The Quirk Survival Handbook
Survival experts will tell you that the keys to surviving any life- or limb-threatening situation are always the same:
• Be prepared.
• Don't panic.
• Have a plan.
These handy tips (in addition to a well-read copy of a certain emergency-yellow-colored, best-selling survival manual …) will help you emerge intact from the worst disasters you will ever encounter, be they shark attacks, earthquakes, debt crises or hurricanes.
But are these simple tips enough to get us through the massive disruption taking place around us? The demise of retailing and distribution as we know it? The removal of the middle man? The push from the 800-pound retailing gorilla to become a 1,600-pound publishing and retailing gorilla?
I believe that the short answer is a resounding "yes." The disruption we are all living through in the publishing industry is nothing if not life- and limb-threatening. But, if we are adequately prepared for the changes that are still to come, if we remain calm in the face of uncertainty, and if we formulate a plan (or at least have a vision) and stick to it, we'll be more than fine.
I believe that as publishers and curators of the most ancient form of mass entertainment and information that has ever existed (that object we call "the book"), we will not only survive, but will in fact thrive, and even (gasp!) create new opportunities for future growth and success beyond what we've experienced yet. I believe that at the end of the day, we have the potential to sell more books—and more profitably—than ever before.
However, the challenges publishers face are not small. Most of us have focused on honing our curatorial skills and our distribution skills over our creative development skills and our marketing skills. As a result, we have allowed others to sit between us and the two most essential groups of people in our industry: our readers and our authors. We've let agents occupy the position of trust and value between publishers and authors, and retailers occupy the same position between publishers and readers. We've allowed ourselves to become the middlemen, too, despite the fact that we are the ones directing, developing and certainly funding this entire crazy endeavor. And now that the digital disruption is rapidly removing all that stands between authors and readers, we need to make sure that publishers don't become one of the things that gets removed.
This means acquiring new skills, and fast: learning how to develop, promote and more fully value (and be valued by) our authors; and learning how to enrapture, engage with and more fully value (and be valued by) our readers.
Here's the good news: Most of these new skills are already baked into our DNA. For nearly 10 years now, Quirk has basically operated on these principles. Almost all distinctive and successful publishers have as well. So the "new" skills we'll need aren't really new at all. They're just skills that have lain dormant for years—things we need to remember that we already know how to do.
With that in mind, I offer this checklist of tips for surviving and hopefully thriving amid the digital disruption. (After almost 10 years of believing this stuff, I am finally having it all stitched into a sampler and framed—and will gladly do the same for you for a nominal fee. Just e-mail me at email@example.com. Heck, do so anyway, even if you don't want to order the sampler. I'd love to hear from you. After all, this is a time for partnerships and conversation.)
1. It's the story, stupid. The story is what matters. To everyone. Our job as publishers is to give the world (readers, e-tailers, marketing partners) great stories to read (entertainment) and great stories to tell (information). No one knows how to do that better than publishers.
2. We are not in Kansas anymore. We are not even in the publishing business anymore. We are in the entertainment business. This is something we've said at Quirk for years. We are competing for attention against everything people do with their entertainment resources (their time and their money). We must make our products as compelling as any new movie, video game or app that comes down the pike. And we must use the same tools of engagement to let them know about it.
3. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Every aspect of a book (and the publishing process) matters, and should be pushed to add maximum value to the final product (and thus, the result). It always has been thus, and it always will be.
4. It's also the marketing, stupid. Which is, of course, part of the story (you're giving people a great story to tell). Learning how to market your books is the secret to continuing to survive and thrive. At Quirk, we believe that getting attention for our books is as important as making attention-getting books. Publishers must learn to get better at marketing, and we should shift our focus and models to be able to devote as many resources to marketing as we do to creating.
5. Growing new readers must be our main focus. I believe that the biggest problem we face in the United States (one that we haven't really begun to grapple with as an industry) is that people don't (or can't, or won't) read. We must use this digital disruption to confront that issue—to find and grow new readers, and to create new formats for enrapturing and engaging them. (Or else we are all racing to the bottom.)
From my point of view, however, all this is good news. Great publishers already do most of this, and have been doing so for decades. We just forget that, sometimes.
So you are already prepared. There's no need to panic. You have your plan:
Strive to be a great publisher.
Why not deal with the disruption by staying focused on doing just that? BB
David Borgenicht is the president and publisher of Quirk Books (quirkbooks.com), publishers of entertaining, informative and amusing works of fiction and non-fiction, including the bestseller "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children." He is also the creator of the "Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook" franchise.