Monday, May 27, 2013

One – No, Two – Constants in a Changing Publishing World

By Linda Rohrbough

Publishing is changing. There’s no denying that. It’s changed before, only we forget that. When publishing went from scrolls to single sheets of paper bound together, printed in mass instead of hand copied, there was quite an upheaval. What about all the scribes losing their jobs? What about the waste? What about accuracy, since it was so much “easier” to get things into print? Does any of this sound familiar?

Despite all the changes, there’s one constant in publishing. Distribution. There’s another one, as well, and I’ll get to that.

But back to distribution. You’ve got to have it, as a writer. What good does it do to write when no one is reading your work? Frankly, electronic distribution is invisible. Traditional publishers knew they could get books noticed. Cover design, “dumps” (those cardboard stands that hold books), posters, book signings, newspapers and magazines – they were all visible ways to get books in front of readers. Back when I was writing for McGraw-Hill, it was almost guaranteed that if they put a book in their catalog, they would make money on it. Bookstore buyers read the catalogs. And readers and reviewers depended on bookstores for recommendations. You get the idea.

However, we all know physical distribution of paper books is becoming less and less popular. Barnes and Noble will shut down a third of their stores this year. Borders is gone. Even the hot, independent bookstores that get Publisher’s Weekly’s attention, like the Tattered Cover in Denver, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, or Book People in Austin, are owned by aging people. I’ve heard some of them want to sell and retire.

Will physical books and bookstores go away? No. I’ve had enough experience watching changing technology to know that won’t happen. When the Betamax (the early VCR) came out, the analysts all said we’d never go to another movie theatre. That didn’t happen. Paper books and bookstores won’t disappear either.

Today, distribution doesn’t mean what it used to. Now there’s “easy” electronic distribution. It’s quick, and authors can potentially bypass the traditional publishing channels and keep more of the revenue for themselves. But it is not going to solve the problem writers have now, and have always had, which is how to get readers to read their books. Oh sure, you can make your work instantly available, but how do people find out about it? And find out enough to want to spend their money on it and make room for it in their lives?

Controversy is one way. Offend a lot of people, preferably in a very public place, and then talk about it in other very public places. Create ripples and drama.

The problem with doing that is the world in any field is a small place. Offending people can be a shortsighted and short-lived way to operate.

Let’s look at a publishing pioneer, Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential self-publisher, who wrote, printed, and distributed his own work. I spent some time in Philadelphia on the 4th of July a couple of years back (which I’d recommend, by the way). On the free, hour-long Ben Franklin walking tour sponsored by the U.S. Park Service, I learned that Ben lived, died, and was buried all in a radius of a few blocks. Sure, he went to Paris and he commuted regularly to other cities on the East Coast. But his home, his work, and his friends were all nearby.

Did you know he spent about half the salary the government paid him each year on alcohol, mostly beer? That was an enormous sum of money in those days. But there was no refrigeration back then, so you either drank water, drank something freshly squeezed, or you drank alcohol. Ben didn’t drink all that beer himself. If Ben was around, he was buying. One of his most famous quotes is, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!” He made friends quickly and kept them a long time. In other words, Ben was a master at relationships.

At the end of the tour we visited Ben’s grave. What struck me was that he’d asked to be buried simply, next to his last wife (he lost the others in childbirth) and near his home. That also found him favor with people, because he certainly had the resources and the support to have a monument raised to him like others, such as Thomas Jefferson.

The point is, I think character and relationships still count in any business, but especially in publishing.

What I’ve seen is that people who do well are consistent, generous, loyal, and they care about relationships. Andy Rathbone, named by Time magazine as the best-selling computer book author of all time (he wrote those Windows for Dummies books), tried to get me to sign on with his agent and attend a writing conference sponsored by his agency. I didn’t do it because at the time I thought, why pay an agent a percentage of what I’m doing? How small-minded of me. I didn’t understand then that you need to build a team and you need people to promote and support you. And you get that by promoting and supporting others. Andy is also very responsive. I’d email him, as busy as he was, and have an answer inside an hour. Contrary to what anyone tells you, there’s still room for that in the publishing world.

I don’t know him personally, but I’ve heard Stephen King is another guy people like. I have seen him be quite generous with his comments about his publishers, his agent, and especially about other writers.

In fact, every best-selling author I know is like that. I’ve seen all of them support new writers by buying their books. They also buy books they think are important and hand them out to friends. I know because they’ve given me copies. They offer support, have built a team, and they’ve let go of the rejection of the past.

So let me encourage you to think about how you want to run your writing business, and how you want to get attention for your work. Because the second constant in publishing is building relationships.

About the Author: Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit along with national awards for her fiction and non-fiction. New York Times #1 bestselling author Debbie Macomber said about Linda’s new novel: "This is fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat reading. The Prophetess One: At Risk had me flipping the pages and holding my breath." The Prophetess One: At Risk has garnered three national awards: the 2012 International Book Award, the 2011 Global eBook Award, and the 2011 Millennium Star Publishing Award. An iPhone App of her popular “Pitch Your Book” workshop is available in the Apple iTunes store. Visit her website:

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