Evolution On The Margins Of Books

I just finished "The Business Of Books" by Andre Schiffrin, which was primarily interesting to me for one reason. The business of publishing that he describes growing up in is not the business that I write about, but then again, it's a publishing world that he's eulogizing. His conclusions about the new world of trade publishing being focused on the frontlist and the bottom line agree with my own observations, though he tends read politics into everything at the same time. I don't believe the publishing business has ever stopped evolving, or that there was ever a time that bestsellers weren't important for various reasons. But I do agree that publishing for backlist potential isn't in fashion at the big trades.

One of the remarkable things about the Internet is the speed at which evolution takes place. It's still a game of incremental changes and survival of the fittest, but the word gets around very quickly and to the winner belong the spoils. When I talk to publishers about working the Internet into their business model, I suspect my enthusiasm sometimes makes it sound like I'm asking them to give up paper books, or distribution relationships. So many publishers have made major commitments to the Internet and received little to show for it because their focus was on budgeting, rather than understanding how a web presence could compliment their existing business model. Evolution may come quickly on the web, but a publisher who tries to get to the finish line in one shot rather than testing incremental adaptations to their organism is just begging to become an evolutionary dead end.

Changes on the margins of any business lead to big effects over time. Positive changes to book margins (ie, the gross profit per book) when publishers face very similar costs for NYC office space, printing and authors may make the difference as to which publishers survive in the long run. Winnowing out the weaker publishers may be a process of a few percentage points on the margins, not spectacular blow-ups due to over-sized advances that don't pay out or huge bookstore returns of no longer promising titles. All things being equal, if two publishers are competing in similar areas with similar staff and cost structures, I would expect the publisher who adapts better to the Internet to be the publisher who survives. But bestseller obsessed publishers think, "If the Internet didn't work for Stephen King, how could it do anything for us?"

I believe, from multiple discussions with publishers whose Internet efforts are highly limited, that the stumbling point is the mental commitment to learning something new. Most publishers have no trouble coming up with a budget for web design and upkeep, but their desire is to write a contractor a check and not hear about it again. The website, for them, is like a space advertisement intended more for branding purposes than anything else. But those same publishers would be horrified if they found they'd spent fifty cents a book more on printing than everybody else in the business for the same quality product. Survival in the long haul is often a question of being a second faster or fifty cents cheaper. Publishers who don't spend any money on marketing, on title acquisition, on direct sales, peer reviews, focus groups and public relations can afford to ignore their websites as long as the e-mail works. Publishers who do spend money on those activities and hope to be around after the next meteor hits had better start evolving now, a little at a time.


Nicholas said...

This seems like little more than a pep talk to publishing companies; there's nothing concrete. Can you share some examples of what you mean by having a "web presence" that's for more than just branding purposes?

Morris Rosenthal said...


I thought it was more of a harangue than a pep talk. Two recent website oriented posts are:


(another harangue), and you can probably find dozens more scattered through the 275 posts in my archives.


Graveside Tales said...

Once again Morris you are spot on. It's more than just building a website. Sure you invest thousands of dollars on a website, but if you do not market that site no one will even know you exist. On the internet there is no such thing as "build it and they will come". You have to market, market, market your site. You also have to provide people a reason to come back to your site and often.

My company Graveside Tales recently launched a myspace page. I can honestly tell you that was the hardest decision we had to make. When we looked at it as it was intended to be, and not what it has become than the decision was easy. We would have missed out someting truly wonderful. Myspace is a marketing machine period. Even though I hate myspace, it is our company's goal to have roughly between 10,000-20,000(actually we want to see more like over 100,000)friends.

Why would anyone want that many myspace friends you might ask? It's simple really, with those kinds of numbers, it means 10k, 20k, or even 100k potential customers to buy our books.

Everything we do when marketing online always points back to our main company website. We have even set it up that those who do come to our site can click our logo and be added on our myspace page.

When we post on message boards, blogs, or other websites Graveside Tales' name is associated in some way. For us it's all about getting our name out there and keeping in front of people.

In the world of the internet it's all about convience. It's convient for us to setup shop and successfully run our publishing. It's convient for potential customers to come to our site and directly buy from us. This allows us to keep more monies in our pockets without having to discount our books upwards of 55% just to have regular books stores as well as online stores sell our books.

I guess it all comes down to this INTERNET=FREE ADVERTISING in many cases. The internet is now a part of our way of lives. Why not use it to its fullest potential???

Graveside Tales

Morris Rosenthal said...


If I ran a large trade publisher, I'd by Steve Weber's "Plug Your Book" in bulk and give it away to new authors we signed.

But the Internet goes beyond advertising. I count on feedback from posting excerpts and ideas online to help me determine what potential buyers are looking for in a book. I was never much of a mind reader.

My biggest financial failure in self publishing came from publishing a book that had generated very little interest on the web, despite dominating the search engine results on the subject. I'm glad I published that book for various reasons, but as a business proposition, the website stats package was right about the audience - there wasn't any.


Graveside Tales said...


You are right. Feedback and online reviews are also very important. It is easy to focus on just one part of the internet puzzle while ignoring other areas. Sometimes you just have to step back and look at is as a whole entity and see where you need to improve.

Also thanks for the tip about "Plug Your Book" by Steve Weber. I keep running into this book title. I will get in touch with Steve and see if we can work out some kind of deal.

Thanks again Morris for all your hard work you do in the Self Publishing Market.