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What’s so bad about the “10 Awful Truths”?

Authors need to realize they won't beat the odds if they don’t innovate

Last month I attended a Future of Publishing event in Silicon Valley, where Steve Piersanti, President of Berrett-Koehler, was on a panel that also included Barry Eisler, Dane Neller, Clark Kepler, and Guy Kawasaki. As the audience enjoyed a delicious meal before the event, we had a chance to look over the evening’s handout, Piersanti’s 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing. I can’t imagine reading this helped anyone’s digestion.

Piersanti lays out what many of us already know about non-fiction book publishing: sales of print books are declining, and the surge in ebook sales is not enough to offset the losses. Meanwhile, the number of titles published each year continues to increase, leading to fewer sales per title overall and the challenges of marketing books in an overcrowded market.

“The 10 Awful Truths” lays out the story in a nearly hypnotic, paint-by-numbers manner, culminating in this bleak forecast:

The thin margins in the industry, high complexities of the business, intense competition, churning of new technologies, and rapid growth of other media lead to constant turmoil in bookselling and publishing…. Translation: expect even more changes and challenges in coming months and years.

Even with the cognitive dissonance of reading this while dining on perfectly grilled salmon and a fine sauvignon blanc, it struck me that none of it was very new. The cumulative effect of those numbers carries an impact no doubt intended to make authors think twice before publishing, and it certainly stirred up anxieties in the audience. Yet the piece ends with an important list of insights and strategies that should not be overlooked.

Communities buy books; people buy recognizable brands; author events and pass-through sales all help move the needle. Authors need to trim down their manuscripts to the essential ideas, and explore new marketing, platform, and community-building channels. Piersanti doesn’t go into detail on any of these points but he does lay them out, and the opportunities they suggest are huge.

This is nothing that Tools of Change readers don’t already know, and it would take very little effort to generate a list of promising start-ups designed to leverage these very opportunities. No doubt we will be hearing much more about them at Author (R)evolution Day next month. But for any of these ventures to succeed they need critical mass, and that means weaning authors off the notion that somehow their book will beat the odds even if they don’t innovate.

The 10 Awful Truths alone may not be enough to tip the scales in that direction, but it’s certainly a very good start. And if holding more forums in swank Valley environs will help, I humbly volunteer to fill a chair.

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Comments: 12

  1. I agree with the 10 Awful Truths (and certainly the responses to them). But is this meant to assume that all non-fiction titles are business books?

  2.  Incredible blog!!!
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  3. This is really a outstanding blog..thanks for share..

  4. I think it is bad because it is wrong. He says it from a static publishers perspective and not someone who it willing to change to the marketplace. What industry isn’t changing? The margins are fixable, but I’m sure they aren’t running extremely lean (Despite what they say about running lean they are still paying royalties right?). I’ll have a response up to this as well in the future on my blog.

    • I meant advances, not royalties.

      • I read your piece William, and frankly I’m leery of joining the publisher-bashing chorus. What I like about the 10 Awful Truths is that it relies on actual data. BK is one of the few publishers that actually *has* a robust community of readers, so when Piersanti says that most non-fiction books sell to author and publisher communities, I tend to believe him. 

        The only way authors are going to prosper in this chaotic time is to look beyond broad, misleading generalities about “publishers” and start getting specific about what practices work and don’t work. That requires a lot more research and transparency, not to mention generosity. But it’s a much more interesting conversation to be having.

        • I guess it does sound like I am bashing, but I didn’t mean to come across that way. I think they just need to adapt better and stop saying these ‘awful truths’ are so negative. Many industries have gone through massive changes and the companies that adapt do well.

          I think the 10 things he focused on are maybe extreme for any industry, but when dealing with self-publishing you are comparing an ant with a giant. The giant has a marketing budget while the ant doesn’t, but how does the ant manage to become a best-seller or even moderate seller?

          Maybe I’m just naive and don’t see it the way he does.

          • I completely agree that big publishers need to adapt better, and I am just as impatient with them as the next person. My co-authors and I are still arguing with Random about the 25% ebook royalty they’re offering for our 1998 release that is still in print and a strong backlist title. As soon as we can find a platform that will publish it in multiple DRM-free ebook formats and divvy up the royalty payments for us, it will finally be released. That’s a long damn time to wait! 

            I don’t think the “awful truths” are so negative either–that was basically the point of my piece. But I do think that authors need to develop a different book launch model and a different rubric for successful publishing. I don’t really care if my book hits the top of Amazon’s bestseller list, so long as I have a sustainable passive income stream from it. From this vantage, the playing field looks less like ant and giant, and more like tortoise and hare.

  5. I may be a little late in commenting on this, but the 10 awful truths need to be put into the perspective of market changes that underlie the rise of independent, or artisanal, publishing.  These awful truths are what makes life for legacy publishers and those who emulate them difficult.  But what has led to the rise of independent, artisanal publishing is very much different than that boiled down mass market approach to selling books.  Ironically, the world wide nature of the internet has opened up local and nitch markets that the big publishers cannot supply due largely to the economics of their industry.  And then the technology of digital publishing has made publishing available to anyone interested in doing it.  There are businesses opening up today that are trying to emulate the old mass market approaches.  Better mousetraps and all that.  And certainly a nitch market player would not turn away from a mass market success.  But as far as I understand it, the mass market approach is not what independents are doing.  Instead, they (we) are seeking out our nitch, either local or global, and creating new markets for specific products that appeal to them.  That is why the 10 awful truths should not discourage us.  In fact, those truths are part of what has pushed the gatekeepers aside and opened up the doors (gates) to this new flood of expression.   

  6. I completely agree with “10 Awful Truths” . And its great market success.

  7. These awful truths are what makes life for legacy publishers.

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