Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Reports of Editorial's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated (or, Why Mike Shatzkin Is Wrong)

Readers of this page or the @BloomsburyPress twitterstream know that I think Mike Shatzkin is one of the smartest observers of the publishing industry today. I cite and retweet the posts from his Idea Logical blog so often that I sometimes feel I'm just a distribution service for him. So I'm perversely happy to report that I think one of his most recent posts grabbed completely the wrong end of the stick.

His title says it all: "Marketing will replace editorial as the driving force behind publishing houses." Mike starts with a thumbnail history of the rise of sales departments in publishing, noting rightly that large sales forces and the tools they used--cover, catalogue, and the summary of key selling points we call title information sheets or tipsheets--were "critical factors to a book's success." I agree with Mike that as he has often written in other posts, the ability to put titles in front of readers simply by getting a lot of them on bookstore shelves has been for a long time the biggest "value added" by publishers for authors. The sheer scale of a big publisher's sales operation, its reach into the widest number of bookstores (or other outlets), was often its key competitive advantage.

So far, I'm with him. And I'd largely agree with the next part of his history, which explains that as the marketplace changed (he points to e-books but in fact online bookselling was critical long before the e-book explosion), "selling"--getting books onto shelves--became only a part of the much broader effort to make consumers aware of a title and motivate them to buy it. Publicity, advertising, author branding, and nowadays an ever-evolving range of social media now outweigh wooing booksellers as critical parts of the process of delivering the author's work to readers. I concur with Mike that the "pull" function of motivating buyers has eclipsed the "push" function of bookstore sell-in in importance.

(Parenthetical note:  This isn't to say booksellers, or sales reps, aren't crucial! The hand-selling that good booksellers do is actually the best marketing we have, creating that "pull" at the store level.)

"So," Shatzkin writes, "marketing has largely usurped the sales function. It will probably before long usurp the editorial function too." This is where we part company. Mike believes that publishing houses "went from editorially-driven in my father's time to sales-driven in mine," and that "the new transition is to being marketing-driven." The fact is that all great publishing houses, and I would argue most really successful ones, are driven by editorial taste, passion, and savvy. ("Savvy" includes commercial savvy, a point I'll come back to.)

I know we bloggers are supposed to make lists, so here's my list of 5 Reasons Editorial Still Drives Publishing.

1. First of all, as my old boss Tom McCormack used to say, "salepeople can't sell, marketers can't market, publicists can't publicize, until editors bring in the books." However the marketplace has changed, attracting and developing new works that people want to read is the sine qua non of a publishing house. Sales couldn't perform this function, nor can marketing.

2. The current explosion of self- and small publishers and the hugely expanding universe of titles available makes the role of a trusted curator that much more valuable. It's a cliché in the business that publishers' brands are meaningless to consumers. But with tens of thousands of new titles, mostly mediocre or worse, flooding the market, that is going to change. Houses whose editors consistently find works that readers respond to are going to have the most success.

3. The development of those works--that is, editing--is still a really vital part of what publishers offer authors. It's easy to romanticize, and overvalue, the mystical author-editor bond and the brilliant contributions of editors who turn sprawling stacks of manuscript into future classics. Such transformations are very rare; more often, the best an editor can do is take a book from a B plus to an A minus. Nonetheless, that might be what breaks that book out of the pack--there are a lot of B plus books out there. And whenever I meet with prospective authors and ask them what they're looking for in a publisher, the first thing most of them say is "an editor who will help me make my manuscript the best it can be." So the editing process is still a place where publishing houses truly do add value.

4. Most important, the best editors ARE marketers. To acquire and edit a book well, an editor needs to identify and understand the audience for that book, whether it's a poetic literary novel or a frat-boy memoir.  Editors need to understand those potential readers and what they're going to respond to in a book; with more specialized content (say, history or science or cooking) they need to know something about the field. The editor has to articulate the "sales handle"--the reason why someone would part with $10, $25 or more to own this particular work. (That sense of the reader's interest is also critical in the editing process--the way you edit the book is shaped by what you intuit readers are looking for in it. So "marketing" and "editing" are not in fact separable.) All of this is what I meant above in saying that great publishers are driven by taste plus commercial savvy.

Sometimes an inspired sales or marketing person, or a publicist, has a new inspiration for how to pitch or package a book, and often those colleagues will refine and sharpen the editor's take on it for their own purposes. But as my marketing colleagues will remind me, it's the editor who has to generate the passion and excitement that gets the machinery of the house moving. When editors don't do that, it's hard for marketers to manufacture that excitement themselves.

5. By the way, not only do editors need to know what readers in a given field are looking for. The best ones also find things that readers aren't looking for--yet. They recognize when an author has written something that doesn't fit an established template yet is fresh and compelling enough to create its own audience. It might be a first novel by David Foster Wallace, Art Spiegelman's Maus, or The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. Marketers are great at selling books to audiences they recognize, but usually very reluctant to embrace things they don't recognize. The first question marketing asks an editor with a new project is, "what are the comp titles?" When the answer is "there really aren't any" the editor meets stiff resistance. So a drawback of a "marketing-driven" house is likely to be that it follows trends rather than sets them--over the long term, a recipe for diminishing returns.

Mike's column cites the example of a small publishing house where the head of marketing is also an acquiring editor and remarks, "I think many publishers will come to see the benefits of marketing-led acquisition in the years to come." But the fact that one smart, creative person with an editorial background has a marketing job doesn't mean that marketing is taking over editorial. In fact, it might be the reverse!

There is no question that marketing is now more important, and more complex, than it has ever been in publishing, and it is likely to become even more so. But--and I say this with complete respect for the many superb marketing people I have worked with--as long as publishing houses as we know them exist, editors will remain at their heart.

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