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Choose Your Publishing Paradigm

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Choose Your Publishing Paradigm

September 2012

Christopher Robbins


During my 20 years as an independent publisher, I’ve given a lot of thought to the traditional trade-book publishing process, and some time ago I came to the conclusion that there’s something radically wrong with it.

The process is well established, of course. Used by everyone from self-publishers and independent publishers to the big six, it goes like this:

An author or an agent sends a query to a publisher. If the publisher is interested, discussions lead to a contract. The contract stipulates certain delivery dates, and the author, working with an editor, begins writing or rewriting the manuscript. When the author delivers the manuscript, it is edited, copyedited, and sent back to the author for approval. The manuscript then moves to design, layout, and production. The author has a chance to review proofs. And finally, the book is printed and/or uploaded digitally.

Because the publishing industry works on a seasonal schedule that requires submitting a title’s metadata to booksellers six to eight months prior to publication, the traditional process entails giving a book a warehouse date and a publication date, with the publication date being the time when the book should be on virtual and physical shelves.

Around three months before that, the publisher begins the marketing process, which traditionally includes writing a press release, sending galleys to reviewers, and working to let the right people—aka Big Mouths—know about the book.

The objective is to get the Big Mouths talking so that word of mouth will do the rest. Sometimes a publisher uses paid advertising, but there is no clear evidence that this works. (I once spent $10,000 on a Wall Street Journal ad and was able to track 120 units sold because of it. I also once had a book hit number nine on the New York Times bestseller list when we hadn’t spent even a dollar to market it, except for the cost of putting it in our catalog.)

The publisher may also provide co-op dollars to position the physical book on tables and walls within brick-and-mortar bookstores. Amazon just takes co-op dollars by demanding 4 percent of all sales from a publisher and using this money to promote books to their community. At times publishers have some influence over Amazon co-op, but more often than not, they don’t.

After all this, the book is distributed, and the publisher and author hope that everything aligns, that the distribution is strong where there are media mentions, and that the book becomes a hit.

At most, it has a few weeks to gain traction in physical stores. If it doesn’t meet objectives, both the stores and the publisher move on to the next book. If it does gain traction, a good publisher continues to reinvent its marketing strategy to keep the Big Mouths talking about the book and the stores displaying it. (I think Peter Workman of Workman Publishing does the best job of keeping an author’s content in front of the right people. Not all publishers are good at this.)


The Ignored Opportunity

But here’s the problem. This process completely ignores the obvious opportunity to engage a community of people with the book long before it’s published. Changing the paradigm to one that makes marketing and community building simultaneous with book development could increase the return on both the author’s and the publisher’s investments of time and cash.

Consider the differences between these two strategies:



In one, the publishing process is completely linear. In the other, the process is interactive, simultaneous, and holistic. Smart publishers are those who understand that there are niche markets, tribes, communities, love groups (call them what you like), and that the people in them can—and should—be engaged with a book well before its publication.

New tools are useful in this connection. Take Kickstarter.com, for example. Kickstarter provides a brilliant way to identify early adopters of a product and have that group finance it. The site encourages people to communicate what they’d like to do, invite like-minded people to engage with them, and learn whether a project they have in mind has financial or marketing merit.

By pitching the concept of a book long before it’s published, the publisher can identify the potential market and possible demand before making a significant investment. (For another take on this strategy, see “Don’t Invest Until You Test: How to Find Out How Much You’d Make with a Niche Book (Before It Gets Written)” by Gordon Burgett, which appeared in our January issue and is archived at ibpa-online.com.)

Finding the early adopters for a book and knowing that they want to buy it may be the most powerful tool a publisher can have for building a successful marketing campaign.

Unbound, a U.K. publisher, is already using the Kickstarter model to publish its books and connect with an audience through an idea rather than a finished product.

Using the social media tools available today, including our own Web sites and blogs, we can all invert the publishing paradigm. By starting to market books far earlier in the publishing process and working with our authors, we can successfully build and draw on communities of people who we know are interested in what we and our authors have to share.


Crucial Conversations

It’s like going to a party. Everyone comes to the party in the first place to enjoy themselves and be entertained, but during the party individuals gravitate to form like-minded groups where they begin talking about shared interests. If you overhear one group talking about something interesting to you, you shift your position and engage with the people in it. You then become part of their community, and they will allow you to share your interests with them.

In today’s marketplace, we’ve all been invited to a fantastic and enormously diverse book party. Some people are talking about what they’ve read. Others are talking about what they hope to read. And others—those you might pay attention to—are talking about what is coming up and what they are looking forward to.

They are the early adopters, and by finding them through social media you can engage with them in a conversation that helps you market to them. More important, you can engage in a conversation that will influence your content. Content without an audience doesn’t do anyone any good.


Christopher Robbins, formerly CEO of Gibbs Smith, is the Paterfamilius (founder and president) of Familius.com, a publishing company focused on helping families be happy. He can be reached at Christopher@familius.com or @paterfamilius1 on Twitter.

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