Let’s End Status Quo Publishing (Part 2)

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


In part one of this newsletter, I defined status quo publishing as the method whereby publishers try to reduce the cost of producing and distributing books. The majority of these methods—be they outsourcing or freelancing our work or relying on Amazon to sell our products to unknown customers—cause us to rely on anonymous transactions. I further argued that status quo publishing separates us from our customers (readers) and is a major cause of our current struggles. In conclusion, I stated that “we must dedicate ourselves to a dialectic form of publishing that resists the status quo, and we must constantly keep up with our readers by reducing anonymous transactions. Status quo publishing may seem a reasonable way to address the current situation, but it is based on unsustainable, disabling practices and must end before we do.” So then this begs the question, What constitutes a dialectic form of publishing and what practices can we deploy to create that?{: .lead}

Books take us out of our own minds and allow us to engage in that of others. Before we even pick up a book, we have a particular viewpoint, set of feelings, or body of insights that affect the interpretation that we give to the written word. When we encounter the written word—or read—we integrate what is presented to us into our initial disposition. This alters our viewpoint and expands our knowledge. Reading, by definition, is dialectic, and that is why we value books—they change who we are.

As publishers, we must create books that attract and engage readers. But how do we do that? Unlike most industries,1 we are predisposed to detachment, and repeated or varying success is less likely than other industries. Oftentimes, the process of writing is done by an author who works apart from her audience.Yes, writing requires concentration, but frequently writers distance themselves from their readers until they try to promote their finished books.2 Success is further hampered because we tend to operate away from the readers (in both editorial and sales) and thus don’t necessarily know how to alter our products in ways that lead to success. Despite this, Scribe has clients who have fruitfully navigated this environment.

One author with whom we work has a method for overcoming this predicament: she organically developed a Facebook following and answers all posts and direct messages. This enables her to experience her readers’ reactions to her work. Having a direct relationship with her audience has led to developing characters in a certain way, changing the plot in some cases, and evolving her writing to better suit her readers.

A mission-driven publisher with whom we work tends to create books by combining shorter related works. Thus the chapters of books have had a public airing prior to being compiled as a full-length book. This enables the writers to discover issues with their presentations and modify them to more effectively reach their audience. This exposure also generates interest in their books. They also collect information from all who attend events associated with the organization or their authors and utilize the data in what they produce next.

Others are engaged in methods to promote the much-needed dialectic relation. One of our publishers sends an “assistant” (who is actually a marketing person) along to their authors’ public events. That person collects attendees’ contact information and hears the reactions of the audience to their publications. Another mission-driven publisher holds select advanced readings. They charge to attend these events, where they offer exclusive readings, meetings with the authors, and special offers on their publications.

In all these cases and others, the publishers develop a direct relationship with their customers and engage their audience to determine how to shape their publications. They learn how particular ideas strike their audience, what rhetorical methodology works best, the vocabulary that resonates with readers, and what idioms to employ.3 And they have developed methods to communicate with their readers.

Instead of editing according to our aesthetic, we must learn to do so in a manner that is fitting to those with whom we wish to connect. We must edit for consistency, correct grammar, spelling, and so on, but we should also know some of an audience’s previous experiences, which phrases are likely to work, what ideas might require additional context, and how they have reacted to the other books that we have produced.

We must also learn what design aesthetics, including interiors and covers, connect with our readers. Our clients have developed lists of customers to whom they can directly market and sell. But more important, a dialectic relationship in which the publisher and the reader are connected and grow together is cultivated. This has created a loyalty to the publisher and thus has taken some of the risk out of selecting new works. It also doesn’t hurt that they have increased their direct-to-consumer sales and thus their revenues.

It takes some effort and time to develop a dialectical relationship with our readers, but by doing so, and by eliminating the anonymous nature of the industry as it stands, we can ensure our success—and maybe change some lives through our books.

1. In some industries, connecting to customers is accomplished through methods like test marketing, focus groups, customer surveys, and so on. While this does not guarantee desired outcomes, it helps improve the likelihood of continued success. Other industries make modifications to existing products and sell that as the improved, or newer, model.

2. Most authors are unable to produce more than a few successful publications. Some are capable of authoring a series that sells well, but these instances are rare and do not generally support a publisher. Thus the tried and true method for continued success is also less likely in publishing.

3. I hesitate to use this example because it is so politically charged; however, our current president uses this exact dialectical methodology to determine what he says publicly (especially at his rallies). No matter what your political perspective, there is no doubt that he has developed a loyal, rhetorically committed audience.