The endurance of the one-hit wonder

Michael Bhaskar
Opinion - Books Thursday, 26 March 2020

It's harder than ever to build sustainable careers, so let's not look down on the one-offs, argues Michael Bhaskar

One-hit publishing wonders never had the status of their musical cousins. The great age in music was the 80s and 90s: and, from the Macarena to Babylon Zoo, it was a lot of fun indeed. Publishing always did have its one-hit wonders - such as Cold Mountain and The Bridges of Madison County, you might argue; but they were never the regular, almost everyday phenomena that they were in the music industry, where an artist would break out for a couple of weeks, take over the world and then recede into the mists of chart history, destined to come out for only the occasional wedding disco.

Writers and publishing properties seemed to have more sticking power. The goldfish-like attention spans of the record biz were not so prevalent here.

I'd assumed this had remained the case and even intensified to some level in the digital era. Publishers and writers were focused on building big, unassailable brands, great edifices of IP that stood above formats and retailers, building year on year, project by project, recognised everywhere from household kitchens to airport lounges. In the digital age, where attention is scarce and content proliferates, a strong global brand becomes everything.

"Look around and you find publishing's one-hit wonders everywhere. We just don't talk about them"

The same applies in music. Although Spotify democratised access to listeners for many artists, it has also seen a huge concentration on the top artists. Even as YouTube fractured viewing into a billion splinters, films are dominated by mega-franchises and television blockbuster series. Instant worldwide recognition is the target.

In a digital world, the best strategy became the long-term brand: either burrowed deep into a niche, or dominating public attention. My assumption was that this focus on brand meant one-hit wonders were likely to become ever less part of the publishing mix.

Of course, it's not so simple. Seemingly random one-offs are as present and commercially powerful as ever. My interest was piqued when I came across the US author of a book (and I'll save their name) that has more than 25,000 reviews on Amazon. The 10 or so other books this author wrote all have review numbers in the two or low three-figure bracket. This is the definition of a one-hit wonder, and it's been nurtured in the soil of ebooks and social media. Look around and you find publishing's one-hit wonders everywhere. We just don't talk about them. Every publisher will be able to bring to mind several similar examples, but to me this largely hidden world says several things.

Grab the moment
First, the gulf between launching a big, splashy debut and having an ongoing brand is as difficult as ever, perhaps more difficult. There are so many demands on people's time, so much competition from other media, so much investment in “content”. You can use the tools of the 21st century to gain a quick audience if you have budget; but converting this to lasting success is even more challenging. Sometimes it is still the specific concept, the passing moment that matters most. And let's face it: this keeps us hooked.

Second, digital retail environments operate in seemingly paradoxical ways. On the one hand they concentrate everything into hubs and mega brands; but on the other they can still throw up sudden surprises. One tweak of the algorithm, one cascade of favourable mentions, and out of nowhere fortunes can be made. This is the architecture of the internet in a nutshell, both centralising and spreading out at once. But watching it play out in the cultural arena still has the power to surprise. Understanding how these dynamics work and how they can be manipulated remains the central challenge of successful online publishing.

Third, despite all the chat about data and analytics, it remains, for publishers, an imperfect science, if indeed it can be called a science. And we all know the reason: it's not for want of desire or intelligence, it is for want of the most valuable data-sets. However, there is surely room for more work here. I've seen one paper, as far as I know still unpublished, that has a brilliant suggestion in this regard, but there is much more work to be done. The record and film industry have invested vast amounts in research to up their sustainable hit rate, and we still don't quite compete.

Last, the prevailing wisdom of publishing is to build big brands in whatever category you work. But there is clearly still money to be made in the one-hit wonder. Are they based around luck, ultimately a will-o'-the-wisp, or might there somehow be an opportunity here? Opportunistic record companies made a habit of it in the 90s; the big question is whether there is an opening for a similarly counter-intuitive approach today.

Some sales patterns persist despite everything changing around them. We're not done with the one-hit wonder yet.

Michael Bhaskar is the co-founder and publishing director of Canelo. He is the author of Curation and The Content Machine, co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Publishing, and can be found on Twitter @michaelbhaskar.

This article was commissioned for the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.

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