Shifting Publishing Paradigms: On the Cusp, in conversation with Hal Zina Bennett

Technological change totally changes how we all live, how we think—it produces huge consciousness shifts.

Hal Zina Bennett is the author of over 31 successful fiction and non-fiction books on creativity, health, shamanism, and personal development. He teaches seminars throughout the U.S. and has support groups for writers in four states. As a creativity and writing coach working with writers, literary agents, and publishers, he has helped over 200 other authors develop successful projects — including several New York Times best sellers and “Oprah” books. His client list has included: Phil McGraw (Dr. Phil), Judith Orloff, Shakti Gawain, Jerry G. Jampolksy, Dharma Singh Khalsa, Stanislaf Grof, Michael Samuels, MD, and many others.

His own book titles include Write from the Heart, Follow Your Bliss, Spirit Animals & the Wheel of Life, Spirit Circle (a novel), and Zuni Fetishes: Using Native American Objects for Meditation, Reflection, and Insight. His earliest success, The Well Body Book, with Mike Samuels, M.D., helped launch the self-help health movement and sold over a quarter-of-a-million copies in six languages.

Hal’s extraordinary understanding of the creative process has won him an important place in both mainstream and independent publishing. He lives in a remote area in Northern California (near where I lived when I lived in Lake County). We are fortunate to have Hal with us here today to talk to us about the shift in the 21st century publishing paradigm.—JGR


Janet Riehl: Hal, as we’ve discussed what’s happening in publishing today—from traditional mainstream publishing to small presses to university presses to Print on Demand (POD) technologies that author-assisted publishing makes use of, you’ve consistently argued that what we’re seeing here is a paradigm shift in how books are made and distributed, and by extension, how each of the players—author, publisher, and so on—are now regarded. Could you say more about this?

Hal Zina Bennett by John Curry
Hal Zina Bennett (photo by John Curry)

Hal Zina Bennett: We need to be saying, “Look, technological change has always spearheaded new paradigms in every society they’ve touched.” Think in terms of how the world was changed by Gutenberg’s printing press, by the sewing machine, the cotton gin, railroads, the internal combustion engine, the splitting of the atom, chemistry and so on.

Technological change doesn’t just change how Bibles are printed, fabric is produced and stuck together, how people move around on the planet, or how we produce energy and manipulate our biology.

Technological change totally changes how we all live, how we think—it produces huge consciousness shifts.

It’s no different with Print on Demand (POD) or the digital production and dissemination of the written word. In the world of writing and publishing, POD and ebooks are spearheading huge shifts in our consciousness. Defending these technologies, and independent publishing, as being better or worse than the old paradigm represented by commercial publishing, misses the point by a country mile—or more.

Riehlife: What’s your sense about most of the deeper, more important questions we, as authors and publishers, need to be asking at this point?

Hal: We’ve got to look deeper at what it means to be able to produce and distribute the written word in these new ways.

We can’t just take the position that people took with the advent of the internal combustion engine, who argued in favor of the horse versus the horseless carriage. That’s blind and unimaginative. It prevents us from exploring the wider scope of what these new technologies mean to us all. You know, these technologies are not going to go away. In fact, they are growing at a tremendous rate.

We need to dare to be prophetic. How does the technology change society? How is it revolutionizing the way we think and act and feel? What new creative freedoms do these technologies promise? What’s the downside—and I don’t mean simply comparing what’s self-published to what’s published by corporatized publishing companies.

Riehlife: Where does the dialogue need to go to become effective?

Hal: My position is that you’ve got to shift the dialog entirely, from a defensive posture, of saying indies are “better than,” or that commercial publishing has its limits, too, to a more fully proactive position of envisioning a very new paradigm.

iUniverse’s Diane Gedyman and Susan Driscol, in their book “Get Published!” have articulated a path that is at least pointing in the direction of the new paradigm.

Trouble is that a lot of people who don’t know the realities of commercial publishing are basing their arguments for that old paradigm on sheer fantasies about publishing that way, and most of what’s said is naive, uniformed, and mostly silly. Take it from someone who has made an excellent living working in that industry for the past 40 years!

The world is already moving way beyond comparison between traditional commercial publishing ala NYC and these new delivery systems for the printed word! Anybody still caught up in the old defenses of self-publishing versus commercial publishing is living in the dark ages.

Riehlife: What do you see as some of the advantages of this shift in the paradigm?

Hal: At the very least, POD and ebooks democratize the dissemination of the written word, in ways that are probably at least as dramatic as the way that Gutenberg’s little invention made it possible for millions of regular people to own Bibles (at the very least) for the first time in human history.

That’s a huge shift of consciousness! There are some who still argue whether it’s a good thing for people to be reading their Bibles without the “quality control” and the “learned interpretation” of the high priests, of course. I suppose the same could be said for those who argue that putting control of the printed word into the hands of multi-national corporations is a good thing.

Riehlife: There’s currently a debate that we can tag “quality control.” What would you say about that?

Hal: Is it a good thing to let just anybody publish their own books? What about quality control? Do we trust just anyone—rather than Bertelsman (a multi-national corporation) and his ilk—to screen what our society makes available to readers? Is it too idealistic to think that maybe it’s a good thing for readers to have more choices?

Riehlife: What kind of trends do you see emerging?

Hal: The road ahead still isn’t very clear with these new technologies, but just as with Gutenberg’s printing press, the genie is out of the proverbial bottle, swimming around in the ethers, mixing it up in the collective consciousness in ways we are only barely beginning to realize.

Watch carefully! Even commercial publishers are getting into POD to try out new writers, build their backlists and hang onto books whose sales fall below 500 or so copies per year.

As recently as six months ago, Publishers Weekly was predicting that ebooks were just a fad that was withering on the vine, and soon it would go away. Meanwhile, Sony has stepped into the picture with a pretty decent ebook reader and a large program that by now lists even front list books by mainstream publishers. A few months after that Amazon announced its Kindle program.

Amazon has invested over a billion dollars on Kindle, and they’ve signed up 60% of the big publishers, as has Sony for their ebook reader program. And Amazon also has launched a program inviting independent publishers to join the Kindle program.

Look carefully, There are over a dozen successful ebook distributors around, some of them, like, doing very well with the rather old-fashioned (by now) Rocket ebook and Palm technologies.

And nearly every computer company is now making their aftermarket documentation available in Adobe Reader and Palm formats—with some introducing Kindle and Sony reader formats.

Riehlife: What does this paradigm shift mean for authors and readers?

Hal: It gives a creative boost and new freedom for authors. Readers having a greater range of choices. More widely, the world consciousness is profoundly affected by the explosion of independent publishing that these technologies produce.

Take a look at the parallel changes in independent film-making, made possible by the digital revolution; independent films now dominate that industry.

Similar things are happening in the music industry; the old guard has all but disappeared in the recorded music world.

Will the same picture repeat itself in publishing? I think that corporate publishing will continue to dominate, and that’s okay. But I also see expanding education programs, and independent services such as editing, distribution, and PR, to help authors make the most of these technologies.

Think potential parallels between publishing and the music world—with iPods, etc.—and the independent film world’s Netflix and Spiritual Cinema Circle. Independent distribution is happening for books on the Internet, and I don’t mean just with Amazon. Explore the ebook world on the Internet. There’s a whole world there that seems to be ignored by the media, even the independent media.

I think we’ll always have paper books. I love them, and most of the writers who are around today have a special love affair with printing on paper. It’s not easy to cozy up with an ebook reader, for example, but I’ve got to confess that I have a certain fondness for my “old fashioned” Rocket ebook reader.

