Technology overthrows another industry

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Making a comfortable living in the old world of book publishing might be over, as technology radically changes the business. Traditional publishers might not be pleased, but nearly everyone else — from readers to authors — should be darn happy.

The music, movie, television, newspaper and magazine industries already have been upended by the high-tech revolution, including battling piracy, creating new business models to capitalize on digital and broadband technologies, and trying to differentiate to keep old technologies (like paper) relevant.

The book business clearly needs some, as 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter put it, “creative destruction,” whereby new products or developments overturn the existing industry. I’m seeing the new opportunities birthed by this technological revolution firsthand, due to just publishing my first novel — “Warrior Monk: A Pastor Stephen Grant Novel.”

The old book business labors under the reign of gatekeepers. Authors try to get agents interested in their work. Agents have access to major publishing houses. The dream scenario occurs when an excited agent sells the book to a big publisher, the author gets a substantial advance, well-financed marketing occurs, and everyone gets wealthier from profitable hardcover sales.

But without an agent, the writer tries to get a small publisher interested. That house might do a small print run, and, despite promises to market aggressively, the serious marketing efforts too often are left to the author. The writer gains the satisfaction of a published book, and gets a small cut per book after the publisher’s take.

I had this experience with three policy-oriented books published by small firms. Other authors have relayed comparable tales, i.e., small publishers making big promises but failing to work to get books sold.

But with “Warrior Monk” coming out this year, new opportunities existed. After the fun but formidable work of actually writing a novel about a pastor and onetime CIA assassin whose former and current lives collide (think James Bond becoming your pastor or priest), my business plan laid out two possibilities.

Plan A set aside a few months to contact book agents. If someone got interested, great. But after no luck on that front, Plan B bypassed small publishers. Instead, given the dramatic improvements in print-on-demand publishing and e-book readers like Amazon.com’s Kindle, Plan B focused on author-publishing options, such as Lulu.com, AuthorHouse, SmashWords, or Amazon’s CreateSpace. I chose CreateSpace.

What are the challenges and advantages of author self-publishing?

A big test is editing. Any seasoned writer understands that a good set of editing eyes, whether for a newspaper column or a book, is critical. Freelance editors are an option, as are the author publishing houses.

As for a book cover, again, firms like AuthorHouse and CreateSpace offer design services. Technology provides another option. I found BookCoverPro software an easy and handy tool to use.

Then there’s the mighty task of marketing the book. For many authors, this ranks as the most difficult undertaking. But online tools like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, podcasts and email can at least make the effort less costly in terms of dollars, but not necessarily in terms of time. Google and Facebook, for example, offer targeted and budgeted online ads as well.

What about the benefits? E-stores like Amazon.com mean that the least known author has the same, or at least similar, “shelf space” as the hottest writers around.

Time also matters. A traditional publisher can take 12 to 18 months to get a book in stores. With author publishing, print-on-demand books can be available for sale in two weeks, or, in the case of an e-book on the Kindle, even days.

But the biggest plus clearly is revenue. With my paperback or e-book version, the per-book author revenue is far higher than it ever would be with a traditional publisher.

In terms of e-book sales, by far the fastest growing part of the industry, with a traditional publisher, an author might suffer reduced per-book revenue due to the lower e-book price compared to a hardcover, for example. In contrast, consider that Amazon.com and Apple’s iBookstore allow authors to earn 70 percent of the book price. The Wall Street Journal reported recently: “A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon’s Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.”

Readers get the best deal of all. They see more choices at lower prices, and in a greater variety of formats. Books that might never have been published before — whether due to quality questions, or due to agents and publishers missing good work — are increasingly available for people to read, enjoy, discuss and debate. Upending the book industry is an exciting development for readers and authors, even if agents and old-line publishers feel a bit scared. But that’s the reality of creative destruction.

Keating, chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, can be reached at rkeating@sbecouncil.org.