Recent celebrations in publishing houses are ominous. Towards the end of 2018, publishers saw print sales rise yet again, bringing on a deluge of back-patting and champagne. Celebrating success is healthy. However, success is narrowly defined in-house, mostly centring on sales figures and splashy media coverage. Very little time is spent creating space for (and celebrating) new ideas and innovation.
The publishing mentality is alarmingly similar to that of the Royal Navy during the two world wars: while always larger and more powerful than any fleet, they were severely hampered by tradition. For instance, new technology and a re-evaluation of old practices led other navies to prioritise accuracy over "rate of fire". The Brits thought this was all nonsense: superior rate of fire had won the Battle of Trafalgar, thank you very much! Smaller, innovative rivals were thereby given an unusual advantage purely because the Royal Navy refused to change. On one level, there’s similarity purely because the "rate of fire" principle guides the business model: publish as many books as one conceivably can, as quickly as possible, and then hope for the best. More importantly, the mentality behind the approach is the same. If something was successful in the past, it must be successful now—and forever. Also, we’re too big to fail. Despite size and prestige, traditional publishers may start losing to new players in a game they are used to dominating.
A new approach
If traditional publishers want to continue to thrive and grow, they must therefore be willing to adapt and accept their mortality. And they need to fully comprehend that innovation is defined by curiosity, agility and creativity: technology is just one symptom. Unfortunately, publishing houses lack them all.
Wait, we have loads of creativity and curiosity, you’re probably thinking. Yes, there are plenty of creative and curious individuals, but publishing houses don’t do enough to encourage them to affect change.
Any creativity beyond editorial instinct and cover design is usually ignored, outsourced or down-prioritised. Employees are expected to get back to “doing their job” and explore new ideas in their own time. Occasionally they are asked to embrace an innovation: say, gathering reader data to inform a book acquisition, trying a new marketing platform, or starting a podcast. Doing justice to any of these demands focus and the freedom to explore and, importantly, fail. In comparative creative industries this could well justify a new position or team to realise its full potential. Without such support, most projects predictably fizzle out or perform underwhelmingly.
The result is that, too often, innovation happens beyond the walls of a publishing house. It is developed by people who have never worked in publishing, or those who abandoned ship because they wanted more freedom, support or money. Publishers essentially let others innovate for them, allowing smaller, agile companies and individuals to take their revenue and determine the industry’s future.
Would it not make more sense to be part of this progress? There’s a straightforward solution: publishing houses can apply their own adventurous editorial logic to other endeavours. As with books, they should dare to support a variety of creative projects that could potentially fail. There are several ways to lay the foundations for these projects. Here are three suggestions for starters.
01 Broaden the definition and timescale of success, then redistribute resources accordingly. This frees up time and money to be more creative and develop long- term solutions. Designating a certain percentage (say 10%–15%) of company resources and employee hours to devising and implementing new ideas would enable—and demand—greater creativity. Crucially, be prepared to fail, learn and try again.
02 Mitigate strict top-down hierarchies and remove red tape. When everything has to be run past layers of middle-management and internal bureaucracy, change is glacial. It also creates a mentality of uncertainty, where people are afraid to use their initiative and feel safer on auto-pilot.
03 Hierarchies can also be detrimental to another key component of innovation: diversity. It will take ages for people of diverse backgrounds and opinion to have any real power in-house if such a situation hinges on young employees slowly climbing the corporate ladder. The system rewards those who fit in and adhere to it, so employees on all levels who don’t will leave to seek out more creative freedom and better salaries. Paying more, employing people who are not like you, and seeking out those who can challenge the modal way of thinking would be a good start.
These are just three alternatives in a sea of possibilities to explore. Questioning practices and, above all, thinking for ourselves should be the guiding principles of 2019.
The Firebirds are a collective of heretics working together to improve publishing. Get in touch to implement real change: firstname.lastname@example.org.