How Publishers are Experimenting With New Distribution Methods

04/07/2015 09:14 pm ET | Updated Jan 17, 2016

As the author of seven books and the president of Motion Publishing, I know a thing or six about publishing. For a long time now, brick-and-mortar bookstores have been disappearing at a rapid rate. This poses an enormous challenge facing today's writers in how to get their stories in front of potential customers -- a challenge for traditional writers, at least. But others see new opportunities, new venues and unusual methods to deliver books -- sometimes a whole grab-bag of books -- to readers.


As I know all too well, authors need to expand their audiences beyond traditional means. Bookstores and libraries are one thing for paper books, but eBooks can sail along new distribution paths, and penetrate unexpected niches, faster and cheaper than traditional volumes ever could. To be sure, eBooks are nothing new, but in order for a publisher to really connect with vast audience of readers outside of bookstores, they must think in new ways, imaginative ways. Just ask Kevin J. Anderson.

Despite enormous success in traditional publishing -- with 23 million copies in print and 54 bestsellers -- Anderson is always on the lookout for innovative ways to tap into the digital book market, especially with his own titles. The indie-minded author already made a name for himself with the Star Wars expanded universe as well as carrying on the Dune legacy. He is now a rule-bending new-model publisher with over 230 titles released (by himself and other authors) under his own company, WordFire Press. Innovative publishing means promoting by innovative means, and this often means finding unique ways to reach a new audience. Whether traveling from convention to convention or promoting through his blogs or social media, Anderson knows the importance of spreading the word through less conventional routes. And offering books in unexpected ways.  This is where Humble Bundle enters the picture -- a popular online service that offers pay-what-you-want, theme-based grab bags of eBooks to consumers, and the bundle is only available for a limited time. Humble has become a household name within the gaming community by bundling pc and mobile games. One year ago, Humble entered the digital books market. In doing so they have provided exposure for both up-and-coming indie developers and publishers while raising over $55 million for charity.

WordFire Press currently has a Sci-Fi bundle running with 17 of their most popular titles. "Humble Bundle reaches an entirely different audience," says Anderson. "The people who buy bundles aren't necessarily the same audience that frequent bookstores to look at the new releases. All the titles are DRM-free, available for a bargain-basement price, almost like an all-you-can-read package. The potential in that, it makes my pulse race, it's so cool!"

Working with Humble Bundle was years in the making for Anderson. As it turns out, Humble Bundle's Director of Books, Kelley L. Allen first met Anderson in 2002. Allen worked on the ebooks for Anderson's epic sci-fi series Saga of the Seven Suns, a connection that now, over a decade later, helped build the current book bundle presented by WordFire Press. Once they reconnected years later and got talking, it became clear that collaborating on a bundle together was a natural fit.

In 2014, Allen was focused more on comic book bundles, which made up about 60 percent of Humble's book bundles. She explains that comic book publishers are more flexible with the rights to their content, so Humble's policy on DRM-free content is not a big issue for them. "Our business model is more of a promotional vehicle than a retailer relationship," explains Allen. This makes Humble Bundle an attractive option for publishers seeking innovative methods of discoverability.

WordFire Press is one of those publishers. "The nice thing with doing this bundle is it's my own publishing company, so I can make the decisions -- one stop shopping! -- instead of chasing down lots of different authors and publishers for permissions," says Anderson. "A major traditional publisher would melt down before saying 'Sure, we're gonna give you our DRM-free ebook for a bundle without any set price.' They don't know how to deal with something like that, but for me and our WordFire authors, that's bonus royalties earned, new sales and new readers that we wouldn't have made otherwise. I'm very happy with it."

After deciding to create the bundle, the next step was actually putting it together. "I tried to create a nice balance between hard science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and short stories," explains Anderson, who looked at the more than 200 WordFire titles in his catalog. He assembled a collection that included newer indie authors; well-established names like Mike Resnick, Jody Lynn Nye, David Farland, and Frank Herbert; and some of his favorite books that he himself wrote.

One fresh voice in the WordFire stable is Cat Rambo, who also currently serves as the VP of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her debut novel, Beasts of Tabat, released on the same day as the Humble Bundle, and it's one of the featured items in the current bundle. "I get a real thrill out of publishing someone's debut novel," Anderson said. "Cat Rambo is a very well known short fiction writer, but she came to us because she wanted an innovative way of doing her first novel. Humble Bundle gives us a compltely separate channel for selling her novel, and all the other titles in the bundle, that I've never had before."

Anderson isn't worried that debuting Rambo's book in traditional venues at the same time as the bundle will in any way hurt the sales of the book. In fact, he believes it will do the opposite. "I saw it as a remarkable opportunity to get the book more exposure. The people who are going to buy it through traditional channels are going to buy it through traditional channels, and having it as part of this bundle will provide a giant spotlight that the book wouldn't otherwise have had. As far as I'm concerned, a sale of the bundle is the same as a sale of the ebook, and it's going to get people talking about it.  I don't have any problem with that at all. There are lots of readers out there, and you have to reach them in whatever way you can. In the first week, unit sales of the bundle were over 6,000 copies -- so Cat Rambo sold 6,000 copies of her first novel right out the gate. That's enough to put her on any bestseller list, including the New York Times... if they tracked those numbers."

And a part of the proceeds always goes to charity. For the WordFire bundle, the charity contribution is split between the SFWA Emergency Medical Fund, and Anderson's personal choice, the Challenger Centers for Space Science Education (he is a Board member).

Although Humble Bundle hasn't yet gained the reputation in the digital eBook market that it has in the world of gaming, Allen is confident based on the first year's result. "2014 was Humble Bundle's first foray into book bundles and I would say it was a resounding success raising $5.4 million with $1.2 million of it going to charities. We did about 20 book bundles in 2014 and the average was $275K per book bundle with bundles ranging from $120K to $566K." She makes it known that going forward, fans can expect to see even more eBook bundles from independent publishers like WordFire Press.

Humble Bundle's co-founder John Graham echoes this sentiment concerning the company's attitude towards eBook growth among its audience: "When we started Humble Bundle over four years ago, we never imagined that our pay-what-you-want plus charity experiments with indie video games might lead beyond gaming. In light of the continued success of our eBooks vertical, it seems as though we may be establishing a philanthropic business model for digital distribution as a whole."

As more publishers turn to digital means to get themselves out there, tech-savvy consumers will continue to discover them. The days of discovering your new favorite author from a friendly bookseller's recommendation aren't entirely gone; however, by embracing new technology, publishers ensure they will remain relevant for years to come.