How to rebuild a publishing business

How to rebuild a publishing business

Three announcements made by three publishing businesses over the past week show how companies that have been at the coalface of traditional publishing for sometime are looking at remodelling themselves.

First up was Canongate, the independent publisher run by the charismatic and well-connected Jamie Byng, which announced that it was to spin-off its fledging events business Letters Live into a separate company, jointly owned by Canongate and Benedict Cumberbatch’s production business SunnyMarch. The first Letters Live took place in December 2013, inspired by the anthology Letters of Note compiled by Shaun Usher (originally crowd-funded on Unbound, and then published with Canongate) and To the Letter by Simon Garfield (Canongate). A further six events have already been announced for 2015 (including a first overseas show in Los Angeles) with more in discussion for this year and 2016.

Of course publishers have been putting on live events for some-time, and increasingly see this not only as a way of marketing books, but as monetising readers’ keenness to spend time with authors. But this can be a tough ask: not all authors are stadium-friendly, and not every book lends itself to discussion in front of a paying audience. As the Economist’s Schumpeter column put it back in February: “Authors are becoming more like pop stars, who used to make most of their money selling albums but who now use their recordings as promotional tools, earning a living mainly from concerts. The trouble with many budding writers is that they are not cut out for this new world.”

The Canongate approach is skilfully different. It is building an events business around the content, reliant on words and the delivery of them to bring in the crowds. The shows, it says, will celebrate the “enduring power of literary correspondence”. And of course the enduring pull of Cumberbatch, who has been associated with the initiative since its beginning.

I’m somewhat sceptical about publishers’ ability to build viable events businesses around individual authors, except in those rare cases where the authors have real star power (David Walliams, Caitlin Moran, are two good examples), and this suggestion, put about by other pundits as well as the Economist, that authors must become like “pop stars” looks to me overblown. There are lots of other ways publishers and authors can meet the public—at festivals, on social media, in bookshops even—without necessarily needing one side to become like rock-stars. Letters Live explores this in another way. How much is brand Cumberbatch mixed with Byng vitality remains to be seen, but setting it up a separate entity able to take it to the next level means we won't die wondering.

Next up is Faber, which this week unveiled its new membership programme, which will offer special collector's editions of some of the publisher's titles in addition to members-only events and masterclasses. Aimed at so-called super-fans, the initiative builds on the work already being done by Faber Social, an events led side-line. The development is run out of Henry Volans’ Faber Press wing, and begins to answer the question posed by Faber c.e.o. Stephen Page last year of how to reach “serious, committed literary audiences” direct.

Intriguingly it is free to join, so differs for example from the Guardian’s Membership scheme or closer to home the subscription model (£50 gets you six books a year) operated by small publisher And Other Stories. The Faber programme is closer to the Guardian thematically: it markets brand Faber and the editorial judgements that go with that. But its primary intention is to grow that list of “super-fans” that it can the market directly to and then spin-off related products to. In that way might end up being closer to the crowd-funding model pursued by Unbound, than the subscription model pursued by others. Faber is one of a select few publishing brands able to reach out in this way: and the first to offer a club to lock punters in. Other brands such as Penguin, Mills & Boon, and Vintage, will be watching progress with great interest. Interestingly, the Guardian now boasts that six months from roll-out it has “tens of thousands” of members.

Last, is the launch by Penguin Random House of its new recruitment drive, The Scheme. Publishers are rightly criticised (along with other media businesses) for employing from a narrow and narrowing range of people. PRH is now trying to get at a generation using its talent in different ways. As Neil Morrison, HR director at Penguin Random House UK and International, said: “The Scheme is about breaking down perceived barriers and getting creative people who might never have thought about working in publishing to think again. By using Tumblr to recruit, we’re able to reach young people in the places where they’re already spending their time online.”

The important thing is that PRH is less interested in qualifications, and more interested in where applicants can add value (“We are really looking forward to getting to know you. But we don’t want to use a boring old CV to do this.”) “Our world is changing - it has been for some time,” PRH says on The Scheme’s website. “That’s where The Scheme comes in – and you too. We want to hear from different voices and see fresh perspectives, so we’ve created this marketing programme – an experience open to everyone, whatever your educational background may happen to be. We are looking for potential and we know that it comes in many forms.”

It feels like a modern approach. With four places up for grabs, each offering a salary of £21,000 and the extended recruitment period, this is not a minor investment on the part of PRH. I expect, as my colleague Maria suggests here, that PRH will learn as much about the candidates (and what candidates it can attract via this route) as each candidate will learn about PRH (or more widely publishing). Lots of publishers talk about changing their DNA, but PRH is taking a lead in understanding that tomorrow's brightest talents may no longer come through the traditional routes. In looking for new types of people, with news skills, in a new way, it is starting to rethink what its own workforce should look like.

The connection between these three strategies? They are new approaches to doing business in this evolving environment that build on a growing understanding of what a publisher ought to be now. The fascinating thing is that not all publishers will approach this in the same way, which means that in the future publishers may differ in what they look like, and what they do—even if content and authors remain at the heart.