Structural disruption and all things digital were woven into discussions at the Yale Publishing Course, which took place in New Haven last week (19th-24th July). Two dozen faculty and 68 mid-career professionals from 22 countries were on hand. Yet in the words of keynoter Craig Mod, it was the importance of giving oneself “permission to think,” and a reassertion of the primacy of books as objects able to inspire “delight,” that best captured the zeitgeist of the week.
Those themes were echoed by a surprising number of senior executives in lectures. When Harvard Business Publishing c.e.o. David Wan talked about how the mighty Business School had to reinvent its HBP brand, he spoke of “a sense of urgency to make the reading experience more pleasant.”
Quarto Group c.e.o. Marcus Leaver emphasized that “many publishers don’t care enough about production” and the importance of making books “better and more beautiful,” whether recipes packaged in the shape of a Nutella jar, or gardening how-to.
“You have to think of who the audience is from day one, and seduce the reader,” urged Metropolitan Museum of Art publisher Mark Polizzotti. Make the book into “an object of desire” that someone will desire enough to buy.
A key question is how to induce that sense of delight and desire from a screen: not exactly the reading experience currently to be had on Kindle. Liisa McCloy-Kelley, Penguin Random House director of e-book development and Innovation, admitted that “we’re not there yet,” especially in categories like art, children’s, and cooking. In sales terms, she underlined the importance of studying data at the category level: for instance, fitness and history have picked up. Developing for mobile is crucial.
“People also need to understand that what we make isn’t exactly what gets into consumers’ hands. Every major retailer alters the files we give them, to optimize for their platforms.” Yet the publisher gets “complaints about image, color, link structure, etc.”
In contrast to last year, no Amazon/Hachette stand-off sent tremors through the course. Brighton-based Mark Searle, publisher of Quarto’s Quintet and RotoVision imprints, and colleague Anne Landa, running California-based Walter J. Foster, said “we weren’t panicked the way we would have been a while ago. There’s been fantastic disruption, but print survived.”
The “kids” seem to be all right, and weren’t alone in that assertion. PRH US c.o.o. Nihar Malaviya declared in his lecture, “the industry is okay - especially in the US.”
Nevertheless, facing the “Janus” challenge of print and digital, managers need clearly delineated leadership skills, like those set forth by Yale Management professor of organizational behavior Amy Wrzesniewski. Research shows that rather than try to get everybody to do everything, an “ambidextrous” model of running two concurrent businesses is best to prevent distraction and provide support and integration between management and teams.
Wrzesniewski said adapting to change is like going through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Two of the many tips she offered: “Over-communicate” when staff have to be let go; and allow people “to vent with care,” individually or in clusters, rather than big groups.
Wan’s team found success using website first, gathering data from consumers to discover what content is best for the branded Harvard Business Review 10 Must Reads series. The result: more than 12 million print copies sold.
Leaver and others spoke to publishing becoming more B2C, rather than B2B. For him, that extends to custom publications, like This Is Your Cookbook.com, a web-to-print initiative that lets readers create their own recipe collections. He sees store-based vendor-managed kiosks in the not-too-distant future.
Another speaker who emphasized not just collecting, but interpreting data and listening more closely to customers, was Perseus chief marketing officer Rick Joyce. “Part of the work is figuring out who should do the work,” and sometimes it’s best to partner with another firm who will do it for you. In the last four years, Perseus have done twenty-seven pilots, and got “six great vendors” from them.
Three years ago, they turned to Crimson Hexagon to experiment with social listening. It’s not been easy, but now they’ve developed an internal “maven” who can figure out how to define queries so they can get at valuable information with a tool.
PRH’s Malaviya emphasized that keeping people reading – especially a stable tranche of heavy readers buying books, as opposed to being distracted by the internet – is the real challenge. In this hundredth anniversary year of subsidiary Alfred A. Knopf, Malaviya played two YouTube clips from a 1975 interview with the house’s founder.
“Publishing is a Robin Hood kind of business,” said Knopf. Malaviya pointed out it still is: the biggest hits subsidize the rest. Last year, the top 200 BookScan titles were responsible for 11.1% of sales.
“Too many books are being published,” complained Knopf, who couldn’t have imagined today’s three million commercially and self-published books a year.
“The key job a publisher does is to get a book noticed,” Malaviya concluded. His predictions: “Some publishers may merge. Self-publishing will grow. And everything can be upended in a very short time.”
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