We are saline, we are saaaline... • 25 March 2007 • The SnowBlog
We are saline, we are saaaline...
Well Em and I had a very enjoyable and brain-energising lunch with Chris from Salt Publishing on Friday. Chris, like Em, is one of those people who has packed more than twelve months of experience into each calendar year of his career. He seems to have worked in - and run, for that matter - quite an array of publishing departments and business units, both conventional and futuristic. More impressive still, is that he plainly understood what he was doing in each case (which in my jaundiced view of the world I never take for granted). I hope I'm not putting words into his mouth, but he seems to share two of our many views on business. 1) technology can be freeing; make it do as much of your work as possible and insist it does a good job. 2) terrific processes are just as important for tiny, overstretched businesses as big, complex ones. Naturally we didn't number these talking points, but let's pretend we did and talk about principle number three: 3) It's much more effective to choose one area (e.g. poetry) and go to town on it, than to operate in multiple areas and risk spreading yourself too thin. Undeniably, Snowbooks spread ourselves thin. And it's something we've always been advised against. Maybe it's as simple as basic economics: the closer you get to having a monopoly, the more profits are available to you - and we've built whatever the opposite of a monopoly is (hopefully not 'a trivial pursuit'). And when you look at how well Salt Publishing has adapted to its environment, you can see that it's now the 1800-pound Mako shark of the poetry world. Wait, that's not quite the right imagery. Let me try again. Let's say Salt is like an olive pitter and Snowbooks is like a stick. You can do a lot more stuff with a stick, but if what you want to do is pit olives, well, you might be wise to leave the stick in the stick drawer. I take Chris's general point to be, build an olive pitter, or a garlic press or a melon baller; don't build a stick.
What's the drawback of the stick approach? Well, each task we try to do takes more effort and gives us less payback. We have a general-purpose approach that isn't especially efficient for any one activity, but it allows us pretty much free rein. When you've got a stick in your hand, there's a wonderful temptation to poke at everything. Moreover if you want to pit an olive but your choice is a garlic press or a stick, I reckon you'd choose the stick (although I might have to empirically check that metaphor to be certain).
To be more specific, Salt are wired into the poetry world in a very impressive way. They know their authors and their audience and the connections between the two. One of the many benefits of that is the ability to sell a lot of their stock directly to the reader. If we could retain our volume, but sell direct, Em and I could buy that gold car we've been hankering after. But that poetry network would be useless to Salt if they suddenly decided to publish a book on choke holds and takedowns - though sensibly, that's a constraint Salt intend to live with.
The argument for specialism makes so much sense that we found ourselves going back over the reasons why we want to be generalists - and there were reasons; we didn't just forget to pick a niche. The downside of not specialising is obvious: you're always the small player, you're often a newbie, you don't have the relevant economies of scale or the key relationships or the previous experience. Most businesses want to shorten that phase of their existence and we've been prolonging it.
And if we settled on one area, we could add some go faster stripes to the business. For instance, if you want to sell poetry without exclusively relying on book chains, a good place to start is by linking up with the people who teach poetry, but if it's martial arts books you're trying to shift, then you might be better off forming links to dojos and gyms - there's very little useful overlap between the two, but you probably ought to pick one of them.
And what are the upsides of generalism? Well there's the... the useful amounts of... that's to say it's... well, for a start there's... well, you know, it's more fun.
But maybe it's time to put the fun aside and specialise. We just have to decide what to specialise in. Crafts? Experimental Fiction? Zombie Novels? Who's going to tell Em that she can't publish books about how to kill a man with your elbow any more? And James will have to relinquish the Sex/Drugs/Rock'n'Roll and learn to get his addictive highs from quilting (I'm told it can be done). The problem is that each of our mini-specialisms looks so damn good. I don't see how you could take someone who was doing a great job at one thing and tell them to pursue something else that they have no interest in and are unlikely therefore to excel at.
So what's the answer? Well, on this particular Sunday morning and with no detailed thought to back it up, I'm wondering about this idea: specialist micro-publishers. Build specialist publishers at the level of an individual, not a whole firm. After all, my understanding is that Chris and Jen created Salt - that's just two people. If we can get the size of a specialist publishing arm down to just over one person - i.e. one person, plus a bit of support from the team - then maybe we can take Chris's advice and still continue to indulge our ridiculously disparate interests.
Of course I'm going to drink a bit more tea and have another think about it. Maybe I'll change my mind. Or maybe I'll tell the others, and they'll hate the idea. That leads me on to another principle we discussed. 4) Changing strategy is much easier than changing infrastructure, which is why so many companies only do the first and not the second. Ooh, now there's an idea.