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On Kindle Publishing: Technology

Yesterday’s post introduced three major case studies in Kindle publishing. Each of them came from a different background, and each approached (or is now approaching) Kindle publishing for different reasons.

Measuring a Writer’s Success

The largest thing the three share in common is success. All three have reached a lot of new readers though Kindle publishing, and earned ridiculous amounts of money. So much money, in fact, that all three of them can now speak of it almost offhand.

And all three of them have taken the time, at different points, to discuss something else related to self-publishing: credibility. It’s inextricably tied to the Kindle publishing movement, and while all three authors insist credibility can be found in self-published writing (Hocking’s millions of readers and USA Times Bestseller status should certainly prove that), it’s an argument that must be made again and again.

Before we can fully investigate the new landscape of a writer’s credibility, we must first talk about the revolutionary changes that have gotten us here. And the heart of those changes is digital technology.

The Cost of Legacy Book Publishing

The credibility question raised by self-publishing is one rooted in an expensive technology: offset printing. Offset printing is an old technology that allows mass production of high-fidelity printed material. In large volumes (in the book industry, that means more than 10,000 copies at a run), offset printing provides professional quality productions at low costs.

The problem with offset printing is the setup cost. While the price-per-copy at 10,000 copies is extremely low (a matter of pennies for a 300-page paperback), a print run of just 100 copies could easily cost thousands of dollars.

When that was the only way to get books made, there was a huge financial burden in publishing a book. It was not just a matter of total expense, but of up-front costs that created a significant investment. The legacy publishing industry was built entirely on the evaluation of this investment, weighing each new submission as a risk assessment with the assumption that only the best books (or, at least, those most likely to earn out their investment) ever got made.

But as long as there have been gatekeepers labeling certain books as good, there have been desperate writers willing to do anything to gain that mark of approval. So, for years, the self-publishing industry was built largely, not on the profit potential of books in a competitive market, but on the amount of money authors were willing to pay out of their own vanity to see their books in print.

These “vanity presses” seemed to be dedicated wholly to the opposite notion of the legacy publishers’ — while the legacy publishers were only willing to risk money on good books, vanity presses could only reasonably expect to squeeze their high prices out of the worst writers.

Thus the high cost of offset printing created a sharp (and fairly legitimate) divide in credibility between books endorsed by legacy publishers and the books self-published through vanity presses.

Print-on-Demand and Digital Distribution

For most of that time there was also a cheaper alternative to offset printing. Print-on-demand publishing relied on cheaper laser or inkjet printers to produce books one at a time. This technology couldn’t compete with offset printing’s per-book prices for large print runs, but for small runs, print-on-demand techniques could produce just one copy at a time for a rate comparative to offset’s retail price.

The fault of print-on-demand technology was in its quality. While offset printing could produce huge numbers of near-identical, high-quality copies, laser and inkjet printers struggled to match that quality for even one copy, let alone maintain their fidelity across many runs.

Thus, again, print-on-demand created a wide divide in quality (and, therefore, credibility) between the offset legacy-published books and the cheaper print-on-demand products available to self-publishers. Again and again, the distinction in quality has been based on the up-front costs of publication — initial investments so expensive they could only be made by large corporations.

But the technology has improved dramatically in the last decade. Print-on-demand can now produce paperback books of comparable quality to offset printing for only a fraction more.

More importantly, a new market is emerging. As book-buyers gradually adopt e-readers as their preferred format for novels, the industry is rapidly shifting to one where the only cost of publishing a book is writing a book.

Like print-on-demand, digital distribution has made it easy for writers to publish their books at no initial cost, paying only a portion of each sale to the digital distributor. And, significantly, that portion is often far smaller than the portion a traditional publisher would keep for the same sale.

Creating Credibility

So today’s printing and distribution technologies eliminate the inherent quality and credibility gap between legacy publishing and self-publishing, but much of the stigma still remains. There is also still a common difference in quality, not in the technology used to produce self-published books, but in the know-how and professional resources used in their production.

The two most important examples of this are cover art and editing. A legacy publisher generally provides, as part of the publication process, multiple reviews of each manuscript by multiple professional editors (including content editors, line editors, copy editors, and fact-checkers).

This quality-control creates an obvious and easily-recognizable distinction in quality between a legacy-published book and a self-published book that moves directly from a writer to the reading public. Such raw, unedited manuscripts can be published easily (and inexpensively) through Kindle publishing, and their existence creates a credibility problem for self-published manuscripts.

Likewise, the book covers produced by legacy publishers are generally the work of a team of professionals dedicated to that task — painters, photographers, graphic designers, and marketing specialists skilled in crafting a cover that will not only capture a reader’s eye but also effectively convey the book’s mood, style, and target audience.

But even more than high-tech inkjet printers and dedicated e-reading devices, the internet has been the great leveler. The very services that most set apart legacy-published books from self-published books are services that can be hired by self-published authors for a small one-time fee (Konrath says “a few hundred dollars”). Freelance editors and cover designers can be found with very little effort, bridging the last quality gap between legacy-published and self-published books.

Beyond that…there is still some difference in credibility between the two methods. It’s not one of real value, but of perceived value, and it exists far more prominently in the minds of authors than anywhere else. Still, the perceived credibility of self-published books among publishers, among writers, and among readers are all shifting along with this change in technology.

Come back next week and we’ll discuss the current understanding of credibility within the industry, the factors that contribute to it, and how authors can best manage their self-made brands.

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