Tsunami-sized changes are sweeping through Great Britain’s publishing industry as they are through ours. It’s instructive to eavesdrop on what British publishing professionals are saying about this. I believe they are asking questions we should ask ourselves in this time of radical change.
The May 18 issue of The Bookseller (Britain’s equivalent to Publishers Weekly) featured an article by Hannah Macdonald of September Publishing, who challenges publishers to ask who their customers are. Twenty years ago, most publishers said their customers were retail bookstores. They thought that if they persuaded stores to carry their books, readers would find and purchase them. No more. The number of retail bookstores has shrunk radically and large store chains have disappeared altogether because fewer readers find and buy books through brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Publishers have responded with a variety of new schemes—free e-books with the purchase of print editions, special editions printed on demand, etc.—but none of these strategies have swept back the tsunami. So Macdonald reminds publishers:
Retailers are just a part of our customer base… Readers are the point of it. And authors are our partners in it, sales channels of their own. We should be rethinking all our processes, structures and ambitions—everything—through that new perspective. We sit at the centre of that glorious, electric, world-changing relationship between book and reader (or listener). That human creative exchange is our single most important purpose….
Note the main points of Macdonald’s argument, because she identifies some changes for all of us:
a Retailers are just a part of our customer base...Readers are the point of it. Publishers who try to cater to bookstores by imitating cover designs, popular characters, or settings of best-sellers, they may sell our books into stores but not through them. Readers spot knock-offs and avoid them.
a Authors are our partners in [publishing], sales channels of their own. Too often we are tempted to think, I’m the creative part of the publishing equation. I’ll do the writing and the publisher will do the selling. However, each of us has a network of contacts with family, friends, and members of the same congregation, alumni of the same college, etc. If we tell them about our latest books, we can start sales rolling.
a That human creative exchange [between book and reader] is our single most important purpose. We can take this cue from innovative publishers if we visualize our readers at each step of the writing process. We can imagine them asking questions as we write and listen as they respond to our stories. This will make readers our co-creators, not merely consumers of what we write.
Widespread change can be frightening, but loyal readers are loyal customers. If we satisfy them, they will come back for more of what we have to share. So take heart. It's time to recapture the principles that used to guide Christian publishing. They can determine where we land when the publishing tsunami passes by.