Not drowning but waving
22.05.12 | Jonny Geller
I recently read a good début novel entitled The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (not my client, so relax, I'm not pitching). A ship has sunk and the survivors are packed in a lifeboat, vying for control. Without a clear idea that they will see land again, they are jostling for a good spot on the boat. You can see where I'm going with this.
It feels like a gust of wind has come along and shoved everyone in the publishing industry into one spot on the lifeboat. The storm has abated and the seas seem calm, but we are all sitting in the wrong place, next to people we didn't think we would be, or should be, nudging against. We have to work out who we are now. The morning after the disaster, we have woken up on the lifeboat with new objectives:
» The publisher. Now seeking "a direct relationship with the consumer"—a euphemism for "they are going to sell books directly".
» The bookseller. Now seeking "a localised, niche, customer-driven service"—a euphemism for "they are sick of the huge returns and so is now going to stock lots of titles but not many of each of them".
» The agent. Now seeking to "create a 360˚ vision for his/her clients"—a euphemism for "they now do everything: publicise, edit, organise talks and even publish".
» The author. Now seeking "a more equal partnership with all elements of the chain"—a euphemism for "they are sick of being treated like a disposable commodity".
Any business book will tell you that in times of great turbulence, great opportunities arise. After all, everything now is not what it seems: the publisher wants to be the retailer; the retailer wants to publish; and the agent wants to publish and produce. The authors? They just want it sorted out before their loyal readers abandon everyone.
Everyone's role seems to be changing. The agent needs to be able to move up and down the boat, no matter how much this annoys the other seated passengers. In reality, the term "agent" has become almost redundant. Agents are now managers. We manage the careers, the publicity, the profile, the editorial direction, the tours and the publishing relationships of our authors. Some agents have stepped into the direct publication of their backlists—Ed Victor's Bedford Press, for example. Curtis Brown does this (with Macmillan Bello), but also has a film production company (Cuba) and a creative writing arm (Curtis Brown Creative). One agency organises a literary festival, another a speakers' bureau. It's a long way from lunch at the Garrick and a two-book deal agreed by the second bottle.
The publisher's position on the boat is rocky but secure. They have a mature business with decades of experience on every floor. But in the new order, they will have to divert their expertise towards data gathering, marketing and effective publicity. The big five will move to selling; curating and editing will remain a central plank, but not the central plank. They will diversify into joint ventures and co-productions and spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting for books to find their place in the market and then coming to them for scale out and monetisation (cf. Amanda Hocking, E L James). In other words, the big publishers will become like Hollywood studios.
Booksellers tend to panic in confined spaces, but they should remain calm. They must stop waiting for the waves to hit the other end of the boat. They are not a shop window for Amazon, they are an alternative to it. Booksellers will be expected to cater to specific, local and niche demands from their customers, to rebuild the unique relationship with book buyers they once had. The authors on the boat need to block out the cries of the other survivors and concentrate on their particular strength; bringing all the elements together by the power of their stories.
The wonderful thing about change that is imposed upon you is that you have very few choices: adapt or die; sink or swim.
Jonny Geller is managing director of Curtis Brown. You can follow him on twitter @jonnygeller.