How To Save A Failing Business

Last Updated Jun 30, 2008 8:05 AM EDT

When in trouble, change the model radically. That's the message for book publishers, a business badly in need of saving. The argument on how to reinvent the book publishing business is to have authors self-publish, use word of mouth to gain sales, and then whoever gets buzz will get publishing contracts. It's a model similar to that of music, where the bands make their own music and distribute it usually live first, in bars, clubs and so on, and then get picked up by labels that market them and distribute the goods.

It's also a marketing model that is gaining broad sway -- use your customers to do your marketing. While self-publishing is anathema to authors, it can work: witness "What Color Is Your Parachute?" (here's a list of some other self-published successes

Will advances in printing and marketing techniques mean the publishing business can in effect reverse its model? The blog poster, Jackie Huba, doesn't give her opinion. Which is unfortunate, since she's written two books.

I'm not sure it will work. Points in its favor: the current system doesn't work well for most publishers -- see, for instance, Jason Epstein's "Book Business" (a review and summaries here, and see Epstein's essay on The Future of Books). Nor does it work for most authors -- even people with decent book sales tend to need a full-time job to support themselves. It is relatively inexpensive to self-publish now, and word-of-mouth makes sense -- most authors already have to do their own promotion.

Points against: both agents and editors can be invaluable to writers, and readers. A self-publishing system would probably damage those relationships. But to the point, it could well accelerate the death of today's publishing industry, just as it isn't clear that the big music companies will survive their industry's shift to a quasi-self-publishing model, either. That may not be a bad thing. But it wouldn't be reinventing the business.

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.