I published my first book with a major publisher, have friends who’ve worked with all of them, and now self-flagellating my way through a second tome. I might not be the most qualified to advise authors, but I can’t unsee the harsh realities – and future – of this horse and buggy industry. Here are nine random thoughts on publishing for aspiring authors, “though-leaders”, and disruptors.
1) Beyond the cash advance and editing, publishers do comically little for new authors. It’s ALL up to YOU. At my first – and only – marketing meeting with my publisher, I asked, “So what kind of creative campaigns or promotions have you done in the past?” I SWEAR this is the exact response I got, “It’s important to keep your Amazon author page up to date. Amazon is 85% of our sales.” It was his suicide by cop moment. He was clearly testing to see if some author would be brave and violent enough to put him out of his misery.
2) For a first book, a major publishers do help with retail distribution and legitimacy. Even though most books are sold through Amazon (as we just learned), publishers get you into retailers and airport shops, where your bond with disgruntled flyers is second only to Jack Daniels. Plus, every author deserves one Instagram selfie standing in Barnes and Noble next to five copies of their book.
3) You need to develop a following and distribution channels LONG before doing a book – specifically, an email list of fans and relationships with influencers in your field. Otherwise, you’re banking on cultural zeitgeist, luck, or a killer booty that can ‘break the internet’.
4) If you already have a sizable following, absolutely experiment with digital self-publishing at to test demand. Ask your readers what they’d like from you – physical books, videos, courses, podcasts, internal organs… Don’t be afraid to experiment – or limit your creativity to just the content. Be as creative with the method of delivering it. If it does well, you won’t need publishers. Or, they’ll find you – and you’ll have all kinds of negotiating leverage to demand only red M&M’s on your speaking tour.
5) A dirty little secret everyone in the business book world knows – virtually no “thought leaders” write their own books, methodologies, concepts, or blog posts. NONE of it. I’ve been pitched plenty of ghostwriting services and know several “authors” who play this game. Fact is – writing is a labor-intensive slog. Few busy, successful entrepreneurs will do it. Virtually none will do it well. Some even scam their way onto the New York Times bestseller list, paying bulk buying services to generate sales that look like individual customers.
6) As barriers to publishing content fell, the tsunami created a permanent surplus. No one needs or consumes 99% of books, articles, songs, podcasts or videos being created. It’s a manufacturing operation that takes in materials, ships and promotes product that no one buys. Basically, pollution. Plus, every new thing competes for time with the entire archive of everything that came before it. Most business content retreads ideas that have been said better by others – or ones that don’t need to exist at all. (Who knows, maybe even this post…) Business books are no more than bulky business cards to sell speaking gigs, get TV time, and fulfill vain urges shared by 13 year old YouTubers. The best reality check on this is Ryan Holiday’s Dear Entrepreneurs: Please Don’t Write a Book—We’re Begging You. In fact, read all his thoughts on this subject.
7) If you have the chops, consider focusing on building greatness outside of content creation – entrepreneurship, science, politics, gaming, social good, anything. Do it well enough and demand for you – and your ideas – will create all the benefits of authorship, minus the drudgery…or fakery.
8) Good, bad, or outsourced – the ENTIRE game comes down to distribution. Kim Kardashian is not the greatest entertainer on earth, but her platform and reach say otherwise. From now on, we’ll rarely be exposed to the BEST ideas or thinkers, just those with the best marketing, connections, and DESIRE – even if they have a fraction of the talent. (Read ‘The Kardashian Success Formula’ for more on this.)
- No publishing at all. Books are the 8-track of information and entertainment consumption. They’re full of friction and dying. The ratio of books produced to books sold or read has never been lower, while competing modes of consumption demand very little of us. Gripe all you want, but the world is rocketing towards podcasts, video, VR, and other more stimulating media.
- Re-Platforming. The future is those with platforms finding and exposing others with great ideas to their audiences. Here is a case study of how Tim Ferriss wielded his platform to launch new books. Joe Rogan does this informally with his guests. The entrepreneur or publisher that formalizes and weaponizes this model will be the publisher of the future.
- Retooling. Publishers that aren’t platforms are The Walking Dead. Others should be acquired or partner with distribution platforms like The New York Times company or The Atlantic. Like music royalties are dead in the wake of streaming, publishers will need to transition from gatekeepers and editors to scouts, expert digital marketers, event organizers, and agents/promoters. Live Nation’s challenge to record companies is a good example. Outside of vanity books by celebrities, all future value in this business will be in making stars, then taking a piece of the action across channels, not just on a printed page.
I have a lot more to say on this subject. If you’re interested in a deeper exploration of The Future of Media, I’ll gauge demand based on how many people subscribe to the mailing list from this page.