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March 31, 2016

In Search of Book Publishing's Blockbusters

Posted by Kevin E. Corr (View Profile | View All Posts) at 11:17 AM

In Search of Book Publishing's Blockbusters

One of the greatest novels of the 20th century almost didn't get published. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, which later became a smash hit in Hollywood, was 'discovered' by a New York book agent sent to America to find the next crop of budding novelists. When he was traveling through Atlanta, he heard about a manuscript about the years leading up to the American Civil War and went to see the young author. Mitchell was extremely reticent to show the agent her manuscript. The story goes that she didn't think it was of high enough quality to be seen by someone from a major publishing house. The agent was unrelenting, and once he had skimmed the chapters he knew he had a potential bestseller on his hands.

Ironically, that publishing world is, well, 'gone with the wind'. No longer do book agents try to 'discover' little known authors and bet the bank that they might become big literary sensations. Instead, book publishing almost resembles the pharmaceutical industry: The players place their bets on a few big, well-known authors that they know they will be able to recoup the costs of printing and marketing. Like Big Pharma, the book publishers prefer to get through each year with a handful of sure-fire blockbusters than risking funds on new names.

In this new world, book publishers must ask themselves how they can establish distribution platforms that are state-of-the-art - all the while providing platforms to produce the best content. To be sure, readers' behavior has changed. Publishing houses continue to struggle to adapt to this new consumer behavior. Traditional publishers that have found success in this new marketplace have embraced a 'new and renew' strategy. They package their content in digital formats that would have seemed unthinkable even a decade ago. The way the traditional publishers are staying competitive is far different from the pure-play digital content providers such as Google and Amazon. People don't go to those sites for hard-hitting content as much as they do for a web-surfing experience that might result in leading them ultimately to a retail site, based on the fact they were reading up on new cars.

In Germany, the book publishing world experienced what experts at the time referred to a David & Goliath story. A relatively small, traditional bookseller, Tolino, didn't feel forced to do away with its traditional channels. Its loyal customers enjoyed the experience of browsing for titles. But Tolino was quick to team up with a digital media powerhouse to develop and market a portable reader that had different features from the mass-marketed Amazon Kindle. The result: The Tolino reader grew at a rate that was inversely correlated to that of the Amazon Kindle. Tolino didn't have a secret formula; rather, it embraced a new, omnichannel marketing strategy, chose a world-class technology partner to help them carry it out, and, maybe most importantly, had fun doing it all. Never underestimate the sixth sense of your consumers: They enjoy seeing their favorite brands having fun and innovating.

Magazines, on the other hand, are a completely different story. They are particularly good at embracing the free-flowing digital formats of the pure-play companies. Consider them hybrids of the old guard and the cutting-edge website. Why? It's all about customized content. Magazine publishers tend to intensify customer engagement by increasing the frequency of content updates. Some progressive players are even replacing 'bulk publishing' with a continuous model that is better suited to changing consumer demands.

There's another important dynamic in the publishing industry. Faced with the near-impossible odds of getting their books published by a well-known firm, up-and-coming authors are choosing to push out the middleman altogether. They are publishing their books themselves. With the preponderance of smartphones and other digital devices, the consumption of literature has changed. By marketing their books straight to readers over digital channels, authors don't need to worry about the staggering costs of printing, binding, and distribution. In this regard, new authors have gained a tremendous amount of power. And they've gained it through their own hard work - most often promoting their books via social media, where news of a good read can go viral.

Book publishing is going through what music went through ten years ago. Digitization. Even big music performers are now going directly to the consumer. In fact, the music business was so unprepared for the changes that it experienced a complete disaster and some traditional music labels disappeared entirely. So, the good news for readers is that if Margaret Mitchell were alive today, she might publish her book directly onto a digital platform. And moreover, she would have to experiment with formats beyond the classical - maybe a Twitter-version of Gone With The Wind? Because let's face it: the competition is tough. A Japanese literary competition has received 11 entries from books written by non-humans, i.e. robots, and one of them even made it through the first round of screening! The new world is truly upon us. 

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