A Story of Alternate Publishing Universes

Once upon a time there was a college student named Joe Newbie who blogged every day about the college life. He wrote about the food in the cafeteria, the parties he went to, what he paid for textbooks and life in the dormitory. Several times a day Joe posted updates to Blogger, and by the time he declared as a business major, thousands of people were reading Joe’s blog every day. Joe’s friends and readers kept asking him, "When are you going to publish a book?" but Joe laughed it off until he needed a project for Entrepreneurial Thinking 312, a senior honors class. Joe found an article on the web about how to write a query letter and sent it off to all the major trade publishers. To his surprise, Big Trade Publishers responded within the week, and after a brief phone call, sent him a contract by Federal Express. Joe gave a presentation in Entrepreneurial Thinking class that very day, making an overhead slide show of the contract terms, and in a show of bravado, concluded by saying he would sleep on it before signing. That afternoon, Joe returned to his dorm room, put the contract under his pillow, and lay down to fulfill his word. As he began to drift off into happy dreams of royalties and cashing the $3,000 advance check, there was a knock on the door:

Alternate Publishing Universe #1

The knocking continued, but Joe had already drifted off, and as he had written in his blog that very week, "sleeping through noisy interruption in the afternoon is a vital skill for college students." When he finally woke up just before dinner, the first thing he did was sign the contract and stuff it in the return package thoughtfully provided by the acquisitions editor, Peter Heartless, and dropped it off at the campus center to be returned to Big Trade Publishers. Over the next two months, Joe edited his last couple years of blog postings into a book titled "How to Live a Happy Life at College" and sent it off to the publisher. He didn’t hear a word for a couple months after that, then a package showed up labeled "Final Proof" with a note from Peter Heartless that they were in a real rush, so could he please identify any errors by the end of the week.

Joe looked at the contents and was stunned. A mock-up of the cover showed that the title had been changed to "Party Animal and Scholar" and there was a stock photograph that made him blush. As he scanned the pages, his fists clenched as tightly as his teeth at every stupid sidebar graphic with helpful hints that weren’t his and often directly contradicted what he’d written. When he examined the text more closely, he saw that it had been radically changed to match the hints and tips, and that his style had been completely obliterated in accordance with some politically correct guidelines. One of the reasons Joe’s blog had been such a hit was his colorful language and honest emotions. His fingers shaking, he dialed-up Peter Heartless, who didn’t even make a show of sympathy. "Read your contract," Heartless told him, "The only reason we’re showing it to you at all is because we couldn’t hold you liable for any slander otherwise. We all worked very hard on this and it’s going to press next week. We spent thousands on that cover art, you should be grateful."

Joe sunk into depression and began to lose weight. His grades at school suffered, he lost interest in posting to his blog, and the same students who came to his advance check party now bought the book just to laugh at him. Nine months later when the first royalty statement came, it showed a negative balance of $357.86. As Joe frantically read the statement, he realized that the 10% of net rate on the first 10,000 books was earning him less than $1.00 each, and they weren’t selling that well. Six months later, the next royalty statement included a check for $1854.21, and there were quite a few returns. If Joe had been around to see the following semi-annual statements, he would have seen that total royalties for the book came to less than $7000, but by that time, Joe had graduated (by the skin of his teeth) and gone to Alaska to find himself. Unfortunately, before Joe could find himself, a bear found him, and the bear lived happily ever after.

Alternate Publishing Universe #2

Joe got up and answered the door and was greeted by Lin Smart, a shy girl from his Entrepreneurial Thinking class. Lin had a whole handful of papers which she proffered to Joe, explaining that she’d done an analysis of his contract and compared it to self publishing with print on demand, which happened to be what Lin’s mother did for a living. Lin showed Joe that she had researched Big Trade Publishers titles, and based on the expected word count, that they would publish his book in a 6x9 format at 192 pages and price it at $14.95. With royalties starting at 10% of net, and net selling price averaging about half of list, Joe would be earning a little less than 75 cents per book. If the book sold more than that, his royalties could eventually climb to just over a dollar a book, but she pointed out that only two percent of books in print sell over 5,000 copies a year. She had also read the fine print in the contract and pointed out that Joe was giving up the right to make future blog posts without getting them approved first, something that hardly fit his free wheeling style, that he had no control over the editing of the book, and that he was giving up the right to write any other books, blogs or anything that could be construed to compete with the Big Trade Publishers version. Lin explained to him that Big Trade Publishers wouldn’t actually market his book, that they were just hoping to get sales from his blog readers and that they would try putting an outrageous or lurid cover on the book to attract bookstore customers. It all sounded pretty bleak.

Then Lin showed him a Lightning Source case study she’d printed off the web. She explained that Joe could get a 192 page 6x9 book printed and shipped to Amazon and Ingram, the largest book distributor in the US, for less that $3.50 each, without having to fill his dorm room with books or paying for shipping and handling. Joe could give the book a $14.95 cover price, assign a short discount of 25%, and Amazon and Ingram would pay (14.95 x 0.75) $11.21 per book, leaving Joe with a net profit per sale of over $7.50. In other words, Joe would earn ten times as much on every sale as he would with Big Trade Publishers, and not sign away any rights to his future! Since Joe’s blog was going to do all of the marketing for the book in any case, Lin estimated that Joe could still sell about 50% as many books as he would have with Big Trade Publishers without getting his book in the chain stores. So if he was willing to gamble on her judgement, he could come out five times ahead.

Joe was floored. All this time he’d thought that the pinnacle of publishing was getting published by a reputable trade, and now this wonderful young woman was telling him that her mother had quit writing for the trades in order to become a self publisher. He asked Lin how much it would cost him to become a publisher and she answered quickly, "About $250 to buy a block of ISBN numbers from Bowker, set-up costs of about $100 at Lightning Source, and the work to prepare the book and design a cover, which I’ll bet my mother will help us with." Joe enthusiastically agreed, and the two of them were inseparable over the next few months, laughing at private jokes as they edited the blog entries into a book and got their friends (and one professor) to act as proofreaders. They published the book that summer, advertised it on the blog which was now getting over 5,000 visitors a day, and by Christmas they had sold 1,500 copies, netting them over $10,000 before taxes. The next year, sales continued to grow, Joe acknowledged that Lin was the best thing that ever happened to him, and they got married. Joe wrote another book about how to be happy which became a bestseller titled "Open the Door to Lin" and they lived happily ever after.

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