Sunday, June 20, 2010

Week 25: How to publish a book for under $200

I am no expert on the book publishing industry; any experience I have is anecdotal and incomplete at best. But this week I came across a podcast from Wharton describing a really cool start-up called FastPencil. The company helps aspiring authors focus on their core competency - writing - by dramatically simplifying the book formatting, design, publication and distribution process.

For a relatively modest fee, you are able to both acquire an ISBN number for your book (think new-age card catalog/digital legitimacy) and sell the book on the many e-book distribution platforms, from iBooks (Apple) to Amazon to Barnes & Noble. Furthermore, the company flips the existing profit-sharing model on its head. Traditional publishers often don't give the author more than 15% of profits, while FastPencil and other start-ups like it are now giving the authors 80% of the profits. This is an incredible shift, and rightly puts the incentive to create with the creators, as opposed to the "suits."

FastPencil CEO Steve Wilson thinks that existing brick and mortar chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders may not exist in a few years, and I agree. It's clear that e-book sales are taking an increasingly large share of the total book sales market. As someone who just bought an iPad and is about to move apartments, I can tell you that I welcome the idea of having all of my books in one digital device (as opposed to 15 boxes). But the question of digital vs. hard copy is one of distribution; just like in the music industry both digital and hard copy distribution will exist in some form regardless of how technology changes.

The real battle here is over production. In the past, a few record labels and publishers could control the pipeline of talent by hand-picking those who would fit their mold - and by making these artists successful. In today's world, word-of-mouth is the most important metric for success. So a company like FastPencil's business model is dedicated to providing a platform through which creative people can tap into and build their existing networks, distribute their work, and generate through social media the highest level of buzz possible. Instead of making outsized bets on a few John Grishams (a strategy guaranteed to both sell books in the near-term and box out up and coming talent), these new publishers are allowing a much wider net of talent and counting on the market to decide who succeeds.

Make no mistake, this has become remarkably easy: one of the featured authors on FastPencil is a child psychiatrist who wrote and published his book in NINETY days. Compare this to the usual publication process, which takes 1-2 years. The site will also link you to a network of potential collaborators (illustrators, editors, other authors), a marketplace for your finished product, and both print and e-publication options. For under $200, you quite literally have a product that will take your manuscript/blog/whatever from start-to-finish and introduce you to a market of millions and millions of consumers.

The point here is not to blindly promote FastPencil. The point is that the barriers to entry continue to come down, across the board. Just like this blog attempts to prove that the tools to learn about anything are readily available, FastPencil is proving that those with the ability and desire to pursue writing will no longer be held back by the political or financial barriers imposed by the large New York publication shops. As companies like FastPencil develop and grow, the excuses for not following your dreams ring hollow... so what is your next move?


  1. I actually follow publishing news quite a bit, and I know there are a lot of startup companies that allow self publishing at little or no costs to the aspiring authors. In fact, I believe Amazon will set you up for free on their website (with both ebooks and physical, printed-on-demand books)... of course, they take more than 20% to cover costs, but the flip side is you don't pay any fees...

    As far as ebooks are concerned, I think they will only really start taking off once publishers can stop thinking of the different formats as two completely different products. There is no reason for me to have to pay full price twice if I want a physical book for my shelf as well as an ebook for my iPad. The first company to package the ebooks and physical books together (as they already do with movies) will win the digital publishing race hands down.

  2. Kevin Kurz said...

    As far as ebooks are concerned, I think they will only really start taking off once publishers can stop thinking of the different formats as two completely different products.


    The real trick will be to produce an electronic book with the feel and sensation(s)of a print book.

    Technically possible, it has yet to catch fire with the brainaics in the executive suite.


  3. Kevin/TJK, thanks for the comments. TJK, I think you'd be surprised to see how well the iPad has mimicked the "sensation" of reading a book! Kevin, I completely agree on your point about publishers focused on books/ebooks as two products. FastPencil's CEO made exactly the same point... I think traditional publishers continue to separate the two a) because they still can and b) because they're clinging to the past. But they're fighting a losing battle... the sooner they realize this, the less likely they will go out of business (which, in my opinion, is the most likely scenario).

  4. Yes…”barriers to entry continue to come down.” Not just in the production of books and photographs, but also in music and cinema. Digital photography is not only phenomenally less expensive than the old process of developing negatives with XTOL or the triple-dip printing of photographs (dektol, stop bath and hypo) … but it’s also far more motivating through its instant gratification. You can take 20 or even 50 shots, look at the results instantly, pick two and discard the other 48…all without the cost of paying for extra prints you don’t really like or want.

    You don’t even need talent! Out of 50 surely one or two will be OK…who needs to crop with the lens or adjust for depth-of-field? Heck…you don’t even need to focus…just remember to use the “automatic” setting. Same with shooting videos or recording music…

    So now what? “The excuses for not following your dream ring hollow…” The barriers are lower, the standards are lowered, finger-clicks automatically produce photographs… even if the results are awful. But we have a quantum leap in the number of photographers, photographs, videos, and books. One result: an increasing premium on the truly good and the truly outstanding…and on the ability to discriminate among the good, the bad and the ugly. More-and-more -- because of the dwindling absence of pre-screening -- such discrimination will be left to the individual user.

    With the barriers to entry lowered, now these three gate-keepers remain: time, knowledge and talent. But the greatest of these is talent.