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New Tech Challenges the Old Book Publishing Industry

An October 8 front-page story in the San Jose Mercury News, also picked up by the  Santa Cruz Sentinel, is a worthy overview of new tech in book publishing.  Written by Scott Duke Harris,  “New digital technology shakes up book industry” highlights Fast Pencil, a Campbell, CA startup.  It also features Scribd, whose CEO and Cofounder, Trip Adler, I enjoyed meeting on 9/26/09 at the 3rd Annual Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival.

As a longtime book editor, I am intrigued by these new publishing ventures.  Although the 10/8 Merc article indicated Fast Pencil “tilted toward paper,” Fast Pencil’s CEO and Cofounder Michael Ashley corrected this mistaken impression in his 10/9 blog post, saying, “One click and we can make your book available as paperback, hardcover, Kindle, e-book,  iPhone, and more.”  Scribd  intends to publish online only.

Having served as a contract advisor, I’ve watched too many good writers feel they had no option but to tolerate increasingly dismal terms offered by traditional houses. (For some contract tips from the Authors Guild, click here.)  Certainly the 80/20 split offered by Scribd caught the attention of many authors who were present at 25-year-old Harvard grad Trip Adler’s breakout session during the  Carmel  Authors Fest.

In traditional publishing, both midlist authors and those who receive million dollar advances are often surprised and dismayed to learn that their publisher expects them to be chiefly responsible for their book’s promotion, including financially.  Promo money has to come out of an author percentage much smaller than 80%—commonly ranging from 4% (mass market paperbacks) to 15% (later runs of hardbacks), and increasingly based on net royalties rather than gross royalties.

Although Scribd’s 80% author cut sounds great, remember that most of the roles assumed by a traditional publisher will still have to be filled when publishing via new media; there goes some of that 80%.  To my knowledge, none of the many print-on-demand self-publishing (POD) companies out there are fulfilling post-production roles like traditional publishers do, especially distribution and the marketing of subsidiary rights.

But these aren’t entirely separate publishing worlds.  As Trip Adler pointed out in Carmel, Scribd’s site includes all Simon & Schuster books, about 7,000 of them as excerpts and 5,000  in their entirety.

Fast Pencil came to my attention in September, when I had an initial conversation with Erik Schmidt, JD.  His law studies focused on copyright, cyberlaw, open source licensing, privacy law, and Internet policy.   He left a positive impression, building my interest in this startup.  I have suggested to one client that she investigate Fast Pencil as a possible option.  Her memoir is a valuable contribution to the literature on 20th century British social history, and yet, traditional houses will turn it away because it’s unlikely to generate sufficient sales.

Just because a book is first published online doesn’t mean it won’t achieve high sales, nor that it won’t still be picked up for publication by a traditional house. While such cases are still in the vast minority, see the Harris article for one example.

While democratizing publishing sounds like a terrific goal, remember what was learned when desktop publishing first came into vogue: any material can look great at a glance, with cool formatting and such. But of course, it’s only when you start reading the material that its value–or lack of value–becomes apparent. New publishing ventures will mean an increase in the volume of published work, butone thing won’t change: the cream will still rise to the surface.

So much in publishing has remained stagnant.  It’s exciting to have new life in this old industry!

Oct 10 addendum: To date, my professional experience is with traditional publishers, not POD companies.   After writing this post, a quick search of POD brought up an article from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) site, updated 8/13/09.  Based on a quick skim read, I suggest this article as one good starting place for writers considering POD companies in general.  The article does not discuss Scribd or Fast Pencil, and I remain intrigued by these two young companies.

Click here for the SFWA article.  Although I’ve only skimmed the main article and have not followed any of its links, I note that among them are links to “Writers’ Experiences with POD Services.”

  1. Mari, Thank you so much for the complete analysis and review of both the article and the industry. I agree with you that the “cream will still rise to the surface” and with better rating and review technology that will happen sooner than later. This is an exciting time!

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