Thanks for inviting me!
Thanks for inviting me!
I was deeply involved in the book industry in the early 2000s when independent bookstores were going out of business, Borders was getting ready to collapse, Steve Jobs was famously saying people don’t read anymore, and Jeff Bezos was trying to diversify beyond books as fast as possible.
What was your mindset at the time?
I was distressed, too. There was a mindset that we’d seen the end of paper books and everything would be electronic. I was living in San Francisco at the time and I remember the quote from Lawrence Ferlinghetti who owned the landmark bookstore, City Lights. He said, "Paper / may burn / but words / will escape." That gave a little comfort.
Mmmm, City Lights. Still standing! And they are a publisher too.
It was terrifying to bookstores. How can you sell an electronic book at Barnes & Noble? It was terrifying to publishers too, because fewer bookstores means lower exposure to your titles.
How is it that paper endured?
Ultimately, I think it’s because turning pages is germane to the reading experience. We’re also spending hours each day looking at screens so moving our eyes to paper is certainly a much-needed break from that stress.
That makes so much sense.
How have the economics of book publishing changed? Has self-publishing moved the needle?
The formula for an advance/royalty arrangement is pretty much the same as it has always been. Generally speaking, a publisher has to sell 10,000 copies of a title to make a profit. Remember that whatever the selling price of the book is, the bookstore as the middleman, takes up to 50%, and there are returns to deal with.
The only way a publisher can trim costs are in content acquisition, production and printing. Twenty years ago, nearly all mass market books were printed in Asia to get the costs down. Today you can find great four-color web presses in the U.S. that offer very competitive prices. Binding automation has come a long way. Plus the time to market is vastly reduced, meaning publishers can come to market much faster. Self-publishing has certainly been a disrupter but traditional publishing has benefited as well.
What are the economics of self-publishing for an author compared to the traditional model? 💰
That's a great question and one I get asked a lot. Here is a simplified example comparing the two models with a 5,000 book print run. You can see the publisher’s profit isn’t enough.
Book retail price: $24.00
Total revenue selling 5,000 books: $120,000
Cost to produce the book (includes design and packaging @ $2,500 plus printing): $10/book
Total cost to produce 5,000 books: $50,000
Gross profit selling 5,000 books: $70,000
Book retail price: $24.00
Total revenue selling 5,000 books: $120,000
Cost to acquire the book (advance of $10,000 + royalties 7%): $18,400
Cost to print the book (estimated $6.50/book): $32,500
Cost to sell to resellers and distributors (50% of total revenue): $60,000
Gross profit selling 5,000 books: $9,100
But as recently as mid-2000, when I was involved, self-publishing had a stigma associated with it. You only did it if you couldn’t get a publisher to take you. Self-published books were considered lower quality, not ones readers would typically choose.
Oh, certainly. Some of the early online DIY publisher platforms (Lulu and iUniverse come to mind) had a rough time but they stuck it out and now there are dozens of selling outlets for authors. One of the problems back then was getting your book reviewed in papers and magazines. Most reviewers would not accept self-published titles. Now, authors don’t need that type of boost to announce or lend credibility to their work. Self-marketing is as easy as selling directly to your social media followers, who are already receptive to your thesis.
Last year I bought a self-published book by Richard Saul Wurman, the founder of TED. It’s huge and has AMAZING production value with full color charts and photos everywhere. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever owned. Every publisher turned Richard down despite his fame and the quality of the book, so he printed 5,000 copies and sent them to Amazon, where it gets great reviews and sells.
(👆 I learned all that from talking to Richard.)
I suppose the fall of printing costs and the extra margin he gets by not going through a publisher made the amazing color pages possible? Why would the publisher turn him down? Not mass market enough?
Looks fascinating! I can see this is a large-format book with lots of photos and they are always more expensive to produce than a standard 6x9 trade book. Just off the top of my head, I’d say he spent at least $12/copy for printing, paper, binding and shipping. Plus it has 708 pages! He’s selling the book for $45. A publisher would have to sell it for double that to make a profit.
