In The Four Pathways of Modern Book Publishing, I described the four main routes to publication for writers in the digital age.
After considering all these factors, I’ve chosen to pursue the most traditional publishing route, for six main reasons (from most to least important):
- Credibility and authority that comes with a big name publisher
- Access to expertise on what sells and what readers look for
- Access to the networks of editors, agents, and publishers
- Speaking opportunities
- Unique and interesting experiences
- Possibility of hitting best-seller lists
None of these benefits are as explicit as the control and profit margin of a self-published book. None of them are actually guaranteed, even if I do get published. They are tacit benefits that depend strongly on the skills and knowledge of the person cultivating them.
But I believe that being a full-stack freelancer makes me uniquely well-suited to turning these benefits to my advantage. Let me briefly describe each one, and how I plan to leverage them.
1. Credibility and authority that comes with a big name publisher
Traditional publishers are no longer the only route to mainstream success, but they are still by far the most common one. Just take a look at the writers and thinkers having the biggest impact, and the great majority of them will have been published by an institution.
Paradoxically, the more the industry declines and consolidates, the fewer books they choose to publish, the more powerful the social proof when they do. A well-known logo on the cover or inside flap is still the fastest way for someone to distinguish between a fledgling amateur, and someone with establishment approval.
Why is establishment approval important to me? Because my ultimate goal is to reach the institutions where most learning still happens: schools, universities, government agencies, non-profits, think tanks and research institutions, and corporations. I’ve had a great time being “internet famous,” but the people who most need these techniques are not tech-savvy digital natives. It is everyone else.
The gatekeepers and bureaucrats at these institutions don’t judge a book on its merits. They look for traditional signals of quality that will help them defend their decision and justify the investment needed to run pilots, conduct studies, and translate the ideas to different grade levels and learning environments. Educational institutions run on multi-year curriculum cycles, and deciding to adopt a book is a risky decision for them. I’m willing to put my ideas through that simplifying filter if it means more people in more contexts will have access to them.
2. Access to expertise on what sells and what readers look for
I view the primary expertise of traditional publishers not as “what is good” – note the many bestselling books which were rejected by every publisher – but as “what is ready for the mainstream.” Their entire business model depends on finding the few “unicorns” that cover their losses on all the others.
In my experience so far, they have a sharp eye for this, removing terms and phrases that aren’t self-explanatory, striving for metaphors that are universally accessible, and always tying new ideas into existing understanding. They talk of “book people” as a special group, and spend all day every day learning what they are hungry for.
Even if no publisher wants the book and I end up having to self-publish, I believe gaining exposure to this expertise will still have been valuable. It will help me get out of my Silicon Valley bubble and discover how the rest of the world thinks about notetaking. Self-publishing is a Plan B that is always available, so I want to see if I can make it through the more demanding traditional publishing route first.
3. Access to the networks of editors, agents, and publishers
I’ve already noticed that the traditional publishing world forms a tight-knit network: everyone seems to know each other, and in many cases have worked together.
This might be a barrier to entry for new authors, but if you can get in, it is of course a huge boon. Even just knowing the names of key people in the industry has already opened some doors and caused people to respond to my emails. By becoming part of this network, I believe I can gain unique access to everyone from successful authors, to editors of best-selling books in my niche, to leaders and executives at news organizations.
As much as we’d like to believe that the internet has created a democratic, egalitarian world, there are still closed doors and powerful conversations that happen behind them.
4. Speaking opportunities
I’ve invested a lot in my speaking career over the last couple years, for a number of reasons: it’s fun and engaging, it helps me develop very different but complementary skills to writing, it’s a great way to rapidly test new ideas before publishing, and it pays very well.
Last year I worked with a public speaking coach for the first time, which helped me with a series of paid gigs that I enjoyed very much (I’ve published the videos from some of them on my website). I recently talked to an author with a best-selling book currently on the charts, and he said his already successful speaking career had “exploded onto a completely new level” after his book became a success. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from multiple sources that even a moderately successful book can easily lead to rates of $20,000 for a 60-minute keynote, when properly framed for a Fortune 500 audience.
And these pursuits are complementary in both directions: a common way to boost book sales is to have the event organizer purchase the equivalent value of books instead of paying a speaking fee, and then hand them out to all the attendees. This boosts sales numbers while also exposing a large audience to your work.
5. Unique and interesting experiences
I’ve also heard from published authors that their books have led to many “unique experiences” that they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. From taking trips with other thought leaders, to getting invited to exclusive summits, to lunches with CEOs, there is a whole range of experiences that can’t necessarily be purchased, but are open to authors widely recognized as influential. The value of being a “public intellectual” is high and growing.
The truth is, it’s simply much easier to introduce an author as “published by Penguin,” or “represented by Trident,” or “New York Times bestselling author,” rather than “#62 in non-fiction self-help on Amazon.” These kinds of experiences are attractive to me because they’re fun and unique, sure, but also because spending time with such people is one of the secrets to new opportunities. They are hard to predict, but very real nonetheless.
6. Possibility of hitting best-seller lists and other recognition
Last and least, working with a publisher leaves the door open to hitting a bestseller list. This is both hard to predict and hard to make happen directly, but just in case Building a Second Brain is a breakout success, I’d like to have the pathway to official recognition already greased.
This could include making a list, or other things like reviews in national publications, editor’s choice awards, “best of” recognition, or even just inclusion on recommended reading lists for relevant topics. I believe these are more likely to happen with the imprint of a respected publisher.
Publishing for full-stack freelancers
Most of the benefits I’ve described in this article depend on my status as a full-stack freelancer – I’m able to capture value (and profits) from an integrated stack of products and services, instead of having to maximize one channel.
The economics of traditional publishing look pretty bad for narrowly defined book authors. You give up a lot of control, and get only a tiny percentage of sales revenues in return. You gain exposure, but what good is that if you can’t channel that exposure somewhere?
I’ve heard stories of NYT bestselling authors who enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame, but a couple years later were broke, because they didn’t have a system for channeling the attention they’d captured. I’ve even heard of authors who were guests on Oprah – pretty much the Mt. Olympus of marketing opportunities – and still couldn’t maintain traction. A book can make a nice splash, but real businesses aren’t built on one-hit wonders.
But the equation changes completely when you have multiple ways of monetizing the attention of an audience. Even if I make no money directly from book sales, I can use the book to boost my online courses, subscription blog, workshops and speaking gigs, and other ebooks. I have many ways of “routing” that credibility and attention into different products and services, so I don’t need to massively scale just one of them.
In other words, the same technology and connectivity that made publishing obsolete, may now be driving its resurgence. Now that we can use affordable software-as-a-service, automation, integrations, outsourcing, and online platforms to maintain multiple income streams, we can access the formidable capabilities of the large publishers, without being beholden to their business models.
Follow us for the latest updates and insights around productivity and Building a Second Brain on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. And if you’re ready to start building your Second Brain, get the book and learn the proven method to organize your digital life and unlock your creative potential.