Democratization or Be Damned

Keith Ogorek is the SVP of Marketing for Author Solutions (ASI). And who you might ask are Author Solutions? Well, regular readers here will be familiar with the paid-publishing services offered by companies like AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse, Trafford and Wordclay. ASI own all these companies and they also operate and provide the publishing engine for Westbow Press, Balboa Press and DellArte Press – the paid-publishing imprints of mainstream publishers Thomas Nelson, Hay House and Harelequin.

So now you know ASI is a serious global heavyweight when it comes to publishing solutions for both authors and publishers.
Late last month Keith Ogorek wrote an article entitled, ‘The Democratization of Publishing’. You can find the article in full on the link provided by ASI here. Try opening the PDF in Google Reader (that worked for me), because I could not get the PDF file to open correctly on the host’s link.

“Since its inception, the publishing industry has operated like an aristocracy. An elite few held the power to essentially determine if an author’s work would be allowed in the public square. It was publication without self-determination for authors. For no matter how passionate or motivated an author was about his or her work, the fate of the book rested entirely with a few publishing houses. Those days, however, are over. Everything has changed.”

While I’m in agreement with Ogorek’s basic points above – that the early formation of the publishing industry was an aristocracy and perceived by the working classes as elitist. It is worth noting some important points as to why this is the case before we fire off the canons and let every self-determining author charge onto battlefield. Many of those early publishing houses began life as printers, and over time as the book industry developed, they made the transition to publishing houses while maintaining their in-house print facilities. It is interesting that we are seeing a similar transition by printers over the past fifteen years to paid-publishing services – Thomson Shore (USA) and Anthony Rowe (UK) and A. H. Stockwell (UK), who were, and still are, very well established printers for mainstream publishing houses. Strained economics have certainly played a big part in these transitions.
The other point to bear in mind regarding early publishers being elitist and part of an aristocracy is that illiteracy was still commonplace for ordinary working people and the modern education system was really only in its infancy. So while I agree with Ogorek – the real change is not so much the advancement in print and media technology – but that the democratization he speaks about in his article has occurred in society. The common man and woman have grown up and they are often well educated, highly literate and independent minded.

“In the mid-1990s, the convergence of three emerging technologies laid the groundwork for a revolution in publishing. First, desktop publishing replaced traditional typesetting, which meant an individual could design a book more quickly and cost effectively. Second, the debut of print-on-demand (POD) technology meant copies of a book could be printed individually at costs comparable to traditional, large offset runs. Third, the Internet became a retail distribution channel. This levelled the playing field for authors who wanted to distribute their books broadly and cost effectively. These technologies, all developing at the same time, meant the elite no longer held the power. Authors now had it.”

The above is what I don’t like about claims made by paid-publishing services and vanity presses. Firstly, ALL of the above technologies were used by the ‘traditional’ publishing world long before self-published authors ever used them. Publishers have been utilising these three technologies (desktop, POD, and more recently, the Internet for communication, marketing and retail) since their emergence and it did not lead to any revolt in the publishing world. In fact, as Ogorek has already stated in his article, publishing is pretty much still run the way it was a hundred years ago, despite the ‘revolution’. This all seems to feed the desire by paid-publishing services and vanity presses to suggest to the public (and their customers) that the mainstream publishing world is under some form of apocalyptic attack from self-published authors armed with these new-found ‘technologies’.
POD (print on demand) is not comparable with the costs of offset printing, though the emergence and availability of short digital printing has made it cheaper if an author is prepared to print a few hundred books at a time (200 – 750). Beyond this tipping point, offset printing remains the competitive choice for publishers AND savvy self-published authors. POD is a method of print to order for very low unit amounts. Savvy authors who have slipped into the trap of believing they can promote and market a book that is ‘available to 25,000 retailers’ but doesn’t physically exit as a book until it is ordered, have learned the hard and expensive way that you need stocks of books and a distribution channel that can put books on bookshelves – not virtual shelves. This is the other above misnomer – the vast majority of books sold in the world occur when a customer goes into a store and buys a book from the shelf. The vast majority of books sold by online retailers, including Amazon, are offset printed books that are physically warehoused. That is the reality of publishing as it is now. Will it change? Yes, of course it will. But this is a gradual development and not the ‘revolution’ being suggested by Ogorek.

“While this revolution has been taking place over the last decade, this year marked a milestone. Publishers Weekly, the leading industry periodical, published an article titled ‘Self Publishing Titles Topped 764,000in 2009 as Traditional Output Dipped’ essentially declaring victory. Reporter Jim Milliot states the latest Bowker data, the industry measuring stick, shows “the number of ‘non-traditional’ titles dwarfed those of traditional books.”

