We have Internet now.
Why hasn’t book publishing improved? Technology has changed a bit since books the days of cut wood blocks and repurposed wine presses. With browser-based editing tools, print-on-demand (POD), ebooks, audiobook files and the Internet, upfront capital investment in the material aspects of publishing is no longer required and the role of the traditional publisher has diminished.
We all have access to this wonderful newish invention called the Internet search engine which should have realized the dream of decentralized connectivity and reduced the need for a middleman to select, distribute, market and sell books. Blocking the way between author and reader are the vestigial organs of the old publishing system that mainly dealt in offset print paper books that had to be produced, stored and distributed at great cost. Technological progress frees human beings from the material drag of the old system and leaves only the tasks that will never be performed by machines: writing, editing, final proofreading and reviewing. The profits from book sales need not be siphoned off by those now useless middlemen, distributor, marketer, and seller. Even though the Internet has made these roles obsolete, they have, monstrously, become even more powerful and centralized than ever. The “big five” publishing industry monopolies, Google and Amazon are the very opposite of what the Internet promised humanity. Good literature is essential for a thriving culture.
What do we need?
A cooperative platform model of publishing and selling, designed to cut out unnecessary middlemen, reward the essential work of those directly involved in writing and editing and ensure that authors can be paid for every book sold or borrowed throughout the extended lifetime of the book.
Small independent presses, that are struggling to turn a profit and whose authors earn too little for their writing, can convert to a cooperative model in order to reduce their financial risk and reduce the workload of the editors while maintaining a high quality booklist by accessing the talent pool of their authors, who, in turn could receive a higher return on their investment of time and effort. Dactyl Foundation proposes to be the umbrella organization that provides online access to a cooperative platform for independent publishers.
Why Literary Publishing Works Better as a Cooperative
There is an old joke that’s not funny because it’s so true, “How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large one.” No one sets out to write a great work of literature in order to get rich. If a writer just wants to get rich, he would be well-advised to stay away from hifalutin literary pursuits and write a self-help book or a celebrity biography that aims at the lowest common denominator instead. In most cases, producing a high-quality literary work will take more time, talent and skill than the monetary outcome can justify. Editing, proofreading and marketing are highly skilled, time-consuming tasks that the publisher risks capital to provide. This justifies the publisher taking a substantial part of the gross profits to cover the investment; because most authors cannot risk capital in addition to the two or three years’ time they’ve already put into writing one book, they are grateful to their publishers and they accept the low royalties they are offered for their work. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Authors’ Guild, median income for full-time authors is about $20,300.
The main role of a traditional publisher has been to put up the capital to pay for production services and pre-printed books. The practice of pre-printing a few thousand or tens of thousands of books has actually been detrimental to publishing industry. While the producers of most other kinds of products and services can expect to be compensated in full for their labor on one particular article at the moment of sale of that particular article, for information producers, authors and other artists, the situation is different. Only the entire print run of tens of thousands of copies can be considered a physical embodiment of the labor that goes into writing one book. Therefore authors can only hope to be paid in full by degrees as more and more copies are sold. Unfortunately, once a book has been out about three months, used print copies begin to hit the market. Many readers borrow books from the library or buy used books for pennies, which cuts the author out of his/her royalty payments. Unless the book is a big national hit, booksellers cannot so easily sell new copies for the cover price when cheap used or free books are readily available, so they tend to treat books like vegetable produce. If new copies are not sold in the first three months, they are returned to the publisher for a full refund. Publishing is one of the few industries that operates on a consignment basis. Because shipping unsold books is expensive, publishers tend to allow the books to be pulped rather than returned. Ironically, publishers, who always need product to sell, after destroying or abandoning the author’s last book, turn around and ask him or her for a new book. In this way, a glut of 250,000 new books come on the market every year, enjoying fifteen minutes of bookshelf, before being shredded or sold for a penny plus shipping.
Financially successful authors must crank out as many books as quickly as possible and this reduces the quality of books produced.
