Monday, 2 July 2012

Under the Hood - Creative Transparency in Publishing

This is a (rather long) version of a talk I gave at the recent Bookseller Creativity Conference.

There are many problems that loom over publishers these days. Among the loomiest - and most familiar - are these two:

‘How do we talk directly to readers?’

‘How do we show that we matter?’

We worry that traditional retail and traditional media are both declining, so if we want to get our products noticed by people, we can’t rely on others to do it for us. Most publishers are already talking to readers direct; but most want to do it more often, and better, and more quickly.

And in a world of easy self-publishing and agents with disintermediation on their minds, we publishers feel a pressing need to demonstrate to the world what exactly it is that we do that’s so excellent and so worthwhile.

I have a suggestion that might help answer both of these questions: allow the public to see more of what we do.

Not allow them to do what we do: this is not crowdsourcing, in fact it's the exact opposite. It's about presenting ourselves as experts. Interesting, trustworthy partners with our authors in the wonderful process that makes good reading... good.

Of course I’m not proposing that we lay open everything we do to the gaze of Johnny Public. Some of it’s too secret. Some of it - with the greatest of respect to our Bought Ledger department - is too dull. Some of it’s both.

Sometimes, clearly, opening things up to the public is inappropriate. If you’ve just spent a quazillion pounds poaching James Patterson, you’re going to want to look infallible. You don’t want to see staff over-sharing about the work on Twitter: 

“Totes out of ideas for J-Patz cover!! All these ones are rank!! ROFL”.

But that’s not a typical scenario. What’s much more typical is a brand new author or book which you have to launch from nothing, and frankly anything that gets the public engaged with it and curious about it is worth considering. Particularly if that thing might represent better value than the four-sheet posters you might otherwise be forced to do.

So how would this work, practically? How would we interest people and demonstrate our value by opening up our processes? Fortunately some publishers are doing fantastic work in this area already, and we can learn/steal from them.

Penguin do creative transparency very well.  Their website features lots of excellent videos of designers talking about how they made their covers, along with editors, copywriters (or “blurbistes”) and others.

My favourite is actually quite an old one. It’s Coralie Bickford Smith talking about designing the Gothic Horror novels in the Red Classics series.

It eschews slickness in favour of wit and honesty, and is very, very charming as a result. And it makes you want to own those books. It dramatises the creative process, shows you what care and cleverness went into it. So it helps you realise that the books are worth buying, at a premium price.

And the buying bit is key: this is not just done for fun It’s done to engage readers and also to show our value, so that the reader engagement turns into sales and the demonstration of worth results in good acquisitions.

When the BBC wanted to build on the success of the series Luther, their main tactic was to stoke expectation for the second series using a very cool website. It worked brilliantly - the site was visited by hundreds of thousands and the second series was much bigger than the first. But the website feature that kicked it off was simply a picture of the first page of the script. Massive response.

And this was an idea that Penguin learned from/stole/just coincidentally came up with on their own: when they posted a picture of the first page of the new Zadie Smith manuscript on their fiction blog they got 2,500 views in a day.

Keen readers, the people who pay our wages, tend to be interested in the creative and curatorial processes we undertake. I have found this out visiting three book groups a year, routinely. They all love seeing our book proofs, seeing the cover visuals that we didn’t use, and hearing the story of how a book came to be the success it was..

More examples: Orbit’s Lauren Panepinto posted a video ages showing a speeded-up screengrab of her designing the cover of a fantasy novel called Blameless.

Publishers, traditionally, are homework-hiders. We say ‘it’s all about the books’ partly because we’re scared of pushing ourselves forward and being judged.

But not in this video. It has a big mistake in it. But no one would get to the end bit of that video and think “durr, stupid publishers” because they’re too busy being impressed by the design skills on display. So the bit where the Eiffel Tower appears a few decades early is funny, and it’s human, and it goes to emphasise the excellence of everything else. It might not even be a  particularly unique cover, but having watched the process I kind of love it, and I’d recognise it if I saw it again.

