How I Spent My Summer Vacation

September 10th, 2009 · 43 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Welcome back from whatever you did this summer. Me, I spent my time building a digital publishing company. It went mostly okay, though, in the end, there was no company to show for it. That has nothing to do with the work and talent of the people involved. Talk about amazing, smart, and creative.

Four terrifying words: high-resolution Word file.

When we started Quartet Press, one of the guiding principles was openness. It’s an uncomfortable thing. Publishing people like to pretend that the business different and secret. Not so. It’s good to talk about stuff. I believed then, and I believe now, that it doesn’t help an industry to move forward if people don’t talk about what they’ve learned from experiences.

The first thing you need to know is that there are very few industry best practices. They are developing rapidly. Don’t expect today’s rules to apply to tomorrow’s business, so plan for change, failure, and unexpected success (with a little expected success to make you feel good). I would not, however, suggest, for anyone starting in the digital first or digital only realm, to look to traditional publishers for guidance. Okay, maybe a few, but only in the instances where those publishers are doing it differently and taking real chances. Anyone who isn’t engaged in a level of messy experimentation, they’re not worth using as a role model.

(And based on the lovely conversation we had at BEA with a sales rep for a major service provider, the smart solutions are not necessarily coming from legacy service providers; on the other hand, the idea of providing “high-resolution Word files” lead to many hours of amusement.)

Here are some pain points to consider as you try to build a digital publishing business — this is an incomplete list, of course: ISBN madness (really, one ISBN for every format? the mind continues to boggle) and alternate product identifiers; formats, formats everywhere and not a hint of resolution; third party distributors, or, how do you get your books to retailers in the most efficient manner?; customer service (see: formats, devices, and all-around confusion); the challenges of getting your book to show up in retail outlets before release, particularly when you don’t have a corresponding print product; the imposition of DRM despite your stated preferences (really, who are the retailers protecting when they force DRM on the publisher?); pricing and consumer savvy.

It’s this last one that continues to fascinate me because there is a real struggle between people who make books and people who buy books. The former haven’t worked out the logistics of the digital business. In their defense, ebook sales remain at the blip level on the financials. But they are growing, faster than any other segment of the book market.

The latter group, however, consists of savvy early adopters and newcomers who are developing expectations about pricing and quality. These new-to-ebook people are also learning about DRM, portability, and the loss of reader rights. As I’ve said before, it’s never a good thing for an industry when your customers are savvier and moving faster than you are. Publishers need to experiment, but they need to listen to customers.

Last week, Arnoud Nourry of Hachette Livre made waves when he suggested that publishers are “very hostile” to Amazon’s ebook pricing policy. There was, of course, the inevitable “oh no we’re not” from other publishers, but Nourry’s worries are legitimate. The ebook marketplace isn’t geared toward the traditional publisher/distributor/bookseller arrangement. This is a problem. Publishers cannot expect the digital marketplace to conform to their business as usual.

(Oh, and authors? You need to realize this is going to impact you. I’m sorry, it will. Shifting economics impact everyone.)

Nourry’s problem — and his company is not alone — is that he is viewing ebooks and digital distribution through a physical lens. It did not come as a surprise to us that companies like Amazon take a huge chunk of receipts (50 to 65% of every dollar, depending on the program you’re in), and as we built financial models, we had to consider — which in some ways means guess — the volume of sales that would come from third party sources. For a digital publisher of any size, the best returns come from direct sales. In the romance ebook world, readers are accustomed to buying direct; many are aware that this practice puts more money in the pocket of authors, and make the effort to “buy local”.

This is consumer education done right, but most customers shop at Amazon or the Sony Reader store or Fictionwise or Books on Board because these entities aggregate ebooks from many publishers. Oh, and by tying hardware to the store, this means the retailers own these customers, lock, stock, and proprietary format. This cuts into the share of cash received by the publisher, and there is no expectation that retailers will become less aggressive. During Apple’s recent presentation, Steve Jobs noted that the company has 100 million active credit card numbers on account. Consider how much negotiating clout the music industry has with Apple right now. Extrapolate.

