I just got a stack of copies of Gravitas, the first book published by my company (Onyx Neon Press). I was amused to see it tagged as “Chick Lit” on Amazon, since it’s written by a guy, and entirely from the perspective of the lead male character. Maybe they thought “S. Christopher” is something like “Samantha Christopher”. The “Fight Club” and “Thomas Pynchon” tags, on the other hand, are entirely appropriate.
In a decade of working in the publishing industry, one thing I’ve learned is that the books that get published aren’t necessarily the good books, they’re just the books that publishers think will sell. Publishers will take a really terrible manuscript from a famous author before they’ll take an excellent book from an unknown, because it’s a safe bet. (Which explains horrors like “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell”, which isn’t even written by Tom Clancy.) It’s a simple matter of economics: publishers invest an astoundingly large amount of money in a book, and they have to make that investment back. Some of the investment is in the form of editorial and production staffing, but the single largest chunk is in printing the book.
All that’s changing now. Print-on-demand technology allows individual books to be printed as they’re ordered, and shipped directly to the purchaser. The technology has developed to the point that the quality of a print-on-demand book is equal to the quality of a traditional printed book. This style of publishing is cheap. You generally pay a small set up fee, and then have no other expenses until the book actually sells, and then only pay for the printing. (The printing cost is about $1 per copy higher than a traditional printer at high volume, and cheaper than a traditional printer at low volume.) It cost me well under my goal of $1k to produce Gravitas from start to finish. With all this power at their fingertips, publishers could experiment much more freely with low risk. But, publishing is an old industry and slow to change, so I don’t expect to see much progress in the big companies in the near future. In the meantime, it opens up the door for small publishers to be listed right beside the giants in big retail channels like Amazon.com.
The shift in technology brings to mind the advent of the printing press. Before Gutenberg’s invention of easily modifiable type, most books were painstakingly copied by hand. Owning a book was prohibitively expensive and largely limited to the ruling classes and religious establishments. The advance in technology didn’t just make books cheaper. It changed who had access to books and to the ideas the books represented. It changed the perception of literacy from a tool for the educated elite to an everyday skill for everyday people. It made it possible to spread new ideas farther and faster than before, inspiring a change for the better in the fundamental nature of society. We’re already seeing a democratization of online media, where blogs and wikis grow to be more frequent sources of information than “professional” media companies. It’s good to see a similar process in more durable media.
Lest you think it’s all wine and roses: Gravitas is currently listed as “out-of-print” on the US Amazon site (it was previously listed correctly, and is still listed correctly on Amazon.co.uk). I’ve set the wheels in motion to get it fixed, but it’s not an entirely satisfying experience. For a long time I’ve told my authors at O’Reilly that the primary benefit the company brings them is in distribution and marketing. That’s still true. Lightning Source, the print-on-demand provider we chose for Onyx Neon Press, distributes through Ingram and Baker & Taylor, arguably the best in the business, and certainly the most recognized in the business. But at O’Reilly, when Amazon has a problem with the data feed on a particular book, I call up our Amazon rep and it’s fixed in record time. It highlights a business model that really hasn’t been tapped yet: full-service distribution for print-on-demand books. Lightning Source and Lulu.com come close, but I’d certainly be willing to pay more for better service.