The publishing industry has encountered plenty of change in the past decade, most acutely due to the consumers’ mass adoption of digital content, which has been widely reported. Accordingly, the old stalwarts have been forced to adapt in a competitive environment, and this has opened up opportunities for smaller, more agile publishing groups to capitalize and find a niche. Unfortunately, some Goliaths have fallen by the wayside, and we’ve seen many complex buy-outs and mergers as a result of the changing market conditions.
In this piece, I speak to some truly innovative publishers to get a handle on how they’re navigating a successful path through volatile waters.
An Education in Publication
Magazine and online publisher LSECT was established in 2010 and now employs more than 20 people from their offices in Greenwich, London. They have a unique approach, and one that has seen them grow quickly to offer two successful education industry publications, FE Week and Schools Week. So, what exactly makes LSECT different from its competitors? In many ways, it seems like the team is going back to basics.
I spoke to Managing Director Shane Mann:
“There aren’t many start-up organizations creating new print newspapers—but LSECT has done just this in the past five years. As local news has struggled, and national newspapers have cut back their in-depth coverage, the schools and further education sector have both been neglected. So we set out to fill that gap. Quality news, beautifully designed, still in print, and right at the moment that other people were going digital-only.”
Mann clearly feels that print still has a firm place in this world, and aims to plug the holes left behind by competitors fleeing from the print world in panic. I asked him about the role of technology in the newspaper and magazine world:
“We have to acknowledge that people access news in a variety of ways today. That’s why we invest heavily in our website and newspaper. I believe that we will continue to see a decline in the dailies’ circulations, but will see slight increase in weekly and monthly titles. There is a growing audience of people who want that added extra bit of analysis and thought.”
And what about the relationship between their online and printed content?
“Audiences use us differently online versus in the paper, but we find them to be complementary. Some readers tell us they never read the website because they like to read everything afresh in the paper, but most of our users read what we are doing online and in the paper. They look online each day to get quick news, and then use the paper for broader ideas and to make sure they haven’t missed anything.”
These guys also approach their marketing intriguingly. Along with a slightly gimmicky yet highly popular barista-operated coffee stand at trade shows, they work closely with local press outlets across the country. Tapping into these local stories and offering expert insight with the support of mainstream media puts their brand in front of new, engaged audiences spanning many different regions.
Community and Collaboration
We can all agree that a collaborative and communicative approach benefits an organization, but Urbane Publications takes this philosophy to a whole new level. They’ve built a community of engaged advocates, and have worked hard to develop strong relationships with authors, distributors and readers alike. But what does a collaborative approach actually mean, in practice? I spoke to Urbane’s owner, Matthew Smith:
“It might sound trivial talking about involving authors in the cover and text design, or ensuring they work with the publisher on the marketing strategy, but you’d be amazed how many authors are sidelined during the publishing and publication process. And let’s be clear: it’s in Urbane’s interest to have an engaged, enthused and energized set of authors. Just as the first words come from the author’s mind, the first sales often come from an author’s network. Authors aren’t ‘producers;’ they are partners.”
Urbane recognizes that their most effective marketing is achieved through recommendation. This appreciation for the value of word-of-mouth can be somewhat overlooked, especially among the bigger publishers. It’s easy for large organizations—in any industry—to lose track of more “local” viewpoints; they instead treat their audience as a segmented mass, labeled for convenience. In fact, using hard data to achieve a genuinely personal approach can reap huge rewards. This, again, is where more agile publishing houses can profit.
With the digital world providing boundless potential for the sharing of ideas and opinions, how does Urbane Publications embrace the technological changes over the past decade?
“The real challenge is not so much publishing within digital formats, but understanding and then implementing how best to commercially exploit the opportunities digital offers. And not just digital formats, but digital channels. There has been plenty of coverage over the last few years of traditional publishers saying that digital is the future, and print under threat, when in truth for the majority of us, ‘digital’ is simply another format to publish in. What interests me is how we can use digital to create a ‘holistic’ reading experience for readers, that embraces print, ebook, audio, video. Digital is about choice, and the real fear for me isn’t about digital replacing or destroying print; it’s about missing out on the opportunities digital offers publishers to innovate and grow.”
