What is wrong with the book business?

The only real costs in books today are marketing costs. Real acquisition costs are miniscule, distribution costs are gone, and editing costs went out with quill pens. It's all about the marketing, which means it's all publicity and branding.

Barry Diller of IAC Interactive and his Web publishing frontwoman, Tina Brown, think the problem with the book business is slow turnaround. (Picture from Wikipedia.)

So they've arranged a deal where the freelancers at Brown's The Daily Beast will get a chance to do quick-and-dirty e-books through a joint venture with Perseus Press, which might then get printed on-demand within three months.

This can work, for Brown and her imprint, Beast Books. It will certainly gain Brown more loyalty among her freelancers. Bloggers want to do books the way actors want to direct.

But the real problem with book publishing is simpler and calls for a more direct response. Because what technology has done to book publishing over the last 30 years can't be undone.

The problem is that book publishing is still run like an industrial business. It has become, in fact, a marketing business.

Publishing has been making this transition ever since I began writing 30 years ago. The days when it was about process, about choosing writers and nurturing them through editing, those days were gone even in the 1970s.

Instead publishers decided what they wanted books on, and assignments were run through agents and authors until the list for the next year was complete. Even in the 1980s books were more like magazine assignments.

What this meant in practice was that books were sold, not bought. The idea that readers were in book shops carefully picking through the latest volumes was false. Best-sellers by the 1990s were all driven by marketing, by end-caps in stores, by name above the title.

I learned this in part from a friend-of-a-friend I met near a beach a year ago. Kathy Trocheck started as a newspaper writer, along with a close friend of mine. But she became famous as Mary Kay Andrews, a name to conjure with in a certain type of book. Of course, she noted, if she wants to write about something else, or in a slightly different way, she has to use a different name.

The climax state here was Regnery Books, which mass produced best-sellers by simply printing them and bulk shipping them. Down near the Georgia-Florida line there are "discount book stores" with these volumes piled high. They're ordered but not read.

Small wonder that when the "best-selling authors" of these tomes started asking about royalties they hit a dead end. There never was a publishing business model. It was a political business model, a publicity model. They weren't book publishers, they were celebrity marketers. Like MGM, but with a Fox attitude.

With the rise of e-books all this is exposed. There is no publishing "cost" to an e-book, other than offering it. The same is nearly true with a "print on demand" book. Just keep the PDF on file.

The only real costs in books today are marketing costs. Real acquisition costs are miniscule, distribution costs are gone, and editing costs went out with quill pens. It's all about the marketing, which means it's all publicity and branding.

Brown hopes that, with a staff on-hand ready to pounce on topics in the news, she can build a brand. But so can you.

All you need is an investor to pay for the ads. If you're game, I'm ready.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com