First published on Digital Book World’s site on August 3rd, 2015, our co-founder John Bond, in response to an article entitled ‘Don’t Outsource Your Publishing Business Away’, written by Emma Barnes days before, reflects on the shifting climate of the publishing industry, arguing ‘The Future is Freelance’.
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whitefox is recruiting for the newly created role of Marketing and Publicity Executive. We are looking for a quick-working, highly motivated and entrepreneurial person with a passion for all things publishing to join our team. You’ll have a proven track record in PR and be a dab hand at digital marketing. You’ll be highly computer literate and have great attention to detail. But most of all, you’ll relish the opportunity to join a uniquely positioned and fast-growing start up at the very heart of 21st century publishing.
Applicants should refer to the full job description and apply with a cover letter, outlining what they would bring to the role, and a full CV.
Deadline for applications: July 16th by 5pm.
Please send to: email@example.com
The news surrounding our friends at Quercus this week is chastening. From small but profitable contract publishing beginnings to the riches of the Stieg bubble. From Publisher of the Year in 2011 to expanding into the US in 2013. And now seeking a buyer.
Trade publishing is hard. It is even harder when you choose to invest in people to help you grow organically, however talented those people are. It took Bloomsbury a while to work out how best to spend the Potter millions, including one disastrous Christmas season in 2006 spent spread betting on commercial non-fiction. But in the end it seems they have hit on a course that is paying dividends: acquire small content businesses targeted in discernible niches, many of them removed from the crap shoot of trade publishing. Maybe the only way to appease the growing pains for shareholders who are not interested in the long, roller coaster ride of investment in entertainment content is through strategic acquisition.
At the same time as the great and the good of Digital Publishing arrive en masse in New York at DBW and articles abound on how agents have to make further transitions, news reaches whitefox in London of a really bright young agent who has thrown in the towel. Maybe not forever, but at least for now. Gone off to seek his fortune in another country in another way. And the reason for this fundamental career step change? Absolute all consuming frustration with publishers and their inability to engage with what he perceived to be low risk, commercial, highly marketable book projects. If there had been simply rejection, it would have been fine. But I believe the multi pack of straws that ended up breaking this particular camel’s back was the torpor, the laziness, the yawning silence, the inability of supposedly hungry younger editorial acquirers across a range of houses to bother to respond to what had been carefully pitched and positioned marketable proposals.
Maybe this is the way it has always been and only the emergence of an indie publishing DIY alternative has forced the issue out into the open. And this institutionalised inability to take risk will not kill off traditional publishing, seemingly obsessed with that cyclical old chestnut ‘less is more’. But it will mean that trade publishers will come to represent something different in the future. Big budget brand management, coordinated global releases, decisions made after consumer group testing and in house committee, genre books that can be favourably compared to previous bestsellers three years after they were published.
And here is a final thought. Publishing houses will contract and editors and agents directly serving those establishments will decline. But those people, those creative individuals are not all going to retrain to become plumbers and therapists, some of them will set up their own publishing houses and agencies, built on 21st century princples. They will find writers and commission content they believe will sell. They will nurture talent they believe in and they will create their own stables which represents ‘less is more’. Which will mean there really won’t be that much less at all.
Publishing has traditionally attracted leaders who are largely well-meaning, well-read and well-bred men and women. I’m not sure how many I’d classify as strong leaders. What exactly does that mean anyway? I once worked in a publishing company many years ago where the Chief Executive’s idea of motivation during tough times was to walk the floors on a Friday afternoon telling anyone who’d listen just how badly all our competitors were doing too. Oh, well that’s ok then…
I once worked in a publishing company where the Chief Executive’s idea of motivation during tough times was to walk the floors on a Friday afternoon telling anyone who’d listen just how badly all our competitors were doing too.
I’m sure in these days of Executive coaches and what’s left of the training budget that publishing chiefs are expected to hone their leadership skills on an on-going basis. They’ll be fewer assumptions that a sense of entitlement instilled in a minor public school is enough. And anyway, publishers have long supported the idea of developing talent from within their own ranks. I went on a Pearson sponsored leadership course many years ago where middle management were whisked overseas and put through their paces to try and assess who were the future candidates for the Main Board. Sadly, my abiding memory is a rather stilted meet and greet with Lord Dennis Stevenson, who may have wished he’d actually attended some of the sessions after the HBOS debacle.
So our industry’s traditional liberal tendencies and healthy mistrust of hierarchy would probably mean we’d likely sneer at the idea of our leaders learning anything from the graduates of Sandhurst. But maybe we’re wrong. We’ll see anyway soon enough. Charlie Redmayne, ex Lieutenant in the Irish Guards may show us how it is done.
Even though I was recently voted only the fourth most influential person in my own house, I’m intrigued by The Bookseller’s annual list of the 100 leading individuals across the business. It seems somewhat…safe. Or as if it seeks not to offend. If you have one CEO, you have to have them all. Do you become inherently more influential when a successful repeating author happens to deliver their book? I guess I am saying, really, that you need to define ‘influence’.
