Transcript: Authors Take Charge

Listen to Podcast Download Transcript PDF

Interview with Kristen McLean, co-founder, Bookigee.com

For podcast release Monday, September 17, 2012

KENNEALLY: With the rise of self-publishing as a viable business model, authors no longer must rely on publishers to bring their works to their audiences. A job that was never easy in the first place, writing has now become even more challenging. Self-published authors are their own marketeers, they run their own bookstores, and they must manage that other kind of bookkeeping, the financials.

Welcome everyone to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. My name is Christopher Kenneally, your host for Beyond the Book. Joining me today from Miami is Kristen McLean, cofounder of Bookigee, who’s here to explain how a book contract led her to start an exciting new business. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Kristen.

MCLEAN: Thanks, Christopher. It’s very nice to be here.

KENNEALLY: We’re looking forward to chatting with you because you have a new perspective on an old business. That’s, of course, publishing. We should tell people briefly about your background.

Before cofounding Bookigee, Kristen spent 17 years in publishing in a wide variety of roles, including her most recent position as executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, a nonprofit trade association that networks the children’s book market. Kristen also edits Bowker PubTrack’s biannual consumer study of the children’s book market, Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age.

I suppose we should start at the very beginning, and that’s this wonderful story about how a book contract a few years ago led you to start a business and not write a book.

MCLEAN: Yeah. In my role as the executive director of the Association of Booksellers for Children, I was approached by a publisher who specializes in trade publishing for authors to write a book about the decision-making chain in publishing. What they wanted me to write about was the number of key decision-makers who had to really touch a book from the time it left an author’s desk to the time it hit a consumer’s hands.

This was a pretty interesting thing to think about because there are not very many people in traditional publishing who have had the kind of arc through publishing that I’ve had. I started as a frontline retailer and sort of progressed up through buying and managing a retail establishment, and then I went through some time as a field sales rep, and then I became marketing manager for a major publisher. So by the time I had hit the Association of Booksellers for Children, I really had this kind of interesting crow’s nest view of the industry.

I thought that was pretty cool. So I said OK, I think I can do that, but before I do it, I want to really spend some time researching the publishing model, because although I understand the mechanics of it really well, I don’t really understand why we do certain things in this industry the way we do. People inside publishing know publishing as a business just does not operate under the same rules as most retail businesses.

KENNEALLY: Kristen, I would bet that if you did ask anybody those kinds of questions, the answer up until a few days ago really was because that’s the way we always did it.

MCLEAN: Exactly. That’s true. And interesting, a lot of elements of our model have sort of grown organically over really about 300 years, so we still are doing things because we determined 100 years ago that this was the way to do it. For instance, copyright law.

So before writing, I really wanted to sort of understand a little bit more about the history and about sort of when parts of the publishing model emerged. So I took about six months to do that. I spent a lot of time talking to authors, in particular. I spent time looking at the history of the book, at the history of retail, and I started writing, and I realized about three chapters into the book that I just didn’t think could write it.

I was really struggling to write the book that the publisher wanted, which was a very nice friendly guide, because I was pretty convinced from all my research that this model was really not sustainable.

This writing was happening during 2008. So in 2008, the financial collapse happened, and I was representing bookstores that were already very stressed by the model. This was all going on in the background as I was trying to write this book, and I realized that I really thought that I needed to not write it. I thought I needed to either write a different book about the future of reading and writing, which I remain very interested in, or we were going to have to do something, because I just didn’t feel like it was an honest thing to do.

KENNEALLY: Kristen, if I can ask you, as you looked at it, did what you see ahead frighten you or give you reason to think that there was an opportunity out there?

MCLEAN: I did think that there was an opportunity. What I started to think about is, OK, I’m pretty sure that there’s going to be a reader on one end and a writer on the other. Unlike some people at that point, I didn’t think that writing or reading was going to go away.

So the question then became, well, if we were really to reinvent the middle part of the market, what would that look like? If we could just scrap the whole thing and start from scratch, what would that look like? And that sort of thinking is what led me down the path to start a new company.

KENNEALLY: You have now started that new company, Bookigee, and it’s a kind of consultancy that’s covering a multitude of bases. You work with publishers, but also with authors, and your first product is something called WriterCube, which I understand is a do-it-yourself marketing analytics app for authors. We’ve chatted on Beyond the Book with people in the self-publishing world – Matt Cavnar from Vook, for example, and people from Author Solutions over time, and they really do emphasize the marketing piece of self-publishing. But this is an app that kind of digs down and gets into the numbers. Why is that important?

MCLEAN: I think that one of the things that’s become clear to me when I think about a new model for publishing is that we’ve spent a lot of time in the model really focusing on the layer of the publisher. That made a lot of sense about 20, 30 years ago when the publisher really had the power to provide all the services an author needed to push a book out into the market and to reliably deliver that book into a consumer’s hands.

