Penelope Trunk: Publishers’ revenue model “assumes authors are going to flake”

Popular blogger and Brazen Careerist founder Penelope Trunk has a new book, The New American Dream, and she’s gotten a lot of attention because of a post that she wrote about that book last week. This attention, she said, surprises her.
In a post entitled “How I got a big advance from a big publisher and got self-published anyway,” Trunk wrote:

So I sold my book to a mainstream publisher and they sucked. I am going to go into extreme detail about how much they sucked, so I’m not going to tell you the name of the publisher because I got a lot of money from them. I’m just going to tell you that the mainstream publisher is huge, and if you have any respect left for print publishing, you respect this publisher. But you will not at the end of this post.

She went on to detail the problems with traditional book publishing. Ultimately, though she had received her full advance, she decided to pull her book from the publisher and self-publish instead. (She won’t name the publisher, but it looks as though it was Pearson computer and technology imprint, Que.) She worked with Hyperink, a digital publisher that works directly with “domain experts” — including high-profile bloggers like MG Siegler and Forbes exec Lewis DVorkin — to publish their ebooks.
Trunk founded Brazen Careerist, a startup focused on Generation Y in the workplace. (She was born Adrienne Roston and changed her name.) On her popular personal blog, she covers career-related topics, Asperger’s, parenting, homeschooling and women’s issues. (If you’re not familiar with the blog, check out posts like “5 time management tricks I learned from 5 years of hating Tim Ferriss,” “What it’s like to have sex with someone with Asperger’s” and “The hardest part of my job is that everyone lies about parenting.”) Her book publishing post is written in the same tone as many other posts on the site — blunt and opinionated.
The post caused a stir in the publishing community last week. Many people wondered if she really got her entire advance and then bailed, and questioned whether  traditional publishers’ marketing efforts are as bad as she makes them out to be. (Digital Book World ran a post entitled “I don’t buy Penelope Trunk’s story.” TechCrunch took a different angle: “Penelope Trunk calls bullshit on traditional publishing, publishes her book exclusively on Hyperink.” That headline isn’t accurate since the book is available through many digital bookstores, not just Hyperink’s website.)
This week, I talked with Trunk on the phone. She was surprised by the reaction to her book publishing post, especially since the topic seems less controversial than other topics that she’s covered.
“I see that it would be surprising that someone would rip their publisher to shreds,” she said, but the argument for self-publishing seems obvious to her.  Of course, she noted, “not a lot of authors are in the position that I’m in” — with a very large online following — so while her argument might not be news to other authors, “it’s really hard to find someone who can say it without ruining their ability to ever get published again.”
I told her about the community of outspoken self-publishing advocates like J.A. Konrath, who blogs almost exclusively about self-publishing and often riles up the publishing community with his opinionated posts. Trunk hadn’t read those posts and doesn’t see herself as part of that community. “I don’t want to be one of those self-publishing gurus,” she said.

“When’s the last time you heard about a publisher going after someone in court?”

“What really blows my mind is people talking about how I’m making stuff up,” Trunk said. “It’s like fiddling while Rome burns.” She was referring specifically to her statement that she received her entire advance from the traditional publisher, then pulled out of the agreement. She confirmed to me that she did get the entire advance (not just a portion of it). “I’m lucky I did. That was really fun for me,” she said. “But that’s not germane to [the rest of her argument].” Still, she noted, “When’s the last time you heard about a publisher going after someone in court?”
Traditional publishers’ business model is risky, Trunk says. “Their revenue model assumes that authors are going to flake. [The publisher] is relying heavily on [the author] to promote the book. They’ve got no stick. They’re all carrots.” You can take the advance and not promote your book at all, she noted.
I asked Trunk why she decided to publish her book traditionally in the first place. (She also traditionally published her 2007 Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success.) “I ran numbers,” she said. “I thought that, if I do no work, the advance that I get is probably commensurate to what I could sell on my own — but it would be a lot less work. But what I really thought was that I would learn a lot because I know that I’m going to have to be an ace at the publishing industry and I thought when you’re publishing a book, you’re partners with the publisher. It would be a little publishing MBA for me. The person who acquired my book knew that.”

“If you have a big blog, there’s no reason to write all new stuff for a book”

Trunk told me the traditional publisher was “obsessed with word count and with what percentage of the book was new.” Her book is “mostly off [her] blog,” she says, and that’s intentional: “The most proven model for book publishing right now is to get an audience online with the exact posts you’re going to put in a book, and then tie those posts into a very cohesive, bigger idea.” So, she says, that’s what she did.
“Anything that’s not that model  is much more high-risk,” she said. I asked her to explain why. “I already have run the ideas as blog posts,” she said, “so if there are 10 blog posts that get 1,000 comments each, then you know the book is interesting. You know that people want to read the book. If I haven’t tested any of the ideas online, I have no idea if people even like to read it.”
It’s not surprising that traditional publishers don’t agree, she said. “Their P&Ls can’t support it. They have a whole support staff that doesn’t fit into that model.” But Trunk thinks it’s risky when traditional publishers sign up nonfiction authors who don’t have blogs and therefore haven’t tested their ideas on an audience already. “Why not, if their ideas are going to be so popular?” she said.

Small ideas are for the Web, big ideas are for books

“All small ideas get put on the Web,” she said. “There’s no reason to hold a small idea [for a book]. Your book has to add up to an idea that would be too hard to express in a blog or in a series of Web posts. That’s really what an editor’s eye should be for.”
The discussion of repurposed content made me think of Jonah Lehrer, who was recently discovered repurposing previously published content for New Yorker blog posts. “Who cares?” she said. “If you love Jonah Lehrer, you’re on top of things and you’re not reading him [for the first time] in the New Yorker. Jonah Lehrer’s doing great, so anybody who’s going to criticize him for not being the right kind of journalist is a joke.”