Today authors and readers are connecting in new ways.
The reader is being rediscovered as somebody who has a say in the writing process.
Words on a page or words on a screen. Reading for pleasure, learning, career or just to pass the time. However and whatever we choose to read, we are part of a sphere of influence that guides our decision to pick up one title over another. Even if we are largely unaware of how this happens (or the repercussions for writers and publishers), we are still ‘the consumer’ and where we choose to spend our money is a matter of great importance in the publishing world.
Books aren’t going anywhere, but as in most industries, publishing has been disrupted by digital – online retail being the obvious example, but the cut price offering is only one of many challenges.
“Publishing’s core business model hasn’t really changed, regardless of format,” says Mark Allin, former CEO of global academic publishers, John Wiley & Sons. “Publishers have a good sense of their audience, but the challenge is that content is now connected in online communities – discovered through social media, expert networks and forums.”
Authors and readers have another chance to connect. A better chance than they had in the past.
We might naturally look to Amazon as the data-collecting ‘parent of disruption’ in the industry, having created a cycle that is so digital it can take a reader from purchase to Kindle (or delivered overnight) – which can be reviewed immediately on completion – then guide the reader to another purchase via recommended reads. But this is really just a sales process, and outside of those figures there’s only an anecdotal feedback loop available to understand reader’s behavioural habits.
This is a big challenge for publishers, as they strive to deliver the kind of content that people want to pay for in a world where so much is literally at their fingertips for free. And while there is still a strong desire to buy physical books, the publisher is often at the bottom of the influencer chain. However, it’s not all doom and gloom and there’s plenty that can be done, but as Mark points out, it’s both an investment and a risk. “It’s the innovators dilemma – it’s difficult to free resources to develop new services while keeping the traditional business alive.”
One of the biggest opportunities for publishers lies in online communities. A ready-made group of like-minded readers represents an invaluable chance to tap into the ‘hivemind’ when looking to commission content – as well as creating loyalty and adding value to existing titles. Sven Fund, Founder & Managing Director of publishing consultants Fullstop, sees huge potential in these communities for today’s publisher but acknowledges that the industry “can take five to seven years to see a change in thinking.”
In the interim, platforms such as Inkitt are stepping into the gap, offering readers and authors a way to develop content together. “Writers on Inkitt put out a chapter and then based on the feedback through the analytics, can rewrite that chapter,” explains Sven. “They can perhaps see that 50% of the readers break up after thirty pages, so obviously something significant is happening there.”
Other online communities are more obvious, such as those around a shared passion for travel or food. It’s already well understood in the industry that audiences who join together through Facebook and Instagram can often contribute to the rapid development of titles that respond to their needs. Peter Fisk, Chair and Founder of the Future Book Forum, the world’s largest gathering of book publishers and printers, believes passionately that relationships with these communities are the key to success, “LID Publishing, for example, has built a community of people who are interested in business books, magazines, discussion forums online and author events… once you’re connected into that community your relationship is sustained by social media and email and consumer-to-consumer connections, like a bespoke LinkedIn.” In this approach, LID is gleaning data from every available source and successfully sustaining its business through digital and print media.
“Being able to use all sorts of data – not just consumer behaviour – but sales data, soft data and so on creates a more efficient and proactive way of predicting where and when and how books will be needed,” says Peter “The hardest part is not how to collect data, but to use it. The challenge is to make sense of it and use it to rethink my business.”
“You can then create something of more value or sell something more often. Because you have the knowledge of the consumer, you understand what they want and what they will pay more money for.”
Engaging in data-driven consumer insight activities is standard in most industries, but when your product to market is the result of a highly creative process, will writers be willing to edit their ‘output’ based on publisher data, rather than direct community feedback? And do publishers want the trouble of working with literary agents to develop a writer for market?
Dane Cobain is a proudly self-publishing author, a “BookTuber” and the face behind the review site SocialBookshelves.com. He describes online communities as “invaluable”, helping him to dramatically boost his profile, but “it's also just a joy to take part in them”. He is fiercely independent and the vast majority of the books he reviews are purchased. “There’s a feeling that for the big creators, every video is sponsored, and they only talk about books that they get paid to talk about. That's one of the reasons why I've been specifically promoting indie books there, because I think indie books have the biggest obstacles to overcome.”
As an author, he prefers to maintain complete control over the process, which is, by his own admission, a double-edged sword, “There are a lot of first drafts out there that have never been polished and they tend to be what people think of when they think about indie/self-published novels. Personally, each of my books goes through three rounds of editing and a round of proofreading, and I also work with a professional cover designer and layout specialist. But even with all of this quality control, it's still difficult to cut through the rubbish. Then there's the fact that self-published books typically receive less distribution.”
These online communities have been the catalyst in creating a fascinating symbiotic relationship between the publisher and self-publishing author. As Sven Fund explains, “Self-publishers are much more digital, they can be vastly successful without publishers who, for a period of time, tried to either supress or at least ignore them in the marketplace.”
Now, however, the large publishers are using the independent market as a way to drive efficiency – allowing them to focus on their strategy with key titles and authors, then cherry-picking the most successful sellers in the self-publishing world. In Sven’s world, the benefit is simple; “For publishers it’s not a bad message that authors can self-publish because they simply don’t want them to bother them with weak or niche manuscripts. If their work takes off, then publishers have a chance to grab it for their own programmes.”
While understandably cautious and keen to stay faithful to his independent community, Dane wouldn’t discount the idea of jumping to a big publisher, “I'd be interested, of course. But I'd also check the contract thoroughly and see what they're asking me to sign away to them.”
“As an indie author, my existing readership base is small compared to what it could be, so most of them (the readers) would just go with it and accept it as just one of those things. Like when an indie band goes mainstream – you can say that you liked them before they were cool.”
From Sven’s perspective, “the question is – which authors will accept a writing style that is less of a creative process and more of a mass production process? And publishing is just so diverse and broad that it’s very difficult to come to one conclusion for the whole field.”
The debate may rage on, but Mark Allin is resolute, “Books will survive, but publishing that doesn’t forge relationships with readers will become less relevant.”
It seems that the creative/consumer cycle has never been more important – for the reader this can only be a good thing.