A terrifying liberation

A terrifying liberation

It bothers me that “consumer publishing” is often understood as marketing to the mass market. All book publishers today need to be consumer publishers, whether they work in the smallest niche, or with global bestsellers.

Over the past few years we’ve seen a decline in the midlist. Online discovery of these books is difficult: the truth is that people don’t search for or share things that are sort-of interesting to them. Publishers know very well that many long-term successes come from this so-called midlist—and that the cost of sustaining it is increasingly challenging as bookshops, while still stocking a good range, often buy much less up front and fewer titles.

Publishing has always lived off hits and the glorious inefficiency of the trade has created an environment where, on balance, publishing lists have done well enough in a portfolio game. Now this balance is shifting. Publishers need new strategies for creating demand and value across their publishing. The old route—shovelling everything into a hopper called the book trade and driving sales through sizeable subscriptions—is over, for most titles. But could this prove a liberation from old ways, though a rather terrifying one, and lead to more imaginative publishing closer to needs and desires of writers and readers?

A fan’s notes

In his fascinating book The Curve, Nicholas Lovell outlines new models for creating value in the age of the internet. His interest is in the (high-spending) superfan, along with a contention that media businesses will no longer be rewarded for mass sales as sharable digital content tends to a price of zero. This way of thinking might be interesting to publishers with strong brands operating in niches, but also as a way of thinking about the midlist.

Last week we created a new division, Faber Press, and in doing so we’re seeking to find new models for reaching serious, committed literary audiences. We’ve learned a great deal over the past year from the success of our specialist music imprint, Faber Social. This small team works off an events programme, social media, a web presence and a dedicated and growing following of serious music fans. Its publishing comes in multiple formats and price points, from e-book and trade editions to high-end limited editions, merchandise and even vinyl. We sell through the trade, direct and at events. All of our publicity is sharply oriented to fans. And our team are fans themselves. In Lovell’s narrative it’s a superfan business run by superfans.

It’s my belief that this closeness to core consumers will be an important part of the model for literary publishing in the future. Faber Press will place our history, brand and back catalogue centre-stage for the audiences who most value them, with a sharp focus on poetry, drama, film, classical music and literary fiction. Within the division are our Digital, Faber Finds and Fine Press businesses, covering everything from letterpress editions to websites. Our first new activities will launch soon—later this year. Bookshops have responded to this environment too and have their own strategies built on curated stock, personal service and direct engagement through social media and events, so are, of course, a key partner in this move, but we are rowing away from a model entirely described by the trade.

Of course, publishers also have to be good at hits: the blockbusters. Mass market businesses have been excellent at prioritisation and picking winners in a way that literary businesses have not. To be successful in the future, I believe consumer publishers will have to master both the blockbuster and the superfan agendas. I also believe that the midlist can re-emerge with consumers, not the trade, at its heart. If so, then there is also a case for asking what value publishers bring, and what value distribution of books represents at the end of the mass distribution age, and at the beginning of the superfan and blockbuster age.