Print sales are on the way up, or at least finally not falling, depending on whom you speak to. Consumer ebook sales are dropping, but likely to be stabilizing against their huge initial growth, and non-consumer ebook sales are on the rise. The threat of the super-markets are no longer as strong as they look increasingly elsewhere. We have finally accepted digitization, and it is now a core part of most publishers’ businesses. The often acrimonious divide between self- and traditional publishing has quietened, as they sit, with caution, alongside each other. And with Amazon—though still challenging—we understand the pros and cons and are learning to work with or around them.
It would be wrong, however, to think that all is now rosy. There are still fundamental issues with the traditional publishing business model; we’re not going to see a surge of new bookshops filling high-streets any time soon, and the all-powerful customer will continue to demand more for less, or preferably for free. We are long past any return to the past. But we do now have a brief time to exhale while moving toward the future.
Publishers have long had a reputation for chasing horses that have already bolted. See in recent times the flood of wizards and Scandinavian murders, through to erotic fiction and coloring books. And there is a current danger that publishers may start congratulating themselves on repeating what has proven successful elsewhere.
Social media has been a phenomenon in recent years, so now most publishers have an active presence on all the major platforms. Moreover, events have boosted other creative industries, so now most publishers do events. The key word here is “do,” which implies repetition. There are many other examples, but perhaps the most useful one is from self-publishing.
Many self-published authors have taught traditional publishers an ego-puncturing lesson over the last few years. From being close to the customer, building fanbases, tireless and innovation promotion, through to metadata, pricing and even just business-sense, some self-published authors have led the way and made millions in the process. At times they have made the traditional sector appear what we are—an industry dreamed up by English graduates—and we should be grateful for the embarrassment
That said, one of the most dangerous things traditional publishers could now do is simply replicate what the self-published authors did successfully, while adding nothing else. While this would generate an ego-reinflating uplift, it would only be temporary. Ultimately, without book publishers actively showing the value that they can add, there is no need for them to exist.
Keeping with the self-publishing example, we should replicate from the relevant lessons we have been taught—but only as the starting point. From that base, we should then demonstrate to authors, and sub-consciously to customers, the unique values that traditional publishers offer: from production expertise, to global licensing, to bookshop relationships, to sales and distribution networks and hopefully much more.
Traditional publishers are owners of vast conceptual assets and are in a very exciting position: we hold the licenses to massive amounts of fantastic creative work produced for us. We need to demonstrate that we can match what others are doing successfully and then add value to the products, sales and marketing that is unique to us.
The first step is asking the question that maybe some publishers fear asking: what do they uniquely offer? And once they have an answer, as hopefully they do, they should be loud and proud about it. Book publishers have a big opportunity, and rather than shying away from it, we should embrace the challenge of proving ourselves.
In summary, it is great that we have opened our eyes to what is proving successful elsewhere. But repetition is the starting point rather than the end result. It is the clearly defined and unique value that we as traditional publishers add that will define the future of our industry for many generations to come.