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How Libraries and Patrons Can Beat Publishers at Publishing

Mitchell-DavisThanks to Biblioboard’s Mitchell Davis for this insightful post! Mitchell was a founder in 2000 of BookSurge, (acquired in 2005 and now Amazon’s CreateSpace), the world’s first integrated global print-on-demand and publishing services company. After working in senior management at Amazon for two years he co-founded BiblioLabs in 2007, where he serves as Chief Business Officer.

BiblioLabs are the creators of BiblioBoard: an award-winning mobile App and web platform that is reinventing the library-patron user experience (as well as a PubSense Summit 2014 sponsor, and they’re building a cool “Collections” app just for PubSense Summit conference attendees!)

Mitchell will be joining the “How to Approach Booksellers and Libraries” panel at PubSense Summit 2014.

Self Publishing Comes of Age

There are always consequences to every technology. In the case of self-publishing, the consequence has been a flood of new books that no one can keep up with.  Self-publishing began to go mainstream around the turn of the century with the advent of print-on-demand (POD). Companies like Ingram’s Lightning Source and BookSurge (which later became Amazon’s CreateSpace) completely changed the risk profile of publishing books. With POD, a book that sold one copy could be published alongside a book that sold one million copies.

Around 2007, eBook publishing further accelerated the self-publishing output. It is hard to know the exact number, but I believe well over one million books have been self-published in the past decade with more being added every day. Among these books are all sorts of interesting things, including valuable first person accounts, personal and group histories and earnest attempts at the great American novel. There are even some really well-written books that find a good audience—something that is happening more and more these days.

There is also terrible poetry, books that are horribly written and plenty of cases where the authors could not be bothered with actually editing the book. Despite all of this, it is important they can be published. There is a catharsis in publishing a book that should be open to everyone, and the world is a better place for these technologies having come into being.

I was a founder of BookSurge back in 2000, and in those exciting, pioneering days of self-publishing, I talked to hundreds of authors taking advantage of these new technologies. I talked to war veterans, survivors of abuse and people with ideas that could really help others. I also talked to plenty of people who were just trying to get a story off their chest. I could not think of a better reason to write a book.

When I talked to the director of the Peace Corps Writers program, he told me: “Did you know half the people in the Peace Corps are writing a book…and most of them suck. But you know what? When the Ken Burns of the next generation comes along, and there is no Peace Corps, it won’t matter that they suck.” Self-publishing provides—and will continue to provide—an unprecedented record of human history and experience. 

Readers have also shown an affinity for self-published books—something that took time to develop. Half or more of the books on Amazon’s bestseller list at any given time now are self-published. Books break out of these self-publishing ecosystems and sell 100,000 copies with some regularity. Some sell millions of copies. The big traditional publishers watch the Amazon bestseller lists and pounce on self-published authors who start to move up, hoping to woo them away from self-publishing. There is no denying that self-publishing has gone mainstream.  The times have changed.

The Art of Curation

The challenge with such an explosion of published books has been determining which self-published books will find resonance with readers.  The easy way to segregate self-published books is by sales rank. The logic being: if a book is selling, then it is “better” than one that is not selling. The sales trajectory of a book is certainly a data point to consider, but it is not sufficient as a driver of meaningful book discovery.

It is also too simple to frame the situation as a need to “separate good books from bad books,” because good curation is more nuanced than that.  Do the books satisfy some need? Do they have a chance to be popular? Do they appeal to some niche curiosity? Are they interesting? We can argue over whether 50 Shades of Grey is a “good book,” but libraries have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to make sure their patrons can read it.

Another example would be libraries that have a mission to collect every piece of primary source history on the Vietnam War (good or bad). There are hundreds of these that have been self-published and a service to identify them would be valuable. Libraries also have a strong desire to carry works from local self-published authors, which is a different motivation as well. The list goes on and on.

The minimum requirement for self-published books that have gone viral is that the book must hold the attention of the reader in some way (editing helps).  And those readers must be compelled to tell other people about the experience (i.e. word of mouth). So far, the patterns of what propels some self-published books to break out have been mostly haphazard. Libraries can change that.

Libraries as Author Discovery Service

The big five publishers claim to have perfected the art of finding the books we should know about and then getting those books to readers, historically with help from libraries.  Ironically, libraries have struggled to participate in the digital era while stuck in one-book one-user business models established by these same publishers. There are no discounts or McNaughton plans for e-books.  For the libraries, the story has always been the more popular the book, the longer the wait list. Fun stuff.

