With few exceptions, publishers don't really know what drives most book sales, so the industry's focus on chasing bestsellers and trends lends itself to an unscientific combination of last-click attribution, confirmation bias, and way too often, scapegoats. Publishers have relied on booksellers and libraries to connect with readers for decades, but—despite the continued decline of physical bookstores, the intersectional challenge of "book deserts," and a lack of consistent and verifiable data on ebook sales—libraries seem to have become an easy scapegoat. Again.
In 2019, I remain astounded (but not totally surprised) by how many authors' platforms lack the basics—if they have one at all—but far more egregiously, too many publishers are way behind the curve with their own platforms, doing a disservice to the authors they've committed to support and help succeed. If you're querying a publisher—big or small, traditional or hybrid—you (or your agent) should be able to satisfactorily address these three planks of their own platform before they inquire about yours. Each one is potentially more important than the size of your advance, and definitely more important than the size of your own Twitter following or email list.
There are three types of people who survive in media: hard workers, sycophants, and the serial failures they both work for who somehow manage to continually find employment despite a reasonably public record of the wreckage they've left behind. Too harsh? Maybe, a bit—some sycophants are arguably hard workers too, and serial failure might not be as easy as the eternally mediocre make it look—but after my own 25+ years surviving in media (and currently in the final throes of a demoralizing corporate bankruptcy), I'm feeling a little cynical.
Thinking about my early days with comics, I realized they were the gateway to my interest in publishing, my first real awareness of people and a process behind the scenes that connected me to the stories and characters I enjoyed so much. I read "regular" books just as voraciously as comics, but Marvel and DC were meaningful brands while book publishers weren't. I had no idea (and didn't particularly care) who published Encyclopedia Brown or Stephen King until my first job in a bookstore (at 19 years old), and even then they were just vague corporate logos with no personal relevance.
Since Google Reader shut down back in 2013, there's arguably been no worthy replacement, partly because it helped accelerate the death of the individual blog and relegated RSS feeds to a tertiary distribution channel that most sites barely pay attention to these days. Over the years, I've used an unwieldy combination of Instapaper, Feedly, Twitter lists and Gmail filters (for the most useful email newsletters I subscribe to) to stay connected to my primary sources, and only a handful make the cut heading into 2019—including one social network that became unexpectedly useful in 2018.
Enthusiast media, aka niche consumer, is my favorite sector because it prioritizes depth over scale, and its KPIs are different from general consumer media's chasing eyeballs for advertisers. Instead of being dumb pipes driven by vanity metrics and anecdata, they can build self-sustaining communities with deep engagement that offers diversified revenue streams, including valuable intersections for marketing partners seeking strategic, long-term relationships. In its ideal form, enthusiast media (and some B2B verticals) combines community engagement, editorial integrity, and paid content into a diversified suite of relevant products and services which simultaneously minimizes its reliance on advertising while optimizing its effectiveness for savvier marketing partners.
One could reasonably argue there were TOO MANY publishers at the Bookfair when you think about the relatively small markets they cater to for literary fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, as well as the often myopic focus on a single magazine, ignoring or discounting other ways they could serve their community while ensuring a sustainable future. The relatively low barrier for entry into (and expectations of) literary publishing “let’s people wade in a little over their heads,” as Creative Nonfiction‘s Hattie Fletcher noted during the Literary Innovation session, and many publishers often find themselves living on the brink of insolvency, one time-consuming fundraising pitch away from failure.
For an allegedly liberal industry, publishers do a much better job of packaging and peddling the worst aspects of conservative punditry (along with celebrity memoirs and coloring books), while truth, history, and “diverse” perspectives and experiences are often dismissed as having limited commercial potential regardless of their cultural value. Many are sitting on a treasure trove of great content and access to a roster of truly creative people with timely and compelling insights and ideas that could literally change the world, but we’ll most likely just see a few anthologies cranked out to modest acclaim, with minimal marketing and zero cultural or financial impact.
I was excited to attend my first FOLIO: Show in ages, and after a slow start that included HTC'S awkward plea for VR content and some uninspired Facebook examples, things picked up with some great presentations from National Geographic, Harvard Business Review, The Foundry, and Revmade. While I didn't come across anything particularly new, there were some solid takeaways that I found helpful and heartening.
I had the privilege of being one of the fifty voices included in Molly's excellent feature at Brooklyn Magazine (the interview for which inspired my last post), and it's a must-read for everyone in publishing. It left me with mixed emotions, no less frustrated with the industry and still vaguely optimistic that real change is on the horizon. Maybe. Go read it and share it widely.