What’s Wrong with Publishing?

A couple years ago, I heard author Mitch Albom speak as part of the annual One Book Henderson event, in which our entire community is encouraged to read and discuss one book, in this case, “The Five People you Meet in Heaven.”

Albom, who still works as a sports columnist for the “Detroit Free Press,” is one of the best-selling authors of all time. His memoir, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” has sold more than 14 million copies and was made into a movie starring the late Jack Lemon.

During his presentation, Albom walked us through his remarkable writing journey. After completing the touching, life-affirming manuscript for “Morrie,” Albom’s agent shopped it around to all the major publishing houses. All of them told him essentially the same thing: “Albom is known as a sports writer. This book has very limited potential.”

That was pigeonhole number one. Eventually, Random House decided to take a chance and produced a relatively modest first-run of 20,000 copies. After a brief guest spot on “Oprah,” the book really took off, spending years atop the “New York Times” bestseller list.

Encouraged, Albom decided to try his hand at fiction. At this point, you’d think he’d be able to write his own ticket. You’d be wrong. The same publishers told him, “You’re known as a nonfiction writer. This book has very limited potential.”

Pigeonhole number two. Even with an enviable track record, Albom couldn’t break out of the box the traditional publishers wanted to stuff him in. The manuscript for “Heaven” finally found a home at Hyperion and went on to sell more than 10 million copies.

The moral of the story? Even for successful authors like Mitch Albom, publishing is a rigged game. What hope is there for the rest of us?

Fortunately, plenty. Big publishing is a dying industry. In the “old days,” (ten years ago), distribution was their ace-in-the-hole. You needed them to get onto the bookstore shelves. Today, more than half of all book sales take place outside of stores. I’ve sold the bulk of my books via the Internet, personal appearances and through special promotions (hooking up with marketing partners with similar target audiences).

This should be heartening news for any writer with a decent product and the will to tirelessly promote it. Society is experiencing a similar paradigm shift in all areas of creative endeavor: music, movies, magazines, etc. Emerging artists are using new channels to go directly to the public. Older artists are buying back their intellectual property rights and doing the same thing. To me, this represents unlimited opportunity. That sound you hear is the death knell of publishing as we know it.

Good riddance. As they say in those late night infomercials, “We’ve eliminated the middleman and passed the savings on to you.” Sounds like a good idea to me.

Or, to paraphrase the great John Lennon, “Power to the people. Write on.”