Publishing in the New Millennium

Any of you who know me, also know I’ve bleated on for some years regarding the profound changes occurring in publishing, how it is the traditional method of publishing and bringing books to market is obsolete and simply not viable in today’s global, technology-driven economy.

Over the past five years we’ve structured Five Rivers Publishing so that:

We do not rely on sales from bricks and mortar stores

As much as a decade ago I realized there was going to be a dynamic shift in how consumers purchased many of their products, sliding from in-store experiences to online. Why this shift? It’s just easier, especially in light of increased demands on leisure time. The mall experience declined as shoppers fell out of fascination with the day or evening complete experience that often combined shopping with socialization and dining. 
That gave rise to the Big Box stores and malls, which required lots of short driving once you arrived at the mega-destination. And while retail developers attempted to maximize the mall experience and marry it to the North American penchant to ‘biggie’ everything, the Big Box experience very quickly lost momentum. Retailers soon realized they could capitalize on the growing trend to live life through the Internet, offer free shipping, which was offset by diminished need for expensive retail footprint. One trend fed the other, which hugely affected the book-buying experience.
For the hopeless bibliophile, with only so much time and money to spend, it became easier to spend leisure hours clicking keys to procure your latest literary fix, than dressing, driving, browsing, only to find the book you wanted was no available in that store, going through the disappointment and frustration of having to order said book, leave, return a few weeks later to pick up the coveted book, and finally return home, shaking and suffering withdrawal, fix in hand, or bag as it were. 
I knew I was making that transition in my own personal purchasing. It only made sense the rest of the Western World would be doing so as well. 
And then there was a logical analysis of retail floor space in a bookstore. Just how many titles, reasonably, could a store stock? And how many titles were being published each year? Marry that to the fact print on demand was allowing small publishers and independent authors to produce books economically, and competition for that shelf space became ferocious. And so it was usually only the major houses had their titles stocked on shelves. Small and micro publishers could take lessons puckering up to whistle the blues, because their books certainly weren’t going to ascend the heights of the shelves.
Then came what many in the industry called publishingeddon. Put another way, lots of chickens running around with umbrellas, screeching doom. Well, it wasn’t doom. It was simply a paradigm shift in marketing and consumerism. 

Print on demand the only logic response

Very early it became clear to me that if Five Rivers was going to be sustainable and successful, we would have to embrace some pretty (then) radical publishing methods that not only allowed us to achieve a healthy bottom line, but respect the environment which as any sane business person knows also affects your longevity and bottom line. It just didn’t make any sense to print thousands of books and warehouse them in preparation of future sales. Knowing sales from a small press were going to be much smaller than sales from a large house, we needed a modern and viable production method. Print on demand met that perfectly. 
Although there’s a huge difference in print on demand depending which firm with which you choose to contract, we are able to produce our books for almost the same price as offset by using Lightning Source. That allows us to keep a minimum of stock in-house for small orders we receive, while doing fulfillment directly through our printer.
Which brings me to:

Distribution

A few days ago I read an interesting post by author, publisher and distributor, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, in which she laments the closure of their distribution business. I couldn’t help but feel Rusch had somehow missed what was happening in publishing, and could have circumvented yet another business disappointment. 
As recently as 2005 I realized traditional distribution channels were going to break down and disappear, just as were similar channels regarding agents. With players like Lightning Source married to enormous distribution giant Ingram, and Amazon with all it’s clout and business leverage, and the decline of bricks and mortar bookstores, it seemed only logical the long tail of publishing — in this case the distributors — were going to take a hit. And they are. As a publisher, why would you give up another 5% to 10% of your profit to have a firm distribute titles you can easily distribute yourself through new, dynamic channels at no extra cost?

Pay attention to your product

So, in this new publishing landscape, where anyone with an idea and a will can release a book, whether print or digital, what’s to make your work stand out from the literally millions of books being published? Quality. 
In way we’ve created a new version of where publishing began prior to the 20th century. Individual authors or small publishers, paying attention to a niche market, spending time to make sure the books they produce are well-written, well-edited, and marketing to the target demographic. All of that is possible now because of the publishing technologies we have available for both print and digital books, because of distribution services offered by the printers who have adapted to the new publishing world, and because of social networking tools that allow you to inform potential readers of the titles you’re producing.
Given 20% of publishers produce under $1,000,000.00 in sales in North America, that’s a significant portion of the overall publishing landscape. And it’s in that 20% you’re going to find some of the most innovative, interesting books being produced in this new millennium of publishing.
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