Nourry’s problem, as echoed by many, is that the $9.99 price point initially established by Amazon and quickly adopted by all other major retailers will kill the publishing business. It won’t, but it’s going to severely impact a segment of the business, unless publishers treat digital distribution differently. I cannot stress this enough. Every model we built focused on how the money flows in the ebook world, not how it flows in the traditional publishing world.

Yes, I believe there are ebooks for which customers will pay more. We have seen this to be true. But no rational analysis of, oh, Kindle bestsellers can demonstrate that a higher price point, especially when it comes to fiction, is being widely adopted by consumers. As noted many times, publishers aren’t helping themselves with inferior quality control standards while making claims about the value of their product. It’s hard to take these arguments seriously.

What we learned was that any financial model one builds for the ebook world must throw away traditional assumptions. Yeah, if you build everything around the belief that that those crazy customers will embrace your internal $26.99 price point model, then, yes, when Amazon and others start demanding better terms — and they will, they will — it’s going to kill some of your business. So it’s easier to start from the bottom, figure out what it’s going to cost, and then build the model.

Our model changed over time. A lot. As new information came in, new numbers were plugged into the model. Sometimes it came from rethinking front-end and back-end dollars, and how that impacts business relationships and cash flow. Sometimes it came from learning that processes we estimated to be very high were actually ridiculously affordable. Sometimes it came from knowing average unit sales would be a moving target until we’d been in business for a while.

One thing I took away from my summer of digital publishing — other than the fact that you can’t take a few classes and learn this stuff, no, in this case, doing was everything — is independent publishers, small press, has so much opportunity in the digital marketplace. The model is viable, and, most amazing of all, there are many people who are willing to experiment, iterate, revise, and rethink.

The ability to move fast and change with the business is key. The ability to think beyond “that’s how we’ve always done it” is essential. The importance of focusing on talent and creativity is critical. But the most important thing of all is this: your customers are talking to you. Listen.

File Under: The Future of Publishing

43 responses so far ↓

  • Brian O'Leary // Sep 10, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    There isn’t much of a track record of success among established companies when it comes to embracing a disruptive business model. It’s typically the new entrants that carry the day. You’re very generous to offer the established firms a path forward.

  • Laura Dawson // Sep 10, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    These observations are so great. And I’m so glad you’re sharing them – people need to know about that perpetually-shifting model which morphs depending on what information you can gather. And not all information is gather-able.

  • Morris Rosenthal // Sep 10, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Kassia,

    I’m pasting in the letter I sent the Financial Times when they ran the Nourry story, they didn’t print it:-)

    Sirs,

    In your front page article Monday “Hachette Chief Laments…” you qoute Arnaud Nourry as stating Amazon charges $9.95 for of all of its
    Kindle eBooks in the US, and “the rest will have to be sold between zero and $9.95.” If Mr. Nourry had spent five minutes on the Amazon site, he would know that $9.95 is only the price for bestsellers from participating publishers. Prices for Kindle ebooks range from zero to over $100, with most nonfiction and professional books barely discounted from the paper book price. Around 5% of the popular Kindle titles are out-of-print classics supplied by Amazon itself, but many of the top “selling” free and penny eBooks are actually promotional give-aways from innovative presses and self publishers.

    The small clique of large fiction houses that remain after the consolidation of the last three decades, a consolidation in which Mr. Nourry played an active role, are simply flustered that the cartel they were trying to build themselves has been pulled out from under them by the more agile Internet players: Amazon, Google Books and Apple iTunes. These same large publishers also played a major role in the retailer consolidation of the 1990′s, in which Barnes&Noble and Borders grew rapidly at the expense of the independent bookshops, thanks to co-op payments from the large fiction houses. Now that Amazon has surpassed Borders and Barnes&Noble, the publishers are belatedly learning that cartels aren’t so fun when you aren’t the one in charge.

    The next time Mr. Nourry wants sympathy for the predicament the large fiction houses have created for themselves, he should turn to the investment bankers who funded his acquisitions and the consultants who agreed that it was a topping idea. Those of us who earn our livings as authors and small publishers can only say, “We told you so,” and “Serves you right!” In the meantime, I suggest he keeps a copy of Chris Anderson’s “Free: The Future of a Radical Price ” by his bedside, and pleasant dreams to him.

