There are many problems that loom over publishers these days. Among the loomiest—and most familiar—are these two:
How do we talk directly to readers?
How do we show that we matter?
I have a suggestion that might help answer both of these questions: allow the public to see more of what we do.
Not allow them to do what we do: this is not crowdsourcing, in fact it's the exact opposite. It's about presenting ourselves as experts.
Of course I’m not proposing that we lay open everything we do to the gaze of Johnny Public. Some of it’s too secret. Some is inappropriate. Some of it is too dull. Some of it’s all three.
What’s much more typical is a brand new author or book which you have to launch from nothing, and frankly anything that gets the public engaged with it is worth considering.
So how would this work, practically? Penguin do creative transparency very well. Their website features lots of excellent videos of designers talking about how they made their covers, along with editors, copywriters (or “blurbistes”) and others. My favourite is Coralie Bickford Smith talking about designing the gothic horror novels in the Red Classics series. It eschews slickness in favour of wit and honesty, and is very, very charming as a result. And it makes you want to own those books. It dramatises the creative process, shows you what care and cleverness went into it. So it helps you realise that the books are worth buying, at a premium price.
Meanwhile, when Penguin posted a picture of the first page of the new Zadie Smith manuscript on their fiction blog they got 2,500 views in a day. Keen readers tend to be interested in the creative and curatorial processes we undertake. I have found this out by visiting three book groups a year, routinely. They all love seeing our book proofs, seeing the cover visuals that we didn’t use, and hearing the story of how a book came to be the success it was.
Another example of exposing the publishing process comes from Osprey, who are way ahead of most in their direct communication with readers. They post things like this on their blog. It’s really straightforward, but the fans love it because they get to anticipate the new book and get a frisson of behind the scenes-ness. The team at Osprey get to remind us that they’re involved in actually making the thing.
So, book marketers, next time someone comes up to you and says: “can we do a trailer for this novel? Something really filmic, yeah?”: do it, but consider also shooting a little homemade documentary of the process. Talk about what you’re trying to say about the book. Why you love it and what you’re trying to convey about it. Talk about the choices you make and the ideas you didn’t use.
Also: the next time your author, or an actor, is recording an audiobook, why not try videoing that, to show how that fascinating process works? Not so much the technical aspect, but artistically.
Another thought: people who write copy do a very creative job. Say you had a week to write the best possible blurb for your new literary smash. What would happen if you committed to blogging a draft of it every day of that week, with a short explanation of why you’re trying this approach?
The ultimate laying open of the publishing process would of course be to put a manuscript online, complete with the author’s and editor’s comments and changes, for all to see. Most authors would loathe this idea, and most editors too. But don’t assume it’ll never happen.
I’d like to emphasise that I do recognise that all of those ideas represent hours of work and effort, some of it quite uncomfortable. And no one has spare time on their hands. But I would urge you to consider the strategic importance of communicating interestingly, direct to readers, and demonstrating the worth of publishers.
Keen readers are interested in this stuff, as we’ve seen. So let’s make use of that interest.