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10 Strategies for Publishers to Succeed and Survive

Publishers’ top priority should be “maximizing sales not minimizing losses.”

By Guy Kawasaki

In the old days, the publishing business was limited by shelf space, printing-press time, and industry expertise. Traditional publishers added value by acting as filter, improving quality, and then distributing physical books to thousands of retailers. A publisher’s imprint was a proxy for quality: Random, Penguin, Putnam, Simon & Schuster—this meant a book must be good.

Guy Kawasaki

Those days are gone. Shelf space on a website is unlimited, and there is less need to distribute books to stores because readers are shopping online and there are fewer stores. Readers don’t use an imprint to determine quality — instead they look at the number of stars a book has on Amazon, read the first few reviews, and buy it with 1-click.

Here’s where I’m coming from: I’ve written twelve books. Traditional publishers (Scott Foresman, PeachPit, HarperCollins, and Penguin) published ten of them. I self-published my last two books because I wanted greater control of how my books were sold. Earlier in my career, I was the chief evangelist of Apple, and I’m in the thick of Silicon Valley technology, disruption, and venture capital.

What I’ve learned over a few decades of business experience is that companies who add value will profit and survive, and companies who don’t wither and die. With this as background, I’d like to offer ten ways for traditional publishers to add value to today’s publishing ecosystem.

1. Create a seed fund.Instead of merging with a competitor, buying an author services company, or partnering with the newly acquired author-services company of your competitor, allocate a few hundred thousand dollars to provide authors with seed capital.

Rather than trying to handpick a few winners, let authors apply for grants of $5,000 or so. This is just enough to pay for freelance editing and cover design plus some marketing and living expenses. Your compensation would be 10–15% of sales (sound familiar?) and the right of first refusal to publish it. In essence, you are creating a portfolio of “startup” authors  by sprinkling around $5,000 bets.

2. Pull a SlideShare. Recently purchased by LinkedIn, SlideShare is a site where people can upload their PowerPoint presentations for the world to view. It gets an enormous amount of traffic. You could create the PDF book equivalent of SlideShare on your website. Authors set the price point, you collect the money and deliver the file; you pay them 70% and keep 30% and the right of first refusal. The authors get 70% and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to say that your company published their book. You never know until you try.

3. “Make” a freelance market. Novice authors have a difficult time finding good freelancers for content editing, copyediting, interior design, cover design, book production, and PR. You could help these authors find resources by making a freelance market like Audiobook Creation Exchange does for audio recordings. The goal is to provide the go-to website for authors to find high-quality freelancers.

It’s not enough to make a freelance market — you need to provide a rating system and then help freelancers become rock stars by promoting the best ones. When combined with the previous suggestion of making the market, your website becomes a community for editors, designers, and authors which will help you attract the next bestseller.

4. Cherry pick self-published books. Amazon is doing all publishers a great favor by displaying the sales ranking of Kindle ebooks. You’re probably doing this already, but this has got to be the best scouting system in the world because you can see actual sales results, not wishful thinking. Be sure, though, to compensate for giveaways and Kindle Daily Deals that temporarily distort sales numbers. The point is to find books that early adopters like and make them available to more people for the benefit of readers, the author, and you.

5. Mine Indiegogo, Kickstarter, Unbound, or Pubslush. Visit these sites every day to watch which books get funded. The fact that people will pre-buy or fund a book is a better path than looking for me-too versions of current bestsellers. To be fair, success on these sites is as much about the author’s ability to market the book as the content and quality of the book, but, duh, the author’s ability to market the book is going to determine its ultimate success anyway.
6. Give up on DRM. DRM is a farce: it doesn’t stop crooks, and it inconveniences everyone else. I’ve never seen a company DRM or sue its way to success. The crooks were never going to buy your books anyway, so don’t penalize the customers. Think big: maybe the crooks will spread word-of-mouth exposure and others will then buy your books. There are two kinds of companies in the world: those who try to minimize losses and those who try to maximize gains. Which one are you?

7. Enable “buy once, read anywhere.” When people buy a book, they are buying an experience, not a static, limited document. They may choose to access this experience on different phones, tablets, readers, and computers as well as reading a printed book. If someone buys a book, they should also get the ebook version for free. Check out how O’Reilly enables its customers to do this. Take the high road and do what’s right for your customer.

8. Supplement your authors’ marketing. The current practice of focusing on authors who have their own marketing platform is flawed. What do they need you for if they can do their own marketing? Your role is to supplement what they can do, not abdicate marketing by only working with authors who come with their own platforms. This means going beyond sending out review copies and praying. Effective marketing today involves organizing online webinars, tweetups, and Google+ hangouts; finding speaking opportunities; and maintaining relationships with a cadre of bloggers. One third of my new book APE is dedicated to what authors and publishers can do to market books in the new world order of Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest if you’d like to learn more.

