The Publishing Quadrant: Where do you belong?

April 20th, 2009 · 9 Comments
by Joanna Penn

[BS: Today we bring you a guest post from Joanna Penn, from The Creative Penn blog. As publishing changes, we’re seeing increased overlap between worlds that previously seemed like publishing silos. Where do you fall in the quadrant?]

There have been a few posts in the publishing blog world recently that seem to set certain groups against each other. There was #agentfail, Victoria Strauss’ response to self-publishing positivity and Indie Author’s defence of self-publishing, amongst many others.

But despite our differences, we are still a community of people who love books, love writing, and love creativity. We may sit in different parts of the Publishing Quadrant…but the differences are beginning to melt away.

The Publishing Quadrant

  • Traditional publishing has been steadily moving into the Digital Publishing quadrant with many top authors releasing ebook versions. As ebook sales have increased, so have print versions. Romance and erotica seem to be taking off especially well! Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise and we can expect some more consolidation of the ebook retail market.
  • Traditionally published authors are using free ebooks to sell more print books: Cory Doctorow and Paulo Coelho amongst others.
  • Digitally published authors are also crossing into traditional publishing. J.C.Hutchins podcast success has got him a book deal with St Martin’s Press. Video blogger Gary Vaynerchuk got a 10 book deal with Harper Collins because of his online platform.
  • Audiobook success in the UK is giving an extra income stream to traditional publishing.
  • Traditional publishing may also consider POD as the economy stops large print runs.
  • Self-published authors use POD to sell their books overseas on through Lulu, Booksurge, CreateSpace and others.
  • Self-published authors are using ebooks to expand their market on sites like Smashwords which also allows the book to be sold on mobile devices like the iPhone
  • Authors are using self-publishing to get attention for their books and move into the traditional publishing quadrant (Christopher Paolini “Eragon” is one example, as well as the recent Lisa Genova’s Still Alice).
  • Traditional publishers are also encouraging the self-publishing authors to pitch in new digital ways, for example, Harper Collins Authonomy.

Of course, this diagram is simplistic and there is so much more to each quadrant, but we are all still part of the same brilliant industry. We all want more books, more readers, more creativity and innovation in publishing.

By working together across these quadrants, we can achieve that.

Joanna Penn is a self-published author. Her blog, The Creative Penn, has information and inspiration for authors on writing, publishing options, internet sales and promotion. Twitter: @thecreativepenn

[Special thanks to Joanna for this! Understanding that the pieces flow together rather than operate independently is so important.]

File Under: Non-Traditional Publishing

9 responses so far ↓

  • Where to learn about self-publishing « // Apr 20, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    […] “The Publishing Quadrant: Where do you belong?” by Joanna Penn on Booksquare [Added on April 20, 2009] […]

  • KatG // Apr 20, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    Um, well no, not yet anyway. What you have is a really big traditional publishing quadrant, a small self-publishing quadrant and tiny POD and digital quadrants. Electronic publishing doubled in size last year and certainly was nearly the only type of publishing to do so. But it doubled to 3% of the total market. We’ve got three quadrants with potential to be important influences someday down the road, especially as the technology develops, and one quadrant that is an actual industry and sells most of the books. And audiobooks have never been a huge market and are unlikely to become one. It’s a small, subsidiary rights income provider.

    Self-publishing was going great guns in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, with the advent of desktop publishing and printing services, rather than vanity presses. The opening of the superstores, which needed inventory and looked for some of it locally, actually gave more opportunities for self-published writers. But then came the Internet. Suddenly there were tons of online self-publish presses and a ton of self-published books and self-publishing got dismissed as self-indulgent twaddle again.

    It’s nice that it’s now turning around again and self-publishing is finding new ways to be effective and use the Internet. I think that we will have a healthy self-publishing industry and that this will help the small press industry and the POD industry. There will always be some interesting books coming out of self-publishing and heading into traditional publishing, especially in non-fiction.

