Publishers: go hybrid!

People who know me, know that I like to draw comparisons with other industries to clarify where the book world is heading to. Usually, I do this with the music industry, simply because it has the most direct parallels, and at some other occasions the game industry and film world. The reason I do this, is not only because I’m convinced that they’ve already dealt with all the issues we are facing right now (meaning the digitization of our products and the introduction and implementation new business models), but also because I strongly believe in learning from other’s mistakes. So we don’t need to make them ourselves. Recently I came up with a new comparison, with an industry you probably wouldn’t associate that easily with the book world, namely: the automotive industry. 

I’m not referring to the horseless carriage syndrome: a technological innovation that initially strongly resembles the technology that it is about to replace. Carriage became car, but only without the horse and with an engine. Just like the book became an e-book, with the only difference that it was digital instead of being printed on paper. That is not the comparison I want to make, and there are lots of great pieces written on this as well. What I mean, is a trend that you currently see flourish in the automotive industry. A trend which many publishers could learn a thing or two from: hybrid. 

The first hybrid car ever made is by now over a 100 years old! The Dutch Henri Pieper invented the first automobile that was equipped with both a gasoline and an electronic engine. But it lasted until the year 2000 to become a commonly-known technology, when the first Toyota Prius became available. By know, it’s hard to imagine they’re only around for just over 10 years, which means the hybrid car has become commonplace. But, and that is what really indicates the technique is catching on: it is no longer only used to save fuel or reduce emissions. At this moment, several supercars have been introduced which also have the hybrid technique implemented, but for a different use: to generate more horsepower. For example the Porsche 918 Spyder, the McLaren P1 and the LaFerrari. If even these brands are implementing this technique for their top-models, and use it in a way it works for them, it is a signal that hybrid has become mature, but also that it can be used in a way that fits the specific brand. 

And that is where we come back to the book world. There can be in fact seen a similar trend, that of self-publishing and the variations on it that arose (and will arise in the future). Self-publishing is not new. It may seem like a trend from the last few years, but it has been around for much, much longer. It slowly became commonplace by Lulu, that started their business in 2002 and made it from then on a lot easier. Since then it has boomed. From the many small authors who do it themselves, because they couldn’t find a publisher, to bestselling authors who decided to continue on their own and to Amazon as a facilitator being smart and successful in seeing this new line of authors and book titles. You can compare this to the first electrical and the first hybrid cars. The technique that gradually becomes established. But, just as in the automotive industry, it will evolve further. To illustrate this, it is good to distinguish the different types of publishing that we currently know. Besides traditional publishing (with a publisher), we have self-publishing (also known as DIY: do it yourself) and a form that sits in between those two: vanity publishing (also known as DIT: do it together). This last one is the most recent, and also the most interesting development to watch closely in the near future.  

Vanity publishing is a form of publishing in which the author does not do everything himself (like with self-publishing), but outsources a part of the work to a traditional publisher. This form is also called subsidized publishing, because the author often pays the publisher a certain fee to get their book published. This publisher then arranges you get an ISBN, that you are included in the catalogue and that your book simply becomes available in bookstores (offline and online). It varies from publisher to publisher how this co-operation exactly looks like. It can be a 50/50-arrangement (split-revenues), it can be a certain fee that you have to pay up front, but it can also be a clever distribution and combination of forces.

You might wonder whether this form of publishing, as it is seen most often, is in the best interest for the author. Because one of the basic principles of publishing, is in fact the publishing risk. With traditional publishing this is for the publisher, and with self publishing it is entirely for the author. They, obviously, also get the majority of revenues. But with vanity publishing, it is often the author who takes the risk, and the publisher who receives the most revenues. That does not sound entirely fair, does it? In addition, you as an author should think long and hard where you place your signature. But these are just teething problems that will disappear when time goes by.

It gets really interesting when this trend continues to evolve like the hybrid technology in the automotive industry does right now. That is the moment when traditional publishers will investigate and tryout the potential of these new developments (like we did for instance together with Niels Aalberts for his book Doorbraak! (Breakthrough!, in English) in the past; a combination of forces, a true DIT-project). Therefore, a smart and modern publisher keeps a close eye on the hybrid author (self published and vanity published). If they are successful, they might still want to outsource all (or most) of their work in the future. There are several examples of this already. But you can also look at it the other way around. Why not start your own breeding pond in which authors without, too much, interference by the publisher could publish their book? When they have proven their potency, they could be adopted by the publisher and get included in the regular publishing program. Or maybe you are, as a publisher, willing to offer your services individually, rather than as a total package. 

I predict, that we are going to see many variations on this in the future. And of course not every variation fits every publisher (and its mission and strategy), but it seems very smart to me to investigate where the opportunities and possibilities lie for you in this area.