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Publisheraptor extinctus: Revival of the fittest

If this old world survives, one day in the distant future, a paleontologist somewhere will unearth a slab of rock that contains the skeletal remains of a book publisher. Its gaping jaws and bony fingers will testify to the day a flood of future-wave technology and innovation overcame him. Pressed into soft mud and overlaid with more mud, he breathed his last.

Silly imagery perhaps, but publishing today will be tomorrow’s dinosaur unless the industry adapts.

I’ve always been fascinated by the deeply held biases that prevent publishers from reaching new markets. There are several “rules,” for example, that seem to be nonsensical.

One “rule” is that book lovers will not embrace new technology. Margo will not sit in Central Park and read a book via Kindle or a Sony Reader. Or better yet, Joe driving his truck cross country won’t read electronically. But let me make an easy prediction: one day soon, books will be delivered electronically much more than delivered by printing presses.

Another “rule” dictates that personal stories no longer sell. Yet for years and years, I received manuscript submissions that were personal stories; buyers at conventions asked if we had personal stories; and today, personal stories dominate the conversations I hear everywhere.

Another nugget of Fool’s Gold wisdom I have heard is that women, say 20-45, are not interested in much except wispy, gossamer gift books.

Yet I constantly talk to women whose knowledge of history, politics and culture tax my ability to sustain the conversation. Do conservative publishers market to people, or do they market to 50-year-old professional white men?

Further, I was in a bookshop (I love to call it a “bookshop,” even though I usually refer to “bookstores” – “bookshop” sounds so … Dickensian) and the owner was huffing about Kindle readers, I-pods and text-messaging.

Look, being a purist is cool in certain settings, and I will never stop reading paper books with elegant bindings; but if publishers want to stay in business, innovation not only in marketing, but also in the utilization of technology is a must.

Let me give you a football analogy: 40 years ago, Alabama football coach Bear Bryant was humming along nicely with passing quarterbacks like Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler. Keep in mind, their four knees creaked like the door on a mausoleum, but, boy, could these guys throw the football.

The day came though when Bryant looked at his television set and saw Texas and Oklahoma running a new-fangled offense called the Wishbone. Featuring a running quarterback and an extra running back behind him, the thing was devastating to opponents. Bryant sent some assistant coaches westward to learn. Then, one fine evening against Southern California, 1971, the Alabama Crimson Tide unveiled its own version of the Wishbone. History shows that in the 1970s, Alabama won a hundred football games and a drawer-full of championship rings.

Bryant was innovative, and he didn’t wait around while other programs leaned into the future.

Whenever I come across a story of a publisher that is innovative and focused, I take notice. Take August House:

The Little Rock-based publisher is “the highly-acclaimed and award-winning multimedia publisher of children’s stories, folktale anthologies and resource books,” per the website.

The multi-million-dollar operation thrives by focusing on its core base. The company’s sales representatives attend over 100 folktale conventions each year. Presumably, they don’t target more mainstream venues, where they would surely receive lukewarm response. But by staying focused, they are healthy in a shaky market. August House’s work with literacy programs and in schools also ensures that they are meeting a need and not simply selling product.

No one actually knows the real totals, but there are probably a quarter-million books being published each year. If I didn’t know, and you told me 250,000 books were published last year, I would choke. The industry is producing too many books (The reasons for this will be discussed in next week’s column, by the way).

I guess what I’m attempting to say today is that there are tons of publishers who have bloated lists, coupled with publishing agendas that are adrift. Because Harry Potter or the Left Behind books become all the rage, most publishers give their editorial staff the assignment of finding a hot new writer who can write kid’s adventure stories or end-times fiction.

Wouldn’t it be great if publishers were bold and decided to set trends rather than study and follow trends? I remember something my old friend, sales whiz Don Enz, once said in a publishers’ setting: “What could I accomplish if I weren’t afraid?”

Well, well said, Don. If I weren’t afraid to break some rules, or take a chance on a new writer who actually had skills … what could I as a publisher accomplish? If I weren’t afraid to slash my bloated list of mediocre titles, how could I reposition marketing monies to actually increase my sales?

Let me be candid: if I were a Christian publisher and my acquisitions editor brought a book on prayer, or mending relationships, I’d either shoot myself or the editor. There are thousands of good titles on those subjects; don’t get me wrong. I just want you to focus on that word, “thousands.” There are too many Christian books today and not enough innovative thought in how to market good ones.

Solomon was quite correct that there’s nothing new under the sun, but we can still shape compelling books and package and market them in new ways.

And to the old rule is that we must publish what the market demands, I say the opposite: you as the publisher set the agenda; the market will buy what you present.

So it would be innovative to, say, offer compelling personal stories of “unknown” people on a Kindle. Would that be difficult? Then sell it grass-roots. It seems that in our culture today, we all identify with people like us, fighting the same battles. We are looking for “what worked” for X, who managed to survive some crisis. Celebrity stories might be titillating, but the stories of “average” people are more compelling.

Publishing is a true adventure these days. It can be scary, tense, rewarding. But to survive and avoid extinction, loosen your tie and lean back and dare to think about what you could accomplish if you weren’t afraid. That’s when your publishing venture will become solid as a rock, not solid in a rock.