Permission Based Publishing: The New York Publishing Model (and Why It Doesn't Work)

For years publishers have insisted that what happened to the music industry won't happen to them. Yet when we see what's happening in publishing I fail to find an instance where publishers aren't subscribing to the same model music companies did.
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Some years back I knew this guy who used to work at Time Warner Publishing, back in the heyday of the publishing world when publishers were the center of the universe and everything else was, well, just everything else. He told me that there was this song called "Everybody Wants to Rule the World," which had a lot to do with how most people felt in publishing back then. They did, in fact, rule the world. Or at least the social and trends side of things. With books that shocked the country (remember the Madonna title?) and authors who would be with us for decades, they were trendsetters and did what they do very well. They did it with creativity, innovation and, most of all, control. Publishing has always been about the business of literature, not the business of controlling this literature. Though it has, simply because for the most part it was the only way you could gain access to literature. It was vetted and given the seal of approval by a publishing house. Then, and only then, did we call it a book. Now, however, things have changed drastically.

Times haven't just changed but the publishing world is virtually unrecognizable. Authors are finding success and building audiences without even having a book (think Wattpad). Self-publishing and eBooks have become a mainstay in the industry. The one thing that hasn't changed is a publisher's need to control. Even in an age where publishing is more about free expression and the freedom to express any thought you want using sites like Smashwords, Createspace, and others to develop content. Publishers are hanging onto the old guard way of doing this, now almost more than ever. The model they know: permission based publishing and that same way of thinking could be one of the biggest downfalls of the industry if someone doesn't shake up the model and offer them a new way of looking at an age-old market.

Bookish is a great example of this. Bookish took two years to launch and was started by Penguin Publishing as a portal to share books. The problem with this site is the restrictions. While it's a great idea in principle, the reason it will never hit the success of a Goodreads or a Library Thing is one element: control. Everything about Bookish is controlled by the publishing industry, there is limited freedom like you'd see on any other site that is reader-driven. When Amazon bought Goodreads and the collective question in the industry was, "Why didn't a publisher step in and do this?" the answer was simple: control. You can create guidelines and rules, but you can't control a site like Goodreads nor would you want to. Readers made this site what it is. They get to choose the books they want to add (gasp, even if they are self-published), while Bookish offers restrictive book listings that are subject to change/modification only by Penguin. Imagine if Goodreads had only been limited to focusing on traditionally published authors. I can hear the crickets now.

This is what I call Permission Based Publishing and it simply doesn't work anymore, yet publishers continue to hang onto it like the life-preserver it no longer is. Why do they do this? Do they want to fail? No, they don't. Like any industry they want to succeed, the problem is, it's all they know. Often we'll do eBook campaigns with authors and I find that when we do these, it's great to give away copies of the book for either one day or five days. When I push this idea to publishers you can't imagine how much they struggle with this idea. How can you control something if you give it away? Guess what? You can't and that's a good thing.

Here are some things, right off the bat that publishers need to work on:

DRM: Forget this. Seriously. The more you try and keep people from sharing the more they will share. I recall a quote from Michael Cader years ago when the music industry was waging the Napster battle and he said, "We should all hope to be Napstered." Amen to that.

Libraries: Please stop making it so hard for libraries to loan eBook content. Seriously. Keep in mind that if we continue to lose bookstores at the pace we are, libraries may be all you have left.

Free eBook promotion: There are enough studies out there that show the powerful effects of freebie eBook promotions and how they can help boost sales overall. Time and time again I find that publishers struggle with this. You don't want to use KDP? Fine. Find another way to do this, capture your own emails and send them the eBook, whatever you want to do.

What can publishers do to step away from this model and open the door to more talent? Why not let the market decide? In the end it's the reader who matters the most, right? Let readers decide what you should and shouldn't publish. I mean isn't that how some books have been discovered recently? I recall one author who just got picked up from Wattpad. Why aren't publishers doing this just generally? So, you have a book idea. Great! Now put it on Wattpad or any other similar site and let's see what resonates with the audience. "But what if someone steals my idea?" you might ask. Well, that's always possible though in my years of being in the publishing industry it's pretty rare.

Indie stores: this seems like a perfect partnership for publishers. What can publishing do with its massive resources to boost and help indie bookstores remain relevant and competitive? The question though is do they want to? I cited in another piece on bookstores ( that publishers should help bookstores survive, perhaps a creative way to do that would be to dig into the resources these stores offer, like access to readers and new talent.

Develop new sales models: NYC publishing's meltdown over eBook pricing, insisting consumers should fork out more for digital versions than paperbacks in some cases -- was doomed to fail. This narrow focus also failed to recognize something bigger -- suddenly there was a new way to make money from books, by selling eBooks to a new audience of readers who use digital devices to read. For years, authors came to me with the argument that Amazon took too big of a cut from their book sales. They wanted to control the purchase and sell more books off of their own websites. Though the issue is different, the challenge is still the same: how do you control a purchase? How about offering something readers can't get anywhere else: A digital subscription service with an annual fee that gives you free access to content, sort of like the Amazon Prime model? Combine print and eBook sales -- perhaps a free eBook with a print purchase. Several studies have shown that digital readers still read and buy print books. There are so many ways to add value that in the end lead to more sales, more revenue. Or what about this idea: when I buy shows on Amazon I have the option of getting one episode or all of them. But if I get the season pass, I get all of the episodes at a discount. Publishers could offer something similar (I know many of them cringe at the idea of modeling Amazon but stay with me), what if they offered a "season pass" to their mystery collection, so any new mystery published would be delivered to your eReader at a discount and if they were really creative, they could sidestep the Amazon model altogether and pull readers to their site instead. Isn't this what publishers have wanted all along? To sidestep this mammoth e-Tailer and pull people into their site instead?

Look for your next bestseller: I was at a publishing event some years ago and I asked the head of a publishing house (which shall remain nameless) whether they monitored eBooks to find the gems. The response was "No, why would we?" This response was accompanied by a confused look of "this does not compute." While that model has changed, somewhat (yes, publishers are picking up self-publishing titles that are gaining momentum), there still isn't a solid plan in place to find these titles or rather, find the talent. Just like there are farm teams in sports, traditional publishing now has a big pool of talent to scout in the indie/self-publishing world. Go find the talent -- they're all over the web, using social media for promotion, posting content and books at sites like Wattpad and Smashwords. The deals we hear about have occurred long after an author's success self-publishing (which does give them leverage when negotiating a contract), but publishers could do a lot more to discover and develop new talent. This would mean that publishers would have to deign to look at sales figures from a variety of sources, including the oft-maligned

Help midlist authors break out: Given how deep some publishers' lists are, what about helping midlist authors move up? Take your big name, bestselling authors and use them as the bait -- readers who buy those books -- digital or print versions -- you can offer a book for free (which I know send shivers through most of publishing) and bundle it with a bestseller. Offering a free or sale price book from another author in the same genre who is also published by the same company could really be a boost to exposure. Not only does this give a deserving author a chance, it's a plus for the publisher by exposing readers to more books they can buy and, back to the idea of publishers wanting to control the buy, this could be a great way to bring readers in.

For years publishers have insisted that what happened to the music industry won't happen to them. Yet when we see what's happening in publishing I fail to find an instance where publishers aren't subscribing to the same model music companies did. They want to hang onto the way things have always been done because there was a time when it worked very well for them. Perhaps many worry that if they give up their old model of permission based-everything, they won't have a place in the industry. This, in my opinion, is far from true. There is still (and I presume, always will be) a cache to being published by a Simon & Schuster and while their role in the future of publishing has changed, their value is still valid and important.

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