Send out your dinghies & test the unchartered waters

A repost of my piece for futurEbook

There is a tradition and legacy that has upheld publishing houses for years – the ‘it’s worked great so far’ structure, architecture and acumen that comes with years of experience.  Publishers could be seen as huge motherships, or even self-contained, branded cruiseliners, sailing through the familiar waters of acquiring content, filtering, shaping, branding and then navigating the route to distribution.

Cruiseliners smack of luxury, right?  As a passenger you relax, oblivious to the hardworking crew that graft behind the scenes as they transport you from one fabulous location to another.  You socialise in the bar or on deck, dance at the cabaret, relax in the pool, until you dock and disembark ready for the next adventure.  Publishers operate on a similar frame – books, rather story, has the power to transport you from one fabulous location to another and as a reader/consumer of content you know what you like, you want it now and keep an eye out for the latest offering from your favourite author or genre – (not publisher – readers don’t care who the publishers are – they just want the content!)  The thing with giant cruise ships though, is that they’re not going to zip you across to that little island where you saw the laughing crowds dancing and hula’ing on the white sands!  The cruiseliner can’t swiftly change direction and try out a new route on unchartered waters just in case it’s the wrong decision.  The crew would know how to sail to the island and the cruiseliner might eventually get you there, but will never move as quickly as a smaller, independent vessel.  Here’s where you’d wish you could lower the ropes, hop into the dinghy and whizz off to check out the party.

There’s nothing new in reporting about nimble newcomers stealing a march on the big guys because they can’t adapt quickly enough and these are challenging, but exciting, times for publishers but by lowering the ropes and sending out their dinghies they can begin to experiment in a sea of digital opportunity, sail toward new horizons and ‘wave’ hello to potentially new audiences….

Sending out the dinghies isn’t restricted to publishers and isn’t fresh news, it’s called experimenting. Entertainment companies and ad agencies are beginning to fragment, forming ‘experimental’ departments, to pioneer new outputs and approaches, build new platforms through which brands can engage, and create new agency models to move forward.  It’s not a dissimilar model to publishers imprints – a controlled, contained way of fragmenting, segregating and branding vertically – to market the work to different demographic consumer segments and now ‘niche’ publishing is working to fragment and embed brand into communities.  The bottom line is that the consumer does not care who the publisher is, they simply want consumable, value content at the push of a (metaphorical) button.

So, you have your central hubs ‘on board’ the cruise liner – think of these as the bar or being on deck, where you hang out on the safe territory of the mothership and socialise.  In terms of fragmenting – these are the Community Sites such as Harper Collins’ Authonomy and Cursor – where each community is also a publishing imprint.    Richard Nash, founder of Cursor said, “I believe it is vital to seed and embed ideas and threads early on – so how about talking to journalists/bloggers/potential readers first – engaging with them to raise awareness.  Then try gathering a series of mini communities using social media – likeminded readers/audience/writers.  Listen to them.  Engage with them.  And THEN begin to strategically filter out your content.  In bite sized chunks and interesting snippets.  Make them hungry for more until they want the book. These community-focussed hubs subconsciously help determine demographics, audience behaviours and expectations which add huge value to any branding/marketing.

There’s no doubt that testing the water in these digital times with no ‘dead cert’ as to what will and won’t work can be scary, but let’s face it ‘media partner’ is the buzzword du jour and, I believe, the way forward.  To hop off-board and jump into the dinghies on the deep waters might be less daunting with the security of a partner and here are a few examples of publishers that have sent out a dinghy or two:

·                     Bloomsbury & Babelgum paired up for Sex and the Austen Girl –a new web series to air weekly over 20 webisodes –  providing great publicity for the lead up to the publication of Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict in Feb 2011.  Their 20-part Babelgum Original Series “Sex and the Austen Girl” premiered on the broadband network’s comedy channel in May. The webseries is based on the best-selling novels Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and its parallel story/ sequel, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict are both published by Dutton & Plume, Penguin Books (USA) and Bloomsbury (UK).  The series has its own URL as well as being featured on the comedy shuffle and the front page shuffle of the site. To raise awareness of the series it was tweeted about, with links to Babelgum and the videos were seeded on bloomsbury.com. With Babelgum itself getting 2 million unique users each month this hopes to create an excellent web presence for the series and the books.

·                     Harper Collins and Asos.com teamed up for the Hot Reads Campaign, which is perfect product placement and totally relevant to both audiences/consumers!  HarperCollins announced a media partnership with ASOS.com, the online fashion store, to launch the Hot Reads campaign, highlighting six new summer titles perfect for ASOS’s young women’s market.   ASOS.com has 7.5 million unique users a month and will support the six books via a microsite www.asos.com/hotreads which will highlight a must-have book every two weeks.

·                     Hachette Filipacchi, MSN and BermanBraun partnered to create Glo – a web-only brand with an original voice.  The Microsoft-owned Web portal, the publisher, and the independent media company, respectively, described Glo as “a lifestyle site that focuses on style, beauty, living, and relationship content through a uniquely engaging and dynamic experience.” Hachette commented, H“like all publishers, we are exploring different ways to deliver content onto all platforms.  We are very excited about creating a web-only brand with an original voice that fills an open position in the marketplace.  Our collaboration with our two outstanding partners, MSN and BermanBraun, has been a rich one, with each team bringing distinct strengths and voices to the project”.

·                     Candace Bushnell, Meredith & Maybelline collaborated on The Broadroom – a four part series written by Candace Bushnell (Sex and the City). The four-part series—presented by Maybelline New York NEW Color Sensational lipcolor—featured an accomplished ensemble cast of women including Jennie Garth, Jennifer Esposito, Talia Balsam, Mary McCann and newcomer Lauren Devereux. The webisodes took a humorous look at women in the workplace.

If publishers can balance what the consumer wants, including accessibility and immediacy in this on-demand culture, with what the publisher wants – audience, fragmented/branded imprints, to sell content now and to acquire audiences, they will be perfectly positioned to embrace Mike Shatzkin’s Roadmap for the future – ‘6 suggestions for todays publishers that many can’t follow’  that include using content as bait and attracting eyeballs, being prepared to imitate new models, acquiring competitors or joining them, finding multiple ways to engage your audience and building multiple brands with meaning.  Just don’t forget your oars, nobody said it was going to be easy!

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