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The Publishing Industry is Broken. There is a Fix.

The strong criticism following the release of “American Dirt” highlights a fundamental flaw with the publishing industry's mainstay business model.

This week The New York Times published South Texas writer David Bowles’ excellent op-ed decrying the state of the publishing industry as he observed it in the massive push behind Flatiron Books’ “American Dirt.” The book, Bowles argues, failed in its mission to be “the book on the immigrant crisis.” While I won’t go into the detailed critique of the novel that the self-described Chicano writer offers (which you can read here), it was his criticism of the publishing industry in general that caught my eye.

At the heart of Mr. Bowles’ argument is a dynamic I am extremely familiar with. Having paid seven figures for the manuscript in a bidding war with other major publishers, Flatiron’s leadership was forced to wager the lion’s share of their current promotional budget on the book. (To be fair, it may have been that the publisher’s estimation of the manuscript’s value caused them to invest so heavily. Either way the result is identical.) The novel made Oprah’s Book Club. It was marshalled across the desks of influential reporters and producers across the country. Countless celebrity selfies took to the internet. And then, the unthinkable.

The very people that “American Dirt” was meant to highlight and lift up, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, have largely rejected the book altogether in its first days of release as stereotypical, melodramatically trope-driven, and culturally inaccurate, writes Bowles. Instead of spreading their millions of dollars in promotion across a talented, diverse pool of authors in an effort to discover what would strike a cultural chord, Flatiron, like all major publishers today are playing a high-stakes game where they force-feed us what they guess will connect with a wide audience. This precludes the readers and honest reviews from influencing the process of emergent literary worthiness for new books.


I remember the very day I learned about this problem, early in the spring of 1991 at the corner of 50th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan. I was a 23-year-old production assistant at Random House who had the good fortune of being mentored by Walter Weintz, then the Associate Publisher of Random House Trade. As we walked toward a local eatery for lunch, I implored my mentor for insight as to why we pay so much attention to so few books. Certainly more of the material we publish should garner marketing resources? “Listen,” Walter said. He might as well have said, “Listen, kid.” It was such a rookie-and-the-veteran moment. “Fifteen percent of the books win, and they pay for the rest,” he concluded.

And there it was. This was a publishing executive. A master of his trade I very much looked up to, telling me point-blank that opportunity in the publishing industry, even among the authors of top-flight publishing houses, is not equal. For decades I accepted Walter’s wisdom even though it caused me unease. I felt that this was simply the imperfection of process caused by the economic realities expressed in the trade of intellectual property bound between covers. I applied those early lessons well in my career and I thrived across many different types of publishing.

And then I met my current boss. Also in the early 90s, Milli Brown was asking questions about the industry as she mulled a decision to start her own independent publishing house. She learned the same things I had learned. And then she asked why. Her curiosity put her on the path to creating the hybrid publishing model where the level of marketing investment for each book’s promotion is largely determined by the author, who retains sole ownership of their work. Instead of the winner-take-all model where the house wagers

heavily on a few books from the roulette wheel of their publishing list, she would offer equal access to a world-class publishing infrastructure for all authors whose work qualified. The publisher would earn a modest profit on all books, and in return the authors would receive virtually all of the profits from book sales.

As one of the fastest-growing publishers in America with (now) nearly 1,300% (one thousand, three hundred percent) book sales growth in five years, we feel we have proved the point that equal author opportunity triumphs over the hits business model of publishing. As the sales and operations executive who came late to the party, I’m proud to say that I’ve had a role in bringing Milli’s ultimate vision toward fruition (which is a constant and, as of this writing I’m realizing, unceasing task).

For Mr. Bowles: there is a publisher where every selected title is given an equal chance to find its audience, and where every author has identical access. We’re right here in your home state of Texas.

