Why I Left My Publisher in Order to Publish a Book

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 29 September 2010

I’m getting more questions about my latest book than about any other I’ve written. And this is before the book is even out—before anyone has even read the galleys.

That’s because the questions aren’t about what I wrote, but about how I ended up publishing it: with an independent publisher, for very little money, and through a distribution model that makes it available on only one website. Could I be doing this of sound mind and my own volition? Why would a bestselling author, capable of garnering a six-figure advance on a book, forgo the money, the media, and the mojo associated with a big publishing house?

Because it would make my book twice as expensive for you, half as profitable for me, less purposefully written, and unavailable until about two years from now. In short, the traditional publishing system is nearly dead. And publishing a book under its rules can mean the death of ideas within it, as well. Until it utterly reworks its method, gets rid of a majority of its corporate dead weight, releases its publishing houses from the conglomerates that own them, and embraces direct selling models, the publishing industry will remain rather useless to readers and writers alike.

Authors and readers no longer need Big Publishing to find and engage one another. The sooner we all realize this, the better off we’ll all be.

Think of it from the author’s perspective. In the traditional publishing model, I write a proposal over a period of months, submit it to publishers, and—if the ideas manage to match the agenda of an acquiring editor at a big house—I get a deal. That deal is nice a thing. It means the publishing house, acting like a bank, lends me the capital I need to research and write a book. This is no small gift.

Then again, it’s not really a gift. A year later when I turn in the actual book, that editor may no longer be at the publishing house. His imprint may no longer be there, either. Or the publishing house itself may have been bought by another company. (All three have happened to me.) Whatever the case, the book is now submitted to the editor who acquired it, or his assistant, or some other editor who replaced him. Then the publisher has a month or so to decide if they like what I’ve written. If they do, cool. If they don’t, they can give me notes about how to make it more publishable—or they can simply decide it’s no good at all and that they don’t want to do it, anymore.

If they don’t like it, I’m supposed to give the money back. (Or, if I’ve got a great agent, he’ll ask for a “first proceeds” clause which means I only have to pay them back out of the money I make on the book if I take it elsewhere.) In any case, the original advance turns out to have been more of a loan, and the publisher more like a bank making an investment. If the environment changes, well, they move on. That’s how my first book on the Internet ended up being canceled in 1992, because the publisher was afraid the net would be “over” by 1993 when the book was to be released. (It came out in 1994, from a now-defunct boutique imprint of HarperCollins.)

But even assuming they like the book and want to publish it, this only means they will then begin the one-to-two-year process of bringing it to market. The original rationale was that the book’s editor would spend at least a few months going back and forth with the writer about the content, the style, the arrangement of chapters, the tone, and so on. The editing process was a collaboration between the author an the editor who knew how to make good writing better.

Today, editing is seen as a market inefficiency, or wasted salary. Most editors spend the bulk of their time acquiring new titles instead of editing the ones they have. So once they’ve read the proposal they’re pretty much done with the creative end. Instead, that year or two from manuscript to book launch is spent “gearing up” the marketing and publicity machines. All sorts of people are supposed to learn about the book, and then “sell” it to distribution partners, chain stores, and independent retailers. The longer this process takes, the more people are involved. And in a self-justifying feedback loop, the more people are involved, the longer the process becomes.

All this ends in a “sell-in” figure—the number of books that are ultimately shipped to the stores, where they can be marked up another fifty percent and then returned if they’re not sold. Does the process increase that sell-in figure? Not from what I can tell. In fact, in a universal policy I still don’t understand, marketers do not reveal their sell-in figures to their authors, or even their own editors.

In the end, the books we read and write must keep a few dozen people employed, and the shareholders of at least three major corporations satisfied—almost none of whom actually create value. A book that costs three dollars to print ends up costing the consumer 28 dollars from the retailer, plus tax, plus shipping. The author gets around 10% of cover price per book applied to his advance, returns, discounts, and other creatively accounted debits. Then there’s publicity departments to work through before doing any interviews or asking for reviews—all who have multiple authors competing for the same media opportunities. Getting oneself a great “media hit” can actually get an author in trouble.

Meanwhile, the better editors and publicists—the ones who understand their jobs differently than the corporate publishing model now dictates—are the first to be let go when budgets are cut. Working with an author on a book takes valuable time away from the acquisition of more titles. Working a whole afternoon to get a young novelist on NPR for an hour means a lot less to the executives and their balance sheets than getting a defamed movie star two minutes with Katie Couric.

Luckily for writers, however, the editors, marketers, and publicists booted from the corporate publishing industry are starting up little companies of their own. The corporate book industry can’t grow at the rate required by publicly held companies, anyway. This is why it is failing. Publishing is a sustainable business, not a growth industry. So it needs to be run by people looking for sustainable projects and careers—not runaway profits.

One of these companies, O/R books, is run by an old friend of mine, John Oakes. He’s been asking me to work with him for 20 years. So I figured it might be a good idea to take the book I’ve been working in one way or another for the past 20 years and publish it with his fledgling company.

The model is simple: work the concept with John, write the book, print and digitize it, and then sell it. No distribution, no marketing. Just put the link online and let people pay by credit card, paypal, or whatever method they choose. No middlemen, no markups, no returns. The book comes out two months after I’ve finished it, instead of two years. The public gets the book or ebook for half of what a “regular” book would cost—and the writer and publisher actually earn more, not less, per actual book sold. (Yes, the credit card companies still get their cut, but so do the central bank and taxman get their cut of any financial transaction.)

Moreover, producing less than a dozen titles a year, the independent publisher can focus fully on each one. I get to work with a friend, and in a way that puts the ideas of the book before the fleeting priorities of the marketing department. The whole process scaled to the human beings actually producing and consuming the content, instead of the corporations extracting value from our interactions.

The downside, of course, is that there’s no books in stores, no listings on Amazon or BN.com, and no reviews from those who view independently published books as unworthy of critical attention. (Don’t blame them—they’re having a hard enough time keeping a column or two of the newspaper devoted to books at this point, anyway.) Luckily, most real readers aren’t fixated on which corporation has backed which book project.

Will people still be able to find a book that’s not in stores, and will they want to? Well, most books sell more electronic versions than print ones anyway, and Amazon already sells more of most books than all real-world retailers combined. So the only real question is whether people will follow a link to a place other than Amazon to buy a book, and whether they will be as comfortable using Google to find it as they are the search box on Amazon.com.

I’m betting they will. Especially for a book about the promise of digital media and the ways in which most established institutions are still entirely missing the opportunity here. The idea of the book—and much of my career—is that computers and networks give us the ability to rewrite the rules through which everything operates. Some of the systems we’re using may have been efficient back in the 13th Century, but are truly and totally obsolete today. Systems like central monopoly currencies, corporate charters, and, yes, top-down publishing and distribution are all breaking down, for better and for worse.

Those of us depending on them will have to improvise for a while, and those of us capable of designing alternatives will get to have some fun. The good news and bad news here is that we must create new ways of doing things that meet our real needs. And the easiest way to begin that process is to learn to distinguish between the real world and the systems we have been using to operate it—learning to see the territory instead of just the map.

And sure, I wrote my latest book to help people start to do this in the digital realm—to learn how to see the programming behind the software, websites, and devices they are interacting with every day. Without some knowledge of what these things were designed to do, we have little hope of using them effectively. We are less likely to become real users than we to become the used. Most kids think Facebook is there to help them make friends.

Likewise, naif that I was, I thought the publishing industry’s primary goal was to help me communicate my ideas to the world. Live and learn.