The year is 1983, and the once-proud Swiss watch industry lies broken beyond repair. Formerly a bastion of traditional craftsmanship and old-fashioned working practices, the Swiss have been humbled by a ferocious price-war fought on the battlefield of new technology.
Sounds a mite familiar? It gets better. Devastated by a deluge of disposable digital watches from Japan, three quarters of the Swiss watch industry has simply keeled over and died. But then, something miraculous happens.
The man tasked by the banks and creditors to dispose of the ragged corpse of the industry has other ideas. Nicolas Hayek reckons he can best the Japanese at their own game – and he does. Using the same technology that had nearly obliterated Switzerland’s flagship industry, Hayek’s first broadside is the now-ubiquitous Swatch – cheap, but far cooler than anything the Japanese can muster. Next, he hopelessly outguns them at the luxury end of the market with mega-brands such as Breguet, Omega, Longines, Tissot… Just like books, no-one needs a top-end luxury watch. But through brilliant marketing, Hayak makes almost everyone want one. His visionary strategy becomes a textbook example of how to turn a full-blown crisis into a transformative opportunity.
Hayak’s business bravura stands in shining contrast to some of the grubby opportunism that’s happening in our industry at present.
My own profession, for example, is currently debating the niceties of how to put our own interests ahead of our clients – which is what will happen if literary agents become publishers to their authors. Can anyone say “conflict of interest”? As our trade body apparently mulls a constitutional amendment to permit this desperate folly, all I can say is – being a publisher is far more difficult than many might naively suppose. For agents habituated to doing quick-buck deals and then walking away with the proceeds, I fear the future will be both educational and painful.
But publishers themselves – or rather, some publishers – are not beyond reproach, either. Publishers buzzword du jour is “owning the IP”. That’s a euphemism for cutting the author out of the financial picture; it means that “book concepts” will increasingly be originated by Henrietta in marketing and given to a team of hack writers to flesh out. This is sweatshop labour. It produces dross that “reads like an assembly-line product, poorly written and thinly imagined”, as the New York Times aptly wrote of James L. Frey’s latest offering manufactured in exactly this way. I, for one, don’t want to be part of an industry that exploits authors like this.
The challenge our industry faces today is at least as momentous as the “quartz crisis” faced by the Swiss three decades ago. We will survive – and thrive – only through courageous, strategic thinking. It’s time for the heroes of publishing to put on their armour: the battle awaits.
This column first appeared in The Bookseller on the 29th April 2011
Illustration by Nancee_art