I am galvanized. Not only have I always wanted to say that, but it’s true. I am in awe of what is happening in this industry. Attending Making Information Pay (MIP) a couple of weeks ago (for additional coverage, go here) fueled this feeling. A few things, in particular, struck a chord. First, Dave Thompson, vice president of sales analysis at Random House, shared statistics to put some things in perspective, and stressed the importance of not only collecting data, but interpreting it carefully. “There are so many half-truths and distortions in our industry,” he said. “Right now, in the worst period in our history, on a unit basis, sales are down 1.2 percent in 2009. People have purchased 1.2 percent fewer books than last year.”
This statistic just does not jive with the degree of pessimism that has been attached to this industry.
It’s not that the realities facing publishers are not harsh. The effects of a shifting marketplace combined with an economic recession are not to be slighted. But publishers are not the sloth-like entities they are often portrayed as by the media.
Marcus Leaver, president of Sterling Publishing, who spoke at MIP, outlined new approaches his company is taking, including “questioning anything and everything.” About every project and process, he said, “We have to ask, ‘Are we doing this because we can, because we’ve always done so … or because we can measure it?’ We’ve got to think hard about why we’re doing what we’re doing every step along the way.”
While each company will vary in how it addresses the challenges at hand, some common themes are emerging: Publishers are being more selective about the titles they publish, moving toward a focused, category-leading approach.
At MIP, Leaver, as well as Dominique Raccah, publisher and CEO of independent publisher Sourcebooks, stressed the importance of specialization. “We believe that horizontal is road kill,” said Leaver. “We’ve all got to specialize.”
Raccah said, “Retailers will be showing the top two or three things in a category.” The key to being among those is focus—for example, be the best publisher of vegan cookbooks, not just cookbooks, she said.
She also noted that the “content continuum”—the potential for expanding content and author brands into e-book, mobile and other digital content products—presents the “largest opportunity I’ve seen in 22 years as a book publisher.” And her company is already taking advantage of many of them.
There are many more examples out there of such empowerment; the industry is not helpless, encumbered by its history and old modus operandi, as some suggest.
One of my favorite sayings is “These are the times that try men’s souls” (Thomas Paine), and this is, no doubt, a trying time for most industries. And it gives me a certain feeling of pride when I look around and see that in these trying times, in this industry, some of the most brilliant thinking is transpiring.
Look at this issue of Book Business alone. Former Random House CEO Peter Olson and Bharat Anand, Olson’s colleague at Harvard Business School, co-authored the Guest Column, entitled “The Kindle: Igniting the Book Business,” in which they share their perspective on pricing digital content—one of the industry’s top issues today.
Andrew Brenneman’s “Digital Directions” column is a wake-up call. He addresses the opportunities inherent in a world where customers demand a role in content delivery—e.g., customized collections of poetry. “Some may feel that such a model is … outside the boundaries of a book publisher’s role,” he writes, that “the compilation of collections and anthologies are exclusive under the providence of the editorially anointed, not the domain of mere readers.” The fact is, he stresses, someone will fulfill this role—if not publishers, then someone else. Look at the music industry and iTunes.
It is a time that demands critical thinking—and I am impressed to see so many of you stepping up to the plate.