Ask any author about how they feel about the publishing industry and you are bound to hear a litany of complaints. From small advances to even smaller royalties, a dated distribution system and a lack of a publicity push for all but the top writers—there is a lot that’s simply not working.
Zibby Owens is aiming to change all that by launching her own publishing company with writer, editor and publishing veteran Leigh Newman. Zibby Books has reimagined a new partnership between writers, editors, publishers, booksellers and influencers, where everybody shares profits and has a financial stake and incentive.
Owens leapt onto the publishing scene in 2018 with her podcast Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. She quickly became an influential figure in the book world, regularly doing events and interviews with well-known authors. After publishing three books and hearing many gripes, Owens envisioned a new kind of publishing house with the author at its center. Writers will receive advances and royalties but also be part of a profit sharing program, which will divide 75% of all net profits equally between the author and the company’s employees.
The publishing world has been abuzz with the announcement this week. “Zibby has been such a great supporter of authors and books and I am thrilled to hear this news. I am certainly intrigued by the profit sharing model. Anything that tries to shake up the traditional publishing format is always welcome,” says Alison Fargis a partner at the New York-based literary agency Stonesong.
Owens shares more about her new publishing model and what’s to come below.
Sara Bliss: When did you start to realize that there was a problem with the book publishing model? Was it in the course of interviewing hundreds of authors?
Zibby Owens: Yes! I started hearing very common themes. It never occurred to me in the beginning that I would be able to do anything about it. Yet, throughout the pandemic when it was impossible for people to get their books out, I was trying to do everything I could to help. It made me think, I have to figure this out! I started to brainstorm and knew if I could put all my ideas together I could create something.
Bliss: I often speak to new writers who are frustrated about what they perceive to be their individual experience with publishers. I have to explain to them that unfortunately those frustrating experiences happen to even the biggest authors.
Owens: It’s true. I think many writers feel a little bit of shame about it. Many authors are embarrassed to speak up and take it personally. They don’t have the vantage point to see it is so pervasive. It’s an industry thing, not a personal thing. There are many wonderful people who work in publishing, I am not trying to undermine that at all. Yet, it is just structurally that things have been set up so authors are not in the center of things.
Bliss: What are you hoping to change?
Owens: What I really want to change is the feeling that authors have of not being appreciated and not having things set up for their own success. I want to create more of a sense of community between the publishing house and the author where we are a team.
Bliss: Explain how your model is different from traditional book publishing.
Owens: One way is the compensation structure. We are still doing royalties, but we are doing a profit share. 75% of any net profits will be split equally between our employees and all the authors who publish in a given year, plus the following year with their paperback rollout. There will be 24 authors, plus our employees in the pool —along with the top three backlist earners. I don’t think one person can be in charge of the success of a book, it’s everyone in the company. I want every employee to have an equal stake, and for all the authors to be fully invested in each other’s success.
We also have a traditional sales force through our distributor Two Rivers , but we are amplifying that effort with Book Ambassadors. Anyone can sign up and there will be an incentive program to compensate them for promoting our books and having events.
Bliss: Will your approach to publicity also be different?
Owens: I don’t want to wait around for a big deal celebrity to maybe pick up a book. I want, from the start, for someone who has a bigger platform than the author to be an outspoken champion. With our Book Championship Program we will give a percentage of net profits to the Book Champion so they have an equity stake.
Bliss: I love that everyone has incentive for these books to succeed.
Owens: Leigh and I worked really hard to create this new concept. We know that when people feel valued in every level of an organization, their motivation is completely different. It’s not about doing a job or about feeling obligated. We are all collectively building something together from every employee to every author. We are creating something new and trying to make a difference. I don’t mean to disparage publishers, but they are so big. They might want to change, but it is much more challenging for something big and established to pivot. Not all our ideas will work, but then we will just come up with more.
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