Apr 24

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Self Publishing Changes All the Rules?

On my regular blog, I recently wrote an entry about self publishing in response to a question from Jason Fried at 37signals. On the Radar backchannel, we discussed why I hadn't put it on the new radar blog. Now, with even the NY Times weighing in on self-publishing, it looks like self-publishing MUST be a major trend on my radar. Let me explain why I think the old order will be recreated, merely with new players.

Every time there's a new technology for democratizing information dissemination, everyone gets all excited about the idea that this time, the playing field has been leveled. We saw it with the WWW in the early 90s. Now, at last, everyone could be a publisher. Yet within a few years, we saw the rise of new concentrations of media power within the hands of players such as Yahoo!, Google, and other search engines. Before long, small sites are paying search engine optimizers to help them get better placement, or writing for larger sites in order to reach more people.

OK, just kidding. It's blogs that are going to change all the rules. Anyone can have his or her own pulpit But before long, we start hearing about power laws, blog aggregators are the new media darlings, and suddenly the blogosphere doesn't seem so flat any more.

No, it will be podcasting. Oops. The aggregation begins again.

OK, really, self-publishing will level the playing field.

No, not really. As "self-publishing" companies like those described in the NY Times article take off, they become the new publishers. They are publishers with a new business model, monetizing the long tail of print publishing by selling a few hundred copies each of tens of thousands of books, but they are publishers nonetheless. They, not the authors, have the relationships with retail distribution (even long tail retailers like Amazon want to deal with centralized suppliers, not tens of thousands of one-book wonders); they, not the authors, have the manufacturing and distribution infrastructure. And now that Amazon is getting into the print-on-demand publishing business with its purchase of BookSurge, all this means is that Amazon is becoming a publisher, not that the fundamental rules of publishing have changed.

As I said in a talk I gave on the ecology of e-book publishing" back in August 2000:

"There are by most accounts 50 or 60 thousand books published a year. If we look at the Amazon-sized databases, we know that several million books are in print. Now, we also know that there are some tens of millions of customers. So, if we have an assumption that the model is the direct sales of all books to all customers, we have a massive mathematical problem. One million books times ten million customers means something like ten trillion possible matchups.

"Now, if you're Stephen King, you're visible enough that you can in fact build a direct business. But the reason why wholesalers and retailers exist in the print publishing world isn't some plot, isn't some kind of entrenched monopoly. We don't have this seemingly inefficient distribution system because of diabolical market forces where people have seized the high ground and won't let it go. You have to deal with simple mathematical reality. Wholesalers aggregate publishers for retailers. Retailers aggregate customers for publishers. They make this thing mathematically more manageable."

What is interesting to me was the scale of some of the so-called self-publishing companies. According to the Times, AuthorHouse, the largest of the print-on-demand publishers, sold over a million units of 23000 titles in 2003, or about 44 copies per title they publish. One can only assume that the total sales volume has grown significantly since then. That is most definitely long-tail publishing, and that is indeed worthy of note.

P.S. For more of my thoughts over the years on the business of publishing, see the Publishing section of my archive site, There are a bunch of relevant postings from around 2000 that were inspired by the announcement of the now mostly forgotten

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Comments: 8

  Greg Linden [04.24.05 12:05 PM]

    Tim said: "One million books times ten million customers means something like ten trillion possible matchups."
To unleash self-publishing, we need a way to match people to the products they want. Amazon provides one example of how to do this. Their personalization and recommendations features learn your interests and surface interesting books from the long tail.

This is a problem not just for books, but for information in general. For example, Technorati indexes 8M self-published weblogs. How can you find interesting and useful weblogs in that vast sea of noise? What we need is a way to match readers to content. We need to help people find and discover the information that is important to them.

  Tim O'Reilly [04.25.05 09:09 AM]

I agree that features like this search and personalization enable "long tail" publishing, where authors become more able to sell niche products to people who really want them. And some of those authors will emerge, as I did, to become full-scale publishers, but only by adding, bit by bit, features that make them into publishers.

Alternatively, the middlemen who help people to find their books, or who produce them (as in this article) become the new publishers. Note how Amazon, which has gotten great results as a long-tail retailer, is now apparently setting its sights on long-tail publishing. The consolidation of power into middlemen is driven by mathematics; the middlemen change, and the means by which they become intermediaries, but not the fact that the majority of end nodes in any information system tend to stay small, and that in order to get bigger, you need to move further towards the center.

So there's this alternation between democratizing technology, which enables people at the edge, and an inevitable consolidation of power by new centralizing forces. Then the whole cycle repeats.

To shamelessly adapt Wallace Stevens (Esthetique du Mal), substituting "consolidation" for "the imagination", and "publisher" for "realist":

"The tragedy, however, may have begun again,

In consolidation's new beginning,

In the yes of the author spoken because he must

Say yes, because beneath every no

Lay a passion for yes that had never been broken"

The dream I'm pouring water on is the dream that somehow, new technology will get those pesky middlemen out of the way. As far as I can see, technology just changes the middlemen. (the NCSA "What's New" page begets Yahoo! and Google, Napster begets iTunes, print-on-demand begets AuthorHouse and Amazon/Booksurge.

