RUSHKOFF: Why I Left My Publisher in Order to Publish a Book

Why I Left My Publisher in Order to Publish a Book
by Douglas Rushkoff

I’m getting more questions about my latest book than about any other I’ve written. And this is before the book is even out—before anyone has even read the galleys.

That’s because the questions aren’t about what I wrote, but about how I ended up publishing it: with an independent publisher, for very little money, and through a distribution model that makes it available on only one website. Could I be doing this of sound mind and my own volition? Why would a bestselling author, capable of garnering a six-figure advance on a book, forgo the money, the media, and the mojo associated with a big publishing house?

Because it would make my book twice as expensive for you, half as profitable for me, less purposefully written, and unavailable until about two years from now. In short, the traditional publishing system is nearly dead. And publishing a book under its rules can mean the death of ideas within it, as well. Until it utterly reworks its method, gets rid of a majority of its corporate dead weight, releases its publishing houses from the conglomerates that own them, and embraces direct selling models, the publishing industry will remain rather useless to readers and writers alike.

Authors and readers no longer need Big Publishing to find and engage one another. The sooner we all realize this, the better off we’ll all be.

Think of it from the author’s perspective. In the traditional publishing model, I write a proposal over a period of months, submit it to publishers, and—if the ideas manage to match the agenda of an acquiring editor at a big house—I get a deal. That deal is nice a thing. It means the publishing house, acting like a bank, lends me the capital I need to research and write a book. This is no small gift.

Then again, it’s not really a gift. A year later when I turn in the actual book, that editor may no longer be at the publishing house. His imprint may no longer be there, either. Or the publishing house itself may have been bought by another company. (All three have happened to me.) Whatever the case, the book is now submitted to the editor who acquired it, or his assistant, or some other editor who replaced him. Then the publisher has a month or so to decide if they like what I’ve written. If they do, cool. If they don’t, they can give me notes about how to make it more publishable—or they can simply decide it’s no good at all and that they don’t want to do it, anymore.

If they don’t like it, I’m supposed to give the money back. (Or, if I’ve got a great agent, he’ll ask for a “first proceeds” clause which means I only have to pay them back out of the money I make on the book if I take it elsewhere.) In any case, the original advance turns out to have been more of a loan, and the publisher more like a bank making an investment. If the environment changes, well, they move on. That’s how my first book on the Internet ended up being canceled in 1992, because the publisher was afraid the net would be “over” by 1993 when the book was to be released. (It came out in 1994, from a now-defunct boutique imprint of HarperCollins.)

But even assuming they like the book and want to publish it, this only means they will then begin the one-to-two-year process of bringing it to market. The original rationale was that the book’s editor would spend at least a few months going back and forth with the writer about the content, the style, the arrangement of chapters, the tone, and so on. The editing process was a collaboration between the author an the editor who knew how to make good writing better.

Today, editing is seen as a market inefficiency, or wasted salary. Most editors spend the bulk of their time acquiring new titles instead of editing the ones they have. So once they’ve read the proposal they’re pretty much done with the creative end. Instead, that year or two from manuscript to book launch is spent “gearing up” the marketing and publicity machines. All sorts of people are supposed to learn about the book, and then “sell” it to distribution partners, chain stores, and independent retailers. The longer this process takes, the more people are involved. And in a self-justifying feedback loop, the more people are involved, the longer the process becomes.

All this ends in a “sell-in” figure—the number of books that are ultimately shipped to the stores, where they can be marked up another fifty percent and then returned if they’re not sold. Does the process increase that sell-in figure? Not from what I can tell. In fact, in a universal policy I still don’t understand, marketers do not reveal their sell-in figures to their authors, or even their own editors.

In the end, the books we read and write must keep a few dozen people employed, and the shareholders of at least three major corporations satisfied—almost none of whom actually create value. A book that costs three dollars to print ends up costing the consumer 28 dollars from the retailer, plus tax, plus shipping. The author gets around 10% of cover price per book applied to his advance, returns, discounts, and other creatively accounted debits. Then there’s publicity departments to work through before doing any interviews or asking for reviews—all who have multiple authors competing for the same media opportunities. Getting oneself a great “media hit” can actually get an author in trouble.

