An Invitation: How Much ‘Discussion’ Are Publishers Ready to Have?


Jeremy Greenfield at Digital Book World has a clean, straightforward way of describing the mission many major publishers see as theirs these days:

Over the past several years, publishers have been on a charm campaign among readers, authors and other stakeholders, to explain what they do in a world in which anyone can publish a book.

What hampers that “charm campaign” for many traditional publishers is a long-ingrained custom of sidestepping the fray, declining comment, dignified reserve. I call it “the silence of the trads.” And it has meant that during years of upheaval, the majors haven’t always spoken up for themselves.

This is why Greenfield’s report from the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers is such an eye-catcher.

In Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy: Publishers Need to Change the Conversation, Greenfield quotes Reidy saying to her fellow publishers:

We need to speak out more about what we do, and we need to speak about it more loudly, and with more conviction. There is no question about the vibrant contribution we make to the life of this country, its citizens, and the rest of the world, yet our accomplishments, in both print and the new world of digital, have been undersold.

That’s a sea change—up to a point. Let’s call it a warming current. Maybe it’s not the riptide of publishing-community debate that many of us might wish for, but a welcome gully of potential conversation.

I’m here to wade in and to invite a few friends along. Right here at Thought Catalog.

On the Street: Tidal Questions

If you didn’t see it, have a look at my TC colleague Lucy Leiderman‘s article, This Is Why It’s So Hard To Get Published (And It’s Not Amazon’s Fault). Leiderman is a newly published novelist, herself. Toronto’s Dundurn Press has published her debut, Lives of Magic, this winter.

In her commentary, Leiderman takes up the problem of the blockbuster in traditional publishing, in terms of what it can mean to the community of authors. Using the term “bestseller” (which a “blockbuster” must surely be), she writes:

The bestseller is a prime example of a redundant, sad loop in an industry that puts a lot of resources into very few things. Many first-time (or small-time) writers have trouble finding their place when publishers are so focused on forcing their B2B ]business to business] sales model to work.

There’s more there than the concept of publishers placing too many resource-eggs into too few blockbuster-baskets. Leiderman is also lamenting the industry’s much-discussed challenge of being too store- and distributor-targeted in an age of rising consumer clout.

Have You Met the Readers?

It’s no secret that very large publishing houses are finding it difficult to quickly retool their operations for D2C (direct-to-consumer) initiatives. This week, the biggest of the Big Five publishers, Penguin Random House (PRH) in the United Kingdom (under New York’s overall leadership) announced a restructuring effort, in one executive’s words, “to create the blueprint for a publisher brand as a consumer brand.”

Talking to The Bookseller’s Philip Jones, PRH CEO Tom Weldon said, “The biggest challenge for publishers is not digital, but discoverability: how do we tell people about the next great book? The answer comes back to building a direct relationship with consumers.”

This, of course, is what Leiderman is questioning, pointing out that the blockbuster-driven corporate model’s playout at bookstores can be expected to short-circuit any hope of success for anything but the top-of-the-list “big books” of a season. She writes:

Imagine if any other types of retailers put their brand new merchandise on a steep sale, placed it right at the front of the store, took away all incentive for people to go in and look around, and then hoped to make a (big) profit.

Does Penguin Random House’s Weldon see it the way Leiderman does? When he talks about telling people about “the next great book,” is that more of the same blockbuster emphasis?

Jones at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook in What Penguin Random House isn’t doing writes:

Here are a few things that [PRH restructuring] blueprint does not include: selling direct; bundling; subscriptions; increased digital royalties; offering paid-for services to authors; consolidation of imprints (or offices); a total rebrand as Penguin. In short, almost all of things, I read about everyday as the things trade publishers must do “to survive.”

And with that, Jones is reflecting, in part, what Leiderman is saying—and a real chance for Simon & Schuster’s Reidy to come through with that newly communicative impulse she’s advocating among her fellow publishers.

This is all about perception: does the street see it the way publishers do?

Do You Hear What I See?

Reidy describes a terrifically promising can-do, upbeat message from publishers. And, even more importantly, she describes it as a “discussion.” Here is how Greenfield quotes her raising the call for her fellow publishers:

We must give life to a new type of discussion about publishing. What we do; the value we add; our role in perpetuating the marketplace of ideas; our investment in content, in enabling authors to create great works; our roles in helping students learn, and assisting professionals to improve their job performance; in providing first class entertainment and information to the general reader; in extending the reach of American ideas and culture throughout the world, and of course our innovation and work with our technology partners.

That all sounds first-rate, doesn’t it?

But can she and her fellow publishers really mean discussion? That’s two ways. Listening, not just talking.

A discussion means listening to Leiderman and to authors and readers like her who want to know whether the bookstore-and-distributor based system of blockbuster-supremacy is on the table for debate. Are these major houses willing to consider a wider allocation of resources to support and promote a bigger cut of their lists?

A Thought Catalog Dialog

I’ll tell you what. If Reidy and Leiderman are willing to engage in just such a conversation—one new author from an independent publisher to one major CEO of a Big Five publisher—I’m prepared to facilitate it.

Let’s arrange a cordial, open convo. All on the record. I’m game to record it and fairly and fully report the exchange.

Ready Reidy?

For all the mistrust that some in the creative corps today harbor for traditional publishers, Reidy is absolutely right that those publishers need to engage—and not just to remind us of what great work they can do but to tell us some of the challenges and hurdles they face.

  • Let’s hear publishers tell the community what they do understand
  • Let’s let them ask questions about things they don’t understand
  • Let’s find out, for once, where the perceptions might be, rightly or wrongly, hobbling the pride that everyone in publishing would like to share in the evolving models and approaches impacting literature today.

Thought Catalog as Dialog. I’m game if these players are, and I love hearing Reidy talk about the messaging—exactly.

Can we talk? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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