  Robert Nagle [05.16.05 09:47 PM]

This is not exactly a trackback, but I just want to say that my recent article,
", Ebooks and Chump Change"
touches on a lot of the issues mentioned here and even link to this article.

However, there are a lot of differences between the technical book market and literary market. Technical books older than 10 years old are less than worthless. Literary books start out expensive, then plummet in price until they practically sell for nothing. Then the price increases gradually as these used copies become more rare. Best case scenario, the publisher reissues it, but a lot of works never makes it that far.

With technical books, time to market is much more important; with literary books establishing an authorial brand is more important. Jeffrey Friedl and Bruce Eckel notwithstanding, readers don't have much brand loyalty to a technical author as much as they do to a series or (in your company's case) a publisher.

  Susan [05.30.05 08:52 AM]

I just sent off a 15-year-old manuscript for a mystery/romance genre book that I haven't really tried to get published. I sent it to PublishAmerica (yeah I know the pitfalls and criticisms) and I may not get or sign a contract. But, this book deserves to be published. There's market for it among women romance readers I have no doubt. Is it still best to find an agent and go for the romance publishers? This book, though I will write more smaller books, is my potential nest egg. Thanks for any advice.

  meese [06.02.05 04:22 PM]

oh dear, what a conummmmmmdrummmmm
how dis we did it>

  Morris Rosenthal [07.26.05 06:04 PM]

I've followed your publishing posts for years on the CPB list and have a great deal of respect for your views on publishing. However, I think you're mistaken about print-on-demand not having the potential to remove middlemen from the process. There are three print-on-demand players, Lightning Source, Replica and Amazon (after their BookSurge) acquisition that give self publishers access to distribution. In the case of Lightning Source, the primary distribution relationships are with Ingram, Amazon and Bares&Noble, for Replica it Baker&Taylor and Amazon and for Amazon, it's Amazon.

The common thread here is Amazon. There are plenty of niche titles which can earn a self published author a living, given a short discount and the proper pricing on Amazon. While I also sell books through Ingram and direct, there's a definite business model in selling exclusively through Amazon, especially with technology related books. I'm not in the business of outing successful self-publishers, but I can think of a number who generate the majority of their sales through Amazon, even though their business operations aren't optimized for it.

I've been spending a lot of time lately writing about Amazon and other self publishing issues on my own blog, and what I find myself repeating over and over again is that it's all about the marketing. If an author can market their own books, though don't need a middleman, whether they use POD or go the traditional self publishing route with a garage full of books and a distributor. Anything else that the author can't do, whether in the editorial process or the production process, can be outsourced, but marketing is as much about self promotion as book promotion, and that takes an author willing to work at it.

When writers ask my advice as to whether they should self publish or sign with a trade publisher, I usually base my answer on two things. First, what the potential sales are for the book in the first year, if properly promoted. If the sales potential is north of 20,000 copies, I'd seriously consider signing a trade contract over using my POD based model which can take a full year just for distribution stocking to ramp up. Second, if the author hasn't already built some platform for promoting the book, be it a website, newsletter, public speaking or magazine byline, I'll usually suggest going with a trade. The problem is that most trade publishers these days only want authors who have built such a platform. In the end, it comes down to whether or not an author is willing to work on spec, to do work now that may not result in any income until next year or the year after, if ever.

  Brad [11.10.05 08:23 PM]

From the perspective of a developing middle man, i would have to say - all very interesting comments.

I think though, that whatever conglomeration that occurs, however much amazon can grab up, however big the subsidy publishers get, there is still a growing movement of DIY publishers who have recognized the value of self publishing. The control, efficiency and payoff can be much more rewarding than whatever deal you can squeeze out of a traditional publisher, and thats if they ever even look at your manuscript!

"Middle men" themselves aren't so bad - it's just that success eventually begets greed, or so it seems. Or at least a desire for bigger, broader and deeper success. Case in point - google, who has till now positioned themselves a "cool" company is raising a lot of hackles within the publishing industry with their book digitizing scheme. They really want it, more than they care that the authors and publishers don't. That success is more important to them than mantaining their credability as a progressive company.

In any case, we plan to keep it real, as they say, and work to serve the authors and small publishers at no matter how succesful we get. We want to prove that even a middle man can work to put the power _into_ the hands of the craftsmen and artists.

Brad Grochowski

  Timothy Fish [01.23.07 04:29 PM]

I'm not sure if self publishing is changing the rules or just cycling back through the way things used to be (Gutenberg was a self publisher.), but I decided that it was the best option for my book Church Website Design: A Step By Step Approach. There are enough churches that are in need of a website that it may do well in a niche market, but in looking at possible publishers I drew a blank. Much of the content would fit well within the O'reilly family of books, but it is clearly a Christian book. That led me to believe it was not likely to be picked of by O'reilly. In many ways it would fit within a Christian publisher's catalog, but I have never seen a Christian publisher publish anything with so much technical detail. Christian publishers tend to like the touchy feely stuff and the more practical stuff is ignored. I figured I would get a rejection letter as soon as someone saw XHTML and ASP code. Instead of messing with it I decided to just do all the work myself and pay Booksurge the $99 they charge to make print ready PDF files available in book form.

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