Where to put the entrepreneur in publishing? | @Tom_Chalmers

Where to put the entrepreneur in publishing? | @Tom_Chalmers

It’s a word I had never heard of before starting out in business – four syllables that I have apparently become rather than something I aimed for. However, these four syllables are now everywhere – in the press, on TV (see Dragon’s Den, The Apprentice etc. etc.), in books (see autobiographies from those on aforementioned TV shows etc. etc.), and Twitter appears awash with entrepreneurial advice.

And more than having begun embracing them, the publishing industry is calling out for them. The need for urgent change is now, in the majority of places, accepted, as is the understanding that much innovation and new drive comes from entrepreneurs. In addition, with the swamping of all things digital, the industry is accepting the assistance of the tech world, itself swamped with start-ups and entrepreneurs offering ‘the next… [complete as you wish]’.

But if we have entrepreneurs, how best to use them? The answer is slightly more complicated than just a welcome mat and ‘let me know if you need anything.’

I also want to mention authors in this, in particular self-published authors. The boom of the self-published market has been unmistakable and a look at Amazon will see more chart entries than Cliff Richard. But look through the huge sellers and a pattern will quickly emerge – often they have been driven upwards more by entrepreneurial zeal than unforgettable writing ability.

We are seeing authors, who are great promoters, tireless in their engagement on social media and peer sites, relentless networkers who, aided by the low price points dominant in the ebook charts, sell their books in the tens of thousands. I do get concerned by the quality of writing, the skew away from reading a book that will stay in your life forever, and often think about what will be read from this generation in 100 years’ time? It would be very wrong and a waste to try to crush this entrepreneurialism, but how best to handle this trend?

One suggestion is we should get these entrepreneurial authors to stop writing and start working in publishing – after all, the sales numbers, in the current market, will appear almost utopian to a lot of publishers. I would say if writing is their true passion they are often better focussed on their own work than that of others, but the industry should certainly learn from how they promote and drive sales of their work – the attachment to and understanding of their market is something most publishers urgently need to be better at.

My answer would be that the trend is going to handle itself as the self-published market becomes more regulated, particularly by peers, as the mainstream media and booksellers finally give due attention to self-published work and as authors, rather than being sold a dream, become clearer as to what is required to find the pot of gold. I think three groups could develop – the entrepreneurial writers pushing their books, those publishing as a hobby and those of memorable quality that are pulled (by readers rather than their writers) from the ranks.

Back to publishers, let’s consider the largest first – Pearson recently announced a profit warning, through to Quercus who want to sell the company. Based on the above, let’s put entrepreneurs in charge, they’ll fix everything with innovation in drive. Well, that would be a disaster. Entrepreneurs by their evolved nature are terrible at working for anyone – I often say I am ruined for ever working for anyone again – and at a conglomerate you are always working for someone (shareholders, market etc. etc.) Secondly, they could not deal with the structure – having an idea followed by four committees is like carrying water into the sea.

The person who can do a great job at the huge companies will not only be able to deal with working for others and the structure but will thrive in it, will manipulate it to their advantage. And that is a different skill-set to the entrepreneur.

It is at small companies the entrepreneur will thrive, in most cases ones of their own imagination and start-up, where they can drive forward with creativity and zeal. But this is not where it ends, entrepreneurs operating in a bubble, good luck and goodbye – this would be a waste and a missed opportunity.

For entrepreneurs, they may not always like to admit it but they need to be constantly learning and while they can’t work for others they can work with them, partnerships often helping in learning and as a quick way to grow their companies. 

And those at the big companies should be getting close to them – and not out of some sense of altruistic support. Let’s not mince our words – this hurts and I probably shouldn’t say it – they should be stealing from them. I don’t mean this literally, leaving Shoreditch with full pockets, but looking at what they are doing, seeing where they are going and putting this through the structure and style of their huge operations. Working together would be preferable but this is business and we should all be making our businesses better.

So the conclusion is this, it is not a case of welcoming in entrepreneurs, saying great for the industry – that's the easy bit. We should be plugging them in; they should become part of the industry’s eco-system. Others should be driving them and they should be driving others. An idea cannot last long in a vacuum but incorporated across the board it can change the future in an instant. Not bad from four syllables.

Happy to hear your comments as always! @Tom_Chalmers