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Crowdsourcing – new model for book publishers?

September 5, 2011
Image of stack of pound coins

Crowdsourcing - a new idea for publishers. But is there money in them there hills?

The business model for book publishers has always been one based on some pretty infirm foundations. Ever-reliant on the trade for volume and now paying the price for that reliance, the future for books looks difficult. Enter a new model aimed at putting publishing back in contact with its readers: crowdsourcing.

In crowdsourcing, authors unite directly with readers to gain funding for bringing a book to market – and readers are recognised in the book itself. Two areas of vanity are satisfied: the author’s and the reader’s. Interesting. However, there are problems – the most significant of which is brand (whether the author’s or the publisher’s). Let me explain…

In this article today (Live Nude Authors: UK’s Unbound Lets A-listers, Aspirants Pitch for Cash to Publish), the appropriately-named Roger Tagholm, discusses how social media has empowered A-list authors to engender new relationships with potential readers by engaging with them directly in search of funding. Readers can, in effect, sponsor the production of new titles and thereby reduce potential risk.

However, the problem here is the term “A-listers” – i.e., authors who are already known. Who have brand collateral. Who can build on a promise, so to speak. Investment in these projects by readers is relatively low risk because the rewards are potentially reliable: they know what they’ll get (mind you, one wonders whether Lucien Freud’s painting of the Queen was what was expected from a well-known “brand”…).

But what about unknown authors? Here we’re back to the same problem which has dogged publishers for years: investing in the unknown. All is not lost – and once more we come back to what a publisher stands for with its brand. If publishers had the wit and wherewithal to define their brand and what they stand for, the potential here is that they can “crowdsource” ideas to engender pro-active commissioning (rather than re-active desperation).

Publishers themselves can build crowdsourced portals based around brand relevant topics: history; engineering; travel etc. Publishers can interact with readers to grasp desire and to understand content. Readers can become more involved in commissioning strategy and, in so doing, establish longer term and direct relationships with publishers to the mutual benefit of both.

But we come back to the key issue: what does a publisher stand for? What is its brand? What is its emotional resonance with its readers? How does its brand make sense to people who have never come across it before? Brand – through actual delivery and evocative demonstration – will be key to a crowdsourcing model.

Some of the UK’s more innovative publishers have already developed some form of direct relationship with their readers and have some form of platform from which to develop. However, without being privy to subscriber data, I suspect that the volumes of consumer data are on the low side and the responsiveness of that data is probably even lower.

The issue, it seems to me, is to create excitement in a brand large enough to permit significant levels of social media attraction to engender a robust response. For example, if a publisher has 200,000 readers on its data system but only engenders a response of 0.2%, the numbers involved are likely to be too low to create either (a) a commercially viable product and (2) a commercially relevant product.

Brands need to be powerful enough to engender data submission from existing and new readers and to engender significantly bigger than average campaign response levels. In other words, a brand cannot rest on its laurels by just attracting data – it must truly invest in interaction, learn, change, develop and grow. In other words, defining the brand strategy and investing in brand-based marketing will become crucial.

Metrics – and subsequent sales – will define the success of such a policy and define publishing strategy, as is right and proper. Publishing cannot afford to be so arrogant as to ignore its end-user market – alas, not even the most aesthetic of Oxbridge commissioning editors can afford to sit in their ivory towers these days.




4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2011 12:44 pm

    A very timely article as ever – especially with Waterstones announcing the end of their long-standing three for two offers with a pledge not to use price as a marketing tool.
    A good brand allows readers to be sure of the quality and relevance of a future title sold under that brand. But you are saying that it should be used to generate the data that will drive commissioning decisions. How practically will this happen? Is this not what commissioning editors have – in theory – been doing for some time? Or is that they have allowed themselves to be dictated by the trade (though presumably their own decisions are driven by customer-based feedback)? How does the crowdsouring model differ in the way it defines the publisher/customer relationship – other than being more direct and less filtered? Is the reliance on the author/reader interface (ugh!) significant? If so, a lot of the responsibility and with it publishing power shifts from publisher to author. If authors come to believe they are the brand, does it matter within which publishing house that brand sits?
    I may missed the point totally!!

    • September 5, 2011 1:28 pm

      Julian – many thanks for this focused response. The author/reader relationship is very interesting and certainly some publishers need to be afraid. My argument is more that by investing in a brand as an emotional object, publishers can engage with readers as a brand rather than having to engage with them via author loyalty. While the latter is clearly very important it has more chance of success with known authors; for new proposals it makes sense to me that readers need to identify with publishing brands who support their requirements. I would imagine that a brand like the legal publisher Butterworths (as was…) would be able to establish excellent crowd-sourced solutions assuming the company was entrepreneurially focused whereas a smaller, less-focused publisher might struggle to engage as a logical focus for readers. If publishers fail to invest in brand perception of themselves then yes, as many commentators from Seth Godin onwards have suggested, authors will own the relationship in the social meda world. It is this fact which publishers need to consider very carefully.

  2. September 6, 2011 7:05 am

    The largest publisher in the Nordic Countries (WSOY) is actually crowdsourcing a book at the moment. The whole project is in finnish, but the crowdsourcing company behind this idea have some interesting projects in the past.

    Check out, and

    • September 6, 2011 9:00 am


      Many thanks for these links. There’s clearly power in social media; for mainstream publishers, the ability to think and act like this are key. Issues for the larger publishers are those of culture, group-think and internal structure. If these issues can be overcome I foresee great excitement. Thanks for the feedback. Michael

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