You know, there’s something rather nice about lounging in bed late at night, staring into the glow of its screen and reading a good mystery. And in that little handheld device I have, let’s see, ten other books that I can instantly switch to if my interest wanes on the one I’ve been reading. Hmm. You see, those simple pleasures are part of what’s driving the digital revolution.

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  1. Wonderful interview, Janet! Thanks to you and Hal for articulating a thoughtful vision of where the “book” industry is going. It’s really the information industry, the telling of stories, true and imagined, and the passing on of wisdom. What media we use is less important than the stories we tell in the end.


  2. Susan, Thanks for your comment. Hal is an amazing resource. I didn’t
    mention it in my post, but he was such a stalwart support for
    “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” and significantly improved its
    quality…largely by gentle guiding…and hand-off in just the right

    So many of the things I thought he might do, he helped me do
    myself. That, of course, if the sign of all good coaches and
    teachers…and friends.

    He really does know his stuff, and we’ll lucky to have his
    perspective. I think he’d agree with you about the primacy of stories
    and information.


  3. I agree that there’s an enormous new freedom for authors. But with that comes the necessity of educating ourselves to the possibilities and to the costs. I see too many people going into the new technologies without thinking through the marketing challenges. It’s one thing to write a splendid book and publish it through POD. It’s another thing to create and maintain the demand that generates the printing. Excellent interview. Thanks!

  4. I’m very interested in the comments in this interview. As a recorder of family histories, I constantly urge people to write their memories for generations to come. POD offers the opportunity for families to permanently record their histories. A very thought provoking interview. Thank you so much.

  5. Velda,
    You are so right. This is one of the things that the new paradigm allows us to do so well: bring heart projects into the world. Hal Zina Bennett refers to this as “artisanal”…viewing the book as an art form, not just a commercial property. This is so important and often neglected in our view of the book. Thanks for commenting, and also for linking to the article from your blog.

    For readers…here is a link to Yvonne Perry’s WRITERS IN THE SKY podcast interview with you, along with links to the extraordinary video featuring you.


  6. Yes, Susan…you are so right!

    I view the new technologies as a gateway to several paths.

    For those who seek to bring their work more fully into the wider world through these gateways, then marketing…especially on-line marketing (another whole new set of technologies!)…becomes an essential knowledge and skill set.

    This is a skill set all authors seeking wider audiences must have these days. You, Susan, as the author of best-selling and mainstream books with traditional publishers, and also, as the founding mother of Story Circle Network which encourages all women to tell their stories through writing…have had the opportunity, like Hal Zina Bennett, to see the publishing picture from a 360 degree rotation.

    Hal also views books as “artisanal”…thinking of books as works of art and offerings of the heart…as well as, or in addition to, commercial products. For Story Circle Network, this is a key perspective.

    At the “From Pen to Paper” panel, one of the points I stressed is that we have to define our our version of success. For some, that version will take the form of sales numbers. For others, it will be an entre into career worlds previously unthinkable. For others, it will be a heart offering of beauty to a limited circle of family, friends, neighbors, and community.

    What I think is crucial, is to know why we are writing, and then, in turn, to know why we are bringing our work into print. In that way, we cannot fail. In that way, we cannot be disappointed.

    My committment to myself with my own book “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” was that it always bring joy to myself and to others…through the sharing of it. I’ve kept close to that heart intention and that’s my bottom line, always.

    Thanks for your comments. Your visit today means a lot to us.


  7. Janet,
    The interview with Hal Zina Bennett was illuminating and makes me even more interested in catching one of his teaching sessions in Santa Rosa. The author dialog here in “comments” is yet another example of how good you are in making connections that count and enrich our process. Thanks again!

  8. Susan Wittig Albert continues the conversation by saying:

    I’ve also done an enormous amount of self-publishing, Janet, including booklets, newsletters, eletters, and so on. And I’ve always promoted my traditionally-published books as though they were self-published. Marketing/publicity departments just cannot do what needs to be done to let people know about our work. I admire your energies on this front. Keep up your very strong work.