Meanwhile, the better editors and publicists—the ones who understand their jobs differently than the corporate publishing model now dictates—are the first to be let go when budgets are cut. Working with an author on a book takes valuable time away from the acquisition of more titles. Working a whole afternoon to get a young novelist on NPR for an hour means a lot less to the executives and their balance sheets than getting a defamed movie star two minutes with Katie Couric.

Luckily for writers, however, the editors, marketers, and publicists booted from the corporate publishing industry are starting up little companies of their own. The corporate book industry can’t grow at the rate required by publicly held companies, anyway. This is why it is failing. Publishing is a sustainable business, not a growth industry. So it needs to be run by people looking for sustainable projects and careers—not runaway profits.

One of these companies, O/R books, is run by an old friend of mine, John Oakes. He’s been asking me to work with him for 20 years. So I figured it might be a good idea to take the book I’ve been working in one way or another for the past 20 years and publish it with his fledgling company.

The model is simple: work the concept with John, write the book, print and digitize it, and then sell it. No distribution, no marketing. Just put the link online and let people pay by credit card, paypal, or whatever method they choose. No middlemen, no markups, no returns. The book comes out two months after I’ve finished it, instead of two years. The public gets the book or ebook for half of what a “regular” book would cost—and the writer and publisher actually earn more, not less, per actual book sold. (Yes, the credit card companies still get their cut, but so do the central bank and taxman get their cut of any financial transaction.)

Moreover, producing less than a dozen titles a year, the independent publisher can focus fully on each one. I get to work with a friend, and in a way that puts the ideas of the book before the fleeting priorities of the marketing department. The whole process scaled to the human beings actually producing and consuming the content, instead of the corporations extracting value from our interactions.

The downside, of course, is that there’s no books in stores, no listings on Amazon or BN.com, and no reviews from those who view independently published books as unworthy of critical attention. (Don’t blame them—they’re having a hard enough time keeping a column or two of the newspaper devoted to books at this point, anyway.) Luckily, most real readers aren’t fixated on which corporation has backed which book project.

Will people still be able to find a book that’s not in stores, and will they want to? Well, most books sell more electronic versions than print ones anyway, and Amazon already sells more of most books than all real-world retailers combined. So the only real question is whether people will follow a link to a place other than Amazon to buy a book, and whether they will be as comfortable using Google to find it as they are the search box on Amazon.com.

I’m betting they will. Especially for a book about the promise of digital media and the ways in which most established institutions are still entirely missing the opportunity here. The idea of the book—and much of my career—is that computers and networks give us the ability to rewrite the rules through which everything operates. Some of the systems we’re using may have been efficient back in the 13th Century, but are truly and totally obsolete today. Systems like central monopoly currencies, corporate charters, and, yes, top-down publishing and distribution are all breaking down, for better and for worse.

Those of us depending on them will have to improvise for a while, and those of us capable of designing alternatives will get to have some fun. The good news and bad news here is that we must create new ways of doing things that meet our real needs. And the easiest way to begin that process is to learn to distinguish between the real world and the systems we have been using to operate it—learning to see the territory instead of just the map.

And sure, I wrote my latest book to help people start to do this in the digital realm—to learn how to see the programming behind the software, websites, and devices they are interacting with every day. Without some knowledge of what these things were designed to do, we have little hope of using them effectively. We are less likely to become real users than we to become the used. Most kids think Facebook is there to help them make friends.

Likewise, naif that I was, I thought the publishing industry’s primary goal was to help me communicate my ideas to the world. Live and learn.

Douglas Rushkoff’s latest book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, is available only at http://orbooks.com

39 thoughts on “RUSHKOFF: Why I Left My Publisher in Order to Publish a Book

  1. Look also at Publication Studio, which has been using the digital print-on-demand model for about as long as OR, but is also finding ways to work with independent bookstores and other legitimate parts of the books culture. http:publicationstudio.biz/about/

  2. Barbara – Cool. Looks like they’re doing high-end/high-dollar stuff, though. There’s plenty of presses like that, always have been… Bravo to them–but it’s not really what Doug’s talking about here.

