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Jonathan Fields posted this on his insightful blog in September 2010. I thought it was so great that I had to share it with you. He is one of the most astute thinkers in our industry. Read more of his ideas.

The publishing world is in mass-flux.

I don’t know where it’ll end up. Nobody does.

But, I do know, as I sit and write this, that the other side of upheaval is opportunity. For both publishers and authors…who get what’s really happening here.

For generations, big publishing houses have played a huge role in:

  • Selecting,
  • Shaping,
  • Packaging,
  • Printing,
  • Distributing and
  • Marketing books.

What they offered, you couldn’t easily get anywhere else.

By controlling each of these processes, they drove the engine that sold a mountain of books and helped build large followings for authors. This was their value proposition in the eyes of aspiring and signed authors. And, it was a model that kept control focused in the hands of publishers.

In part, because authors didn’t want to do all the non-writing work that publishers did, but also because authors didn’t have an easy way to take control of each element of the publishers’ value proposition, especially identifying and reaching directly out to their followings.

There were just too many people and steps between the pocketbook and the pen.

Interestingly enough, the publishers didn’t even have direct access to buyers. Still don’t. There was no list of who bought what, along with contact information. But because of their position at the helm of the brick and mortar bookseller distribution machine, publishers knew where these folks shopped and still sat in the gatekeeper’s position to be able to deliver books into those places.

Enter the digital age. What’s changed?

On the “today’s reality” side, not much … at least for MOST authors. On the possibility side, a lot. And, it’s the possibility side that’s:

  • Freaking out certain publishers,
  • Leaving most authors confused and
  • Making a smallish group of authors dance with glee.

It’s now entirely possible for anyone, with a bit of legwork and a modest budget, to find and pay for top-quality editing, packaging, printing and even many aspects of traditional marketing. And, with social media and blogging, it’s becoming far easier to build direct relationships with and sell direct to your readers.

And, that’s gutted a big chunk of the publishers’ value proposition.

What’s left is their:

  • Position as gatekeepers to brick and mortar distribution
  • Better access to and validation for mainstream media
  • Willingness to do at least some of the work most authors hate doing, and
  • Stamp of approval that still matters in certain other revenue paths, like conference speaking.

So, why did I say this hasn’t changed much for most authors today?

For the handful of authors who foresaw the potential of digital tribe-building tools to create a direct connection with their readers years ago, the world has become a publishing playground.

And, for those with mammoth offline followings yearning for a way to connect with their favorite author, it doesn’t take much to convert offline fans to digital devotees. Just open the door, give them a place to show up and demonstrate that you’re listening, you care and you’ll share.

So, for people like Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss and Paulo Coehlo, the opportunities to walk away from traditional publishing are truly myriad. Because they’ve embraced the technology, engaged their audience in the digital ether and built massive, direct-access followings online.

When Paulo Coehlo shares a single update on his Facebook page, more than 2.5 million fans see it, tens of thousands “like” and “share” it and thousands often reply.

Authors with the ability to digitally engage massive nodes of raving fans get to live the tribal author dream today.

They get to choose whether to stay within the traditional publishing system and command tremendous advances and control over the publishing process, because of the power they wield, or walk away, do it on their own and likely earn just as much, if not substantially more in less time.

But, herein lies the rub.

While the dawn of a new era for tribe-building, digitally-savvy, engagement-loving, marketing-oriented authors is truly here, truth is …

Most authors haven’t done and don’t want to do what’s necessary to leverage this new dawn.

They don’t want to hire an editor, a designer, a packager and publicist. They don’t want to have to figure out how to prepare, submit and sell their own books online. And, they don’t want to invest the massive amount of time needed to build their own tribes.

One of the happiest days in the life of your average aspiring author, and that includes many bloggers and social media wonks, even ones with substantial followings, is the day they sign a book deal with a traditional publisher (fair disclosure, I recently sold my next book to a traditional publisher).

How can this be?

