging to get into the bookstore network without pull from booksellers or consumers, so distribution remains an obstacle.

One piece of the puzzle is challenging to reconcile, and that is ebook data. According to Forrester, e-books now account for 9-10% of sales.  And they’re estimated to be close to $1b by end of 2010, and $2.8b by 2015.

Here is another source of e-book data: 

In an acknowledgment of the growing sales and influence of digital publishing, The New York Times said recently (Nov 2010) that it would publish e-book best-seller lists in fiction and nonfiction beginning early in 2011.

Publishers will retain power so long as the print book business survives and their scale and capital-intensive activities are required.  Given that they don’t currently “own” the relationship to readers and don’t seem to have particular insight into consumers of books, it is hard to imagine that they will survive -- at least in their current incarnation -- if/when electronic becomes the dominant form of the book. Their cost structure and resulting low margins for writers will make them an uncompetitive option in the new digital world. So, unless they figure out how to change their business model dramatically, they will be marginalized alongside brick and mortar retailers. (You can be inefficient, costly, and bad at understanding the nuances of the consumer market if you’ve got big barriers to entry and you’re among the only game in town. But when barriers come down and new upstarts move in, those characteristics will end you.)

One source of industry analysis that I’m finding helpful is here:  Consultant Mike Shatzkin argues that

“Big publishers will be holding onto bricks and mortar retailing for as long as possible…[because they]…depend on a bookstore network for their survival. Their core proposition is “we put books on shelves”; that’s what requires the scale and expertise that they have and that nobody else can compete against. When retail shelf space goes away, there’s little a big publisher can do that can’t be duplicated by anybody with the cash to put together an ad hoc team of freelancers and graft them to some service providers.”

How will big publishers fare when ebook uptake increases to 20-30-40% of the market? Here’s an insightful blog post by James McQuivey at Forrester.

Then next obvious question is, how will fare? is in the author services business with CreateSpace, and has tremendous distribution reach. But I find Amazon most interesting because they have data and the ability analyze and derive invaluable insight about book buying behavior. They own the relationship to the consumer and that just might be the most valuable asset in the next wave of the book business.

My conclusion is that the future hinges on ebook uptake and customer relationship data and analytics.  With ebook uptake, the existing power structure shifts dramatically and publishers will transform or new players will emerge to become the tastemakers. And the people who own the customer relationships -- and therefore have data and the ability analyze and use that data to more effectively and efficiently market to consumers -- will be the only ones in the position to thrive in the digital future that is book publishing.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Goal

To be absolutely clear on the goal­—it’s something that each of us aspiring self-publishers needs. Why am I pursuing this path, and can I define my goal clearly to myself and others?  What, precisely, am I trying to accomplish, and how will I know if I’ve succeeded?  Without that clarity, it is difficult to determine the best path forward, and to know how to expend often-limited resources for maximum benefit.

I started by talking to people who knew a lot more than I did.  This consisted of those who had actually published or been instrumental in getting work into print:  mostly literary agents and successful writers, but also one friend who had done both traditional and self publishing.

I also asked myself a lot of questions.  Here’s a sampling of question sets from writers, self-publishers, and others that I found the most useful:

I found some of the following questions particularly helpful and have shared my personal answers in italics:

Why do you write?  What drives you to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and what parts of the process bring you satisfaction and joy?  In your minds’ eye, what are you trying to do through your writing? Some people write purely for the process and the art of expressing themselves, some to impart knowledge or expertise, others see writing as a vehicle to having an impact in the world, others aspire to all of the above, or something else altogether.  

I write because I want to connect with other people through stories. Therefore, I need readers. Even though I love the writing process, my ultimate reason for writing is about that connection, so my goal includes reaching as many readers as possible.  

How do you want to spend your time? What motivates you on a day to day basis? In the long chain of activity between writing a book and seeing it in the hands of readers, where do you want to invest your precious attention and hours?   

