Beyond disruption, creating business opportunities in book publishing

By Dennis Clemente

What are the new, business opportunities in book publishing in the digital age? When you feel at a loss with every new technology vying for your attention, it’s normal to think we’re living in the middle of a (digital) revolution, we just don’t know where we are going. Last June 27, the panel of guests at the Fordham GBA’s Media and Entertainment Alliance provided a roadmap.

Mallory Kass of Scholastic Press, Nina Lassam of Open Road Media, and Rachel Fershleiser of Tumblr shared us their experiences and insights in the fourth panel discussion of the continuing Digital Media Disruption lecture series at Fordham University, Lincoln Center.

Scholastic Press, publisher of the Harry Potter books, has gone multiplatform. Kass showed us how the New York Times best-seller for kids, “39 Clues,” its first multiplatform series, has changed children’s book publishing as we know it.

What is multiplatform? “You can engage with the book any you want to. You can read the book and play the game (in the book), solve puzzles, interact with other fans online on our message boards. It can be as rich an experience as a kid would want it to be,” said Kass.

It appears Scholastic Press is making the best use of technology to connect with young readers all over the world. It’s now published in 27 countries, has 16 million print editions, 2 million registered users on line, 1,200 new registered users every day, and 1,000 posts on its board every day.

The global appeal of the book is understandable. It unlocks a key to “historic power” or knowledge about the world, giving you clues along the way, as it gives you a sense of being in other parts of the world. In the most recent series of “39 Clues,” Scholastic has tapped the famous crime novelist David Baldacci introducing him to children’s book writing in the process. Available in print and e-book, “39 Clues” comes with six game cards with unique digital codes that unlock clues.

Next presenter Lassam said Open Road creates opportunities in book publishing by serving as a marketing arm for authors 365 days a year. That’s refreshing to hear for those who wonder why their book publishers suddenly develop amnesia after publication.
Since its inception in 2009, Open Road has become one of the most sought-after e-book publishers (they’re going to do print as well). From literary fiction, it has moved on to do all other genres.

Showing a short video clip of author James Salter, Lassam said that Open Road is in branding authors as a way of marketing the author’s books. Being in the business of words is not enough, especially in a world where everything is getting more visual.
The solution: Do a bio video of an author. The videos come out in Biography.com, The Daily Beast and Tumblr. That is one tactical approach that can involve–as part of a more wholistic strategic ad campaign–retail merchandising; establishing a social media presence, interacting with a fan base, and having a big publicity push.

Among the three speakers, only fast-talking Fershleiser of Tumblr is not in book publishing at the moment, although she has a more expansive wealth of experience. She has been involved in different facets of publishing from event management to “freelance journalism,” researching (for Freakonomics) and editing. Fershleiser likes to believe the opportunities in digital publishing now has been democratized where only a select few (i.e., “white men”) in the past could get in.

The moderator, Fordham Professor Bozena Mierzejewska, asked if a good story will always sell.

“No, there are great books that tank (without the benefit of marketing),” Fershleiser said. What she guarantees is illuminating: “A good story will always survive the march of time. A good story simply indicates selling potential. A good story will connect with the right audience if the audience finds it,” subtly hinting at the value of buzz or marketing in general.

For the audience to find you, she insists on using more personalized marketing approach. That means involving readers in the writing process, through Tumblr or other social media means. From personal experience, this writer received an email from Susan Cain (or a staff), author of the huge best-seller, “The Quiet,” about topics that could be included in her sequel—and was later invited to chat with her.

“The more you involve readers in the process of writing a book and how it succeeds (in the marketplace) will make them feel valuable, too. It empowers them to share it,” she said.

The question that amused the panel the most was the question on self-publishing and how book publishers are dealing with it. “Publishing is not just about writing,” Fershleiser said.

Close to asking if you can be your own editor, agent, contract lawyer, designer, marketer or distributor, she asked if you can do all the nitty-gritty work. A book clearly involves so many people and many factors that Fershleiser advises aspiring authors without a name to go to a book publisher or an agent.

Lassam echoed Fershleiser’s sentiments, emphasizing again how important it is to have a strategy in place aside from giving importance to the production of a book.
She added how media coverage on self-publishing has given it widespread appeal, but she cautons how this perception needs to be tempered, especially since only some genres like erotica (eg. “Fifty Shades of Grey”) and those with cult appeal have enjoyed some measure of great success.

Kass agreed that if you’re getting your foot in the door, you need an agent, because they can also match you with the right editors and book publisher for your book to succeed.

With these new opportunities in book publishing, has storytelling changed? It certainly has the way different platforms can be used or how kids’ reading patterns will change, but Kass said certain components will not change like narrative arcs and characters.

But how are these new opportunities translating to jobs?

Lassam advises those looking forward to a career in book publishing to learn content marketing. Kass, for her part, thinks editorial requirements remain the same but bringing a genuine interest in it is important. The more practical Fershleiser puts it this way if you can’t get a job: “If you’re not a Harvard graduate, you need an established social media presence.”

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