As a teenager in Berlin for the first time, neither the Kudamm nor Alexanderplatz could compete with the sensation of one brightly coloured vending machine hidden amongst the dark, dirty depths of the run down central station. Radomir Runzelschuh’s Märchenschatz was its name. For the princely sum of one Deutschmark, an envelope concealing a one page long fairy tale sputtered out. I remember none of the tales, and kept not one envelope. But every subsequent visit to Berlin lead me back, inserting whatever coins I could muster. I took it so far as to bring back envelopes for friends only to discover that the tale lay not within the envelope but the shabby, orange lighted central station with drug addicts on every corner, and amongst all the stench lay a machine of dwarfs, coloured trees and mermaids, enveloping me in a story long before it came into sight. Anticipation, excitement, and satisfaction are what a great story awakes in all of us.
Perhaps the future of publishing lies with print -- or press in the fairy-tale machine case -- on demand: distribution unnecessary, endless and expensive chains between producer and buyer by-passed, and full knowledge of what the reader really wants. Had I believed this years ago, I would most likely have been driven on a different career path. Instead, Mr. Runzelschuh taught me a valuable lesson. What publishing can offer goes beyond mere words on paper. It is emotion, anticipation, routine, nostalgia and knowledge. It is what people seek to enrich their existence. Recognising and accepting this should make us courageous enough to look not only beyond ink on paper but also beyond any status quo.
The overall market for books and related goods has been turned upside down. Big publishers grab ever more share while medium-sized companies seem to disappear with ever more haste, and the number of small innovative companies (often run by one or two ambitious people) explodes. Trade newspaper columns are frequently dotted with complaints about the monotonous stream of new releases. However, sales stagnate. It may be that this market is saturated and therefore variations in form, body, medium, distribution channel or target group might be challenging but necessary. Additionally, exploring markets other than core business should become a daily task. Selling book- flavoured coffee through Starbucks with a donation to local school libraries for every one sold might cause raised eyebrows but could attract new customers or public attention.
The process of publishing has become anarchistic with supply and demand out of kilter. Additionally, internet-based self-publishing creates a gold rush among many authors. Publishers have thus lost their anointed empowerment to hand-pick written words for their audience, all shattering the self-confidence of a business that liked to see itself as the bearer of light. Book people are partly driven by the inner need to find something that impacts the existence of others and therefore outlives us as professionals but secretly also as individuals. One book to change people’s lives forever is worth the life long hunt.
So where, as publishers, do we stand when our products seem to become ever more replaceable while losing exclusivity to do what we apparently do best: publishing?
Publishing has had to open (and swallow) a few cans of worms in the past years: social media, cross-media, electronic publishing, new distribution channelling and so on. Changes have been imposed upon us, and we have to somehow outlive them (close eyes and hope it goes away). Unfortunately, this attitude leaves the industry in a more or less reactive state. The latest trend to make the media is discussed ad nausea in endless internal meetings, desperately considering how in the world this can be implemented in our anyway insanely busy daily routine. But publishing needs to drive change not only react to it if anything more than survival is the goal.
So what is it that keeps book people cowering in the corner? To react after the fact is human but fatal – creating change means facing possible failure. Naturally, the number of failures most companies can withstand is rather limited. Therefore a certain amount of respect is necessary while fear will not lead anywhere. This must be overcome to succeed. Inspiration and encouragement comes – as in many cases – from the written word and in this case from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better”.
A motivation could be that we all hold stories dear to us about the underdog who dreams, fails yet gets up, fights on, and eventually conquers. This modern fairy tale comes true in many books but could also in every day business. The challenge is to develop strategies for calculated risk. Some very simple questions could lead to an increase in creativity as well as productivity.
What forms us as a company? Looking at the book as the core business can deflect from analysing the potential of a publisher or publishing related company. There are sources that define a company and make it unique. And there are tasks we can do better than others. There is the business we already have – and we might be able to drive it even more aggressively.
As an example for loss of business potential, consider co-productions. Shared production has been attractive mostly for lowering costs but also for expanding the number of translation rights sold. But what keeps a company from taking this further, such as binding international and national partners to one project and developing a shared marketing strategy and/or merchandising?
A publishing company is a pool of great potential even aside from our products.
We have great authors – so why not look at their side projects, host their blogs, events, offer them as speakers to the business world or even work as their agents for work outside our publishing house. We have great people working with us - outside of the day-to-day drudgery, we should be more open to their ideas and creative input. And if they want to be authors, coffeehouse owners or ballet dancers, why not offer them a forum, a space, a stage and see if there is a financially interesting connection to our own business.
We have evolved department divisions, which have proven their worth, but we seldom dare to ask if it still makes sense to continue these decades-old separations between for example press and marketing or even editorial and marketing. And instead of finding external solutions for logistics or accounting, we’d rather outsource creative potential and administrate ourselves into oblivion.
So much for potential, what is the state of play? We do the things the way they have always been done and call that culture, and yet complain if innovation overtakes us and all we see are taillights. The motivation for new business cannot be that something else has stopped working. There has to be a business development spirit, by which I do not mean the hunt for the 16,000,000 next teenage genius author. This also means we must believe in the potential of our own company and not chase trendy topics simply because everyone seems to rave about them. Economical relevance is still determined by results and not by how many people are talking about it or promise it to be the next big thing.
Renting authors to companies who seek prominent bloggers or creating a new form of publishing for internet-based texts of all types, or start opening spaces for advertisements in books (and not just those for our own stuff), we have one important thing to overcome: doubt. No other business doubts itself as much as the publishing world. Will the book still exist in ten years? Will publishing still be relevant in twenty? Will we finally stop separating the e-book beast from the printing circus?
A Coca Cola Inc. strategist may ask themselves if people will still be drinking coke in thirty years time, but it would not occur to question the need to drink at all.
Old Radomir Runzelschuh’s world of trees, mermaids and fairy tales should teach us all a lesson we might have forgotten in the everyday fear of becoming irrelevant. People want and need stories, knowledge and profound writing independent of their medium. And they will always be willing to pay for it.
By banishing doubt, focusing on where we excel, and creating even while risking failure, we will not simply navigate our way through the changes in book publishing but drive them.