One of the easiest mistakes one can make in business and in life is to assume that just because some big things are changing that means everything is changing. Every boom and bust cycle in history has affirmed this disconnect, but one need look no further than the second-to-last bubble — the Internet bubble — for a subject with relevance to the independent publisher boom.

Internet investors recognized that they were witnessing the early days of a powerful new medium, and they were right about that. Some investors got rich by picking winners in this transformation and some entrepreneurs got fabulously rich. But as this realization of the Internet’s power dawned, other investors and entrepreneurs lost very badly for at least two reasons: (1) they underestimated the amount of time this transformation would take; and (2) they forgot that human nature doesn’t change just because technology does.

Thus it’s important to keep in mind that the changes that make it possible to establish an independent publishing operation don’t by any means guarantee its success, even presuming the books are good, professionally edited and well designed.

Look around and you will find many independent and micro-publishers building their business models with an over-reliance on direct-to-consumer retailing and print-on-demand technology. The problem with the former is that most people don’t wish to shop on publisher websites; they want a one-stop-shopping experience. And the problem with the latter (when it is employed without engaging a distributor) is that it ignores a huge resource — the book trade — whose troubles are well document but which remains far from dead.

One day, perhaps, books will be beamed directly to our retinas and we’ll read with our eyes closed. But that day won’t be tomorrow. And one day, too, the book trade might shrivel up and disappear. But in the meanwhile, John Malone, a guy who knows how to make money placing big bets, is trying to buy a controlling interest in Barnes & Noble.

For me, the point that tipped me toward pursuing an authors’ consortium model for the publication of Primacy (and other works) was the relationship I managed to land with a distributor to the book trade. This is a piece of the puzzle not everyone can get, but it is worth seeking out and trying to acquire. Unless he’s a marketing genius (and there are a few of those out there), anyone who chooses to bet on his own publishing talents while intentionally ignoring the book trade has set out on a fool’s errand.

Here are: Six Ways the Book Trade Still Matters

1. Inertia

Some people change because they want to. Most people change because they have to. E-books are the future and the future is here — but not entirely. The people with the most leisure time on their hands are the oldest among us, and many of them don’t want to abandon printed books, thank you very much. Others already have their credit card on file with Amazon or B&N. It’s easy. We take the path of least resistance. We shop today where we shopped yesterday. Not always, but most of the time. For books, whether online or on Main Street, we still mostly shop at bookstores. That will be true for a very long time. Maybe even forever.

2. Convenience

As easy as it is to click around the Internet, the buying process still requires entering credit card information on sites where you don’t already have it stored. So you’d rather go somewhere you do a lot of business, which is one reason Amazon has had such success branching out beyond books — they made it so easy for the customer. In the non-electronic world, it’s likewise true that a well-located bookseller (or book section in a mass-market retailer) may be on your way between errands. A micro-publisher exclusively selling its own books can never compete with that.

3. Expertise

Bookstores are filled with people who love books and know books. And we often need help sorting through all the choices out there. A micro-publisher just wants to sell you his book. A bookseller wants to earn your trust by selling you the best book for you. Which is likely to command more of the purchaser’s loyalty?

4. Salesmanship

Who in the book business — author or publisher — doesn’t wish people bought books by the dozen like cans of Coke, consumed them, then bought more of the same? But it is the nature of books that they are sold one at a time. Each sale, in a sense, is a new sale. In that context, one or two or three people flogging a handful of books isn’t much of a sales force. But despite all the consolidation in the book business, there are still tens of thousands of people out there whose main job it is to sell books. Why wouldn’t you want them working for you if they’re willing?

5. Visibility

In the book business, as in any business, awareness matters. The more “impressions” you put in front of a potential customer, the more likely she is to make a purchase. Every bookstore — Internet or bricks-and-mortar — that carries your book presents an opportunity to make one of those impressions, even if they don’t close the sale themselves. Publishers that confine their sales channels to their own website (or their own website plus Amazon) are missing opportunities for exposure.

6. Logistics

Every independent publisher and micro-publisher should ask themselves a simple question: Would I rather stuff envelopes or stuff channels? There are dozens of distributors and thousands of retail outlets working to move books from the warehouse to the consumer’s house. They share your goal, and they already have the means in place to deliver. Don’t get stuck driving your own UPS truck. Make them your partners.

