Guest Column: The New Give-to-Get Publishing Economy: Edith D. Wilson, R.I.P.
Two decades ago, as an entry-level editorial assistant, I was asked to sign form rejection letters with the name “Edith D. Wilson.” Edith was a fictional creation whose name my then-employer used exclusively to reject manuscripts. When “rejected” writers sent angry mail, phoned or worse—visited the publisher’s office—the use of Edith’s name at the reception desk would alert all to draw the shades or reach for the security buzzer. The message was clear: Editors, and the publishers they work for, need to be as hard to get to as possible. Publishing authority and position demanded “reclusivity.” Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Fast-forward two decades and we are in a vastly different book publishing landscape, one that is being impacted by a convergence of both long-predicted and recent “Black Swan” events. Search engines have, for some, displaced book retailers as the starting place for book selection. Self-publishing has moved from the margins to the mainstream; what were once considered vanity houses are now powerful content creation and distribution platforms. Social networks and no-cost marketing platforms like Facebook and Twitter have exploded, empowering consumers as buyers and opinion leaders in new ways.
This is occurring while traditional vehicles for driving book awareness—print-based book reviews and ads—are declining. The list of things that are different now than they were in Edith’s day is pages long. Most importantly, however, in this marketplace, anyone choosing reclusivity or anonymity over engagement chooses irrelevance.
So, how do book publishers add visible value for their authors and consumers in new ways? What needs to change, and perhaps more importantly, what needs to stay the same? As both a publishing “insider” and a frequent reader of publishing’s critics, I am often struck by how the public discussion of these questions is fundamentally different than private ones, how the focus of those inside publishing houses is different from those in the blogosphere. Beyond publishers’ walls, the tremendous value editors and their publishing colleagues provide in helping an author create a publishable work is often unknown. Yet, the vast majority of publishing time and energy go into just this activity—the core of what publishers do.
In the blogosphere, some opine about how hidebound and irrelevant publishers now are, how slow to change and resistant to risks. It makes good copy sometimes—I know I always bite on the most critical headlines first! Rare are the critics, however, who have concrete, insightful, specific suggestions of how to evolve publishing without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Black-and-white thinking and talk of violent revolution distract many from the natural evolution that is both occurring and will likely be more sustaining for the “book” economy in the long run.
I believe the divergent views stem, most significantly, from a dearth of authentic copy on what publishers get right. Publishing houses are chock-full of interesting, educated, highly creative, talented and usually very funny people who know a vast amount about books, reading and packaging, and have wildly interesting opinions and judgments. But, in the online theater, these people are largely anonymous office workers to the opinion leaders who host the daily discussion of what publishing is doing wrong. Publishers have little tradition of revealing what is inside their black box that isn’t focused on meeting specific author and title marketing goals. They have little practice of turning the spotlight toward their contributions in ways that are authentic in today’s marketplace—and that simultaneously support their authors and a community of readers. This is rooted in old conceptions of publicity as a department, as a discrete function with one-way, outbound messaging. Yet today, authentic, personalized, continuous engagement is the way the social economy works. Publishers need to be personally and organizationally engaged with the tools they are asking their authors to use. There are no wallflowers at this digital dance.
Publishers: Start Talking
Thus, the devaluing of publishing roles is, today, partially self-inflicted. Publishers need to make it a priority to make their contributions known in ways that encourage discussion of great authors and their work. If publishers want to participate in the digital value chain—where consumers pay enough for curated content to support authors in meaningful ways—the army of people that is the publishing industry needs to engage with actual consumers around the creation and curation of high-value work.
This disconnect in awareness and valuation comes into full relief when matters of digital content pricing rear their head, a topic where the disconnect inside and outside houses is perhaps largest. Many consumers falsely believe that the majority of cost in book production is the manufacturing or distribution—let’s call this its “format value”—instead of the cost of acquiring and developing the authors’ work. They intuit that digital products should be vastly cheaper if the physical format is eliminated. The physical format, however, is not the majority of a publisher’s cost—the acquisition and development of that content is.
As digital content publishing and consumption grows, and as consumers’ expectations around digital content pricing become clearer, publishers will need not only to create new types of digital content that consumers value—such as textual content that integrates rich media audio and video—but to accelerate and expand their ability to provide more curative and contextual value for consumers for all formats of books. Book publishers will need to help reinvent reading for the 21st century as well as help readers know about the best of the best, whether published by them or by someone else. And consumers will reward those who find ways to engage readers during the content creation process.
There’s lots to do, and luckily many have gotten started. I am enthusiastic about the emerging engagement that I see:
- Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt’s presentation, “Blogging as a Tool for Change,” from a recent conference at MichaelHyatt.com;
- HarperStudio’s blog, which provides the inside track on a whole new publishing model (TheHarperStudio.com);
- Jennifer Hart’s BookClubGirl.com—a publisher-led consumer forum for reading groups.
Yet, I was disappointed to find that if you search online for “book editor blogs,” the No. 1 spot is held by Editorial Anonymous. What? Edith D. Wilson lives?
While Editorial Anonymous is to be commended for creating valuable content for aspiring writers and engaging online in concrete ways, I am saddened by his or her perceived need for anonymity. Anonymity rarely fosters trust. I look forward to the day when publishing houses offer up their size and scale to readers via the many individual voices I am fortunate enough to hear every day. In the give-to-get economy, there is no get without the give. Luckily, there are thousands within this business who have the words, the passion and the ability to give book readers some of what they really want: to talk with us, not about us.
Carolyn Pittis is senior vice president, global marketing strategy and operations for HarperCollins Publishers. Contact her at Carolyn.Pittis@HarperCollins.com.