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Re:Publish A road-map for broken publishers


Picture credit: retlaw snellac 


I'm very pleased to have this post from Reallygood Thinking guest professor Gary Smailes, a writer, author, editor, and co-founder of BubbleCow, an excellent resource for writers and those wanting to get published.  You can find Gary at the BubbleCow blog and more info about Gary's career in his bio

Things change

Once, a long time ago, publishing was a dangerous and clandestine profession. It was all about spreading ideas and the printed page was a vehicle for insightful and explosive thoughts.

Kings, dictators, and even popes feared the written word.

But this changed when the printed page became a vehicle for profit.

Power shifted away from the writer, away from the challenging minds and into the hands of conservative, profit focused publishers.

Birth of the novel

It was technology that sparked the transition from big idea to business model. Expensive printing meant that a publisher’s role become one of providing essential investment, as well as critical distribution.

The power shifted from cash poor writers (idea makers?) to cash rich publishers.

And…since publishers were taking a financial risk, they wanted a financial reward.

The result was a move away from edgy and risky ideas, towards safer mainstream literature.

It was into this model that the novel was birthed.

Risk limitation

The model worked/works (kind of?) for publishers, but the same can’t be said for writers.

The publisher/writer partnership is unbalanced, with writers receiving a fraction of the profit and publishers being over rewarded for their perceived risk.

Book selling is an unpredictable art and figures as high as 80% have been quoted for the amount of books that fail to make any significant profit.

This means just 20% of a publisher’s output will make any real money.

The problem comes in predicting which 20% will work.

This results in publishers having little choice but to set free as many books as possible, knowing that a few will, somehow, will become bestsellers.

The profit model is broken and the business model is lob sided.

The flip side is that 80% of published writers are never rewarded.

The bitter irony is that those writers with the big and dangerous ideas have suffered the most. Controversial, risky and unpopular (world changing?) ideas are the least likely to produce bestselling books.

Publishing is no longer about big ideas; it is now simply about risk limitation.

Broken dreams

Publishing bestsellers may have worked in the past, but it is no longer the only, or even the best, publishing model.

Digitisation and the Internet have removed the need for physical bookshelves, shifting the business model’s centre of gravity away from the bestseller, towards the long tail.

Changing technology is to blame.

Digital printing, short runs and online stores have stripped away the publisher’s financial clout.

The Internet, e-books, downloading, e-readers and pdfs have smashed up the distribution chain that was the life blood of the traditional publishers.

Twitter, Facebook, communities, virtual honesty and transparency have eaten away at the marketing framework.

The very skeleton the bestseller model hangs upon is rotting away.

One question

There is good and bad news.

The bad

The Internet and interconnected communities will murder the traditional publisher. In the same way they are slowly killing a reluctant music publisher.

The good (is very good)

Ideas are the food of these same interconnected communities, and they still value something that publishers are very good at finding – content.

These communities are forcing the publisher to ask one very simple question:


What happens if you separate content from format?

The answer

Content and format are not the same thing…

Content is content.

Content is ideas and thoughts, though it may also be stories and narratives, but what it is not is words (though it may be).

A print book is not content.

A print book is a delivery system.

A print book is a format.

If you remove the content from a printed book and create a pdf file, then allow readers to download this from the Internet, the content remains, though the pdf becomes the format.

If you remove the content from a printed book and create an audio mp3 file, then allow readers to download this from the Internet, the content remains, though the mp3 becomes the format.

If you remove the content from a printed book and create a blog post, then allow readers to access this from the Internet, the content remains, though the blog post becomes the format.

The content is freed from the format.


Three pillars

This new system/model is based on three pillars:

Concept: This is the writer’s idea.

Content: This is the concept moulded in order to match the format.

Format: This is the way the content is delivered.


The role of the publisher is no longer about finding words that can be printed in the hope they will sell best of all.

The new publisher must be a seeker of big ideas.

Their role becomes one of finding ideas and then moulding them into a concept.

Defining this concept, that is harnessing the big idea into a manageable form, is a publisher’s primary role.

The concept becomes the foundation, the very bedrock upon which all else is built.


Yet, we can go further…

Once a concept is defined then it can be moulded/cut/chipped/polished to fit the manner in which it will ultimately be delivered. After all, a live presentation to a thousand people will contain a different form of the concept than a series of concise blog posts or 50,000 word book.

