The new publisher


  • Jonny Geller, Curtis Brown, @jonnygeller
  • Charlie Redmayne, Pottermore, @pottermore
  • Jason Cooper, Faber and Faber, @faberbooks
  • Dominique Raccah, Sourcebooks, @draccah
  • Jonathan Williams, Boxfiction, @boxfiction
  • John Mitchinson, Unbound, @johnmithinson

Nick Harkaway is in an airport and can't be here.

John Mitchinson: Unbound, crowd-funded publishing thingamajig.

Dominique Raccah: Sourcebooks

Charlie Redmayne: Pottermore, Harry Potter, etc.

Jason Cooper: Digidude.

Jonathan Williams: Boxfiction, startup. Short form fiction like tv.

Jonny Geller chairs.

What went wrong with conglomerate publishing?

John: Was reorganised out of corporate publishing. They offer 2 things: Speed, up and running in a very short time. Most publishers don't really sell to readers, they sell to retailers. Connecting to readers is an incredibly powerful thing. Curated, crowdfunded, crowdsourced. The other thing is offering more money, 50/50 profit share. Big publishing gathers a lot of bad karma. They get the books funded, which immediately makes them different from vanity publisher. Unlike Kickstarter they consider themselves a publisher, just one informed by other avenues of funding and connecting with readers. Connected to people's enthusiasm.

Dominique: What an independent brings as opposed to the big five. There's a myth about book publishing, that we don't know about readers and only know how to put on retail shelves. All of Sourcebook's hits were driven by media marketing and the reader's sensibilities. Will differentiate over the next year. 2012 is the years of change and learning, where the past years's experience will pay off. Conglomerates can't do what they can do in the spaces they dominate.

Charlie: Wouldn't necessarily agree with the idea that conglomerates are going to hell. Offer a lot of value to an author. They will need to employ new skillsets to justify that value. Need to do more and better. Product Development and marketing. Publishers were a single product business with a single path to market. They've become multiple product business with multiple paths to market. Need to become product development businesses. (IMO, that's just another way of saying they need to become software companies.) Old world had a lot of vanity marketing, he's saying. Then he bandies the discovery buzzword about.

Jason: There used to be very little differentiation between publishers. (There's another word for that: Commodities.) Need to create a distinctive identity around brand and the value they create. Need more transparency and creative collaboration. Developing independent services. (Sounds like a shift from publisher to publishing services is a go to strategy for a lot of the traditional publishers, which is textbook Clayton Christensen, flight to higher margin.)

Jonathan: Interesting times. Just launched. See their role to innovate in formats. Take fiction to readers, but have no vested interest in novels or formats. (IMO, could do better with looking at the romance market than the TV market, which has been braindead in terms of structure for years.) TV series you read. (Bah, humbug :-P What's wrong with just series you read? Publishing has been doing series of short stories since the early pulp days. WTF do you think Conan is? Or Pretty Little Liars? Dozens of YA series? Bah, humbug.) A lot of the issues in publishing is a lack of scalability, hard to churn out good stories. TV series are a format that lets you extend.

Who can the author trust? Shift to the reader being important is very new.

Charlie: In the old world, consumer budgets were put behind every single author, which isn't sustainable. Spread resources too thinly. Pissing in the wind. (His phrase, not mine.) Need to focus their opportunities to build sustainable brands. Amazon helps small, self-publishers build and that pushes the midlist out of existence, which means that all publishers are competing just at the top. (That fits Clay Christensen again.) Need to invest in authors over a two years period.

Some author's do everything, what role does the publisher then?

Jason: Comes back to the point of a greater need for collaboration and transparency. There is an inherent dishonesty at times built in the system that doesn't work in the long term. Publishing has a role in facilitating things, probably get into the areas usually covered by agents, career development, etc. Real tangible benefits in creating wealth in a variety of different ways.

Dominique: A lot of fear among UK writers. Authors being dropped. Midlist authors being terrified. The role of a publisher is to make an author. The author shouldn't have to come to them fully created. What a publisher should bring to the party a long term campaign. List planning. Investing longterm resources and create a future for the author that is larger than what they could create themselves and if pubs can't do that then they should just quit.

John: The midlist is an interesting point. They're authors who aren't new or bestsellers. So many authors have skills and feel let down by the current model. If you could take a group of very very good authors, put them together, and if we can't find these writers readers, then we shouldn't be in this game.

Is an author going direct a rejection of the publishing status quo

John: Yes. If you have had a miserable time like many authors have, then yes.

Charlie: Doesn't know. To an extent what Pottermore is trying to do is develop a brand across many platforms. No publishing company provides that service to them. (But many of the would like to.)

(I'm kind of caught pondering John's idea: If you can't find readers for a group of eight good writers, you shouldn't be in publishing.)

Jonathan: Thinks that brands and brand building is a huge long term opportunity. Mentions building on TV properties that had several million fans when cancelled as an opportunity. People that talk to them own pieces of intellectual property that they want to develop. Reiterates that you should allow publishers to become experts at what they're good at, and the same applies to authors. Some of them will be good at the social stuff, some won't, publisher's should take up the slack where authors aren't competent. Wants to challenge the novel as the primary mode of fiction. (Again, where have you been for the last five years?)

Jonny: Authors want and expect excellence, and they aren't getting it.

Q: What impact will digital have on the length of the novel.

Charlie: It's about fiction, first. The book is what it is. In digital you have flexibility, short, long, etc. Publishers need to get smart.

Jason: Part of the reason why the novel is the way it is is because of the way it has been published.

Dominique: Author based subscription formats. (Diderot wrote using an author-based subscription format a couple of hundred years ago. Or was it more?) More experimentation. More acceptance of failed tests.

John: Let people decide what kind of books they want to buy. Digital changes the relationship between the author and the reader. He thinks publishers gave up on being brands years ago, a fatal error in his opinion. Publishers are a fairly undifferentiated mass. (Again: Commodities.)

I asked about them being incapable of publishing error free ebooks:

Charlie: Processes let us down. They will get better at it. Because they have to.

Dominique: 72 step QA process. Took three years to iron out. Really complicated thing.

Jonathan: Compares it with continuity errors in TV (not an applicable comparison, IMO).

Jonny: Says it gets irritating.

Q: Is there still editing taking place at publishers still?

Dominique: Yes. And there will be.

John: Editorial departments are the place that has taken the biggest hit.

Jonny: Sees it on a daily basis. Publishers are under-resourced. If a publisher can't prove their excellence through quality, then what role do they play. Their level has to be higher.