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?