The small way to make things better in publishing

The small way to make things better in publishing

When Futurebook asked for my predictions earlier this month, I said that 2019 will be the year that small beats big. I forecasted an industry that encourages minority voices, that supports niche presses and independent publishers, that opens bookshops on high streets catering to local tastes, and startups that leverage committed audiences rather than big data. 

Granted, I’m an optimist and a dreamer, so while my prediction might have been an act of wish fulfilment, one month in there are reasons to be cheerful. But first, back to 2018.

Seth Godin laid out a problem in his keynote at the 2018 Futurebook conference: Amazon. While we’re all familiar with the challenges Amazon has caused the sector, Godin framed it as a challenge of meaning not of supply. He described the trap that publishers and booksellers had fallen into: one of trying to compete with Amazon on range. By trying to sell everything to everyone, by being the biggest and the cheapest, we lost.

But, with news of independent bookshops rising for the second consecutive year there is an alternative model for success. Over to Godin to explain:

“The bookstores that have thrived in the Amazon era have taken a different tack. That idea is simple: seek the smallest viable audience not the biggest one. What’s the smallest number of people who could become your true fans, who would cross the street, and pay you extra knowing they are paying you extra, that would enable you to do the work you seek to do. How small is that number?”

It’s a great question: how small is big enough? For the Pound Project, winner of the 2018 BookTech startup of the year, the answer is 500 people. The Pound Project is an independent crowdfunding publisher that asks for £1 to support a writer – in return you get to read or listen to the story online. When the goal of £500 has been reached, the book is published and the print version sold for £5.

It’s as cheap as chips. That isn’t a race to the bottom on pricing, but a business model based on inclusivity. The Pound Project works with writers to raise their profile and build an audience by setting a low target – that is the smallest viable audience Godin talks about. It also ignores the challenge of ‘supply’, that of selling more books, to instead focus on ‘meaning’ with the aim of promoting the value of reading and writing.

The beginning of the year gave further reasons to cheer with news of indie publisher Knight’s Of smashing their crowdfunding campaign for a bookshop filled exclusively with stories of BAME characters. 

The urgent issue of inclusion calls out for innovative solutions. With less than 1% of children’s books published in 2017 having a BAME main character and only 4% featured a BAME character at all, Knight’s Of creative approach to #ReadTheOnePercent won coverage and supporters inside and outside of the industry.

In mid-January they exceeded their target of £30,000 for a permanent bookshop in Brixton with an amazing £49,070 to fund a travelling popup shop that will tour festivals and events in the UK and Ireland, and visit cities like Liverpool, Birmingham and Edinburgh. And it was reached with a small community of 639 donors, all individuals apart from two – their local Council of Lambeth and Penguin Random House. It’s a great example of how to build a tribe of people who support your vision and values.

The Pound Project and Knights Of aren’t isolated cases. Every literary prize shines a light on the great work of independent publishers, while established publishers continue to set up more inclusive imprints, and startups build loyal communities of readers and writers. Combined, these small successes contribute to a wider change for the better.

Seth Godin closed his keynote by saying “when people like us, do things like this, we build the culture. And the way we make culture better is not by complaining, but by making better things.”

If anyone can make better things it’s publishers and booksellers. As such, I remain optimistic that 2019 will bring more small successes and I can’t wait to celebrate each individual change and their combined impact.