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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