A Reply to interview with Simon & Schuster Chief Digital Officer Ellie Hirschhorn on Inventing the Future of Publishing
I was writing this as a comment in the posting by Jeremy Greenfield, but it started getting so long, I thought I might as well make it a post from an author’s and digital publisher’s POV.
I found Ms. Hirschhorn’s comments intriguing and honest. The most stunning thing she said seems to go completely against many posts about ‘traditional’ publishing not being dead and that print sales would continue to drive publishing: that digital would be over 50% by 2015. I completely agree with that and it’s the most aggressive projection I’ve seen come from someone inside of the Big 6. Which is why the publishing business model needs to really change. Not simply because of the change in percentages but because the digital market is very different than the print market. Even the product is different. A book is a tablet; an eBook is a scroll, as an article in the NY Times pointed out a while ago.
Even the type of people reading print and reading eBook are different, but that’s for another post.
I’m not totally buying off on Bookish. But it’s certainly an attempt to go in the right direction. Some say Goodreads is where readers congregate and I agree, but I am getting tired of a half-dozen or more emails from authors every day saying “Check out my books”. That number seems to be growing. To be able to go to a site and find “if you like this, you might like that” would be great. Wait. Amazon does that. Hmm.
Not getting sucked into the app thing is something that became apparent about six months ago when everyone was getting deluged by app designers yet there was little return. Although I imagine the Kindle “app” gets used a lot. Would a publisher’s app be used? I think it’s possible, especially in bundled non-fiction. Cookbooks is a great example where an app might work. A organic app that has constant new content (perhaps from authors???) might be good. Right now, many authors are flailing about on their blogs. Perhaps a smart publishing house could aggregate their authors into an app or web site? Or, even smarter, aggregate the same genres of authors to make it more audience specific? (S&S is doing this with the four content verticals)
The targeted database is a very smart idea. Few are willing to give up their email addresses but if they are offered something that is very specific to their wants and desires, I think people are willing to be part of a database. 700,000 is a large number and she’s certainly on target with using that.
Direct to consumer is encouraging. While many in the industry whine about Amazon, why don’t they just sell their own books to readers? Is the mindset still so caught up with distribution to retailers that this fundamental truth of internet sales is ignored? I often go straight to the manufacturer when seeking to make a purchase on-line.
Sadly, I did notice the word ‘author’ was mentioned just a single time in the interview (a mistake– it was mentioned five times– as Father O’Shaungesy would say: mea culpa). It often seems implicit when talking to big publishers that they view their role as more important than the role of an author. Yet in a digital world, the distance between author and reader is the distance and time lag of the internet which is wifi and practically immediate. The key for a publisher is to facilitate that relationship.
I often forget that my only title under my own name still with a traditional publisher is a non-fiction book: Who Dares Wins: The Green Beret Way to Conquer Fear & Succeed. I forget because since publication date, I’ve never heard a word from S&S, the editor was let go, I was never informed who was now responsible for the book, and experience has taught me trying to ‘talk’ to a large publisher is whistling in the wind. As one editor told me: we can hardly promote our frontlist, never mind our backlist.
This is a non-fiction book about using Special Operations tactics and techniques in day to day living. Since Spec Ops has been huge in the news the last few years (with an article last week in the NY Times book section about how the military genre is widely popular), it would seem an obvious title to push. I have extensive experience in digital promotion. Yet, none of the 27 people working in this department at S&S has checked their own database for titles they already own to exploit this marketing opportunity as far as I can tell, because my phone hasn’t rung nor has my agent’s.
A major thing most of the Big 6 are overlooking is the gold mine of their backlist. I can sell more of one of my titles in eBook in a day than St. Martins (3 collaborative NY Times bestsellers) or S&S (my one title) can of my backlist in six months based on the royalty statements I just received this past month. Why? Because the best marketing person for a title is the author of that title. If a publisher can hire people in-house to work with those authors of backlist, the return would more than cover the cost of that department, I believe it will greatly increase a publishing house’s bottom line. Remember—if someone hasn’t read a backlist title, it’s frontlist to them.
One thing I’m doing is focusing my own company’s mission so that we can work with agents and publishers to help them exploit backlist based on all we’ve learned in the past two years. We took “dead” backlist, jettisoned by Random House, Berkley, St. Martins, Tor, and other traditional houses and turned it into a seven figure industry in that short period of time. If the two of us can do it out of our houses, without the access to the databases and experts the big publishers have, the potential is unlimited.
In sum, I think Ms. Hirschhorn is most definitely on track, I would just suggest she focus more on authors and on backlist and also mine the expertise of those from the creative side of the house who have already been successful in what she is trying to do.