An interesting question came up in discussions we held this weekend with a young writer who has an idea for a book and wanted to hear how we transitioned from our past careers to writing and publishing. We told him our tale of the journey but then drifted off into a more ethereal discussion of when does an author/self publisher cross the threshold to Author/Independent Publisher.
The conversation began with a lighthearted question by me “Would Frank Nelson Doubleday, the founder of Doubleday & Co. (Now an imprint of Random House) be considered self published since he authored and co-authored several books, all of which were published through his privately held publishing company, Doubleday?”
We laughed a bit but then realized yes he would, since it is doubtful that any of the ‘gatekeepers’ would have rejected his submission. Thus he was published, good or bad, because he was the publisher!
On a more serious note we examined our own progression. My first novel was rejected by many publishing houses including at least fifty imprints owned by the big six, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, MacMillan Publishers Ltd, Penguin Group, Random House and Simon & Schuster. Add to that another 30 or so ‘independent publishers’ from Maine to Scotland (Note: In this article an Independent Publisher is any publisher that does not belong to the big six).
Ultimately, thanks to a persistent agent, one imprint of the big six and two independents came back with proposals. By this time I had learned that the ‘gatekeepers’ of these eighty or so publishers were not rejecting the submission because my novel or my writing was bad or unprofessional, no not at all, 99% of the rejections were driven by return on investment. Simply put, in their opinion, not enough books would sell to justify the investment they would have to make to bring the book to market.
The three proposals reflected this same issue in that the publishers would invest in getting the book ‘out there’ but it would be 95% my job to get the readers to buy it. Therefore, for production and distribution these publishers would take between 93 and 96 percent of the wholesale revenue (about 50% of the retail price) thus leaving me with a two to three and one-half percent royalty on retail.
They were right in making this offer. It was their risk and they were pretty much banking on me to market and sell…a complete unknown to them. I examined the alternatives and decided, with the guidance of that very experienced agent, to go independent.
Since that first book a lot has happened, a sequel was written and independently published, my wife wrote a book of a completely different genre (positive thinking), and most significantly, we studied the publishing business which is changing at warp speed and decided to consolidate our books under the umbrella of a publishing imprint, Sprig Media Group.
Now let me interject here, this progression is nothing new, of the thirty independents I submitted to at least half were born as publishing vehicles of the owner’s books or books written by the owner’s spouse. They had decided, as did we, why waste all that knowledge developed in getting our own books out.
We began with the basics, for those of you that have read any of my past articles on Independent Publishing we see the publishing process from the perspective of eight high level functions, four of which we performed or sub-contracted directly from our first venture into self-publishing; writing the book, editing the book, graphics and layout together with marketing & promotion. For the remaining four, production, distribution, sales and remuneration we depended entirely on third parties and funneled our relationships for those activities through one or two entities.
Our first step was to re-visit the second group of four and evaluate from the business perspective where it was profitable and efficient to eliminate a middle layer (in the world of product and service distribution this is referred to as disintermediation). The greatest opportunity for this lies in the world of e-books, where we can we now deal directly with the retail distributor of e-books such as Barnes & Noble. We format and create the Nook/e-pub file for distribution on Barnes & Noble’s internet site and the vendor of record for all our books is Sprig Media Group. Therefore relative to Barnes & Noble Nook e-book business we are the publisher of Look For The Hook (click the link and scroll down the page to information…there we are, Publisher: Sprig Media Group). The same is true for our other two published books, to see what happens, in Barnes & Noble put in the search criteria ‘Sprig Media Group’, all three of our Nook editions will come up as published by. Therefore, thanks to technology and an upheaval in the publishing industry, for one channel at least, we meet all the criteria for Independent Publisher…ALL!
It is time in this article to examine what those ‘criteria’ are. Let me say that the criteria set down by organizations such as the Mystery Writers of America will be ignored here since they seem terribly dated. Further, they disregard completely a publisher that would elect to publish and distribute only electronically or electronically and print on demand. In addition, on close examination, Frank Nelson Doubleday would have failed on at least three of the criteria for Doubleday & Co to become an MWA publisher.
Our criteria will be dictated by the state of the industry in these early days of upheaval.
One caveat; publishing is a business, writing is an art, for purposes of this article we are only interested in publishing from the publishing perspective, that is, a business.
Let’s first address the old standby criteria, ‘a real publisher uses their own block of ISBNs.’ Not any more, if it will produce a better, more profitable distribution mechanism (i.e. CreateSpace Expanded Distribution) than from a business perspective that is the route to follow. From an e-book perspective it is not even a necessity. As an accountant by education and early career ISBN is an inventory control protocol. I was shocked to find in two independent bookstores we supply directly with paperback editions that they label over the ISBN with their own inventory control ID. I at first thought it was because our Trade Paperback Editions carry the CreateSpace ISBN but on investigation found that every book in house had the ISBN labeled over…so much for the importance of the publishers’ ISBN.
If your book is in Ingram and some customer wants that book, goes to the bookstore, and asks for it, they will look up the title in their inventory and if it is not there they will go to the Ingram database and look for it there. That is the only important aspect of distribution and you do not need to have your own block of ISBNs to have that happen. Many distribution and fulfillment organizations bring that about by having their lists included in Ingram’s database.
Next, a publisher will get your books into bookstores. Watching what is happening to brick and mortar bookstores I would say that is a diminishing criteria (however it is a definite criteria of Mystery Writers of America “The initial print run by the publisher for a book-length work of fiction or nonfiction must be at least 500 copies and must be widely available in brick-and-mortar stores (not “special order” titles). In other words, print-on-demand publishers and Internet-only publishers do NOT qualify.) However, any publisher can get their books into bookstores if they are willing to take on the entire risk. ‘Sales’ to bookstores are 100% returnable. They are called sales not consignments for reporting purposes under the Uniform Code of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles but believe me, except for the name they are in every other way consignments.
Sprig Media Group ‘calls it what it is’ and we ship or deliver our books to receptive bookstores on consignment at the industry accepted percent discount from retail, paid for 30 to 60 days after sale.
I think it is clear where I am going with this.
Since the publishing gatekeepers no longer concentrate on quality (if they ever did) and spend their time now calculating Return On Investment (ergo celebrity books, etc.) if three independent readers say you have a good or great book, you have passed the only gatekeeper that matters.
Now if you start to take on more and more of the underlying tasks of the eight functions noted above you wake up one morning and your ‘self publishing’ adventure has morphed into an Author who happens to have an ownership interest in their Independent Publisher.
…and that in my opinion is when authoring/self-publishing becomes Authoring published through an Independent Publisher. What do you think?