Leveraging invisible work

From the outside, publishing is showing signs of rude health. Everyone’s at it. Grayson Perry is a busy artist but he has written six books since 2010, which is more than many full-time writers. It seems that nobody in public life from a philosopher to a sports hero can avoid writing a book or, in the latter’s case, licensing their name to one. 

The result is a comprehensive and ever-changing marketplace that reflects what people are interested in. But are the people who publish and sell making the most of the opportunities in that marketplace? Are book professionals making the most of what they think and know?

Since writing my book about the creative economy I have met many innovative people across many industries. My new book Invisible Work describes how they work – because people who are creative seem to think and work differently from the rest of us. They spend their time differently. They interpret the rules in their own way. 

These inner workings of talent—the hard work that makes the difference—are literally unobservable and unseen. It’s private and personal and goes on in people’s heads unless and until they decide to articulate it to others. Doing it well includes managing it when it is private and managing the editing process of making it visible.

It’s the most common kind of work in publishing, as in other industries that live off ideas. It was always thus, but has become more urgent with today’s increasing dependence on project teams and group decision-making. It can be hard to measure or manage, and hard to know what constitutes fair pay. Success for individuals, teams and organisations depends on the articulation of invisible work.

As I think about invisible work in the publishing business—and especially publishers and booksellers—I am struck by three points. 

The first is the wisdom that is not expressed. By this I mean what people think about at work, but do not talk about. It’s the wisdom held by individuals that is not voiced or shared. 

It might be someone’s personal experience that could throw new light on a book’s subject. It might be an experience on social media that affects the wording of a subtitle. It may be a new trend that is obvious to some people but completely unknown to others.  It may be something to do with the way the company works that is blindingly obvious to everyone directly involved but seemingly unknown to others.

When I say nobody talks about it, I mean they may talk about it at home or with their friends in the office—but even editorial staff are not always encouraged to bring all their ideas to the table, and non-editorial people are not even invited there. So, the majority of people’s thinking and experiences are not incorporated into the business.

As an author, I would relish such input from the time I start to think about a book to when it gets published. I want to know what everyone thinks, not only the commissioning editor, and I want to meet them as soon as possible. I don’t care who does the invisible work or where their idea comes from; I just care if it helps. 

It’s a way of working that maximises the wisdom of crowds. It doesn’t dismiss hunches. Nobody in a hits business can afford to do that; a hunch is a precious thing. Invisible work encourages hunches from everyone who has something to say. It widens the checklist and encourages people to articulate their views.

It also calls for a more collaborative way of managing and leading.  Individuals and teams cannot always wait for their team leader. A team that works well contains several people who will take the lead at different times and then step back as the work moves on. Lazlo Bock, who was in charge of People Operations at Google for 10 years, calls it "emergent leadership". A good team leader will encourage this—but it won’t happen unless others step up. 

The second point follows naturally: the book as a lever of ideas. Are publishers doing enough to maximise each author’s ideas and skills?

In my experience, few publishers encourage their authors to meet each other. Many other industries (obvious examples are TV and software technology) have built-in arrangements for their creative suppliers to meet.  Publishers tend to focus on the end-user rather than the supplier. They routinely distribute book summaries and snippets online and hold events. 

These help, but they are feeding off existing assets rather than creating new ones. They can also be expensive and beyond the reach of many smaller publishers and booksellers. 

A better alternative is to re-work the original idea and content as a series of new assets. Instead of each book contract focusing solely on the text to be published, the author and publisher could think about the ways in which the original idea could be formatted.  They need to think longer term and produce in more multiple and experimental ways.

Large publishers could start to think like libraries and create their own brand of online lending library. Harvard and Yale and other major universities have developed platforms for massive open online courses (MOOCs). Publishers could launch a massive online open library. Let’s call them Massive Open Online Libraries (MOOLs). The start-up Axate provides a model sampling service for newspapers.

One of the greatest of recent innovations has been the freemium mix of free and paid-for subscriptions.  The paywall is moved back a little. The basic service is offered free but people who register get a little more and people who pay a regular subscription get a lot more. In the same way, publishers could start by offering their content for free until they have enough support (users) to attract advertisers or justify a subscription.
Yuval Noah Harari excels at creating new assets and revenues. He started small. A recent interview in the New Yorker (24 February 2020) said he felt uncomfortable as a lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and so wrote down a Hebrew summary of each lecture in advance. His first Israeli edition of Sapiens was based on these lecture notes.

The English edition started as a print-on-demand book on Amazon and sold around 2,000 copies. This was the first lever. The book only really took off when agent Deborah Harris organised a commercial edition. This was the second lever. Now, says the New Yorker, Harari is "relentless in his search for an audience" and uses every medium and outlet to promote his writings. His husband, Itzik Yahav—who is also his manager and agent—heads a team of 12 people to drive what they call "the Sapienship brand". 

Harari and most active authors are examples of my third point: the incorporated self. One of the oddest statistics in Invisible Work is that the number of new companies set up in London in the first quarter of 2018 exceeded the numbers of babies born; and that the number of new companies is growing faster than the number of babies (of course, most companies have a short life). 

Most of them are set up by people who are self-employed. As a business they juggle ideas, projects and obligations as well as income and costs, and tax. The Office of National Statistics says it is very difficult to identify them, or measure their income. Their work disappears behind a corporate veil.

It’s a fair guess that most people who write books on a commercial basis work invisibly like this, regardless of whether making money is their main intent. Everyone who signs a contract and licences their rights is running a business, and the majority set up a company to do so. 

They are becoming professional not only in literary terms but in terms of contracts as well as publicity. They run a personal website and have their own presence on social media (Britain has 13.7 million Twitter uses and about 20 million registered LinkedIn users) and when they promote their ideas, they speak as individuals with a brand identity as much as the author of a specific book. 

This means the relationship between author and publisher is shifting from a lop-sided relationship to a more business-like conversation between equals.

One of the opening questions in Invisible Work is: why do we get up in the morning? What is work for? What are authors for, and what are publishers for?

The publisher’s stock answer is something along the lines of publishing great books and selling as many copies as possible. Fair enough. But they could do more to bring out the wisdom held by the author or their own teams but not expressed. Everyone in the business deserves to have their wisdom get out a bit more. 

John Howkins is an innovation strategist. He is a leading figure in the global understanding of work and creativity.  He was previously chief adviser to HBO and Time Warner and chair of the London Film School, CREATEC, Tornado and BOP.  He is the author of Invisible Work: The Hidden Ingredient of True Creativity, Purpose and Power (September Publishing)