Harvard Business Review recently added its voice to the clamor for changes in the $28 billion U.S. publishing industry. The article, by writer Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist based at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, is headlined “Harper Lee and Dr. Seuss Won’t Save Publishing.”
By relying not only on those obvious one-offs and other “successful retreads,” but also emphasizing authors who have what publishers call a pre-existing platform—which means either past books, a painstakingly built social media presence, speaker popularity, or high visibility in other media (movie stars, television commentators, high-profile journalists)—publishers are missing partnerships with less prominent authors. Such relationships used to be cultivated over the long term, giving publishers a deep bench.
Publishers don’t treat authors the way a venture capitalist or angel investor might, notes Suw Charman-Anderson in Forbes. Some of the authors on that bench were future stars and others solid mid-list performers. The whole timid approach is reminiscent of Hollywood’s love affair with sequels, prequels, and copycat films.
Authors today have a choice; if publishers aren’t willing to invest in them, they can look elsewhere, to smaller presses or self-publishing. In the past, the major publishers could offer authors their expertise in distribution, design, editing, proofreading, and marketing. Distribution has had a tectonic change with the advent of e-books and print-on-demand; increasingly sophisticated design, editing, and proofreading services are available for authors to contract with directly; and only the most highly successful (or happily delusional) author expects the publisher to take sole charge of their book’s marketing any more.
Clark recommends the following strategies to reinvigorate their relationships with authors:
- Become full partners with authors, looking to the long term; think of them as the seed-corn necessary to harvest future profits.
- Be more transparent with data (in late October I’ll be receiving my royalty statement from a textbook publisher that will provide up-to-the-minute-as-of-last-April sales information); no way can authors help with promotion when they’re working with arcane, six-month-old data. What’s more, as best-selling author Ken Follett says, “(Royalty) statements are carefully designed to prevent the author knowing what is really happening to his book.” (Clark says Penguin Random House has a new author portal that tracks weekly sales. This is a first.)
- Build their own brand and audience. With all the industry consolidations that have occurred in recent years, if readers had an impression of a particular publisher, that entity may no longer exist, at least not independently.
- Connect authors to one another for “cross-pollination” of marketing and literary ideas.
- Double down on quality. Readers of books from all sources, including big publishers, lament the typographical and factual errors and negligent editing they encounter, even in books they’ve paid top-dollar for.
Such strategies could assure publishers’ profitability for years to come, because, as Clark said, “hoping to find another lost manuscript is not a business plan.”
Industry-watcher Michael Shatzkin says changes in publishing are, maybe, inevitable?