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The New Business Model of Book Publishing

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I've written previously about how Amazon's Kindle and their KDP Select program is bringing new writers to the book publishing world, bypassing traditional publishers. But sometimes, established writers are finding a new voice there too.

Randy Cassingham is one of the first online publishers: his This is True column went online in 1994. It's his full-time gig: over the years, it has brought him several million dollars in income, and he lives on 45 acres in western Colorado, where he looks at gorgeous snow-covered mountains from his home office.

"TRUE" (as Cassingham calls it) is biting social commentary, using weird news as its vehicle. It's funny and has a loyal following: thousands pay $24/year to get the full column by e-mail each week. Tens of thousands get a free sampler. It might be the first example of an online "fremium" business model. In the early years, he turned down two unsolicited syndication deals to bring the column to newspapers -- turning them down because he didn't want to give up control of his work, he says.

Good move: now he's compiling his archives into Kindle books, where he can get a 70% royalty on sales, rather than the 12.5% that Dutton (part of the Penguin Group) pays him when it turned another of his websites into a book.

And it's working: Cassingham told me that in the first two weeks of Kindle book sales, the five volumes he has posted so far earned more than $1,400 in royalties from Amazon. "I'm boggled," he told me by e-mail. "Imagine if I actually concentrated on this income pillar. Or had more than five books available. Or I sent one or more titles out for review somewhere, or advertised, or did ANY kind of promotion to anyone other than my existing readers!"

Imagine indeed!

Then he realized that a throw-away human interest feature he includes in This is True, the "Honorary Unsubscribe" of someone who died in the previous week, could also be good book material.

"These are the people you wish you had known," he says. "Take the inventors I've featured. Did you know the same guy invented both the computer hard drive and the video cassette? What a fascinating guy!" He has also featured the inventors of the contact lens, the hovercraft, the Hawaiian shirt, even the guy who thought of putting a peanut inside an M&M. Then, he says, getting excited as he looks through his archive, "there are the medical researchers, responsible for saving thousands, even millions of lives, spectacular entertainers that died virtually forgotten, and..." Just as he says: the kind of people you wish you had known.

That book just came out on Amazon's Kindle this week, and it's the first of several in that series. Cassingham told me that "I'm glad I have a block of 100 ISBNs" -- International Standard Book Numbers, which are used to identify books for retailers, including Amazon -- "I'm going to need them."

Cassingham used to have the material now coming out in his books available free in various web archives. He counted on Google's Adsense program to bring in ad money, but it hasn't worked as well as he had hoped, even though it's all original work. "TRUE's archive," he admitted, "which had more than five volumes of material, only brought in $559 for the entirety of 2011." Compared to more than $1400 in the first two weeks on Amazon, it's no wonder Cassingham is starting to take the archives down. If someone follows a link to an archive page that has been removed, they now see information on what book it's in -- with a link to its Amazon sales page. (Example)

Self-publisher J.A. Konrath laments on his blog that he wishes he had the rights to his first novels, now that he has sold more than 700,000 copies of his later efforts, self-published on Kindle. Cassingham doesn't have that problem (not counting his one book with Penguin). His only problem now is getting his existing work converted to Kindle as fast as he can.

As more established, quality authors who kept the rights to their work figure out that it's to their advantage to publish themselves on Kindle rather than beg for contracts from "big" publishers, there will be an explosion of great work available in e-book form.

It's truly the start of a new model of mainstream book publishing.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said so pretty much himself in a letter to shareholders last week. Speaking about his Kindle Direct Publishing platform, he said, "The most radical and transformative of inventions are often those that empower others to unleash their creativity - to pursue their dreams. These innovative, large-scale platforms are not zero-sum -- they create win-win situations and create significant value for developers, entrepreneurs, customers, authors, and readers."

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