Many years ago when my literary agency, Waterside Productions Inc., was thriving as the epicenter for all books related to the computer revolution, I was asked by my clients and the publishers to whom I was licensing books from top-selling computer book authors and experts why I had not created my own publishing company. Although I was generating millions of dollars in agency fees as a literary agent it seemed obvious that I could generate tens of millions of dollars of additional profits by becoming a book publisher and not just an agent. After all, we represented more than 25 percent of all the bestselling computer books over a period of close to ten years and many of the individual titles were selling millions of copies annually. Didn’t we realize how much money we were leaving on the table?
I did realize how much money I was leaving on the table, but I had learned about book publishing from my father who has started ARCO Publishing in 1936. ARCO was successful but never as large as it could have been. My father loved book publishing and especially making deals and finding new ways to market books. However, I saw firsthand the complications of having many employees, dealing with printers and warehouses, and having to accept returns from bookstores. My father could have had a much bigger company but he turned down opportunities to purchase Kaplan when it was a small company and other companies that would have added revenue but reduced his ability to take time off from work and focus on the casual atmosphere he had created, a lifestyle which included two hour lunches and the ability to leave the office in the middle of the day if he choose to go to a baseball game or other event.
Like him I have never put money as the only priority in running a business. I believe money was his primary priority, but acquiring it was not out of balance with other goals. In my case making money has always been an important priority but not my primary focus. My primary focus has been on working with people and ideas that excite me and allow me to express my own creativity. I found that being an agent rather than publisher allowed me greater diversity and fulfilled my desire to end each day without myriad details needing my attention on each book agented. As a publisher you must constantly monitor the production and marketing of each book you publish. As agent it is really just about negotiating the right deal with the right publisher for each author with relatively little follow-up required once the deal is struck. Really an ideal scenario for someone with my desire and ability to balance fifty or more negotiations at one time but little capacity for or interest in the details of marketing each book once published.
But then along came the ebook revolution, and what is an agent to do? Except for our major proven authors, it is increasingly difficult to negotiate or even land book deals with the major New York houses. Everyone wants proven, low-risk publishing opportunities and no major publisher can afford the luxury of developing new authors. Authors whose books I could place easily five or ten years ago now are passed on by the major houses. Rather than force these authors self-publish I decided two years ago to create Waterfront Digital Press. My concept was to publish ebooks only and see which books created enough buzz so that we might, at a future time, be able to approach large traditional publishers to take over both print and ebook publication. We might not make much money with our ebooks, but we would allow authors to market themselves in a professional manner by introducing them to top PR and marketing services which they, rather than Waterside as publisher, would have to fund. In exchange, we would pay out 70 percent or more of all ebook-generated revenue to our authors. This is the reverse of a standard publishing agreement, but we felt we were really co-publishing with our authors and that they and not us were doing the heavy lifting. The other advantage with ebook publishing is that we would have no inventory and no returns.
We are almost two years into our publishing experiment and it is going exceedingly well. One of our early authors, Jake Ducey, has just landed a book contract with Tarcher Penguin for his second book. We published his memoir, INTO THE WIND, less than a year ago and were able to sell almost ten thousand copies of both the ebook and a print edition. Jake did the heavy lifting but proved my initial assumption that even an unknown nineteen-year-old author with enough effort could generate the kind of sales that would allow him to be considered by a major house.
In addition to helping new authors establish their author credentials, Waterfront Digital Press has also allowed some of our best-selling authors to publish small books that are best suited as ebooks and that would not have interested their major publishers. Thom Hartmann recently released LAST HOURS OF HUMANITY as a fifty page ebook to coincide with a YouTube video release on this important topic of global warming, and New York Times bestselling author Victor Villasenor has released a sixty page ebook, KEYS TO LIVING, in which he explains the terms and premises for his new full length book, REVENGE OF A CATHOLIC SCHOOLBOY, which will be released later this year.
In February Waterfront Digital Press will be releasing A TRUST FOR THE EARTH by Alan Sasha Lithman band also AWAKENING FROM THE AMERICAN DREAM: FROM CRISIS TO CONSCIOUSNESS by Master Charles Cannon with Will Wilkinson. Both of these titles are calls for raising our awareness of the issues that confront our civilization if we are to create and sustain a world that will be joyful for our children and grandchildren. We have recently agreed to publish a series of short ebooks from the World Business Academy on how business leaders can make a positive difference in the world. World Business Academy Founder Rinaldo Brutoco is writing several of the first ebooks himself. And just today we published the ebook THE DOLPHIN LETTERS: VITAL MESSAGES FROM SEA TO LAND by Muriel Lindsay. All of these titles have a social and cultural purpose beyond just making money. Somehow without really intending to I have in fact become a true publisher. How this adventure will turn out we do not yet know, but somehow it all feels like an inevitable and auspicious destiny.
When I agented my first book as a literary agent THE CONQUEST OF CANCER by Dr. Virginia Livingston Wheeler, Dr. Virginia and I became close friends. I had originally met Dr. Virginia while I was executive editor for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishing, and Dr. Virginia never caught on that when I left Harcourt I had shifted roles and was no longer her publisher. For years she referred to me not as her agent but as her publisher. Perhaps her misconception was not an accident.
As I look at the journey I have taken in the world of publishing, I am convinced more than ever that while we may think we are deciding on our path, sometimes destiny just makes some of the decisions for us. Seems I was destined to become a publisher after all – and I find myself happy to be one.
Tags: Alan Sasha Littman, Awakening from the American Dream, AWAKENING FROM THE AMERICAN DREAM: FROM CRISIS TO CONSCIOUSNESS, best-selling authors, business leaders, destiny, Dr. Virginia Livingston Wheeler, ebook revolution, global warming, Into The Wind, Jake Ducey, KEYS TO LIVING, LAST HOURS OF HUMANITY, literary agency, Master Charles, Master Charles Cannon, new author, publishing company, Revenge of a Catholic Schoolboy, Rinaldo Brutoco, Tarcher Penguin, THE CONQUEST OF CANCER, Thom Hartmann, Victor Villasenor, Waterfront Digital Press, Waterside Productions Inc, Will Wilkinson, World Business Academy