If aliens observed human publishers they might be forgiven for the thinking that the method by which we disseminate our ideas is somewhat dull. Even now, by and large, publishing books follows pretty much the same steps over and over. Manuscript to catalogue to sales conference to proof copy to presenter to review campaign and repeat. If the numbers on our spreadsheets are high enough then a bit of advertising, some twitter and a website.
It’s not that these tactics are wrong necessarily, it’s just that we rarely question whether they are enough or, for that matter, whether they are working at all. And in truth, we can’t because we are compelled to enter a ‘tunnel’ process at the beginning and follow its path from acquisition to returns pallet.
What makes publishing work as a creative business (and the reason we don’t all get bored and do something else) is the fact that while the process is repetitious we inject it each time with a huge range of content; new authors, new stories and new concepts. The sheer wild diversity of ideas and entertainments that flow through this ‘tunnel’ is what keeps us enthralled.
Why then are our publishing tactics so dominated by the tunnel.
The trouble with the tunnel is its rigidity. The waypoints of publication are fixed by the manufacturing process and the demands of the retail sector. Certain marketing tactics are expected in order to convey seriousness and adherence to the trade calendar is crucial in successfully attaining a vital retail slot.
The problems this system causes are twofold. Firstly, the decisions on positioning, artwork and approach made at the start of the process set a rigid framework that will determine the success or failure of the book. Once the book is into the tunnel it becomes increasingly difficult (and expensive) to alter its chances of success. What’s more because the tunnel behind is full of new books there is almost no room for the analysis or reflection required to change a book’s trajectory.
Secondly the system allows for only relatively small variations in tactics, and therefore we are forced to deliver some of humanity’s most vivid creative enterprises with only a modicum of creativity. Our publishing process, almost by its very nature, ensures that plenty of books with potential (in all markets) fail to cut through. We have no time to rethink, re-imagine and retry. Our products cannot be honed, fine tuned or perfected.
Print publishing, in too many cases, operates with one creative arm tied behind its back.
The digital transition by loosening this system may allow the industry a new freedom to experiment. We must learn to test and to analyze, to do less of the magical thinking involved in hoping for ‘word of mouth’ and reintegrate our efforts based on expressing the content as opposed to servicing the requirements of the tunnel. The absolutely crucial element of catching the imagination of the audience must come first. If we are the master, as opposed to the servant of the tunnel, we can dramatically improve the success of our publishing. And if the aliens were to look again at publishing, they would see us telling the story of our story.