Electronic publishing has upset the equilibrium enjoyed by the publishing industry for the last half-century. While some celebrate the overthrow of the gate-keeping elite and the democratization of publishing, others lament the end of literary culture.
Beneath the enthusiasm and the angst, a new market has opened as commercial publishers abandon mid-list books in favor of blockbusters. Thanks to online markets where books never go out of print, it is now possible for authors to earn a living writing and selling books they and their readers love.
This guide explores artisan publishing, a new approach to creating and releasing books where the focus is on quality and the integrity of the author’s editorial vision. The path of the artisan isn’t a short-cut to fame and fortune, but it is the best way to create something you’ll be proud of and in which your readers will find lasting value.
“May you live in interesting times,” is an old Chinese curse, and sounds tame, as curses go, compared to ones that call down withering diseases, plagues of vermin, and the wrath of the undead. Its beauty, however, is that it looks innocuous, but packs a wallop: unlike the gruesome specificity of the typical curses interesting times could mean anything.
Regardless of the cause, times become interesting when old certainties no longer hold and no one knows what to do. Publishing is now in the midst of interesting times. For a substantial portion of the last century and most of the first decade of this one, the publishing industry has been defined by the logistics of distributing books to bookstores. There were innovations, like mass-market paperbacks and book stands in supermarkets and big-box retailers, but none of these changed the fundamental distribution pattern. Setting yourself up as a publisher required a second-mortgage-level investment to print books and a tremendous amount of legwork to arrange for distribution. The advent of electronic publishing changed everything because the barrier to entry dropped to little more than the time and effort required to write the book.
What we used to call publishing (or commercial publishing if we needed to distinguish the standard model, where authors were paid by publishers, from vanity publishing, where authors paid publishers) now gets qualified with words like, traditional, legacy, or even, dinosaur. And now we talk about self-publishing and independent or indie publishing (an attempt to align with the success and credibility of independently produced films and music), and even argue that trading a 70% royalty for a 15% royalty and recognition by a publisher is a new kind of vanity publishing.
But there’s something happening in the market that is far more important than the tug-of-war between dependent and independent publishing models.
In an interview on the Guide to Literary Agents (GLA) blog, Jessica Regel answered the following question:
GLA: You’ve been agenting for almost 10 years now. You’ve got a great perspective on the industry. What do writers need to know about being a writer nowadays that perhaps was not a concern a decade ago?
Jessica Regel: I’m sure writers have been hearing this for years, I know I have, but the quiet, steady mid-list book is dying. It’s extremely difficult to sell a quiet, well-written book. Each project I go out with needs to have that one-line movie pitch. It’s all about the hook—paired with phenomenal writing. 
It’s easy to hear that, “It’s extremely difficult to sell a quiet, well-written book,” shake our heads knowingly, and grumble about publishing following in the footsteps other entertainment industries that focus on blockbusters. Regel’s comment, however, is evidence of a fundamental structural change rumbling, like shifting tectonic plates, through the industry.
In 1997, Clayton Christensen published, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail,  in which he explored the generational pattern where once dominant firms are eventually eclipsed by more nimble startups that, in turn, become dominant. According to common wisdom, the old firms became dinosaurs for whom the meteor couldn’t come too soon because their management failed to keep up with changing technology. Christensen’s research uncovered something far stranger: the firms that failed were generally well managed—listening to their customers, investing in research and development, and aggressively marketing their innovations—and yet none of that staved off their eventual demise.
The problem, though, is structural. Christensen showed how, across many industries, companies consistently migrate to the high end of the market where their products enjoy the greatest profit margin. In doing so, they often abandon the low end to new firms with new technology. The key piece in the puzzle that Christensen brought to light was the fact that established firms could rationally abandon the low end of the market because the new technology was so obviously inferior to the older technology the established firms controlled. For example, the manufacturers of 5.25 inch hard drives had nothing to worry about when 3.5 inch hard drives were introduced because the smaller disks were slower and held less data: they were only good for laptops, where space was at a premium. But things tend to get better over time, and in a few years the smaller hard drives were good enough that computer manufacturers standardized on them for both laptop and desktop systems, and suddenly the market for 5.25 inch hard drives evaporated.
What does this have to do with publishing?
The disappearance of mid-list books from agents’ radar is clear evidence of publishers moving toward the high end of the book market and abandoning the low end: it’s no longer worth the time or effort to bring a quiet, mid-list book to market when what publishers really need is a string of bestsellers.
E-books and online markets provide an inferior, but cheaper reading experience. It’s a textbook example of disruptive innovation.
Of course, printed books and the established firms that produce them are not going to go away—at least not anytime soon. Books will continue to be available in a vibrant mix of print and electronic formats. But it’s not hard to imagine a time when printed books, like vinyl records, are only sought out by true aficionados.
The way in which the forces at work in the market for books will ultimately play out is much less important than the fact that established firms are moving toward the high-end of the market, creating space at the low end for smaller, newer firms and even for artisans.
That would be enough to qualify as interesting times, but there is another, equally fundamental, structural shift at work in the market.
I stopped going to first-run movies a long time ago. I made that decision during the era of local video-rental stores. The fact that I would eventually be able to see the movie, at a cost that was easier to bear on my starving-student budget, took the wind of urgency out of my movie-watching sails.
Now, the same thing has happened with books.
There’s more to the analogy between book-buying and movie-going: both industries do their best business with blockbuster releases because they create value by creating artificial scarcity. Being among the first to see a much anticipated movie or read a major author’s latest release gives short term benefits, above and beyond the value of the story, like bragging rights.