Yet, if you’ve visited the Verbitrage website, you’ve seen that we do sell direct to consumer. So what gives? Well, it’s easier than ever to sell direct and we make a lot more money on a unit basis if we do so. Plus, I don’t imagine in my wildest dreams that every bookstore in America will choose to stock Primacy or our future books, and even those that do may lose a sale by not always having the book in stock. We should always have our books (and they’ll always be signed by the author). But what we won’t do is undercut our trade partners on price — not by a nickel.

The book trade still presents an enormous resource for those authors and publishers lucky enough to have access to it. That’s why you’ll find Primacy “wherever books are sold.”

Last Week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 12: The Distraction of Shiny Objects

Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 14: Who Stuck His Neck Out?

Follow me on Twitter: JEFISHMAN

Visit the Verbitrage website.

Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

8 responses to “Publishing Primacy — Folio 13: Six Ways the Book Trade Still Matters”

  1. jonathan evison says:

    . . . great insights, as always, master fishman . . . co-op is still such a huge piece of the retail puzzle, particularly if we’re talking about being successful . . . programs like the one my boys at bookazine are spearheading (electric and eclectic) are a nice bridge between the established and the future . . .

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      I didn’t mention co-op, did I? Maybe in a future piece I’ll discuss a co-op deal that I’m really excited about. It will put the book on prominent display in 185 Hudson News airport stores. Take that, Random House!

  2. jonathan evison says:

    . . . i heart hudson, btw . . . far and away the best operated, and best curated chain store . . . not to mention the best market–the only market in the world that creates readers!

  3. As someone who just started a micropress (Saddle Road Press), now with two books to its credit (or debit, speaking as the bookkeeper), I’ve been following your articles on TNB with great interest. Verbitrage is a fascinating concept.

    Most of what you write I agree with completely, but in this latest you seem to imply that “micropress” and “print on demand” (POD) mean that the publisher is selling directly to the consumer rather than through traditional channels. That’s not necessarily true, as I’m sure you know.

    Saddle Road Press is a micropress and we use Print On Demand technology. Our printer is Lightning Source, which is part of the Ingram empire. The books are distributed through Ingram, Baker and Taylor, and others, with no further intervention from the publisher. They can be ordered at Amazon, Barnes and Noble (both online and brick and mortar) and any independent bookstore.

    There are two great things, to me, about POD with Lightning Source. First is its automatic, instantaneous availability through all the standard channels. From the moment I approve proof, within 24 hours the book is “in print” – What the World Sees, for example, showed up up on Amazon overnight.

    The second is the fact that I can afford to keep a book in print as long as it takes to reach its audience. As long as I pay $12 a year to keep it in the Ingram database, the book is in print. It can trickle out one copy at a time, or pour out by the thousands.

    It seems to me that this model gives writers the freedom to evolve, to write things that are not easily categorized, to ignore received opinion, to create a market that fits them, instead of fitting themselves to a pre-defined market.

    I do want to reiterate how much I have enjoyed, and how much I have learned, from this series. Saddle Road is just in a different (micro-)corner of the new publishing world, one where POD and short run capability are a plus.


    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Thank you for this contribution, Ruth. In my haste I may have conflated POD with direct-to-consumer selling a bit too much. There are presses doing it all ways. Many — but by no means all — seem to be forgoing the bookstores, which I think is a big mistake. I agree that Ingram’s Lightning Source helps publishers leverage the best of what POD has to offer. There are some shortcomings to that route not mentioned above, but there are shortcomings to every route (including the one I’ve chosen). A lot also depends on what kind of books one is publishing and how much splash they require.

      The more important point, with which I hope you’ll agree, is that we shouldn’t be writing off the bookstores.

      • Yes, you’re right. It’s a big universe — new ways to publish Big Books that need and deserve a big splash and new ways to publish small books, odd books, long sprawling books, poetry — things that the traditional publishers wouldn’t touch. That the “internet” loosely defined has made the world smaller is a platitude, but it means an author can find a good-sized audience one kindred spirit at a time.

        I completely agree with you about bookstores. A lot of people, myself included, love bookstores and libraries and the whole serendipitousness — not to mention the sensual experience — of lots of books in one place. If I had a million dollars, I know exactly where I’d spend it….

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      P.S. I made a small change to address your point. Thanks again. I’m glad you’re enjoying the series.

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