Another example of exposing the publishing process comes from Osprey, who are way ahead of most in their direct communication with readers. They post things like this on their blog:

It’s really straightforward. It’s just saying “we’re really excited about our new book on the Great Lakes Warships—” (aren’t we all?)  “—here are some draft sketches from the book in progress”. That’s it. The fans love it because they get to anticipate the new book and get a frisson of behind the scenes-ness. The team at Osprey get to remind us that they’re involved in actually making the thing.

Here’s one of the reader comments this post generated:

“Thanks for sharing. They look great. Illustrations like these show why Osprey’s still the best at what they do.”

The amount of reader interaction Osprey get is huge. If they tweet about cake in the office, followers will ask ‘whose birthday is it??’ But lest we write those followers off as “nerdy military history stalker types”, consider that large numbers of them subscribe to the publisher’s membership scheme for a monthly fee, so they can buy books direct from them at a discount. Significant direct sales, month in, month out.

A couple of other examples. Mills and Boon have started doing Google hangouts where the editor and author talk together about the books together. And Penguin often get editors and authors on stage together at literary festivals, also talking about the books almost as partners.

My lot, Hodder & Stoughton, recently helped our author Lindsey Davis tell part of the story of the creation of her book Master and God. Lindsey writes an excellent newsletter for her readers, which we print for her, and there was a feature in the most recent one about the new book cover. 

It begins “I prepared a brief which said “the themes are paranoia, survival through friendship and love and corruption as signalled by the leitmotif of a fly. I admit paranoia must be awkward to draw”.
She goes on to describe the back and forth of the creative negotiation that led to the cover. Her inspirations, the designer’s response, her feedback. The photographer, it turns out, auditioned several fake dead flies before finding a real dead fly who was perfect.

She ends on “I just thought my readers would like to know that”.

So, we can make videos about the creative process, we can blog work in progress, we can enlist the author to talk about their interaction with the publishing team. All interesting, all involving, all - if you’ll forgive the verbcrime – ‘surfacing the value add’.

What else can we try to take this further?

Anyone who’s ever been to a digital innovation conference will have seen the video showing how they made the Sony Bravia TV ad. The ad featured thousands of colourful bouncy balls bouncing down the streets of San Francisco. I’m sure I’m not alone in being more entertained by the footage of the guys filling massive air cannons full of bouncy balls at dawn than in the ad itself.


So, book marketers next time  someone comes up to you and says “can we do a trailer for this novel? Something really filmic, yeah?”: do it, but consider also shooting a little homemade documentary of the process of making that trailer. Talk about what you’re trying to say about the book. Why you love it and what you’re trying to convey about it. Talk about the choices you make and the ideas you didn’t use.

Also: the next time your author, or an actor, is recording an audio book, why not try videoing that, to show how that fascinating process works? Not so much the technical aspect, but artistically.

Another thought: People who write copy do a very creative job. An undervalued one, as I seem to have insisted before.

Say you had a week to write the best possible blurb for your new literary smash. What would happen if you committed to blogging a draft of it every day of that week, with a short explanation of why you’re trying this approach, what aspect of the work you’re focussing on... and inviting comment on whether it works?

The ultimate laying open of the publishing process would of course be to put a manuscript online, complete with the author’s and editor’s comments and changes, or all to see. Most authors would loathe this idea, and most editors too. But don’t assume it’ll never happen. I bet there are authors who would do it. And if an author is happy to reveal that process of mediation and refinement in which the editor is a vital partner, then why wouldn’t the editor in question be up for it too? “Because it’s weird!” I know. But still.

I’d like to emphasise at this point that I do recognise that all of those ideas represent hours of work and effort, some of it quite uncomfortable. And no one has spare time on their hands. But I would urge you to consider the strategic importance of communicating interestingly, direct to readers, and demonstrating the worth of publishers. Keen readers are interested in this stuff, as we’ve seen. So let’s make use of that interest.

Think about the big book for next spring you’re most passionate about as a company. The one about which you’re saying, “We’ve got to do everything for it. Like When God Was a Rabbit. Like The Passage.”. Then imagine you decided to tell the story of that publication as it’s happening. How well would you come across as a company, as a group of committed, creative people? How great would the book look? 

Challenge your corporate reticence. Be proud. Find clever ways to show the world the creative role you play in the life of bestselling books. It’s not about shouting about your results, it’s about revealing your expertise.