The uncomfortable alliance of communities, self-publishing services, and traditional publishers

If you follow the latest developments in the book publishing industry, then you’ve noticed that Author Solutions, Inc., the self-publishing company located in Bloomington, Indiana, now provides white-label self-publishing platforms customized for successful traditional publishers like Thomas Nelson, Hay House, and Harlequin.

I’m using the term self-publishing loosely here to include vanity publishing, the main distinction being the cost to the author, although you certainly could argue that the primary difference is how much the author is deceived. Americans spend too much money on cosmetics, fashion, and weight loss products for me to dwell on the deleterious effect of vanity publishers.

Furthermore, there are degrees of vanity. Publishers have always accepted private funding to subsidize books. It’s part of the business model at what we consider very distinguished houses, and while it’s not nefariously hidden, neither is it openly discussed. Extending subsidy business to the long tail, so to speak, and taking tiny amounts of cash from individual writers whose work will never be edited and whose books won’t enhance the house’s reputation, or brand, has only recently become a potentially profitable endeavor, thanks to Lulu, CreateSpace (BookSurge), Author Solutions, Blurb, and other print-on-demand innovators.

In the past, it took a fairly wealthy individual to contribute enough cash to make a traditional offset print project worthwhile for a publisher who otherwise wouldn’t have considered the project a good investment. Author Solutions monetized the gap between the frugal aspiring author and the publisher with an established brand and reputation. Author Solutions provides the turnkey publishing service, so traditional publishers can make money selling these services to the vast community of writers who want to be published.

When branching out into self-publishing, it’s been necessary for old publishers to create new brands, or imprints, for the segment that isn’t destined for traditional publishing. That’s where, publicly, friction has occurred. Industry watchdogs have attempted to prevent traditional publishers from blatantly promoting their new self-publishing imprints as pathways to traditional publication with their companies. During an economic pinch, I can see why publishers have been drifting in this direction. I don’t approve of misleading advertisements, but I understand that publishers need to make their payrolls. If they must choose between eliminating jobs, shortchanging books they have already committed to publishing, and creating self-publishing imprints that could cast an unflattering light on their brands, then they might be forgiven for seeming mercenary.

It’s not difficult to see that the direction in which the white-label platforms are going and need to go is toward extending to online communities. Some of the newest communities are gathering around sites similar to Authonomy (HarperCollins’ manuscript-sharing site, which promotes Amazon’s CreateSpace self-publishing service), WEbook, and NovelMaker. Anywhere you see an existing community like these, there is, or most likely will soon be, an affiliated or heavily advertised self-publishing service. And anywhere you see a self-publishing platform, there will soon be a community. An unaffiliated online community is low hanging fruit.

To best exploit their commercial potential, these new endeavors will have at least three parts:

  1. Online community with online manuscript sharing/submission capability and social tools
  2. Self-publishing platform
  3. Traditional print publishing arm with editorial expertise

Do you see how they interact to support each other? Are they more efficient than the older publishing models? Are they more equitable?

The next big transition will occur when a company builds an attractive turnkey book selling solution that includes an effective advertising component. Right now, we’re waiting to see if Google Editions does it.

For years, media critics like Jeff Jarvis have been saying that profits will go to the companies providing the tools, or the services or platforms, that empower content creators. (This might be when he started thinking about the shift. It’s a recurring theme on his blog, BuzzMachine.) Watching it happen and wondering whether the established players can stay in the game is fascinating.

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