Midlist Nonfiction Books: Too Much Effort for Too Little Return?

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Pictured above: A slide from Margaret Atwood's marvelous presentation at TOC on the future for authors

When
it comes to non-narrative nonfiction books, I don't think of the
authors of these books as authors. I think of them as experts,
entrepreneurs or business professionals who are interested in authoring a
book because of the credibility it lends them. Maybe it makes it easier
for them to get other paying gigs, or speaking invites, or to gather
more audience for other products and services.

In other words,
the book is a critical aspect of their platform. Maybe for some authors
it's a money-maker, but most mid-list authors cannot quit their day job
based on royalties.

I'm starting to wonder if a traditional print
book has become a glorified platform builder (and an ego booster) that
doesn't deserve as much weight as we all still give it. It offers
precious little ROI given the time-sink of writing and promoting
something that's 80,000 words or more.

I speak from the author's
point of view here, but certainly publishers must be asking this
question too. (I've seen what a typical nonfiction book sells. It's not
much.)

Here are 2 key reasons why I would rethink pursuing authorship of a nonfiction book (of the non-narrative kind).

1. For ideas/information, a book is becoming less and less of an ideal medium.

Consider all the ways one might convey the same ideas, with even more
power and impact, with either the same time commitment or less, and for
more money/value (plus it's content that's not tied up with a
publisher!):

E-mail newsletters
Blog series
Self-study curriculum
Digital downloads (packages of content)
Slideshares
Online/community forum
Live online seminars or calls
Multimedia presentation (video/audio)
Mobile apps


2.
For anyone who has the requisite platform to interest a publisher,
there's probably more money to be made in marketing and selling their
own content, in whatever form/medium they most enjoy (or their audience
enjoys).
As more and more readers transition to digital
reading devices, and physical bookstore distribution/visibility becomes
less relevant to success, a publisher will have to add value in some way
that the author cannot.

Will it be through editing? Probably
not. The author can get that himself if he has a good network. (And if
he has a good platform, he has a good network.)

Will it be
through direct-to-consumer relationships that the publisher has that the
author doesn't? Maybe, but the Internet levels the playing field, and
most savvy authors I know are developing their direct-to-reader
reach—and would be more interested in partnering with an Amazon or a
Levenger type—or some entity that has the attention of an audience that the
author has yet to capture or be exposed to.

A further note on the future

The book format is still being used too often, and in sloppy ways, to fill holes in publishers' schedules.

I love how Kevin Kelly defines books:

A book is a self-contained story, argument, or body of knowledge that takes more than an hour to read.

The
majority of nonfiction books published today don't meet this criterion
honestly. Instead, they feel like a series of blog posts. The ideas are
padded to make a book. Often they they don't teach me anything I
couldn't have found or learned online; they regurgitate well-known
knowledge in a sexy package. Sometimes even the package isn't that
great. For this reason alone, I think the book format loses credibility,
validity, and importance in our culture.

There is an alternative
for everyone (aside from what I've described in points 1 and 2). As
more reading and book buying moves into the digital realm, and
publishers (and authors) don't have to meet a certain length requirement
or page count to be marketable in print or through bookstores, quality
ought to improve. Seth Godin's Domino project is an example of how this is happening. Also take a look at Atavist.

But
these aren't really books by Kelly's definition—just an alternative and
better medium for delivering certain ideas. Perhaps this medium is one
of the new business cards or platform builders for tomorrow's nonfiction
"authors." Not unlike traditional publishing, you're getting the rubber
stamp of a brand or an authority who believes your work or your ideas
merit their time and attention.

(Is it bad that I'm starting to
use author in quotation marks? It already feels like an anachronism in a
world of collaboration, sharing, and electronic media.)

In any
case: given that a formal book (whether print or digital) isn't going to
be the best way to deliver most information/advice/teachings in the
future, I think Kevin Kelly's definition will start to become the gold
standard by which anyone (either author or publisher) considers
investing in this legacy form. But there are few authors and few ideas
out there that really deserve it.

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