"You don’t understand," the three-time, big-six published author told me. "Books aren’t designed for you, the customer. Today, non-fiction books are business cards—for speaking, consulting, and deals."
I was meeting this friend for dinner in New York City and had mentioned a trend I had noticed in nearly every book I’d seen in the last year: They never say what they’re about. Almost as a rule, hardcover books (and increasingly e-books) favor laudatory "blurbs" over descriptions—opting for short quotes from important authors, CEOs, celebrities, or media outlets to make their case.
At the time, I was in the middle of designing the back cover of my own book, and being somewhat new to the game, I could not understand the benefits of doing this. Wouldn’t it be better to use that space to describe the contents of the book? Isn’t that what "customers" would want? Why bury the content on the inside?
I was missing a fundamental change that has occurred in the publishing business, particularly for authors. Faced with declining sales and the disappearance of book retailers like Borders, authors have diversified their income streams, and many make substantially more money through new business generated by a book, rather than from it.
Today, authors are in the idea-making business, not the book business. In short, this means that publishing a book is less about sales and much more about creating a brand. The real customers of books are no longer just readers but now include speaking agents, CEOs, investors, and startups.
I spoke to Andrew Keen, best-selling author of The Cult of the Amateur and more recently Digital Vertigo, about this trend. Though Andrew’s books have sold well, the majority of his "book" income is actually is derived from speaking, not advances or royalties. During the last six months alone, he’s crossed the globe countless times, giving well-received keynotes in London, Belgium, Napa, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Dublin, São Paulo, Aspen, and Edinburgh. In some respects, Keen is the model for the new economics of publishing.
"Authors have to be entrepreneurial and write books which generate revenue in other areas outside book sales," he told me. "I've been successful in the speaking market, which is much more lucrative than writing."
Consider the controversy around Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek cover story in August. Some accused him of writing his anti-Obama story with an eye toward impressing conservative and business groups willing to pay his $50,000-$75,000 fee to come speak to their members. Regardless of Ferguson’s intent in that instance, his best-selling books face the same incentives: The money they generate pales in comparison to what he can make working just a handful of events each year.
Patrick de Laive and Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten, founders of The Next Web Conference,
explained it to me from the perspective of a popular international event. A conference like theirs looks for authors with interesting ideas to spice up their events. "We love to invite writers because they are born storytellers," they said to me in a joint email. "And that is what works really well at a conference. If you can get a mix of people who are very technical or famous and combine that with writers...you get a great show."
For an author looking to break into this market, it wouldn’t be about courting critics or seeking award nominations. Rather, their book needs to prove that they are an interesting or attractive storyteller with relevant ideas.
Many authors I spoke with were discovering similar niches. For instance, in Silicon Valley, authors have parlayed books into gigs as advisors to startups that need their expertise in certain areas. The author takes a small equity stake in the company in exchange for this advice—an arrangement that likely would not have come about if not for their status as a prominent author. After publishing my own book about marketing and media manipulation in July, I began receiving similar calls soliciting my time for consulting projects. Few of these inquiries were motivated by book sales, and sometimes barely by the content of the book itself (one told me that their business only works with the best, and if I wrote this book, I must be the best).
As Esquire put it, books and articles for writers of the 21st century have become "billboards for the messengers." This equation profoundly changes the publishing game, from the way books are designed to the way they are written—and who writes them.
It explains the figure commonly thrown around in publishing that close to half of all books are ghostwritten (if that seems high to you, consider that a recent survey found that 42% of academic medical papers are ghostwritten). It also explains why books have blurbs instead of descriptions. It’s far better to brand a book with names like Peter Thiel, Seth Godin, or Malcolm Gladwell via positive blurbs than with a rousing or intriguing summary. Most importantly, it explains why authors will spend tens of thousands of dollars buying copies of their own books to hit various best-seller lists.
Call it a business card, a resume, a billboard, or whatever you choose, but the short of it is that books are no longer just books. They are branding devices and credibility signals.
To lovers of books, I’m sure this will all sound like bad news. But to non-fiction authors, it’s a reality. In some ways, it’s also a bit of a relief and an opportunity. No one is asking you to write the Great American Novel. Nor do you need to sell a million copies. You just need to own and present an interesting idea to the right people.
In this new market, anyone can be a successful author because the definition of success has changed. Readers are no longer the sole "buyers." In fact, they may be the least important type.
Is the term "best-selling author" worth anything anymore? Tell us what you think in the comments.
[Image: Flickr user Threthny]