The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?  

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Episode XXXVII: "I don't make a distinction between 'commercial' and 'self' publishing"

Published 11/4/15
In this installment, I speak with Joel Friedlander, a self-publishing expert. Topics include choosing to self-publish, pros and cons of commercial publishers, impact, shifts in the industry, fragmentation & more.

Today I’m here with Joel Friedlander, “an author, an award-winning book designer, a blogger and the creator of programs that train authors to achieve the impact their work deserves.” Self-publishing is a topic I’ve touched on many times through the course of The Art of Commerce, and I want to use this interview to really dive into the issue, and to talk about its (many) nuances. Let’s start with your background, Joel. How did you get into this business?

Andrew, I have a long background in graphic arts, design, advertising and direct marketing. I was working in publishing in the 1980s when I decided to publish a book that I knew no commercial publisher would be interested in, so I decided to publish it myself. I started a publishing company, released the book, and that was the beginning of my self-publishing journey.

Can I ask why you thought your book wouldn't be right for a commercial publisher?

Well, publishing is a commercial enterprise, and that means only books that show a clear profit potential will be of interest to book publishers. In this case, I was an unknown author with a subject equally unknown. There was no readily identifiable market for the book, and I was also unwilling to wait the 2-3 years it would have taken to pursue the traditional publishing path, given that in the end I was pretty sure nobody would want it.

Let's jump forward to today, where an author with a ready manuscript has a lot more options—both of the self-publishing side and the commercial publishing side. Given the number of presses around today, do you think you would have made the same choice?

Yes! And it would have taken less time to arrive at that decision. Remember that back then there was a lot of risk in book publishing, since any book had to be designed and produced to the quality standards of traditional publishers, and had to be printed in fairly large quantities to achieve a reasonable retail price. The costs involved, with no guarantee of return, kept many people from publishing on their own. That situation is completely different today, where the tools of publishing are readily available, and most of the monetary risk has been eliminated by print on demand technology and the possibility of direct to digital publishing (eBooks).

Self-publishing is also attractive to a lot of authors, both then and now, because it allows an author to keep control of all the details of the project, and to profit to a much greater extent from the marketing they are going to have to do anyway, whether they publish themselves or not.

There is something unsaid underneath what you're saying, and I'm playing devil's advocate here: self-published books today may look like commercially-published books, but at the end of the day they are words, and the quality of those words is what matters most. What do you say to those who question the editing that goes into self-published books?

I intend to say exactly what I'm saying, so I'll be clear: self-published books can achieve the same standards of quality as traditionally published books, whether it's editing, design, or production. In fact, it may be easier for a self-publishing author to find exactly the right editors—both developmental and copyeditors—than a traditionally published author, who has no say over who is editing her book. Self-published books regularly win prestigious awards, but they have to be edited and produced to very high quality standards. Here's an example: last year the book chosen by the British Medical Association as the best psychiatric book of the year (above books from McGraw Hill, Wiley, and others) was self-published. I know because I designed it.

There's no doubting the number of self-published books that have gone on to garner critical (and commercial) acclaim. Another example is THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, which is now a major motion picture. I want to talk impact. You say that you “train authors to achieve the impact their work deserves.” How do you define that word, impact?

Even if your book is well written, properly edited and beautifully designed, there's no guarantee it will have any impact at all, because there's a missing link—readers. When I talk about helping authors make an impact, I'm specifically referring to helping them understand the marketplace in which they are operating. When you become a publisher in addition to being an author, this becomes critical. What I'm trying to do is show authors how they can harness the tools technology has made available to us to make sure their books reach as many of the readers who would be interested in their work as possible.

So you'd define impact as readers, or sales?

If no one reads your book, it will have no impact. Once people start reading it, at least you have a chance to impact their lives in some way.

It's been my experience over many years and with many, many authors that very few people who self-publish are primarily interested in sales as their ultimate goal. Most authors are driven more by the desire to have their work reach people, especially the people who would most benefit in some way from their work.

I don't make a distinction between "commercial" and "self" publishing, that makes no sense to me. There is a traditional publishing process where a publisher acquires the rights to your book, and I would contrast that to self-publishing, where the author essentially becomes the publisher.

While there are lots of options today, many more than there were 10 or 15 years ago, many of the essentials of publishing haven't changed, we just have more ways to bring books to market.