But when I started to really think about this model and take it apart, one of the things I’ve always thought is that the authors are very undervalued in this chain of publishing. We sort of have always treated them like milk cows, right? They’re happy, they’re in the field, we keep them healthy, and then the milk just comes out. From hundreds of years of authors outsourcing their publishing to publishers, we’ve sort of created a fairly docile layer there at the top, but without that layer, we have no industry.

And the more that I thought about this, the more I realized that the key to any disruption of this model and really rebuilding it had to do with starting to wake up those authors at the top and to start to really authentically serve them, because they were going to need a much higher level of sophistication in managing their business and really understanding the publishing process. Because that deal that they have done with publishers for so long, the value there is really starting to be a question, because publishers are having trouble delivering the books reliably into the marketplace and reaching all the places where readers live. A0nd at the same time, we have lots of tools evolving to really make the publishing process much more democratic.

So in that situation, authors really need help in sorting out their choices and just in understanding the nature of their business.

KENNEALLY: They know what their business is fundamentally. It’s writing. But now, if they’re going to become their own publishers, they actually really need to become business people, and business today, especially online businesses, really do rely on analytics. So tell us what WriterCube provides to authors.

MCLEAN: The core functionality which WriterCube provides that I think people are most excited about in our early testing is that we have an analytics suite that allows authors to associate their social media accounts with the app. And that allows us to pull down information and to visualize for them geographically where their audience is sitting, so I can show an author on a global map exactly where their Twitter and Facebook following is.

In the US market, we then allow the author to layer over the top of that map information on sales of any (inaudible) book in the US market for which we have data. It’s not just their own books. This is what really distinguishes this from other tools is that we are actually allowing authors to take a snapshot look at any book in the US market that is selling.

For instance, if you wrote a vegan cookbook, for instance, and it hasn’t yet come to market, you can use this app to plan your marketing by putting in your current audience and then laying the top two vegan cookbooks over the top of that and really look at how those sales align with your audience. What that allows you to do is determine, well, I think, because I’ve got a lot of audience in this area and those two books have sold well in this area, I’m going to start marketing there, because that’s a very good market for my forthcoming book.

KENNEALLY: Or for that matter, if you don’t already have an audience there, you need to set out to build one.

MCLEAN: That’s right. And the app actually, in its completed form, will actually give you an opportunity analysis that does exactly that. It says based on the data that you’ve asked to map, we think that these four markets are your best opportunities, and furthermore, here’s what we think you should do there. So if you don’t have a very big audience but that book has a lot of sales, yes, you might want to start building your audience in that area because that’s a potential market for you.

KENNEALLY: We are talking right now with Kristen McLean, who is the cofounder of a company called Bookigee, and she’s been telling us about their first product out called WriterCube, a do-it-yourself marketing analytics app for authors. I’ve committed the sin of writing a book or two myself, so I have to ask you a question that I’m sure a lot of authors listening will want to ask you, and that is, is this thing easy to use? I’m not really a techie by nature.

MCLEAN: Yeah, we’re really working very hard to try to make it as easy to use as possible, certainly as intuitive to use as possible. I do think that there’s going to be a piece of this work generally – as we try to educate authors, I’m finding that authors are so used to being kind of disempowered that sometimes we just have to start with talking about what they can do. Not necessarily that the tool is difficult to use, but they just don’t even think about the kind of power that this data might give them.

So sometimes we have to back up a little bit and just really explain to them about what we think is the future of marketing, which in my mind, is co-marketing if you’re working with an existing publisher, or just really understanding the functions of marketing if you’re an author trying to do it on your own.

So I think the tool itself is going to be really useful, but we’re also really committed to trying to undertake a much broader education campaign about what we think the future of authorship is.

KENNEALLY: Then in a nutshell, what is the future of authorship? Is it just working 24 hours a day? It sounds like there’s a lot that’s got to be done.

MCLEAN: I think that that’s definitely a big challenge, because I think that the small business skills that authors are going to have to really get better at are kind of in conflict with the kind of space and time that you need to write.

But I do think that there’s going to be a best practice that emerges that is going to help authors, and I also think it’s really important that if you’re going to attack your own marketing, especially in the social media area, that you need to be sort of thoughtful about developing your audience before you publish. So in some sense, you’re not trying to build that audience while you’re also trying to promote the book.

So trying to segregate the functions of writing, of building a platform or an audience, and then of pitching and selling and marketing your book once it comes out, I think we can really help develop a sense of what the best practices in those areas is going to be for the author of the future.

I just want to return to a point we made earlier, just to clarify. I don’t think that this tool or that the future of authorship, these kinds of discussions, are really going to be just about self-published authors. I think that publishers of all stripes – professionally published, published through legacy publishers, even quite large publishers – those authors also have to sort of take on a measure of the co-marketing, just because I think that that’s the reality of the future of publishing.

I think that one of the things that authors are really struggling with to understand is that point that you’re making. Just how do I become a small business person who is a writer? How do I run my career like a small business and take on a lot of the business functions that typically I used to just let sit with my agent or with my editor?

KENNEALLY: Right. You can’t outsource those any longer.

