FINDING NEW VOICES
DEFINING NEW GENRES
I was chatting to a prospective author last week and they said something rather marvellous – that they’d got in touch because Urbane appeared to put the author first. This was particularly gratifying for two reasons – firstly, because it shows the message is getting out there and making sense; but more importantly that it is coming across as genuine. I’d like to think that those authors who are now working with Urbane do feel that genuine sense of a partnership, a collaboration with mutual goals, even when I take the red pen to their scripts or snort derisively at their cover ideas (I don’t really do that, honest. Okay, maybe sometimes).
But it got me thinking. Perhaps I’ve only really solved the first part of the publishing puzzle, at least where successful publishing is concerned. I mean it’s all very well having a publisher and authors who are as happy together as strawberries and cream (probably best not to dwell on that analogy for too long), but it counts for little if no-one is reading the fruit of their labours. I can tell my authors countless times that their book is the best thing since sliced bread, but it’s the reader that ultimately decides a book’s fate, that holds the balance of power.
You’d think that was pretty self-explanatory right? But if it is, why do publishers continue treating readers like the lowest common denominator? Publishers – and yes, I do count myself amongst this noble and valiant breed (no laughing at the back) – do tend to make some rather awful assumptions about readers. And frankly treat them with far less respect than they deserve. Nor do they give them the attention they require. I’ve published countless business books about customer-centricity, valuing the customer, focusing on the market first, using customer feedback to enhance product offerings; but when it comes to books we do seem to have a bit of a ‘publish it and they will come’ mentality, or worse, much worse in my opinion, that we can only publish certain types of book because readers don’t have the capacity to choose anything else or aren’t capable of making discerning purchasing decisions.
Of course the publish it and it will sell idea is clearly dangerous, and frankly rather a Mr Thicky from Thicksville strategy for publishing success, though goodness knows I’ve been guilty of it myself. Particularly when I’m working with an author on a brilliant book and publish to realise that only the author and myself know its brilliant, and we’ve completely failed to tell or convince anyone else. Secondly, the idea that we should only stick to a ‘risk-averse, publish-to-type, stick this in the carefully defined box marked pigeon-hole’ publishing strategy because readers won’t accept or can’t cope with anything else is rather daft and insulting. Readers make discerning choices, whether it’s reaching for a Jordan biography or desperately waiting for the Booker shortlist – readers won’t just buy what they’re told, they’ll buy what they want to read. The problem is as publishers we tend to be so driven by the limiting nature of the channels we use to sell to readers (hello Waterstones) we’re very tempted to be risk averse in our publishing, producing books for that ‘lowest common denominator’ market. Or at least some of us are. Discoverability for any title that dares to be ‘different’ becomes harder and readers have less buying choices – not because they don’t want choice, but because they’re not given that choice. Or if that choice exists it tends to be in a channel so vast, such as Amazon, that the path to discoverability is pretty much overgrown with kindle ‘bestseller’ bindweed.
Is the way round this to try and define – and then find – the perfect Urbane reader? That would be lovely, but I’m not sure it’s actually possible (nor am I arrogant enough to define what a perfect reader is). That’s part of the problem with publishing; we make many assumptions about readers but for a very good reason. Unlike other industries, where an organisation will often communicate directly with a specific and definable customer base, a publisher often has no idea who buys their books. For example, I spend much of my time selling to a sales team, a distributor, a wholesaler and a bookshop – and rarely communicate directly with the person who ends up actually buying and reading a book. This is why many publishers just seem to replicate what has worked for others because they assume the readers will make the same or a very similar choice again. This is a rather simple view of the decision making abilities of a very sophisticated customer base, but it does explain the risk-aversion in publishing programmes. Much easier to place the emphasis on a range of titles that look and read like another Fifty Shades, or another Dan Brown or another Gillian Flynn because we naturally assume there’s a large reader base that will stick in a genre comfort zone and buy them. We limit our publishing, this limits the choices and the readers appear limited in their buying habits because we’ve forced them down that path.
But here’s the thing, readers are smart, knowledgeable and individual, and there are myriad factors involved in every single book purchasing decision. That’s complex for a publisher to deal with, so it’s easier just to treat readers as a large amorphous mass that will like this, this and this and assume they can be easily manipulated with marketing emails, kindle deals and posters on public transport. And that works to some extent. But just like Urbane collaborates with its authors, it should be collaborating with readers, involving them in the publishing programme, making them feel part of something unique and exciting and exclusive. And I don’t mean asking them to join another fucking mailing list. I mean understanding why every single reader is absolutely vital to the success of each and every book, and letting the reader know that I understand it. We all dream of creating books that readers want. Well, why not find ways of doing it?
So, later this week I’ll announce details of the Urbane Collaboration Club, the first step in joining the collaborative circle between publisher, author and reader. I think it’s going to be very exciting, and frankly I can’t wait to make readers a far more proactive part of the publishing process, rather than arrogantly assume ‘they’ will always be there to support us. I can’t publish brilliant books without amazing authors, and I can’t sell books without discerning readers spending their hard earned cash on them. It seems to make perfect sense to make readers a more proactive and engaged part of the collaborative process.
Then again I could just publish another Pippa Middleton party planner book (with some BDSM and vampires thrown in) and simply assume readers are stupid enough to buy it…… 😉