Books Away: Distribution, Mega-Filters and Pay to Play

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Everyone's clamoring about the rise of the Indie author. Editors, designers, publicists, printers and even sales people can be hired. Real ones. Good ones. Often the very same ones you'd have worked with in house.

Couple that with blended printing and distribution channels, like LightningSource, who'll spank out print on demand books so fast, they'll let you remain listed as in-stock online, and you've got a recipe for Indie author world domination...maybe.

There are still a few major missing pieces of the puzzle.

1. Distribution. It's true, more and more sales are being funneled through online channels and ebooks are quickly growing into real elements of the bookselling mix. But, traditional publishing is still the fastest and easiest way to get your book on the shelves of the big box stores. And, those shelves, revered or reviled, still sell a ton of books every year.

Not that it's impossible to get books there yourself. Build a strong enough platform to push your book to the top of Amazon and for a few weeks or months and fuel an endless sea of people to badger local managers enough, you're very likely going to end up on the shelves. Slowly, but surely. It's doable. Witness Peter Bowerman and his still indie, yet widely distributed and always stocked Well-Fed Writer series.

2. Mega-Filters. Here's where one of the real value propositions of traditional publishing is right now. It may not be there tomorrow, but for now, a book that's out from a major publisher AND is on brick and mortar shelves is assumed to have been vetted and filtered. Meaning, it's worth the read.

Is that assumption always true? Not a chance.

But, in a world where we're constantly bombarded by millions of bits and bytes of shiny new units of information and entertainment, filters have value. And, a lot of it. If something comes out from one of the bigs, we're often more inclined to pony up our precious minutes and dollars.

But, here's the thing about filters. Used to be, the houses themselves were the ultimate filter and the major newspaper book section and occasional magazine served as second-level vetting engines. But, nowadays, the filtering function is becoming massively diluted by websites and bloggers.

And, here's my prediction, as more and more great authors go indie, the most powerful people in publishing will be the marketing-minded authors and filters. Because, properly armed, authors can build an army of evangelists, hire a production team and the right filters can help drive enough buzz and sales to allow you to back your way into brick and mortar distribution.

3. Pay to Play. This is still a major benefit for a lot of authors. With traditional publishing, you get your money on the front end, instead of the back end. Publishers have essentially become joint venture partners. Authors create the product, publishers fund the venture, pay along the way for development and roll-out, then have a substantial say in the the way the product is packaged and brought to market.

For a lot of authors, there is still a lot of value there. The vast majority of authors I know would still opt for a livable advance. Because they're not venture-minded. They're fundamentally risk averse. Money up front matters.

But, with an estimated 70-80% fail rate, you've gotta ask why publishers keep on funding so many projects by authors who want only to write, then walk away. Name me one VC who'll write a check to a start-up when the team launching the business openly proclaims wanting nothing to do with the business after the product has launched.

Yes, I get that most authors just want to write and cringe at the thought of platform building or marketing. I want to live in 3,000 square foot photo loft in the West Village for $600 a month. Doesn't mean I can. The world is changing in a profound way. Publishers are struggling to find their place in the new book economy and will very likely have to endure huge, painful change.

But, it's not all about the publishers. Authors, yes, we who love nothing more than to craft great stories and change the world, need to own up to a new writing economy, too. We need to do what's necessary to own not only our craft, but our businesses and lives. Because, rare will be the 21st century hermetic author who lives beyond the life of an ascetic scribe.

Truth is, nobody in the world of books and publishing has all the answers right now, save one.

Those who bury their heads in the sand will surely end up buried.