By Richard Hamilton, special to The Content Wrangler

Part one of this two part series looked into what a “book” really is. While I suggest you read that article first, for the impatient, here it is in one paragraph:

Five qualities define a book: selection, organization, editing, packaging, and distribution

Beyond the now obsolete “dictionary” definition of a book as a physical object, five qualities define a book: selection, organization, editing, packaging, and distribution. Although not part of any definition I could find, these “defining qualities” of a book have existed for as long as we have had books, and they are the key to understanding the future of the book. They are also the key to the survival of publishing companies.

For years, publishers had a stranglehold on distribution because they were the only channel through which an author could make a book available to a significant number of potential readers. This meant that from the perspective of writers, it was a buyer’s market. Unless you were famous or had a track record of selling millions of books, publishers had the upper hand.

Anyone can publish a book using one of several Print-on-Demand services

With Print-on-Demand (POD) companies like Lulu and CreateSpace, anyone can publish a book – at least one that satisfies the “dictionary” definition. Publishing an eBook is arguably even easier. So, instead of competing with a small number of similar companies, publishers must now compete for readers with anyone who has the time and inclination to set pen to paper. And as the options for writers expand, the buyer’s market for writers is drying up. To survive, publishers need to embrace new technology for sure, but they need to understand that their relationship with writers is also changing irrevocably.

The increased competition for readers is easy to see. Consider what readers face when looking for a book on a particular topic; I’ll use dog training as an example. A simple search for books on dog training on Amazon yields over 2,000 hits. Even accounting for multiple editions of the same book, this is a daunting array.

Cesar Millan could self-publish his books, sell just as many as he currently does, and take home more money

How do readers choose? Looking at Amazon best-seller lists, it’s pretty clear they choose on reputation and name recognition. Cesar Millan dominates the dog training best seller list; as I write this, he has four books in the top ten and nine in the top fifty. His brand matters, and there’s no question that people gravitate to him, along with a few others, in this space.

A publisher looking at best-sellers in this area ought to be concerned; the seven books listed on Millan’s Amazon bio page come from four different publishers. The brand is his, not his publisher’s. For him, the publisher’s brand is irrelevant.

The picture is not uniformly bleak for publishers. If you are looking for a book about the latest hot programming language, you probably think of O’Reilly Media almost immediately. While they have some brand name authors, they have built a valuable publishing brand, in large part by taking our five defining qualities seriously.

The bottom line is that potential readers use brand, whether it’s the writer’s or the publisher’s, to help decide what to read. To survive, a publisher must establish and maintain its own brand, and enhance the brand of its writers.

To attract a brand-name author, a publisher must offer more than just a conduit to bookstores

The disappearing buyer’s market for writers follows from this. If he chose to, Cesar Millan could self-publish his books, sell just as many as he currently does, and take home more money. To attract a brand-name author, a publisher must offer more than just a conduit to bookstores. Even for less well-known writers, they need to offer more. “More” might be money, but it’s pretty hard to give a writer a larger percentage per book than he or she would get from self-publishing. Instead, they need to offer value beyond an advance and royalties.

Publishers must help writers create a better book than they would have otherwise been able to produce

Which brings us back to the definition of a book. As I’ve said, anyone can publish a book, but to publish a quality book – one that exemplifies our defining qualities – takes a lot of effort. A publisher that can help writers create a better book than they would have otherwise produced or help writers save time in the process (or preferably both) can still attract good writers.

Let’s look at each of the defining aspects and see how they are changing and opening opportunities for publishers (and writers):

Selection: Normally, we think of selection as narrowing a set of choices, but selection means more. New technology and new distribution methods give publishers choices they never had before.

For example, most technical publishers won’t even consider a book unless they can see potential sales of at least 10,000 copies. A small, nimble publisher can make money with significantly fewer sales, giving them the opportunity to address niches where there is little or no competition.

Broadening selection can also mean using a comic book format for a technical manual, using animation and sound in an ebook, or adding an application to administer chapter tests in an etextbook. Options that were impossible just a few years ago are now mainstream.

Organization: Ebooks remove the physical limitations of book binding. An ebook can be much larger (or smaller) than a printed book and needn’t be organized like a printed book.

An ebook can be much larger (or smaller) than a printed book and needn’t be organized like a printed book

A set of related books can easily share cross-book links or indexes. With an XML schema like DocBook, you can merge indexes and tables of contents to create “master” TOCs and indexes across as many publications as you’d like.

I expect that we will soon see eBooks that are as interactive as any web page, and organized more like web sites than books.

Editing: Good editing is good editing – technology doesn’t change that – and smart publishers know that both writers and readers value good editing. Beyond that basic aspect of editing, the technology to support writing and editing has expanded, making it easier for writers and editors to collaborate.

For example, Alan Porter‘s forthcoming book, WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit, is being authored and edited in a wiki. Alan and his editor can work concurrently on the book and see each other’s edits immediately.

Packaging: XML significantly expands the possibilities for packaging, both for print and electronic books.

Three examples:

  1. A professor asked for a version of my book Managing Writers that contained a subset of the chapters. I created that subset in about 20 minutes by creating a DocBook that called in just the chapters I needed. The DocBook tools generated TOC and index for the “new” book automatically, then generated a PDF for the professor to review.
  2. The Kindle edition of the same book took about an afternoon to create, most of which was spent on quality assurance; the generation was essentially automatic using the DocBook stylesheets and the kindlegen utility.
  3. Floss Manuals allows you to “remix” their books to create custom books in html or pdf form by selecting just the chapters you want from one or more books, then assembling a new book, which they generate on the spot.

Distribution: Even though the barriers for individuals to distribute electronic content have essentially disappeared, publishers can still add value by consolidating an author’s access to different channels and by handling production details. While seemingly a pedestrian task, few authors are interested in navigating the huge numbers of distribution possibilities now available; most would rather be writing.

few authors are interested in navigating the huge numbers of distribution possibilities now available

The bottom line for publishers is really the same as it is for authors. Your readers will select your book if you have established a reliable brand, and the best way to establish and maintain a reliable brand is to offer better selection, organization, editing, packaging, and distribution. Publishers who can do that will, with a little help from good marketing, have a good shot at succeeding both with writers and readers.

About the Author

Richard L. Hamilton is Founder and Publisher of XML Press, which is dedicated to producing high quality, practical publications for technical communicators, managers, and marketers. Richard is the author of Managing Writers: A Real-World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation, and editor of the upcoming 2nd edition of Norm Walsh‘s DocBook: The Definitive Guide, to be published in collaboration with O’Reilly Media.

XML Press is the publisher of Anne Gentle‘s Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, and in 2010 will publish new books by Brenda Huettner, Alan Porter, and Zarella Rendon.