For authors and their reader-communities, has conventional book publishing become obsolete or at least grossly inefficient and overpriced? I say yes -- at least for those of us who are not writing mass-audience books. The good news is that authors, their reader-communities and small presses are now developing their own, more satisfying alternative models for publishing books.
Let me tell my own story about two experiments in commons-based book publishing. The first involves Patterns of Commoning, the new anthology that Silke Helfrich and I co-edited and published two months ago, with the crucial support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The second experiment involves the Spanish translation for my 2014 book Think Like a Commoner.
Whereas the German version of Patterns of Commoning was published with transcript-Verlag, a publisher we consider a strong partner in spreading the word on the commons, for the English version, we decided to bypass commercial publishers. We realized that none of them would be interested – or that they would want to assert too much control at too high of a price.
We learned these lessons when we tried to find a publisher for our 2013 anthology, The Wealth of the Commons. About a dozen publishers rejected our pitches. They said things like: “It’s an anthology, and anthologies don’t sell.” “It doesn’t have any name-brand authors.” “It’s too international in focus.” “What’s the commons? No one knows about that.”
It became clear that the business models of publishers – even the niche political presses that share our values – were not prepared to support a well-edited, path-breaking volume on the commons.
In general, conventional book publishing has trouble taking risks with new ideas, authors and subject matter because it has very small economic margins to play with. One reason is that commercial book distributors in the US – the companies that warehouse books and send them to various retailers – take 60% of the cover price, with little of the risk. They are the expensive middlemen who control the distribution infrastructure. Their cut leaves about 40% of the cover price or less for the publisher, author and retailer to split.
This arrangement means that book prices have to be artificially higher, relative to actual production costs, to cover all the costs of so many players: editors, marketers, publicists, distributors, retailers.