Okay, class. Today’s lesson in rich, textured irony comes from the August columns of the Atlantic, which seems perversely and deeply committed to misunderstanding the entire revolution now occurring in books. They have plenty of training in such matters of misunderstanding, having totally misread the collapse of their own industry.
So here goes.
A piece in the Atlantic, titled “The Cruel Paradox of Self-Publishing” (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/09/the-cruel-paradox-of-self-publishing/261912/) offers this illuminating subhead: “Digital and print-on-demand technology has made self-publishing much easier. But for every self-published work that gains traction, the overwhelming majority of books don’t.”
The article discusses the purchase by Penguin of Author Solutions, Inc., a leading provider of print-on-demand, or self-publishing, services. The author concludes that self-publishing is infinitely less desirable than getting a deal with a major publisher because no one buys self-published books.
Here’s the fabulous irony I promised in paragraph one: nobody buys the Atlantic, either.
Okay, a few people do, mostly doddering, slobbering older people who renew their subscriptions because they think the Atlantic is a conservationist group dedicated to the preservation of whales. But most people who read the aforementioned Atlantic blog piece read it online. In other words, they read it for free.
Intriguing, isn’t it, that a magazine that sells its work for what my four year old would call “zero money” is giggling at writers who would publish books without the likelihood of book sales?
The Atlantic wouldn’t give away its content for free unless it were either stupid or making money from its online readers somehow. Could that ad for Shell in the upper right hand corner of the page offer a clue? Of course! The Atlantic is trading content for eyeballs. You read the article; maybe you’ll click on the Shell ad. I did, and I was transported to a Shell website designed to appeal to the intelligent folks who read the Atlantic online. A lot of stuff about the future of energy. I would have stayed longer, but the top line read, “By browsing this site you are agreeing to use our cookies.” So I tossed-I mean, deleted-their cookies, and went back to work on this piece.
Impatient reader, by now you are wondering what connection I might find between the Atlantic’s scoffing at self-published authors’ small chance of earning money from book sales and the magazine’s revenue stream earned by shilling for Shell. So here it is: the real money in books today isn’t in selling books. It’s in having the book sell you.
I run a company called BusinessGhost, Inc. and we ghostwrite books for business people, professionals, financial services providers, consultants, healthcare leaders, and others. The books we write for these people carry prices, as do most books, but the authors typically give them away for free, in hard copy form, as eBooks, as iBooks, and even as PDFs that can be downloaded from their websites in exchange for contact information. In other words, the authors aren’t trying to make any money from book sales. But they will make hundreds of thousands of dollars from selling their services, winning lucrative speaking engagements, and making appearances on TV.
Yes, self-publishing a novel is like buying a lottery ticket. You aren’t likely to be the one to cash in. Same thing with publishing Grandma’s poetry or your uncle Fred’s religious homilies. But the real money today in books isn’t in book sales. It’s in selling services highlighted by the book.
Why a book? Today, everyone’s websites pretty much look the same. You can’t differentiate yourself from your competition with a website. Your social media content is pretty much the same as that of your competitors’. And let’s get real: nobody’s following you on Twitter, anyway.
When you’re a book author, on the other hand, you’re an authority. You must be an expert, because otherwise you could never have written a book (or had one written for you; readers forgive and even expect you to hire a ghost). You get to position yourself as the expert who will solve the reader’s problems, who has solutions that are explained in depth, who has case histories and war stories. In short, as they used to say to Tiger, you da man.
Or da woman.
So the test is not whether your independently published book is going to sell 10,000 copies, or even ten copies. You’re not going into the book business, a business far less lucrative than selling eyeballs of the intelligent to the Shells of the world. You’re using your book to build your business.
Which is smart.
So when analyzing the wisdom of the crowds self-publishing books and ignoring their elders and betters on Publisher’s Row, don’t take the narrow, Atlantic-based view suggesting that book sales are the only measure of a book’s success.
Business people, professionals, and service providers of all stripes are writing books and giving away their books for free.
And they’re laughing all the way to the bank.