9. Support libraries. Most publishers make it difficult for libraries to loan their ebooks—for example, the concept that a library has to buy another copy of an ebook after twenty-six loans is preposterous. There are two reasons to support libraries. First, the publishing industry has a moral obligation to help libraries foster literacy and enlightenment. Second, the more people who borrow the book, the more word-of-mouth advertising—and therefore sales, because some people will simply buy the book and not bother borrowing it. Like the situation with DRM, think about maximizing sales not minimizing losses.

10. Stop whining about Amazon. It’s not going away, so get past your fear and loathing of Amazon and learn from it. For example, I’ve mentioned two ways you learn from Amazon already: picking winners from the Kindle bestseller list and making a freelance market ala the Audible Creation Exchange. There’s nothing wrong with copying the best practices of your competition, but this requires overcoming the not-invented-here syndrome, knowing what to copy, and implementing your adaptation well.

Guy Kawasaki is the author of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki has a BA from Stanford University and an MBA from UCLA as well as an honorary doctorate from Babson College.

DISCUSS: Why Publishers Need to Think More Like Silicon Valley

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  1. Posted January 15, 2013 at 4:41 am | Permalink

    Indeed, publishers should stop whining about Amazon and there’s nothing wrong with copying the best practices of your competitors. This is truly valuable advice and I hope publishers will take note!

    Just one small comment: book discovery is far more difficult than Guy Kawasaki makes it out. No doubt his own experience has brought him to underestimate the support he got from traditional publishers when he published his first books. Every author who moves to self-publishing AFTER having been published by a legacy publisher finds the road easy to travel: they already have a fan base, they’ve got a “brand”. Marketing is no problem.

    But for newbies, it’s quite another matter. And the Amazon site’s emphasis on stars and customer reviews isn’t quite the best answer for book discovery. It transfers the search for a good read to the masses, and the masses who read on the Kindle were at first people with different tastes from the overall readers market. They preferred their fiction to be light. They liked thrillers, they wanted romance, vampires, demons, other worlds and it’s no surprise that literary fiction and non-fiction found themselves at the bottom of the list.

    So Amazon’s model for book discovery works for certain genres but not for all, and one should be aware of the “profile” of the digital readers market before deciding that books that don’t reach the top 100 Kindle best seller list are not worth looking at. Because in that list, you’re only looking at a certain kind of book – certainly not a big literary work!

    I would love to have from Mr. Kawasaki some further thoughts on how one solves the book discovery conundrum.

    Traditional publishers had that one solved in a rather elegant way: they did’t rely on customer reviews like Amazon but on the reviews of literary and other experts, as relevant to the content matter of the book. They used special venues to create buzz around a book: the literary magazines, major newspapers like NYT and Wall Street Journal, prestige competitions like the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize etc. And you know what? They still do! I am convinced that is the traditional publishing industry’s winning card…

  2. Posted January 15, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    This article makes some great points, and so does the comment above from Claude. There are a number of stars that need to line up for a book to see commercial success, to be valuable vs. just a minimal risk – and yet the idea of ‘critical success’ has taken on new meaning.

    With industry filters (publishers) and gateways (agents) melting, and the limitless opportunity in DTR (direct to reader) marketing, who are the critics? Professionals? Consumers? Both, it seems, which is fair enough; and sometimes the weight of professional reviews is different for fiction vs. nonfiction. Do Amazon general population readers qualify to judge what is a good book? Chances are in many cases the answer is yes, but in some cases no. Is it only about numbers, algorithms, and ranking? Isn’t this a business of words?

    When it comes to book marketing, finding readers isn’t enough. It’s reaching the right readers at the right time with the right message for the title at hand. Lots of people read, but where do they turn for book discovery/literary selection advice? This is why sites like goodreads and kobo have grown so fast, and it’s why authors and publishers need to carefully consider the big picture of each book before drilling down to (and investing in) specific marketing efforts.

    Social media and SEO are essential to today’s book promotion mix, but using these methods effectively takes solid research that many authors and publishers don’t bother with. Beyond SM and SEO, which books should have trailers, podcasts, or apps, and which authors should blog, or avoid blogging? How can an author make sure their blog will actually help to sell more books? Is it worth investing in print ads and/or direct mail? Is advertising as effective and important as readings and speaking engagements? How many elements does a book campaign need to achieve breaking even and turning a profit? These are just a few considerations that prove Claude’s point. Marketing is not as simple as many like to make it seem, and the answers to these questions vary for every title and author. There is no one panacea.

