Publishing Trendsetter is a production of Market Partners International and Publishing Trends.

Book Jobs, Not by the Book: Adam Witty

Elisabeth sits down to talk with Adam Witty, Founder and CEO of Advantage Media, one of  Inc’s “30 under 30” best young entrepreneurs of 2011—and a man whose book career has definitely not been by the book.
 

Adam Witty

 

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? … Is it a publisher? All I needed to know was that Adam Witty is in book business and was named one of Inc magazine’s “30 under 30” for 2011—and I was emailing his publicist within 5 minutes to set up an interview for our “Not by the Book” series. How many young book professionals are lining up for awards previously received by Mark Zuckerburg, after all?

But exactly what kind of book professional is Adam Witty? Inc is all about entrepreneurs, and, as many young folk as are striving to make it in book business, I haven’t heard any described in a tone that calls to mind words like “maven,” or “savant” quite so quickly. Oh: and no other new book business I know of has doubled its revenue every year since its establishment.

The business Adam started in his guest-bedroom in 2005, 2 years after graduating from college, wasn’t “Advantage Books.” It was Advantage Media—“media” being a much more obvious “open sesame” to success than plain old “books.” Nevertheless, Advantage’s first medium of choice was, in fact, books. Through high school, Adam’s professional experience had been with book business—in publishing. “It wasn’t anything I’d been interested in,” he said, “it was chance.” The “chance” was that his family lived next door to a senior executive of Creation House, a 40-year-old Christian publisher. Adam was searching around for a summer job, and his neighbor suggested he come for a paid internship in various departments at Creation. (I pointed out that those words “paid internship” will make many Trendsetter readers green with jealousy). And intern he did: from Marketing to Editorial to Warehouse, Adam learned the workings of a small publishing house.

College finished; a year or two passed and Adam (unlike any other young college grad EVER) hadn’t quite found his vocation. Then sitting at lunch one day with his mentor, Pat Williams (motivational speaker and, uh, Co-Founder of the Orlando Magic), he mentioned a glimmer of an idea he had. “Pat looked at me and basically commanded me to get on an airplane and head for Atlanta.” Adam’s destination was the annual National Speakers Association (NSA) conference being held there that weekend, and his plan was to “basically act like a guy who knew how to publish books.” He walked away with more than 10 signed contracts and more in the works.

But when he set up shop on his own, Adam wasn’t exactly a publisher. He bore much more resemblance to a self-publisher, but one that offered highly specialized services, on both front and back-end—from editorial to distribution and publicity. Advantage’s way of using books soon integrated into a much greater web of podcasts, online videos, webinars, and speakers bureaux—media not for “art’s” sake, as it were, but as marketing tools for their authors’ main businesses. Advantage’s customers are almost exclusively speakers and consultants who get paid for their knowledge, and use books (and accompanying media) to make their knowledge more marketable. The books aren’t the source of income—they’re the commercial.

At this point, I began to feel a little crest-fallen. The moral of the story seems to be: no, concentrating on excellent books by dedicated authors won’t bring success; only books as advertizing, as a means to an ends, will bring success. I was turning into a starry-eyed idealist before my very (usually star-free) eyes. I, the person who probably disrupted your last cocktail party by saying, “Well, books are a business!” a little too loudly and a little too eagerly. But still.

Adam doubtless heard me whining from my ivory tower, and unfolded some ways he thought his wildly successful media project could speak to traditional publishing as it stands today. “Who’s at the center of the whole publishing operation?” he asked. “It’s the authors. They need publishers less and less; we need them more and more. But why hasn’t publishing been author-centric from the outset?”

What did he mean,”author-centric”? That we should all be self-publishers who publish only what we get paid to? And do whatever the author says? No, thanks. But Adam assures me this can apply to everyone from Random House (world’s largest trade-book publisher, bee tea double-you) on down. Here’s what he said: “I’ve had numerous traditionally published authors come to me and say ‘Adam, I can’t even tell you how much I hate my publisher.’ And their top complaints aren’t about royalties—they’re about communication and respect.” Meanwhile Advantage’s authors come back again and again—and they’re the ones shelling out the cash. Practically, Adam believes that an involved author is a juggernaught of a marketer.

In a moment when traditional publishers are pulling out their hair to get authors to establish better digital platforms and be savvier publicists, I think Adam Witty has a point. In a culture where mistrust and not a little bit of scorn are the norm, getting authors to put all kinds of passion behind the project of getting their books further out in the world is out of step with everything else. It’s time to get authors excited, not just about their books, but about the process of bringing their books into being. To Witty’s mind, the change publishing most badly needs isn’t a digital anything; it’s a change between publishers and authors themselves.

When I asked Witty for some closing words to those just entering the book industry right now, he said: “Do you have any idea what an exciting business you’re in? The industries with the hugest changes facing them have more scope for opportunity than anywhere else. Just look around you. Publishing and Automobiles,” he said. “In this moment, those are the most thrilling places to be.”

Since I left my monkey wrench at home, I guess I’ll stay put.

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