By Lynn Rosen
After a long career in-house, Bruce Harris has been working as a solo consultant for the past ten years, and he loves it. Being on his own gives him more room to innovate. “I’ve had a fantastic career,” Harris says, “Crown, Random House, Workman…I couldn’t have asked for better. But the last ten years have been great.”
These days, Harris, who was a featured speaker recently at the Yale Publishing Course, works with authors and publishers to find what he calls “21st century publishing strategies.” One new strategy that excites him is Augmented Reality (AR), which he had the chance to use while working on Anomaly, a 370-page hardcover graphic novel by entertainment lawyer Skip Brittenham and comic book artist Brian Haberlin. In AR, a digital overlay allows content creators to add extra multi-media content to the printed page. Readers download an app and scan the pages with a smart phone or tablet, and extra content pops up, including video, audio, online and social media links, and more.
Harris thinks AR is a true amalgamation of digital and print. “You use your device to discover more content. The content is digitally appealing and has stuff you can manipulate, but you need the actual book in order to do it.” In some ways, says Harris, digital has been “a frozen print experience,” in that the reader is often looking at the same thing in both print and digital versions. With AR, he says, “you get movement, extra sound, a lot of extra qualities with the content.”
Much of Harris’ current work is with self-published authors, such as Anomaly and Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold, a $625, five-volume cookbook set that, along with the companion publication Modernist Cuisine at Home, has international sales of over 150,000 units. One appeal of these projects is the ability to hone in on a specific market. “What I’m doing with my clients is focus on their particular content and how it should be delivered, marketed, and sold.” Harris sees a lack of specialization in larger houses. “In big companies today, there’s not enough time for anyone to think about many, many of the books and give them the kind of attention they need to bring to market. Today in some ways you can do it better outside of the traditional publishing house than inside. Traditional houses are divided between hundreds and hundreds of titles.”
Self-publishing, however, is not for the faint-hearted; it requires a large investment of both time and money, says Harris. “An author who thinks, ‘I’m gonna put it up on Facebook and something’s gonna happen’ is being very naïve. It’s a huge country with a lot of competing media. You can’t do something important for nothing.” He sees authors becoming even more involved in book promotion: “There are creative ways to get authors into the discussion, a lot that could be done to get authors not just as authors but as experts in their particular field in regular media and the internet.” As an example, he mentions a Skyhorse book, Why Planes Crash, whose author, David Soucie, has become a regular CNN go-to expert.
Innovation in the Changing Industry
The new world of digital and self-publishing doesn’t surprise Harris. “This is not the first decade we’ve gone through change. Since I came into the industry 50 years ago, there’s been major change every decade. The change now is obviously the delivery system: from pure print to print and digital.” From his current outsider perspective, Harris sees ways publishers are adapting to industry change, and ways they are not. Overall, he believes book publishing has withstood digital disruption better than other industries such as music or movies. “The good news is that people still seem to want to find long form content, i.e. books.”
Harris is concerned by the narrowing of consumer focus. He misses the many independent bookstores that offered an unexpected selection of books. “I think that has affected discovery in a way. You used to be able to go into a lot more places and find stuff that might interest you that you wouldn’t have known would interest you. Everyone is pushed into narrower and narrower channels. This is happening in politics and culture, and that’s a trend that I’m a little concerned about.”
Harris is a big fan of illustrated books, and says, “I’ve been a little concerned about the future of illustrated books as we’ve watched art and photography book sales collapse.” New developments make him feel more optimistic, however: “With AR and possibly other technology that’s going to come along, we’ll be able to have a new view of long form illustrated.” He eagerly awaits the appearance of what he calls “our digital Shakespeare,” a creative genius who will use this format to create the perfect marriage of digital and print.
Asked where he thinks this future innovation will come from, Harris replies: “That’s not going be a publisher; it’s going to be an author/creator.” As an example, he fondly harkens back to his work with Douglas Adams, whose book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy he published at Crown. “When I met Douglas Adams in the ’80s, he was first person to explain to me what was going to become the internet. I miss him very much. It’s going to someone like him or William Gibson — somebody who has both the sense of technology and the sense of illustration — that’s going to be really able to take this to a different level.”
Harris is very interested in the creative process. “I’ve done a little bit of work in thinking about creativity. People think new ideas just occur to people, and actually that’s not how it happens. Creating is usually a synthesis of somebody who knows something about one field and applies it where it’s never been applied before. That becomes the new creative thing.” He looks forward to watching the creative print/digital process play out in publishing. “We’re in a period where somebody or a bunch of somebodies is going to come up with a whole new way of entertainment, but with some real content.”