What is the future of publishing and what does that have to do with production?

On Wednesday I more than doubled the sales of the paperback edition of The New Now. Since the paperback has just gone on sale, that’s not surprising. This is our first foray into publishing via paperback and we’re not certain how it’s going to go. We’ve had great success (for a book) via our PDF publishing efforts, but are only now giving paperbacks a go.

Apparently we’re not alone. Publisher’s Weekly has an article where it notes that there were more books published “on demand” last year than by traditional publishers. On demand is the method we use, via Amazon’s CreateSpace, and is most commonly used by self publishers.

It’s not hard to understand why. The deals being offered by publishers in our space are, frankly, insulting for the amount of work that goes into creating a book. By self publishing – and giving people a choice of an information-only PDF or the same information in a solid book form (well, paperback) – the author gets a larger slice per book. It’s not unusual for an author to make more money from the Amazon Associates commission on the sale than from the publisher. Seriously.

That means that books break even for the author much faster and the author retains the copyright. While in theory the author owns the copyright for a book through a traditional publisher, in practice, while there’s any outstanding balance due to the publisher, the publisher owns the rights.

The way a book deal works is that the author is paid an advance, based on the expected sales of a book. That used to be based on 5,000 units selling at full retail (because author’s don’t get a penny from remaindered and discounted copies). While there have been one or two breakout successes in the space, most books never reach that level of sales so the advance is never fully repaid from sales, and consequently the publisher owns the work. Since the standard contract also allows them to publish new editions with new authors (if the original author declines), effectively the author has lost control of their work.

Self publishing the HD Survival Handbook we reached the level of the currently offered advances with just 375 sales. The book became profitable (i.e. it returned a reasonable return for the amount of time that went into it) at about 600 copies and sales have been way above that.

It’s all possible because new printing technology prints soft-cover books very, very quickly (about 6-8 minutes) and remarkably cheaply, without having to commit to a large pre-order. This technology is going to get twice as fast for half the cost in the generation of printing/binding machines just announced. The cost of printing the book is almost inconsequential.

This is what digital technologies do when they disintermediate an industry. Like the record labels and (to a much lesser degree TV and Movie studios) the role of the publisher – the intermediary who traditionally made the most money – has faded.

An author would have gone to a publisher to: a) fund the printing of the physical books, b) give the book an ISBN, c) get the book into “the channel” – the bookstores where people can buy it, and d) promote the book. Through CreateSpace the paperbacks are printed as they’re ordered (a.k.a on demand) and CreateSpace assigns the ISBN so the book can be found by any reseller. The book is automatically listed in Amazon because Amazon owns CreateSpace. While, in theory, a publisher would promote the book, in practice for most books on production and post-production, that meant sending out a media blast to the usual suspects and from there it was up to the author to promote the book.

CreateSpace gives me all of those. I own the copyright; books are printed on demand inexpensively enough that the return from an Amazon sale is only slightly less than the return from a PDF sale (so the knowledge carries the same value). It’s listed in the only bookstore my customers are likely to use, although it can be ordered in by any bookstore – online or physical. Better still, I directly benefit from new sales, rather than simply promoting the book to recover money I’ve long spent (the advance).

The author is an independent in the disintermediated world. Similarly, digital video technologies allow writer/producer/directors to make their project without needing the backing of a studio. Budgets can be shrunk considerably when you take out the middle man. The most expensive part of an Amazon sale is the Amazon commission, which is more than double  the cost of producing the physical book.

Even using that third party distribution channel, the return per sale is way higher than from a publisher.

Similarly owning the copyright for a reasonably-budgeted production leaves margin to offer producers or allows the creator to go direct to the viewer. (The only thing I call New Media!)

When more money goes back to the producers more production gets done, because shows can be supported by smaller audiences, in the same way that a book can sell many fewer copies but still make a better return for the author than through traditional channels.