What traditional publishers can learn from indie authors [PART 1]

This is a guest post from Ricardo Fayet. Ricardo is an avid reader and startup enthusiast who has been studying the publishing industry with interest for several years. He co-founded Reedsy, to help authors collaborate with publishing professionals. In this two part post, Ricardo shares what publishers can learn from self-publishers. 

One of the great things about Reedsy is that over the past few years, we’ve had the chance to work with both Big Five imprints, small indie publishers, and independent authors.

This has allowed us to have sort of a bird’s eye view of the publishing industry, and inevitably brings us to compare how these different players work, what they have in common and what their main differences are.

In general, it can be argued that most successful indie authors do follows the rules of the traditional publishing process: they hire editors and designers, manage the production of the book, prepare a marketing plan for the launch, etc. In many ways, as self-publishing authors have become more and more professional, they’ve become small publishing companies in themselves.

Now, what’s more interesting to me, is that by taking the publishing process into their own hands, indie authors have been developing an approach to publishing and marketing that is giving them an edge over many traditional players. This is what I’ll explore in this post: what are indie authors doing differently from Big Five and independent publishers? And what can publishers learn from them?

Be curious, not afraid

The publishing industry has gone through a lot of changes over the past few years, and that transformation is far from being over.  

Every time news of a shift in the publishing industry comes up, I see lots of curiosity about it among indie author communities, while publishers generally dismiss the news (if it doesn’t directly impact them), or express their worry and concern (if it does).

Everything that happens in this industry can be seen, to some extent, as either a threat or an opportunity. For example: what will happen with subscription services like Kindle Unlimited? How much longer will Barnes & Noble be around? Will Amazon stores replace them? To what size will the audiobook market grow?

Whatever the answers, opportunities will arise for the players who anticipate them first, and who show readiness to try new things. I’d like to see more publishers start seeing new developments in the industry as opportunities, rather than threats, even if these new developments come from Amazon.

Let’s take the example of Kindle Unlimited. KU has its flaws, let’s admit it. But when it launched, none of the Big Five decided to list their books in it (despite being offered a much better deal than indie authors). Since then, hundreds of self-publishing authors have gone on to earn 4+ figures a month just through KU. Was it really not worth a try for the Big 5 to enrol even just one of their imprints in the program? You know, just to see what would happen?

I’m often told that publishers are generally reluctant to jump on new developments like this because they are risk-averse. But let’s think about it: isn’t risk the whole nature of this industry? Publishers know that only one out of 10 books they acquire will actually make them real money. When you’re in a “hit” business, you can’t really afford to be risk-averse.

Go all-in on digital marketing

Marketing is what almost everyone is talking about now in the industry. Distribution channels and reader habits have been heavily disrupted, and the rise of self-publishing has brought a new kind of competition to publishers: the February 2017 Author Earnings report estimated that self-publishing authors accounted for over 40% of total unit ebook sales in the US.

All this has contributed to shift the focus among publishers from “how can we produce a great book?” to “how can we market our new books more efficiently?” Simon & Schuster has recently announced they will be cutting down their output this year by over 100 books in order to be able to spend more marketing time and resources on the ones they do publish.

This change of focus is a logical and valid one. However, too often I don’t see it followed by a change in… marketing tactics. With the exception of certain digital or digital-only imprints, the majority of the traditional players still use mostly outdated marketing channels to promote their books.

“Do you have PR people on Reedsy?” is what publishers often ask me when we talk about marketing. And yes, we do have excellent publicists. But is that the only way to “market” a book (or the most cost-effective one)? What about Facebook ads? Amazon ads? Bookbub CPM ads? Book promotion sites? You get the gist.

For most publishers, digital now makes up the majority of their sales (note that by “digital” I include print books sold through Amazon). So if you’re now selling through the same channels as indie authors, why not try and imitate what is working for them?

Publishers like Bookouture in the UK have done this brilliantly and proven that the “digital publisher” model can work. And, granted, most of the Big Five are now progressively shifting towards digital advertising — but they’re still well behind the curve on this. It’s time to make the shift.

Check in on the BookMachine blog for part 2 next week. 

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