Do I need the middle?

It’s “brand week” at The New Sleekness, where various bloggers have been offering a range of thoughts on books and branding.

Jay Garmon’s “Only branding can save the ebook industry” is worth a read, though not for its somewhat jumbled explanations of “brand”. I’m not going to take that on here; look for an alternate explanation in an upcoming bibliography).

Garmon’s most important point comes about halfway into the post:

“In the publishing space, the author’s brand is infinitely more important than the publisher’s brand. I’m going to read Charles Stross novels no matter who publishes them (and in fact Stross has a bibliography that spans multiple publishers). But the author’s brand is usually associated with story content. I buy Charles Stross novels because I like high-concept science fiction with an unflinching density of ideas and an unforgiving expectation from the reader. The Stross brand promises that and, so far, has unswervingly delivered …”

The thing is, that’s not really an ebook argument; it’s an author argument, and a good one.

Garmon moves on to describe publishers’ brand promise and finds the target is harder to hit. “Treating authors fairly”, being easy to read and offering quality typography generally feel more like matters of hygiene – things we’ve come to expect. You can lose share by not meeting expectations, but you probably won’t gain share for doing what people consider a given.

In claiming that “books are doing fine”, The Economist recently noted that more than three billion books a year are sold in the U.S. Although the magazine took less notice of how many books are in print, the consensus guess may be two million, meaning that the average titles sells about 1,500 units a year.

If the average e-book sells for $10 with a royalty of 25% of net, the average author earns about $1,900 a year. If that same author strikes an agency deal with Amazon … well, she or he need sell fewer than 300 units to break even.

Therein lies the rub for brand-less publishers. Mid-list and smaller authors, most of whom get little or no marketing support, can do the same math I just did and ask, “How much do I need my agent and my publisher?” As established publishers try to move away from giving larger or even any advances, the question only gains momentum.

A couple of months back, the solo fund-raising efforts of singer-songwriter Amy Correia prompted me to write about the threat to publishers of “Amazon the disruptor”. I can’t claim that publishing will turn upside down as a result, but on the margin an author has to ask: how much do I really need the middle?

Edited April 27 to add: A link to author Joe Konrath’s blog, in which he talks about his cost-benefit calculations with respect to direct sales of his own e-books.

Edited May 1 to add: O’Reilly Media analyzed the publishers for books in Apple’s iPad store and found that Smashwords, which distributes digital content for independent authors and small publishers, is currently sixth, just behind St. Martin’s Press and Grand Central Publishing.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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