DIY Publishing

Current web-app superstars (or arrogant prima donnas, which ever you prefer) 37 Signals have written a book and are distributing it solely as a PDF, for $19USD a pop. They are now claiming that because of their success with the book (1750 copies sold so far) that there is “a new sherrif in town” (ie. DIY publishing).

But is there really? Kottke chimes in as usual with a look at raw numbers rather than context and calls it good (well, “an interesting expirment” is his final declaration, but the rest of the short post seems more optimistic than that), but then I expected no less.

What I think we really have to look at is this:

  1. Who is their target audience? In this case it’s tech-savvy entrepeneurs who are trying to get the most out of their budgets and still learn from people who are successful. Go to the business section of your local bookstore and you will notice two things. First, you will notice that the market is glutted and that it’s hard to determine (from the way the books are designed and placed and so on) whose reputation is actually worth a damn and who is a two-bit huckster. Second, you will notice that these books are grossly over-priced. $19 probably looks pretty attractive from proven industry insiders (the questionable quality and originality of their material aside).
  2. What’s the shelf-life of this book? Probably not very long. They’ve already updated it and it was really only out for a day, which means two things. It means they weren’t really ready to ship it (which a decent editor would have been able to tell them) and that they don’t expect the book to be a long-time source of income for them. Now you may think, “whoa, if they keep updating it then they do mean it to be a source of long-term profits”. Not so. They’re using their initial buyers to tweak the product and then they are going to let it slowly drift away after the initial market buzz is over. Continually updating it will mean a lot of work for the customers who have already paid for it to keep up with a book they’ve already bought, and that is something readers really hate doing, and I’m sure the 37 Signals crew knows this.
  3. Would this approach work for other markets? Literature for example? Probably not, at least not widely. We all know about Corey Doctorow giving his books away for free online, but his success, I would argue, is more from novelty than from a real shift in the market. The market for literature (with the exception of science fiction readers), history, and so on is notorious for being aggressively luddite. The printed book hasn’t changed fundamentaly (and not for lack of trying) in four hundred years, and there are reasons for this, though I’m not going to get into them here. There’s also the problem of grabbing the reader’s attention. 37 Signals is an established name with an established readership based on a very specific technology. Most writers in other genres have no such thing backing them and therefore no easy way to reach their market. Yes they could start a website or something, but how many writers are really that tech-savvy? How many know how to promote a website? How many readers browse personal websites looking to buy books? The answer to all those questions is “not very many”. The publishing industry is hugely flawed, but one of the things that it does is get books where readers will see them, in bookstores. A bookstore is not going to spend what little money it has on an author that nobody has heard of that hasn’t even passed through the (albeit questionable) gateway of quality control represented by a publishing house.

New sherrif indeed. What we’re really looking at here is a success story based on acurately reading a very specific market that has very specific tastes and a certain degree of knowledge that renders the electronic learning curve moot. What we do not have is anything even remotely resembling an industry shift. Barely even a twitch.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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