Nowadays, it appears (and correct me if you disagree) that it’s not as easy as commercial vs. self publishing; there’s an entire spectrum of options in between. If you agree with that classification, how do you see it shifting in the coming years, decades?

I think the shifts that we'll see coming are authors coming together to form small presses or cooperative publishing ventures, because it just makes sense. Otherwise every author is duplicating a lot of the work that could be handled more efficiently in a group where different members have various strengths.

Another change, potentially the biggest, is the flattening of the distribution system. Book distributing is run on a very old model that's only useful for large publishers. We're going to see more and more marketing where publishers can go completely around the distribution system so that author/publishers can interact directly with reader/buyers.

What is the difference between sales and reaching readers?

The difference is huge if you are talking about intent. I have a client who is trying to break into fiction as a self-publisher. This is rather difficult, despite the media stories about authors uploading a story to Wattpad and then signing a 7-figure contract.

This author, after 3 books, managed to give away during a promotion over 45,000 books. They weren't sales, but it did make quite an impact, and the sales on his other books increased quite a bit.

How do you think authors/publishers will be able to interact directly with readers/buyers more than they are doing now? Do you see any potential downside to a future that involves more writer/reader interaction?

As the social sphere continues to mature, more tools are coming onto the market that allow authors and publishers to locate and target specific demographics, both for marketing purposes and also for direct sales. Imagine using a Facebook status update to let people know about your book, and including a button that opens up a window right in Facebook where they can sample the work and buy it instantly.

The downside to all this activity is that writers, more than ever, have to decide what kind of author they want to be. If they don't want to market at all, they will have to stick to the traditional agented publishing. But for anyone who sees the benefit of being able to interact directly with the people in their market, they will have a very powerful tool in their hands, should they choose to learn how to use it.

This is even more true, by the way, for nonfiction authors who can more easily identify exactly who would profit from the author's work.

And for nonfiction authors, many of the digital tools we have today allow them to profit from the research and expertise that go into their books in many ways that simply didn't exist before. And to monetize their work much faster than in a traditional publishing environment.

You bring up a lot of interesting points here. Do you think this would lead to an even more fractured publishing landscape—those who choose to go it alone, and then those who are going the more traditional route?

There's always a tension between efficiency, which inevitably leads to conglomeration, and individual control, which leads to fragmentation. At this point, my best guess is that we're going to see both of these trends continue, leading to an even more fractured landscape. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because writers coming of age now have so many more ways to reach readers than we had in the past.

We've been talking pretty high-level. Let's zoom in a bit. What is the number one mistake self-published authors are making?

Rushing to get their book out. Most first time authors are focused on the book itself, and I completely understand that. But there are many things that should come before you publish, and establishing a "platform" from which to launch your work is one big example.

What do you consider a platform? Are we talking just social media? Reviewers?

By platform I'm talking about ALL the people who know you as an expert in your subject (for nonfiction authors) or as a storyteller (fiction). This would include social media platforms, associations to which you belong, readers of previous books, email lists you might have from public events, and a public reputation, if you have one. Everything taken together makes up your platform, in my opinion. These people essentially "give you permission" to talk to them on a specific subject.

I take it you primarily work with nonfiction authors? Do you feel self-publishing is a better proposition for those with nonfiction manuscripts?

I work with all sorts of authors, but nonfiction books are generally more interesting to me, and I've been a nonfiction author myself for quite a while. Nonfiction authors have the advantage of being able to identify their target market more easily. Fiction authors have the advantage of potentially much greater sales and establishing a fan base that will continue to buy new books for years to come. But for subject matter experts who have even a whiff of entrepreneurship, I think self-publishing is a great way to go and they are likely to make quite a bit more money from their work over time.

Do you think anyone can be cut out for self-publishing, or does it take a certain soul to take on the venture?

It's not the right path for all authors, that's for sure. Despite how simple books look, there are a lot of details involved in creating them and properly publishing and marketing them. You really need to be able to put the time and energy into learning how it all works to be an effective self-publisher, and that's just not of interest to many people. By the way, this is also the reason so many people fall into the very bad decision to use a "subsidy" publisher. They just want someone to do it all for them.

We're nearly out of time, so I'll ask: if there's one thing (or things) you'd want someone to know about self-publishing who has never self-published, or even read a self-published book, what would it be?

You can do it! And if you get the right direction, it should be fun.

Thanks for your time Joel, and your words.

You're welcome, thanks for the opportunity.