  3. I’m happy for you, Doug. When you hear of an equally promising publisher willing to look at an unsolicited manuscript, . . . let me know! My book even has the word “sex” in the title. Cheers – Val

  4. Pingback: OR Books — Doug Rushkoff talks about why he chose OR Books to be his publisher in Arthur Magazine

  5. Great read. I’d like to hear more of what Doug has in mind regarding marketing his work without the aid of a major publisher.

    I’ve marketed my independent humor book the past 18 months and have had some success getting reviews in college newspapers, blogs, etc but nothing compared to the reach a major publisher would have. But maybe the notion of reviews in traditional publications driving book sales is no longer valid with buyers today.

  6. Thanks for this inside look into an exciting choice — another thing I’m thinking about in terms of publishing sustainability is the sustainability of the printing process — in other words, using 100% postconsumer recycled paper, non-chlorine bleach, vegetable-based ink, etc. — I wonder if OR Books is doing that also?

    And, what about your royalties? I notice that Mischief + Mayhem, an OR imprint, offers 50% royalties — is that true for the press as a whole?

    Thanks so much –
    mattilda

  7. Jay — it looks like Publication Studio sells regular market fiction and non-fiction ($9, $15, and $20 cover prices) as well as higher-end art books. What caught my eye was using digital POD but still creating networks of distribution that include physical stores (PS has four of their own) and independent bookstores.

  8. Great article. Check out Press 53 – they published Pinckney Benedict’s latest collection of short stories, and I’m proud to say they’ll have my novel Blood Clay out next year. Small press, great publisher, focused on web sales.

  9. If your book isn’t featured on Amazon or in any in-store shelves etc, how can it exist in the mind’s of the reader?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t it down to the publishing house to market the book? One person marketing isn’t enough, and especially if you’re Miss No-one-First-Time-Author.

  10. The guy’s an idiot. Give him a couple of years with poor to zero sales, and he’ll be crawling back to the traditional publishing houses begging to be let back in.

  11. Why *won’t* Amazon (or bn.com) sell stuff that isn’t from a big publishing house (particularly to Kindle or Nook, where the risk and incremental cost would seem to be virtually nil)?

  12. Considering that Amazon models their business on the “long tail theory”, or the idea that anyone can find just about anything on their website, I can’t imagine they won’t attempt to bring independent publishers into the fold. There already is an option to talk with them about listing, but I don’t know anyone who has succeeded at it yet.

    Anyone who thinks that a book not on Amazon or in bookstores won’t capture the minds of a potential audience has a very narrow scope of the market. I found this article through twitter, then Boing Boing and now not only do I know about Doug’s independent publishing journey, I also know about his book. This book, subsequently, has captured my imagination. I’ll be looking out for it now.

  13. Dave–

    As far as ebooks go, Amazon *will* sell stuff that’s not from a big house. Their Digital Text Platform accepts books from individual authors and from small publishing houses. So does Barnes and Noble, through their upcoming PubIt! platform, and so does Borders, through a partnership with Kobo.

    O/R books has made a deliberate choice not to deal with Amazon (for the reasons that Colin Robinson describes here: http://www.thenation.com/article/37484/trouble-amazon ).

    Personally, I think that refusing to deal with the largest book retailer on the planet is a mistake, but I’d be happy for O/R to prove me wrong.

  14. Kudos for the change in strategy, but I’m not sure it ends up being cheaper for the customer. I live in Canada and it cost more to ship the book that it did to buy it ($12.80 to buy, $13 to ship). The reasonable price exaggerates that statistic, but I know what I mean.

    Looking forward to reading it though.

  15. I’m curious how you square your claim

    “Well, most books sell more electronic versions than print ones anyway, and Amazon already sells more of most books than all real-world retailers combined.”

    with the overwhelming mass of evidence – eg http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/company-news/amazon-macmillan-start-e-book-price-war-and-amazon-loses-fo/19338550/ – which indicates that ebooks are some 5%, and Amazon some 10-15%, of the total American book market.

