"Candy Crush is more fun than reading a book," writes Katie Roden, "Actually, secretly, you know this is true." In preparation for Monday's inaugural staging of Author Day—an issues-driven conference for publishers and authors—Roden, a speaker on our "Industry Interests" panel, positions the coming discussion well. She writes with deep regard for the publishing traditions in which she has worked, and with real sensitivity to the thin ice on which many writers, essential to publishing, today are standing. "We ignore the truth," writes Roden, "that our readers are confronted daily—hourly—by an infinite number of one-touch distractions from the business of reading. And by doing so, we do our authors a huge disservice."
Please follow us Monday (30th November) at hashtag #AuthorDay. Delegates and speakers, remember that registration opens at 9 a.m. Monday at 30 Euston Square and that the commute can be tricky on a Monday. The day's programme begins at 9:30 a.m. GMT / 4:30 a.m. ET / 1:30 a.m. PT. Our list of superb speakers is here. See you then.
Publishers have a lot to take credit for when it comes to our authors
We nurture and champion them, edit and advise them and spend time, money and effort getting their work to as many readers as possible. We delight in their success and share their bewilderment when things go wrong.
But in the new digital reality, we are not alone. Any number of publishing platforms allow writers to create, edit and seek advice. Social channels have a far greater reach than any publisher could dare to dream of. Authors with entrepreneurial spirit and strategic thinking are already showing that they can build their own following and—crucially—make their own sales. And even the tiniest start-up can get a product to market far, far quicker than the richest publishing behemoth.
None of this is a surprise. And yet, while publishing congratulates itself on a good sales year, and comfortably settles into “the new normal”, we ignore the truth: that our readers are confronted daily—hourly—by an infinite number of one-touch distractions from the business of reading. And by doing so, we do our authors a huge disservice.
So what – in the chaotic, understaffed and undertrained world of a publishing company—can we do about it? Without spending the entire gross margin of your single annual bestseller, here are three key points for publishers—and ways in which we can help our authors to navigate the ocean of distraction.
Everyone else thinks we're mad
Every other player in the digital sector looks in envy at our access to vast amounts of edited, proven content. But we don’t use it. Our inability to exploit the backlist is one of publishing’s biggest failings. Our time, efforts, creativity and even our awards ceremonies focus on showy frontlist campaigns that burn brightly and briefly then are quickly dropped in favour of the next big thing. And we run scared of a robust, commercial discussion of how we can properly exploit our backlists—scared of agents, scared of rights, scared of “cannibalising our sales” (a phrase only ever heard in publishing meetings these days).
A robust evergreen content strategy is the holy grail of digital marketing, from sports organisations to retailers… yet our vast backlist resources go largely untouched.
It’s time for a switch of focus, from frontlist glitz to the useful and context/device-specific repurposing of our backlist. This is how we will introduce authors to new readers; retain those readers by giving them clear paths through our authors’ content; and use them to help spread the word to their networks. For this we—publishers, authors and agents—need to be generous, creative and reader-centric. What will grab and hold their interest? How much content will they need to see to be convinced to explore or purchase? Where are we going to take them next? And how do we keep the conversation going?
Candy Crush is more fun than reading a book
You don’t agree? Of course not—your life revolves around the importance of the written word. But actually, secretly, you know this is true. And for most of the population it’s just a fact.
Publishers must address the fact that reading—books, newspapers, blogs, social content—is just one of many activities that people do on their mobiles. We need to fight for and monetise attention for our authors in that space—a small screen with instant access to any number of distractions that are more useful, more addictive and more fun than reading a book. This must be at the heart of everything we do, across the business, as it has implications for every aspect of book creation. It must also be discussed early with authors, to be sure that everyone on the team continues to look outwards to the reality of most peoples’ lives.
How many publishers think about SEO when looking at book titles? Are there tweaks that can be made to maximise discoverability? An early discussion with an author might help with visibility. Covers must snap at thumbnail size to compete with the visual clutter of a smartphone screen. Sales copy needs to be carefully and scientifically optimised and constantly reviewed rather than left to the last minute and simply copied from the jacket, as is so often the case. And the text itself must be created and nurture with mobile first in mind.
Are there ways of editing to ensure a satisfying piece of content on every view? Is the proofreading 100 percent, bearing in mind that mistakes are easier to spot when looking at only a few lines of text? And what do we want the reader to do next? How can we help them to discover more about our author?
Lots of people are crap at Twitter, but they don't have to be
Publishers have always expected a lot of authors—from delivering on time to promotional tours. The digital shift—and particularly the social shift—means that the author-reader barriers are dissolving and readers now expect the same level of commitment. They seek authors out on social platforms to discuss, praise and criticise their work; those with no presence or no apparent desire to respond risk alienating a whole segment of potentially loyal readers.
The responsibility here lies both ways.
There are still many authors who refuse to engage with social media; and many who will never be convinced otherwise. But often that refusal is based on lack of knowledge or fear of being overwhelmed, and this is where publishers need to step up.
More and more commissioning decisions are based on writers’ existing follower numbers—an expectation that even debut authors should have a solid social fan base. But we offer little or nothing by way of helping our authors to join those platforms, from basic training in tone of voice to guidance as to which platforms to choose, frequency and content of posts and how to deal with negative communication.
Every author should be offered a package of training and support that will help them to engage with and grow their readership. For those with no pre-existing social base, this must be a key part of a publisher’s pre-launch activity. And even the most confident social authors often make mistakes that can seriously damage their discoverability and credibility (think obscure Twitter names or too many “buy my new book” posts).
Our authors have diverse, extraordinary voices
As publishers we have a duty to make those voices heard. We have the means. But now we need the commitment from across the business.
Author Day—follow us at #AuthorDay—is, the kick-off to a big week of #FutureBook15 events. More about Author Day, an issues-driven conference for both publishing professionals and authors. If you're a delegate, please remember that registration opens at 9 a.m. at 30 Euston Square and our programme begins at 9:30 a.m.
Please note that bookings for our sister conference, FutureBook 2015 Conference at The Mermaid in London on 4th December, are closing today, 27th November, hurry, some seats remain.
Main image - iStockphoto: