HarperCollins UK Boss Outs Self As Being Hilariously, Wilfully Blind

Nov 25, 2013 | The Publishing Industry

The Passive Voice brought this story to my attention today – HarperCollins UK boss tells publishers: take storytelling back from digital rivals. There are some choice quotes from this particular article that I simply must post here…

HarperCollins logoPublishers have allowed competitors to jump in, he says, whether they are startup companies producing apps or authors publishing their novels on Amazon. Now they “need to take that space back” by producing content for games players, tablet computers and other devices…

Redmayne expects demand for ebooks to continue to grow before plateauing at roughly 50% of all book sales. But the industry needs to think far beyond ebooks and audio books, he argues, and create content for a range of devices: apps, games for consoles, video. These are attracting new readers, people who “didn’t feel at home in bookshops” and who have discovered reading through their iPad or another device…

“We need to think about brands. In a world where Amazon is knocking out hundreds of emerging authors every year, it becomes increasingly difficult for emerging authors to be discovered, so we need to think about how we build brands like John Grisham, James Patterson,” he said, revealing he is a fan of Bernard Cornwell, author of the swashbuckling Richard Sharpe novels. “Michael Morpurgo, Hilary Mantel, JK Rowling – people who have transcended being an author and are brands in their own right … and in a digital world they are going to create a huge amount of value.”

I know I like to mock the traditional publishing industry something fierce, but good grief, I just can’t top this. I actually struggled to read much of this without laughing out loud.

I mean, seriously? “Publishers have allowed competitors to jump in” when it comes to storytelling? Man, where the hell have you been over the last hundred years of cinema – or do movies and television not count as storytelling competition? How about the last few decades of computer gaming? And now you’re pointing at apps and self-published authors as your main enemy?

I honestly cannot parse this level of complete obliviousness. Dear Charlie Redmayne, that ship has long since sailed and publishers were not on it, and if anything – ANYTHING – shows just how out of touch you are, it’s this:

“Publishers have historically been the most innovative and creative of organisations,” he said.

Someone who says this about traditional publishers – the same people who had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the digital age by Amazon; who still treat Amazon as their nemesis despite all the money they make there; whose response to the ebook revolution was to stall, ignore, and fundamentally misunderstand everything about it – is someone so wilfully blind that they’re in need of a roadmap just to put their pants on in the morning. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the head of HarperCollins, supposedly the man with the plan and the technical know-how.

HarperCollins? A “Storyteller”?

In short: No. In long: Hahahahahaahaha no.

One of the comments on PG’s link rightly pointed out that publishers don’t do this. Authors and other creative individuals are the storytellers, and publishers are distribution and marketing. The fact that Redmayne conflates the two is so highly telling as to be astonishing, and it’s indicative of something very fundamental to the mindset of the traditional industry.

Here’s how I break it down:

They think that ‘publishers = literature’. Not ‘authors = literature’; authors are the providers of raw material, in the same way that a bauxite mine produces the raw materials that will someday become a Macbook. So, if ‘publishers = literature’, then by extension, ‘publishers = storytelling’. Authors are an afterthought. And all of their talk and business practices bears out this mindset, that they are still the most important link in the chain from author to reader, simply because they were for years and in spite of the fact that technology has blown most of their relevancy out of the water.

And in the whole article, the only thing he had to say about authors was how to ‘build brands’. I’ve talked before about the author as a brand unto themselves in my marketing book – link in the sidebar for anyone who wants a free copy for reference – but at least I was speaking directly to authors there. Redmayne talks about them like they’re the latest Xbox, for gods’ sake! It’s insulting and dehumanizing, and consolidates the whole ‘ivory tower’ feel he’s got going on there.

Frankly, if I were working at HarperCollins, I would be shitting bricks after reading this. I made the following predictions over a year ago, and they still hold true now as far as I’m concerned:

  • The Big Six (now five) will downsize, consolidate and possibly merge over the next few years as they trim sails and try to survive in the brave new world of publishing.
  • Paper books will continue to crash, and with them, even more book stores will close.
  • The survivors will be incredibly consumer orientated, and focused on delivering a good sales experience – closer to a boutique than a supermarket, possibly incorporating extra services for readers like a cafe with comfy chairs, or even a small lending library.
  • Ebooks will continue to explode, and Amazon will remain the dominant player with very little competition from the traditional publishers. If a disruptive service appears, it’ll be from a source far outside the usual publishing paradigm, like Netflix.
  • Non-traditionally published authors will come to dominate the bestseller lists.
  • Literary agents will start to go out of business, and some will re-orientate themselves around a new list of services that don’t necessarily include the Big Six (now five).

Seems like the only thing that’s taking a while is the fifth one. Give it time, though… As for Charlie’s warning, that publishers should start trying to take space from app makers and self-published authors, despite having none of the expertise to do so?

Yeah, good luck with that.