Annette Thomas

I came home from the Charleston Conference with a couple of new thoughts


One great benefit of stepping outside your own world — which for me is the world of general trade publishing — is that you can get a jolt of perspective when you do. It really took only a few minutes of listening to Annette Thomas, the global head of professional and college publishing for Macmillan, at the Charleston Conference to underscore an important point. Thomas was talking about how Macmillan had to solve the problem of linking together content that was delivered in journal articles with that delivered in books, a format distinction she correctly saw made no sense to somebody who just wanted the information regardless of the form in which it was initially delivered.

In professional and academic publishing, it is pretty much a requirement to understand the context of all content. Any observation, discovery, or opinion needs to be connected to the other knowledge and information that relates to it to have validity. Scholarship and professional knowledge all live in a world where the total body of relevant information is the key to understanding the value of any new contribution. (And, indeed, the creators of any new contribution are carefully placing their work in the context of all that came before it.)

This is not true for trade publishing, where — more often than not — each book being read is judged and appreciated for what exists between its own covers.

This brings me to two observations about how publishing is changing and how trade publishers need to think differently that are relevant and have not been said to death (if, in fact, they’ve been said by anybody else at all.)

We often observe that book publishing is many businesses, by which we usually mean that academic or professional or college textbook publishing has little to do with “trade”. But it is also true that trade publishing is many businesses. Even within fiction, the publishing skills and markets for genres like romance and science fiction are quite different than for literary fiction.

But non-fiction is even more diverse. And some of it has a lot to learn from professional publishing.

What the top professional publishers will tell you is that the challenge for them is to deliver content within the workflow. That means that accountants or construction engineers are trying to get particular things done and what they look to publishers to do is to help them accomplish their tasks. That means software. And the content they need should be provided within that workflow so they have the knowledge they’re looking for when they want to apply it.

Well, some consumer publishing also addresses content needs that arise in a workflow. Consumers of gardening books, knitting books, and cookbooks are all using the knowledge they present within a workflow context.

What that means to me is that we’re not far away from these tasks being addressed by workflow tools: apps. Your gardening app, for example, will help define your challenge. It will ask you questions. How big is your front yard? How big is your back yard? How much sun do they get? How much time do you have to spend with this? Do you want flowers, shrubs, or vegetables?

Then the app will tell you, “Mike, it’s March 15, dig a hole.” “Mike it’s April 10, drop a seed in the hole.” “Mike it’s April 28 and we see it hasn’t rained in your neighborhood for a week. Water your garden.” Etcetera.

When that day comes, the publisher with the really terrific gardening book better hope they’ve made a good licensing deal with the owner of the app. Power will have shifted.

(One example of what the future may bring a lot more of are the Audubon Mobile Field Guides, which were done by Green Mountain Digital. These are region-specific species guides that contain reference content, maps, bird calls, etc. and provide real time access to bird sightings. Brendan Cahill of Green Mountain will speak on a “new business models” panel at Digital Book World.)

If I were a publisher of books that address a challenge that is actually handled through a workflow, I’d start now trying to be the licensor, not the licensee.

And that brings me to the second observation.

When you read self-published books (and I do: some of the big bestsellers anyway), you become aware by omission of what a publishers would do to improve them. The lack of copy-editing and proofreading is often what is most apparent, but more acute readers also see the deficiencies in development that good editors correct before a book goes to press.

Because major publishers tend to spend a fair amount of money acquiring most of the titles they do and — correctly or not — see it is a major expense (drain on overheads) to publish each and every title, they tend to be careful about making sure each book is really ready for prime time before they print it. That means there is almost always some editorial input from somebody with commercial responsibility (the acquiring editor or somebody who works for the AE) but there is also certainly professional copy-editing and proofreading of every single book. My highly anecdotal view of self-published books is that for them there is no such guarantee.

I have advocated previously that big publishers should see the value of branding their work as “professional”, which I believe argues for minimizing the number of brands they ask consumers to remember. Nuanced brands make sense in a B2B world (for buyers and reviewers) but are likely to just confuse or be ignored by consumers. But as more and more self-published material makes its way to the public and even onto bestseller lists, the reading public (at least those of us who care about grammar, syntax, and punctuation) might be well served by branding that says, in effect, “this book has been edited, copy-edited, and proofread by professionals”.

But now I’m seeing that thinking isn’t granular enough. If a publisher adopted that suggestion, they’d be locking themselves into maintaining those high quality standards across everything they do. In the long run, is that the right idea?

I’m beginning to think it isn’t. As we see increasingly that self-published material can reach extremely large audiences, it will probably become important before long for the established publishers to be able to test titles in the marketplace without doing the full editorial job on them. In fact, if Sourcebook’s “agile publishing model” (by which a non-fiction book by my friend and client, futurist David Houle, is being released in ebook chunks for audience feedback before being assembled into a “final” published version that will also be printed) were to gain traction and be used more broadly, it would almost certainly mean that parts of the editing job should be bumped back to the end (or else would have to be done twice).

When the big publishers float through the looking glass and realize that they are really wasting their clout and resources if they don’t crank up to do many more titles than they do now (which they haven’t yet, but I believe they will; and I think Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions is the first sign of recognition of that reality by a major house), they’ll see that not all the books they’ll want to publish in the future can get the same full-on treatment that they give to all the books they publish now. They’ll want to be able to publish an author’s short non-fiction ebook about the topic of their novel — because the author wants them to — without giving it thousands of dollars worth of editorial development its revenue forecasts wouldn’t justify. The solution might be to create secondary brands, or it might be about “badging” each book with the amount of editorial attention it actually got. But one signal of quality might not fit all books.

One remarkable facet of my Charleston trip was something I’m quite sure would never happen to me in New York. I had the same cab driver coming in from the airport on Wednesday and then going back out again on Thursday! I also managed to take off from LaGuardia before the nor’easter hit and come back the following evening after it had come through. I saw a little evidence of what was reported to me was “a blizzard” that I’m not sorry I missed.

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