Kristen, you make a point about the way that publishing is changing for authors, and clearly, it is also changing for publishers. One of the ways it is, is that publishing is very much a technology business, and there’s a model of developing software – I believe it started as a model for developing software – called Agile, and that is something that you’ve been applying to publishing. You recently talked about that to the Book Industry Study Group’s members. Tell us why Agile and the principles of Agile development really apply today in 2012 to publishing.

MCLEAN: I’ve been really interested in Agile for a while, and that interest has really ramped up now that I sort of am straddling the fence between publishing and technology. Agile is at its heart a philosophy about workflow and the best way to kind of create projects for an audience.

The thing that I think is really interesting about Agile when it comes to applying it to publishing is that one of the real core ideas of Agile – and also now an even later iteration call Lean Thinking – is that it requires very short production schedules and a lot of input from the future user of any product. In software, that basically meant developing a small piece of your platform, and then pushing it out and testing it and learning from your audience, and then integrating that learning so that you make the product better as you go.

I think when we talk about applying that to publishing, what we’re really talking about at the heart of it is how do we get better insight into our audience and how do we anticipate in a better way what they might be wanting or how they might be reacting to our choices, so that we can reduce our risk, that we can be working less in the dark, so that we can really be testing ideas in a much quicker way so that as publishers, we can manage our risk, because I think that risk in the publishing market is one of the things that’s really a problem.

We’ve been very, very good at understanding data about what I consider to be following data. We’re very good at reading our spreadsheets about what we sold and where we sold it, but we’ve never been very good in this industry about understanding forward-leaning data, about talking to the customer and understanding softer information about what drove that sale, what drives their choices, what might they like next, how might they react to a decision that we have on the table.

Adopting an Agile methodology in publishing helps to adapt the publishing workflow to a much more customer-driven style. Clearly, I’m not talking about an author necessarily pandering to an audience. I still think the act of writing is fundamentally solitary. But certainly in the production of a book, in the marketing of a book, in the publishing acquisitions process of deciding what to acquire, all of those things can be heavily influenced in a positive way by Agile thinking.

KENNEALLY: Right. And Kristen McLean, as a final question, we started out by talking about that book contract and the question that you were going to answer, which is, how many people touch a book from the very beginning to the very end of its publishing life. And the answer was what, and that was in 2008 or 2009. What’s the answer today and what’s it going to be in five years? Is it going to be one?

MCLEAN: That’s interesting. That’s an interesting idea. At the time that I did that study, and I looked at especially some of the larger publishing houses, the number of layers of people sitting between the writer and the reader could be as high as 18. It’s a lot of people to be standing between the reader and the writer.

KENNEALLY: For people who wouldn’t be familiar, Kristen, those 18 would include what kind of positions?

MCLEAN: Starting who’s top of the chain, so you have the author at the top, then you probably have an agent or a packager who’s filtering that content. Then you have an acquisitions publisher at the head of a publishing house, and then you have an acquisitions committee, perhaps, who’s triaging. You may have an editorial assistant who’s reading the book and then putting it in front of an editor. You definitely have an editor. You have several people in the production department who are filtering that book and laying it out and making decisions on a design basis. You have marketing. You have a sales team, which usually has several different layers. You have a sales team in the publishing house. Then you have a sales team in the field who has to love that book and sell it into a bookstore.

And at the retail level, you have generally a head buyer. You may also have a departmental buyer. You have a bookseller on the floor who’s merchandising that book. You have another bookseller who is going to have to love that book and know that it’s there in order to sell it to a customer. And then you have the customer themselves, or you might have somebody buying it for another person.

So it’s quite complicated, and it’s almost like a fire brigade, or a tin can and a string. That passion really has to come down from the author all the way down to that bookseller who puts it in the consumers’ hands, and that’s a very iffy process.

KENNEALLY: So is the answer ultimately going to become one, though, or will some of those intermediaries remain in the future, do you think?

MCLEAN: Let’s take the example of an author today who wants to bring a book to market through an alternative channel. I still think that there’s going to at least be an editor. At least there should be, in my opinion, be a really good editorial process. And I think that actually there should still be certain key mechanisms there. I think a book benefits from having good design, so there probably needs to be a designer working there. I also think that if you want to distribute that book, there’s going to be a few gatekeepers or a few people looking at it.

But I think the fundamental difference between then and now is that the person who’s going to drive those choices of who is editing, who is publishing, and who is distributing is going to be driven by the author. So I think it’s much more about the author making choices that are right for them and smarter choices, and really coordinating that process. And that’s fundamentally different. I think it’s not the publisher finding and hiring the author. I think it’s about the author finding and hiring the publisher, in whatever (inaudible).

KENNEALLY: It’s fascinating to think about the way that things have flipped, and in such a short time.

Kristen McLean, cofounder of Bookigee, thank you so much for joining us today.

MCLEAN: It’s been my pleasure. Have a great day.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, find Beyond the Book on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at the Copyright Clearance Center website, copyright.com. Just click on Beyond the Book.

Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.