Monday, December 2, 2013

Middle Ground

This is the final installment of a three-part series on publishing avenues. You can find the first post (on self-publishing) here and the second post (on traditional publishing) here.
I get questions all the time from prospective authors who wonder whether it’s worth it to publish in the traditional way at all. The quick answer is, for speakers it’s still important, for now. For everyone else, it depends.
Nick Morgan
Last week’s post ended with the issue of discerning between publishing companies and organized self-publishing efforts.  The problem making the distinction stems not from there being too many shared aspects of the process, but by a dissolving of the boundaries as more publishers rely on authors to build their own platforms and more self-publishers offer their services and knowledge to other authors. As those borders break down, intuitively, more of the industry’s gaze is being focused on that middle ground, and identifying what lies there is more important now than ever.

One thing that has distinguished publishers, as addressed in the first post of this trilogy, has been the amount of services they’ve been able to provide to the author, including editing, printing, design, advertising, marketing, and distribution. A key trait of self-publishing has been the independent status of the publication, or the lack of endorsement present on the cover and in the front matter.

Some may point to vanity publishing as a bridge between these two areas. On the kind side of this, an author essentially pays the vanity publisher for use of their logo. More unscrupulously, a vanity publisher may retain rights to the book in addition to that publishing fee. Many vanity publishers also offer author services—such as editing, cover design, or marketing—at additional cost, usually sold as part of a package. It is worth noting, however, that author services are something that self-publishing authors frequently utilize, and this does not make those works or authors any less self-published. Many publishers have already opened vanity publishing branches, including Penguin and Harlequin, and acknowledge this distinction by clearly referring to their new endeavors as self-publishing routes. In other words, Penguin and Harlequin join me in pushing vanity publishing into the self-publishing corner.

But this post isn’t about vanity publishing—that’s just something that needs to be addressed so it can be removed from the discussion. There are still a number of ways to combine the aspects inherent in traditional publishing and self-publishing. Editor and industry expert Jane Friedman put together a savvy infographic in May 2013 to summarize what she considered to be the “5 Key Book Publishing Paths.” Within five months, she had posted a revised version, labeled “4 Key Book Publishing Paths.” I think her revisions were well considered, so I won’t waste time summarizing the differences between the two versions. In the revision, Friedman lists her four paths as:

  1. Traditional publishing
  2. Fully assisted self-publishing
  3. Do-it-yourself (DIY) self-publishing
  4. Community
Jane Friedman's Key Book Publishing Paths

Blog posts and sites like Wattpad and LeanPub qualify for community publishing, according to Friedman, because “[y]ou write, publish, and distribute your work in a public or semi-public forum, direclty for readers,” “[p]ublication is self-directed and continues on an at-will and almost always nonexclusive basis,” and “[e]mphasis is on feedback and growth, usually not sales.” Plenty of franchises have begun as community publishing, such as Sh*t My Dad Says (which went from a collection of Twitter postings to a signed contract with HarperCollins in less than two months from its inception in 2009) or Tucker Max’s politically incorrect postings (which have resulted in a #1 New York Times Bestseller spot and a Darko Entertainment film).

Blogging is relatively straightforward, and most authors who are deliberating publishing avenues already comprehend that approach and its implications. LeanPub and Wattpad, however, offer a few different approaches. LeanPub keeps 10% of every sale plus 50¢ per sale and specializes in condensing large numbers of blog posts into books, as well as encouraging authors to begin the publishing process while their writing is still underway. As they describe it, “Lean Publishing is the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.” LeanPub joins many other newer, non-traditional publishers in viewing books as akin to start-ups—potential revenue perpetuators that need a significant capital investment in addition to simply being built on good ideas.

Wattpad similarly accesses the groupthink potential latent in the internet community, offering a site where “[r]eaders can collect stories into reading lists, vote for the favourites and comment with friends and writers” and “[w]riters . . . share their work, build a fan base, and receive instant feedback on their stories.” Imagine, essentially, a Facebook in which every status update is a story, and the users can like and share their favorites, propelling lucky posters into a momentary spotlight that may just be big enough to connect them to larger goals.

Still, Friedman’s charts both leave plenty of room at the bottom to discuss “special cases and hybrids,” or “special + hard-to-classify cases.” Among these, she primarily lists agent-assisted publishing and distribution, digital-only publishers, and “hybrid” authors (though I would argue that hybrid authors refers specifically to authors and does not describe a publishing process but rather a person who chooses multiple publishing paths for multiple publications). That agent-assisted publishing and distribution warrant their own, indefinable categories is intriguing, as this would fall under my author services umbrella. The term I most frequently hear for these agents is “book coach,” as they dispense most of their time ushering new authors through the publishing doorways and advising them on how to make their many important decisions. This brings me to what I find the most interesting emerging field of publishers, lying most visibly in the middle ground.

These new publishers offer new services that, theoretically, could always have been offered independently but only now are easiest to present in an organized fasion. By combining the power of traditional publishing with the center-stage spotlighting of community publishing and the guaranteed fan base of crowdfunding, these new publishers are tapping into some very advantageous aspects of the shifting publishing landscape.