    Do you have amazing, worldshaking market knowledge that nobody else has; are you writing from the future; or are you just seriously deluded?

  16. It’s interesting to see how many authors are now considering self publishing. Some of it is the digital world, but there can be other reasons, even paper related ones. I remember when Edward Tufte published his own book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information back in the 1980s. He was concerned with control of production since he wanted to make important points about how numerical information could be presented on paper. It turned into a classic, a cult book in certain circles. Since then, he has published quite a number of books extending his theme, and he runs a series of seminars. Needless to say, you are probably not going to produce the next cult classic, though it is possible, but if he could self publish way back then, you should seriously consider it now.

  17. Pingback: Akma » Pressure Building

  18. My wife self-published her first book and has been doing quite well with it. When I say ¨self¨ I mean no publisher was used: produced a print-ready PDF, paid the printing and binding costs up front (Egypt is a good place for reasonably priced, good quality printing) and obtained an ISBN from appropriate channels (Dar-El-Kutub in this case).

    Distributing directly through local bookshops, on-line from her website + blog + FaceBook page (all of which she created and maintains herself, I should add!)

    A lot more needs to written about why this is a good way to go: no room here for all the (big!) advantages and provisos (not realistic for all books yet!)

  19. I am an author who found the traditional publishing business not worth pursuing. I understand the economic rationale…books are not expensive enough, wholesale discounts are too high, which means that the profitability threshold is getting higher and higher all the time. This pressure to cut costs in the wrong places is resulting in a downward spiral of mediocrity, and nobody is happy. Not the readers, the authors, the editors nor the publishers.

    Basically people no longer buy books that are bad. They get all the crap for free on the internet or download it to their Kindles. But people still buy books that are worth owning. Books with a shelf-life longer than a couple of weeks. But they are just too expensive to develop.

    So I decided to start my own publishing company in order to experiment with different compensation and development models that were more effective, yet not at the expense of development, editorial or author compensation.

    My niche is critical and scholarly books on education and technology for educational practitioners. Academic and scholarly publishers don’t understand this market and how to reach them.

    I run a barebones operation and depend on access to target audiences mainly through social networking. I do not believe that book fairs, catalogs and traditional advertising works in the professional and trade audiences that are my target.

    I have created a hybrid knowledge worker model that combines acquisition, development and representation that pays a royalty rather than a salary. My royalty rates are based on list prices and I only do print on demand. My accounting and book production processes are highly automated.

    So far not so bad…but my biggest problem is getting authors to submit proposals!

  20. Authors like Rushkoff and Godin who have a large number of people following their every word will be able to succeed without relying on a big publishing house. Word of mouth will travel far for them through their blogs and other writings online. For example, Rushkoff is writing at BoingBoing this week and will surely generate a lot of sales through that readership.

    For others trying to break into the fold, there are options to help them succeed. Using a service like ClickBank (http://bit.ly/dsiEOa) to sell the product and then using their user base to promote the product for you. The users make a small commission, but you increase your sales with no effort in the end. Plenty of people have used it to make money.

  21. Jon Evans: “July 19, 2010 was a day for the history books — if those will even exist in the future. Amazon announced that during the previous three months, sales of books for the Kindle had for the first time outnumbered sales of hardcover books. In that time, Amazon said, it sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, including hardcovers for which there is no Kindle edition.”(NYTimes)

  22. Jay — but that is sales through amazon only. Plenty of people still buy books in actual bookstores.

    At mumblemumble publisher, where I work, ebook sales (all formats and platforms, but mostly kindle) account for 1% of revenue. Due to the particular type of books we publish, we sell fewer ebooks (as a % of total sales) than the industry as a whole, but it’s still nowhere near 50+%.

    The article you cited says that Kindle sales outnumbered hardcover books — that is, for the most part, books published in the past 12-18 months. That’s not the same as selling more ebooks than print books. Plenty of people still read paperbacks, for goodness sake.