    Morris Rosenthal

  • Eduardo // Sep 10, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Hi. What amazing testimony, thank you. I’m working on a pretty similiar project here in Brazil, and businnes costs are impressive and scary. Imagine trying to sell e-book in Brazil, where e-book market is at it’s very first steps. As you say, we must listen to the customers, and try not to think on the old print model. Anyway, goog luck to you. I’m sure (and hoping) you’ll be on the market with another project, soon. So much knowledge can’t be wasted.

    Eduardo

  • Gregory Carrier // Sep 10, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Great article. Flexibility is a must, but can wreak havoc on projections. Before working on royalty software I worked on software for real estate financial projections. The often repeated phrase was, “Garbage in; garbage out.”

    Best of luck on your next venture!

  • Jennifer Feddersen // Sep 10, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    Kassia, THANK YOU for posting this.

    I hope everyone reads it and understands what you are saying: these are new times and old publishing patterns just aren’t going to work.

    I feel like a broken record telling people that Amazon is doing its best to push the price point so low that it (and a very, very few bestselling authors) will be the only winner in the digital market. It has already done this in the computer game market and made life very difficult for independent game producers. (Just go on IndyGamer to read some discussions about that.)

    I think I know just what you were dealing with, and honestly, the only way around the problem as I see it is to go into the epublishing business with your eye on a specific niche.

    You need to sell your own books and not rely on traditional distributors. In fact, I would suggest a completely new model: create an affiliate sales model and allow authors, bloggers, etc., to carry your books on their sites and take a small percentage of sales. Then you can have 10,000 distributors instead of Amazon.

    Of course, you would have to work hard to become known as a place where readers could find quality books every time. This means high standards, quick and easy downloads, and terrific customer service.

    It would have to start as a second job for all parties; it would take a long time for such a venture to get off the ground and wouldn’t pay a living wage for ages.

    Meanwhile, authors beware: if Amazon has its way, you will create lots and lots of nearly free content for them (and are already doing so).

  • Mick Rooney // Sep 10, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    [...]there is a real struggle between people who make books and people who buy books. The former haven’t worked out the logistics of the digital business. In their defense, ebook sales remain at the blip level on the financials. But they are growing, faster than any other segment of the book market.

    The latter group, however, consists of savvy early adopters and newcomers who are developing expectations about pricing and quality. These new-to-ebook people are also learning about DRM, portability, and the loss of reader rights. As I’ve said before, it’s never a good thing for an industry when your customers are savvier and moving faster than you are. Publishers need to experiment, but they need to listen to customers.[...]

  • Mark Barrett // Sep 10, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    Thanks for writing this. Very smart stuff.

  • Mark Barrett // Sep 10, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Following up, your post reminded me of something that I couldn’t put my finger on. Turns out its a book called The Innovator’s Dilemma. I’m just now getting into it, and the comparison isn’t direct (it references specific companies, not whole industries), but there are clearly parallels.

    Might be worth a read for anyone trying innovate in the publishing industry, as well as for hints about how to reverse-engineer a calming (rather than disruptive) technology — which, in this case, would be a viable business model.

  • Quartet press to disband | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home // Sep 10, 2009 at 4:17 pm

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  • Paolo Chikiamco // Sep 10, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    Thank you for posting this. You’ve articulated a lot of the problems I had, and continue to have, setting up an indie digital publishing press (for Philippine Speculative Fiction), most particularly the fact that there are no “best practices” as yet for a digital press (or at least not any that are being made public) and the fact that there is no real way to make a solid estimate of unit sales before you actually start selling the books.

    We just launched our website and blog two days ago, and when I saw the news of Quartet’s untimely demise I was shocked. When I was doing my research this year on the market, I not only learned a lot from the way Quartet was going about its set-up and its core principles, but I also took heart from its very existence. I saw it as a testament to the viability of the enterprise.

