Business, Leadership

How to save the publishing industry

Traditionally, what a book publisher brings to the table is two sets of relationships.

1. Relationships with the people who buy books…the middle men (not the readers).
2. Relationships with the people who review books…the editor of the Times book review section.

There's a problem with this. Books are now being bought
directly by the readers, increasingly online from sites like Amazon.
The readers are increasingly being influenced by a different type of
reviewer. This reviewer doesn't write for the Times, she writes for
herself, and her blog audience.

There's a huge opportunity here. The question is who will figure it out first? The authors or the publishers.

We all agree, that successful authors have nascent tribes. The opportunity lies in connecting authors with their audience.

Authors make the bulk of their income from their advance.  If a publisher wants a successful author they offer them a larger advance than their current publisher and there's a decent chance the author will walk.

But, what if the publishers
actively helped their authors build tribes online? They'd be doing the authors a huge service and no
author could afford to leave their publisher, because they'd be walking away from their tribe.

If the publishers don't help the authors do this, the
authors will start doing it themselves.  And once they've developed their own tribe, what do they need the publisher for? I believe that publishers are in the
perfect position to do this, because authors are used to the publisher
brokering these relationships and most authors have no idea where to

At this point, the publishers by and large don't get this (with the notable exception of Hachette). A couple of
months ago I received a referral from a publicist at a large NY publishing house who wanted
me to help one of her authors build his tribe (on the author's dime). What most publishers still haven't
thought through is that they should be the ones building the communities (so they own the tribe).

If publishers helped their authors build and serve their
tribes they just
might save the publishing industry.


13 thoughts on “How to save the publishing industry

  1. Dale,
    You were making a good point, but you lost me when you said, “no author could afford to leave their publisher, because they’d be walking away from their tribe.”
    Why would readers join the tribe in the first place? Because of the publisher or because of the author? Don’t you think the tribe will follow their tribe leader regardless?
    It is like suggesting that a music group can’t leave their record label because they’d be walking away from their fans.
    Now, I agree that the publishers ought to help authors build tribes online, but not to tie down the author, but rather because it is in their best interest to keep an author with a large tribe. In other words, if the author leaves the publisher, she will most likely take her tribe with her. Not the other way around.
    Don’t you think?
    By the way, I enjoy your blog. Just recently found it browsing through the SAMBA blog (which I enjoy as well). Keep up the good work.

  2. Jon Dale says:

    Hey Brandon,
    Thanks for reading and commenting.
    The music group analogy is good one. Take 50 Cent for example. He’s built his own tribe on Ning (the largest Ning network in existence) in direct competition to the tribe that his label is trying to build for him on another platform. Why, because he knows that whoever owns the relationship has the power. He can now offer tracks, one at a time to his fans, cutting out his “publisher” if he want to.
    Music labels are becoming less and less relevant, in large part because artists are figuring this out faster than the labels are. My argument is that if the publishers want to remain relevant they need to be offering value to their authors. And one of the most valuable services they could be offering right now is assistance in gathering and connecting their authors tribe. If they don’t…they won’t need to exist any more.
    Again, thanks so much for reading. And for commenting.

  3. Jon,
    I get it.
    I am the president of New Leaf Publishing Group.
    I just blogged about this issue myself and we just sent out a 20 page booklet (that we wrote and designed oursleves) to our entire author base telling them the importance on developing a tribe. Those that respond postively we are going to engage with.
    Seth says that you are interested in doing this for publishers — send me some info.
    Tim Dudley

  4. Hi Jon,
    Just found your blog through Seth Godin’s blog – I had the pleasure of interviewing him for my blog a month or so ago.
    I work with a writing mentor that is always reminding me that blogging is the first publishing tool (you are a published author of sorts) and in the process, building your own relevant tribe. We could not have done this 15 years ago, so naturally it will change the hold book publishing process, which I find exciting. It will be interesting to track the trends moving forward.
    I just added you to my blog roll – excited to see what’s coming next.
    Thanks so much,
    – Laura

  5. Hey Jon, nice post. Found it through Seth’s blog too. And am interested because I’m right at the start of building my tribe as an author – see this:
    I see how a publisher-author synergy would exist in this process, especially as very few authors know (or care to know) about the marketing and tribe-building elements (the exceptions are the super-stars, though!)
    But like Brandon, I too don’t see how publishers would be able to hold authors ‘captive’ just by virtue of helping them build a tribe. Tribes generally evolve around issues and leaders, no?
    Or are you saying the publisher would build ‘genre specific’ tribes – ones to which they could introduce the authors they represent… where ‘ownership’ of the tribe would be primarily the publisher’s – and authors will be their ‘guests’, for as long as they stick with the publisher?
    The ‘toll gate owner’ analogy often used in marketing applies just as well to the author-publisher relationship too. Him that owns access to the crowd is the boss! (Or her!)
    I too was intrigued by what Seth mentioned about you as “building a practice of helping authors and book publishers use private social networks to build tribes online” – and look forward to more details about this, when you have time 🙂
    All success
    Author: Think, Write & Retire

