"This shift should inject pure fear into the veins of publishers": lessons from Netflix and co

"This shift should inject pure fear into the veins of publishers": lessons from Netflix and co

A couple of weeks ago Jeff Norton spoke at FutureBook 2017, as part of a panel exploring what publishers can learn from video on demand platforms. Here he condenses his thoughts into a passionate and provocative post.

I operate at a unique and privileged place in the publishing industry in that I’m author, a packager, and a television producer (who is both buying rights and selling into SVODs - streaming video on demand services - and broadcasters). But despite my numerous hats, I am always guided by the creative and have a bias towards books.

I am deeply affectionate for the written word, and the purity in telling a story through the alchemy created when black ink hits white page. I sincerely want books and publishing to succeed.

But I fear for both.

When I look around these days, people just aren’t reading that much. When I walk the carriage of a commuter rail, most people are watching shows on their devices. And this is a recent and growing phenomenon. When I moved to the UK 11 years ago, most people in transit were ensconced in a book. Now, it’s a rare sighting.

Worse, books are no longer leading the cultural conversation.  I hang out with a fairly literary crowd, and yet in the past two years not one single person has asked me what I’m reading. And yet the staple dinner party questions these days is: “what are you watching?”

This shift should inject pure fear into the veins of publishers. 

The creative competition is fierce.

The SVODs offer awesome writing. Television in general, and SVOD content in particular, has become the definitive writers’ medium. It’s the go-to choice for creative voices to share their stories with the world…and it shows. The writing on TV today is the most dynamic, most exiting verse since Shakespeare’s time. It’s positively electric. It’s the spark that ignites the drama boom that we’re living through.

Television is now the dominant medium of culture.  For year it was shunned as the ‘boob tube’ - now TV offers intelligent, nuanced story-craft that was once the sole purview of novelists or high-end independent filmmakers. Books are only creating conversation in an echo chamber. And that’s a shame. I want to live in a world where books set the cultural agenda and are the spark for water cooler chat. I don’t want books to become like vinyl… a niche, hipster throwback to a once-popular format.

At the same time, SVODs have a direct and meaningful relationship with consumers (and are great with data). There’s a myth that Netflix made House of Cards a global success because of an algorithm. I suggest this is nonsense. House of Cards was a success because it was bloody brilliant television, and was offered up to large (and growing) subscriber base eager to consume quality.  Publishers have largely outsourced their consumer relationships to Amazon, and routinely fail on the basics. For example, my YA series, MetaWars, is listed on Amazon as “for 6-11 year olds” when it’s nowhere near appropriate for such a young age target. I’ve tried for five years to get the publisher to fix the metadata on the series, but to no avail.  Netflix sweats each and every title in its library, using data to create a unique offering for every single subscriber.

So what’s a publisher to do?

Publish less. A lot less. I propose that each imprint can only handle 14 books per year. That’s one per month and two extra in the run up to Christmas. You cannot make a genuine connection with readers if you’re throwing spaghetti at the wall. I suggest deploying a tent-pole strategy, whilst using organisational savings to fund proper marketing.  Too many people in publishing companies are servicing titles no one will ever hear about. That does a disservice to booksellers and to authors. Indeed, it’s a cruel betrayal of an author’s trust to take someone’s most precious creative output and launch it on the same day as twelve other titles (from your company!) and expect it to have a cultural impact.

Then, create true CRM with consumers. The basics are email lists, well run and well pruned. And how about actually meeting your customers? If Apple (and now Amazon) can set up retail outlets, why not Penguin Random House? And where is the industry’s “Orbitz” initiative? When faced with the “Expedia” of Amazon, surely the big publishers could form (or buy) a compelling e-book offering to consumers (in an arm’s length way that doesn’t create anti-trust issues). The moment to buy Kobo may have come and gone, but perhaps it’s not too late to offer something new?  If publishers focus on launching tentpole titles, their own e-book ecosystem could be the way to launch new voices…a type of “farm club” (a baseball reference) for authors.

I think with a ‘less is more’ approach, combined with creating meaningful connections with customers, we can start to see more people on trains reading than watching. But it needs to start now. We're running out of time.