Traditional Publisher, Self-Publisher Form Venture: Not All Authors Benefit

September 24th, 2007 · 5 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

It is not a surprise that traditional entertainment companies are turning to the Internet to find new talent. In fact, the surprise would be if they weren’t. Not only is the web a great place to showcase talent, but it also gives editors, agents, producers, whomever the opportunity to observe fan reaction.

Self-publisher works for a certain type of author.

Over at Literary Kicks, there’s a lengthy discussion about the dysfunctional nature of (literary) fiction pricing. I use the parentheses because while the site’s focus is literary fiction, the problem is widespread. I’m sending you there to read that discussion; I want to hone in on something various respondents mentioned.

Behind the scenes, a lot of discussion goes into the format for a particular book. For much genre fiction, the choice to go with mass market paperback is almost reflexive. Other titles, especially if they’re being positioned as something not-quite-genre, might get the trade paperback original treatment (TPO for short). Then some authors are graduated to hardcover — the be-all and end-all of publishing.

On the literary side of the publishing spectrum, the traditional choice was to start with hardcover. As you read through the Literary Kicks on Literary Kicks, you’ll understand why: review attention, library sales, even appearance. These are all serious considerations (though, in all honesty, these days, the review thing is more myth than reality.).

Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press started me thinking when he broke down the numbers between releasing a new-to-the-world author in hardcover versus trade paperback:

That’s why you’re seeing fewer and fewer hardcover debuts. There is virtually no existing audience for that writer. So a great review could come through, and you could break even on the hardcover from institutional sales to libraries, but 500 human being have read that book, and when the next one comes you, you’ve 500 fans, not 5,000.

Days later, I read an article about the new deal between Chronicle Books and Blurb.com. For those who somehow missed out on the Blurb.com love last year, it’s the latest, greatest print-on-demand house. Blurb puts out a gorgeous product. Think POD coffee table books.

[Side note: one thing that is quietly emerging in the POD world is the rise of the specialized POD service. Blurb, for example, isn’t geared toward novel-length works. BookSurgeis more for novels. SharedBook targets yet another audience, an audience seeking to go from web to print. This one-size-doesn’t-fit all approach allows the industry to grow while meeting a wide range of customer needs.]

This deal is unusual from the get-go (or maybe it’s usual and I’ve been living under a rock). Chronicle will be steering not-ready-for-primetime authors to Blurb. For their efforts, Chronicle will be receiving a, shall we say?, fee from Blurb for the referral. The author will be positioned to grow an audience with a highly professional looking print product. Chronicle, wiping its brow with relief as the author develops a fan base, can then swoop in and sign said author to a major label deal.

For the type of author seeking to publish with Chronicle, given the type of books published by Blurb, this might be a really good fit (it might also convince the author that it doesn’t need the publisher at all, but that’s another issue entirely). For the rest of the publishing world? Well, Newsweek, citing the story of “niche” author E. Lynn Harris — apparently the publishing industry thought the African-American market couldn’t generate sales — this as an opportunity for authors “…to woo a large audience.”

While I am enthusiastic about the Blurb product, I am not convinced that the Blurb approach is right for authors like Harris, much less other authors. Prices at Blurb start at $12.95 for a 40-page trade paperback. Yeah, you read that right. Forty pages. The customer for this product is not your basic novelist. Maybe a cartoonist or comic book artist could find a profitable niche here, but the long-form writer isn’t going to go in this direction.

On the other hand, as noted by Publisher’s Weekly Calvin Reid (quoted in the article), there are more than a few authors the publishing industry is “…hesitant to take on without an existing sales record.” While it’s a sad truth, the reality is that authors increasingly need to show they can sell books before they get a publishing contract. In other words, it helps if you walk through the door with a fan base.

That is why I strongly encourage a good website, blog, something to help you build that core audience that will jumpstart your sales when your book is released.

But as I read the story on Blurb and Chronicle, I kept thinking that there’s building audience and then there’s building audience. Self-publishing works for a certain type of author, but self-publishing a book is just a (expensive) first step. The hard part comes when you have to sell the books you’ve published.

[tags]blurb.com, chronicle books, self-publishing, print-on-demand, POD, literary kicks, soft skull press[/tags]

File Under: Non-Traditional Publishing

5 responses so far ↓

  • Eoin Purcell // Sep 24, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Kassia,

    Spot on on the niche point as ever.

    As for the deal being a bad one for some authors I think you got it on one too!

    Perhaps Chronicle could have done a deal with two POD types, one for great coffee table books and another for paperbacks at reasonable prices!

    Overall it seem very sensible to me, though I dislike the idea of there being a financial reward for rejecting a submission! Seems ripe for abuse if this becomes standard! Also blurs the line between self publishing and publishing in the real sense, perhaps irreversibly.

    Eoin

  • Jody Scott // Sep 24, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    Hey, guys, where should I submit work? Have a clamorous. fan base. Have been labelled “science fiction” but am really more like magic realism. Just spotted a review on Amazon that says, “Whatever happened to this Jody Scott? She’s a real writer”–maybe that says it all (wild laughter). Any advice? Thank you, J.S. (read first chapters at my site)

  • Joseph Ternes // Sep 27, 2007 at 7:21 pm

    The information in the Newsweek article was incorrect. Chronicle Books will not receive a referral fee for recommending Blurb.com to aspiring authors or artists.

    Just as from time to time our editors refer authors or artists to other trade houses, Blurb.com presents another option if they consider it an appropriate choice. This option will not be part of our response to every author submissions. There are many self-publishing options in the marketplace, though far fewer for illustrated book authors and artists. As an independent illustrated book publisher in San Francisco, Chronicle Books felt an affinity for the locally based Blurb.com and the quality of the product it is offering the public.

    Chronicle Books

  • Ruth Cohen // Jan 24, 2008 at 1:43 am

    I am very frustrated with my puplishing company, waiting for copy-edit for 6months and only now I start stressing them with the fact I won’t buy their books for the galleys.
    I also read terrible comments about the company. I wonder if my contract if fine, as I don’t have any lawyer.
    Could it be better to go to self publishing if it was possible.
    I am going to ask if you check contracts by fax, I live for the moment in Israel.
    My book is about My bipolar sickness and recovery after 30 years.
    Sincerely,
    Ruth

  • Ruth Cohen // Jan 24, 2008 at 1:45 am

    I am very frustrated with my puplishing company, waiting for copy-edit for 6months and only now I start stressing them with the fact I won’t buy their books for the galleys.
    I also read terrible comments about the company. I wonder if my contract if fine, as I don’t have any lawyer.
    Could it be better to go to self publishing if it was possible.
    I am going to ask if you check contracts by fax, I live for the moment in Israel.
    My book is about My bipolar sickness and recovery after 30 years.
    Sincerely,
    Ruth