    Janet replies:

    Thanks, Susan…yes, that’s why your comments on marketing are so
    valuable. You’ve really got the territory well-mapped and I know it’s
    true that you promote your traditionally-published books as though
    they were self-published. I’m sure that’s a key part of your success.


  9. As a writer with nothing published but plenty written, this was a useful and scary interview. Useful in that it gave me information to think about as I approach agents, and scary because it is so overwhelming. And then it is inspiring because it gave me ideas to pursue for my career, and frustrating because I wish I could spend my time creating things and leaving it to someone else to promote. But that’s not how the world works, is it?

  10. Fascinating – I love it when what I have suspected about something is confirmed by an expert;makes me feel all clever and prophetic!

    The POD and e-book revolution, and the ease of being able to publish a great book, or a good book, even a fair to middling book is huge. So is being able to advertise and market it through the internet. So only just now is the traditional ‘ literary industrial’ complex slowly creaking into awareness… kind of reminds me of the small, clever and fast-moving mammals frisking around the feet of the huge and lumbering dinosaur.
    Hurrah for indy publishing!

  11. Good day, Thank you Hal Zina Bennet and Janet Riehl for this interview. It offers so many new aspects for thinking through, I wonder how this changes not only what is published but also why and how we write as well as why and how we read. Where in us is the change experienced? I am fascinated also about the direction(s) of the business models being re-formed. I recognize that most ‘business/industry’ startups have this kind of fragmented stage and here we are again but at a whole new level of complexity and depth. It seems that the way we think about such matters is being called into new life and new direction. What a wake up call!!

  12. Thanks, Cecile…with your background in organizational development,
    you can see clearly just how huge the ramifications are…on business,
    culture, and the culture of creativity. I really appreciate you
    insights here.


  13. Two posts from the IAG discussion board confirm this view:

    “The day will come when writing is like any other business for almost all authors–you have to use your money to publish and promote to build a loyal following. Each writer will be like an independent businessman and will only last as long as he he she can afford to pay to stay in business or until he builds a loyal following of readers. Imagine if you had ten thousand loyal readers visiting your Website watching for the next book. If you were making three or four dollars a book, that is an average middle class income. Once electronic readers become reasonably priced and reliable, the market will shift more into e-books: money speaks and e-books can be downloaded for a lot less than a paperback or hardcover. Little to no cost to sent that electronic footprint. I believe that what we are doing is the future of publishing. The old fashioned gate keepers are going to be removed. Literary agents will become a thing of the past. The writer will be agent, promoter and publisher with a Website promoting the novels/books. Service providers will providers like POD publishers/e-book publishers will provide the distribution.” –LL

    “I was talking about this to someone this morning and used this true
    story to illustrate where publishing is going. Late last year EMI in London brought in a bunch of young men to talk about the music industry. They talked for a couple hours and when the meeting was over, the business guys pointed out a table stacked high with music cds. Told the boys to take all they wanted. No one took a one. After the kids left, the executives said to each other “That’s the end of the business as we know it.” You don’t buy music on cds anymore, you download it. Publishing as NYC perceives it is old technology just like a vinyl album
    or a cd. As I listed all the marvelous books I’ve written that couldn’t be
    published, and the great ideas I’ve had that have been rejected, I
    realized what a stranglehold they’ve had. And an awful lot of editors
    are young single women fresh out of college who can afford to live in a
    studio apartment on the money the multinational conglomerates pay
    editors. These people with little or no life experience make our work
    live or die by their shallow opinions. They can have their noses up in
    the air all they want, the monopoly is over.”–B. M.

  14. I’m still thinking about these different ways of publication. When I decided to take my writing seriously, I knew publication was not a likely outcome. But I decided to write anyway because, well, what else will I do?