Ogorek is well aware that article in PW was debunked and criticised in many quarters. I am an avid reader of PW and I appreciate the time and space they devote to the growth in self-publishing and its successes, but like ASI, they have also indulged on the euphoria on the self-publishing/indie peacetrain. No one in PW thought to question those figures reported by 2009 Bowker. As it turns out, only about 76,000 of the 764,000 so-called self-published titles could be claimed as self-published. Bowker simply include all titles POD published (non traditional), and that includes titles in the public domain that are POD published by three such companies who have nothing to do with self-publishing services. From my article back in April, 2010, on the figures:

“The Bowker statistics do show another significant growth area in the non-traditional category—the role publishers like BiblioBazaar (272,930 titles), Books LLC (224,460) and Kessinger Publishing LLC (190,175 titles) are playing in the publishing industry. Take out just these three publishers from the non-traditional equation, and the resulting 76,883 does not look quite so dominating for all those author solutions services. What remains a factor, which cannot be ignored, in spite of the three noted publishers above, is the extraordinary rate of growth in the non-traditional category—a 181% increase on the 2008 figure.”

Ogorek continues his article citing the success of Seth Godin:

“Take Seth Godin for example. Mr. Godin is by all measures the type of talent a traditional publisher covets. He has authored twelve books, is considered a thought leader in his field and has a large and loyal following. His last book, “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?” has sold 50,000 copies since its release in January, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 75 percent of the retail book marketplace. Until last week, that title and his previous books were published under the Portfolio imprint, which is owned by Pearson PLC’s Penguin Group (USA), but according to The Wall Street Journal that has all changed. In the article, “Author to Bypass Publisher for Fans,” WSJ reported Mr. Godin “ditched” his traditional publisher and will self publish his next book and sell directly to his avid readers. In other words, he is taking his message directly to the people.”

What Ogorek doesn’t tell us is that the vast majority of authors self-publishing through any of ASI’s companies are no Seth Godin’s. Godin, like another very successful self-published author, Joe Konrath, cut their teeth and earned their platform and reputations in the mainstream world of publishing, no matter how they may be disillusioned with it now.
Now the question remaining is how many other authors like Mr. Godin will follow his lead. Is he alone rebel or the first one to take advantage of the new freedoms afforded authors? Time will tell, but one thing is for sure: The walls have come down. Publishing is no longer a closed society. As Mr. Godin stated in a recent interview, “[After the fixed costs of an editor and book formatting,] your idea is packaged as you want, and it can then be put on sale next to other potential best-sellers on Amazon and elsewhere.”
All Godin did was move an already established platform under his own control. There is nothing isolated in this empowerment. Paulo Coelho has been making several of his ebooks free to download, struck a deal last year with Amazon, exclusive of his publishers for ebook sale and distribution. The real proof to Ogorek’s assertion that the ‘Democratization of Publishing’ has occurred is when we see authors, week after week, month after month, year after year, self-publish successfully, having created their platform solely using those ‘three technologies’ and can compete with authors from mainstream publishers.
I’m all for Ogorek’s ‘Democratization of Publishing’, but I don’t think we are there yet by any current measure and I have said before that ASI, as the leading global author solutions company, need to lead that initiative by default of their market position. Kevin Weiss, head impresario of ASI, went a long way towards that by realising he had to get inside the beast he was up against, and he did so with the deals with Harlequin, Thomas Nelson and Hay House. You cannot change publishing from the outside, you have to reach out and ‘Meet the Fockers’ eye to eye.
We all want to rant and rave and use statistics against the traditional publishing beast as we know it, but kicking it from one end of the street to the other might give us a temporary sense of empowerment and vent our frustrations against the gatekeepers of the beast, but whether we like it or not, we are only going to fix publishing by becoming a part of it. It is time we forgot about the cosmetics of labels like ‘indie’ and championing personal platforms and commercial interests. If ASI really wants to do something constructive, then they should look to fully empowering their authors to do what Seth Godin and Joe Konrath do – let your authors take full control – provide them with a service that makes them own their ISBN and imprint name. Provide them with real distribution channels to high street bookstores. Strike a deal that offers your publishing engine to one of the big six publishing houses. And for the love of god, drop the ‘Achieve your dreams’ talk. I’d like to think that kind of sell is something for the true vanity presses.
The only way true ‘Democratization of Publishing’ is going to happen is when the old ‘traditional’ publishing aristocracy takes on and embellishes what is good outside and around it – all that it currently fears.
If we wish to indulge in revolutions in the extreme, and we don’t find ‘fix’ publishing, we may wake up one day and find the only publishing paths for authors are Amazon or Google. Do we really want that?
So, yes, let’s democratize, but let’s do it openly and fairly…

[The article quoted here was written by Keith Ogorek. He is the SVP of Marketing for Author Solutions (www.authorsolutions.com) and writes a blog at www.indiebookwriter.com]

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