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Publish First so You Don’t Perish

Wandering through an airport bookstore last week, I was struck by how many of the new bestsellers on the shelves were originally self-published by their authors as e-books (including Hugh Howey’s “Wool” series which has just been published by Simon and Schuster).  We all know the publishing industry has been under a lot of pressure, like the movie and music industries before it, partly as a result of digital technologies that make publication and dissemination so much cheaper and easier than it was before.  But it’s really interesting to me that as publishing houses consolidate and take on less authors, they are also moving into a trend of watching the self-published successes and scooping them up.  Obviously, there’s a heck of a lot of self-published books that are never picked up by traditional publishers, but it’s interesting to see how the publishing industry is responding to the digital self-publishing phenomenon in the approach of watching what’s successful in the self-publishing game and then taking it on for publication.  It’s a clever idea because they already know the book is popular before they publish it.  But I wonder how much money they make from this approach given that many of the people who wanted to read the book will have already read it by the time it’s published by a traditional publisher.  I also wonder – and I haven’t checked this at all – whether the publishing houses add anything to the book in terms of editorial work or if it’s exactly the same book as the original self-published version.  If they don’t do a lot of editing, it’s really a pretty cheap endeavor for them as compared with working on a new book from scratch.