    Now as I consider my options. I’ve got this open-minded side that wants to do something new and wants to express myself and reach readers in whatever way possible. Then there is my traditional side that wants to approval of the established houses. Contradictory and unrealistic, but then again I am a writer.

    Right now the blogosphere is as daring as I get–though I’d like to try a zine next, and then…

    Sigh. Too many ideas!

    Thanks for the topics you bring up.

  15. Marta,

    I think it depends on what you’re writing and who you’re writing to/for. And, the point here is that choices are available that weren’t before. So, you can do both, if you can get it. Hal Zina Bennett has done both–traditional and new paradigm.

    Keep going with your blogging and writing and I’m sure the answer as to what the next most important thing you want to say and where and how to say it…will emerge…right on schedule.


  16. There has been a perceived notion that mainstream published books were somehow superior to self-published works, which, of course, isn’t the case.

    However, poorly designed and presented work tends to diminish the content, no matter how brilliant. A bad painting tends to look better when surrounded by quality work; conversely, a great painting can be overlooked when hung among mediocre art.

    In the same way that artists choose quality materials (media), today’s self-published writers who want their work read must add design to their skills–with freedom to publish and distribute comes more responsibility.

  17. Eden,
    This comment is powerful, coming as it does, form you, the author of the beautiful (and weighty!) “An Artist Empowered” which may take me decades to read. :-))

    I’m curious about your experience with LuLu.
    Also, I’m wondering if you’d considered putting out several books rather than just the one?

    I think the material on rejection in “An Artist Empowered” is extremely useful. I have an article on about relishing/reveling in rejection. I like how you point out that the information we receive as artists–even when we feel it as rejection–can be quite potent.


  18. Comment from Hal Zina Bennett:

    It’s been exciting to read the responses to the interview with Janet. It’s clear there are lots of people thinking about what these changes in publishing technologies mean to all of us.

    We should also be thinking about what these technologies mean for us as readers! I love browsing the various bookstores at POD websites, though iUniverse’s website has been the most fruitful and fun for me. Great bookstore, by the way.

    I also find fun and surprising books at Since I don’t yet own a Kindle, I haven’t spent a lot of time with the Kindle site but everything in the world seems to be there. We need to get the word out that iUniverse, Lulu, Xlibris, and all the ebook sites, are great places to go for books that you might not find elsewhere.

    Before you’ve got to Amazon, check out some of the bookstores at the POD sites and ebook sites. Think as book buyers, not just as authors, and we start shifting into another paradigm around these changing technologies.

  19. Well, I had to come back to this. And I see that Eden has already approached the topic on my mind–self-publishing. I’ve read a few things about whether or not to self-publish, but I’ve read next to nothing on buying self-published books. I haven’t taken this route and not sure how I feel about it, because while in theory I think it is a valid choice, I’ve never bought a self-published book. So, how might the writing community overcome the negative attitudes about so-called vanity presses?

    Of course, I guess the first step is if I get myself over to some of the site you mention and actually buy something, but I wondered how much are you able to read books from alternative resources? And where does one start?

  20. Marta,

    You are confusing yourself and it’s no wonder as there is a lot of confusion out there about several terms.

    vanity press
    subsidy press

    Check out the IAG (Independent Authors Guild), PMA (Publishers Marketing Association), SPAN (Small Press Association of North America) to sort out some of these definitions and answer other questions like:

    –who buys/reads & how to sell
    –attitudes towards various avenues of publishing
    –how to get started

    I’ve put out two books with iUniverse–which some deem a subsidy press because they hold the ISBN. For me, it was simply an expedient way to get my work out and my father’s work out…and, no vanity about it…more like a service orientation.

    The choices you make will very much depend on you, your work, finances, time, and skill set.

    iUniverse books range from “family-only” books to books that have crossed over in the traditional publishing route. The new publishing paradigm gives you more options…but only if you continuously arm yourself with more information. It’s an age of “keep up! keep up!”

    Even traditional publishing routes do not guarantee sales…nor success.


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