Balancing Act: Keeping publishing’s polarities in check

Self-employed in publishing

Publishing is an industry that operates between polarities, constantly engaging a series of balancing acts that define the kinds of books we sell and the profit margins we make. But are there canaries in the cage that tell us when we’re veering too far one way or the other? Is it possible to tell when the balance is out of sync before we reach the tipping point? And has the digital revolution of the past few years changed that?

Walking the tightrope

“We need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art,” said Ursula K. le Guin in July’s Portland Monthly. “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit… is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

In one moment, she summed up the first dichotomy of publishing: ‘does this book hold literary worth?’ and ‘will this book sell?’ Stray too far towards literary worth and you risk alienating swathes of your readership. Stray too far in the other direction and readers eventually lose patience with the lack of quality control and – once again -books stop selling.

The second major balancing act in publishing, and one which is arguably harder to achieve, is publishing content that is currently trending as well as books which you predict will trend by the publication date. Engaging with pre-existing trends should also be done with care, as it’s important to drop the topic just before the general public loose interest. It requires a certain degree of bandwagon-jumping and generally involves less risk than predicting trends, which on a bad day can feel a bit like throwing spaghetti at a wall.

Asking around, most publishers I know say that these balances are maintained through a mixture of experience and gut responses, however it is now also possible to understand where on the scale you feature by listening to your readers.

Finding the canaries

A great deal of emphasis is put upon connecting to readers nowadays, and publishers have become very good at talking at or to them. But it is just as – if not more – important to listen to them too. Readers are present and active in the public domain on blogs and on social media, providing us with analytics and opinions we have never been able to access before. We can actually witness readers talking to each other about what they think about books and can therefore see our products through their eyes, understand where their reading tastes have come from and where they’re going. Most importantly for those careful balancing acts, we can find out where we’re getting it right and where we’re doing badly. The warning signs are always right there for us if we care to listen for them.

Yet there is a downside to this. In effect, the canaries have been let out of the cage: if we’re tipping too far in the wrong direction now, people will talk about more publically and more instantly than has ever been possible before. The potential that these conversations will lead to biases for or against publishers and their products is huge, effectively catalysing the swings between one polarity and another. The digital revolution has made everything faster and that includes the ups and downs of business itself.

Since the digitisation of communication, then, it is no longer enough to simply sell books, or even masses of books, you have to sell them within a context of public criticism. You have to be able to listen to your readers’ feedback and act upon it accordingly to maintain the balance.

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