Because, what Seth, Tim, Paulo and a fractional share of digitally-prescient authors are experiencing right now is still years off, hundreds of thousands of digital fans away and a ton of work for your average author, aspiring author or even social media content creator.

That’s not to say it’s not worth the effort. It most certainly is for those who are energized by the process and the prospect of harvesting their own power as authors. Hell, if that’s you, tribe-building, book marketing resources abound.

There are endless ways to fan the tribe-building flames and accelerate the process.

But, for your average author who’s not yet entered the realm of the digerati, many aspects of traditional publishing not only still matter, but are preferable.

Because, without direct digital access to large numbers of readers, brick and mortar distribution is still important in your quest to reach the greatest number of people and sell a lot of books. Sure, every year, more and more sales are happening online, but paper books and local stores still represent a huge chunk of the potential market. Ten years from now, all bets are off, but we’re selling books now, not then.

Because, at least for now, traditional media still matters in your quest to take a book from selling well to selling truckloads. And, as one top book publicist recently confided,

To top it all off, independent publishing – self publishing, rather than small houses – doesn’t get the street cred that indy music or film gets. Try booking a self-published author with traditional media outlets. Ain’t happening – unless he/she is a known name, or the booking is in a “local” local market. The traditional press wants a traditional publisher’s approval. Since they never read the books, they need someone to tell them it’s OK.

Because getting paid upfront for a book still has appeal to what is often a non-venture-minded, largely risk-averse community.

And, because, at least for now, if you want to sell a boatload of books or build a paid speaking/keynoting career, hitting the big print lists (NYT, WSJ, USA Today) still matters. And, it’s nearly impossible to do that through self-publishing or digital-only sales.

That’s the way it is now.

So, why are many traditional publishers so freaked out and digital marketing savvy writers salivating?

Not because of where the industry is now … but where it’s headed.

For publishers …

There is a growing awareness that the authors they’ve helped build into giant-sellers now have the ability to reach past them and connect with audiences directly. Many still don’t, because of the time and effort needed. Most just want to write great books.

But the very idea that they can is terrifying to an industry who’s flagship value-proposition is gatekeeper to buyers, via the vehicle of distribution.

As more and more book purchases move online, the value of brick and mortar distribution will get smaller and smaller. And, as high-quality authors opt into self- and indy-publishing, the other pieces of the value proposition will likely fall away as well.

Again, we’re not there yet, at least not for the huddled authorial masses. It may take years or even decades. But that’s where this is all going.

So, traditional publishing is left with a giant question, how do we keep ourselves relevant when our core selling-point for authors, the one thing they still can’t buy themselves, has been access to readers?

Put another way … how do we stay in the middle, when authors have the tools to go direct?

So, here’s a modest proposal for traditional publishers …

First, realize, even though savvy authors now have the tools to build their own tribes and go direct, most want nothing to do with that process. In fact, they straight up dread the prospect.

So, if you can grant access to a giant tribe of permission-gathered, appetite-whetted potential book buyers with a stated interest in an author’s niche, that still has tremendous value. Even in the digital age (more on exactly how to do that in a minute). There’s a sea of difference between what the vast majority of authors “can” and “will” do in the name of selling books.

Opportunity does not a marketer make, action does.

And, most authors, yes even well-known, established ones, would rather pour their energy onto the written page than the marketing stage.

Even if every author decided to go direct online, the very same technology that makes this possible has also made self-publishing so easy that the volume of noise out there has risen to astonishing levels (more than 1 million books were published in 2009, about 275,000 of which were done traditionally), making the need for trusted curators, filters and gatekeepers WHO ADD SUBSTANTIAL VALUE to the process even more important.

And, guess who those curators, filters and gatekeepers can be…if they’re willing to step up and add independent value to the digital book-selection ecosphere?

Yup, the publishers.

But, that’ll mean no longer viewing the ebook format or the digital evolution, itself, as the enemy.