    I still think digital publishing is viable, and it seems you do too… but this part of the ebook vanguard will be poorer and lonelier for your absence. I hope you throw your hat in the ring once again–let it be soon!–and if so, let me know, and maybe this time I can be the one providing some real world date. ^_^

  • Clancy Nacht // Sep 10, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    This was a really interesting read. I’m really new to this industry and it does seem impregnable. Thanks for sharing.

  • RKCharron // Sep 11, 2009 at 3:49 am

    Hi :)
    Thank you for sharing this incredibly informative blog post.
    I’m sorry your venture closed so quickly.
    I think that the best e-publishing is yet to come.
    Like Google, Facebook, and Twitter were invented to answer customer needs/wants I am positive that an e-pub will be created that will become as dominant as them, eliminating the DRM and the proprietary reader format and giving the purchaser ownership of what they bought.
    I hope you will create/be a part of this future.
    (& Angela James too!)
    All the best,
    @RKCharron
    xoxo

  • Brad // Sep 11, 2009 at 6:28 am

    Thank you for sharing your learning regarding Quartet Press. I realize that you and your partners decided not to move forward for a variety of reasons, but if a start-up (with very low overhead) can’t make the financials work in an ebook business model, how can a traditional publisher?
    Best of luck in your next venture.
    @BradMacl

  • Chris // Sep 11, 2009 at 8:19 am

    Maybe the digital publishing model *isn’t* viable, or is only barely viable. And maybe all these hardships are not invariably the publisher’s fault. Isn’t that one possible lesson?

  • INDEX // mb - Two Publishing Concerns // Sep 11, 2009 at 9:14 am

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  • Marilynn Byerly // Sep 11, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    I’m one of those hearty souls who were ebook pioneers, and I’ve been watching this business grow and change for over twelve years.

    When epublishing really started developing in the late 1990s, many of us believed that epublishing could be the way around the bottleneck created by the conglomerate publishers and distributors to the consumer.

    We discovered that readers simply wouldn’t buy their ebooks at the publisher. They preferred the one stop shopping of places like Fictionwise. For every book most of us sold at our publisher’s website, we sold hundreds through the distributors, and this has remained true.

    Meanwhile, the distributors, once again, have proved to be smarter than the publishers by controlling the pricing and and the profit margins.

    When Amazon decided that taking two-thirds of the profit of the ebook was a wonderful idea, the big publishers caved in because they refuse to believe that ebooks are a viable part of their future. The Amazon Kindle needed content to be viable so the publishers did have a considerable clout in the matter, but they never used it.

    Now, Amazon has decided on the price of books and is wiling to take a loss for big name titles to bring in more customers and trap them within the Kindle system.

    Frankly, at this point, I don’t see how a conglomerate with its overhead, etc., can make ebooks profitable enough, particularly as the brick and mortar paper venues are dying at an appalling rate, and they are losing sales from a lack of venues. I would not be surprised to see more of the conglomerates sell off their publishing units so they become indie once more.

    It’s frighteningly sad that a small publisher like Quartet can’t even start up in the current situation that big publishing and distributors have created.

    Meanwhile, the small original ebook publishers are either dying off or being bought by bigger indie ebook publishers. Whether that is good or bad news remains to be seen.

  • Karl Lamb // Sep 11, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks to you, I’m beginning (I think) to understand the Brave New World of publishing.
    But I hope my agent sells to an old-fashioned publisher to start with.

  • Tim Brandhorst // Sep 11, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Kassia, thanks for sharing all your thoughts, and for your openness and generosity in allowing so many of us to watch your work-in-progress over the past months. I’m sure this must be an incredible disappointment to everyone involved with Quartet.

    From Kat’s announcement yesterday it sounds as if your realization that things were not going to work out came as a sudden shock to all of you. I hope that you will consider going into far greater detail about some of the cost constraints you ran into–those you anticipated, those you didn’t, those that completely blindsided you–and, perhaps more fraught, what decisions you made along the way that you wish you could have a do-over on.

    I realize this is a lot to ask, especially of folks that ought to be either drinking heavily or in mournful seclusion, or both. Just hoping your generosity of spirit toward the publishing world will allow you to pass along some last bits of wisdom.

