Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Show Me the Money!

If you’re toying with the notion of becoming an artisan publisher because you want to get rich quick, stop immediately. There are many other ways to make money that take far less effort and produce a more timely return. Some people have indeed made their fortune writing books just like others have become wealthy by winning the lottery, but neither approach offers a predictable, repeatable path to instant riches.

In a world where entire factories are optimized to produce as much of one thing as quickly as possible, the artisan’s handcrafted approach can never compete purely on price. Of course, artisans can make a living but they will never enjoy the profits that can be generated by the economies of scale in a large operation.

You might argue that the old economy-of-scale distinction between artisans and major enterprises doesn’t apply to electronic books because production costs have dropped to almost nothing: an artisan publisher can “publish” just as easily as a major publisher and, as a smaller operator with lower fixed costs, they can afford to undercut the big houses on price.

But the changes that have opened new prospects for artisan publishers have also given large organizations new ways to gain advantage. Specifically, established publishers continue to enjoy economies of scale in marketing and discoverability. Because they have been producing a great many books for a large audience they have the attention of an army of reviewers and booksellers. You won’t command the attention of as large an audience until you are as well established as they are.

Don’t make the simplistic mistake, as you’re dazzled by the prospect of a 70% royalty, of thinking all you have to do is sell 50,000 copies of a $2.99 book to earn a six-figure income. Even with a dedicated sales force and standing orders from bookstores, major publishers rarely sell 50,000 copies of a title. On average, books published nationally—which includes bestsellers—sell between three and five thousand copies.

You may sigh and ask, “Are you saying we should publish for love, not money?”

No. It’s simply that the money will not come quickly. Unlike ancient artisans, who were paid once for their work and depended on the next commission for their continued livelihood, an artisan publisher gets paid every time someone buys another copy of the books in his or her catalog. In web terms, artisan publishing is all about the long tail—the slow growth in the value of the collection of published work over time.

What this really means is that artisan publishing operates under a more traditional model than current publishers. Before most large publishing houses became divisions in even larger corporate entities they earned their ongoing income from their backlist—books published prior to the current year that were in print and on sale. Your goal as an artisan publisher is similar: because you can never compete with the major players on the number of titles you release or marketing to create a false sense of urgency your best bet is to supply a steady stream of high quality content which will, in turn, generate a steady stream of revenue.

There’s money to be made as an artisan publisher, but it won’t come all at once.

Image: Simon Howden /

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