Publishing is risky. It takes years to write, produce and market a book with only slim chance of success. Instead of racing up the bestseller charts, most books are on a fast track to the high street discounter.
Traditionally, publishers have mitigated risk with professional expertise – commissioning editors with rockstar author contacts, sales reps with a track record of smashed sales targets, booksellers with local market knowledge, and reviewers with the power to make or break a title. But in the age of Amazon these experts are being edged out.
Technology has disintermediated publishing, but tech startups, as well as disrupting the established ways of working, can offer alternative ways of working.
In The Startup Way, Eric Ries - author of The Lean Startup and a champion of lean product development - shows how conventional businesses can implement approaches used by startups. His case study about publishing sparked my interest and got me asking: why a publisher was chosen to represent the old, established ways of working? And why, in a book crammed full of named businesses, this is the only anonymous example? Ries wrote:
‘In the past, the publisher didn’t seek out much of any feedback from test groups or from author communities. “Beforehand we kind of just trusted ourselves,” explained the executive. “We trusted our individual biases and the hubris that we actually knew more than the customer.” But as the publishing market has shifted … the company has had to pivot to adapt to the buyer’s habits.’
All power to our plucky publisher who set out to disrupt ‘everything’ in the traditional publishing process. Our anon executive took startup methodology to heart, creating a feedback loop, so that book buyers’ opinions were integrated into the publishing cycle. Their approach strikes horror into every publisher I know: they tested an entire manuscript – once the book was already in production!
It’s such a late stage to get user feedback – once the book has been written, edited, typeset, the cover designed, the sales and marketing planned – all those people and processes, a huge investment of time and money to find out if anyone is interested in reading it.
Book production resembles the much derided ‘waterfall’ development, which takes a linear, step by step approach to building software. It can lead to a sunk cost, where we continue forward on a path because we’ve gone so far down it. This approach can become the norm for a sector, baked into the way we do things, and is why publishing is an all too easy straw man for Ries.
There is good news: testing paid off for Ries’s publishing case study. People were interested in buying the book, but not the people the publisher thought.
Rather than resonating with the intended 35-60 year old reader, the book hit the spot with millennials. The book survived production unscathed, but the marketing and publicity campaign was scrapped and a younger demographic targeted. There was a cost to implementing this change, but it was far less than having the book fail.
Testing takes courage and in a long production cycle there might not be time, but it improves products and decreases the risk of failure. There are three principles of testing to bear in mind:
- Test early
- Test often
- Test with end users
Testing early saves time and money as you validate decisions earlier, and testing often enables you to ‘iterate’ and improve so you keep going in the right direction. It also builds a habit of testing, creating smaller feedback loops within a production cycle, so when you make changes they are less disruptive.
And it goes without saying that you test with end users to help you validate your assumptions. As every good product manager knows: you are not your user.
One of my favourite user testing stories involves JK Rowling and the much-rejected first Harry Potter book. Her agent Christopher Little sent the manuscript to 12 different publishers before it ended up with Bloomsbury. But it wasn’t the commissioning team who spotted its potential.
The story goes that Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, took home a sample chapter from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Rather than reading it himself, he gave it to his daughter Alice.
At eight years old, Alice was in the target market – the book’s perfect ‘end user’. After reading for an hour, she came down from her room begging to find out what happened next. Her opinion, that of the user, sparked a publishing phenomenon.
Alice wasn’t an expert, an insider with market knowledge and experience, she was a reader who wanted to read more.
Combine reader needs and wants with the expertise within publishing and everyone wins. We can say goodbye to the old, insular ways when a closed loop of opinion circulated within an ‘old boys network’ that locked out diversity. We can build feedback loops across the publishing cycle, helping us to iterate and improve the books we write, produce and sell. We can give readers more of what they want and love.
And, perhaps, we can test our way to bestseller success.