  • Jack McKeown // Sep 11, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    As someone who has served, over a thirty-year career, as both a traditional publisher and as an entrepreneur, I have two gentle contributions to make regarding the above exchange:

    1. A problem common to most publishing start-ups is capital inadequacy, in particular working capital. WC is the portion of current assets (read author advances, inventory, bookstore receivables, etc.) that are not funded by your current liabilities (primarily accounts payable due your printers, freelance designers, and yes, royalties payable due your authors.) You need plenty of cash coverage upfront to start a publishing business, whether it is e-based or p-based; and should your business be fortunate enough to grow at a good clip, the working capital intensity of the business only increases. From a cash flow perspective, book publishing is a tough, tough business and not for the faint-hearted in contemplating a start-up.

    2. With regard to the e-book pricing debate, I would like to add this observation. Implicit in the act of publishing a book is the pledge of durable value, something beyond the immediate gratification that accompanies the act of reading it. Isn’t that the whole point of Google’s drive to digitize the world’s libraries? Now, I ask you, does a uniform $9.99 price point for books really capture the value proposition to the consumer, being less than the price of a movie ticket? Or does $9.99 really serve the near-term market-share obectives of a would-be monopolist?

  • Rhyanna // Sep 11, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    thank for you an interesting article. As an unpublished author trying to find an agent/publisher I have reviewed the variety of options from self-pub, e-book pub, paperback format. As one who likes holding an actual book in my hands to read wherever I want, is important to me. So I hope that paperbacks won’t go out of season anytime soon, not to mention those e-book readers are still way over my budget and I imagine too expensive for others.

  • tishy // Sep 11, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Great blog! The more things change, the more they stay the same. The publishing model–electronic or otherwise–really hasn’t changed. You are successful if you give your readers what they want. The demise of the newspaper business is not so much a function of lack of advertising, as lack of reader purchasing. And running to the electronic format only makes things worse for these shallow, uninformative, poorly written publications. A small press called myromancestory.com has managed to survive despite all the naysayers, by recognizing that if the reader doesn’t come, nothing else matters in the end. Now transitioning to the mighty iPhone App Store they have found their niche platform– as it were–without the support of larger advertisers who are still locked into stone age decisions as to how to maximize advertising dollar roi (and it’s not by using Google!)
    Wish the folks at all small presses like myromance story well.

  • Blue Tyson // Sep 11, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Interesting article – saw the Angry Robot team say that some retailers demanded DRM, too.

    If you don’t actually name them and call them on it your customers certainly can’t help you pressure them to stop.

    If you don’t want to do it personally for some reason or other, leaking such a contract document to teleread and Boing Boing and Slashdot etc. might be a good strategy. The longer there is DRM, the less money publishers will make.

  • Pamela // Sep 11, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Such an interesting blog. I shall return.

  • Kirk Biglione // Sep 11, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    @Blue Sony requires DRM on all ebooks sold through their ebook store. Which is sort of strange because they aren’t the copyright owner. It sort of makes you wonder whose rights they’re trying to protect.

    It’s ironic that Sony’s recent move to EPUB has been seen as a move to openness. EPUB with DRM is not open.

  • Tymber Dalton // Sep 12, 2009 at 6:14 am

    Another thing that happens is that publishers — especially smaller indie publishers — MUST better educate their readers on formats. I have a Sony e-reader, and I can convert many non-DRM formats just fine, for free, with the included software. Especially .pdf.

    I have the Mobipocket interface on my BlackBerry. If I buy a non-DRM format .pdf, I can convert it and read it on both devices, as well as on my computer. (This is if I can’t get multiple formats with one purchase. Sometimes you can, depending on the retailer/publisher/book.)

    I have heard (although I cannot confirm this because I do not have a Kindle) that there is a free file conversion (as opposed to the one you have to pay for) through Amazon.

    People think they are tied to their e-reader manufacturer’s websites when the truth is, they’re not.

    So there’s a huge gaping hole right there in the information chain that publishers can bridge and bring in even more customers. If customers know they can buy one format and convert it to read at several sources, they will easily and willingly broaden their horizons. But the truth is, many of them think they’re chained to one source. (As opposed to the ones who willingly shop only one source.)