Why do publishers pre-print so many books if they are unlikely to be sold? The per book price of large off-set runs is cheaper than that of small runs, but a crucial deciding factor may be the fact that the number of books initially ordered by the bookstores determines the bestseller lists. Yes, that’s right: books that have not been sold to readers yet determine what goes on the bestseller lists. In other words, the handful of people ordering books for the big bookstores determine a book’s apparent success, and, consequently, which books get media attention. The big publishers actually like this arrangement because they can better plan which books will be most profitable without waiting for the reading public to decide. The elimination of as much risk as possible is necessary for any profitable business, but all these situations work together to kill the quality of the books that are being produced because books cannot succeed or fail on their own merits within such a system.
If the policy of allowing bookstores to return unsold books were ended, this would solve part of the book publishing problems for authors who suffer the most from the current situation in publishing. Print-on-Demand publishing (POD) eliminates the need for upfront investment in pre-printing books and one of the main functions of the traditional publisher.
Other roles of the traditional publisher have been effectively eliminated by technology. Book design has been so simplified that it can be done with a dozen clicks. Traditional publishers used to put up the capital for marketing, but they’ve cut back on this these days (mainly because the mainstream press is so concentrated now it’s impossible to penetrate without a whole lot of money). All reputable publishers do make sure their books get reviewed by the industry reviews, which bookstores partly rely on for ordering decisions. Publishers get better access to review opportunities by advertising in these publications, which include, Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly and Booklist. But generally the authors are expected to have an Internet “platform”—a blog, followers, a social media presence—to publicize their own book.
The two most valuable services that traditional publishers continue to provide today are editing and proofreading. There is no technology that will ever replace these uniquely human talents. And these are skills that the authors themselves have. Although authors cannot edit or proofread their own works very well, they can work on others’ books. Publishing is an industry that is obviously suited to cooperative effort. Writers need other like-minded writers.
Good editors are very hard to find. Traditionally it has always been the editors who select the books to be published, help the authors shape them and often play the role of the author’s personal champion. It’s the editor whose reputation matters. With this in mind, how do we reimagine 21st century publishing as a cooperative?
A cooperative platform publisher would be a group of authors working in a specific genre who—in addition to publishing their own books with the help of other platform authors—help edit, review, proofread, narrate audiobooks, edit audiobooks, and host online (or face-to-face) bookclubs and video forums for other authors. A “platform” cooperative means it exists and functions entirely online. The editing/proofreading process could utilize a free, open-source browser-based editing software like editoria, used by academic presses. Authors set their own fees for their editorial and production services and earn credits to be redeemed for the production work on their own books. Authors have the option of using cash or bartering for services. The online platform makes these transactions easy. The books are sold by the publisher much as they are today, except there is more focus on direct POD sales to the public. And most of the profits go to the authors because the production costs have been covered through barter before the book goes to print.
Some members will be in higher demand for their services than others, and if they have earned more credits than they can use on their own books, they will want to cash out their credits. Some authors in the cooperative won’t want to provide any book production services, and they would be able to purchase credits. The cooperative could also act as a referral service for non-author production professionals, in, for example, audiobook production, book cover design, various rights negotiations, and marketing. These professionals would pay commission or advertising fees to the co-op, and this would help grow the cash reserves for members who want to cash out credits. Income earned from non-members would also go to maintain the website and to pay for advertising in industry review magazines.
Here’s how it might work:
Paige Turner is a literary fiction author. She finds a publishing cooperative that specializes in literary fiction and asks to join. She fills out a questionnaire about her book project, provides a 25-page sample, lists previous publications, and demonstrates that she is a professional writer working in the genre of literary fiction. She also explains what style of writing she likes. Members of the cooperative read her brief application and if some percentage, say 51%, accept her application, she becomes a member. The cooperative has a strong incentive to accept only those authors whose work will reinforce the reputation of the publishing cooperative as a whole. Paige is applying for the privilege of being published by the cooperative as well as working for the cooperative as editor, proofreader, and reviewer.
