A New Approach to Publishing

Booktrope’s cofounders are establishing a team-based approach to publishing and marketing new books.

By Seattle Mag December 28, 2012


This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Seattle magazine.

If the book-publishing industry weren’t broken, Ken Shear might not be trying to fix it. Shear, publisher and CEO of Seattle’s new alternative publishing venture, Booktrope (booktrope.com), is trying to turn a page in publishing with a team approach, one that alleviates some of the traditional frustrations endemic to legacy publishing houses and typical e-book publishers.

The publishing industry has undergone a fundamental shift in the past 10 years with the advent of e-readers, print on demand and other electronic options. “Before the e-book revolution, the book business was mostly about distribution,” Shear says. “Publishers produced thousands of titles, printed them in batches of tens or even hundreds of thousands, and dispatched them to thousands of bookstores. Now, most books are sold by huge online bookstores with millions of titles available.”

But the way publishers do business with authors remains essentially the same: traditional publishers typically publish very few writers and often pay royalties of 10 percent or less.

Booktrope aims to reinvent the standard top-down publishing process—which denies access to all but the highest echelon of authors—by breaking down the barriers to publication established by the big six publishing houses (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House and Simon & Schuster). But unlike vanity presses (which require authors to pay to print their own books) and self-publishers (which require authors to use their own money to hire editors and designers, and to take on the responsibility of marketing), Booktrope’s alternative model is built around teams.

Booktrope is on the cutting edge of what publishing will look like in the future. I think publishing as it has been will soon go away.

The process begins with volunteer readers vetting a manuscript. Booktrope publishes books only after they have passed this rigorous early reader program to see if a manuscript has broad appeal. If the volunteers agree it has merit, the manuscript is posted on Team Trope (an internal message board), along with an overview of the project and a list of what team members are needed. Editors, cover designers, proofreaders and book marketing managers review new postings on Team Trope and see if they are drawn to certain projects, and then potential team members meet virtually to decide if they want to work together. They also decide how the profits are to be assigned for their respective roles—each team member has different payment terms, depending on his or her role in the project.

Team members are paid only when and if a consumer buys a book; this means that there is an incentive for all team members to promote and market the book. “In team publishing, each participant in the creative team receives a share of the revenues from book sales,” Shear says. “We extend the concept of author royalties to include the editors, designer and book marketing manager.” Booktrope allocates 70 percent of its revenue to paying team members.

Shear has always been involved with startups; he started his own law office and then helped start a couple of businesses involved in information retrieval, when he wasn’t being a newspaper reporter (at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1970s) and a published author in his own right (Unoriginal Misunderstanding, 2009, a book about the history of the First Amendment).

In 2009, he turned his creative energy to the book-publishing business with Libertary, a publishing website that posted books to be read for free online. There were a couple of problems, not just that the company’s name sounded like that of a Libertarian library. “We saw Libertary as a YouTube for books,” Shear explains. “But other publishers didn’t want to put books on it for free, so it was kind of like YouTube with only 200 videos.” Shear was soon liberated from Libertary, but not from his desire to democratize the book industry.

Enter cofounder Katherine Sears, an Internet marketing specialist (she worked at NetApp, ADIC and Siemens) and lifelong bookworm with an attraction to solving problems, who joined Shear’s endeavor thanks to a “slightly vague ad” he posted on Craigslist in 2010. The two hatched the team-publishing idea that is the backbone of Booktrope. “I think the thing that intrigued me the most was that, despite more books being sold online than anywhere else, the book business was still marketing them the same way they always had,” Sears says. “So I developed a concept that looked at books more like I would look at a website and went from there.”

In 2012, its second year in business, Booktrope published more than 100 books by unknown as well as more established authors looking for greater creative control. “We don’t care if it’s called literature,” Shear says. “We publish books that entertain people or that mean something to them.”

But the democratic approach does not mean a book can’t do well in the marketplace, given some savvy marketing. Riversong, a first novel by Tess Hardwick, a previously unknown author from Issaquah, was the number-one Nook Book in October 2011 and spent two months in the Top 20 Kindle books in 2012. “Tell any publisher that you have a book written by a first-time author, published by a publisher who has been in business under two years, and that book has sold over 70,000 copies, and see what their jaw does,” Shear says.

All Booktrope books are “format agnostic,” which means they are available in hardback and paperback (in digital short-run print editions, a cost-effective way of printing small numbers of books); Kindle, Nook and iTunes formats; and are posted online where they can be read in their entirety for free. (Booktrope’s website points to several studies indicating that offering books to read for free online actually increases sales of those same books.)

“By taking advantage of changes in the book business, such as print-on-demand technology, and emphasizing online sales, we have reduced overhead,” says Shear. Booktrope has no office; its creative community, now numbering more than 200 people, is dispersed to all corners of the country, with a few outliers in Great Britain, Israel and Korea. Editorial discussions are held via Skype or Google Hangouts.

What does it say about Booktrope that it is operating in Seattle, in the shadow of the monolithic e-book publisher, Amazon? “I think it says that this is a time when David and Goliath can coexist,” says Seattle author Brian McDonald, who published his first book, Invisible Ink, with Booktrope’s precursor, Libertary. “The Internet makes things possible that were close to impossible before. In many ways, it levels the playing field.”

McDonald spent six years looking for a publisher; he’s been told his book is now used as a textbook in several screenwriting classes, and that has led to his being hired as a consultant at Pixar, where the book is required reading for interns in the story department. “I think this kind of alternative publishing model allows Booktrope to take chances on new writers,” McDonald adds, “so readers get to read books that might not otherwise see the light of day. Booktrope is on the cutting edge of what I think publishing will look like in the future. I think publishing as it has been will soon go away.”

Bharti Kirchner, another local Booktrope author, had just completed a two-book deal with St. Martin’s Press and was looking for a publisher for her ninth book, Tulip Season, when she discovered Booktrope. The new book is part mystery, though not a classic mystery, and part domestic drama; Kirchner was concerned that traditional publishing houses would be unable to categorize (and therefore, market) it. “Booktrope has an innovative model,” she says. “It brings new energy to the publishing business. Booktrope is doing something exciting.”

In addition to democratizing the publishing business, Shear sees his business as advancing the way people work together. “We think of Booktrope as an umbrella-type organization, meant to provide context for people to join a creative community, and to support them in forming productive teams and give them the ability to produce and market great books. Most people in the world are employees, but there’s another way: They can be stakeholders.”


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