  • Tymber Dalton // Sep 12, 2009 at 6:15 am

    *smacking head against table* Forgive the typos in the previous post. Not enough coffee this morning.

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  • sbtx99 // Sep 12, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    “… Amazon or the Sony Reader store or Fictionwise or Books on Board because these entities aggregate ebooks from many publishers.”

    This is not the only reason consumers buy from places like Fictionwise, Books on Board, or one of the other ebook retailers. Yes, it’s nice to have all the books available to purchase from a single retailer. It’s also nice to have the opportunity to shop around for the best price.

    But for me, a more important reason to buy from a retailer is because selling to the general public is their primary business. It’s the focus of their operations. It’s their bread and butter. e-Publishers, on the other hand, are not in business to sell to the general public. They are in business to publish books; publishing is the primary focus of their operations.

    All it took was one transaction with a well-known, long-established e-publisher to make me realize that buying directly from the publisher may be most advantageous to the publisher and to the author, but it is not necessarily the most advantageous to the consumer.

    It’s not that they weren’t polite about what happened. But the delays in (1) realizing there was a problem with the transaction, and (2) in getting the issue resolved were built into the very way they transact business. I have never experienced the same level of delays with an ebook retailer. If retailers conducted transactions the same way this e-publisher does, they probably would not remain in business for very long. It highlighted the difference between buying from a retailer whose primary focus is selling books, and buying from a publisher whose primary focus is publishing.

  • Jim Brown // Sep 13, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Kassia, I think you can be commended for your openness in telling of your experiences. I’m truly sorry you decided not to continue, and it’s interesting to hear your summer findings during your bid to start Quartet Press.

    There is no “publishing model” for e-publishing – at least right now. Many indie/small presses (a lot of whom are members of EPIC) have their own models which, as you suggest, are very open to change. This is a fledgling industry, one which will evolve again and again in the next few years. At the forefront of any changes will be the actions of major companies, like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Sony. But, they will not rule e-publishing, as so many believe. They may have some influence, but there’s huge strength in numbers among the indie/small presses. We hold sway at present.

    I would strongly suggest to anyone in the industry or considering to start up in e-publishing, to join EPIC http://www.epicauthors.com, or ask us for views, comments, experiences. With over 700 members, made of new and well established authors, new and well established publishers, and other industry experienced professionals, it’s one of the places to go to for up to date information. EPIC is a voice in the e-publishing world. Please use it as one of your resources.

    Best regards
    Jim Brown
    EPIC Secretary

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  • Karen Wester Newton // Sep 14, 2009 at 10:39 am

    This is a wonderful post; thank you for sharing your expertise. I hope publishers do figure it out before a lot of them go under. And I wish you all success in the future.

    For @Tymber Dalton, there is a free conversion for Word, PDF, etc. to go to a Kindle; you email the document to Amazon and they email it back to you in “Kindle format” which is just Mobi with DRM. Then you have to cable the resulting file to your Kindle. Since the email conversion that sends directly to the Kindle is only 15 cents a MB, I usually rely on that. In fact, I just blogged today about how you can buy ebooks form Ficitonwise and have them go straight to your Kindle.

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  • Dave Bell // Sep 20, 2009 at 11:14 am

    It strikes me that there are some similarities between eBooks and the models made for low-cost CGI, which are sold by outfits such as DAZ 3D and Renderosity.

    There are some big differences as well. You buy the model data to use in creating an image, and that doesn’t seem to me to fit well with the conventional IP thinking which is out there. Derivative works?

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  • road roller // Oct 13, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    Hi. What amazing testimony, thank you. I’m working on a pretty similiar project here in Brazil, and businnes costs are impressive and scary.

    I think I know just what you were dealing with, and honestly, the only way around the problem as I see it is to go into the epublishing business with your eye on a specific niche.

    You need to sell your own books and not rely on traditional distributors. In fact, I would suggest a completely new model: create an affiliate sales model and allow authors, bloggers, etc., to carry your books on their sites and take a small percentage of sales. Then you can have 10,000 distributors instead of Amazon.

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