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Publish or Perish?  The Changing Meaning of Wine Book Publishing

Is there any wine-related business activity that is more difficult than securing wine distribution for a brand?  If there is, it’s probably authoring a wine-related book with a traditional publisher.  However, self-publishing, long the province of the fringe, is changing that as it goes mainstream, giving everybody the opportunity to publish an indie book.

My first job out of school I worked for a large technology book publisher. From 1996 – 1999, I witnessed the beginning affects of the Internet on publishing.  Literally, the word “content” jumped off the page into something more malleable in meaning as online plans were readied and the very first electronic book readers were introduced, pre-Kindle.

Nowadays, I’m only tangentially involved in publishing and it’s mostly related to supporting my wife professionally—she is 10 years into her career as an acquiring Editor at a large publisher that publishes branded consumer reference books.

Publishing is no different than the other media that is experiencing dynamic change– TV, movies, newspapers, magazines, and others.  These cultural gatekeepers, at the center of our consumer consciousness, are experiencing an assault on their top-down hierarchy by alternatives produced and underwritten by the consumer.

And, like wine distribution, the fresh opportunities for those seeking representation in this traditional system are scarce, continuing to narrow, and if found, the final result in execution – support, sales and promotion—is open for debate.

Traditional book publishing is very much the 80/20 rule in action – 20% of the books drive 80% of the revenue.  Likewise, publishers throw a commensurate amount of marketing and book promotional dollars into the 20%, leaving 80% of the authors, each forthright in their belief about the quality of their book, grasping for answers.

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And, unfortunately, most traditional publishers, at this point, have retreated to the safety of unoriginal trope in regards to wine books – annual wine buying guides, wine 101 books and geographical atlases by well-known wine authors with an existing platform.

This leaves would-be new authors in the lurch and branded as “risky” in a business that is already risk adverse.  By analogy, a new author has about as much chance with the traditional publishing route as a new boutique wine brand has in securing traditional distribution. 

Not only are new authors given short shrift, but the meaningful, quality book—narrative-oriented titles—have mostly been relegated to one-off’s or every other year publishing endeavors.  To wit, after a run of books from various publishers over the last two years that overlap with general interest nonfiction, like Judgment of Paris, House of Mondavi and Billionaire’s Vinegar, Randall Grahm’s anthology, Been Doon So Long, looks like the pinnacle moment in wine book publishing this year.  That’s not an indictment on Grahm’s book, more of a reality check vis-à-vis today’s state-of-affairs. 

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Thankfully, the University of California Press is publishing Grahm’s book giving a larger audience to his trademark irreverence.  UC Press, in fact, should be commended for their ascending role as the central voice for meaningful, traditional wine book publishing. Their backlist of titles over this decade reads like a contemporary must-have library for wine lovers, written by some of the wine world’s leading voices.

According to Blake Edgar, a Sr. Editor who oversees the UC Press wine book publishing program:

I think there are plenty of basic level books available about wine.  I saw our opportunity as publishing rigorously researched and informed yet accessible books about wine in our region (California and the Pacific Northwest), other leading and emerging wine regions, and topics of increasing interest, such as terroir.  Some of these would be reference books, some more like guidebooks, a few possible textbooks, but I try to publish books that will appeal equally to wine industry professionals and curious wine consumers.

Edgar, unfortunately, is in the minority amongst publishing professionals who “get” that wine enthusiasts have a craving for deeper knowledge.

In response to a question about online wine writers honing their craft in order to find publishing opportunities, Edgar noted with palpable insight:

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(Online wine writing) is an excellent medium for going in depth and providing backstory compared to what most print sources do.  That could mean describing wine in greater sensory detail, including aspects of the production process from vineyard to bottle, getting away from obscure adjectives and numerical scores.  It could mean delving more into historical, geographical, and cultural context, which often is lacking in discussions about wine.  I like the way that Rod Smith describes his reporting; for him, wine is simply a lens through which he examines broader topics and issues.  It doesn’t have to be only about the wine.

Within this context of smaller traditional publishing opportunities and online writing, an interesting thing happened in 2008:

Self-publishing, also called “indie” publishing exceeded traditional publishing in titles published.  According to a news release from Bloomington, IN based Author Solutions, the largest indie publisher in the world:

For the first time ever, the number of new U.S. on-demand titles brought to market in 2008 (284,370) exceeded new U.S. traditionally-published titles (275,232). Overall, the number of new on-demand titles produced increased 132 percent, while the number of new traditionally-published titles fell 3.2 percent.

Not only is that a shocking statistic – that independently published books exceed the amount of professionally published books, but so too is the sheer growth percentage.

Author Solutions partially accounts for this explosive growth when Keith Ogorek, VP of Marketing says,

“When it comes to business and establishing yourself as an expert in a specific area, nothing provides more credibility than a book.  A book instantly establishes you as someone who has reached a level of expertise and that people should listen to what you have to say.”

Leading off this movement forward in the wine world – the notion of indie publishing, the idea of an author with a voice finding his own path to market, and managing his own promotion, developing content that acknowledges that “wine is simply a lens through which broader topics and issues (can be examined)” is Elliott Essman.  His book, “Use Wine to Make Sense of the World” will be self-published in November.

I expect Essman to be the first wine author to find a reasonably wide audience and public consciousness amongst wine enthusiasts with a book that hasn’t been turned out by a traditional publisher.

With credibility such a flashpoint topic in the wine world, the last area of credibility, a published book, and who has one, appears to be dissolving with the rise of indie publishing.  It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the old phrase, “may you live in interesting times” long considered a blessing, will be seen for the curse it is by many traditionalists.  Upheaval and turbulence is finding its way into the last bastion of normalcy in the wine world and a curse for a few is always an opportunity for many.



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Posted in, Wine: A Business Doing Pleasure. Permalink | Comments (21) |


Comments

On 09/28, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Jeff,

I don’t even have to comment on this subject, as you know what I’d say, and your analysis is right on.

This one thing I know for sure: it is extremely difficult to do the marketing and promotion for a book, unless you have a lot of time (and money) to give it, and few other obligations.

On 09/28, Dylan wrote:

It’s interesting. I remember when self-publishing came off as a sort of ill-advised short cut. No one viewed it as giving credibility because they believed you had to be published by a traditional house. More and more, we are seeing self-publishing, even on the level of blogs, picking up a following which deems them worthwhile.

On 09/28, Chris Jones wrote:

I thought publishing a book would be more profitable than grape growing…I was wrong. 

In January I self-published a book that chronicles an authentic year of wine growing in our seven acre Santa Ynez Valley vineyard.  Thomas is right, giving birth to a book is nothing compared to the challenge of marketing and promotion.

On 09/28, Paul Gregutt wrote:

I’m one of the rare and lucky “unknown” authors who was given a chance to write and publish with UC Press. Blake Edgar, as you say, is in a shrinking minority of editors who have the knowledge, the interest, and the clout to get these types of wine books done. Much as I love blogging and hope to explore self-publishing for certain types of material, the opportunity to be with a major, highly-respected publishing house is like no other. Thanks for an interesting ‘read’ on the challenges facing us all.

On 09/29, jeff wrote:

thanks for the comments, all.

Paul, I appreciate you stopping by.

I would hardly call you an “unknown” author.  Perhaps your profile is a bit lower than Randall Grahm, but your credibility in the world of wine is legit.

I wonder about emerging wine writers and how they’ll fare ... that’s where traditional book publishers can support or cede that market to self-publishing.

thanks again for the comments, I appreciate it!

Jeff

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