This manipulation of the concept to a deliverable form is developing content.

The publisher’s second job is to create, or at least facilitate, the creation of content.


Imagine a world where content is not constrained by format.

The idea behind the content (the concept) remains solid, though the way the content is delivered alters.

This delivery system is the format.

The format simply becomes the best (most convenient?) delivery system for the reader (consumer?).

The format is the form in which the consumer (reader?) wishes to receive the content.

A printed book is a format, but so is an e-book.

Video is a format, but so are speaking engagements.

A subscription site is a format, but so is a TV show.

A documentary is a format, but so is a blog post.

A radio show is a format, but so is a personal one-on-one mentoring session.

A podcast is a format, but so is webinar.

….the list goes on.



Yet the publisher’s role is more…

It begins with shepherding ideas, developing concepts and moulding content into suitable formats.

But publishers have one more job and that is to deliver.

Readers (though I do mean consumers) are hungry for big ideas. The problem is, though these ideas currently exist, the Internet disperses and fragments them.

The publisher’s role is to act as an aggregator.

The publisher needs to help the concept discover its audience.

Marketing is completely the wrong term. This is not about convincing readers/consumers to pay attention to something they don’t really want or need.

Social media is too simplistic a term. Publishers are not about building networks (though they may have to).

This is delivery.

Yes, Twitter helps, as does Facebook, but it is more.

Publishers must find readers/consumers.

Hunt them down…

The consumers who are ready to listen to these ideas are already in packs - groups - communities.

A publisher’s new role is to find these groups, go to them and speak their language.

This may be a podcast or a webinar or a Facebook page…but equally it may be an advert in a newspaper, a billboard on the tube or a TV commercial.

There are no rules.



This is a new publishing model, yet it is as old as the printing press. This is a model where dangerous ideas and radical thinking are at home. This is a model that focuses on the edges, not the centre.

This is a model that will change the world.

The new model re-establishes publishing as a noble profession. It changes publishers from product producers to idea spreaders.

It makes them dangerous.

Imagine a world where publishers once again upset Kings, displace dictators, and even cause the Pope to worry.


Thanks very much to Gary for taking the time to write this post.

And thanks very much to you for taking the time to read it.  We love to hear your ideas and to have your comments. 

So when are you going to publish your book?  Don't forget, the last (meaningful!)comment posted here by the end of Wednesday 28th of April, 2010 (UK time) will get a fantastic free place on Gary's book proposal course.  So please do post your comments.  Much love, Ian.

Your comments:

Sarah Callejo says:
30/04/2010 09:19:56

Hey, did anyone get a free place on the course? I can only see my comments, how can I see everyone else's?
Sarah Callejo says:
27/04/2010 10:07:54

I imagine publishers are feeling the need to broaden their views on the reader market, they must be aware of the changes in trends, the ebook and blog reader community has suddenly boomed, so it will be a matter of "adjust or die". As for why writers want to be published in print, I think it's the traditional concept embedded in our minds and people are still wary of new formats, in terms of distribution and rights. It's also a matter of pride to know their (our) work and effort is worth being displayed on a shelf. As you say, it's the publisher's duty to sell the new trends to both readers and writers. I'm not sure if I've gone off at a tangent, sorry if it's got nothing to do with your concept.
Gary Smailes says:
26/04/2010 07:28:18

Sarah - I agree that today, at this moment, the printed book is a writer's goal. But the question is why? Most books printed sell less than 1000 copies and the average writer makes just £4K per year. You are correct that an ebook will often end up in print, but only because the ebook has found a readership. This post is to urge publishers to stop seeing themselves as book printers and start seeing themselves as distributors of big ideas.
Sarah Callejo says:
24/04/2010 09:44:40

Excellent concept translated into great contents. Regarding format, even if there is such a wide range of formats available the ultimate goal for a writer will surely be the printed one. A successful e-book will end up in print and therefore reach a broader audience. I also believe there is still a certain connotation of prestige attached to printed books even if the contents are the same in both formats. Publishers will have to work on that too.


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  • Ian AspinLocation: Lancaster Lake District, UK
  • Bio: I’m passionate about my work:TV journalist, producer, presenter, business ideas person. I care about: family, friends, helping people, finding meaning, running