A Focus Group of One?

If you’re in the publishing business, in all likelihood, you have never used market research, you have never run a focus group, and you have probably never utilized industry wide sales statistics to make a decision about any aspect of publishing a book.

In fact, publishers, editors and even book sales professionals seem proud of the standard methods of decision making in the book industry.  How many times have you seen a book cover decision made by one person?  Or over-ruled only by another tiny set of responses, maybe one or two book buyers, a couple of sales reps, or maybe a favorite bookseller?  Similarly, how often are decisions about strategy made based on personal experience – “I don’t know anyone who reads a book on ____(name your platform)” for example?  Or “there aren’t any readers for this book in ____(name your city)” for another example?

Aside from looking at the performance of comparative titles (which never seem to really match your book anyway) or making a price decision based on a quick survey of the competition, not much research ever seems to happen in the publishing business.  We don’t talk to readers aside from our friends at dinner, we don’t research what people are reading, what they think about prices, formats, marketing techniques, retail displays, customer service, etc.  

Of course, most publishers don’t have any significant contact with readers in the first place.

How about research, really deep and meaningful research about the role of reading in society, where people buy books, how many people go to libraries every week, how do professors choose books for course adoptions, how many students out of a given number in a class actually buy or read assigned books?  

How many people give books as gifts and how do they choose what to buy?

So many questions that arguably only a few people in the book business know anything about.  And what is really interesting is that so many people in the book business either don’t care, or are proud of not doing research, market or otherwise, as part of their company’s mission.  They base decisions on what they like, or what they see riding home on the train, or what people they socialize with tell them at dinner parties.   And they dismiss market research as either unaffordable for publishers or the wrong approach to a creativity based business.   

Of course, the art of writing does rely on the creative spark of creators, but publishing is the business end of a creative process, and business needs information!

So what is wrong with this picture?

I recently came upon this quote by Jeff Bezos (in conversation with Charlie Rose):

"Before if you were making a product, the right business strategy was to put 70% of your attention, energy, and dollars into shouting about a product, and 30% into making a great product. So you could win with a mediocre product, if you were a good enough marketer. That is getting harder to do. The balance of power is shifting toward consumers and away from companies...the individual is empowered… The right way to respond to this if you are a company is to put the vast majority of your energy, attention and dollars into building a great product or service and put a smaller amount into shouting about it, marketing it. If I build a great product or service, my customers will tell each other."

And that’s true enough.  But if you don’t understand who your customers are and what they want, like, and appreciate, how will you be able to create and present them with products that resonate and that they will be willing to buy from you?

Knowledge = power.  Knowledge comes from meaningful research.  We must always celebrate the inspiration and creativity that lie at the heart of the creative process,  in fact the publisher’s passion for finding and publishing books and believing deeply in them is their core value add as businesses.  

If publishers paid more attention to finding and publishing work they truly love, while at the same time embedding an understanding of the cultural zeitgeist in their publishing processes, it is almost certain that they would be less worried today about the future of books and reading.

Posted by David Wilk on 10/23 at 04:07 AM
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Another New Publishing Model Emerges

Everyone knows that this is a time of great flux.  Experimentation and innovation therefore abounds.  It’s disconcerting and even painful for many of us, as existing models and structures cease functioning and abruptly disappear, and new unfamiliar, untested forms then arise almost daily to challenge established order and expectations.  But new ideas do create tremendous opportunity, and I am not the first to say that we need the experimentation and sometimes wild risk taking that marks a culture in flux.  Many new ideas are coming from technology savvy entrepreneurs, as part of a new wave of web centric startups scrambling to gain attention.  And as Kevin Kelly has recently observed, writing may be giving way to a culture of "visualizing" as screens become the predominant communication device in the culture.  The very definition of what a book as container is certainly going to be challenged in coming years.  

But even as the culture changes, and the forms of distribution are altered, certain underlying principles remain.  I had the pleasure of listening to Tim O’Reilly speak at a publishing gathering recently.  His message to publishers was overtly to "do something that lights you up."  For most publishers, this means identifying great writing that really turns you on, working to make it ready for an audience (editing and presentation), connecting the work to readers.  Those are the essential activities of a publisher (as I have said before here, we need to remember that the root meaning of "publishing" is "to make public", which is a tremendous responsibility the publisher has to the creator).  Adhering to the basic principles of what it means "to publish" is a pretty great way to go forward into the future.

My good friend Lou Aronica has been an editor and a publisher for many years, and is now also a successful published writer.  He has just announced the launch of a new business model he is calling The Fiction Studio Imprint.  Here is some of what he has to say about this new venture: 

The Fiction Studio imprint will be the home for very good writers who have as yet to win the lottery. It is an invitation-only publishing program – I consider no submissions – for writers whose work I love who have decided to try a different path to publishing success. Fiction Studio will publish these books in both paperback and e-book formats (there will be the occasional hardcover as well), the writers will have a huge level of equity in their publications, and because of this, they will participate in their publications at their highest possible level.

I am putting a premium on professionalism with this imprint. The books will look great and they will have extremely high editorial values. While I learned a long time ago that readers don’t care about imprints (no one goes out looking for a Viking book, for instance), I want the Fiction Studio imprint to tell readers that they can rely on the quality of the work. Everyone associated with the program – from the editors to the copyeditors to the cover designers to the marketing and publicity people – have many years of experience at major publishing houses. 

The very first book in this program is my own novel, Blue, which you can read about here. In fact, the Fiction Studio imprint arose from my deciding that I wanted to create a new way to publish my own fiction. After researching a number of options (including the option of making a deal with another publisher), I landed upon the structure that will serve as the business model for the imprint. While one could argue that launching a publishing program with one’s own book is a tad narcissistic, I’m doing it because I believe completely in the approach the Fiction Studio imprint offers and I want everyone to know that I’m so committed to it that I’m willing to put into the program a novel I worked on for years and which is closer to my heart than any fiction writing I’ve ever done.

I’ll be watching Lou’s new program closely - I think it will be an important and valuable experiment, one of many of course, that will help to redefine publishing in the modern era.


Posted by David Wilk on 10/06 at 05:20 PM
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