While presenting itself as a networking hub, Net Minds appears to actually be a publisher which allows authors to corral their own publishing teams and organize their own production and platform building on their own terms. Their blog wastes no time decrying the polarization of self-publishing versus traditional publishing
We are a joint venture publisher. We don’t believe in self-publishing because teams make great books. We don’t believe in traditional publishing because they take too much and do too little for it.” Taking their hands out of the cookie jar, Net Minds lets others do both the baking and the serving and merely offers up their kitchen and their directory of chefs in exchange for a slice of whatever pie gets baked: “Net Minds’ crowd-powered service gives authors rights, project autonomy and team building tools that make the publishing process transparent and effective. Instead of acquiring authors’ rights and giving them only 20 percent of the pie and little flexibility in choosing their team, title or release date, Net Minds flips the publishing industry model. Future releases will add collaboration tools for all parts of the publishing process, from project work to crowd sourced book proposals. . . .
Net Minds empowers authors to publish smarter through a platform and community of publishing professionals. The Net Minds marketplace is designed to help people with complementary talents and affinities form engaged teams, which will utilize the Net Minds collaboration tools to produce great books. This data and review driven platform will create a meritocracy, where great work is rewarded, credited and discovered. At Net Minds, we aim to reinvent the publishing process, making it efficient and fair.
This is most certainly a stand in the middle ground, and the brains behind Net Minds appear to have a keen understanding of startups, investments, and how to put themselves in a position to profit from this relatively new understanding of the book: 
We believe the future of publishing is in groups, think joint ventures. Currently, if you have an idea for a book, you either go the traditional route (sell the book to a corporate publisher) or self-publishing.  The former is harder than ever to achieve and the latter is ... the wild wild west.  We are in the middle: offering quality partners for quality ideas.
But while Net Minds acknowledges repeatedly that the publishing task placed before independent authors is overwhelming, they do a disservice by simply throwing those same, confused authors into a giant marketplace of competing publishing agents. For the same reason that unwitting bidders on Elance and Odesk inevitably hire the worst partners for the lowest costs, authors need education and guidance through the jungle of freelancers. Otherwise, they’re really just succumbing to another form of vanity publishing.

This issue has not gone unnoticed or unaddressed. Something or Other Publishing (SOOP) comprehensively one-ups Net Minds’ approach by adding to it that very element of author assistance. [Full disclosure: I have done and intend to continue doing editorial and consulting work through SOOP]. Though a relative newcomer to the game, having only a handful of publications to its name, SOOP has achieved remarkable marketing and distribution success, placing their books at lofty spots, including Eric Mondschein’s Life at 12 College Road, which topped out at #3 in Amazon’s siblingrelationships category and #2,775 overall out of more than ten million Amazon titles, reaching a coveted #1 rated hot new release spot within days.

SOOP offers not only multiple publishing models to their authors, but also book consultants, who walk the authors through their decisions, offering advice from personal experience and professional research. Of course, offering detailed, one-on-one advice to authors constitutes a significant investment; so how does SOOP justify this investment? With a brilliant adoption of the startup mentality, book ideas submitted to SOOP begin collecting interest (and votes) immediately, allowing concepts to be measured  in a fasion similar to Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, or other crowdfunding sites. Authors post their ideas to the website and instantly begin building their platforms. As interest in their books grow, SOOP reaches out to individual authors with tips for how they can independently continue their own publicity campaigns. Authors whose publications show exceptional promise get exceptional attention from SOOP. These handpicked authors get the VIP treatment and are provided a personal book consultant, who serves to inform and assist.

As their site points out, “The SOOP model offers guidance to those who wish to self-publish, and extends full commercial publishing contracts to those diligent and dedicated authors who seek to become part of a team devoted to the success of their book. Success is defined not only by a successful book launch, but by success with book sales and the resulting media attention.” Instead of leaving the authors who don’t generate enough interest in their books high and dry, this model offers its network of publishing professionals to those who prefer to self-publish, without pressuring authors into publishing under the SOOP brand. The mentality here is that it is in everyone’s best interest to be connected to reliable professionals rather than predators. By focusing on forming a community, SOOP offers a friendly place for readers, authors, editors, agents, marketers, designers, and other publishing professionals to congregate and socialize without imposing itself as a controlling entity.

Obviously, Net Minds’ and SOOP’s steps into the publishing middle ground incorporate the community aspect, but they represent a definite hybrid. With strong elements of traditional publishing, community platforming, and self-publishing author services all incorporated,  these new companies are highly self-aware and are filling in authors’ needs as quickly as they develop.

Certainly, there are other unique publishers out there (more every day, I’m sure), who blend the fundamental characteristics of different publishing avenues in complex and innovative ways, perhaps even inventing their own, new methods, and I hope you’ll share your stories about them in the comments below. Thanks for reading about publishing avenues; I hope to hear your feedback and keep the conversation going!

Did you enjoy this post? Sign up for Editwright emails!

Powered by MailChimp