Thursday, January 13, 2011

I Want to Be a Book Publisher

by Joel Friedlander

I was talking with a self-publisher today about everything he had learned over the months spent getting his book ready to go to press.

It had been a long haul putting the book together, and the author had worked with several editors before asking me to help him put the project together.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve got my publishing company all set up. Maybe I’ll make it into a real publishing company. Publish books for other authors who are just starting out.” I could see this was an idea with some charm to it.

I was a little surprised at this, since the book hadn’t even gone on the market yet. There is nothing quite like the experience of taking delivery on 1,000 or 2,000 hardcovers and wondering if you’ll ever see the money that went into them again.

That’s when you know whether you want to be a book publisher, and whether you have a gift for it.

“How will you do that?” I asked. “Are you going to publish only books in your niche?”

“Look, I’ve learned how books get put together, how they get edited, designed, typeset and how to get printing quotes and arrange for fulfillment and all the rest. If you don’t have to learn all that, there’s some value there, isn’t there? That’s what publishers do, after all.” He seemed satisfied with this.

Storms on the Horizon

But I sensed something was missing.

“Not really,” I said. “Publishers have a market. There’s some group of people they are tuned into and know well. What they do is go out and find the books that their market wants to buy. Publishers are media companies. They risk their own money on properties they think their market will buy in enough quantity that they’ll make a profit.

“If they publish business books, it’s the business community. If it’s cookbooks, they are selling to home cooks. It’s their connection to the market that’s critical, that makes the company. Editing, book design, the other nuts and bolts are secondary to their business, really.”

He was looking quizzical by now.

“On the other hand,” I went on, “if you charge authors for arranging their publication, getting their ISBNs, having their books edited, designed, and put into distribution, you are no longer a media company. Now you’re an author-services company, or a subsidy publisher.

Your market is made up of aspiring authors and self-publishers. Your profitability will have nothing to do with your ability to find and cultivate writers who appeal to your market, because you will publish anyone who can pay the freight. You no longer have to sell books at all to be profitable. You only have to sell services to authors.

“These are two completely different kinds of companies. Which one did you mean, when you said you wanted to be a publisher?” We looked at each other and smiled.

“I guess I’ll have to think about that one, Joel,” he said, and we went on with our business.

Joel Friedlander is a self-published author, a book designer and blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at He's also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.

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