Lessons from a year of being surrounded by really smart people

One year ago, I stepped into the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in NYC for the first annual Digital Book World. It happened to also be my first day on the job working with Mike Shatzkin and my first day as a book publishing professional.

Like most people in the industry, I set out to enter book publishing because I love books. I spent a few years out of college working for an early education non-profit with a large focus on literacy development. I became enamored with the transformative power of books (and at the same time disillusioned with the bureaucracy of federal funding). Enter book publishing. By a stroke of luck (and the aid of Publishers Marketplace) I found Mike in January 2010.

So, there I was, with a big nervous smile, meeting people whose names I knew I would never remember and sitting in on panels and presentations that (at best) I half understood. Despite my anxiety, fear, and general confusion, I felt at home. And I had the sense that as confused as I was, many most everybody else there was trying to figure it all out, too.

And now one year later, we’ve answered some questions, stumbled across some new ones, and I think by and large started to be more proactive about the issues our industry faces. I want to share here a mixed-bag of lessons, questions, insights, and to-dos that I’ve picked up over the last year, and particularly during both years of Digital Book World. Take these for they are: the observations of a publishing neophyte with incredibly privileged access to some of the smartest people in this industry. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from them.

  • Publishers must develop, nurture, and respect their relationships with: authors, agents, retailers, distributors, other trading partners, and of course, readers.
  • Publishers can’t forget their roots: deliver quality content and information to the reading public. Know what readers want. Seek out the best creators. Connect.
  • Smart investment is necessary, and returns may not be immediate.
    • Community: This is not an “if you build it” scenario. True community engagement is hard. Publishers must earn readers’ time and attention — not an easy task, but a necessary one.
    • Professional development: Publishers should provide training for the smart, committed professionals already in the business and support the education of new entrants.
    • Technology and process: Much of the legacy infrastructure in place at publishing houses needs to be updated, revamped, reimagined. The way we’ve always worked and the tools we’ve always used are just not good enough anymore.
  • Develop and define a unique service proposition. Publishers need to discover what it is they do best, what it is they alone can offer to their constituents. (Be it: better content, better user experience, social engagement.) The means of book production and distribution have been largely commoditized, and publishers have to shift their business models or risk irrelevance.
  • EXPERIMENTATION – We need forward-thinking, innovative, cutting-edge trial and error.
  • Yes, experiment, but don’t forget the basics: great content, meticulous metadata, efficient workflows, innovative marketing.
  • Ah, our old friend DRM: There are well-reasoned and thoughtful arguments on both sides of the debate, and it does nobody any good (particularly the consumer) to sensationalize the conversation. There is (so far) little data to prove the impact of DRM on sales, one way or the other. Kindle’s success seems to suggest that most people don’t really care about DRM so long as they can seamlessly purchase and retrieve their content. Sure, they would like to be able to share it, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped people from buying ebooks so far. And on the flip side, the specter of piracy and file sharing remains just that.
  • Which brings me to my next point… Publishers need to make informed decisions.  Right now they’re making decisions about DRM based on guess work, conjecture, and data from content industries that bear little resemblance to the book business. Publishers need data — from Bowker and Nielsen, from industry associations like BISG, from channel partners like B&N and Kobo (to the extent that they can or will share), from consumers themselves. Publishers need data and reasoned analysis about DRM, about device sales and ebook adoption, about global market trends, about their marketing campaigns and pricing strategies. Publishers need data. Period.
  • Finally, while everything else might change, people will still read. Just something to keep in mind.
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