10 Strategies for Publishers to Succeed and Survive

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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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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.