Publishing’s Challenges & Opportunities – An Interview with Bruce Batchelor

bruce batchelorBruce Batchelor has long been a publishing pioneer, innovator and leading advocate for independent (“indie”) publishing.  He recently shared his experiences as a publisher, as well as the challenges and opportunities facing the book publishing industry today.  Bruce is the founder of Trafford Publishing, where he publisher more than 10,000 authors from over 100 countries during 11 years as the company’s publisher and CEO.  In 1995, while at Trafford, he invented print-on-demand (POD) based publishing. 

Book Marketing DeMystified CoverHe is the author of numerous books, including his latest, Book Marketing DeMystified.  Always an entrepreneur, Bruce has been the recipient of an Award of Excellence from The Financial Post and recognized by Profit Magazine as CEO of one of Canada’s top ten fastest growing companies in 2004) and 2005.  Today he heads up Agio Publishing, his latest book publishing venture.  

FPP – Publishing has always been a tough business. How did you get started and what motivated you to enter the business?

Bruce – My first publishing was simple and profitable: our high school yearbook was a money-maker, then I published a monthly high school newspaper (also profitable). After university, I self-published a book of stories and maps of the Yukon River and that was a lovely income source for many years — and regional bestseller. Then, with a group of friends, we published The Lost Whole Moose Catalogue: a Yukon Way of Knowledge” in 1979 — that sold over 20,000 copies and stayed in print for 25 years and inspired two sequels and the creation of a northern publishing company. So I didn’t realize publishing was supposed to be a tough business — it was a fall-back source of money for me when I wasn’t doing other work-adventures.

FPP– At Trafford Publishing, you pioneered the idea of print on demand. What inspired this innovation and what hurdles did you have to overcome to put it into action?

In 1994 I was consulting to a number of provincial and federal (Canadian) ministries to help them cut costs on publishing technical and policy manuals. These documents need changing periodically, so are ill-suited to offset printing. That’s when I discovered print-on-demand technology existed and could be used to print a single copy “on-demand”. Up to this point, the technology was being marketed as suitable for short runs of 300 to 500 copies. The challenge was to be able to show a catalogue of documents, take orders (with payment) and submit up-to-date print files to the DocuTech device — all in an automated fashion so the clerical-accounting overhead wouldn’t be too onerous. Fortunately the world-wide web was just beginning, so we created one of the first on-line stores (in 1995) to display our wares, collect orders and credit card payment, and relay the printing instructions and shipping papers to our contracted print shop.

The next hurdle was getting books/manuals/whatever to sell. We began with a few government manuals but soon began to solicit new books from authors and publishers. From that point, the business grew exponentially until Trafford Publishing had over 140 employees, offices in 4 countries, and sales of about $1 million per month. By the time I left in 2006, we’d published about 10,000 titles for authors living in over 100 countries.

FPP– After leaving Trafford, you formed a new company called Agio. Could you describe Agio’s basic business model and what do you think is most unique about Agio’s service offerings for authors?

Bruce – “Conventional” publishers incur all the expenses and have all the control over the content, appearance and marketing.

Agio and similar “collaborative” publishers share the costs and share the control.

Self-publishing on one’s own or using a service such as Trafford or AuthorHouse or Lulu means the author pays all the costs and has all the control.

At Agio, we only work with authors and books that intrigue and inspire us. The approach is collaborative. We insist on top-quality writing, editing and design. We contribute about half of the costs, and share the royalties with the author (Agio gets 20%; author gets 80%). We create customized marketing campaigns, and expect the author to be active in promotions. We don’t sell books to retailers on a returnable basis and we use short discounts to maximize royalties.

FPP– On Agio’s website it states that “Our company is committed to corporate social responsibility . . ” Could you explain how that affects your daily operation and management of the firm?

Bruce – Here are some of the things we do.

  •  We print on-demand so there is minimal waste
  • The paper stock is not from virgin old growth
  • We generously support social and environmental charities
  • We only work on books that are positive (or benign) about social and environmental change
  • We don’t support ‘returnable’ book sales because this causes overprinting and wasted resources
  • Zero commuting costs (we work from a home-office!)
  • We share our ideas through presentations and my blog
    – we consult to other publishing companies to help them adapt to the changing business environment.

FPP – How do you see technology impacting book publishing over the next 5

Bruce– The industry is being transformed — in much the same way the music industry is, only the book publishing industry is a few years behind. Rising resource costs and better technologies will accelerate the adoption of eBooks — regardless of what booksellers and old-school publishers might hope. Bookstores will fail, following the pattern of music shops and video stores. The books that are bought in printed editions will be produced using print-on-demand, with POD factories located in every major city and all countries.

Because the cost to “publish” is heading toward zero, the number of new titles will balloon from 2007’s count of 411,000 annually in the USA to 1 million.

The major publishing companies will lose their oligopoly advantages and will dwindle in scale and importance.

FPP– What Internet marketing tools have proven the most effective in your experience?

Bruce – Know your audience and target your publicity to them. Certainly selling on a short discount is a great help since you are gaining way more royalty per sale.

FPP– You are both a publisher and an author. Does being an author yourself help when you are working with Agio’s clients?

Bruce – Yes. I can relate well to their emotional and financial situations, and that helps both comfort and inspire them to push for clarity and quality in their books and marketing.

FPP – What is the profile of your ideal author client in today’s publishing environment?

Bruce – Someone with joy in their heart and a message to communicate.

FPP – What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing the publishing industry today?

Bruce – Inertia in processes and thinking. The US book publishing industry is wasting between $1 billion and $2 billion each year because of widespread paranoia about ending the practice of overprinting and selling books on consignment (“returnable”). That practice could be changed in months if a handful of publishers showed leadership and attention to the environment and their own financial situation!

The blockbuster top selling authors will soon begin leaving the big houses (as Madonna, The Eagles and Nine Inch Nails, for example, have left their music labels) to become “independents”. Cue the bankruptcy folks at the 6 biggest publishing companies. Those big companies have massive infrastructure to pay for — most of it will be without use soon. Smaller publishing houses might be more nimble.

A looming challenge will be too much control in the hands of a few retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart) who will drag us all through a time of their greed to grab outrageous margins and exclusivity — before they are toppled by the next wave of online retailing.

(FPP Note:  In addition to the text interview above, you my also listen to the extended audio interview with BruceBatchelor – 20 MB MP3 file.)


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