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


‘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.

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 at BookExpo America on Wednesday (27 May) with a statement of what it means to think about customer curation in books today.

The concept has begun gaining traction as it dawns on many of us that “discoverability” may be only part of the problem.

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.

Bhaskar 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.

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:

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.

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.”

“Gatekeepers are losing power but they’re also becoming more important. Gatekeepers need to evolve and change and adapt.”
Michael Bhaskar

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.”

‘Gatekeepers Are Becoming More Important…Our First Hires Will Be Editors’

One of Bhaskar’s more controversial points resonates in his use of the term “gatekeeper” — a hated creature among many in an era in which so many seem obsessed with being published.

The role of “gatekeeper,” while vested in agents, acquisition editors, critics and others, was, after all, no accident. The industry’s layers of filters was born of its need to publish what would sell, what might contribute to the culture’s overall body of literature, what was “important” in one way or another: that “agenda-setting” function was financially, practically, and philosophically an operating reality. The change afoot now can revert such appraisals of “importance” to the consumer, the reader.

But what might surprise some is Bhaskar’s assertion that the role of the gatekeeper is hardly dead, but changing. He used his own newly established digital-first publishing company to explain:

Gatekeepers are losing power but they’re also becoming more important. Gatekeepers need to evolve and change and adapt. And this is something we’re trying to do at Canelo.

We’re a digital publisher based in London. A lot of what we do is about being careful how we select books. We’ve built systems. We’ve got technology. We could publish thousands of books tomorrow. A founding principle at Canelo is that we embrace technology. We’ve got very frustrated with how slow many publishers are to embrace technology, to see ebooks as the “secondary product.” But that doesn’t mean we’re going to publish thousands and thousands of books. We’re not…We’re constantly saying no to agents. And we worry about this because it’s going to make our lives more difficult.

But despite being a technology-driven company — perhaps because of it — we have to be a carefully curated company. We don’t want to add to those millions-plus books without there being good reason. Our first hires will be editors.

“The main thing is understanding people at a granular level…Most of them spend very little time looking for books.”
Peter McCarthy

Bhaskar closed his commentary at the conference with a cautionary note in which he pointed out that running to one side or the other with the curatorial function could be a mistake. Publishers, he said, have to curate more severely, not less, even while surrounded by consumer-curators — because we are facing an historically new threat: overwhelm.

On the one hand, we’ve got this situation of readers and their curation. That’s very exciting.

On the other hand, publishers have to go back to their core roll of being very powerful and selective curators of books.

What is new is that the situation of excess, too many books, is unprecedented. That’s something we all have to think about.

‘Too Many Books’

Bhaskar’s comment about “too many books” proved to dog the conference and the trade show in New York all week.

Later in the morning on which Bhaskar spoke, the gaming specialist Jane McGonigal would mention a statistic from some survey work that indicates, she said, that 90 percent of young people asked say they want to write a book. This would be followed quickly by my colleague Jane Friedman, who moderated a panel at my invitation at the conference and wrote a thoughtful piece, The Age-Old Cynicism Surrounding The Dream Of Book Writing. And in our #FutureChat from The FutureBook on Friday (29 May), joined at points by “both Janes,” Friedman noted the idea “that 80 percent of adults also want to write a book” — it’s not just young people.  We’ll have a recap of the #FutureChat conversation this week at The FutureBook.

For now, it’s helpful to understand this set of interlaced issues coming into focus around publishing:

  • Reader-as curator;
  • Publisher-as-reader-facing-provider;
  • Digital-publishing-as-great-leveler and, to many, an irresistible lure; and
  • A marketplace deep under water.

It’s getting more difficult almost daily for authors, publishers, booksellers, to break through the cacophony generated by so much content being marketed to so many people by so many parties.

At BookCon, which has followed BEA this weekend — more on its development is here — the token of the realm is populist celebrity, as when actors Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak from The Office appear to tell rapt fans about their book projects.

It’s no wonder that entertainment personalities are popular with publishing as writers: in the largest publishing houses, marketing folks will tell you privately that the number of “impressions” needed to attract reader attention is multiplying fast amid so much noise in the marketing space today. And at the opposite end of the production spectrum, occupied by the self-published independent author, the task of reaching readers about his or her book might well feel like standing at the foot of a rock face, looking straight up.

Don’t believe me?

A few more lines from Bhaskar’s keynote presentation:

IBM estimates the world now produces over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data – that is, 2,500,000,000,000 megabytes – every day. If you wrote out all the ones and zeros of just one megabyte in longhand, the line would be five times taller than Mount Everest. Facebook alone deals with 2.5 billion pieces of content and 500 terabytes each day. In the past two years alone, humanity has produced more data than the rest of human history combined, and this extraordinary rate of production is still growing by 60 percent a year.

McCarthy tells us we need a “holistic” mindset in trying to reform how we approach the readership that now has its own, vast curatorial role to play. It’s worth giving him the final word here.

[The book discovery landscape has] always been fractured in terms of who was looking and, just as often, how they found out about a book. Often, word-of-mouth, which we believed we understood but really it was “dark” to us. We really just knew where they [readers] tended to go and knew that some discovery occurred there…It’s still many people out there just living their lives and, bang, up pops a book. A very few people in the U.S. read more than one book a year, but a lot do just that. We talk about readers. I think it’s potential readers. People. The key now is that we can understand a lot more of how awareness occurs. So, what to do?
The main thing is understanding people at a granular level to be able to speak to them in their language at the right time and about the right thing — book, author, brand. Platforms, influencers, tactics then become clear. Understanding that “living their lives” part is critical. Most of them spend very little time looking for books. We’re much better understood holistically. Those attributes are the leading indicators of potential interest.