Print is Dad

To kick off the new year, Chris Guillebeau just launched his Unconventional Guide to Publishing. ((Note: I am an affiliate for Chris’ products because he always delivers great quality to his readers. If you buy the guide through one of my links, I will get a commission that helps me to keep The Friendly Anarchist going. The price for you remains the same, so I’d really appreciate it!)) His offer made me think about my own stance towards traditional publishing and the current state of selling books.

For me, self-publishing one ebook and one huge e-guide in 2011 was a great experience. The creative freedom digital self-publishing entails is both a marvelous opportunity and an interesting challenge. Fortunately, by learning some basic tricks and whistles, getting help from friends and mentors, and paying a couple of services to solve some technological issues, all major roadblocks could be cleared.

On the other hand, taking the do-it-yourself route was quite demanding at times: Writing, editing, layouting, proof-reading, illustrating, uploading, marketing the books and then somehow finding a way to deliver them electronically, get paid and handle any upcoming issues was more exhausting than I would have expected.

This of course made me reconsider the pros and cons of traditional publishing houses, who solve at least some of these issues for their authors.

“Print is dead” has been claimed for years now. But still, book shops – at least here in Germany – are generally well attended. Amazon is selling more and more ebooks, but still there are thousands of yellow DHL trucks on the streets, delivering the paper books people around the country order.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of print are greatly exaggerated. Maybe the rumors were only due to a transcription error?

Print is Dad [sic!]

If I look at the beautiful releases of smaller imprints, the growing hand-setting scene or the rise of independent photo magazines, print doesn’t seem to be dead at all.

We could say, though, that print is Dad: It’s the father of the publishing revolution we are witnessing right now. Print changed the way information is recorded, transmitted and consumed forever. Even after more than 100 years of radio and more than 80 years of television, it’s enjoying quite a healthy life.

While ebooks are without doubt on the rise, there will certainly remain a place for print in the world: It’s a question of complementation rather than displacement. In the end, who says you cannot enjoy the touch and print quality of a nice book, even when you also like to read the New York Times on your iPad rather than on paper?

The Funeral I’d Love to Attend

So if print isn’t dead, who should we be mourning? Here’s hoping for a funeral that won’t be all that tearful: Publishing houses that don’t care about their readers nor about their authors hopefully will pass away soon. From all I can see, they are at least in terminal stage already.

The market for cheaply produced paperbacks that are more akin to raspy toilet paper than to books worth to be read or put in a shelf may come to an end. But the time you could make a fortune by selling heartless literal products probably won’t be missed at all.

Where will this lead us? As a cautious optimist, I would say that the opportunity of digital self-publishing will allow more writers to make a living from their books even when they only have a small audience. Companies like Amazon, Apple and a bunch of digital payment services will see huge benefits here, as will any writer who is able to handle the process.

But then, traditional publishing houses will also stay relevant. I am not the first one to say it, but I believe that they can stay in the game by embracing the following strategy:

Produce high-quality books with a lot of dedication.

That means: Mine your book proposals, the blogs and all the smaller magazines for gold. Treat your authors well and give them enough financial security to produce new work. Most of them don’t want to get rich, they just want to pay their rent and have the peace of mind to write. Help them with the editing process, give them great lectors, teach them some basic marketing skills. Encourage them to maintain an agile online presence.

Then, procure for the best type-set and layout you can afford, use decent paper, purchase high-quality printers and make the resulting book a worthwhile collector’s item. Customers will be enjoying these kinds of books for a long time, even if they are more expensive.

Ultimately, don’t try to compete with ebooks: Sooner rather than later will they be the standard format for the kind of cheap paperbacks nobody ever loved in the first place. If you want to sell cheaply, electronic publishing will certainly be the way to go. Just make sure you find a way to keep Amazon in check.

If you want to learn how to get your own book published, check out Chris’ guide on the topic. You’ll get a 25% discount until Friday and a free Q&A with veteran literary agent, David Fugate!

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