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Strategic Models in Publishing – or something that smells on my shoe?

April 4, 2011
Sawdays Books

Alastair Sawday Publishing - more than just a book publisher in an uncertain world

There’s another doom-laden report on Motley Fool today about the state of the high street in British retail; in particular the role played by Amazon, Ebay and the supermarkets in the demise of the music shops and the book trade.

Yet new models should offer dramatic opportunity for those companies who wish to seize them. Now, for the first time, interaction with readers has shifted from high street anonymity to direct interaction. The question is, how imaginative are publishers in dealing with this new opportunity?

I was intrigued by a purchase I made recently – a new recording, Playtime, by Brighton combo Sparrow. The music is great – a subtle blend of influences from Portishead, Giles, Giles and Fripp (even pre GGF, more Brondesbury Tapes) and some chord sequences courtesy of Manic Street Preachers.

Curiously, however, the album tells you little about the band itself, or the lyrics. To know more about the lyrics, you go online. To talk to the band, you can email them directly.

This is how value talks. This is not a two for one at Waterstones. This is not a BOGOF promo on a gondola end. This is not price-point-tastic. This is interaction.

This is the old stuff we used to get from brands: where a brand was more than a crass illusion trading on past performance but a badge of honour: The Triumph Bonneville; the Short Stirling; the Barker Canterbury shoe; Rylands barbed wire; HMS Devastation.

And publishers still have this ability – if they want it. Some really innovative publishers out there, like Sawdays for example, are doing fantastic things with their brands right now. They have a grammar of interaction with their client base; they leverage tone of voice; they have honed credibility delivered through proven stance over time; they actively seek new methods of expression. Oh, and they’re nice people too.

This is not shallow, this is gutsy: an English longbowman in the mud which is the current bookselling market. Publishers do have a choice, if they really want it. They can be independent, have relevance, be challenging, be provocative, be visionary, be honest and be credible. Or they can chase the broken dream which is the book trade, slavishly following price points and price-led offers in order to be visible.

In a classic recording to his sales force in the 1930s, Butterworths managing director Charles Belew stated confidently in his description of Halsbury’s Statutes that “no other work holds a candle to this“. He knew what his company published, he was proud of it, it delivered to customers and, believe it or not, that product is still a fundamental corner stone of the company’s profits today.

In these straitened times, beacons of light like this are more important than ever. Quality tells its own story – but books published without strategy, humanity, vision or direction are worth nothing more than something that sticks to your shoe in a badly-managed public park.  

Here we are, a nation cast adrift by reckless spending now having to pay back the debts we ourselves created as we pursued the unrealisable dreams of Islington’s chattering classes. Old methods cannot work any more. This is no time for complacency – it’s a time for bravery. Credibility, honesty, delivery and trust will build the new future.

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