Publishers Need to Fail Better, Cheaper, Faster

Rebecca SmartBy Rebecca Smart, Managing Director, Osprey Publishing/Shire

In her excellent, practical article A Clear, Easy Roadmap for Change, Edwina Lui gave a great summary of a model for effecting change.

But what is the nature of that change for us in this period of turmoil? Is it just a case of creating e-books of everything and optimising your workflow? Do you throw precious resources into creating multimedia iPad works (check out The iPad Won’t Save the Publishing Industry from Itself for a scathing take on this)? Or do you take the Mike Shatzkin worldview, accept that you won’t be able to sell content at all in the future and go for amassing community eyeballs, then think about how to monetise them later (OK, I’m taking this to its extreme, I know)?

Digital is the challenge to our industry, but selling digital content is not the only response to that challenge. I don’t know what your business will look like in five years; I don’t even know what mine will look like. I do believe that if they are not different in nature from how they are today they will most definitely be smaller.

At Osprey we are experimenting in a number of different directions and on a range of scales – some projects are digital, some are diversifications of other kinds. My mantra is “more bigger experiments” – bigger doesn’t mean more expensive, it means more challenging to the status quo.

We have a strong presence in one niche, military history, and we’re rapidly developing a following for UK heritage material of a particularly eccentric kind under the Shire brand. There are other niches in the works, some of which may be surprising; suffice to say that our focus is on specialist, enthusiast niches where participants have a real hunger to pursue their interest and authors have a hunger to be recognised by their peers. That hunger drives customers to tell us what they want, to tell us when we get it wrong, when we get it right. It allows us to build strong relationships with people, to develop partnerships with other organisations working within our niches where we can join together to create something new and different.

Field of GloryOne of our biggest successes in the last two years came out of a partnership with a game developer; we created a lavish print product in a sector where there had been very little lavish print and a lot of unprofessional online and photocopied material – the gamers were crying out for a lovely product and we were delighted to create it for them.

We thought hard about what Osprey could be as a digital product; at its heart it is an amazing encyclopedia of military history currently published in around 1500 books. So we’ve created an online database, initially of our artwork to help us make the inevitable mistakes at minimum cost, and we offer memberships which give access to the artwork, discounts off physical purchases and exclusive offers on products from other companies. We sell books direct to consumer and have done so for many years. We have sold a few e-books (all our books are highly illustrated so until now it’s been PDF) and created a small number of iPhone/iPad apps. We have tweeted title acquisition meetings.

Publishing and the Permanent Crisis

In their HBR article about the recession, Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis, Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky talk about fostering adaptation (about ‘developing next practices while excelling at today’s best practices’) not from initiatives dreamed up by the top management team but from the ‘accumulation of microadaptations originating throughout the company in response to its many microenvironments’.

The keys are the words ‘many microenvironments’ and ‘throughout the company’.

If you perceive that your only environment is that encompassed by your current supply chain then you’re only going to adapt to changes in that environment – so the response to the digital challenge viewed in this way would be to create and sell e-books. If you put the consumer at the heart of your thinking you can consider instead each group of customers you serve and what they might want on top of what you already provide, how they might want you to serve them differently in the future. More to the point, you can ASK them, listen and respond.

The best way to ensure that experimentation takes place is to push leadership out through your company. Those closest to the consumers are those best-equipped to come up with the ideas for future experiments. One of the experiments beginning at Osprey right now is a digital-only project in a new niche which was conceived and is being driven by two of our marketing team.

Leaders need to let go, to accept that we don’t know best. Our role is to create the environment in which a sense of urgency around experiments is engendered, to accept and allow failure, to encourage iterative improvement and speedy adaptation, to facilitate information flow throughout the organisation: to orchestrate a process of improvisation, a dance in which the aim is to fail better, cheaper and faster so that we can all work out what will succeed.

Rebecca Smart is President and Managing Director of Osprey Publishing, the largest specialist military history publisher in the world. She has worked at Osprey for 11 years and was instrumental in creating its online membership scheme which delivers existing content to fee-paying subscribers alongside discounts and other exclusive features. Osprey’s web community is extremely active, with customers participating in the creative process by contributing content and feedback.