The Internet is well on its way to making anything instantly available. One of the consequences of instant availability is that being first in line to get something the moment it’s released becomes less important. Elizabeth Gumport said:
“Not only do we not want to read about Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, we don’t even want to know it exists. Newness is not a fixed property. There must be a less arbitrary, more sensible way to encounter books, an organizational scheme better suited to identifying and highlighting excellence; one which doesn’t foreground mediocrities simply because they are the newest mediocrities. ‘Recent’ is not a synonym for ‘relevant.’” [
Libraries, the antithesis of theaters and bookstores, are fundamentally about lasting value—not in terms of absolute worth but in the much simpler sense of something in which people continue to find value over time. The challenge for authors and publishers in the brave new electronic world will be to create lasting value that attracts an ever growing audience instead of relying on scarcity to create a bubble of demand around the release.
The opening of the literary market and the end of artificial scarcity have together created an opportunity for a new kind of publisher: an artisan publisher.
The word, artisan, long carried the sense of the common practitioner, as opposed to the artist who brought genius and inspiration to the work. But as mass production blesses us with a collective and mostly uniform affluence, artisan has come to signify a means of production where low unit cost and economies of scale are not the primary objective. Artisan bread, for example, is made by hand even though there are bread factories that can out-produce an army of bakers.
Why, if we are rational economic actors, would we ever choose a product that is more expensive and less available than a mass-produced equivalent? People who prefer artisan breads may argue in terms of the varieties or flavors available nowhere else, or the virtue of supporting local production, but for most people it simply tastes better. Small production batches and traditional, hand-made methods allow skilled craftspeople to invest love, care, and attention to detail to insure the integrity of their work.
Artisan publishing isn’t simply a variation on the theme of doing it yourself. The large, well-stocked home improvement centers dotting our suburban landscape owe their existence more to naivety, false economy, and hubris than to a genuine and supportable conviction that doing it yourself is the best way to get the job done well, right, and in a timely fashion. The path of an artisan publisher begins with having something worth saying and a thorough effort to determine the best way to publish that work. As with our writing, where no character, scene, or sentence is too precious to escape scrutiny, artisan publishing has nothing to do with shortcuts or showing the gatekeepers how wrong they were about your manuscript and everything to do with what is best and right for the project.
One of the most important lessons every skilled craftsperson must learn is just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The greatest works of art are exercises in restraint not excess.
Artisan publishing is a patient, laborious path. It’s not enough to have the skill, the aptitude, or even the inclination to publish your own material. You need to know why, both for your particular project and for you as an individual, the way of the artisan is worth all the time and trouble it will cost you.
A journey of a thousand miles may well begin with a single step, but your chances of completing the roughly two million steps that comprise the journey are poor if you don’t know why you’re doing it. There are many bad reasons—one of the worst being because everyone else is doing it—and only a few good ones. The difference is that bad reasons wear away over time but good ones will see you through to the end.
No true craftsperson undertakes a work lightly—not because their work has mystical significance but because the hallmark of skill is to act deliberately. In order to act deliberately you need to know why you’re acting: you need to have a sense of your mission as an artisan publisher. Otherwise, you’ll provide yet another confirmation of the old aphorism that if you’re aiming at nothing you’ll hit it.
There are already too many books promising to give you the insider secrets that will enable you to make a fortune in electronic publishing—how to format and upload text, create covers, and build a readership with free, or cheap books, and paid reviews that will make your e-books fly off the virtual shelves.
This guide covers none of that: it’s not a how-to, it’s a why-to. It’s a guide to the context, philosophy, and expectations you should have if you want to be an artisan publisher.
Chapter 2 sets the groundwork with a clear view of the publishing industry. You need to understand what commercial publishers actually do and the roles of author and publisher if you want to participate intelligently.
Chapter 3 takes a sober look at the reasons you shouldn’t choose artisan publishing.
Having laid that groundwork, Chapter 4 explores the advantages of being an artisan publisher, the biggest of which, editorial control, is covered in Chapter 5.
Chapter 6 turns to the challenges you’ll likely face as an artisan publisher. Managing time and your expectations about time is enough of a challenge, in its own right, that it is the subject of Chapter 7.
Chapter 8 outlines aspects of the craft of publishing you will need to master.
The artisan philosophy of business and marketing are covered in chapters 9 and 10, respectively.
Chapter 11 reveals the illusion of a national book culture that holds back many potential artisans.
Chapter 12 explores strategic publishing in an age of abundance (what some have called the problem of discoverability).
And Chapter 13 steps back to put the entire discussion into perspective.
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The electronic frontier is neither literary heaven nor hell. It’s simply a new set of opportunities for readers and writers. It’s not a religion that requires you to renounce other forms of publishing. Rational authors, acting in their best business interests and in light of their particular circumstances, will find good reasons to take advantage of all the different publishing options at various times and places.
The barriers to entry are low enough that you will likely find reasons to participate, but don’t confuse the ease with which you can publish with lower standards. In this new age of digital abundance, the one thing that matters—which is the only thing that has ever mattered—is writing a good book.
1: Artisan Publishing
2: A Clear View of the Publishing Industry
3: Why You Shouldn’t Choose Artisan Publishing
4: The Advantages of Being an Artisan Publisher
5: Editorial Control
6: The Challenges of Artisan Publishing
7: Grappling With the Time Beast
8: Mastering Your Craft
9: The Artisan Philosophy of Business
10: Artisan Marketing
11: The Illusion of a National Book Culture
12: Strategic Publishing in an Age of Abundance
13: What Should You Do?
Trained as an anthropologist, engineer, and historian, Deren Hansen brings a unique structural perspective to the conversation about writing and the writing life.