One of the reasons Amazon bought BookSurge was for the self-publishing operation. It provided (and continues to provide) a wellspring of books to feed into the publishing imprints Amazon has developed over the past few years to compete with traditional publishers. Think of it as a farm team system for baseball. This farm team strategy is also the main reason Penguin Random House bought Author Solutions.

If you want to see “where the puck is moving” in the value chain of books connecting with readers, these two deals are a big tip off. It all starts with a self-published book. Libraries can sit on this wellspring of books and help patrons make sense of it all. In the process, they can re-invent themselves in the value chain and provide a critical reader service.

Libraries have struggled to make self-published books available. The resources required to deal with individual authors and determine which books they should order are too great. These books do not enter the normal acquisition chain for the libraries. There has been no way to make order from the chaos.

On the self-published author side, authors are simply looking for readers. They are not expecting riches from the library market. They simply need a place to find people who want to read their books, and in the process, they can build their own brands.

The third player in this is the patron who is looking for a simple and easy experience reading eBooks provided by the library. No wait lists, no publishers experimenting on them with different business models, no frustrations—just unlimited access to a bunch of great eBooks from emerging authors.

As curation meets the technology and business models afforded by BiblioBoard, libraries can make available thousands of fantastic eBooks and be adding new titles all the time. Since this is provided to libraries and patrons as a book discovery service (not a sale of content at typical eBook prices), it will be affordable for all libraries and be able to scale to fit any library budget.

Libraries will make these eBooks available to patrons on a world-class user interface with no checkouts, returns or multi-user limits. The initiative can go viral and serve millions of patrons without creating wait lists or unchecked demand-driven acquisition spending. Patrons will find books that resonate with them, and they will tell people. And this will drive a new readership base for that author.

Why Self-Published Authors Should Love This Type of Service

Below is a quote from Hugh Howey, who has become quite famous in the last couple of years for all the right reasons. Howey, who originally self-published with CreateSpace, is the role model of the self-made author. If you don’t know Hugh’s story, you should.

In 2012, after writing for several years while holding down a day job, he published Wool, which made the NY Times bestseller list and started selling 20,000-30,000 digital copies per month. He admits luck was involved (maybe some good karma)—being in the right place, with the right book, at the right time.

He quit his job. He worked with an agent to sell his movie rights to Ridley Scott for a Hollywood blockbuster. He continues to write fantastic serialized content and has built a direct relationship with readers on his own website. He bundles this writing into an “Omnibus,” which he releases in print and as an eBook (also sold directly off his own website). These have gone on to become bestsellers and further extended his reader base.

He is a fantastic writer. He busted his ass and made it big. He is also using his success to champion the self-publishing business model (he got a lot of attention recently for his financial analysis of self-publishing). The gist of his philosophy on self-publishing success is that you have to get readers before anything else happens.

Here is a quote on what should really matter to a self-published author:

“Readers are the ones who build buzz, on their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. On their review blogs and on Goodreads. Forget trying to fashion bestsellers through bookstores. Bestsellers happen through readers. We’ve seen what indies have done with perma-free and giveaways. We see that the authors who shun DRM, who trust their readers, who embrace pirates, sit up there on the top 10 lists.

It is interesting here that he talks about a book being pirated as a good thing. Libraries, by virtue of their trusted role in the community, can be far more valuable than a “pirate” in the word-of-mouth process of exposing books to readers. And at the same time, libraries can deliver a fantastically fun and great patron experience that scales.

My prediction is that libraries are going to be super excited about an eBook service they can really promote with no fear of success. My prediction is the 94% of people in this country that think libraries are important will give this new service a try. They will love it.

Working together, libraries and patrons will produce the next Hugh Howey. Authors will break out, and they will follow Hugh’s advice on how to parlay that into a real writing career (or for some, a modest income stream from their writing, which is also good).

And then, it will happen again.

And again.

And soon, libraries and patrons will be better at publishing than the big publishers.












Posted March 18, 2014 in: About PubSense Summit, Faculty Insights by PubSense

  1. […] There is a catharsis in publishing a book that should be open to everyone, and the world is a better place for these technologies having come into being. (The art of curation in the digital #book world.  […]