On 20th February 2014, the way we watched, experienced and talked about television changed forever. Netflix aired “House of Cards”, its first big gamble in the world of original programming. It was not the best TV show, not by a long way, but what it proved was the concept of Netflix: that you can subscribe to a service to watch daring and unconventional programming at your own convenience. “Bingeing” used to be a term reserved for reading books.
Where is the Netflix moment in publishing? The flood of cheap e-books changed the dynamics for a few years and introduced to readers thousands of writers who could bypass traditional publishers. But it did not change, in the end, the way we read or, in fact, what we read. If anything, piling books into distinct genres has made most books look the same and subsequently limited our chance of real discovery of something original.
“If you liked this, you’ll love this” has become a mantra that haunts the industry, as every product has to reassure potential buyers that the risk of it wasting their time is minimal. Yet Netflix asks viewers to spend six, eight, 10 hours watching complex, multi-layered dramas and documentaries with no reassurance other than its own quality. Yes, I know watching is easier than reading—the people are prettier, the music better—but we all know that once you are hooked on reading, you hunger for more. As long as you trust that your supplier is reliable.
A broad church
I love Netflix because it views me as a consumer who is part of a “taste community”. It knows what I like via its data, but it provides a range of programmes that better reflects my taste. Most of all, Netflix acknowledges the unsayable truth about us all: we like a bit of everything. We like to switch our brains off with “Friends” or “Stranger Things” or “The Crown” as much as we like to engage in the challenging dramas and documentaries like “Breaking Bad”, “Fauda”, “Wild Wild Country”, “The Staircase”, “Narcos”, etc. In other words, Netflix has worked out we do not live our life in silos where we only like certain types of storytelling dependent on our age, education, ethnicity or gender. We like everything, as long as it is good.
We trust Netflix to discover new things for us. Can we say the same thing about publishing? Too often we approach books from the perspective of mitigating against failure rather than expecting success. And yet, this country continues to provide great writers with global impact. There are many investors with lots of money in the UK who seek to invest in IP and in writers, but in order for them to take creative risks, the industry must innovate. “Hamilton” premiered on Broadway in February 2015 and came from public theatre into the hardest of commercial environments. It offered a radical new take on the musical. My concern is that we are not capable of producing a “Hamilton” moment in publishing or a structural change in how we read: a Netflix.
Publishing needs to experiment with different ways of serving its readers. If people love books in audio because it suits their busy lifestyle, why are publishers not publishing them first in audio and devoting meaningful resources in their marketing? Instead of worrying about the margin lost on not having a print version, why not change the way we consume written stories by investing in this growing form? Why are subscription models so feared by publishers? We used to have book clubs, but since the rise of the e-book they have lain by the wayside. But it doesn’t mean readers no longer want this model. There are obvious concerns about the subscription model—not least at the impact on the authors’ royalties—but should it stop us exploring models that could make the whole market bigger?
At its heart, real innovation comes from the creators: writers. Our role, in whatever part of the publishing ecosystem we occupy, is to enable authors to get their stories out. Why is it that a story that challenges us (or takes the form of something like a “Hamilton”) is less likely to come through existing structures than ever before? Diversity is a serious and challenging issue in our industry, but also a huge opportunity. It will come if we change the way we deliver books to people and attract younger readers. If we build it, the writers will come.
People love stories. They want to see them, read them, hear them, discuss them. But we work in a radical industry that is using old technologies and is poor on data. Looking back hurts your neck. Literary novels are sold to a certain type of person, reviewed in certain periodicals, priced a certain way and win certain prizes. What about the person who enjoys Zadie Smith as much as Marian Keyes? Jojo Moyes as much as Joseph Heller? Yuval Noah Harari and John le Carré? They are in different parts of the bookshop, with different covers, to put us in our silo.
We need to look again at every stage of publishing and distribution and actually listen to our readers and our writers. We have a huge supply of real talent in the UK, and a publishing model that is creaking and needs real vision and true innovation. Whether bookseller, publisher or agent, we won’t have our “Hamilton” or Netflix moment without it.
Jonny Geller is the joint-c.e.o. of Curtis Brown and the managing director of its Books division.