The format is not what’s causing you pain, nor what will cause you pain down the road. It’s what the format and bigger online social revolution is doing to your role as gatekeeper, curator and filter that’s causing the “potential” for pain. Remember…

Most authors still want you in the mix IF you can port direct-access to readers into your digital value proposition.

So, how can publishers reinsert themselves into the divide between authors and readers in the digital realm?

Instead of looking only for authors with substantial digital platforms, look for mindblowing writers and digital-connectors and build your own massive tribes.

Reclaim the power of your own brand.

Hire and dedicate a team to build your own digital tribes around the tightly-niched topic areas in which you publish. Empower them tantalize, give to and engage readers and create high-quality, high-value, provocative text, video and audio content to share.

Yes, just like bloggers and digitally inclined authors are doing now. Offer substantial additional value into the digital realm and slowly and methodically build your own self-improvement tribes, marketing tribes, small business tribes, romance tribes.

Take all the money you’re dropping on ads that barely convert and hire a team of incredible writer, engagers, raconteurs and provocateurs … to work for YOU!

If one author can do this working a few hours a week without spending a dime on advertising or marketing, what do you think you might be able to pull off?

Then, once you’ve built a tightly-niched, engaged digital tribes, turn around and sign authors who can create not only killer content for these tribes, but killer multi-faceted content-driven experiences. Start with books, both digital and paper, then expand the content to create and offer blended mixed-media experiences that tantalize those tribes. The ones you, as a publisher, now have direct access to.

In fact, there’s a little-known publisher who’s done just that and, from the outside looking in, seems to be kicking some serious ass.

SimpleTruths.com creates inspirational slideshow videos, then posts them online and drives traffic to the videos. The videos sit on a private page, which allows them to redirect viewers to an upsell page at the end.

That upsell page asks viewers to do 3 things:

  • Share the video with others, both by email and social media
  • Join their email list, and
  • Buy a book that is an expanded version of that video, essentially as a momento.

The first video they launched was called The Dash and, depending who you ask, it has been viewed between 25 and 50 million times.

More than 75,000 people view a SimpleTruths.com video (each upselling a book) every day.

You think that’s built a MONSTER e-list, a massive digital tribe, and sold a few books?

Now, every time they release a book, it’s preceded by a video that not only continues to build their inspirational direct-access digital tribe, but pre-sell books.

This is just one example of how a publisher can take a page from the blogger/social-media solo artist’s handbook and create engaging content to build their own niche specific, digital tribes, then sign authors they know will create books these tribes will gobble up.

The opportunities here are endless, but publishers need to be ready and willing to accept the challenge of creating direct digital pathways to potential book buyers by adding value to those buyers’ experiential ecosystems.

Of course, this raises the huge question of the rift that arises between traditional booksellers and publishers any time a publisher explores anything smacking of direct-to-consumer.

And, to that I’d answer … both sides need to get a life.

In this new world, preserving an us against them mentality will only lead to one thing…us and them dead.

What got you both here ain’t gonna get you there! There is no preserving the status quo any more. So …

Rather than retrench behind battle lines drawn around a dying paradigm, maybe it’s time to look forward and figure out how to facilitate and leverage the inevitable, rather than rail against the clouds for raining yet again.

Sit down at a table, better yet, take a walk in the woods and figure out how you can collaborate.

And, by collaborate, I don’t mean get the heads of the families together to carve up and horde whatever’s left of the bookselling pie. I mean…wrack your brains to figure out how to work together to add value to the experience of book buyers on multiple levels. Levels you didn’t even know existed until 2008. Harness your collective resources to delight potential buyers in ways that’d be hard to do working alone.

The future lies in evolving the value-proposition. And …

It’s hard to add value on a level that translates to impact when you’re working from a scarcity mentality.

So, what about the authors?

How do you prepare for the next generation?