Like manyif not most people, I’m highly motivated by a sense of progress.  Forward motion.  Goal-approachment.  I realized that in traditional publishing, after the writing is done, the steps tend to take a really long time and involve a lot of waiting for other people to act or approve, from the process of trying to land an agent to the sales cycle to the year+ before your work is turned into a book.  If you prefer to use that time to move onto the next writing project, it could be ideal to have someone else handling those elements. But in thinking it all through, I realized that I strongly prefer an active role. I also realize that I would rather learn to arrange many of those things for myself and to keep things moving.

Can you withstand the possible lack of respect?  If you’re a new writer, let’s be honest, the stamp of approval of winning over an agent and selling to a respected publishing house goes a long, long way to having credibility in the eyes of most people—whether in the industry or not.  It takes some reserves of self esteem to respond well to the looks that often come when you tell people that, no, you don’t have an agent and no, you’re not being published by Random House.  If you can channel that doubt (or worse, pity) into your drive to succeed in your self-publishing venture, great.   If not, think hard about the path you’re on.

My logic is this: If anyone expresses doubt about my pursuits how can I blame them? The odds are tough and breaking through the noise of tens of thousands of books published in a year is no small feat for anyone, whether pubbed by a major house or a scrappy startup.

How much do you like business?  And its sister question, what resources do you have? No doubt about it, publishing is a business, and the requirements to be successful are not the same as those needed to produce a great piece of writing.  However, business is a learnable field and primarily “applied common sense.”  So, as long as you are not actively turned off by it, and can accept that the other actors will often have more of a profit motive than an art motive, lack of experience in business or as an entrepreneur or salesperson should not be a barrier.   If you’re self motivated enough to write a book, the business part should work out fine so long as you have some resources --time, money, perseverance, connections, advice from experts--and ideally all of the above.

It’s funnyI started writing as a way to pursue something creative that didn’t involve starting a business. It is ironic that I’ve landed here as an aspiring book entrepreneur.  I can see that the people and steps involved in traditional publishing add a lot of value, but in self publishing I will have more control over which people end up editing and designing and publicizing my book, and that is immensely appealing. I also like the idea of trying to figure out this quickly changing business while actively participating in its evolution.

How will you measure your success? Given the low cost of entry for self publishing, one could choose to self-publish without necessarily having “sales” goals. Just having your work available to potential readers (or your family:) seems a legitimate aspiration. It provides a sense of completion and accomplishment with minimal financial outlay.  However, it is also legitimate to set specific and ambitious sales goals that reflect the level of investment (of money and time)you make and the commercial potential that you believe your book has.  I believe Annie Begins has substantial commercial potential but there are so many other possible—and important—metrics. Here are some of mine:

How many people I reach with a story that brings them enjoyment or insight (which of course is correlated to sales, but this goal is about my readers, not me)
How much I learn
How engaged I feel in the day-to-day process

Are you doing it for the money?  I sure hope not.  Kidding.  But, how much cash do you intend to invest in self publishing, and what kind of return are you looking for?  If the money is important to you and you can possibly get an advance through traditional publishing, you should seriously consider that option. Because self publishing is the path that requires you pay rather than get paid, and there’s a very good chance of not recouping the $$ investment.  

For this first book, my minimum financial goal is to break even on what I expect to be a meaningful investment for a first-time author (mostly for marketing and publicity). I’m more optimistic than that sounds, but I also know that it takes time to build a brand and reputation and I’m anticipating that I’ll need to put in sustained effort before seeing rewards.

Summary:  I very seriously considered pursuing traditional publishing to the exclusion of other options, but after careful analysis I decided that my skills and motivations are better aligned with being a book entrepreneur.  I think we are at a critical point in time, possibly a Tipping Point for publishing. The value proposition for a traditional publisher is still strong, but it is increasingly possible to replicate it if you can invest properly in editorial and design experts and in marketing and publicity.  And since traditional publishing is not an option for many of us, self publishing represents a truly exciting alternative.   