    Another issue affecting today’s industry, or one that should be, is if sales are healthy anyway, does quality still matter? I find this question to be a real dilemma with overwhelming commercial successes like Twilight and Shades of Grey. Isn’t literacy supposed to foster intelligent thought and a sharing of the best in our culture?

    Big houses are turning out books loaded with errors, sometimes to the point where I wonder how some editors sleep at night. On the flipside, indie authors are learning that if they focus on and invest in quality, they can turn out books as good as, if not better than, titles coming from traditional imprints. The playing field is leveling just as it’s turning upside down.

    As for quality standards and the meaning of success, money and fame are popular goals, but what has happened to also demanding respect and appreciation for real talent and skill? I have turned down projects (and fees) because I couldn’t bring myself to work on books that lacked any quality or authenticity, and yet those books might end up selling and making good money. With standards slipping at every turn, where do authors who want and deserve to rise above the chaos turn?

    Sorry for this ramble. The article is specific and organized, but spurred this flood of thoughts about the many factors influencing what ‘best practices’ truly are. I do know that every book needs a marketing plan, a multi-faceted promotion roadmap researched and designed specifically for that title, something comprehensive and integrated that focuses on minimal spending for max ROI. It is the only way to still minimize losses while investing in new content. For any authors and/or publishers looking to have a Custom Book Marketing Plan (CBMP) prepared, contact me with a sample. There has never been a better time to be an experienced multimedia marketer in publishing, and I have the gift of loving what I wake up to do each day.

  3. Linda Tan
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I like point 7 – buy a print book and get the ebook version free. How many customers see a print book, pick it up and think, I will buy the cheaper ebook and publishers loose out on impulse buying. But I don’t think this is really going to save print book. But I do like and so admire Melville House’s Hybrid Books. Buy the print book and get access to online materials that provide a lot more information to the book – rather like the BBC’s Big Read book.

    Not too sure about point 1: publishers are investing in an author when they publish him/her. Point 1 might make sense for some organisations or governments in certain countries that wish to encourage literary works like first-book author grants. This has been done in Singapore.

    I think there are still opportunities for publishers to brand themselves or their imprint. If readers no longer look for imprints to determine quality or the type of books they like, it’s because publishers have allowed their brands to be diluted. I think the curating role of publishers is more important than ever and small independent publishers may have an upper hand here. Loyalty to a brand/imprint is based on trust – don’t let me down and I will stick with you.

    Re point 8 – is it worth investing in marketing an author when he/she can easily decide it’s not enough and self-publish? or to go with Amazon

  4. Fran Toolan
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink


    This sounds like the blueprint for starting a publishing company! I’m sure that there are many who would support you in that venture.

    Thanks for all tips.

  5. Edward Nawotka
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    @Fran Toolan, et al. I do think Guy makes some interesting points, but it’s also worth noting that several publishing houses are already using these strategies. Sourcebooks, for example, has implemented a well documented innovation/technology fund in-house. And it goes without saying the numerous publishers are cherry picking from the best of the self-published titles. Overall, though, it’s a good summation of what we’re likely to see happening more and more in the future and a good checklist. The article, also, is aimed largely at established houses, rather than people just getting started out.

  6. LewisM
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Guy makes some assumptions that, as a bookseller, I find to be wrong. Most readers don’t care about imprints. (Ask your kid who publishes TWILIGHT.) He also assumes that ebooks are what readers care about, when the evidence points to ebooks being “just another format” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323874204578219563353697002.html).

    Arguably, the main reason for falling book sales has less to do with unlimited online shelf space or Amazon market share, and more to do with competition from other media. The precedents are all out there: movies lost viewers to television, comic book sales fell as video games became more popular, print news lost readers to blogs and free sites.

    Most of Guy’s suggestions are focused on using technology to help the author and the publisher find one another. Which is great, but it’s not real change. Like film and comics (and probably other media) before it, publishing needs to “re-brand” itself, and redefine what purpose it serves. Movies turned into spectacular events to get people to leave the house and their TVs. Comics are now more focused on adult readers than kids.

    These other story formats don’t see the sales number that they used to and books probably won’t either. But to thrive, publishing needs to find a new way to relate to the reader. If you still believe that the name of your imprint matters to your reader, you have a very long way to go.

  7. Posted January 15, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Mine already-published books and spend thousands to acquire, polish and re-publish it? Ouch! I think you’re overlooking one of the sad facts of book publishing, which is that most books published sell fewer than 500 copies, and most of what’s self-published on Amazon will have already sold that many by the time the sales rank gets impressive. In other words, the people likely to buy that book already have.

    Every day we receive queries from indie authors who bought the hype that having a best-selling ebook would pave the way to a traditional publisher, and are shocked to discover it just ain’t so. Citing the flukes in this truism, like the 50 Shades books, is unfair to writers who are too excited about making money and “being published” to learn how this business works. For me to be interested in publishing the rest of someone’s series when they’ve self-published the first book it would have to be exceptional.

    These are all good ideas, but they tend to overlook the reality that despite its flaws the traditional business model tends to work fairly well. Modified to current technology, it works REALLY well. However, the hangup isn’t with publishing but with distribution, unless one is willing to accept outdated methods. In other words, it’s not just about finding bestselling books. It’s about maximizing the ways those books can get into the hands (or electronic gadgets) of readers. I would suggest a version of this article aimed at booksellers.

  8. Posted January 16, 2013 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    You failed to mention a key reason for Amazon’s success with ebooks. It has created a powerful ecosystem around that ebook purchase. That Kindle ebook I buy comes with a host of advantages that some others (including pirates) have yet to match, including:

    1. It’s always there even if I delete it on my own devices.
    2. Unlike iBookstore purchases, it runs on almost every device around.
    3. Amazon stores any notes and highlights you make.
    4. A limited amount of loaning is possible.
    5. Amazon (this surprised me) will even store and transfer your own documents for you. It will even keep your notes on them.
    6. Amazon offers than even for the free public domain ebooks they distribute. Some people get Kindles to read free books and later start buying.

    And don’t forget that speed matters to authors and publishers. I saw that when I published my latest book, Hospital Gowns and Other Embarrassments: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Hospitals, in early December.

    * Amazon, given a direct feed, had the Kindle version out overnight. I joke not. I sent it in Friday evening. It was on Amazon when I got up Saturday morning. Amazing.
    * Apple, also given a direct feed, took about a week to post the iBookstore version. Tolerable, but it could be better.
    * Most other ebook distributors, fed through Smashwords, took about a week or so.
    * Barnes and Noble was the worst for ebooks. It posted the print version quickly, but didn’t even download the Nook version for almost a month. They’ve got to ‘get with’ the digital age if they want to survive. People will start to notice that a new ebook appears on Amazon and the iBookstore long before the Nook version is out.
    * Ingram’s LightningSource, given files for the print version, took about a week for printed versions to began to appear at online stores. That was well and good until I needed to fix a major typo–two chapters numbered “20.” Then things fell apart just as Christmas sales boomed.

    Lightning Source’s official policy for POD revisions is the worst imaginable. Once a publisher sends in a revision, they block all new orders, making the book unavailable from anyone. Then they fulfill all existing orders for the old version. Only after those orders are filled, which around Christmas can take a week or more, do they begin (yes begin) to process the revision, which takes several more days. Add a few more days for that availability to weave its way out to the retailers and a revision can make a book unavailable for two weeks or more.

    The result so frustrated me, that I said, “to heck with them,” and sent Amazon the files for a CreateSpace version, a first for me. It appeared ‘de nova’ faster on Amazon than Lightning Source could process that simple revision. I used to single-source printed copies with Lightning, but that bad experience means I’m now going to double source the printing, so the printed version is never completely unavailable.

    I’ve already passed along a message to Lightning Source execs suggesting they need a double-track system for printing, so no POD title ever goes offline. Orders print with the old version while the new works through the approval process. Then, invisible to purchasers, the new version begins to print as soon as it’s approved. No delays, no books unavailable, and quick revisions. No frustration for authors, publishers, or retailers.

    All that to say that speed needs to matter for everyone in the process. Traditional publishing moved like cold molasses. Books that were text-ready in May, came out just before Thanksgiving. Today, it makes no sense to forgo income for that long. The marketing, if much is done, needs to develop alongside the book, so both can appear simultaneously and soon.

    I might add that, at present, the retailers own the ecosystem that surrounds a book sale and thus know readers tastes and can market new titles to them. (That is something Amazon does very well.) Publishers need to find a way to get inside that loop and turn their customers (via Amazon et al) into customers whose interests they know.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure how that can be done effectively. The best idea I’ve been able to come up with is a publisher-provided coupon system. Buy the first book in a series, for instance, and then contact the publisher directly. You’ll get notification from them when the next in the series comes out along with a discount code good at most major retailers. But that requires those retailers to set up publisher-driven coupon systems and, at present, only Smashwords seems to have that option.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

  9. Posted January 27, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    You got some very valid points here. Some of these best apply to mid-sized traditional publishers but overall these are solid ideas. You can probably add several more. We also have to recognize that some of the big names out there are already making significant changes to adapt and survive such as creating author communities, supporting book clubs, author resource centers and forums, and other technical innovations and changes that support the industry as a whole. You’re a genius!

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