7 thoughts on “Publishers Need to Fail Better, Cheaper, Faster

  1. Tim Barrus

    “Leaders need to let go.” Unfortunately, in publishing, real leaders who want to innovate are usually let go. Innovation is not the forte of publishing. To wit: I will now be attacked by some drone who is stuck in the yesteryear of eons ago for my mortal sins committed back when I was disguised as Attila the Hun.

    “…strong relationships with people…”

    I would argue strong relationships with writers helps, too.

    It is BIZARRE to read publishing insiders say these things. I agree with all of them. I can’t help but WONDER that these people talking sanity are the same people people I deal with daily who are mean, spiteful, arrogant, spitting like snakes, defensive, pompous, filled with inflated opinions of themselves as they run their business into the ground. Although I will be attacked by the drone committee, everything in this piece is right on.

    Nevertheless, I would argue (and do) that it’s too late.

  2. Jim Fallone

    Knowing how your product is being used (even unintentionally) is so important. During my time at TSR and Wizards of the Coast I became quite familiar with Osprey products because they were used as source material in nearly all fantasy role playing games. At TSR we even copied the Osprey format and hired Osprey artists for a few products. The paper based role playing industry has been one of the earliest adopters of a digital book only model based on .pdf downloads. Paper based gaming is a great community to look at since they are both consumers and creators. The community encourages fans to become contributors and there are quite a few successful 1000 True Fan success stories.

    Recognizing the value of Osprey’s vast historical metadata to fantasy game world builders is a brilliant example of how to find both new audiences and existing audiences you never knew you had.

  3. Wendy Keller

    Three cheers to Rebecca for living up to her last name! As we all try to wrangle this bronco of digital content aggregation and distribution, I’m shocked that more of my fellow literary agents are not getting vocal about the solutions we have so readily available. It seems apparent to me that the “answer” is not how we as an industry distribute the content, but how we involve the content creators – the artists formerly known as authors – to get enthusiastic, motivated and informed on how to create their own audiences. One way that could happen would be if publishers were incentivizing authors with the lion’s share of the digital revenues, which seems like such an easy and painless solution. This would motivate the little buggers to get out there and work. Well, it would work for some of them. And there could be escalators for quantifiable results in this, too.

    The ideal author comes to my agency with at least 100,000 aggregate followers – and in a perfect world about 10% are classifiable sycophants who will buy anything she or he writes and enthusiastically spread the book via word-of mouth to their friends. Those authors aren’t easy to find. Most still think they can wait around for Oprah to send a limo. This learned helplessness must change – soon.

    The only people with (a modicum of) direct influence over the authors are the agents. Therefore as a literary agent, I consider it my utmost duty to this industry (and the well-being of my 20+ year old agency!) to actively direct my authors’ efforts to create large, vibrant groups of followers. In the end, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

  4. David Lantz

    I am writing historical fiction set in bible times. I notice you like miltary history: My novel, The Brotherhood of the Scroll, begins with the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC. The sequel, the Sword of the Scroll, starts with the Battle of the Eclipse in 585 BC (Not yet published).

    I’m working with Amazon’s DTP to sell as ebooks. I’ve embedded hypertext, so that if one downloads to the Kindle software to the PC, one can click the links and go to the websites I’ve selected.

    My novels are historical Christian fiction. Here are two videos I’ve created for them, one on how I use the Kindle’s software, the other on the Brotherhood of the Scroll itself. publishing for Amazon’s Kindle and PC download overview of Brotherhood of the Scroll

    Love to chat if you have an interest.


    1. Rebecca Smart

      Thanks for this David – it doesn’t quite fit any of the niches we’re working in at present but I wish you great success with your books. Is there a specialist publisher in Christian historical fiction?

      1. David Lantz

        Hi, Rebecca

        You asked if there is a specialty Christian publisher in Christian fiction.

        If there is, I am not aware of any. What really interested me in your website was that you all are into creating video games that go with the books.

        I don’t have the skill to do video games, but I know that is something I want to find someone with whom I can partner with for what I am writing.



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *