The Future Looks Bright, The Future Looks Collaborative

In a packed event at The Library Club on Tuesday, John Bond of whitefox – a publishing agency celebrating its fifth birthday this spring – introduced a panel of experts to explore the theme of creative collaboration in publishing.

Chris Michaels, Digital Director at the National Gallery, started by describing how the publishing value chain is changing. For decades, the relationships and processes were very stable, with authors, agents, publishers and retailers all understanding their well-defined roles, in terms of what they bring to the table and what they expect to be paid. But in the early 2000s, an era of disruption began, led by Amazon, with publishers trying bold new disintermediation strategies. New approaches to the market bring new risks, and when the global crash of 2008 arrived, it wasn’t only the staff of Lehmann Brothers clearing their desks: many publishing employees found their roles being reconfigured or made redundant.

So, in today’s more risk-averse world, publishers still need the best and most relevant skills to build successful products, but it doesn’t always make financial sense to invest in full-time staff. In the aftermath of the crash years, publishers are keeping a tighter rein on head count, and more and more talented people are working outside organisations, and bringing their skills to the table on a project by project basis.

As we know from the briefest glances at the news (and I have to admit that brief glances are about all I can handle at the moment), the world as we know it is changing: not only are digital innovations changing how we interact, but we’re seeing huge shifts in the political sphere. We need to brace ourselves for further reconfigurations in the value chain – and being flexible is the best way to be ready for whatever’s coming round the next bend.

Ruth Jones, Director of Business Development at Ingram Content Group, introduced us to a metaphorical bottle of ‘secret sauce’: the specialised knowledge that gives us, as publishers, our competitive advantage. The big question is: how long is this secret knowledge going to stay bottled up? How long is it going to be our secret?

There are lots of signs that the sauce is no longer ours alone. For one thing, the way we consume content is changing – not just with ebooks but with Netflix and other streaming services. It’s easy to assume that more and more people are seeking free or very cheap sources of content, but in fact, one of the most successful product categories is ebooks priced at $20 – which shows that people are actually still prepared to pay for quality.

What has changed, however, is the sheer number of different titles on offer. We’re seeing bestsellers sell fewer copies, but overall, more books are being sold, which has to be a good thing. Publishers used to be the ultimate gatekeepers, whose imprints gave texts a seal of approval and quality; now, self-published authors who really understand their reading communities have shown that they don’t need us. And authors feel empowered now to switch between traditional publishing and self-publishing, depending on what’s best for their projects.

Looking back into the industry, publishing’s employees are also working with much greater flexibility: there are lots of opportunities for us to work freelance, and it’s an exciting time to build a portfolio career.

Still on the theme of flexibility, we’re seeing new models of customised and personalised publishing, from companies such as Put Me in the Story and Lost My Name. These models, with their individualised outputs, don’t fit well in the traditional publishing sector, which thrives on economies of scale, but their success is undeniable.

Ruth ended on an encouraging note: there are opportunities for all of us to find our own secret sauce. Whether it’s in trade fiction or a more specialised genre, whether it’s in books, audio or a newer format, we all have something we can offer. We have to ask ourselves, ‘How can I make my content speak to an audience?’ And the answer to that question will change all the time.

Toby Mundy, the founder of the TMA Agency, took us on a journey of starting our own publishing company – which probably wasn’t something any of us expected to achieve over drinks at The Library Club!

If we all invested £50 in our new business, we’d have (at a guess – it was a full house) £5000 to spend, which is plenty to start a publishing business. Our gathering brought together all the skills we need, including writers, designers, production staff and finance people. So now we just had to decide on a publishing model and genre.

It’s possible for us to start our own company thanks to technological developments and changes in the labour market. It’s amazing – even though this remained just a thought experiment – to think that we could match the output of big publishing houses with just £5000.

Toby described the publishing industry as being made up of megapublishers and micropublishers. Megapublishers are brilliant at brand management, taking brands that are established and making them really sell. But they find it really hard to build new brands. Micropublishers – like our new company – don’t have a backlist to support their work, and they have to be flexible and creative. We can think in new directions, so maybe instead of publishing into a well-known genre, we’ll find a micro-genre niche to publish into, and market directly to the community that cares about that subject.

People are always talking about the importance of content in publishing. Some of the biggest publishers in the world are trying to cope with too much content, and this is something we can help them with. Maybe we shouldn’t be seeing a distinction between digital and print content, but between thick and thin content, where thick content can be divided into lots of different products.

Creative collaboration is all about ‘coalitions of the willing’ that come together to solve problems. These coalitions rely on trust, both within the group and with the client – and we don’t need to view them as any kind of ‘pale imitation’ of what the big publishers are doing. In fact, for many projects, these coalitions have the ability to outperform (in real, material terms) teams in bigger companies.

It was a hopeful and upbeat note to end the speaking part of the evening on, and when we started networking over our free drinks (thank you, whitefox!), it’s certain that many creative collaborations started to take shape among the BookMachine community.