The following opinion piece is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.
The book industry, like many areas of the media business, straddles two worlds. On one side is the 21st-century digital maelstrom, a place where software, platforms, devices and networks are upending the way authors and publishers do their work, and how readers buy and read books. On the other side is the traditional book industry, which revolves around the centuries-old concept of printing words on paper.
Casual observers might suppose that the traditional concept of a “book” is about to expire, as people switch to phones, tablets, and audiobooks. I have news for them: It’s not going to happen anytime soon. Printed books have shown a surprising amount of resiliency and flexibility (case in point: adult coloring books) and still sell very well. For my own publishing business, printed books account for 80 percent of sales (up from 70 percent three years ago).
As a consumer, I prefer traditional printed books over e-book editions. They are easy to use, don’t require batteries, and are sufficiently portable to bring on the subway or take to the beach. Like many readers, I do not want printed books to go away—in fact, I will continue to buy printed books as long as the titles are interesting and the prices are reasonable.
That said, as someone who is engaged in the business of producing and selling books, I so much prefer to be working on the edge of the digital maelstrom. It’s fraught with unpredictable change, but at the same time it’s an exciting, dynamic, and hopeful place to be working. At the same time, prospects for widespread improvements in the way publishers do business are not possible while the traditional book industry is hobbled by old ways of thinking and a few dominant players who are highly resistant to change. Take the Bowker ISBN monopoly, which makes millions off the backs of enthusiastic yet naive authors and new publishers in the United States. Then there are the big-name publishers that regularly leave books hanging in editorial limbo for years before finally releasing them. The practice of publishers launching books with little or no marketing support is a longstanding problem that has gotten worse as publishers attempt to cut costs.
Drawbacks to relying on editorial instinct
A huge impediment to the publishing industry is the bureaucratic mindset that prevents many organizations from embracing innovation. There are many opportunities available to organizations that are willing to embrace change. Yet innovation is regarded as a threat, as evidenced by the many outmoded and inefficient models in the book industry.
Consider the various processes associated with selecting and preparing books for publication. The traditional industry relies on skilled editors who serve as gatekeepers. They field calls from agents, go through the slush piles, edit the works, and shepherd the manuscripts through the publishing process. Alan Rinzler, who has been an editor for more than 50 years, described the process to NPR:
“Editors fall in love with books. They see something in it that resonates for them personally and they become passionate about it. They really have no idea whether or not the book will sell. It’s strictly an intuition, an instinct.”
Editors’ instincts sometimes yield massively successful books. A new author who stays on the best-seller lists for 20 weeks did not get there by accident. Someone at a publishing house saw potential in his or her manuscript, and an editor—or team of editors—worked with the author to finesse the text and bring it to the marketplace. Their editorial intuition is correct, and the book is a success.
Most of the time, however, books fail to make back the massive investments in time, money, and other resources. According to the same NPR article, 80-90 percent of books don’t sell. That does not mean the books are bad. But it does indicate that most titles fail to resonate with readers. It further points to a huge hole in publishers’ understanding of the marketplace … and a huge opportunity to close the gap.
In the past two decades, innovative companies from giants such as Amazon to startups such as Jellybooks have developed new data sources and new ways of measuring reader interest. Amazon is very skilled at identifying and promoting promising titles, but doesn’t share much of its data with publishers. However, publishers do have access to new types of data and services that can help gauge reader interest. For instance, Jellybooks’ technology measures how many pages readers read in a given book. If incorporated into the publishing workflow, such data could help identify titles and trends that have a much better chance of succeeding. Nevertheless, the traditional book industry still prefers to do things the old-fashioned way—by trusting gut instincts. It’s incredibly inefficient, as demonstrated by the poor success rate for new books and the ongoing struggles of the industry.
Using Lean Media in the book industry
Is there a middle ground? Over the past few years, I have been developing the Lean Media framework as a way for all kinds of media companies to change the way they develop and release books, film, magazines, music, websites, videogames, and other information and entertainment works. By reducing waste and understanding audiences, creative teams can be more focused on making great media. Conceptually, it looks like this:
Practically speaking, Lean Media entails streamlining operations and connecting with readers before the launch. Publishers can start by identifying delays, redundancies, and unnecessary processes, and working to reduce or eliminate them so the creative team (authors, editors, designers, etc.) can concentrate on developing books, instead of dealing with excessive meetings and months-long approvals. Publishers also have to be willing to show manuscripts or other draft materials (character sketches, outlines, cover designs, etc.) to beta readers and focus groups, and gathering both qualitative and quantitative reactions.
One example of Lean Media in action comes from Red Chair Press. The Massachusetts-based company recently launched Scary Tales Retold, a series of horror-themed fairy tales aimed at young readers aged 6-9. Publisher Keith Garton came up with the idea, and worked with an author and illustrator to create a half-dozen titles, including Cinderella and the Vampire Prince, Goldilocks and the Three Ghosts, and Jack and the Bloody Beanstalk. As part of the development process, Garton showed manuscripts to two groups—kids and parents—to gauge their reactions. It was crucial to validate the idea among both audiences prior to publication, as the books were intended to tread a fine line between being funny and scary. The kids liked the concept, and giggled at some of the more outrageous scenarios (for instance, Cinderella as a vampire, Jack getting squashed by the giant, etc.). Red Press also received feedback from parents, who are sensitive to books that are too scary for young kids. One piece of parental feedback that Red Press incorporated was the books should be limited to a certain age range that should be clearly stated on the cover.
Regardless of the feedback received, the Lean Media framework recognizes that the creative team is ultimately responsible for deciding how to move the project forward. In other words, authors and editors are still calling the shots—but they are doing so with a better understanding of readers. For publishers, it offers a new way to develop manuscripts and create books that audiences love.
It’s time for more publishers to consider how better data, new technology, lean thinking, and other innovations can be brought into their businesses. Embracing change is not easy, but when it comes to making media, clinging to the past is not an option.