Rethinking our relationship with readers

Last week one of our novels was shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize. As publishers we live for such moments. Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile deserved its place on the list. It is daring in form and absolutely assured in achieving what it sets out to do: the work of a writer coming in to her prime, a classic-in-the-making.

To date, it hasn’t had a single mainstream review.

I don’t say this out of sour grapes (although it is obviously disappointing). Nor am I here to chastise the literary establishment for their oversight. Quite the opposite. The thing that interests me is how the hitherto unheralded Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile found itself on one of the major prize shortlists. The Folio Academy brings together 300 writers and literary journalists: if the world of books has an establishment, this is surely it. Yet here its function is not to act as gatekeeper, but as a community of readers with no skin in the game.

The Academy comes up with the list of 80 books that they believe to be the best published in the UK during the previous year. The three judges (also writers) then whittle this down to a longlist of 20, and then a shortlist of eight. Putting aside my obvious self-interest, this year’s list is remarkably diverse and challenging. The selection has a freshly-minted feel. It certainly isn’t the eight titles you’d come up with by analysing review pages or even tracking social media buzz. That’s because of the process—it was, effectively, crowd-sourced. It just happens that crowd in question was entirely made up of writers. That is the Rathbones Folio Prize's USP.

After all, writers are first and foremost readers. Back in my Waterstones' days I used to joke that what the world needed was better readers and fewer writers. Now I see that a robust literary culture needs plenty of both. And that the more readers and writers are plugged into one another, the more diverse and vibrant that culture becomes.

This is important for two reasons. The first is biodiversity. Monoculture might make a quicker return, but it leads to a depleted soil and genetically weakened crops. In publishing, this has encouraged the growth of a healthy marginal ecosystem of independent publishers. Eleven of the 20 titles on the Rathbones Folio longlist were published by independents, as were half the eventual shortlist. Around the more established brands—Faber, Granta, Canongate, Profile, Salt—there is a rich foment of innovation. Influx Press, Little Toller, Comma Press, Penned in the Margins, Galley Beggar, Bluemoose Books, Peepal Tree Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, And Other Stories, Orenda Books, Tramp Press, Les Fugitives, Tangerine Press—all are publishing potential (and actual) prize winners.

And while it’s tempting to characterise the big publishing groups as literary Monsantos selling their limited range of irresistible brands in a global marketplace, they are too smart not to recognise the need to cultivate diversity. One of the most inspiring stories of the year is the Hachette’s launch of Dialogue Books driven by the unstoppable Sharmaine Lovegrove. And the big groups’ boutique literary imprints—Picador, Hamish Hamilton, Vintage, Fourth Estate—are all mixing it with intelligence and passion and behaving, as far as they can, like independents.

But it’s the second reason that really interests me—the untapped commercial opportunity. What the big groups can’t (or won’t) do is plug directly into readers. This is where size is unhelpful: disintermediation is difficult in a market where 40% of your global business is locked into one unsentimental customer. By outsourcing the final relationship to retailers, publishers are leaving a massive amount of money on the table.

At £40, Unbound’s average transaction is almost ten times that of the average price paid for a book in a bookshop. The experiences, events, personalised communications and merchandise we can offer our reader/customers are predicated on us owning that final transaction. And it’s not just Unbound. Other smart agile independents are beginning to exploit the direct route. And Other Stories, Peirene Press, Fitzcarraldo and Galley Beggar all run innovative subscription models. Influx Press uses the crowdfunding membership site Patreon to support its publishing and Henningham Family Press is using Kickstarter to fund exquisite handmade ‘artist books’. And a quick survey of other media industries—in particular music—suggests that the genie of direct access between artist and audience isn’t going to go back into the bottle anytime soon.

Alice Jolly wrote the first draft of her novel using a quill pen to feel her way into her heroine's worldview (it is the journal of a serving woman in 19th century rural Gloucestershire). Tired of the endless genre-wrangling that selling a book to a mainstream publisher requires, she decided to give up and write the book she really wanted to write. Unbound's crowd funded it; the Folio's crowd recognised it; the wider crowd of readers are now discovering it. It might even get reviewed.

John Mitchinson is the co-founder and publisher of Unbound.