First, accept one fact – if you just like to write and have no desire to share and be paid for the content you create, that’s fine. That’s amazing. What a gift to have that outlet. But, if you want to get paid to write. And, I’m not talking chump change, but real live-well-in-the-world money, accept that you can no longer be just a writer, you must also be an entrepreneur, a marketer and a tribe-builder.

If you want an enduring career as an author, you must become an enterprise.

Maybe not now if you’ve already got enough of a track record, but things are moving that way incredibly fast. And, I’d much rather stake my livelihood on the existence of deep connections with a sizable, engaged tribe and my ability to consistently serve and delight them.

If you’re an author with a traditional house, rock on. I’m not saying you need to walk away. I certainly haven’t. In fact, I recently sold my next book to one and I’m thrilled about it.

Because traditional publishing still matters to my bigger-picture business model. I’m a author, but that’s not the entirety of the the enterprise I’m building. I’m also an entrepreneur, a speaker, a blogger and a teacher. And, while I’ve grown a wonderful tribe, my bigger picture still works better when I work with a publisher, rather than hire a team and manage the process myself.

What I’m saying is that you need to step up and start to take ownership of your platform, so that down the road, you can be in a position to call the shots, whether that means publishing yourself or being able to command more from those who’d publish you.

With rare exception (and there will be those), unless publishers begin to heed some aspect of the ideas shared above, there is no long-term future for writers without a willingness to build tribes.

And, even if there is …

Tribe-free authors will find themselves stunningly de-leveraged over time.

The risk to publishers in signing a digital-tribe-free author will be too great. Again, maybe not today, maybe not next year, but that’s where it’s going.

The good news is, for those willing to own that knowledge, the opportunity for control has never been greater.

You now have the tools to reach digitally and directly into the hearts, souls and minds of the people you are writing for. You have the chance to connect directly with them, to compel them, to move them not only by the books you write, but by how genuinely you engage and provide value to them over time online.

For those willing to create remarkable content, solutions and experiences AND engage with people consistently over time, the future is mind-blowingly opportune. You now have access to the ultimate consumer of your work and the ability to build relationships with and delight those folks every day. That’s both a responsibility and gift.

You may still choose to stay with traditional publishing houses.

But your leverage will be dramatically magnified.

Meaning, you’ll be in a position to command a lot more money and control.

Does this all mean that someone can’t come out of nowhere and write something so stunning and original that, with no tribe, no relationships and no marketing savvy, the content explodes virally into the public consciousness and sells millions of copies, downloads or whatever format is waxing at the time?

Of course not. It’s possible.

We all work until our fingers bleed to reach for that.

Every bone in my body aspires to it.

But, that’s a hell of a burden to stake a living on as a grown-up.

Especially if you’ve got a family along for the ride.

So, in addition to writing the best stuff I can write, I still spend a serious chunk of time every day building my tribe.

Fact is, on a practical level, even on my best days, I can’t write, really WRITE, for more than 3 to 5 hours without my head exploding. That leaves me a whole lot of time to live, play, take care of other projects, ventures and clients and, yes, build my tribe and grow my author enterprise.

So, what’s the future of publishing?

For both authors and publishers, it’s largely about who controls access to the tribe.

Because, they are no longer anonymous, random purchasers. They have faces, names, desires, interests and the ability to not only read what you create, but help craft, support, interact with and evangelize it … if you:

  • Give to them,
  • Treasure them,
  • Honor them,
  • Respect them,
  • Delight them,
  • Engage them…and
  • Empower them to act and share.

Neither side HAS to build a digital tribe to succeed. And, even if you build one, if you then offer crap into that tribe, you’ll still go down in flames.

But, to those who are willing to put in the time, energy, work and even money, the rewards on both sides of the publishing pond are potentially transformative.

The opportunities immeasurable. But, only for those willing to …

Own the idea that what got us here ain’t gonna get us there.

Then suffer a healthy bit of creative destruction in the name of evolution, survival, then triumph.

So, what do YOU think?