The businesses of books

The businesses of books

From personalised cookbooks to co-publishing, the London Book Fair last week was awash with companies talking about their latest innovations. Many of these were reported in The Bookseller Daily but, in case you missed them, here’s a round-up with some additional commentary as to why I think they are important.

Among the most interesting announcements was Quarto launching a new online business which will enable readers to create personalised hardback cookbooks. This is Your Cookbook lets users create a 96-page hardback, collating recipes from Quarto’s cookery archives as well as incorporating their own recipes. Users can also add images, select a front cover and write their own dedication. The project is being run by Quarto publisher Mark Searle, who said: “The idea for This is Your Cookbook came about when we were talking about our favourite cookbooks. We’ve all got a few that we turn to again and again, but every cookbook we own has recipes we don’t want in it.”

The Quarto move is a kind of holy-grail for illustrated publishers, who have assets a plenty, the rights to re-use them, and need to find new ways to monetise them. There have been similar pushes in the travel field (create your own guidebook), and of course in academic publishing, where institutions look to create their own course packs.

The difficulty has been around creating a platform to manage the creative process that is both workable, user-friendly and scaleable. The most successful recent iterations of this personalised market so far has been Lost My Name, which from scratch created both the assets (designs) and the platform, making its success (it has now sold 500,000 individual books worldwide) all the more remarkable, and Sourcebook’s Put me in the Story, which has focused on adding personalisation to established books and brands (such as Frozen). Both serve different needs, but both are proving equally effective at operating within a marketplace that had been poorly served.

Quarto employed ValoBox’s Anna Lewis to build its platform, and aims to ship within seven days, with Lightning Source fulfilling the printing. Lost My Name was not an overnight success. It was launched in 2013, and in November last year was named Best Start-Up in the FutureBook Innovation Awards 2014. It was built from the ground-up with sales growing slowly before swelling to their current levels. Quarto has a bit of a head-start as an established player, but it too will need to be patient when it goes public in June. But they are onto something, as Searle noted: "We’re a small team and this is a start-up, but the recipes we’re using have been well thumbed in kitchens around the world for years and we hope they can help you create a cookbook that is unique and magical and very much your own."

And we will see more of this, as it gets easier to fulfil the back-end. In January, Ingram launched  Ingram Construct, a platform aimed at letting publishers use existing content to create customised print or digital books. As Kelly Gallagher, vice president of content acquisition, Ingram Content Group, said: “Technology has opened the gates of possibility for custom books." It has. And publishers have realised that personalised books need not be a Cinderella business.

 

A new publishing model was also launched at the fair, offering authors a 50% share of revenue on book sales in return for their investment upfront. Lightning Books operates a co-publishing model. It was founded by Eye Books owner Dan Hiscocks, a former director of the Independent Publishers’ Guild, who has returned to the UK after a sabbatical in the US with a desire to “shake up the publishing industry”.

Under the co-publishing deal, authors submit manuscripts to be published as they would to a traditional publisher, but they are then asked to contribute half the cost of publication if their title is selected. Lightning Books will only make a profit after a book has sold more than 3,000 copies, at which point revenue from sales is halved between author and publisher. Lightning Books covers the print costs for titles, which will be distributed in the UK by Littlehampton Book Services.

For Hiscocks the idea is not to make money from authors, but by co-publishing to make sure better books are published. His view is that publishers often cut costs in order to ameliorate the publishing process, leading to disappointed authors, but with the author on board that is less likely to happen. “Unlike traditional publishing, we ask our authors to share the financial risk, but unlike self-publishing, we do take some ourselves – we share the risk equally.” The model has the whiff of Unbound about it, in that it is asking the author to do much more the just write the book (before it will get published), and like Unbound it will aim to publish only what it thinks are viable books. In the first year its is to publish 20 titles. I'm instinctively cautious when money flows from author to publisher (under the traditional model, it is the other way round), but Hiscocks' view is that publishers already demand much of their authors upfront, and with no guarantee of a satisfactory result. Publishing together means, we will publish together, he argues.

The truth is that there is no longer one prevailing publishing model. The recent Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) survey into author incomes show self-published writers spend as much as £2,500 on getting an individual work published. Co-publishing provides another option.

 

I also caught up with Mark Smith, who took over at Bonnier Publishing Fiction late last year. Smith, who founded the well-known publisher Quercus, is launching two new adult fiction brands to site alongside the existing children’s companies. The more interesting one is twenty7, which will be digitally first and aimed at publishing debut writers or international authors not well-known in the UK.

The digital release will be used to build up a track-record so that the authors can later be published in print. Smith told me: “Quercus was built with debut authors, but at the time of the sale it was becoming more difficult to work out a strategy for debuts. I think it is necessary to have a story to tell retailers.” The aim is to publish 30 titles this year, and the company revealed its first four acquisitions at the fair.

twenty7’s strategy is similar to that of Head of Zeus, or Little, Brown’s digital-first Blackfriars, with publishers increasingly looking to break authors in the open, fast and fluid digital space before moving them into the broader, but slower, physical books market. Publisher Joel Richardson said it would use “reviews and e-book sales figures to encourage retailers to support us in the risk-averse environment”.

 

What are the themes here? That content, when it is unlatched from one specific format, is helping re-wire book businesses and pushing them to re-imagine how they can do things. Book businesses are changing more radically than is sometimes reported.