Change Keeps Happening
The revolution in the publishing industry has barely begun. That’s the takeaway this week, as a print-on-demand book becomes a #1 bestseller and the Big 5 move into Kindle Unlimited.
First, the children’s book that should be waking up major publishers in a major way. It’s called The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep, and it was written and self-published by Carl-Johan Ehrlin. If you have kids, you should stop reading this and shoot over to Amazon right now to buy a copy. Using the psychology of suggestion and sleep-inducing language patterns, parents all over the world are discovering the book’s seemingly magical ability to zonk their kids out. No wonder the book has taken off.
It’s been a #1 overall bestseller on Amazon and B&N. And Publishers Weekly is now reporting on this story as the book has been snatched up in a 7-figure deal. The New York Times even had to change the rules of their children’s book bestseller list to exclude paperbacks, in order to make sure an indie book doesn’t do this again. So what exactly happened? Why is the publishing world freaking out over this? Well, it’s because this was thought impossible just a few weeks ago. But the nature of digital disruption is that the impossible becomes possible seemingly overnight.
When I toured the CreateSpace printing facility in 2011, I knew something crazy was happening. It wasn’t just the print process, which had been around a while. It was the way this printing facility was integrated into the Amazon retail machine, and the way CreateSpace maintained the startup vibe, able to pivot on a dime. Things were changing at the facility every day, even as freshly printed books zipped by on steel rollers. The paper stock was improving; the trim size options expanding; matte covers were being introduced; the ink used for the covers was improving; and even the way the books were packaged and handled was being tweaked. In the year it might take for a Big 5 print book to get to market, the POD industry will have revolutionized a dozen important techniques.
The main facility in Charleston, South Carolina is only one small piece of the puzzle. Those large Amazon distribution centers all across the United States (and in the UK) have similar print networks. And Amazon can call on its partnership with Ingram to handle some of the printing load as well. This means book production, which had moved to China, has been brought home by Ingram and Amazon. The major publishers and the New York Times do not like this one bit. The Big 5 have shunned POD as a backup solution, refusing to give Amazon and Ingram PDFs so that these two companies can handle supply when that supply is outstripped by demand. This has been shameful when books attempt to go viral but can’t because of how slowly the Big 5 print and ship their wares. The same reluctance to partner with new retail partners is showing up in their reluctance to partner with new production partners. The result is lost market share, all due to confusion, fear, and denial.
Make no mistake: Carl-Johan’s breakout success is a game-changer. Because the “digital” in digital disruption isn’t relegated to ebooks. When PDF files can be emailed, and books can be printed in minutes anywhere and then sold instantly everywhere, and then shipped same-day most places, the old chain of print-in-China and sell-in-B&N has been radically upturned. Not only is the publishing revolution moving into the print space, the indie revolution has as well. When we see authors, agents, and publishers warning writers of all the money they are leaving on the table by ignoring print, they are clinging to what they thought was their last redoubt. No longer.
I saw hints of this with Wool. The same day I toured the CreateSpace facility, a deal with S&S for the print rights were finalized by my agent. I got the email while I was watching warm books roll out large printing machines. It was a sickening day for me. Several other things had happened that week: Wool began showing up in bookstores (yeah, the POD edition). It was seen in B&Ns and on staff rec shelves at major indie shops like Powell’s. Unfortunately for me, the dream deal (print-only, 7-year reversion) came through right as something even more magical was happening. And we took the dream deal because we were getting the terms we’d asked for back before we thought POD could break out. Four years later, my POD sales blow away my trad-pubbed print sales. I could live off of self-pubbed print. That’s the reality that’s around the corner. Publishers thought they had their trenches dug in, and now here comes a volley from their flanks.
These changes do not make success more predictable or even more likely, overall. The number of works that break out like this will probably stay the same, only some of them will now come from the POD and indie side, rather than only coming from the Big 5 side. If reading overall doesn’t grow, book sales are a zero-sum game. The difference is (and the reason to celebrate these changes), more money will flow to artists and less money will flow to middlemen. Publishers and retailers will lose out, while writers and illustrators make gains.
The money flowing to this children’s book is money not flowing to some other Big 5 children’s book, and publishers know this. They also know that the print slush pile (POD) just got as expensive as the digital slush pile (KDP). That’s going to hurt the bottom line unless they can acquire these rights at a decent price and really blow up sales through traditional channels. But make no mistake: the channel that will get most of these sales is Amazon.
Speaking of the Big 5 selling stuff through Amazon, look who’s playing around in Kindle Unlimited right now. I love me some Vince Flynn. Imagine my surprise when this shows up while I’m browsing KU. My first thought was that his estate must’ve gotten the rights back and self-pubbed the ebook edition, because the Big 5 do not participate in Kindle Unlimited. Guess they do now.
Welcome to the revolution, boys and girls. It’s just about to get started.
Hey, did you know you can write reviews of an entire series now? Another cool change in the Amazon storefront. And if you haven’t read this series yet, it’s one that I’m proud of. The BEACON 23 series on Amazon.