This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.
Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside, is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.
—Lord Chesterfield, Letters to his Son
Every time I talk to a prospective client, I ask them the same question: Why a book?
These people aren’t novelists seeking to etch their names into the literary pantheon—that’s an entirely separate illusion I leave to others to shatter.
I work with world-class experts looking to share their expertise, spread their ideas, and establish authority and credibility. With books, for some reason.
“If you don’t care about the money and you just want to get your stuff out there, why not just write everything down, export it to PDF, and share the link with everyone you know?”
(You might wonder why I routinely argue with people who want to pay me. I wonder the same thing.)
Either way, it’s at this stage that the author’s reasoning becomes vague. We ascend from the intellectual plane to the emotional.
“No, it’s not about getting on a bestseller list. I understand that’s rigged. Yeah, I know that publishers aren’t going to be much help on the marketing side…Look, I just want to publish a book.”
Clearly, being “published” by a real publisher still carries weight even as the distinctions and definitions blur. That’s especially weird to me because I spent ten years as one of deciders. You’re gonna let me tell you whether you’re an authority or not? Remember, I was one of the more respectable ones!
As with currency, traditional book publishing is an illusion maintained by shared consensus. “Real” publishers are real because we agree they are.
Of course, the illusion reflects reality and vice versa. And as new technologies spread and reader preferences change, the traditional publishing model adapts in fits and starts. The 90s craze for book CD-ROMs was short-lived, but e-books as a format are clearly here to stay, at least for genre novels.
Meanwhile, categories like business, self-help, and health are still very much tied to standard hardcover and paperback editions sold at essentially standardized prices.
Or are they?
Over the last few years I’ve seen some interesting hybrids popping up in these categories, often sold directly from authors’ websites. In many cases, these authors have the necessary marketing muscle and reputation to woo publishers. Why not just take the six-figure advance?
“Independent publishing,” “DIY publishing,” and “hybrid publishing” all fail to capture what’s different here. This is the world of dark publishing.
Why? I’m glad you asked.
Physicists calculate that visible matter—all the stars, planets, and other celestial bodies we can see through our telescopes—accounts for only a tiny percentage of the total mass of the universe. The rest, they theorize, is composed of dark matter and (to a much larger extent) dark energy. We can’t see it, we don’t know what it is or how it works, but we know it’s there.
(Bear with me, I did also help launch a popular science imprint.)
In the same way, many “books”—varying combinations of physical books, e-books, PDFs, audio, video, and other digital assets—can’t easily be sold through the ordinary book channels of Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Instead, their authors are creating and selling them directly through their own websites and with tools like Gumroad. These products may or may not have ISBN numbers. They may or may not show up in any other place where “books” are seen, sold, and counted, like bestseller lists. Their price points are all over the place.
And people are buying lots of them. Hence, dark publishing.
So if each of these books is essentially invisible to anyone outside of that particular author’s tribe, how do you learn more about dark publishing in general?
You know, if you want to try it yourself, or if you’re supposed to be a publishing expert and stuff…
In my case, I ask questions of people who are just too nice to refuse to answer them.
Tara Gentile is a small business strategist who teaches frequently on CreativeLive—I met her when I was its business channel head.
Last year, we chatted about her idea for her next book, entitled Quiet Power Strategy. I loved the concept: using gentle, persistent strategic focus to stand out in a noisy, crowded market.
On a recent visit to Tara’s site, I noticed that the book was now available for sale as a “multimedia pack.”
Could it be? Had I accidentally stumbled into the world of dark publishing? I reached out to Tara for some insight:
I realized there was an opportunity to create a “multimedia pack” for my books when I first started publishing on Amazon as well as on my own site. I knew the fair market price for a book on Amazon was far below the common going rate for a business book being sold independently. I wanted a way to justify two different prices.
How’d you do it?
Easy! I added in an audio, Kindle, and EPUB version of the book along with the usual PDF. Most of the technology I needed to create this was already on my computer: Pages and Garageband. A quick Google search brought me the small amount of technical know-how I needed.
What about Kindle?
To create the Kindle version, I used Pressbooks. It’s an easy, inexpensive way to create great-looking Kindle books.
Who’d you work with?
Amy Scott from Nomad Editorial. Amy helped me not only clean up the manuscript but provided a lot of direction on making it more engaging and effective.
What was your model?
My model was my own way of consuming books. I will often both read and listen to a book—and I do all of that from multiple devices. Why not make that as easy as possible for people? I also knew—from previous experience—that my own email list was more likely to purchase the book directly from me, while new-to-me readers would be more likely to purchase from Amazon. So another aspect of the multimedia pack is rewarding existing readers.
How’d it go?
Every time I’ve launched a multimedia pack like Quiet Power Strategy, I’ve seen a bigger bump of sales of that version at the beginning and then it tapers off and the Amazon version picks up steam. Again, that’s due to my own list preferring to buy directly from me but new-to-me folks preferring to buy from Amazon.
How’d you market it?
Tripwire offers. I offer a discount on a book as soon as someone subscribes to my list. For instance, if you sign up for my Revenue Planning Guide, you get an instant discount of $5 off Quiet Power Strategy.
What kind of feedback are you seeing?
I’ve noticed that the vast majority of people buying my multimedia packs are consuming the audio version. They go for a walk, put the book on their phone, and enjoy. They’re also listening multiple times, which is excellent for me as a marketer.
Would you do it again?
Totally! I’ve been doing this since 2012 and I wouldn’t stop. Of course, I’m always experimenting. With my last 2 books, Quiet Power Strategy and The Observation Engine, I also released a print version. I’ve been quite surprised by how well those have sold!
What else do you have cooking?
My most recent experiment is a mini-book published straight to my website: Lead Yourself Backwards: The Essential Management Mindset for Small Business Owners. While I wanted to make the text completely free, I also used the multimedia pack idea to give people a reason to give me their email addresses. You can read the full text on the site or, in exchange for your email address, you can get the PDF and audio version. Since I know how much people like that audio version, I knew it would convert well. The results have been astounding, with over 40% of people who land on the book page forgoing the completely free version and opting in for the audio version.
As you can see, Tara still uses Amazon, but it represents a smaller part of the overall strategy. Tools like Nielsen Bookscan, imperfect as they are for tracking sales of traditionally published books, are absolutely useless for gauging the scope of Tara’s success as an author. She’s gone totally dark and is quietly (get it?) succeeding beyond expectations.
Understanding how to conceive, design, build, market, and sell multi-asset, multi-channel “books” is rapidly becoming a necessary skill for authors and the people who work with them.
This goes for traditional publishers too, although their reliance on large booksellers makes the process politically difficult.