    But equating the four quadrants as equal sectors is not a realistic map of what’s going on. Digital publishing is still working on the technology to make it effective and widespread beyond publishing free stuff on-line. POD as more than just a print service is still in the works. Self-publishing is a great place for experimentation, but the lack of a broad selling system and the enormous stream of titles from disparate sources doesn’t really signal the end of traditional publishing.

    And Harper’s Authonomy has been something of a mess, with Harper not living up to the promises it made about the site and angering a lot of authors. It was an attempt, but I’m hoping the traditional publishers make a better effort online in the future, and one that doesn’t sound like a con job.

    Right now, publishers are not sure they want more books, though they’d love more readers. A big problem has been that publishers are putting out too many titles and the vendors, even the on-line ones, can’t handle them all, so many are falling by the wayside and/or not getting into stores. The Internet provides new ways to sell, but everything is still baby steps right now. The other three quadrants are unquestionably vibrant, but they’re small.

  • jim duncan // Apr 21, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Have to agree with Kat on this one. A lot of excitement over a very small slice of the pie. While there is certainly opportunity outside of traditional publishing, the chances of success are miniscule. The problem of course is that people on see ‘opportunity’ and kind of ignore the chance of success part. So, we now have a vast deluge of people seeking opportunity without a clue as to what it takes to maximize the chances of success. The result is a swelling tide of poorly written material, that makes it exceedingly difficult to find things worth reading. I’m hoping that in the near future (the nearer the better) we start to see greater controls developed to manage the accessibility to worthwhile content. No clue how this might be done mind you, but as it stands now, I’m certainly not encouraged to seek out digital media. I waste too much time trying to find anything to make it worth it.

  • Carolyn Jewel // Apr 21, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Jim Duncan said:

    I’m hoping that in the near future (the nearer the better) we start to see greater controls developed to manage the accessibility to worthwhile content. No clue how this might be done mind you

    There is already such a system in place: it’s the traditional publishing quadrant, and the filters are agents and editors who reject 99% of what’s submitted to them not because they’re capricious people on a power trip but because the material is not very good.

    As it stands now, the vast majority of POD endeavors are simply not publishable in the traditional sense. I’m not saying that a given writer who chooses POD or vanity isn’t capable of producing work other people want to read (Bill Deasy’s Ransom Seaborne, anyone?) but in general, they’re just not.

    The quandrants depicted in the article I think disguise at least two fallacies, the first that there are only 4 quadrants (says who?) and the second, as Kat points out, that they are somehow equal in range or importance or even comparable at all. Another fallacy may be the explicit assumption that this view is at all relevant to a commercial endeavor. The graphic conflates authors and publishers at a level that is deceptive.

    For example, the words “low cost” appear in the POD quadrant, but nothing I’ve seen suggests this is true at all. An author whose books are in the Traditional quadrant pays nothing for production of the book. An author in the POD quadrant certainly does not pay zero. It’s only lost cost if the moneys expended by the publisher/author are not greater per book than the per book cost borne by the traditional publisher, and even then, the trad publisher is providing many many many more services to the book (professional cover art backed by marketing, editing, copy-editing, typesetting and more) that the comparison isn’t fair at all.

  • Joanna Penn // Apr 21, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    A couple of responses to the above:

    * The publishing quadrants may not be equal sized yet (it would have made the picture very hard to read in parts and it was meant to be controversial! ), but things are changing – Victoria Barnsley of Harper Collins speaks to London Book Fair soon – she will be talking about the future of digital publishing and how the industry is changing – preview here

    * On costs of POD. It seriously can cost under $10. If you use Published by Lulu option (free) on and distribute to then you only have to order 1 copy of your book to proof read it. (mine was US$8 + shipping). When someone buys the book on, they pay Amazon, who pay Lulu, who then pay me the money left over (approx $2 per book). So it costs me nothing which is fantastic. Similar programs exist with CreateSpace and BookSurge amongst others. POD is an incredible development in self-publishing as it means you don’t need to hold stock or outlay expenses up front.

