Self-Publishing Guru, Dan Poynter, Updates a Southern California Writers Group on the Latest Publishing Industry Changes -- Photo: Sylvia Cary
Whether you’re a therapist writer or any other kind of writer, you know it’s important to keep up with what’s going on in the ever-changing publishing industry. Since we can’t all be at every writing-related event in our area, I thought I’d share some things I learned at the latest meeting of IWOSC (Independent Writers of Southern California) in my own area.
Now usually on the last Monday night of the month, IWOSC presents a panel of four to six experts on topics related to writing and publishing, but this time things were different. This time it was a panel of only one — that one being Dan Poynter, a man who probably knows more about the publishing game than anyone else on earth. He flies 6000 miles a week, speaking to book-writing hopefuls and conversing with publishing experts in every nook and cranny of the globe. He spends 40% of his time in the air, at airports, and in other countries. It’s no wonder that whenever he opens his mouth to speak about publishing, writers listen.
Poynter opened his talk with a catchy little definition of self-publishing that you might want to put up on your fridge to inspire you: “Self-publishing, when you’re doing it right, is when your passion center meets your profit center.”
But publishing wasn’t originally Dan Poynter’s primary passion. Sky-diving was his first love. One day in 1972 somebody took him for his first sky dive “and I was hooked,” he says. If he hadn’t been taken on that jaunt, he never would have known how much he liked it — and he might never have ended up in the publishing field. Today, he advises parents to “do something new every weekend with your kids; open them up to different kinds of experiences and eventually they’ll find something they want to pursue.”
After Poynter got into sky-diving (including a jump into the north pole), he realized that there were no parachute manuals. He wrote one, became a publisher, published it and sold it through parachute schools, parachute shops, parachute catalogs, and parachute magazines — but not through bookstores. Even back then he realized, “Sell to your own tribe. You have to go where your audience hangs out.” Marketing a book was harder in those days. “Today, because of the Internet and search engines, we can find our customers and our customers can find us.”
In 1973, Poynter discovered hang gliding. He fell in love again. And again, when he realized that there were no manuals on the subject, he spent four months researching it and came out with the first book on hang gliding. The book took off. “It was the right book at the right time, just when everybody was crazy about hang gliding and there were articles on it in every magazine.” He marketed this book the same way he’d marketed his parachuting book — he sold them in hang gliding stores, hang gliding schools, hang gliding magazines and hang gliding catalogs. “Your book has to be the first one,” he says. “If you have the second book you’re out of luck.” Initially, when he left copies in stores on consignment, management was skeptical. Then, when the books sold out, he started to get calls for more: “You have to show them there’s a market.” Also, thanks to his naïveté at the time, he sent a copy of his hang-gliding book to the Library Journal and asked them to review it. He had no idea that getting a book reviewed in the Library Journal is a feat the equivalent of parachuting into the North Pole. But the Library Journal actually did review the book and as a result of that review he sold copies to 1200 libraries.
By 1974 Poynter had earned enough money to move back to California from a colder clime (he’d come to hate cold) to a big house on a hill in Santa Barbara. He has since authored over one hundred additional books.
Publishing is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up. The large publishers are downsizing, the traditional brick and mortar stores are going out of business, readers have fallen in love with ebooks, “and we’ve been losing three independent bookstores a week for the last twenty years.” Publishing industry professionals who are still resisting all these changes are, in Poynter’s words, “in denial,” And the changes are having a huge impact on every facet of book publishing — literary agents, distributors, book printers, book reviewers — just about everyone that the industry touches. Even the area of “foreign rights” is changing. Someday, authors will have their books translated into other languages on their own and sell them on Amazon or on their own Web sites. “Tolerate books stores, but don’t pursue them,” Poynter says. “Bookstores are lousy places to sell books. New York publishing still thinks it’s all about bookstores, but they’re wrong. The winners are going to be authors and small publishers who go with the flow and adapt to what’s inevitable and embrace the changes. In the past, everyone followed the Big Six publishing conglomerates. Now, the Big Six are following us!”
Poynter predicts that the abandonment of the “New York” publishers and gatekeepers will continue, and magazines (and along with them book review space) will continue to disappear. “1989 was the peak year for the magazine industry. Magazines were thick with ads. Now they’re getting skinnier and skinnier. Look at Newsweek. It’s losing millions. Most newspapers will disappear in five years. The only four likely to survive are the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Most book reviews will be done online by book bloggers.”
While these changes are opening up all kinds of exciting opportunities for writers, Poynter warns that writers also need to be wary of scammers. “Avoid Vanity presses. Do your due diligence. And if you are about to do business with a company, first go online and type in Google + the name of the company + scam (or rip-off) and see what comes up.
Poynter ended his presentation with a reminder: “87% of people don’t like their job. One million people call in sick every day. But we, as authors and publishers, are respected and have a passion for what we do. There will be a growing need for entertainment (fiction) and information (non-fiction)…” – and that means work we love! So for the hundreds of writers, publishers and guests sitting in the audience listening to this most impressive “panel of one,” the future is looking pretty good.