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What's the Plan?

I’m a big picture thinker.  But I realize that just thinking big isn’t enough to get my book published: I also need to organize, plan, and execute. 

Since my day job involves executive coaching and professional development, I’ve been trained and tested in all manner of personality instruments, and the latest one (the Hermann Brain Dominance Indicator or HBDI) confirmed what I’ve always known: I’m most comfortable in the space of thinking strategically, holistically, intuitively, integratively.  I’m less attracted to administrative, planning, and controlling activities. However, if I want to produce books, I realize I need to utilize both types of skills. (The premise of the HBDI is that we all have preferences--e.g., left brain, right brain--but to be most effective in life, we would develop our “whole brain” by actively cultivating the skills we’re less naturally inclined toward, or at least being aware of the pitfalls of not doing so, and coming up with some compensating strategies.)

I wonder if many writers (especially of fiction) aren’t similar, with a natural tendency toward imaginative thinking, and preferring activities like: looking at the big picture, taking initiative, challenging assumptions, visuals, metaphoric thinking, creative problem solving, and long term thinking. These seem to me to be absolutely essential skills for producing a good piece of writing. Now, enter the prospect of turning that (hopefully good) piece of writing into a product that can be marketed and sold effectively.  At least according to the HBDI, the skills required are on the other side of the brain. So, it might take active cultivating for many writers who are also aspiring publishers to do all of the steps associated with the production side of process. Or, to outsource to experts.

Here’s how I’ve approached the challenge of incorporating my whole brain into this process of strategizing, but also organizing and planning:

First, I want to be absolutely clear on my GOAL. Why am I pursuing this path, and can I define it clearly to myself and others?  What, precisely, am I trying to accomplish, and how will I know if I’ve succeeded?

Second, I think it’s essential to look at CONTEXT. How well do I understand the publishing world as it exists today? How well do I grasp the way that technology and other trends are changing it? What is happening with competition? Can I imagine the future well enough to create a compelling strategy for getting my own work into the world?

Next, I’ll determine my overall STRATEGY. What, specifically, will be my approach to focusing my time and resources so that I can achieve the goal? If the essence of strategy is choice, what will I do, versus not do?

Finally, I’ll zero in on the myriad aspects of MARKETING that require a disciplined blend of strategy and execution.  Marketing strategy is about really understanding my target market--who is my reader and how does he/she make decisions to buy and read a book?  Marketing tactics, or execution, are all about how to put a winning product into the market and get it into the hands of my target market.  For this, I’ll use the classic “marketing mix” as a checklist, including Product (the book itself), Pricing, Placement (distribution), and Promotion (publicity, etc.).   

More to come this week on these topics, starting with Goals!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Paradox of E-Book Pricing

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal a week or so ago about how Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books.   My first instinct about E-Books is that they should be a boon for writers, because the costs involved with producing them are so dramatically lower than traditional printing options. But, as the article points out, the cost savings do not seem to reach the authors who are attached to large publishing houses. In fact, the opposite is true. Because the top line is lower, the way the current structure works, authors are making substantially less.

In addition to explaining how E-Book pricing is impacting literary authors and describing several other topical issues (about overcrowding in the book market, smaller advances all around, and dramatically smaller ones through independent publishers), the article also touches upon how difficult it is with these new  economics to make a living as a literary writer and how the current system makes it unlikely that the careful nurturing of fiction as art form will continue -- gone are the days of patiently developing the careers of such writers. (Though already-famous writers and those producing work considered more commercial are likely to do well with the E-book.)