The first thing Paige wants is other writers to help her publish her own book. But she hasn’t earned any credits yet with the cooperative. Unless she wants to pay cash to the cooperative to buy US-dollar-denominated credits to pay for her fellow cooperative members’ assistance, she is going to have to do some work first to earn credit. Paige can get started doing proofreading work on a per-correction basis. Proofreading is one of the biggest expenses of book production. If it takes ten hours to read a book, it’s going to take at least twelve or fifteen to proof a book that has been written by a careful professional with a good command of the language. Paige checks the platform for manuscripts that are ready for proofreading. She will suggest corrections (for typos and errors, not style changes) to the author using an online program for tracking, accepting and rejecting changes. The program prevents authors from using the correction without paying the proofreader for his/her work. The proofreader earns a small predetermined fee, about a dollar, for each accepted change. (The Canadian citizen-journalist online publication Digital Journal uses such a program for their writer pool at about two cents per correction.) Paige can proofread all or part of any book available for proofreading.
After doing some proofreading work, Paige’s member page will show the percentage of Paige’s corrections that authors have accepted. If she’s a good proofreader, authors will accept most of her corrections. In this way, Paige will start to earn a reputation and some credits too.
Next Paige will want to review books in order to help those authors with their marketing plans. Paige can propose to review a book that she has proofread (since she’s already read it), or she can look at a list of books that are up for review to determine whether or not the book is one she might like to read, and then she can decide, based on what others are charging, how much credit she expects to earn to read a book of a certain length and write a review of a certain length. When both parties agree, they sign a customizable contract that is provided by the platform cooperative. Paige would be under no obligation to write favorably about the book she’s reviewing. If she doesn’t like the book she might write a very neutral review describing the author’s style and summarizing the plot. As long as Paige satisfies the conditions of the contract, Paige will receive credits from the reviewed author’s account. The reviewer may ask to break the contact and receive no credit for reading the book if the reviewer decides he/she does not want to write the review after reading the book. Paige can post the review on various reader review websites, like online booksellers, Goodreads, WorldCat, Amazon, LibraryThing, Dactyl Review, or her own blog. The author of the reviewed book might decide to quote Paige for a book blurb.
When Paige has earned a sufficient amount of credits by proofreading and reviewing, she can seek to engage an editor to help get her own book in shape. Choosing the right editor is very important and the two co-op members should get to know each other’s preferences with regard to style before deciding to work together. Next they would sign a customizable contract that is provided by the platform cooperative. The editor would be compensated according to the number of pages of the book on a per-page rate that the editor sets and the author agrees on. The editor will likely also do some proofreading as a courtesy during the editing process. If the editor is a well-known author, Paige may ask him/her to write a review and/or write a foreword for an additional fee as part of the contract. When the editing process is finished, and Paige has accepted or rejected the editor’s suggestions, the percentage of accepted to rejected suggestions will be reported on both the author’s and the author-editor’s member pages. This information may be useful to other members considering working with either author for future projects. An editor may choose not to edit a book if the author has a tendency to get a lot of suggestions for changes and reject most of them. Every member’s page will show a list of books he/she has edited, his/her “booklist.”
If Paige is satisfied with the editing help she’s received, she can release a pre-publication manuscript on the platform and ask for proofreading help from the general membership.
When Paige has engaged at least one editor and one proofreader and she is satisfied that her book is ready to be published, she begins the formatting and book design process. She receives an ISBN from the publisher. Desktop publishing templates are available for free online from a POD service. The cooperative may customize a template to suit its aesthetics and to create a consistent and identifiable image look for all of its books. Paige can easily do the book design herself or pay for help with credits she has earned.
Next Paige can offer her online galleys to members for pre-publication reviews and blurbs. Reviews and personal recommendations are the most effective means of book promotion, much more effective than ads. At this time, Paige can put together a publicity plan with help from member-authors who have review blogs, interview blogs, book review podcasts, video trailers for books, or video reviews or other online publicity venues. Paige may herself want to launch such projects and earn credits for her services. Book promotions would encourage readers to purchase books directly from cooperative website rather than through a third-party bookseller. All marketing work would be performed for credits, negotiated on the platform using customizable contracts.