It’s hard to say why he was turned down, but there are many reasons why a book is rejected. This could be because a similar book is already on the publisher's list, the production costs are too high vs. the number of books they can guarantee will sell, or simply because their acquisition pipeline is full. I know many publishers who will not consider a book if you can’t personally guarantee you can sell at least 5,000 copies. They want to see your mailing lists, followers, pre-sales… proof of your audience.
Btw, the book is called Understanding Understanding, and it’s amazing.
There must be a cultural thing going on with books roaring back. Did Obama, Gates and Zuckerberg make them cool again with their reading lists? The New York Times had an opinion piece saying the return of the book was the comeback of the century.
It's sort of sad to hear books described as ancient technology, but I get it.
I think books are evergreen and I hope we never stop making them! In “Game of Thrones” Sam works at the Citadel with all of that knowledge confined to one place. It would be a horrible future if we allowed only certain people access to books or if books became obsolete. The comeback probably has to do with wanting a detox as the author points out, plus the cost to produce books is reduced, access to publishing and selling tools are at our fingertips, more people are using books as calling cards, the economy is improving so people have more disposable income… but I agree it's simply because books are the antithesis of screens.
And the antitheses of 256-character tweets interrupting us all day? The NYT said a book is the only thing that allows so sweeping a narrative.
Amen to that! I’ll take a hammock and a book any day.
Jain, thanks so much for a great interview!
It’s my pleasure. Thank you for a great conversation!
Wow that is interesting. This is good to know as I eventually want to turn my collection of essays into a book. What an informative interview. Just came across this!!!
Just like the return of vinyl for music I just don't see paper bound books going anywhere. Although It is my hope they can become partners with their digital counterparts not competitors.
Thank you, @paulduplantis. I am so glad our convo was helpful. I think it's a great idea to turn your collection of essays into a book. Do you write on one overarching theme or a mix of topics? I'm working with another author now who is doing the same thing. We originally thought to order the articles chronologically, with the newest articles first, but then decided that the flow was more interesting to sort them into sections with their own sub-themes within the larger frame. Adding a top and tail to each is bringing in new writing as well.
Yes, we are seeing the same in photography with the return of film shooters. The switch to digital was disruptive for so many industries but it also created new industries, and the same with records. Publishing seems to be hanging on to book production in a greater way. Maybe because the end user only needs a good set of eyes (or fingers for braille books) to access the product instead of requiring a record player or a developing system?
My biggest concern is, and has always been, proper compensation for the people who make these industries possible in the first place. The starving-artist trope has done more damage than anything, but digital advances have also caused creatives to lose advantages in the marketplace. There has to be a balance between access for all and suitable pay for the rest of us! Only a small percentage of people make it big in these industries and so much talent is never discovered.
Yes my essays are all found on EmergentWeb.org. All of the essays are built around the notion of empowering the user experience through technology. And all of the essays carry a spirit of looking back to see what we missed and looking at today to see what could be done to allow the user to take back control of their experiences on the web or the greater ecosystem of apps we engage with. I have been toying with these ideas for 25 years and finally was able to move them all into one underlying theme. I attempted to write a book on this and gave up realizing I need to let the ideas breath through feedback I would collect. So I decided to write a collection of essays around these themes to culminate into a overarching narrative. At some point I should have enough essays to warrant a first edition book but I plan on writing on these themes for years so at some point I just need to group what I have together and go for it. I am not there yet but maybe after another 5 to 10 essays. But I have been battling to find an audience to say the least. It is funny because I am a marketing guy by trade and I would think about firing me. LOL - probably because I am not writing to sell books. I am writing to help solve societal problems. The problem of technology serving as a conductor of human interests rather than as a partner. I really did enjoy your interview here. And enjoyed your feedback on my Ebook embargo essay.