As an endnote, sometime after I joined Brown Books, Milli and I travelled to New York for Book Expo, the book trade publishing industry’s largest annual US convention. Much to my delight, Walter Weintz was on the convention floor as a sales executive, giving me the opportunity to introduce two of my mentors to each other. I ran down the hybrid publishing model and what Milli had created. He placed his hands on our shoulders, looked at us both and said, “You guys are the future of publishing.”

Tom Reale is the President and Chief Operating Officer of Brown Books Publishing Group. 

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What's Your 'Why Power'?

The Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) defines 'Why Power' as what connects you to the work you do in an integral and authentic way, and they explore this dynamic idea with thought-leaders across the publishing landscape. Accordingly, the IBPA's Executive Director sat down with BBPG's Tom Reale to discover what informs and motivates his leadership; find out how he found his "why" with a little help from America's Founding Fathers.

I found my publishing "why" nearly 25 years ago, on a Sunday. At the time I was a first-time manager, putting in weekend hours for a major New York-based publishing house. We were creating methods to reuse content from our higher education products, parsing and republishing text using then experimental techniques in electronic tagging, rights tracking, and automated formatting pagination. As I set the system to process batches of content from our textbooks, I found myself with time to think in between tasks, and my mind wandered to a question as I considered what I was doing there that day: what IS publishing?

Throughout my professional career, I have been a proponent of the idea that publishing was not an activity reserved to output of ink on paper, glue, and board or cardstock. In and after college, I had been a journalist, racking up more than 200 bylines by the time I moved to New York to work in publishing production and operations. And while I did have a sense of what publishing was not limited to, I was still hard-pressed to define our industry: its precepts and its most basic outcomes. So, I got up from my desk and rummaged the office for a copy of the document I considered to be my most viable starting pointthe Constitution of the United States of America . . . READ THE FULL INTERVIEW @ IBPA-Online.org

ASK A PUBLISHER: 14 Ways Distribution Will Make or Break Your Book

We're committed to equipping authors for success by sharing critical tools, expertise, and advice. That's why our COO Tom Reale is revealing insider insights on book distribution; find out how to avoid hidden risks—and maximize rewards—by partnering with the right publisher and distributor.

Not long ago, the American publishing industry was starkly divided between the “Haves” and the “Have-nots.” Authors either were represented by a royalty publisher with access to major wholesalers and retailers in 36,000-plus national locations—or they were sentenced to door-to-door distribution that literally required them to sell books out of their car or home. Those lucky enough to be selected by a royalty house faced their own serious challenges including:

Recently, online retailers have driven some disruption in this space. Self-publishing services with eBook and print-on-demand capabilities are providing authors with (limited) access to major consumer channels at a very cheap entry point. But rather than fulfilling on the promise of a true, open book market, this route is more like having a publishing parent who decides to start giving you an allowance of $5 per week, and it comes with a slew of problems such as:

Twenty-six years ago, our founder, Milli Brown, had an epiphany. Standing in a bookstore and holding a novel, she wondered whether the average patron cared about who made money when they bought a book. She thought about it and had to honestly answer, “No.” Then she wondered whether the other customers nearby could rattle off the names of the major New York publishers, and whether they even knew which company had published the book they just bought. Again she answered herself, “Probably not.” After all, how many people have heard of Avery, Perigee, Del Rey, or Flirt, or know that they are all part of Random House?

So why couldn’t there be a professional publishing company, with all of the capabilities and reach of a royalty publisher, that delivered the major economic benefit of book sales to the person who deserves it most: the author? There would be challenges to driving this thought process uphill against an industry infrastructure severely biased toward a royalty model. But Milli had two major advantages on her side of the struggle to come: Texan stubbornness, and no national publishing bias.


To build BBPG, Milli and her team methodically added one capability after another, in each case snapping into place another piece of the puzzle needed to create a completely unique, top-flight national publisher. Each step of the journey was met with skepticism from the various gatekeepers in the book trade. In each case, through leadership, innovation, and perseverance, Brown found a way to offer more to individual authors than had ever been offered in the past.

Today at BBPG, our model is simple. We focus on four key pillars to provide: