By Sophie Rochester
So who is “The New Publisher”? The Bookseller’s FutureBook conference offered several perspectives on the question.
In a session chaired by Jonny Geller, literary agent and MD at Curtis Brown several panelists sought to offer answers, including John Mitchinson; ex-book retailer, former TV producer and head of Unbound, the crowd-funding platform for authors; Charlie Redmayne, previously Chief Digital Officer, Harper Collins and now CEO, Pottermore.com; the champion of learning-through-doing, Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks; Jason Cooper, digital and new business development for Faber and Faber; and Jonathan Williams, founder of Boxfiction, a start-up looking “to challenge the novel as the main form of fiction.”
Geller kicked off the session by asking John Mitchinson of Unbound what he think went wrong with conglomerate publishing?
Mitchinson said that Unbound has the ability to move much more quickly than traditional publishers and claimed that a book can feasibly be funded and published within two weeks. He also noted that publishers were making publishing decisions based on “what the retailer wants to sell” rather than what the reader wants to buy.
The new world order, according to Mitchinson, is catering directly to readers. “It’s an incredibly powerful feeling when you start to connect directly with readers,” he said. He added that Unbound’s 50/50 profit share was fairer to the author than deals offered by conglomerate publishers.
The question of what publishers need to do to offer value to an author was picked up by Charlie Redmayne, who underscored that in the past, the customer was the trade itself, while the present is about taking multiple routes to market. Redmayne said that publishers need to become experts in product development that will benefit both the author and the reader. The result of this is that publishers “need to employ a new skill set in order to offer value” to the author and reader, also “need to do things they’ve always done, only better.”
Jason Cooper from Faber & Faber put it a slightly different way, emphasizing that publisher’s position is be “a creative interface between the author and the reader,” and offered Faber Academy as an example of how that might be done. It literally “opened the door to consumers,” he said. Cooper admitted that the Faber’s existing brand and heritage has been a huge advantage for them in developing this strategy.
Jonathan Williams, founder of Box Fiction, had a non-traditional take on the question. Rather than develop IP around an author or book series, why not simply create book content around existing brands instead? Williams said he believes that that the novel is a ubiquitous format — the equivalent to film — so publishers would do well to see it as an equivalent format.
Unexpectedly, the question of how to handle the mid-list also got significant airtime.
Ironically, it was Charlie Redmayne, representing the book industry’s biggest brand — ahem, Harry Potter — who was banging the drum for how publishers need “to find ways of publishing the midlist more cheaply.” He suggested that the publishing industry was starting to look like a “triangle”with the big brands, the midlist and self-publishing each taking a corner.
His theory was that the growth of the self-publishing sector, and the publisher obsession with concentrating on the big brands (thereby pushing up the cost of the big titles), was combining to have a deleterious effect on the midlist. The panel was in agreement that were publishing to continue to position itself as a thought leader to society, it needed to accommodate the nurturing of the midlist, and provide for the discovery of new writing talent and development of IP in-house.
The new publisher certainly looks very different today – it could be an agent (Jonny Geller’s Curtis Brown has just gone into a publishing venture with Pan Macmillan’s new Bello imprint), a crowd-funded community (John Mitchinson’s Unbound) or a start-up not concerned with publishing a single novel (Box Fiction). Geller emphasized that it’s the author’s decision how and where they’re publishing: “We don’t have a job without an author,” he said, adding that authors should simply choose “whoever they can trust to work with.”
What was most striking from this session is that the evidence that while publishing models are still changing, the relationship between these new publishers is relaxing. Two years ago the thought of these traditional lines breaking down would have sent chills down the spines of many, but the sentiment of the panel seemed to be one of excitement, opportunity and flexibility and, importantly, not animosity toward each other. Perhaps it was simply a pre-Christmas truce but this positive attitude to change, and resistance to allowing the old models to restrict the development of the new, seemed to be a significant shift in the psyche of the publishing industry — one away from animosity toward looking forward to new digital developments.
Sophie Rochester is founder of The Literary Platform and director of Fiction Uncovered.