If She Knew Then What She Knows Now?
“I tell stories digitally and I build audiences for stories in digital. That’s the best way to explain what I do.”
Anna Rafferty hasn’t left the field.
In the six months since she stepped out of her role as Managing Director for the UK’s Penguin Books Digital into private consulting, she has worked as a committee member both in digital strategy and in children’s work with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). She also chairs Culture 24, a not-for-profit company that supports cultural organizations in reaching out to audiences digitally. And she has consulted with the UK’s Parliament on digital strategies, as she has with London’s National Theatre and, currently, with GirlEffect.org.
Rafferty was in Stockholm with us late last month for Publit’s The Next Chapter conference to give the closing keynote address following my penultimate effort. It was Publit’s very capable Jonas Lennermo who had the smart idea to put us together in the executive briefing on the evening before, so I could interview Rafferty and try to tease out a specific kind of perspective that many inside publishing can’t be expected to have: hindsight.
My key question to her: Once you’re away from the center of such a major house’s needs and imperatives, how do things look? What does Rafferty know now that she didn’t know before? — or didn’t realize she knew before?
She had four key points to make.
1. Is Publishing Too Nice?
Observers in adjacent industries (consumer products such as licensed kids’ toys, sales channels, TV and film industries, etc.) may very well see publishing as being “too nice,” Rafferty told the invited audience of about 40, over drinks in Stockholm.
“There’s a huge amount of power in the publishing world,” she said, “in the fact that publishing holds the story” in its original evocation and development.
“People can make a mass of money on that story, making films, making games…Sometimes we are less ruthless than we could be in negotiations with such people. We have that power, we’re connected to the author, and the original creative idea…I think it’s nice to be called ‘civilized,’ actually.”
But she added that one industry source who has talked about this with her refers to publishers as “easy prey — you don’t defend the castle. Pretty birds can’t defend themselves when the walls are breached.”
I teased her at this point, asking if she’d been talking with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, credited with talking of publishers as “sickly gazelles.” There was no getting any names from Rafferty, she’s much too smart for that.
“But they see us as being incredibly powerful,” she clarified, “just not flexing our muscles enough sometimes.”
2. All The World’s A Publisher
“I think I always knew this but only as an academic thing: Everybody really is a publisher now.”
One of Rafferty’s consultancy clients is Nike. “The person who reports to me on that account for Nike left Red Bull in February. As their editor. And both those companies, Nike and Red Bull — huge mega-companies, with billions of pounds going through them — now consider themselves to be publishing companies.
“And it’s true. They really are publishing companies. The difference between them and us is that publishing is not how they make their money.
“This makes them much more dangerous to us” than other publishing companies may be, Rafferty said, “because they’re still taking your audience — taking [a consumer’s] time to engage with a book or brand — and they’re giving it away free. To make an emotional connection with whatever it [the product] may be. While we’re trying to get people to pay for it, to create an emotional connection with a story.”
“It’s something to be aware of in terms of where our base is going.”
3. It Is All About Video
“Has anyone here heard of Sprinkle of Glitter?” Rafferty asked the group. “She’s massive.”
The 25-year-old video phenom Louise Watson — who bills herself as a “YouTuber and blogger,” Rafferty said, is who “you should all be commissioning books from. Because every teenaged girl in America, in the UK, they will all buy that book. They’re obsessed.”
“The broadcast industry know about this. We [in publishing] don’t know about it yet. There are companies called MCNs, multi-channel networks, which I think are absolutely genius. They are disintermediating everybody. They’re finding the bloggers in YouTube who are doing well.
“They’re contacting them, and saying, ‘Why don’t you join our network? Well give you better advertising rates from YouTube because we negotiate with them en masse and get better rates. We’ll also increase your audience because we’ve got another five people” who are major draws “on our books. And you can all share each other’s audiences — a music person, a sports person, you won’t be conflicting with any of them. We’ll also represent you, so we’re going to sign away all your rights. You’ll belong to us now and we’ll produce you to make sure you’re better than you were before.’
“In one fell swoop, these companies are disintermediating managers, agents, broadcasters, and producers. And they’re making 16-year-old stars.”
Just days before Rafferty’s comments in Stockholm, Sphere, a publishing imprint of Little Brown in the UK, announced it had signed UK actress and 21-year-old YouTube star Carrie Hope Fletcher to a book to be released in May 2015.
4. Where Do We Fit “In The Cultural Firmament?”
“It’s not that I’m trying to butter you up. But people who work in the book industry are very, very clever. Because we have to work with some of the most creative people in the world, our authors, when you present to them how you’re going to market them digitally, you’ve got to be quite good.
“Same as journalists, we’ve got to learn new things all the time. About that audience, about what that audience wants, about how to package things for that audience.
“As well as being a commercial business…we are a relationship business. People in publishing can work with talent and they can read a room and they could be fantastic politicians and diplomats, I think.
“And it’s something I hadn’t realized” until her career change, stepping outside of the large-publishing-house setting. “The rest of the world aren’t like that. Plenty of people out there are half-wits. And it’s really frustrating working with them.
“What I’m getting at is that we [publishing people] are still not quite sure where we fit in the cultural firmament…Because that mission is defined by companies rather than by the industry. You talk to one company and they say, ‘Well, we’re in the books business.’ You talk to another, and they say, ‘We’re in the story business.’ You talk to somebody else and they say, ‘We’re a content business.’ Somebody else says, ‘Well, we invest in ideas, we invest in people.’
“Those things are subtly, slightly different, and in this new world are being redefined all the time. And if that sometimes means we haven’t quite reached consensus about culturally where we fit, I think that can leave us at a disadvantage. We can’t just say, ‘We’re games and that’s it,’ and not have to explain ourselves” further.
The “Inherent Decency” of Publishing
In a brief followup discussion I led with Rafferty and our audience, probably the most compelling point she made was about an element of this business — founded on a profound cultural value.
“Publishing has something in it that’s a sort of inherent decency,” she said.
“Some things just need to be published. Some stories just need to be told. Writers need to be given a platform.”
Witty, personable, experienced, and compassionate, Rafferty grounded our thoughts on the eve of The Next Chapter conference day, in a reminder that as commercial as the business has become (and in many ways must be, to survive), there’s simply more to what we’re doing than that.
“There is something in being civilized,” she said, “something in having a higher purpose, that is good.”