A very reasonable viewpoint, but perhaps easier said than done for many in the industry? I asked Smith why he thought that digital was seen as a threat to so many:
“I think the only way digital is currently a threat to publishers is because of the way it is perceived—and by that I mean the very real fear that digital means ‘cheap,’ or that digital is just used for promotion. Content is valuable whatever the format, and I’m very wary of giving that content away simply because Amazon in particular has created a market where 99p marks a price threshold.”
A Digital-First Approach
Red Button Publishing was founded in 2012 by Karen Ings and Caroline Goldsmith. It’s small, completely independent and focuses mainly on the fiction authors ignored by mainstream publishers. I asked Goldsmith about her perspective on this ever-changing industry, and the reasons why she and Ings started their own publishing house:
“We’d witnessed two major changes in our industry. The first was, of course, digital. The second was, what we felt, was a move to a more risk-averse type of publishing. We felt very strongly that there were writers being overlooked because they didn’t fit a niche or were unknowns. We decided to take the leap and set out on our own and start publishing some of those voices that weren’t being heard.”
And what was the role of digital in their emergence as a business?
“Red Button was really made possible because of ebooks. The low financial cost of putting books out digitally meant that we could make it happen. We were a digital-first publisher. Currently all our profits go back into the business, and so we’ve reinvested and now our books are all available as paperbacks via print-on-demand. We do everything ourselves—editorial, typesetting, cover design, ebook formatting—so our costs are still relatively low. But we wanted to make the books available to readers in whichever format they preferred.”
Red Button seems representative of many small publishers—those that are adapting to market conditions and utilizing digital and print media in tandem. While this approach may be more tentative than that of LSECT, an unmistakable trend is that publishers still see the value in offering print products. So, what else sets Red Button apart from their competitors?
“We’re collaborative. We feel strongly that, in the digital age, the gap between author and reader is so much smaller, so our writers are heavily involved in the publication of their work. We’re able to do that because we are so small. We’re fast: once we’ve decided on a title we can get it published in just a few months—sometimes faster. Currently all profits go back into our list. We’re paying our bills through other means!”
One of their authors in particular, Johnny Rich, has received widespread critical acclaim for his novel The Human Script, which was championed by Booker nominee Tom McCarthy and awarded Booksmoke’s Book of the Year award for 2015.
Disrupting an Industry?
These are some publishers doing things differently, but are they truly disruptive? LSECT’s Shane Mann thinks so. Over the past few years, his startup has challenged a behemoth face-on and has arguably come out on top:
“That publication has now changed their format to emulate us. Our stories are now the ones being pulled into the national newspapers each week. What people look for in journalism in our sector has changed because of what we have done. That’s disruptive.”
There are many ways to be disruptive in this industry, whether it’s due to products, processes, working culture or a unique ability to attract the very best authors and titles. It’s also about going against the grain, and straddling the thin line between success and failure more boldly than others. Echoing the sentiments of Caroline Goldsmith from Red Button about the state of publishing, Matthew Smith of Urbane Publications says:
“There are signs that publishers (and some of the traditional bricks and mortar channels they supply) are becoming ever more risk-averse, controlling, lacking in creativity and very defensive of the ‘process.’ And authors are sidelined as a consequence.”
This idea that publishers are becoming “risk-averse” seems prevalent. However, this is perhaps understandable after the recent global economic catastrophe. Combined with an undeniable shift in readership behavior, the accusation that publishers have become cautious is hardly surprising. That said, I would love to hear from larger publishing houses on this subject. Are you too cautious, or is this accusation levied unfairly? Please do comment below.
The encouraging thing is that despite predictions of doom and gloom, the publishing industry is far from lifeless. Publishers are still pushing boundaries, spotting gaps and taking risks. The industry is keeping itself on its toes, and that bodes well for the future.
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