In a session at the recent Book Business Conference, attended mostly by book publishers, self publishers were derided as being “those people who try to bypass the people in this room”, i.e., the book publishers. It is more likely that self-publishers are those people who were bypassed by the people in that room. Self-publishing is no longer all fatuous self-aggrandizement, much of it is scholarly, artistic, technically obscure or just didn’t pass beneath the eyes of the right acquisition editor or agent. (Numerous publishers, after all, turned down Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling.) Companies like Lighting Source allow hundreds of publishers (some with very small numbers of titles) as well as individual authors to access the marketplace of ideas without having to print thousands of books.
Instead of producing their non-bestseller titles in lots of 5,000 to 10,000 publishers might be better served to use digital printing technology to produce 500, 1,000 or 2,000 copies of a given title. Get them into the marketplace and see how they do. If they sell, produce more. Use the computerized inventory systems installed in every retailer to monitor inventory and demand levels and develop models to predict demand. Next, use this newfound knowledge to automate reprint orders based on predetermined stock levels and actual demand. Over time, you’re able to build demand curves for books by title, category, by author, even location, enabling just-in-time production and delivery while maintaining minimal inventory levels in drastically downsized warehouses. Yes, it’s complicated to set up, but it’s hardly rocket science and the knowledge and technology from inventory through production is readily available.
The benefits of such a model will take a few years to see, and will result in a more robust publishing industry that runs leaner yet offers a wider selection of titles, brings forth more new authors —and is much more profitable. This is the way publishing can, should, and will be done. The Kindle and other “e-book” readers notwithstanding, printed books are not going away anytime soon, and there is plenty of money still on the table for publishers who see that digital book production is a way to reinvent a business that is in many ways a cornerstone of civilization.