This article by John Bond first appeared in the Publishers Weekly London Show Daily on April 16th 2013.
I started in publishing in the early 90s. I look back at that time now and see my generation of managers and ultimately executives as representing a triumph for the generalists. We got jobs in marketing without marketing qualifications, because we could talk to editors and translate their books to retailers. We were curious, energetic and enthusiastic. I think we were more commercial than our predecessors. I know we saw our roles as bringing focus and order, to illustrate the value of prioritising collective efforts. We revelled in the very business of publishing, steering a course between the need for operational efficiency and the messy, wonderful process of creating great content.
We all covered our eyes and ears to the lack of consumer insight and those editors who’d bring their in-trays to acquisitions meetings with no strategy except throwing stuff at walls to see what would stick. And our mantra to every potential author was the same. We, the publisher, are a small, passionate team of real human beings who will own your book from acquisition to publication when we will unleash our enormous sales and marketing machine on an unsuspecting general public. Any notion of verticals in those days referred to how publishing houses were structured rather than targeting specialisation and communities.
Somewhere along the way some elements of the process got taken for granted. The search for commercial success in every fiscal year lead publishing brands and imprints to become elastic. The people who actually made a material difference to the books – the designers, picture researchers, the copy editors and proof-readers – didn’t have to be in the building. Publishers stopped editing. Or in some cases never started because they’d migrated from positions within sales and marketing. Because that was what mattered. The ability to position and package and understand the bigger picture. And with each passing year it became a little more anachronistic to see a CEO stand up at a lavish author party and say “we couldn’t do any of this without you”.
If this person left their position at my company, how many authors would I have to call?
But publishing, just like everything else, is prone to the second law of thermodynamics. Everything eventually breaks down. And that’s when it always gets interesting. What happens when there are fewer channels for sales and marketing with which to engage? Or when giant international retailers who have stolen a 15-year march on understanding consumer data start to become direct competitors? What happens when there’s no such thing as vanity publishing any more, there’s just publishing? When one quarter of every calendar year represents make or break, but existing structures won’t allow companies to flex their resource? When unallocated budget exceeds what you know you have scheduled in the programme and speed of turnaround is of the essence? What happens to the efficient managers and the highly paid administrators when Chief Execs and MDs ask themselves, “If this person left their position at my company, how many authors would I have to call”? Everyone is poring over the same value chain trying to see exactly where they fit, if they fit at all.
We started whitefox in 2012 and since that time we’ve created the UK’s largest network of professional services relevant to writers, published, self-published or unpublished. This is now the age of the specialist, where there is real value in exact knowledge and skill. In a world obsessed with peer review and a market place driven by innovation, the big winners will be those who aspire to be better than the rest. The best publishers and agents know this. As they ask their authors to be more proactive than ever, to bring more to building their own success, so the creators of content and brands will rely more and more on their external support teams representing specific areas of expertise.
We know we can’t compete with the scale of an Author Solutions-style factory. But we’ve listened to writers and we’ve listened to publishers and content owners. What they wanted was access to a nimble and efficient database of the best – the individuals and small agencies who represent quality. The people you can trust to know what they’re doing. At whitefox you are only ever one connection away from someone who will make a material difference to content. We operate without layers of management and with as little overhead as possible. Just a direct route to bespoke experience and talent.
So far, all the signs are positive. But we’ll see how it all goes. There has been such an enormous crunching of the tectonic plates of publishing over the last year that I’m not sure we can entirely control our own destiny. All we can do is believe that when everything breaks down, when what used to be a complex route to market becomes a simple upload on KDP, there is a recalibration of who and what matters. Gradually, the people lurking in the shadows, the freelance diaspora who’ve been supporting the commissioning and production teams within trade publishing for years, are being lead blinking out into the light.
I recently asked a friend who has just started to work with publishers on large complex illustrated projects what her experience was like. “ Lots of bosses, not enough doers“ was her pithy assessment. Yup, I thought. That’s my generation’s legacy. Well, sorry about that. Sorry to every talented specialist I’ve ever sat down with in an HR interview to explain that, in the future, they would need to be a variable rather than a fixed cost. Mea culpa. I was just trying to do my efficient, generalist best.
Time to make amends.