As I was walking from the parking lot into the nondescript building in San Jose, I wondered what it would be like to talk with Richard Tam, the founder of iUniverse.com. He was certainly friendly enough on the phone when he called to ask if I would come down for an interview. An interview for what, I countered? He wanted to find someone to oversee the religious books category for his new company (this was in the fall of 2000), and maybe I would be interested in making a move, or maybe I could recommend someone.
It was worth the hour drive just to see what he and his colleagues were up to in this new venture. In 1999 iUniverse.com was launching itself in a new frontier and forcing all of us traditional publishing executives to reimagine the world of self-publishing. There had been a slew of publicity for this venture because Barnes & Noble was a primary investor (49 percent), and that got everyone’s attention.
As a co-owner and editorial director of a small press in Berkeley, I was often in conversations with writers who were frustrated with typical publishing machinations. In fact, that had been true throughout my long career as an editor. So I became more and more familiar with the world of self-publishing as another option for ambitious writers—and especially for speakers who sold lots of books at the back of the room but could not convince publishers that their books would sell in a bookstore. Traditional publishers seemed to major in rejection slips and ignorance about markets that were outside the bookstore shelves.
Richard was well known in Silicon Valley; he had patents, was an investor, and had worked at several companies. I was impressed with his vita, but his office was humble, small, and spare. After an initial greeting, we began a conversation I have never forgotten, obviously. He was prone to pontificating at me while I sat in a cheap office chair, but I didn’t hesitate to counter him with my own views.
From our initial words it became clear that we disagreed about almost everything to do with book publishing. And his statements—(1) that traditional publishing houses would be out of business in five years, and (2) that writers rather than editors would determine what books made it into the marketplace—offended me, since I was one of those editors, and I worked in a small but traditional publishing house.
I took my role as an editor and publisher very seriously. I saw it as an opportunity to serve writers, not just hand out rejection slips. And I believed that self-publishing as Richard was defining it would never be as respectable or as effective as working with a professional editor and becoming a full-fledged publisher.
Our disagreements turned out to foreshadow changes that would occur in our industry over the next decade.
Thriving in Tandem
Look at the numbers—at least the estimated numbers, since counts of anything in this business (including sales of an individual title) are always guesstimates. In the last years of the ’90s, U.S. book publishing output was still fairly modest, 48,000 new titles in the middle of the decade with slight increases each year, until the middle 2000s, when output increased manyfold. The advent of sophisticated self-publishers, POD publishers, and e-book publishers had changed the landscape considerably. This spring, Jim Milliot reported in Publishers Weekly that 764,448 self-published and “micro-niche” titles were produced in 2009 in the United States.
Now, it is true that iUniverse.com does not have 1 million titles in print, but it does have several thousand titles available, as do companies that followed in its footsteps, companies such as Lulu, CreateSpace, and at least dozens of other e-book and POD publishers. So what does this mean? Was Richard right? Was I right in protesting the demise of traditional publishing?
Obviously, both of us were off the mark. We were both thinking in either/or terms.
The truth is that, in spite of premature death notices, traditional book publishing is thriving in many ways, and e-book and POD publishers are thriving too. The pattern is similar to the one we’ve seen in the magazine industry. Everyone thought that print magazines were doomed by the advent of the Internet and e-zines. But after some hefty increases in the number of print magazine titles being published in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a short time of decrease in titles in the early 2000s, and now the trend is upward again. And it’s also similar to the pattern we saw when the first major book clubs were classified as competitors to publishing houses and turned out to be sales channels that fueled publishers’ profits in a variety of ways.
The key factor in understanding the book publishing industry today is the configuration of, or the relationships between, print, digital, the Internet, and POD publishing. That is what is changing. And as usual, we tend to think in terms of a zero-sum reality, instead of learning from history that not everything in business is about only winning or losing.
But book publishing is not and never has been a zero-sum game like sports, so it is time for a paradigmatic shift in our thinking and in our attitudes.
When the landscape changes, there is often room for more than what existed before (almost every week, for example, we read that e-reader owners buy more books than they used to buy). Still, I did not learn this lesson easily.
Two years ago one of my daughters came to me and asked me about self-publishing, as she had just completed a novel that developed out of her MFA work. She was starting a Ph.D. program and did not want to go through the hassle of finding an agent, getting rejection slips, the whole traditional game.
She just wanted the book produced—and produced well, mind you; she had grown up in a publishing family—and then she would post it for sale on her Web site and blog, maybe have it listed on Amazon, and get on with her life. All of what I had been thinking and feeling bubbled up, and I found myself saying it was a great idea to self-publish and I would help her. And I did.
That novel is available, and with no loss of prestige, she is happily pursuing her Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at a well-known private university in one of the most prestigious interdisciplinary programs in the country.
There is room for more kinds of productive publishing than we imagine, and as self-publishers, small publishers, e-book and POD publishers, and traditional print publishers, we should be helping each other, reaching more people with more books than we have ever dreamed possible.
From my perspective as a reader and publisher, this is the richest and best of times in publishing history, and I am glad to be a part of something so creative and vital. Let the paradigm shift flourish.
Roy M Carlisle, the acquisitions director at The Independent Institute, is a member of the IBPA board of directors.