Publishers are Dinosaurs and Lemmings. Discuss.


Writer and Kingston Publishing MA student Rachel Stohler provides a snapshot of the Masterclass by top selling agent Andrew Lownie who covered a wide range of current issues for publishing. 

In a whirlwind KU Publishing Materclass, Literary Agent Andrew Lownie criticized the current publishing industry for being “dinosaurs” who resist change and “lemmings” who mindlessly follow trends.  He then outlined 10 ways in which his agency and a few “good” publishers are innovating now (or could in the future).

1.   Move quickly. Operate as “journalists”
Many publishers move as slow as dinosaurs, but Lownie’s company Thistle publishes titles quickly, when they are relevant.  For example, they published Amy Winehouse: The Untold story in rapid response to the singer’s death.

2.   Focus less on commercial and more on quality
Commercial paperbacks are “throwaway” products that are read once and don’t need to be kept, so it’s logical to publish them as e-books.  As a result, publishers of the future should focus on the types of books people will want to keep long-term: beautifully designed books, children’s books, cookbooks, and classics.

3.  Take advantage of the backlist
Lownie pointed out the failure of many publishers to capitalize on authors’ backlists, accusing them of forgetting about these potentially lucrative titles.  His company, Thistle, sometimes reclaims rights for backlist titles in order to reissue them, something that is in the best interest of the individual author.

4.  Be willing to publish controversial material
According to Lownie, publishers need to stop being lazy lemmings and start taking risks.  For example, Thistle has published successful books that other publishers rejected due to controversy, such as Raven: My Year of Dating Dangerously, about an older woman dating much younger men, or Cabin Fever, about a flight attendant with Virgin.

5.  Present content creatively
Lownie applauds HarperCollins’ use of “e-chunking”: publishing e-books or series in small chunks with the first bit given away for free.  He also suggests that e-publishing makes the form of content less significant.  He has been very successful with publishing short form e-books (in the style of long-form journalism) and serialization (often beginning in a print magazine and then following elsewhere).

Valley of the Dinosaurs published by Charlton, 1976

Valley of the Dinosaurs published by Charlton, 1976

 6.  Make money selling rights
Authors and publishers can make a lot of money via the sale of rights.  Lownie specifically described selling the rights to Cathy Glass’s books about the foster system in other countries.  He argues these readers want tragic stories – but only if they take place in a different country (so they can pretend their system isn’t broken).

 7.  Sell directly to the consumer
Lownie suggests that in the future publishers must sell directly to their consumers in order to maintain hold of their data.  He recommends bringing back imprint book clubs and shipping books directly to members.  He also thinks publishers should publish “exclusively” first to certain groups (like these book clubs or independent book shops).

 8.  Bring back “book houses” as cultural communities
The online world has made people yearn deeply for a real, physical place to connect to others.  Lownie says the publishing industry should fulfill this desire via literary festivals, author talks, and other events.  He suggests a logical idea would be for publishers to create physical “book houses” to sell products and bring communities together.

9.  Be flexible with authors
The publishing industry needs to change its relationship with authors.  Agents and publishers must be flexible about rate arrangements—and even be willing to work as consultants charging a one-time fee for self-publishing authors.

10.  Work with the money
Lownie concluded by tasking the publishing industry to partner with the people who have money.  He described a book about no-carb pasta being packaged in supermarkets with pasta and recipes. (The funding came from the pasta maker!)  These partnerships can be lucrative—and they force publishers to think creatively from different points of view.

Lownie’s was a rapid-fire Masterclass packed with creative ideas designed to shake up the publishing industry. 
Dinosaurs and lemmings beware!  

You can follow Rachel Stohler’s blog, Words Outside the Box here, http://rachelstohler.wordpress.com/

To see some of the innovative projects publishers are actually up to take a look at the FutureBook shortlist for 2014, and the winners.

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