If Paige would like to produce an audiobook, the cooperative website would provide do-it-yourself technical information on the basics of recording or connect her with members who can help her with that project. Some authors are good readers. The co-op member page will offer audio samples of the reader/audio editor and the same informational rating system to let other members know if a member is qualified to read, record or edit an audiobook. Audiobook projects would also be done under the same contract process.
When Paige is ready to publish, her book will be made available as POD copy, ebook and audiobook on the co-op website. The book would also be available at bookstores through traditional channels. The cooperative would have a policy of not accepting returns from book distributors or bookstores. (Amazon does not return books, but liquidates them for a fraction of the cover price instead.) Booksellers generally pay 50% of the cover price for print books. The publishing cooperative would keep 10% of the gross profits, from sales from the website and to wholesalers. The author would get 90% of gross profits. This amount goes into her credit account which she can use for promotion or cash out at any time.
A POD softcover copy of 200 pages might be offered for $15 plus shipping. $4 of this might go to the printer. (A POD hardcover is about twice the price of a softcover.) On a $15 book, Paige would get about $9.90, and the cooperative $1.10. If an ebook of the same length might cost the reader $7, Paige would get about $6.30 and the cooperative $.70. Unlike as with a traditional publisher, Paige would retain the copyright (and film, foreign sales, and translation rights) and could remove the book from the co-op website, relinquishing use of the co-op ISBN at any time.
The publisher could work with one preferred POD facility which could customize the type of book preferred, if softcover or hardcover, to match the customer’s custom library. (Many readers continue to love high-quality print books that POD facilities offer as an option.) The customer would pay a set fee per book to the publishing co-op plus printing and shipping charges. Because POD can sometimes take a week to deliver, the publisher may choose to pre-order, stock and distribute best selling books for a small additional quick ship fee from the reader. If Paige’s book is not a bestseller and she wants readers to be able to get quicker shipping, she could order her own books from the POD printer at $4 each and offer them for sale on her own website. The cooperative website would like to Paige’s site for quick shipping. Paige would have to ship them herself or pay someone else for that service.
Paige may also want to work with a cooperative member who can translate her book or act as an agent negotiate foreign publishing rights and other subsidiary rights sales. As the cooperative grows, more members will come onboard offering a full variety of services that are normally provided by a traditional publisher. A cooperative that is formed out of an existing small publisher will already have these professionals on hand to offer their services.
Each book published by the cooperative will also list the editor’s name. Promoting the work of author-editors will be an important strategy of co-operative publishing. Some editors’ names will come to recommend the quality of the book at least as the publisher’s name.
Writing is not a competitive industry. Reading can be addictive. When a reader finds a good book, he/she wants more. A cooperative publishing platform depends upon authors working together to publicize each others’ work. Members of the cooperative would continue to review and promote other authors’ books that have been published years previously. A cooperative publishing platform would be dedicated to each book over its extended lifetime. By offering POD, ebook, and audiobook copies, the cooperative would limit the number of used books on the market. To further ensure that the author is paid for each used-book sold or borrowed-book read, the book design can include a QR code printed on the back of each book and/or shown on the used bookseller or library website.
Did you buy this book used or borrow it from a library? Good for you; you saved paper. Now you can use the QR code to tip the author.
The current publishing model has resulted in a handful of people making decisions about the reading options of hundreds of millions of people. Yes, there are truckoads of books on Amazon, available to anyone with a forklift, but the general public only hears about ten or twelve. 250,000 new titles are published every year, and, after three months, they are passed their “used by” date and publishers start asking their authors to push out new books.This is incredibly inefficient for readers and content producers alike.
We have the Internet now. Let’s use it cooperatively to produce high quality books.
V, N. Alexander, Editor, Dactyl Review
p.s. comments and suggestions appreciated