Turning the Page on the Book Industry


There is no friend as loyal as a book. —Ernest Hemingway

I love books. I love technology. And of late, I find myself asking more questions about the relationship between the two. While I have shelves groaning under the weight of books yet to be read, I also have a Kindle stuffed to the gills with many books yet to be opened.

At no previous time have we had greater access to the words of our favorite authors, and yet as a whole, the book industry, or perhaps more accurately the traditional book publishing industry, seems to be a bit lost.

The Old Model

The traditional book publishing model still relies on a very basic chain of events:

  1. Author writes book
  2. Author seeks agent who likes said book
  3. Agent seeks publisher who also likes the book
  4. Publisher pays author an advance against future sales
  5. Publisher prints and sends to a distributor
  6. Distributor sends it out to bookstores
  7. Along the way, all parties hope to recoup costs and make a profit
  8. Author hopes to become wildly famous and paid to write forever and ever

I may have missed a few steps, but the basic model has been the same for a long time. The model lasted in large part because writers were so reliant upon physical things like brick-and-mortar bookstores, warehouses, and big presses.

Publishers had a monopoly on distribution. Unless a writer became a full-fledged publisher, invested tens of thousands of dollars on a single book, and knew how to work the system, the writer could not get his book into a bookstore.

But now things have changed.

Books as Souvenirs

Seth Godin seems to land on these amazing ideas years before they flow into the mainstream. His approach to books, seeing them as souvenirs, is particularly ingenious given our current attraction to slurping up ideas that are available in multiple channels.

Consider his book Unleashing the Ideavirus. Seth gave the entire book away for free online. At present, it’s been downloaded roughly 4 million times. Even though the book was available for free online, the $40 souvenir version still landed at #5 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Seth’s ideas about book publishing and his latest effort, the Domino Project, turns the traditional publishing model on its head by reframing (or is it reminding?) us of what he sees as the industry’s main purpose:

I think that most people in the publishing industry show up every morning to do their job instead of showing up every morning to fulfill their mission. And their mission ought to be connecting readers and writers. And as soon as you can get rid of paper, that job becomes infinitely easier.

From the Screen to the Shelf

Self publishing used to a dirty phrase in the book world. You only self published because your work was so bad, you couldn’t find a “real” publisher. But the times, they are a’changin’. With the introduction of services like Lulu and CreateSpace, self publishing and even on-demand publishing has gone from a no-no to a viable option for many writers at the end of the “long tail” that Chris Anderson likes to talk about. It looks even more attractive when you as the author/publisher can set the price and rely on volume to make up the difference. Perhaps even more entertaining are the stories of successful self-published authors who get chased down by the traditional publishing houses. Then there are the already established authors who plan to cut out their publishing houses completely. Clearly the traditional model no longer holds the same power as it did in past years.

With viable digital platforms, authors need not even concern themselves with producing a physical book. Personally, I think there will always be a market for that tangible, paper book. Perhaps future generations will prove me wrong, but there’s something so satisfying about holding a book with real pages that turn. However, the transition to the digital seems to have flummoxed more than one bookish-related person.

Clinging to the Past, Screwing Up the Future

I believe that we’re watching the book publishing industry hasten its own demise. In much the same way that the music industry, the news industry, and really any other medium that can be digitized, some book people seem to be clinging to the past while covering their eyes and plugging their ears to the future.

Yes, we have digital books and platforms, but they’re tied up in DRM, and Terms of Service that leave you not owning the book at all. But does ownership really mean anything in the digital age? Only if you care about censorship and ready access. It is much more difficult to censor something tangible than it is to censor something made up of bits and bytes.

If I’m holding a physical book, it takes another person to walk up and remove that book from my possession. However, with the click of a mouse, someone can remove my digital book from my device in a manner of seconds. Then there’s the issue of access.

There are also the device makers themselves (who also act as the distributors). Each reading platform comes with its own rules that make it difficult, if not impossible to move easily between devices, creating wall gardens of content.

Consider some the moves made to “protect” digital platforms:

What the Future Holds

On average, I buy at least 5-10 physical books and perhaps two to three digital books per month. Maybe that number will shift when I really do run out of shelf space. The point remains that there is much to be read, and publishers and all those other people in the middle will need to decide how (or even if) they fit into this new model. Frankly, at this point, I trust the authors more, and if the traditionalists keep beating their drums that locking content and writers down is the best option, I believe they’ll get left behind.

The layers separating writers from readers is so thin now that as more writers figure out their options and distribution channels, the need for the current services of the existing industry will go away. Independent editors and designers will assist with finishing the book, and channels to reach potential readers can be filled by proactive writers willing to reach out to reader directly.

Many of the readers at ReveNews are writers (or content creators) in their own right. I think the opportunity and resources now exist for anyone who really wants to write and publish a book to do so. It doesn’t mean that it’s gotten any easier to write a book, but perhaps it has gotten a little bit easier to share your book with readers.


About Britt Raybould

Britt Raybould has a passion for telling stories and she specializes in helping companies figure out how to tell their own stories. Through her firm, Write Bold, she shows companies how storytelling can define them, both to their customers and within their industry. When she remembers to, Britt blogs on her personal sites at bold-words.com and brittraybould.com. You can find Britt on Twitter @britter.

Twitter: britter

4 Responses to Turning the Page on the Book Industry

  1. I love physical books … I do not have a book reader device but I did use the Kindle for PC application … but I have been reading PDF books on my computer for several years.Personally … I wish that book readers would stabilize on PDF for the ebook format so that it would be easily accessible for computers as well as iPads, Nooks, Kindles, etc.

    My main dislike of non PDF ebooks is the problem of trying to back them up in case of a computer system crash. I want to be able to back up ebooks I paid for easily just as if it were a Word or Excel or PDF document or I want it on a physical cd/dvd disk that I can use when I get a new computer to read that book again or to share it with someone else.

    When I buy a physical book … I can give it to someone else to read, leave it laying in a chair at the doctors office for someone else to read it, etc. Those are important to me as a reader and as a writer as well as a member of a family that reads & shares books.

    • @Barbara: I struggle with the digital format, too. One of the best ways to discover new books is when my friends offer to share a book they’ve already read. That ability to share and discover new books through friends is definitely more limited with the digital versions

  2. Jim Kukral says:

    The traditional publishing business isn’t dead, no, but it’s just not needed anymore. Will it die? Who cares? I care about publishing my own content.

    I’ve raised over $15k in 5 days for my new self-published books by taking pledges… and I haven’t even written the books yet. http://www.businessaroundalifestyle.com

    Now you tell me why I need a publisher? Because I’ve made my own signing bonus. Bookstore placement? A myth, unless you’re a best-seller.

    • @Jim: There’s also the aspect of maintaining control from beginning to end. When you’re self-publishing you set the standard that you want to achieve as opposed to what gets determined in a contract. Combine that with maintaining unquestionable copyright and self-publishing definitely looks like the future.