Monday, March 15, 2010

Rich-content self-published books are still too expensive

At Blurb we've made a pretty good living printing primarily 4-color books over the past four years.  In fact we shipped more than 1.3 million books in 2009 to a tune of over $45M.  At one point we were taking a new title every 1.1 seconds.  Pretty cool stuff.  But our vision since the beginning was the "democratization" of publishing.  Have we succeeded or are we still just scratching the surface?

Blurb's success revolves around several building blocks.  First, we revolutionized how full-color, digital offset books are priced, moving away from the pay-per-page model that was embraced by the digital photo album folks that were attracting the early consumer adopters.  Then, as a software company, we listened closely to our customers during our beta period and created products and services that met their needs along with a full ecosystem to manage their Blurb experience.  Finally, we captured a cool factor that creatives understood and embraced.

But an ever growing group of our customers are authoring books to make money.  These are the true self-publishers that are avoiding the traditional means of publishing, a stale model that leaves the author with a minute percentage of the book's selling price as a profit.  Or they are creating titles so specifically targeted that they could never publish traditionally and in the past had to live in the world of newsletters, zines, and, more recently, electronic means.  Browse around the Blurb Bookstore and you'll see stunning examples of what these authors are creating.  We are obviously thrilled but we're still not happy.  Why?  Because the promise of self-publishing rich-content titles has still not been fulfilled.  Even though we are the price leader in the color book printing category, I think that getting a bookstore quality color book at a price allowing for re-sale is still a bit illusive.

So we continue to push the envelope for our customers.  Our close relationship with HP, manufacturers of the Indigo presses that are used exclusively by our global print network, allows us to continue to drive efficiencies in the print process as well as create economies of scale that can be passed on to our customers. Growing from zero to $45M in just a few short years also helps us gain credibility in a publishing marketplace that often looks at newcomers with a suspicious eye, allowing us to parlay our success into valuable relationships with suppliers.  But those relationships, while vital, have still not moved the needle in a way to create the sea change needed to really democratize the industry.

I am excited about some prospects over the coming months.  The new high-speed ink jet presses, like the T-300 from HP and the Prosper from Kodak, hold the potential of very good quality color output at a price that could change the industry.  Various inventors and entrepreneurs are looking at ways to remove some of the labor out of book binding, which remains one of the biggest cost of goods. Plus, Blurb is looking to keep innovating on how our authors can promote their books easily and inexpensively.

We've just released a new beta of a product we call Blurb BookShow.  BookShow is a widget that authors can embed in their website, blog, or Facebook page allowing potential customers to automatically preview and buy their book.  It's the first of the ongoing innovations that we are releasing this year to support our author/customers. Rest assured that we are not resting on our laurels. We won't be happy until we revolutionize the publishing business.


Bill said...

Hello Bruce,

Nice post - very honest indeed.

As a self-published author since the late 1980's, I have watched this industry change dramatically. While tha playing field is fairly level today, a few hurdles still remain, and full-color books at an affordable price for resellers is one of them.

But, this is a technical problem, and I am confident that companies like yours will soon solve it. The real probloem facing authors is more strategic. We have to turn from artist to business owner, and that is not as easy a problem to solve.

My first five books were a commercial failure because I had not learned to write for a buying audience. It was not until my sixth book that I "cracked the code" - I found the audience first, then created a book taht spoke to them personally, and solved a major problem. This formula works for both fiction and non-fiction.

In the ensuing years (since 1993) I sold 2 million+ books, in 20 languages. I keep going back to the same formula - find a group with a problem (be it entertainment for fiction, or education/information for non-fiction) and write the book they need, then connect with them and build a community.

I really like the sounds of your new tool Book Show for websites, blogs, etc. I will look forward to learning more about it.

Bruce Watermann said...

Great advice Bill...thanks for the comment!