As buying patterns and publishing strategies shift in the book industry, I continue to see fascinating evidence that customers still want books, and in large quantities. It just isn’t always in the mainstream.

At lunch with a friend last week, I discovered that he is helping writers produce, market and distribute their work. The numbers they yield through their efforts would make a large house envious.

This at a time when mainstream publishing houses are downsizing and struggling to survive. Houghton Mifflin, for example, just laid off 65 employees, and many others are faced with the same grim scenarios.

Yet on the other side of the fence, in greener pastures, folks like my friend are lean and profitable. By outsourcing cover design, formatting and publicity – and partnering with fulfillment companies – independents are seeing rewarding returns while avoiding bloated staffs and costly overhead. My friend has helped various writers sell tens of thousands of copies of their books a year with real distribution.

This independent success is the result, of course, of several factors. Technology is the biggest driver: printing presses can offer smaller print runs at low prices – even astonishing prices – something not possible even a few years ago.

Remember the days when a writer self-published for tens of thousands of dollars and was left with 5,000 copies in the garage? It was and is cliché; it was also reality.

But no longer.

I’ve discovered a printer in the Midwest who will print modest quantities for the same price large publishing houses have been charged for larger quantities (as with other services, higher volume lowers the price per unit). This has put a great deal of power into the hands of self-published and independent authors. The money that was formerly tied up in printing and inventory can now be used for marketing, which brings us to the next obvious technological help: the web.

Retail stores gripe about their shrinking revenue share, but the truth is, online selling is easy, clean and efficient. People like buying books online. And smart, sophisticated websites only enhance the opportunities for sales. This at a time when book buyers often enter stores seeking a particular title, only to find a 19-year-old sales associate twirling hair and texting (read: uninterested and lacking any knowledge of product).

Good old American ingenuity and hard work have fostered independence, as writers are now teaming up with talented graphic artists, editors and innovative marketing specialists.

Couple this with sour experiences with mainstream houses, and one can see that independent publishing is the wave of the future, and the future is now.

Another writer friend told me two days ago that several years ago he published two books with a mainstream house. Their combined efforts (my friend has a platform that enables him to promote titles) yielded 250,000 copies sold. His piece of this pie?

Thirty thousand dollars.

You read correctly. He had signed a royalty-based contract and at the end of the day made only a bit more than 10 cents per copy. Obviously, the publisher “creatively” tallied the royalties. Okay, I’ll say it: they robbed the author.

I’ve heard many horror stories from writers who have been cheated out of royalties (Clause 232 of the contract: “Publisher shall not pay royalties when said title is sold at retail between 2 and 3, Central Time, in the fourth quarter, to stores with green carpet”).

Publishers are notorious for keeping sales figures a closely guarded secret. Creative bookkeeping naturally follows.

Now, I’m not at all advocating abandoning traditional houses. I’m simply saying that new realities have given writers vast options. They should take advantage of them.

In fact, I see the ideal publishing strategy for a writer thusly: seek opportunities to publish with a well-known house … for the marketing and credibility value. Then self-publish or partner with a robust independent publisher.

Again, I’m hearing nice numbers from innovative writers and publishers who are selling, yes, to retail stores, but also to affinity groups, wherever they might find them. When an independent writer can sell 50,000 copies, 88,000 copies, 150,000 copies within a year, then we all know it can be done.

Next week: marketing tips for authors.

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