Sixteen years ago, we went to lunch with our then-editor Jim Childs at John Wiley & Sons (Jim's now a publisher at Time Inc). It was time for our next book; we threw out the idea for a book about what was then a "new idea:" virtual teams. Jim liked it and within about a year, the first edition of Virtual Teams was published. The book did well enough that our new editor (Jim had moved on to become publisher of Taunton Press by then), Jeanne Glasser, who herself eventually moved on and is now at Pearson, suggested a second edition, which came out in 2000.
Yesterday, a nice royalty check arrived in the mail. The check (cut by the agent for that book) was concealed among scadzillions of pages of line items, most impossible to understand but their overall meaning was very clear. The book still sells after a dozen years both here in the US and in other countries (it's had a number of translations) -- and it sells in cyberspace. People buy the electronic edition, a time-twisting idea altogether since eBooks were just an idea when we first wrote the book. Indeed, Amazon had not even been incorporated. I also need to point out that the electronic version sells even though we did something a bit nutty after 9/11 by traditional publishing standards -- knowing that our writing about networks and how to work at a distance could be helpful to the 11,000 organizations whose workplaces were demolished or rendered unusable by the attacks, we posted all of our books online.
So why this post? It's not just to be boastful (though it may have that scent). It's to point out that for all the old-publisher bashing that goes on these days, the "old" model has its benefits. It's not hard to figure out why people self-publish -- even the greats are doing it to good effect. But when I analyze just the pure economics of what happened with this book -- two advances, multiple translations, each of which brought its own, albeit relatively small, advance, and twice-annual royalty checks for a decade-and-a-half (including the first edition), it was a wise choice. Not that it was the same choice back then as it is now but...
I'm sitting on a few manuscripts right now and deliberating about what to do with them. Go the agent/big publisher route again where, with luck, there's another advance, editing, cover design, production, distribution, and (some though increasingly less) marketing (just to name a few of the things that traditional publishers provide)? Or do I self-publish, taking it all on "in-house" here and thus also absorb most of the other responsibilities and all the expense? (See my post about the economics of all this, which comes down to the cold truth that publishing is not a high-margin business -- period.) That means working with an e-publisher where quality is largely a function of the author, not the pros. I applaud anyone who wants to publish their own books; it's a good thing for them, but it's just not the same as a vetted process with experienced people contributing their skills. As good as self-publishing is becoming, it's still in its early stages and seems a bit like building my own house -- I can be my own contractor; I can even be my own builder which brings me to another but...
I'm not naive. Publishing is not the same as it was when we were churning out books (three in four years; two before that; and one since). The marketing people weren't calling the shots at the big houses and editors still had their hands firmly on the material.
New realities lie in the shadow of old ones. We submitted the first electronically typeset manuscript that Doubleday ever published for our book Networking in 1982. We had to argue with the copyeditor of The TeamNet Factor who insisted on using an actual "dot" instead of a period in the email address we included in that 1993 book. And we had to explain what a domain name was in the first edition of Virtual Teams.
So...what should I do with those manuscripts? Not to mention The Age of the Network, the out-of-print book that has produced the most fascinating business for nearly 20 years? Should I rEpublish that one?