All of these issues are fascinating and need to be considered. But the article underplayed one of the most interesting angles in the whole evolution, which is who makes money and why. It mentions that the Authors Guild and several literary agents are pushing for authors to get a higher percentage of E-Book revenue, but also that publishers are resisting. And I do understand why they are resisting -- their cost structures are so out of whack that they surely feel justified in retaining a dramatically higher percentage of revenue than the artist gets. To them, they probably need it to keep the lights on. But this seems fundamentally unfair to the authors, especially given the different economics of producing an E-Book. As E-Book revenues grow disproportionately to hardcover and paperback, they will be propping up the outdated and outmoded business models of their print brethren until such time that this revolution works itself out. In the meantime, the real trick for independent and self-publishers is to figure out how to replicate the still-substantial value created by the web of professionals that populate traditional publishing, but without the insane overhead. That's certainly what I hope to do.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Getting Started

Well, I started like most aspiring writers -- by writing. I "completed" my novel more than three years ago. By completed I mean I finished four solid drafts, got a bit of feedback, then stuck it in a drawer and procrastinated away the next few years (at a demanding new day job) while I waited for my confidence to catch up with my manuscript.

About a year ago I dusted off that manuscript and started thinking seriously about looking for a literary agent, and quickly realized I was facing a very different world -- one in which my fiction category was considered glutted (I disagree!), agents were more under water than ever (I totally agree!), and it seemed that traditional publishers were only interested in blockbusters, preferably featuring vampires. Since my novel is light women's fiction of the Jennifer Weiner or Emily Giffin ilk and without a bit paranormality, I was mildly concerned but willing to give it a go. But after several months of querying and waiting, querying and waiting, getting encouragement but no offers of representation, I became really interested in how the business of books is changing, and how I might take advantage of that to pursue a different path to publishing, one that would let me take advantage of my latent entrepreneurial instincts.

I have an MBA from a top ivy business school and a passion for understanding how technology disrupts traditional business models and reorganizes whole industries. In the mid- to late nineties I worked in several Internet start-ups (one of which was, funnily enough, sold to and was a researcher at Harvard Business School, working with a fabulous professor and mentor who had started the first MBA-level course on e-commerce in the country (maybe the world). During that time I worked on case studies about Internet startups and helped develop a CEO guest series that brought many an Internet entrepreneur to campus, including Jeff Bezos and an MIT guy named Joe Jacobson who had this very cool technology called e-Ink. (Later, one of my business school classmates would become the CEO of the company that commercialized e-Ink, the electronic "paper" that is the basis of the Kindle e-reader.) 

I followed my mentor from academia to a strategy consulting firm, working in a unit that focused on digital strategy, and I distinctly remember hearing a certain mantra about the Internet at that time: people tend to way overestimate the impact of a new technology in the first couple of years (as we did, in dramatic fashion, at the time of the dot com bubble and its subsequent bursting), and way underestimate its impact over the next ten years. Or something like that. It seems to me that is what has happened around the promise of the eBook -- like many, I've been anticipating this revolution for some time, and it is pretty exciting to see it unfolding in front of us now.  I also love how Print on Demand is completely shifting the dynamics of how books can get to market -- and who can get them there. (Incidentally, Annie Begins is set in a dot-com startup right at the beginning of the bubble...)

I've been away from technology companies for a while now, having focused for the majority of the last decade on leadership development and organizational learning -- both as a consultant and coach and as a director of talent development for a financial firm.  Over that same  period, I became a member of the board of directors of one of the most amazing literary arts organizations on the planet, the nonprofit Grub Street in Boston, Massachusetts. It is through Grub Street that I nurtured my love of storytelling and writing and also got immersed in the extraordinary world of writers that make up the Grub community. Working with the founders, we've spent countless hours thinking about how to support writers and how to connect writers with readers, excitedly contemplating how the evolution playing out in front of us could help make that connection possible.

So, that brings me to here and now, where I'd like to rekindle my entrepreneurial instincts and combine them with my Grub-related efforts to connect readers and writers and my desire to bring Annie Begins to the world. I'm starting an independent publishing venture called (sixoneseven) books and Annie Begins will be my first title. And I have lots to figure out before that can actually happen, and I'll share it all here (and invite others into the discussion), with the hope that it will help all of us who are pursuing the crazy, exciting, fast-moving option of indie and self publishing. More to come!