Saturday, June 25, 2011

The old way and the new way

I have a business plan. It's a nice and neat dissertation on the past, present, and future of the publishing industry. I wrote it three years ago, before I started all of this. It has a Gap Analysis, and a Fulfillment Analysis, and a Stakeholder Analysis, and...what's that? You don't care? Good. You shouldn't. It wasn't for you anyway, it was for me. Business ventures are strange beasts; they take a ton of work and planning, but the way you can tell if they're on the right track or not is if they don't look planned or overworked.

When I left you last I was saying how I thought I could smack it out of the park to begin with. Overconfidence is a hallmark of MBAs, and it's annoying, but it's also necessary. One of the things I did do right all those years ago was just to jump in the pool and start swimming.  I didn't drown (or at least haven't yet) for a few reasons: The first is an unwavering belief that just doing it is vastly preferable to milling about the shore, fretting and frittering, dipping a toe in every now and then but scampering away; few things are as annoying to me as over-preparedness. 

The second reason I'm still standing is because of the nature of the publishing industry itself. Crazy, insane things are happening in publishing. Ground breaking things. The renaissance that is happening now in publishing has been compared to the creation of the printing press, accurately. 

Here's how publishing used to go:

1.) You write a book. This may take many months, or many years. You pour your soul into that book, and your time, and (in some cases) your money. You edit that book and belabor every comma and the nature of every metaphor. You stay up late wondering if your characters have the right names. You have nightmares about dialogue tags and proper subject/verb agreements. In short, you're a mess, but in the end you have a finished manuscript that you are secretly enormously proud of.

2.) You submit that book to agents that you've researched.

3.) You never hear back from any of those agents.

4.) You return to your job at Dunkin' Donuts.

Yeah, yeah, I know it turns out differently for one in a million people. Excuse me if I don't break out the champagne. Now, here is what has happened in the past couple of years in publishing.

1.) You write a book, this may take months or even years or blah blah blah...that you are enormously proud of.

2.) You may decide to query agents, but you realize that you no longer have to because...

3.) You can also decide to self publish and get distributed through all of the same outlets as a traditionally published author, save perhaps the brick and mortar stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble. You know the one's I'm talking about? No? Well, they used to be everywhere but they're all closing.

What has happened here is that whereas once the barriers to publishing were agents and publishing houses, now they are you. That's right. Just you. The only thing keeping your work from the world is yourself.

Fortunately, it's as easy as it looks, at least for ebooks. If you have a word document of your manuscript you can convert it in five minutes and have it for sale online through Barnes and Noble and Amazon in 24 hours.

Unfortunately, it's as easy as it looks, at least for ebooks. If you have a garbled mess of a  piece-of-junk manuscript that's essentially one long run on sentence about a man/unicorn love story, you can convert it in five minutes and have it for sale online through Barnes and Noble and Amazon in 24 hours.

And there we have the crux of the debate about the legitimacy of self-publishing. But that debate doesn't really matter, because like it or not, here it comes. To the tune of hundreds of thousands of books a month.

There are those of the opinion that all the new way serves to do is open the sewers and flood the market with crap. These people have a strange, aristocratic loyalty to the old way, and argue that agents were doing just fine picking out the winners and pitching them to the houses. I don't buy it. I say if the agents were finding one diamond amongst ten thousand pieces of coal, if you flood the general market with tons of coal, the consumer will find thousands of diamonds themselves.

So how do you distinguish yourself? How do you turn your piece of coal into a diamond and get it in front of everyone?  That's what I hope this blog helps to illuminate. My company will use our resources to publish some of the great stuff overlooked every year by the major houses, we'll take on projects that we feel create real, lasting experiences for readers and we'll package them and market them and we'll tell you how we do it: What pitfalls to avoid, what worked for us, and what didn't.  We'll tell you this in the hopes that you buy our books, sure, but also so that you can, should you want to, better publish yourself.

Don't you see? We're a publishing company that is trying to tell you that you don't need a publishing company anymore.

This might sound crazy, but it's the way it is. The boat has sailed. There ain't no train comin' back. This changing role is a reality that the publishing industry is going to have to come to terms with, or risk becoming slowly irrelevant, like that that huge book store in the strip mall down your street. The one that they turned into a Best Buy, and then turned into a foreign supermarket, and then boarded up altogether.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A long path

I wanted to title this first post "In the beginning" but withheld for several reasons. First, I wonder how many people title their first post "In the beginning". I bet it's a lot. That's what getting into the publishing industry has done to me; it's made me think about how many people have gone before me, and how many things they've tried, and how many times they've failed. And how a few of them have succeeded. But I bet those that have succeeded didn't do it by doing what everyone else did.

The second reason is that this isn't the beginning. It's the beginning of the blog, sure, but it's actually about year two on the whole Publishing deal. I know, I know. But better late than never. I'll catch you up.

Part of the reason it's taken me so long to start this thing is the fact that I'm conflicted. Not about blogging, which I've done before and which I find hilariously therapeutic, but about telling random strangers all about my struggles to get this company off the ground. One of the first things I was told about publishing was to hold true to the old adage fake it 'till you make it. This essentially means act like you know exactly what you're doing and people will believe you actually do, and will give their patronage accordingly. People like to buy from established, wizened professionals, and the theory is that if you pretend like you're one of those they'll buy from you too.

A blog throws that whole thing right out the window. Free flowing exposition tends to unearth the truth in things. So as a businessman you can either treat your blog like a propaganda machine, in which case nobody will read it, or you can treat it like a blog and hope something good comes of it. I'll be taking the latter approach.

First, a bit of background. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not some emo teenager fresh off his tenth piercing trying to start a fly-by-night, lemonade stand of a company to attention-whore. I meant it when I said I started this two years ago. And not in an "I had a vision while drunk" kind of way, either. I registered my LLC in 2009 with a real honest to god bank, and have been doing prep work and gathering seed money for a general business launch for two years now.

This all stems, as does most everything in this industry, from a love of books. I was an English major in my undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis and had a whole mess of fabulous professors and workshops out there that planted the seed. I remember thinking how cool it would be to start a publishing company even way back then, but I was naive in the way all college grads are and instead went abroad hoping to fall ass backwards into my fortune somehow, someway. When I eventually came back to earth, I realized I needed a job. After working a few jobs here and there I thought to myself, "Self, you're a bright enough guy. Why work for people when you could have your own business?" Great idea, right? Except that I was an English major, remember, and while I loved my degree and wouldn't have gone any other way, I knew about as much of business as I did of engineering, which is to say, that they were both subjects that one could learn, if they were so inclined.

If there is one thing recent grads are really good at, it's going back to school. So that's what I did. Although this time, I had a plan. I would get an MBA and learn about this crazy "business" stuff: numbers and money and taxes and power lunches and all that nonsense, in the hopes that I would one day start my own publishing company. There we have it, back full circle.

Three long years later I had my MBA. Fresh off the presses at the University of Denver. Sure, I was saddled with a Santa's Sack full of student loan debt, but I was also equipped, believe it or not, with a pretty good picture of what a business should look like and how to get there. I thought I could jump right into it and knock it out of the park.

That was a year and a half ago now. Turns out I still had a few things to learn.