Who Is King?

This week saw the fifth in a series of meetings at work with a marketing guru/consultant. It’s been quite an education. Mostly because I had to learn marketing jargon and all those endless catchphrase buzzwords in Hebrew instead of English. He has been attempting to help us become a more ‘effective’ book publishing ‘team’, giving us ‘tools’ to improve the ‘statistical outputs’ of our discussions on what to translate or what not to.

But the most interesting thing he said he left till the last few minutes of the last meeting. He rightly pointed out that what causes people to listen to a particular radio station is not necessarily a specific song or artist, rather the radio DJ. It is the promise of the DJ or the station’s taste and judgement that prompts people to listen to this or that station.

Similarly, he argues, when people walk into a bookshop they should be able to choose a book based on its publishing house, or the fact that it is the favorite book of one of their favorite authors, or because it belongs to a particular series based on a genre or literary style that they enjoy. He proposed making a brand out of a publishing house, so that people will buy a book based on its derivation from a particular publisher irrespective of its content. The bookbuyer trusts the judgement of the publishing house.

This was met with widespread skepticism. “Nobody pays attention to the publisher” they cried, or “we don’t have a particular genre interest, our lists are too varied to be effectively branded into one ‘identity'”. As I’m sure some of you are already working out, there are clear, if not easy solutions to follow in order to solve these problems.

But why is what he said so clever? Because as our dear guru explained, banking on a book or an author to sell itself (even with all the help of marketing), is essentially a passive action. You didn’t write the book, and you’re not the author, therefore you are trapped in the role of being a mediator of content instead of a creator of it.

The minute you accept that you have something more to give as a major publishing house, that the combined intellectual property of the minds at your disposal constitutes a creative force in and of itself (instead of just an editorial one), is the moment you take back control of the market.

Simply put – we were being called upon to add value.

Now, value can manifest as various different things, and this brings me to my title. In a world increasingly flooded not just with writers who are getting publishing deals, but with authors who are self-publishing, and where anyone with a computer and the internet can become a content-creator all by themselves, what kind of value will be truly appreciated?

In the flood, the man in the ark is king. The person who can help other people navigate a tumultuous and chaotic sea is the one who holds a power of real value.

A lot of people say that these days, content is king. I would hazard that, going forward, infrastructure will be king. The ability to generate lists of recommendation, to associate books to larger narratives (the 10 books that inspired bestselling writer ‘X’, for example), to make a publishing house into a brand with a specific identity that people recognize and trust (as with Virago), in short, to draw lines of delineation and definition in the endless sand of digital content – the person or the company with that skill, will be king.

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