Godfrey Harris' Comments on the Changing Nature of Publishing
I was my pleasure to hear Godfrey Harris, Executive Director of the International Publishers Alliance, speak on the changing nature of the publishing industry at the Book Publicists of Southern California meeting tonight. Mr. Harris is well respected worldwide for his knowledge about the book publishing industry. Mr. Harris made a number of good points, including the Harris Axioms for Small and Independent Publishers.
He began the speech by reminding everyone that publishing is a “commercial exercise.” The point of publishing, from its inception, was to make money. “Big publishing today has little to do with talent, or quality, or social benefit. It’s about making money.” This opens up a wealth of opportunities for small and independent publishers interested in fulfilling needs within the book trade.
The biggest publishers today are part of media conglomerates such as Bertlesmann, AG., Viacom and News Corporation. Interestingly, Viacom announced a restructuring to split its new media assets from its old media assets. Do you know where Simon & Schuster belongs—old media or new media? Neither. Viacom put it up for sale. CBS-TV, Nickelodeon, BET, MTV, Paramount, UPN, Showtime and Infinity Broadcasting are all more important to Sumner Redstone, Viacom’s CEO, than Simon & Schuster. Which brings up another interesting point. Within the large conglomerates, “big publishing” is a small part of the overall revenue of the corporation. In fact, even big publishing is small business in the scope of all available media.
Mr. Harris notes that book readership is down since 1987. It dropped from 57% of potential readers read at least one book in 1987 to 47% today. This is due to the staggering number of media alternatives such as TV, video games, DVDs, movies, concerts, the Internet, newspapers and magazines.
Mr. Harris states that publishers are to blame for not making their medium more “reader friendly.” For instance, any printer knows that color sells. Items printed in color receive 60% more favorably response than black & white. Yet why do publishers persist in printing only black & white? Low cost color printing options are now available to help change this.
All of this discussion leads to Harris’ Axioms. Axiom One: Every book deserves to be written; but only a few deserve to be published. There was nervous laughter from the crowd when Mr. Harris said this. Many in the audience were wondering to themselves if their book deserved to be published. I agree with this axiom with one minor corollary: every book deserves to be published if it can be published profitably. As printers, we can help publishers find ways to make their books profitable by using marketing techniques we use with our other, non-publishing customers.
Axiom Two: Sell what the market wants, not what you want to sell to the market. Know your market. Know what your market will buy. Think about the readability of the book (page layout, typography, paragraph length, color) before worrying about the words in the book. Think marketing before substance. Think selling before editing. As printers, we can influence the salability of the book, if the publisher will allow us. It comes down to the rapport with the publisher.
Axiom Three: Publish to make a difference, not to win someone’s acceptance.
Mr. Harris’ speech had wisdom for everyone: writers, publishers, publicists and printers. The audience enthusiastically applauded him. If you have the opportunity to hear him speak, I recommend you do so.