My Advice to Publishers: Question Everything

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

My Advice to Publishers: Question EverythingI’ve given myself a few moments over the last month to look at some of the ventures I’ve been fortunate to be involved in, as well as the business plans that arrive in my email. In each case, I have instinctively tested them against basic business principles.

I’ve also been reviewing my publishing businesses and have begun the process of bringing their operations and strategies up to date, re-painting their future to use less business terminology. Simultaneously considering business principles and the publishing business is sometimes a challenging prospect, but it has brought one powerful point into focus.

Publishing has its own rules and lines of business, and they never change—or maybe once a century (Thank you, Allen Lane). Print books are published at the same price, in the same format and presented in the same way, right through to their blurbs. Digital books arrived, but there is a palpable sense of relief that their pricing and format is becoming more standardized.

I am focusing on trade books, but I believe the rules apply generally. See coloring books, which have had a huge surge, but are just a trend rather than something to bank on going forward.

Self-questioning is a key trait in any form of creativity, but as a creative industry it is remarkable that we do so little of it.

This isn’t intended to be an industry-knocking piece. Print sales are up or have finally stabilized, depending on whom you talk to, ebook sales may not be on the same trajectory but are still strong, and I feel optimistic about a greatly changed but successful future picture for publishing.

But as always, I am thinking about what’s next. The following question to that in business should always be: what does the customer want? Too big of a question for this article, but the reality is that one of the greatest challenges facing the publishing industry is that in today’s consumer-ruling world, we must begin to know our customers much better than most of us do.

What is known about customers, generally, is that since the digital age began they have changed completely. So with that in mind, pricing, producing and presenting products in the same way is a non-starter as a concept—never mind living it as a reality.

We cannot forget the proud history of this industry, but we’re not respecting it by being beholden to it. I really like a quote from Alexander McQueen: “You’ve got to know the rules to break them. That’s what I’m here for: to demolish the rules but to keep the tradition.” And we need that spirit in publishing.

So my advice and challenge to publishers is to question everything. Only the brave are able to completely self-question, from what they do through individually to as an industry collectively. However uncomfortable, it is a key trait in all those who achieve success. Banish phrases such as “That’s the standard” or “It’s always done that way.” Treat every decision as an issue isolated in that moment.

Common to any industry, not just publishing, is one simple fact: it is those who question everything that will find the answers to build the future.


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2 thoughts on “My Advice to Publishers: Question Everything

  1. David Niall Wilson

    Just one thing… I believe with most of my heart that, while as a publishing business owner, giving the customer what they want is a prime concern, because it’s how money is made. The flip side of this, however, is that the quality of books over the decades – the slide into quantity over quality, series books, and the narrowing of categories – is all due to publishers, agents, and editors worrying too much over what they think they can sell, and not enough about whether their authors are writing what they are *meant* to write, as opposed to trying to fill slots. The midlist bust is a prime example of this at its worst… There’s room for a happy mix, I think, which is one of the reasons at Crossroad Press that I encourage our commercially successful authors to dust off the ideas they are passionate about, but that some agent, or editor, told them did “not fit our needs at this time” at one point or another (loosely translated to, we want something like that other guy just wrote that was a blockbuster).

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  2. Ethan

    If you want people to read it, you want it to look professional for its audience, whether that’s children or guys in suits. So editing is important, art design can be critically important, if it’s for very young children solid construction is important, etc. It’s rare for one individual to be a fantastic editor (of their own work especially), and a fantastic art designer and a fantastic writer so often that requires hiring some help in those areas.

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