  23. I challenge you to reconsider the “No distribution, no marketing” part of your model. You are marketing ( Huffington Post article, your blog, twitter, previous books and appearances ) and you are distributing ( internet / ebook / mailing paperbacks ). A successful independent online publisher will help authors get their work to it’s audience by whichever means appropriate. “Just put the link online” is not enough in my opinion. It is not enough especially for authors who are not internet savvy or who do not already have their own internet audience. A successful online publisher will also need to market and help market the work of their authors. I am not suggesting this should be in any way similar to the year long “gearing-up” of book marketing and publicity that you describe. However I do suggest that a successful online publisher will:

    A) be able to connect with the book’s audience
    B) be able to help the book’s author market the book online
    C) scale a and b appropriately to the audience / book and author
    D) maximize long-tail sales and re-market books again if interest picks up

    Rosenfeld Media and Pragmatic Publishers are great examples of publishers who are doing this well, however they publish technical books. Incidentally, the pragmatic guys publish a book titled “Learn to Program” by a fellow named Chris Pine which would make a good companion book to Rushkoff’s “Program or Be Programed”.

    Best regards,
    Eric

    Learn to Program: http://pragprog.com/titles/ltp2/learn-to-program
    Rosenfeld Media:

    http://www.rosenfeldmedia.com/

    Pragmatic Publishers:

    http://pragprog.com

  24. This article leaves out the most important part, marketing the fucking book – it is trivial to sell a PDF online from a single website – how do you get people to the website?
    I’m guessing the answer is write an article like this that seems exciting and get it published in the press, bringing links to your book site.
    The rest of your process anyone could work out in a few minutes.

  25. Wunnerful, just wunnerful.

    As more and more higher profile authors go their own way, use the technologies of digital publishing and print on demand to produce and distribute their work, the old dinosaurs (trad publishers) wallow deeper and deeper in a quicksand of their own creation.

    I’ve been an independent author for over 20 years, with my own imprint, design team and philosophy. I had published over 100 stories, had movie options taken out on my work, made some of the best anthologies and STILL couldn’t make an impression on the idjits in Toronto and New York. I made a very public break with them (as reported in GalleyCat), publicly telling all the lackeys and sycophants (sorry, I meant editors and agents) to go f*** themselves. Best decision I ever made. My latest novel, SO DARK THE NIGHT, just came out this past summer and my imprint, Black Dog Press, will release the followup later this fall. Here’s a link to the cover (click on it to view it full-size):

    http://cliffjburns.wordpress.com

    You think Tor or HarperCollins could come up with something more beautiful or professional than that? And I, as author, made all the decisions, right down to the text formatting and cover font. I may not make a million bucks but right now my book can be read–as en e-book or “dead tree edition”–around the world.

    When they finally shutter all the big publishers, sell their assets right down to the coffee coasters, I shall dance a jig of joy. Those assholes have had it coming for a long, LONG time…

  26. Not to throw a damp towel on all of this, but I speak as somebody who sold a work of creative fiction to a major NY publisher, received a six figure advance, and doubled that with options and a network TV pilot — which actually got made with name-brand actors et cetera. I was one of the people who grabbed the brass ring, first try. I was the envy of my peers. This was all about ten years ago.

    This is how I view the experience in the rear-view mirror: fun, but knowing what I know now, even with the success, I’d never try it again.

    Yes, publishers are generally idiots — they have no idea what’s going to sell. Sure, they have people who think they can identify a market-moving event, but, to borrow from Nassim Taleb, it’s epistemological arrogance. They can’t. So you put your work in the hands of what is essentially a lottery. And you see bad stuff published, and good stuff ignored. It’s not about your misunderstood genius — it’s about the process being essentially a dice-tumbler. Except that you take it seriously.

    Other side of the table: what are you, The Author, trying to get out of the process. In my experience, writers are generally Loser Narcissists (and I include myself in that category, at least during the time I was a writer). It takes some pretty hefty self-regard to think that you’ve got a story or a theory or a point of view that — in today’s media-saturated world — merits a 10-20 hour investment of anybody’s time. And sooo many of the authors I met were chasing that Cult of Great Author status — to be that special person who feels more strongly, thinks more deeply, in that annoying Norman Mailer JD Salinger kind of way. Get over yourself; it was a dumb and shallow pose then. It’s merely obsolete now. Now, I look at the urge to publish as a kind of personality defect related to a profound sense of insecurity.

    I see the entire endeavor as flawed from both sides: publishers pursue their business incompetently, and writers pursue theirs for reasons that are, generally, craven and unholy (they want attention, they want an unearned position of privilege, they’ve bought into the Myth of the Great Writer, parties&groupies (yes. really) or whatever). The value that either side produces is non-existent to marginal. Guess what? The market has, in all but the biggest three-sigma outliers, priced it that way.

    Me, I remember a quote that — and I’m foggy here, so correct me if I’m wrong — Joan Didion uttered in the 70′s: when asked whether she thought “the academy discourages new writers” she replied, “Not nearly enough.”

    That’s where I think this all lands: most people who think they have something important to say, don’t; most people who think they can identify an important work, can’t. Oh, and then there’s the last uncomfortable fact that people no longer — at least not in novel-length increments — read. Shut-ins, invalids, and the tragically under-utilized excepted.

    - There’s this dance between what is true and what your audience likes. I’ve found that, generally speaking, the deeper you get into things

  27. I just self-published my first thrilling short story anthology through an online print on demand company. The journey from writing the manuscript on up to self-publishing and marketing my book on my own has been a wonderful experience. I was interested in getting my foot in the door with a big house publisher, but I’m not so sure now after reading everyone’s comments here. I am firing my literary agent because I was being over charged for services I realized I didn’t need and gaining nothing in return for my investment. I am going to base my success, not on monetary gains, but on my writing developement and intellectual growth through the whole process. Sure, it would be great to receive a fabulous income from my writing but really, are we just writing for income? I’m not. I write because of a compulsion to get my creative ideas out. I write because I love to write and the money I will or will not make through my work has no bearing on whether I will continue to write or not.

  28. BetterYeti: That’s actually a Flannery O’Connor quote:

    “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

  29. A reply to Kimberly B: “I am firing my literary agent because I was being over charged for services I realized I didn’t need and gaining nothing in return for my investment.”

    You may want to check the Association of Author Representatives, Inc., for their guidelines for literary agents. Most charge only most fees to authors because their incentive should be to earn commissions on sales.

    Writing coaches, in contrast, do charge for services. Many authors find that to get a literary agent, they need first to get assistance on their proposal and manuscript.

  30. MyLiteraryCoach,

    Thanks for the info. I will definitely check it out :) This is my first time around with the whole book project thing and it has been a great learning experience.

  31. Great post and comments – I used to be in publishing years ago in the last days of it being a ” gentleman’s profession”. I was an editor who was supposed to check facts,improve clarity and remove grammatical errors. Sad to think that that is gone. I must say that anyone who starts a comment with ” this guy is an idiot” reveals an attitude that says more about themselves than who they are commenting on.
    I think the move to digital publishing and distribution is exciting and will help to undermine, or possibly reform mainstream publishing. People DO read, they will devote time to imaginative escape or to accessing new information or intelligent comment – it is all part of how we meed the need to ” make meaning” of our lives and our world. So keep writing authors and bravo the new publishers!!! I found this post through a tweet – from a trusted source – I wouldn’t have bothered to find it through a newspaper review.

  32. Very good. I can confirm.
    Back in 1970, one month after I turned in my completed, edited MS and 257 photos for my book on European/US urban rivers to Praeger, my editor called to tell me Praeger had been bought by Encyclopedia Britannica and that he would be leaving. A year later, EB/Praeger was bought out by Litton. It took three years for the dust to settle and books to be printed. Then, despite great reviews in September, the printing run was lost in the publisher’s Hartford, CT, warehouse, newly computerized and consequently baffling, with books not available to the marketers and stores till the following spring, with the reviewers’ prematurely issued rosy praise lost into the ether.

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