  6. Hi Jon,
    You’re right, which is why Red Room is working directly with the publishers and authors to build everything authors need in one place to market themselves and build their tribe.
    The publishers I’m working with (to launch increased offerings on our site, underwritten by the publishers, designed to meet their authors’ needs) totally get it too–they are just having trouble moving fast enough.
    The internet has disintermediated book marketing from a traditional perspective, yet simultaneously provides the opportunity for authors to reach and sell to readers directly from a single social media command center, which why we’re building one as fast as we can.
    And while some authors are interested in leveraging new technologies to shortcut around the traditional supply chain, most are still very invested in the benefits of working with traditional publishers–like we are.
    Thanks for encouraging and supporting authors find their tribe and learn to use social media–we’re with you!

  7. Dr. Mani,
    Who should “own” the tribe is an interesting question (if anyone can “own” it). That being said, I think whoever builds the tribe and is hosting the party has a lot to win. You’re right that a lot of authors look to their publisher for direction and assistance in marketing their books. If tribe building is the new marketing (which I think it is), then it stands to reason that one way publishers can continue to stay relevant is by supporting their authors in this.
    I currently have both best-selling authors and major publishing houses as clients.
    I also think you’re right on target when you point out that their are opportunities for publishers to develop niche tribes around shared interests as well as specific authors and books.
    Thanks for reading and commenting. Toss me an email jon [at] if you’d like to connect.

  8. Here is the problem I have with that, a both an author and a publisher myself…
    Each author needs a different tribe, of course, as the tribe of one author is not going to be the same set of readers for another author’s tribe.
    But it takes time and money to focus on builiding a single tribe. A publisher, who represents many authors, has to divide their time evenly, and as it has been pointed out, tribes don’t follow publsihers, they follow authors, so it is ten times more costly and time-consuming for a publisher to attract one tribe than for an author to do the same thing.
    Thus, it should rest on the author. In fact, it is the tribe that a publisher buys from an author. Without a tribe, the author is, well, worthless in the eyes of a publisher.
    David A. Rozansky
    Publisher, Flying Pen Press.

  9. Great post, Jon. Couldn’t agree more.
    You might be interested in the new book @GaryVee has coming out in the fall called Crush It! It outlines some how-tos for people on using social media to build brands. (I am reading the manuscript now and it is a great big pep-rally for how to change book and author marketing.) It may interest you and your readers. The question is how publishers leverage and integrate these tools for authors.
    Found you on Twitter via @JaneFriedman. Best of luck!
    Carolyn Pittis
    Twitter: carolynpittis

  10. GWG says:

    I’m a successful self-published author who came from the advertising and sales industry. I was very experienced in direct sales and media when I started more than 15 years ago. I produce reference works that are the best on the market.
    One of the first ugly realities I learned is this:
    It takes exponentially more time and money to promote a book than it takes to develop it. Word of mouth is too slow to build title loyalty, even if you are the best.
    I ended up starting my own publishing company. It takes 20 full-time people to sell, market, distribute, advertise, and fulfill product that I have authored, edited, or commissioned.
    I’ve now sold millions of products and make a good living. Despite a 100% commitment to the Internet starting in 1999, 80% of my sales have come through avenues that only a publishing company can reach: bookstores, online retailers, and specialty clients.
    I know that this post will be met with outraged howls from Internet gurus and viral marketers who are sure that “If I build it (a blog or a website or a tribe) they will come.”
    Sorry, it doesn’t work that way, at least not for most people. (And lightning rarely strikes twice.)
    Unless you are a one-in-million author, in my opinion you will fare better by entrusting your work to a publishing house that is aggressive and has a history of promoting products long term, years after the initial release date.
    Authors should spend time doing what they are best at, writing. Leave sales, marketing, fulfillment, deal making, and advertising to the pros of a reliable, responsible publishing house.
    Good luck, my friends.

  11. Solid post, though I pulled up on the same point as others about publishers “owning” an author’s tribe. The idea that anyone “owns” a tribe is porting over the traditional gatekeeper model that’s in the process of total breakdown.
    Tribes are not monolithic entities and there is plenty of overlap to go around, especially in non-fiction and genre fiction where publishers have at least an equal shot as writers at gathering a tribe under their own banner. O’Reilly, Tor and Harlequin are great examples of that. At the same time, the average Seth Godin or Stephen King fan probably doesn’t know or care who publishes their work.
    I’d tweak your conclusion a bit to say that publishers need to represent something specific and to curate the best content relevant to that passion. As Tor’s Pablo Defendi noted at BEA, they should be “idea advocates”.
    I also agree with Rozansky that authors bear the responsibility of attracting and nurturing their own tribes, and as smart business people, should WANT it that way. Publishers DO have a vested interest in helping them out, though, if only to avoid becoming irrelevant.
    PS: I love Godin, but WD’s Jane Friedman actually tipped me off to this via Twitter.

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