    * In terms of controls developed to manage accessibility to content – why should there be any restrictions on what is digitally/ self-published? The market decides if it is worthwhile. Trad publishing has every right to reject the 99% of manuscripts it does not want to publish. But no one has the right to stop creative people publishing their work through digital means, POD or self-publishing. If they don’t use pro editors and they don’t quality control themselves then people won’t buy their books. But if there are no print runs and the files are digital, then what is the problem? These options are exciting as they allow the “rejected” to publish anyway for low cost and perhaps people will buy their work (again, I point to JC Hutchins as I am such a fan – once a rejected author, who turned his book into a podcast and now has a multi book deal with St Martins Press).

    Thanks all for the comments. It is great to have dialogue across the quadrants (or whatever you would like to call them!)


  • Richard Hargis // Apr 22, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    I tend to agree with Mr. Duncan, opportunity does not equal success. The variable being quality control within the POD and Digital sectors. Traditional does offer some quality, but it depends on what you mean by that. Genre notwithstanding, the author is forced into writing cookie-cutter “page turners” to favor the bulk of readers in this country. If by “success,” you mean gross sales, then by all means, go this route. On the other hand, if you are trying to “sell” an idea in literary fiction (or non), finding someone to help you find that limited readership and doing so is the other side of the definition.

  • KatG // Apr 23, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    It is definitely true that the four quadrants are interactive, and should continue to remain so. Self-publishing and doing so by alternative means is a useful industry that offers more reading options without problems of bookstore shelf space and storage.

    The publishing industry does not reject 99% of what it sees because that 99% is no good. It rejects it because there are only so many titles they can publish and sell, and so they pick what they feel are the most viable and most interesting to them. Quite often they miss stuff. So yes, there’s no reason these people shouldn’t be able to produce and sell these works and let the customers be the judge of whether they want to take a gamble on them or not, same as with a traditional publishing offering.

    And electronic publishing offers enormous possibilities for a whole second publishing market — publishers who only do e-publishing; publishers who do both e-publishing and print; print publishers who put out or license e-print versions of their books. We have that now in miniature and it should, if costs and technology work out, grow substantially.

    But right now, traditional publishing can’t put all its resources into 3% or less of its market. And do you really want traditional publishing — tech disasters that they tend to be — in monopolistic charge of electronic and POD publishing? I think it’s better if we have some other players in the mix. Preferably ones with more money than traditional publishing has, who will also expand the opportunities for traditional publishing.

    It’s worth noting that with all the Kindle hassles (and as I said, I’m not buying one,) Amazon has apparently sold 500,000 of them in 2008. Those are significant numbers for traditional publishers — 500,000 more customers for e-print versions, many of them not usual book readers.

    So I’m not dismissing the other three quadrants at all, but they have to accept that the three together are at the moment the equivalent of a small press industry. Each self-publisher is a mini-press. It involves work, quite a lot of work, and it usually does involve cost, though the author may be able to make that up. Getting into traditional publishing also takes some work and some cost, though less now than it used to. (Which is why traditional publishers are flooded with submissions.) So authors have to think very carefully about what mountains they’re willing to climb and what work they are prepared to do. But if the traditional publishing mountain does not prove successful, the other three quadrants provide opportunities — ones that may or may not materialize but are certainly an option to try.

  • Tim Roux // May 3, 2009 at 1:00 am

    I have read a great deal of self-published and niche-published fiction over the last year, as well as traditionally published works.

    I have to say that the traditionally published works were easily the most boring and unadventurous. A lot of self-/niche- published work is actually excellent (and I am sure equally that a lot of it is not) because people actually write what they want to write, not what they are told ‘looks polished’ and will sell.

    The vast majority of traditionally published fiction is either romance or thriller crime which, let’s face it, is formulaic crap and, then, over on the non-fiction side you have celebrity books and cats – wow that is really worth getting up for in the morning.

  • Assorted Guest Posts and Audios | The Creative Penn // Jun 16, 2009 at 11:40 pm

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