Our cherished publishing industry—which to outsiders can appear more like a part-time hobby than a serious business—is a veritable cornucopia of contradictions.
A case in point. We have a boundless appetite for new ideas which we commoditise, package and sell. Yet we are notoriously slow to innovate ourselves. Although latecomers to the digital banquet, we have learnt next to nothing from the harrowing experiences of our cousins in the music and media industries. “Publishing is not like other businesses,” executives habitually tell me over lunch with a knowing wink, certain in their belief that we’ve been granted special dispensation from the laws of physics. It feels more like a terminal case of hubris to me but I usually say nothing because, after all, they’re paying.
Similarly, publishing exists in a heteromorphic continuum of risk. A successful publisher has the soul of a gambler: they win more often than not, and they see opportunity where others perceive only peril. Rock stars such as Anthony Cheetham and Jamie Byng have this instinct in spades. Corporate publishing, however, is massively risk-averse. “We’re looking for reasons not to publish books,” one chief executive proudly drawled to me recently. A line that probably goes down well with the bean counters at head office, but it’s anathema to real publishing.
To these corporate panjandrums, publishing is merely one component in a diverse portfolio of businesses. An industry in decline, in fact, to be milked where possible, starved of investment capital, and back-burnered before ultimate disposal. That, at least, is classic business school strategy to manage businesses in waning markets. Good for them, perhaps, but fatal for us.
So let me ask you this. As we enter the most challenging year in the history of our industry, whose side are you on? The risk-takers? Or the armadillos? Will you stick your neck out this year or curl up into a tiny armour-plated ball of denial?
You have little choice. No industry can endure 5% year-on-year declines. Our survival depends on your ability to discern the opportunity contained within the risk. Safe publishing is no longer an option: shoot anyone on sight who says otherwise.
If your company’s culture discourages risk-taking, then quit. Their fate is sealed—don’t let them take you down with them. There has never been a better time to strike out on your own: the era of publishing dinosaurs is all but over and nimble mammals will inherit the earth.
Build secret alliances with other risk-takers. Conspire against your management. Twist their arms until they scream or, even better, until they give you your head. Great publishing is never conducted by committee—subvert, divide and conquer. Go crazy pants at every opportunity—you know you’re worth it.
I wish you a dangerously successful new year.
This column first appeared in The Bookseller on the 18th January 2011
Illustration by Suzanna