Find, listen, engage and deliver: no matter the technological changes, these publishing fundamentals endure, Nick Wells writes
Print books are dead! Ebooks are dead! People don't read any more! Over the last few years in publishing and bookselling we've been assaulted by a rollcall of apparent certainties. As a creative industry wrought with hand-wringing good intentions we've suffered the harsh slap of reality with the growing pains of corporatisation, globalisation and the acceleration of technological change. However, it might not be obvious, but the number of people reading, and the number of places and formats they can express their passion for ideas, entertainment and information, continues to increase, and it's our job to find these readers, listen to them, engage and deliver.
As a publisher (and this is more acute to us as we launch our new fiction imprint, Flame Tree Press), we seek to balance the social and cultural changes that drive faster choice, greater flexibility and instant access, with the authenticity and voice that fulfils the underlying needs of our readers. A book which takes two years to write, another few months to edit and publish, can be chosen, downloaded in minutes, then read over a few short days. The major chains and wholesalers need presentation many months ahead of publication, while a self-published author can upload his or her file and start seeing sales the next day. Such are the tensions and mediations in the business of publishing. We seek a balance between all factors, while trying to pay the bills, keep control of stock, rally the staff and the retailers, build the brand and please the readers.
Writers as readers
Ultimately, of course, we exist because of the reader. And in many cases, particularly genre fiction of horror, crime, SF and fantasy, the reader is also a writer, perhaps not published yet, but has submed stories for a magazine (HG Wells, Dickens, HP Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury all read obsessively, and appeared in magazines first). Our new imprint is focused on genre fiction, and it's easy to identify that such large, intersecting readerships thrive because of their enthusiasm. They consume their passion for the imagination through the medium of streaming TV, movies, books, magazines and blogs, and associate online in forums and through website comment threads, and at reader groups and author signings. These enthusiasts often want to try their hands; they experiment, become writers, show their friends, email their manuscripts to free, then paid-for, markets. Some sell their work, some fail, but they still love what they do.
Such like-minded people tend to gather in the obvious places online, and reading groups in clubs, pubs, bookshops, libraries and cafes. To engage, publishers must be authentic and transparent. Modern consumers are sophisticated, and understand the transaction with a business, but if the writing is good, the imagination and the worlds appropriate, they'll give it a fair hearing. Building communities in 2018 is more exciting because there are more opportunities to meet people from around the world, instantly, and to make connections and listen to new perceptions. Although based in the UK, more than 80% of our submissions come from North America, and as we publish worldwide, that means we can offer beautiful printed books anywhere our writers and readers choose to place themselves. It's even led us to hire New Yorker Don D'Auria as our executive editor for Flame Tree Press.
Publishers as curators
At the height of the print-book burning in 2010, when ebooks seemed to be headlighting the consumer with their novel charms, sage online journals such as Fast Company observed that "curation is here to stay". Of course, anyone with a mite of historical perspective would have been glad for the curation of the Alexandrian Library, more than 2,000 years before. In recent years though, once the collective bewilderment of book publishers had passed, it became clear that the curation of the highly-geared start-ups with their get-rich quick investor plans was merely a new way of doing what a publisher does: collating, preserving and delivering carefully considered knowledge, news, literature and entertainment. With our clumsy supply chain apparatus and fussy needs for accuracy and citation, publishing has come into its own, again. Content management strategies, analytics, even big data: these require good curation, and although the world now converses on a mobile device of some sort, the means of communication firmly includes the published book, in a variety of formats. It's a delivery mechanism of curated content designed for durability and accessibility. And as such, it's a mark of validation, a precious moment in time.
There is no question that we move in ever faster times, culturally, socially, technologically, but as publishers and booksellers we've learned to work harder, in partnership with authors, and readers, to understand the needs of our customers, because when we go home at night, use our smartphones and tablets, stream a box-set or watch a YouTube video, we engage with the real world. And that's where our readers are, our writers, so that's what we curate for - we find, listen, engage and deliver.
Nick Wells is publisher and founder of Flame Tree Publishing.
This article first appeared in the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.