Are data and sales publishing's driving forces?
Reedsy was at The Frankfurt Book Fair this year. The conferences from the self-publishing program were interesting, but often too short to really dig into details. Luckily, I had registered ahead of time for a panel that went almost unnoticed thanks to poor programming; by Saturday morning, most of the trade visitors had either left or were too exhausted to reflect on the state of the industry with any wit or coherence.
Porter Anderson, journalist for The Bookseller’s Futurebook and Thought Catalog; Orna Ross, “indie” author and founder of ALLi; and Marcello Vena, founder of All Brain, a publishing consultancy, convened to answer one brilliant, pertinent question: Is it all about sales?
The dissection of a publisher by Marcello Vena
Porter opened, putting the question to the panel. First up was Marcello Vena with a 15-minute dissection of a publishing company. Marcello didn’t try to be elaborate or—heaven forbid—present us with another blueprint of how to “disrupt” the publishing industry. Rather, he drew a clear, structured picture of what publishing should be about, going back to the fundamentals.
Here’s what I took away from Marcello’s contribution: Yes, publishing is a business. The biggest publishers are owned by multinationals and are under the pressure of the markets. And the markets care about sales. Whether this should be its philosophy or not, a publishing company is always there to make money, because else it cannot be sustained. It’s that simple.
However—and this is where the beautiful twist comes in—even though sales are just as important to Penguin as to Pampers, selling books isn’t like selling diapers. Publishing is a creative industry. Sales depend on two different capabilities: first, acquisition (luring the best authors who write the best books, and developing their careers), and second, marketing (i.e. ensuring that the books get into the hands of their target audience).
This is what makes publishing such a puzzle, an industry resistant to standard strategies of “disruption”: you have to compete both for content and distribution.
When both are done together, and done well, that equals… sales.
When the balance is not respected…
Good debate needs common ground—something we can all agree on. Now that we know how a publisher should work, we can identify what is going wrong (if, indeed, something is going wrong).
And no one better than Orna to help with that. You can read her story here. Orna’s publisher didn’t respect the necessary balance between acquisition and marketing. Her publisher took her book about “strong women rising above their inherited circumstances” and turned it into a love story with a neon-pink cover. “For the mass market,” she was told.
This is not the first “horror story” (Polly Courtney has a similar one), nor will it be the last. They always follow the same classic plot: author takes book to publisher, publisher uses book as raw material for making something more “marketable,” author feels like giving up.
To widen the debate: a reflection on data and creative industries
This is when Porter kicked in with a comparison to the news industry. Before the data-era, the power in newspapers and magazines resided with the editorial team. Journalists wrote what they wanted, how they wanted - and this often resulted in well-written, in-depth pieces on critical subjects.
Now, power has shifted to the advertisers. Journalists are not supposed to write what they think is “good” or relevant; they have to write what data shows will be read and clicked on.
This comparison led the audience to a crucial question in this debate: is data compatible with creative industries?
Data-driven strategies are all about testing and iteration, repeating what works. Obviously, Marcello points out, big publishers do other things too. If they didn’t, we’d be drowning in a sea of erotica right now. But things might be moving that way, just like they have for journalism.
Trying to be iterative in a creative industry is problematic because it stops publishers from finding the next “big hit”. Big hits are almost always books that uncover a market that either didn’t exist or looked dead (exempli gratia: Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Grey). Sometimes the acquisition team of a publisher has to take a leap of faith—a leap unsupported by data—and marketing has to trust it.
The balance between editorial and marketing is maybe only one of the challenges facing publishing companies nowadays, but it might be the most important. The balance is at once about publishing itself, what it means, what it does.
As Porter has repeatedly pointed out in his articles for The Bookseller or Thought Catalog, we often forget that the big shift happening in the publishing industry is a relatively recent one. We are in this industry and this makes us impatient to see progress and adaptation to change, but we must not forget that no other industry would have reacted quicker or better to such a paradigm shift. It’s not exactly the most comforting of thoughts, but it’s true.
Nevertheless, hopefully when I’m in Frankfurt this time next year we’ll have started to see some sort of response to all this kind of thing.
Thanks for reading.
If you enjoyed Ricardo’s thoughts on the business of publishing, you might want to check out some of these posts…