I thought I'd just say a little more about our strategery week. I'm covering some of the same ground as Em's earlier post, but also expanding on a few points. Personally, I always like hearing about why other companies do the things they do. It's a good way of clarifying one's own thinking. And often it's an excellent source of cheap laughs too.
So why are we shifting a bit more towards non-fiction and why are we planning to back it up with online community thingies? Well, it's partly about building on areas we think we're good at and partly about taking evasive action as we spot problems up ahead.
For instance, I've blathered on at some length about how publishers are far from indispensable to the world of books and reading. Software is making it easier for authors to check and typeset their own work. They can produce an electronic copy of their book or send it off to print - all without our help. The technology to make that possible is only going to improve, becoming cheaper and more widespread - especially if e-readers become common. But self-publishing is only half the battle. How are readers going to hear about self-published work? And how will they know which of it they might like?
Well, online communities of adventurous readers could easily filter and grade new writing. Some people like to be in the vanguard, reading the latest, newest writing, being the first to discover new talent. If a majority of those people ever congregate in online communities they could begin to take over one of the important functions that publishers and agents perform now: the first cut of wheat from chaff. Then less adventurous readers could pick and choose from what the reading vanguard recommend. Imagine a gradient of readers, from adventurous novelty-seekers to staid play-it-safers. If each group feeds back its views to online communities (even just choosing how many stars to give a book as they close their e-readers), anyone looking for a book to read will be able to get all the information and guidance they need without having to consult a retailer. And the retailers in turn won't need the publishers.
Now like all these discussions it's important to say that it won't happen overnight, it won't happen equally across all genres and it won't be 100%. Just like mobile phones haven't replaced landlines - or even call boxes - most changes live alongside the alternatives rather than obliterating them. But they can still have major effects.
Where is this change likely to happen first? In text-only single-author books and in communities that already exist on the web - especially in communities that already write for each other, like the world of craft blogs.
Craft blogs also link to another important point. We've tried to make a policy of only publishing books we totally love. Now in fiction, quality can be very subjective, but in non-fiction, it's much easier bring in some objectivity. There's still a subjective element, but Em can say 'this is a good martial arts book' or Anna can say 'this is a good craft book' and because they're both experts in and members of the community they're selling to, they know what they're talking about. Publishing in areas where we're experts is likely to help us keep quality high and give us a much better grasp of what the demand is. It also speeds the process along. Em knows whether an author is using terms like 'centre-line' properly, just as Anna knows the difference between a cross stitch and a chain stitch - and which one she's looking at a photo of.
Like so many of our ideas, this concept doesn't scale very well. We couldn't really put out three hundred titles a year using editors who are also experts in each of their titles, but the beauty is that we're not intending to scale up. Because we're self-funded, we have the option to stop at ten employees, or five or three. Whatever works best for us.
And one more point to make about craft or martial arts books: think about self-publishing again. It's clearly easier to self-publish a novel than it is a four-colour title containing a thousand pictures.
So by aiming to do more colour, non-fiction titles in areas we have personal expertise in and in which there already exist tight-knit communities (ideally online ones) we're ticking umpteen boxes when it comes to preparing for the future. We're operating in the areas best able to withstand the digital onslaught and we're simultaneously positioning ourselves to have a role should communities take over from the agent/publisher/retailer process of picking winners. We're also making it easier to keep quality high and to gauge demand more accurately. And finally, we're selecting titles we'll actually enjoy working on. What's not to like?
Re: Matthew's comment below. That's one of the points I should have mentioned. We're not intending to charge more, but we are intending to sell directly to the communities we're involved with. Since selling direct can easily triple the profit per book compared with selling through a big retailer, even if we only do a little of this it will be a big help.