Carmel Men at the Forefront of Shakeup in the Traditional Publishing World
Once upon a time, there were three guys from Carmel who decided to start a self-publishing book company. They published over 4000 books and lived happily ever after. The end.
Actually, it’s only the beginning of the story because the phenomenon that is self publishing is now making major inroads into upending the traditional book publishing world; and locally-based Dog Ear Publishing is at the heart of it.
Dog Ear was founded by Ray Robinson, Alan Harris, and Miles Nelson, three people with unlikely backgrounds to end up in publishing. Robinson started out as a geologist and then realized there wasn’t any money in it. So he and his friend, Harris, who had aspired to be a biologist and astronomer, applied for jobs at a Waldenbooks store at a mall in Akron, Ohio. Before it was over, they were working in Waldenbooks’ front office as buyers. That was followed by stints at MacMillan Publishing and Prentiss Hall Pearson before they figured out they were clever enough to start their own production company.
The plan worked fine until book publishers started sending production overseas. Again reinventing themselves, they teamed up with Nelson, who was a printer in Indianapolis and was one of their clients. Over lunch one day at Panera Bread, Dog Ear Publishing was born. That was 2004, and they haven’t looked back since.
There’s lots of competition, most notably from just down the road in Bloomington where self-publishing giant Authorhouse is headquartered. In fact, they met with Authorhouse early on about being an overflow resource for them. On the drive back, the three men decided they could do it better and in a more custom manner. About that Robinson says, “They’re McDonald’s; we’re a small independent company. We can do it better and different. We can’t mass produce. We can’t say we’re going to use the same template for all 10,000 authors. We can do 3, 4, 500 authors.” Nelson adds, “The industry has changed a lot since then. And so we’re producing much faster. When we first started, it was kind of all about the printed book. Now we like to say, “You have this creation which is the book, and what vehicle do you want to use to share it with your audience? It could be a printed book, it could be paperback or hardcover, it could be an ebook, it could be an audio book. Audio books are cool again.”
Differentiating themselves from the competition is easy since they are a small hands-on boutique shop. Harris says, “It’s someone thinking about their book and the interior, not just a machine that’s just running pages. That someone is actually looking at the pages to make sure the pages look nice for readability and things along those lines and covers also. Caring about the marketplace and what you put into it rather than just trying to get it done as quickly as possible and stamp it out on a template.”
Dog Ear also stands out because they do everything here in the U.S. Of the hundreds of publishing companies in the country today, they proudly trumpet that Dog Ear is one of only 3 or 4 that are completely based in the U.S.
The traditional publishing industry has struggled in recent years. This was either caused by the boom in self publishing or the self-publishing world has been the beneficiary; but in either case, there has been a lot of consolidation with big companies gobbling each other up and sending more and more of their functions offshore to places like India, China, and the Philippines, leaving what Robinson calls just a marketing shell in the U.S. He goes on to say that pressure from online booksellers and lower prices have caused the publishing giants to only look for best sellers. “It’s harder and harder to get shelf space. Fewer and fewer books are in bookstores; fewer and fewer books sell at the quantity that sustain the traditional model. But with self publishing, with a good product in the market, you can be successful with 3 or 400 books. They’ve made their investment back already. And if you sell 5000 books, you’re ecstatic. If you sell 10,000 books, you are now selling crazy amounts.
In the traditional industry, the average book doesn’t sell more than 2500 units. Ninety percent of the books in the traditional marketplace sell under 3000 units.” He adds that it is amazing how few people out there are in charge of these decisions. Maybe 100 people in the entire industry determine what everybody sees on the bookstore shelf. And those people are risk averse.
That leaves many people turning to self publishing which is now much more widely accepted by critics, reviewers, and even traditional publishers as a legitimate entrée into the publishing world as opposed to the “vanity” publishing rap that it used to get. You can “backdoor” your way in by paying to publish your book yourself, doing the marketing, and then getting the attention of the traditional publisher once it sells enough copies. Getting it up on Amazon is a breeze, making it available to tens of millions of people.
Robinson says the barrier to entry really isn’t very large. “Think about what an author invests in time and heart to write his or her book. It may sound glib from this side of the desk, but for 1000 bucks, 2000 bucks, 3500 bucks you are in the market. If you go through the editing process, the design process, and you have a great website, you have every chance to be successful as any book published by any traditional publisher.”
Indeed, Dog Ear has had authors publish with them who went on to be published by the big traditional publishing houses. After finding they can make more money self publishing because they have more control over their own product, these authors have returned to Dog Ear for later books.
Dog Ear authors are a very diverse group including a couple NFL players, a broadway actress, and the LBJ library and movie producer Michael Mandaville. Their most successful authors are those with niches like medical and how-to books. For instance, their biggest-selling author is a physical therapist who writes books about repairing damaged rotator cuffs.
They’ve also had some authors who were a bit odd, to say the least. There’s the hermit from California, the founders of a religion about Atlantis, and the woman who called them to publish her book because God wrote their phone number on her mirror in steam. They’ve had authors murdered, jailed, and they’ve been subpoenaed. But Robinson says they are having a ball. “It has been crazy fun. We’ve met with some of the strangest, weirdest, insanest, and most fun authors you could ever meet. They have UFO’s in their basements and new religions. You might have a crazy book, but at least it will look good. They have a good time talking about it because crazy people are truly earnest and excited about talking about their product.” And there’s no censorship at Dog Ear unless it’s porn or hate, adds Nelson, “If we’re going to be on our soapbox that everyone deserves the right to be published, then we can’t really just arbitrarily start picking and choosing.”
As for the future, they predict more constriction on the traditional publishing side but more surging in the independent market. Robinson says they struggle with their goals all the time. “What we realized over the last few years is that we should begin to focus on authors who have either a platform or a desire to see their book as part of their business plan. So we’ve kind of focused ourselves more on speakers, people who have a platform, people who want to use their book as a tool, or people who really want to get out there and partner in marketing their book and create something in the marketplace as opposed to just putting Grandma’s memoirs on paper.”
It’s often said that everybody has at least one good book in them, and Nelson strongly agrees. “Life is one great big adventure, and as participants, that gives each and every one of us a great deal of material to work with. Unfortunately, not everyone is gifted with great story-telling abilities. But, that’s where a great editor comes in handy.”
If you think you’ve got the makings of the next great American novel, you have the opportunity that authors in the past didn’t have to get it to the market. Robinson says it’s well worth the effort. “The moment you have that book in your hand, you open that box and you smell paper, you smell cover and laminate and all that stuff, it is insane.”