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A Peek Inside the Recent Penguin Random House Trial


While self-publishing a book has always been an option, a lot of authors still opt to wait – to see if they can get a publisher to give them a nod of approval.

Because for years traditional publishers were the center of the universe.

But the recent DOJ – Penguin Random House antitrust trial has brought a lot of that into question. As have some recent changes at Barnes & Noble.

So I want to dedicate a blog post to this news, without getting too far into the weeds with the trial, and look at some of the high-level takeaways of the future of working with a publisher, vs. self-publishing a book, as well as digging into some of startling numbers that have come out as a result.

Let’s start with this:

This seems crazy, right?

But most books published traditionally sell painfully few copies, and one of the reasons I’ve been so fascinated with this trial is how it’s lifted the veil on a lot of what publishers do – or don’t do – to market books.

For example, it was revealed during this trial that Penguin Random House doesn’t start marketing most of their titles until they see that reader interest is beginning to increase.

This wait and see approach is a deadly way to market anything let alone books.

And we know that as books age, they become harder to market – getting influencers to review your book, getting media attention, etc. All that starts to decline the older a book gets.

The other surprising nugget was that publishers often see themselves as “angel investors” – which, by definition, is vastly different from any kind of expectations that authors would have for a publisher.

And the term angel investor is also passive, when you think of traditional angel investors, they invest their money and wait and see what happens, which is a sad way to acquire a book.

We know that a lot of authors (many of them genre fiction) are jumping ship and moving to indie publishing instead of staying with their publishing houses.

And it makes sense for them to do so, because lots of genre fiction sales come from eBooks, and it’s much more profitable for an author to grab those sales from Amazon (70% royalty from KDP) rather than share that with their publisher.

But what about the rest of us?

What about non-fiction authors, children’s books, commercial fiction, and the like?

There’s a big movement going on there as well, that makes considering self-publishing a book more lucrative.

And while unrelated to the Penguin Random House trial, there is another change looming on the horizon.

Namely that Barnes & Noble is shying away from carrying front list books and, instead, focusing on backlist books that have strong sales potential. Which seems counterintuitive to how they’ve always operated, meaning putting new release titles front and center for readers to browse and (hopefully) buy.

But more and more I’m finding that in every channel of traditional publishing and book selling, these places are less willing to take risks.

They’re in effect, becoming more like airport bookstores – only carrying the books they know are already selling.

This puts all authors, regardless of genre, in a precarious position.

Previously, if an author were to ask me why I’d suggest that they go the traditional publisher route, I would say that their distribution channels are unmatched – especially Penguin Random House. And by distribution, I mean the push into bookstores, airport stores, Walmart, Target, etc.

But then consider this, something else that came out of this trial was that publishers spend, on average, only 2% of their revenue on marketing.

You read that right, just 2%.

If you then factor in the Barnes & Noble piece I just mentioned, the distribution part of this becomes less impactful. Meaning that you’ll be lucky to get distribution of any kind, given how this model is currently set up.

Let me be clear: I don’t dislike traditional publishing, but they’re operating in an antiquated system that has worked for them previously, but really doesn’t support the author or, for that matter, further book sales.

Traditional publishing, as we know it, won’t be around much longer.

Why? Let’s say the DOJ decides that Penguin can buy (absorb) Simon & Schuster. This will shrink the market for authors.

With fewer options come fewer opportunities, and I can easily see them wanting to focus on books that are more of a sure thing (kind of like all the tabloid publishing they did during the Trump presidency).

And most authors aren’t sure things, unfortunately.

Let me be clear: this is not the death knell to publishing.

But I do think that it’s a model that just doesn’t work for most of us.

That said, self-publishing a book isn’t an “easy out” though I know it’s been treated as such by far too many authors.

The wakeup call that’s come out of this hearing: there are other options you should consider.

I raised the idea of self-publishing but there are also small presses who produce exceptional books and work hard for their authors.

And I foresee that boutique houses and small presses (different from hybrid publishers which are still, by and large, self-publishing) are going to rule this industry. Along with, of course, the well-done and smartly published indie titles.

It’s time to up your game, no more delays.

Not only because there are so many books vying for attention on Amazon, but because neither self-publishing a book or getting a publishing deal is the field of dreams.

Just because you wrote it (no matter how it’s published) doesn’t mean readers will beat a path to your door.

Being strategic is part of being an author, and I have a zillion blog posts and podcasts episodes dedicated to this (I’ll post a couple of recent episodes below if you want to delve into this more).

But suffice it to say, things are changing.

If you’re holding your book waiting for a big publisher to take your title, consider your options.

Consider a smaller house more dedicated to your success or be entirely independent and leave all your marketing and branding options open – it can sound scary but really, it’s the best option for your long-term success and branding.

No matter how you’re published, you still have to market.

So, knowing that, and how the industry is changing, what does your future look like?

If you’re self-publishing a book after being traditionally published in the past I’d like to hear what your deciding factors were.

Here’s one final image from @janefriedman with statistics from the trial:

self-publishing a book numbers

And here is a very interesting panel discussion she did on this topic!

Resources and Free Downloads

What most authors don’t understand about self-publishing a book.

Why releasing a book is like starting a business.

How a publisher can kill your success.

Why self-publishing your book is extra lucrative if you’re planning a series.

The Vox covers more about the trial here.

The biggest plot twists from the trial.



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