‘Putting Readers First’ At BEA: Gatekeepers, Curators, And ‘Too Many Books’

Early arrivals at the first day of the post-BEA BookCon, Javits Center, New York. Image: Porter Anderson
Early arrivals at the first day of the post-BEA BookCon, Javits Center, New York. Image: Porter Anderson

‘Readers Are The Power Brokers Who Matter Most’

  1. Readers decide. Readers come first, as they are the primary filters.
  2. Imprints, choices, and selections should really mean something. Brand can’t be faked in this area.
  3. Publish fewer books; publish better books.
Michael Bhaskar
Michael Bhaskar

The concept has begun gaining traction as it dawns on many of us that “discoverability” may be only part of the problem.I asked Michael Bhaskar — Publishing Director at London’s new Canelo Digital Publishing with Iain Millar and Nick Barreto — to open our Digital Book 2015 Conference atBookExpo America on Wednesday (27 May) with a statement of what it means to think about customer curation in books today.

It’s not just that publishers and authors need readers to discover their books in a stupendously deep pile of largely superfluous content — one natural but challenging side effect of the digital dynamic. No, it’s also that customers, readers, now are achieving the power to curate what they see as important, pertinent, sensible, interesting.

To over-simplify, there was a time when the output of publishers and the communication of it from various mainstream media told us all what was important. I had an executive editor at a newspaper who loved the phrase “setting the agenda.” And as a professional critic working in his newsroom, I was expected to “set the agenda” for our readers, guiding them as to which releases were the ones for them to consider. This was the understanding of publishing and news-about-publishing that was in place for many decades here in the States and elsewhere.

The Content Machine by @MichaelBhaskarBhaskar now is working on a book for Little, Brown UK — to follow his The Content Machine: Towards a Theory of Publishing from the Printing Press to the Digital Network (Anthem, 2013) — in which he looks at what curation is and how we might think of it in the evolution of publishing’s relationship with its readers.

At the International Digital Publishing Forum’s (IDPF) #DigiBook15 conference, Bhaskar’s role was to put our over-arching theme onto the table: “Putting Readers First.”

While “publishers have never met their readers” is too brash a line, it’s true that the established industry’s supply chain makes less practical sense now, overall. The people with whom publishing houses operated in the past were primarily the intermediaries between those houses and the readership. A publisher sold his or her books to inventory buyers at chain stores such as Barnes & Noble or at independent bookstores. Transactional relations were carefully maintained with great distributional powers such as Ingram Content.

Of course publishers know readers. They are readers, huge ones. But at times it is possible for the B2B (business-to-business) elements of all this to seem mildly surreal when D2C (direct-to-consumer) and even what some call E2E (end-to-end, creator-to-consumer) is the guidance du jour.

‘Potential Readers Have To Work Too Hard…We’re The Problem’

The industry! the industry! has appeared to many to be much too slow to understand how to adapt to this new reality.

This was one of the conference messages from Logical Marketing Agency’s Peter McCarthy who joined us on our “Fracturing Landscape of Book Discovery” panel along with Goodreads’ Otis Chandler, HarperCollins’ Angela Tribelli, and Penguin Random House’s Amanda Close.

Peter McCarthy
Peter McCarthy

The discovery [of a book the publishing industry wants readers to find] is fractured often because we, publishers, do not know how to…understand people. It’s just not that we don’t understand them. It’s that we don’t how to begin to understand them — especially in any sort of scalable manner. Skill sets, tools, mindset, organizational structures. We are still structurally challenged when it comes to thinking like a potential reader, let alone allocating resources to build what we need to do so.In comments to me before we got started, McCarthy was able to position very well the kind of smart exploration we heard our panelists discuss and the sort of sea change the books industry is facing — exactly what Bhaskar was on about. Here is McCarthy:

As a result, we fracture discovery by not being ubiquitous, by not understanding intent and acting on it, by not being able to identify and evaluate influencers, etc. The new demand creation machine that puts the right book in front of the right person has not been built. The result is that potential readers have to work far too hard to find what we have. That’s the discovery problem to me. We’re the problem.

There’s a helpful write-up of this panel from Erin L. Cox and Edward Nawotka at Publishing Perspectives: Where’s Waldo The Reader? Book Discovery Tactics From IDPF.

And what McCarthy is saying in his commentary gets near what Bhaskar flew from London to ask the IDPF audience at BEA: What if the publishing industry itself is obfuscating the process of book discovery, adoption, sales?

As McCarthy puts it, “We’re the problem.”

Even Bloomsbury’s Richard Charkin, new chief of the International Publishers Association, in his own keynote mentioned how overly “complicated” publishers have made the books world. (There’s a fine write-up here on his address from my colleague at The Bookseller, Gayle Feldman.)

Surely, if we don’t learn to reach right out to “where readers live” — as Close’s and Tribelli’s teams are doing, and as Chandler’s Goodreads 40-million-member community understands with grassroots certainty — then we’re not making the change. We’re not “Putting Readers First.”

Not yet. And not least because this takes a leap of faith. This is an industry contemplating handing over a certain form of authority to its own customers — not something many 20th-century corporate regimes are comfortable doing.

An important business model of the 21st century, Bhaskar told us in his keynote address at the conference, “is empowering others to curate. We see this time and time again.

“The music industry is ahead of publishing here,” Bhaskar said. “Look at the work that Spotify has done, for example. It bought the company Echo Nest, which essentially is a scientific search outfit for musical taste. And now they’ve built that back in to Spotify.

“It is happening in books as well. Look at Goodreads. I think there are all these different ways to curate. We are slowly seeing this ecosystem emerge from making value, making valuable businesses from devolving power.”

A panel at IDPF’s Digital Book 2015, “Born Digital: New Forms Of Publishing And Outreach To Readers” with, from left, David Wilk, Andrew Lipstein, Sherisse Hawkins, Frank Beddor. Image: Porter Anderson
A panel at IDPF’s Digital Book 2015, “Born Digital: New Forms Of Publishing And Outreach To Readers” with, from left, David Wilk, Andrew Lipstein, Sherisse Hawkins, Frank Beddor. Image: Porter Anderson


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There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether:  ‘Putting Readers First’ At BEA: Gatekeepers, Curators, And ‘Too Many Books’

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.ThoughtCatalog.com



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