“Shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real.”
—Shibumi, by Trevanian
(Writers: There’s nothing like a profound quote to kick things off. It’s like, hey reader, this dead person wrote something wise, and I’m repeating it, so therefore I’m equally wise by the transitive law of thought leadership.)
I’ve talked to many both inside and outside the “traditional” publishing industry—know the “traditional” ones by their characteristic briar pipes—about where this whole thing is going. And by “whole thing” I don’t mean books as a generic term, because “book” is no longer a useful generic category. Instead, I mean the kinds of books (and, barf, “content”) I’ve specialized in for years now, the “helping” categories: business, health, self-help. Books that tell you how to do stuff better, whether it’s market your service or channel the astral presence (hint: both involve bullshit).
If you read a lot about books and about the publishing industry in general, you’ll have noticed that in discussing the future of books we conflate these very different categories simply because they’ve been physically similar to each other for almost 600 years.
That’s changed, but our thinking hasn’t. And so we lose sight of the obvious fact that the future of romance novels will be very different from the future of autobiographies, or even science fiction novels. (For example, science fiction novels will simply be called “novels.” By the robots who read them.)
The heads of most “traditional” publishing companies (and their imprints) are trying desperately to keep this artificial conglomeration of content categories together in one big lump—we’re experts at this, they insist, and we have scale—while the demands of each category and sub-category drift further and further apart. It’s no longer sufficient to say your imprint publishes great books. That’s like saying the bartender serves great glasses. The question is, does he know from whiskey?
On his website, productivity expert Shawn Blanc sells Delight is in the Details, a “kit” which offers “practical advice, insight, and inspiration so you can reach for excellence and resist the tide of ‘good enough’ work.” For $39.00, you receive an 88-page ebook, the audio book, 10 audio interviews (with transcripts), 8 Q&A interviews, 3 videos, and a resource index, all with a money-back guarantee.
Look at that site. Clean and compelling, loaded with very good reasons to buy the kit. It scrolls down forever, and it doesn’t waste a word. This is a book cover taken where no dust jacket or Amazon page can go, tailored specifically to this one product.
And look at what he’s selling: an 88-page ebook that hasn’t been padded to 256 pages simply to make the book thick enough to charge $25.95. (No reader has ever complained that a business book wasn’t long enough, by the way.) Plus, an assortment of multimedia materials that aren’t limited by the ebook format or that require special software or a particular device. Shawn isn’t waiting for some slick new publishing platform backed by News Corp. or Time Inc. He isn’t concerned about piracy and using some restrictive DRM that makes it a pain for his readers to read what he’s written. He gives you his expertise in the most convenient and appropriate formats available, and he charges significantly more than we’ve been trained to expect to pay for a much longer “traditional” book.
The selling techniques Shawn uses here are powerful, and could be used by anyone selling their expertise in any form—physical books, websites, audio, video, whatever. But these techniques have very little relevance to the world of novels or children’s books. And the skill-set and culture and pretty much everything in an organization that would make it good at creating something like this are very different from what you need to successfully publish My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. And yet most of the top-tier publishing imprints still, you know…what’s the word…work really, really hard to publish these different kinds of content using the same team, the same tools, the distribution chain, the same business model, the same thinking.
No one who actually does what Shawn does thinks that self-publishing is the appropriate road for most authors. An immense degree of skill and experience is still required to compete in the marketplace of ideas. Mostly, experts need publishers, but in the arena of ideas we don’t really have any that can do this properly yet.
I’m arguing for specialization, not by format but by category. Publish business experts, or historians, or mathematicians. Worry about the delivery mechanisms later. What kind of expertise are you trying to share, and with whom? Then build your operation.
There is a huge amount of opportunity for publishers (Big 5 all the way to hybrid) who are willing to specialize their entire vertical operation around a single content category.
OK, if you work in traditional publishing and you feel like I’ve been picking on you this whole time, I pick because I love. Watch this video of a dog dancing the cha-cha: