Paul Rhodes is one of our top speakers at BookMachine Unplugged. He currently runs Orb Entertainment, and previously spent around 15 years across HarperCollins and Walker Books in a variety of strategic, Business Development and digital roles. We interviewed him to find out more.
1. What are the best examples of collaboration you’ve seen in publishing?
This is such a tough question.
Publishing, by its very nature, is an inherently collaborative process. It might not always seem that way, but the idea that editors and authors, designers, marketers and publishers haven’t been collaborating on these things we call books is ludicrous, as is the idea that publishing doesn’t know how to engage with outside industries.
However, in the current climate, collaboration on digital and media projects are close to my heart – and the best examples I’ve seen so far are Faber and Touchpress with the “Solar System” app, and on the media side Walker Books (via their Walker Productions arm), Jam Media and (author/illustrator) Polly Dunbar on the brilliant “Tilly and Friends”, currently primetime kids viewing on Cbeebies. Also, a special nod must go the IP team at Penguin, who are uniformly excellent at understanding the value in working with other media partners and have added real value to brands like Angry Birds and Assassin’s Creed.
2. Coming from a games background originally, how have you been able to apply what you learnt there to book publishing?
I might not seem it, but I’m actually a book baby – I grew up learning about the value of data and applied Business Intelligence at HarperCollins before I went to work on Mortal Kombat. As one does.
The most obvious differences between the two industries lie in the way traditional (ie boxed) product is marketed. For some big games the size of the marketing budget can be as much as 100% of the dev spend. Certainly, I’ve heard stories of games based on new IP costing $30m to make and launching with a $30m marketing campaign. Those sorts of numbers make book publishers weep with fear.
That said – it’s a rapidly changing market – the big consoles are most likely about to enter their final cycle with boxed games. The future, it would seem, lies in Free to Play (F2P) and mobile/tablet gaming. Those markets are utterly brutal, but there is one truism that augurs well for publishing: Great marketing is no longer enough – if your product, be that a book, game or other storytelling project, is substandard, you will be found out, and the days of getting by on reputation alone are numbered. Basically, make a great game/book/product, and build your marketing with confidence from that point.
3. What collaborative projects are you most proud of?
In terms of pure commercials, the Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe game was one of the biggest collaborations I got involved in. It’s interesting to see that the team who made that game recently made Injustice: Gods Among Us – proof that if you do collaboration the right way, there are usually longer-term benefits to be gleaned.
In terms of hands-on, personal satisfaction though, I’d probably have to plump for the comic book stuff I did with my Orb hat on, working with Faber, Canongate and then a number of US comic publishers. Commercially the book based stuff wasn’t a success, but my word, the comics were. We only had a tiny audience on PSP, but we were regularly outselling the likes of Mavel and DC comics on that store. I did nearly all of the conversions by hand – and at the end we had more titles on store than everyone aside from those two big publishers. Overall, it didn’t make a huge amount of money, but the niche was bang on, so we probably did better than some games publishers did on the platform.
Since then, the work I’ve done with various books and games publishers on addressing products and markets they had hitherto ignored has been brilliant fun.
4. What might we expect from your talk at Unplugged?
I’ll be talking about what collaboration actually means in these heady days where brand recognition and digital distribution will call the shots, running through an example of how books can transcend the page to TV, and showcasing (hopefully) a new product that was borne out of collaboration between Orb, a book publisher and a huge Japanese games company.
5. What advice would you give to anyone who hasn’t been to this sort of event ?
Don’t be shy! Publishing is full of talented, friendly people, and most are extremely generous with their time and knowledge. Nearly every bit of work I do has come from word-of-mouth recommendations, so start building out your network now. You never know who’ll you’ll need to rely on later on in your career.
You can hear Paul talk about collaboration, and what it actually means, at BookMachine Unplugged on 23rd May.