If you listen and watch carefully to what’s going on out there, you can figure a lot out, no matter where you are.
So here are some interesting things I’ve heard and seen from where I am in my experience as a publishing executive and now publishing entrepreneur, things that are pushing us all in new, dramatic directions.
I’ve heard it said that that the only way for a publisher to create a successful business is to acquire books at a very high advance level. I’ve heard that literary agents sometimes use a similar number as a benchmark for taking on authors. I’ve also heard that a publisher only wants to publish bestsellers and leave the rest to other publishers. And, then, it’s also been heard that books that breakout can be correlated to books that are acquired at, you guessed it, a significantly high advance level.
Hearing or observing these definitions of success has sometimes, if not always, been mind-blowing to me. While I can understand that some publishing businesses want to work at a certain scale, what I don’t understand is how those businesses continue to cultivate that goal of mass-market scale with little open concession or nod to business on a smaller scale, as a cultivation strategy. The “only bestsellers” approach seems shortsighted, like a professional baseball team that might try to do without any farm league investment.
What makes this stated approach even more puzzling is the fact that everything is so different in the digitally segmented marketplace we live in today.
Ours is a world where we live online, and one of the key dynamics of our online lives is that we can be more selective and specialized in what we consume. My go-to example of this is music. It used to be that we only knew the music of radio, which in my case on an everyday basis at least, was a lot of rock. Then the disruption of the internet and the infamous Napster came along in the late 1990s, and we had the chance to discover music of all kinds that weren’t determined by mass-market forces like commercial radio. That moment in time for me was the beginning of a love for American roots music. That was a good thing, a big improvement that made my life feel more unique, the world a place with more options.
So if you’re in a media business like major book publishing, how can you say you want to publish only bestsellers? Well, it turns out, you can, if you set up a model where you only publish authors with large social media followings that exist in our digitally segmented marketplace. It does depend some on the book category, but it’s a digital dynamic that has increasing influence over publishing. Just take a look at the 11/12/21 Publisher’s Weekly article, “Ghostwriters Come Out of the Shadows,” that contends that “where publishers are more and more reliant on nonfiction projects by authors with significant platforms, good collaborators are in higher demand than ever.”
Look away from the main point of the article for a moment and focus instead on the comment that publishers are more reliant on significant platforms. That comment flies in the face of one of the alluring myths of publishing, the one that says any author’s book can suddenly break out on its own. Sure, there are still examples of unexpected bestsellers, and they are remarkable, but the focus to create a predictable business, which is the main task of most business units in major houses with annual profit margin goals, drives the real lion’s share of acquisitions.
This race to the top among major publishers has a way of screening out the breadth of options and the uniqueness of content. It’s an undeniable force in publishing. It’s not great for authors or readers.
But then here’s the salient business problem: there are only so many authors with large platforms, only so many Instagram influencers, and there are far too many publishers who still pursue the “only bestsellers” model. This imbalance creates a scarcity landscape, which makes it no wonder that publishers continue to buy each other up.
So here’s the part about not only listening but also watching what’s going on out there. Consolidation is pretty much a necessity for an industry that’s trying to scale and to hold on to what continues as mass-market culture. The latest story in publisher consolidation is Penguin Random House (just think about that name) making a run to buy Simon and Schuster, a purchase currently challenged by the Department of Justice. A Minnesota bookstore employee was quoted in “Justice Dept. Sues Penguin Random House Over Simon & Schuster Deal,” an 11/2/21 New York Times article, as saying, “There’s less diversity of thought within the industry to generate new exciting ideas. . . .You can see it when you come into the shop and all the book covers look the same. Everything gets flattened.”
Consider also “Where Have All the Midsize Book Publishers Gone?” a 10/1/21 Publishers Weekly article that testifies to how most midsize publishers have been bought up because they can’t create economies of scale and compete on advances with bigger houses. So you’re either a big publisher, or you’re a publisher that should stay in a niche, which means “’sticking to its knitting’ in such areas as illustrated nonfiction, arts and crafts, and home improvement,” or maybe, in the case of religious publishing, new and smaller (and exciting) cultural movements.
One final point of reference, and another one about watching what’s going on out there, literally in this case. In the world of film and television, we’ve seen how distribution channels like HBO then Netflix and now a host of others have also become content creators in today’s streaming marketplace. Production companies are more numerous and busier than ever. It’s created a lot of breadth of options and uniqueness of content. Watching series-driven television has especially become a noticeably different feature of our lives. Can anyone recommend a new show?
Book publishing, however, is different. Sure, there’s Amazon as the pretty much only major distributor, but they simply haven’t had massive traction with their own book publishing. Perhaps books are different because the way people find out about books, outside of word-of-mouth, is more and more through online author platforms. So unlike television streaming, books are more centrally reliant on an author’s platform and it’s the author’s platform that becomes the distribution channel. Ordering and receiving a book after encountering an author’s online platform is just one click and about one day away.
If you’ve hung in this far, thank you. Here’s the takeaway.
We can only speculate on what the future will bring to the book business, but it will have a lot to do with publishers who can help authors not just with their content but also with their ability to create and engage new, emerging networks of readers, sometimes solely through their personal online followings. Publishers still offer experts at content curation, or good editing, something an author can’t typically do on their own. And many publishing professionals today do know that author platforms can help drive sales, even though a lot of existing publishers aren’t always directly spending resources there.
To that end, perhaps especially small publishers can focus on certain groups of authors who may be connected to each other by affinity of topic or cultural interest. Small publishers can even build a consumer-facing brand that establishes trust with the book readers in that author network, instead of acting like an impersonal corporation. They can also offer authors, especially but not at all limited to those on a lower level, a more personal touch and a more active partnership.
In my part of the world, but still generally speaking, I’m encountering more authors than I’d expect that have good and unique content that counters so many of the dominant narratives out there. They offer so much breadth, and exciting alternatives for readers who are both weary and wary of mass culture, especially where it’s become ideological or authoritarian. These authors may not always know about each other or walk in the same neighborhoods, but they are finding each other and their readers online. What’s more, by virtue of the fact that they have individual uniqueness, they have a commonality. Their uniqueness is inherently attractive, perhaps because they each have a certain level of authenticity. Even in their differences, a publisher can bring these authors together to create a network among their networks, and that can also help drive awareness and build readerships.
This is boutique book publishing, baby. Boutique is a word that denotes small and fashionable. Yes, small book publishers seem to be where it’s at. But, fashionable? Perhaps for some. But for me, I wouldn’t necessarily say this publishing is fashionable in the high society sense or the trendy sense, but in the sense of innovation, newness, uniqueness, and meaningful richness. Maybe I should just stick with “independent” book publishing, but “boutique” sounds nicer and looked better in the title of this article.