I know this list is about the book trade overall, but by any reckoning there are at least another 100 names out there who really matter because they actually make a material difference to the success or failure of a publishing house. John Hamilton, Penguin’s Art Director and someone acknowledged in every Jamie Oliver book as integral to each project. Robert Lacey, editor extraordinaire to a myriad of successful writers. There are others.
Who do you think should join the list?
I’m not sure which part of the report that Sir Alex Ferguson’s book is riddled with factual errors strikes me as the most pertinent in these times: that no one has had the courage or time to check and challenge the ruddy faced, gum-chewing managerial genius’s rather impressionistic recollections; or that none of this has stopped the book selling like a freight train on the route to publisher bonus-land. (*Shameless advertising alert* Footballing loving proof readers are available at whitefox for the paperback.)
This year has also seen 40 pages of the autobiography from national treasure and falling through a bar expert David Jason finding their way into the latest bridget Jones. But then those of us who only just survived Franzen-gate and the pulping of the first print-run of the so-called ‘book-of-the-century’ (FREEDOM, where the printer used the files from the uncorrected proof), will remember that we lost count of the number of fellow publishers who made contact to commiserate and say, in effect, “there but for the grace of god…” Inside a large trade publishing house, you can see how it happens. From the outside, it looks less forgivable and more potentially damaging to what would be perceived as the traditional value-add of a publishing process.
Interesting, therefore, to observe David Young back at the helm of a UK publisher talking again about the value of editing and illustrating how a published book needs to differentiate that it has gone through a professional editing process.
We could hardly have put it better ourselves.
Suw Charman-Anderson recently posted an article that quotes Clark Gilbert’s ‘Six Principles For How Media Companies Must Deal With Disruption’. I was struck by the creation of new businesses and marketplaces in particular. The question posed is this: can publishers learn from journalism, e.g., and configure themselves to hire in domain expertise? Can they evolve their businesses and thinking by attracting people from outside of their industry and comfort zone? Or are they too innately insular and myopic?
This is of course directly relevant to one of the guiding principles of whitefox. We’re interested in the skills and specialisms most relevant to content creators and how we can make these available to anyone, not just published writers. We would be the first to applaud the idea that ‘dabbling’ isn’t enough. The mantra has to be ‘Disrupt thyself.’
I have lost count of the number of times I met with senior players in UK publishing after I’d left one of the big corporates, who were all pretty much saying ‘I’m really glad I’m in my 50s and not in my 30s.’ The implication being that with a bit of luck and a following wind, they might just avoid being trampled underfoot by those MBA graduates, data geeks and coders who would inherit their earth.
In defence of many publishers, they haven’t all been burying their head in the sand. For some years, many deliberately looked to hire from the music industry in order to gradually evolve their businesses and avoid making the same mistakes. But disrupting oneself effectively is difficult when shareholders demand their annual targets are met. And there is a bigger problem still. Do publishers know exactly what their business is? When Victoria Barnsley, former HarperCollins CEO, warned in her recent farewell speech about the temptation for content owners to think they can become tech companies, she was missing the key shift that those very tech companies have facilitated and capitalised upon: that the real disrupters are the content creators.
The dilemma is a simple one. Without having prior experience you cannot find a job. Yet without finding a job you cannot gain experience. Without which, of course, you cannot find a job. Which is in a way impressive; I don’t think many envisage graduating university only to be blocked from further progression by logical paradox.
As the problem has worsened, three distinct routes for bypassing it seem to have emerged. The first of these is familiar:
1. Good, old-fashioned Nepotism – gaining experience through your parents’ connections.
The second has emerged recently, and is what I will affectionately call:
2. Nepotism Plus – gaining experience through your parents’ bidding for internships via auction (yes, these do exist).
The third is the unpaid internship, which have proliferated wildly over the last few years. I don’t intend to get too much into the debate about whether it is feasible or sustainable to expect young people to do boring tasks for free in the hope that it will help their future job prospects, but I will just point out that average expenses tend to just about cover a short bus and train journey within London and a Pret sandwich (if you are lucky). So:
3. Be proactive and, more importantly, lucky. And live in London. Preferably within Zone 2. If these options are not open to you (your dad doesn’t play tennis with Greg Dyke; you live in Derby or (worse) Wales) then unfortunately your prospects for evading the above-identified vicious circle without effectively paying for the privilege of doing admin look slim.
Which is why we at whitefox have been thinking long and hard about finding a way between the horns of this particular dilemma. We may be too small to give each and every talented and promising graduate a job, but we are well connected. We are a network of specialisms and skills. We are 21st century publishing unbundled. So at some time in the next few months we will be running a book publishing ‘Summer School’ event, the first of what we hope will be many future workshops led by some of the best editors, cover designers, marketeers and publicists in the business. We want the people who are at various points on the ladder to share their experiences and tips. We want to open up the possibilities of gaining practical skills that talented young people can use to earn money by making a material difference within the publishing process. It may not be enough to solve all the problems, but hopefully it will start to lift the curtain on our world and give anyone interested a good peek inside.