Transcript: Winning Publishing Strategies

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Interview with Bruce Harris
Recorded at Yale Publishing Course 2012

For podcast release Monday, September 10, 2012

The Yale Publishing Course (YPC) offers mid to senior-level publishing professionals from all over the world access to industry experts and a cutting-edge curriculum focusing on the most crucial areas in publishing.

During the week-long programs in book and magazine & digital publishing,
YPC participants learn new leadership skills and develop their global network and perspective. Follow YPC on Twitter #YPC2012

KENNEALLY: Publishing strategy. You’ll be forgiven if you think the phrase belongs in the same category of common oxymorons as military intelligence and jumbo shrimp. In 2012, publishing and strategy seem at odds, because the industry is changing too quickly and too drastically for such a time-consuming luxury as strategy.

Hello. This is Chris Kenneally of Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series Beyond the Book, coming to you today from the Yale Publishing Course in New Haven. And joining me to justify why publishing can benefit from alternative strategies for working with authors and producing winning content is Bruce Harris. Bruce, welcome to Beyond the Book.

HARRIS: Thank you, Chris. Happy to be here.

KENNEALLY: We should tell people briefly that you are a publishing strategist with your own company, and you’ve been a veteran publisher of trade books. And after a 40 year career in publishing, you began your own business. You were most recently publisher/COO of Workman Publishing. There you were associated with over 15 New York Times bestsellers, including 1000 Places to See Before You Die. You’ve worked at Random House, and as well, at Crown.

So Bruce, you’re here, though, to tell us about alternative strategies, the things that people aren’t thinking about, or at least, the things that people in New York and the Northeast Corridor might not be thinking about. Give us a flavor of what you’re going to be talking about.

HARRIS: Well, I became a consultant about eight years ago, and originally, I was basically working with companies, publishing companies, and trying to help them with marketing and sales strategies. And what’s happened recently is, I’ve started working more with authors. And so we’re kind of circumventing the usual publishing house advance, work with New York or Boston-based house, and see what we can do ourselves.

KENNEALLY: Well, I wonder if you were as struck as I was. One of the presentations this morning, Richard Foster, he threw up on a wall a slide with the images of Bob Young from Lulu, Mark Coker from Smashwords, somebody from Author Solutions, and three or four others in the category of self-publishing model, and asked if people recognized any of them, and there were shaking heads all around. I just thought that was surprising. If you’re going to survive in any competition, you have to know who the competition is.

HARRIS: Right, and it’s interesting, because I’ve got a slide in my presentation where I show the ten biggest self-publishing companies. But I’m actually working with individual authors, and we’ve worked out ways that we can actually do this ourselves without going through another self-publishing company. They’re just another publishing company, in a way.

Luckily, the authors that I’m working with have incredible means, so that they’re able to do this, but I’ve gotten involved with a man named Nathan Myhrvold, who was Bill Gates’ tech VP, and who became obsessed with cooking. And we’ve now published, a year ago, a book called Modernist Cuisine. It’s a 6-volume set of cooking.

Nathan had a vision of what he wanted to do about cuisine. He thought that we were at a stage now, like the French Impressionists were with art, where everything is going to be changing in the next 40 to 50 years. And he wanted to express not only the traditional art of cooking, but the science of it as well, because he’s a physicist and a chemist.

And he went around to various publishing companies, and they said, well, it’s an interesting idea, we’ll cut this, and we’ll do a little piece of this, and a little piece of that. Because Nathan’s a billionaire, he was able to say, you know what? I think I want to do this my way. And luckily, he and I had a meeting, and I said, you can do it your way if you want to do it your way. It will be expensive to print this.

We’ve now sold 25,000 copies of this 6-volume set at $625. And it’s kind of opened up a whole new way of doing business for me. And I’ve looked at what publishing houses are doing, and coming back to what Richard Foster was saying, I think there’s a lot of things that publishing houses could get rid of right now, and I’d like to see them do that.

KENNEALLY: Well, then, let’s enumerate a few strategies. I mean, beyond the fact that, start with $1 billion, I think that was the old publishing strategy. How do you make $1 million in publishing? You start with $2 million. (laughter) So aside from starting with $1 billion, give us an idea of some winning strategies today that do take advantage of the freedom authors now have to work on their own.

HARRIS: Well, a friend of mine once said that the difference between working in show business and working in publishing is that a group of talent in show business – when you’re doing a show, a group of talented people come together. They focus on a particular task. And they get very involved, and very intense about it. And then, after it’s done, they split up, and they form other groups to do different things.

Whereas in publishing today, there seems to be this thing about having a fixed group of people who constantly have to do work on very different kinds of books. And I think that now, with so much freelance talent available, you can form your own team. Of course, you can’t all spend a lot of money doing it, but there are a lot of people who are willing to work if they feel passionate about the content.

KENNEALLY Well, Bruce has – you describe also, what was the film business at one point. They were studios, and they kept cranking out all kinds of material, and they had lots that had to be kept busy. There are no lots, there are no studios. There are companies that produce these things by working with freelancers. So what we’re seeing in book publishing has happened in other industries.

HARRIS: Absolutely. I think that’s a very good analogy. And I think that there a lot of people who are skilled at publicity, there are people who are skilled at marketing, there are people who are skilled at production. And so you can form your own team and say, what can I do?

Now, as far as distribution is concerned, that’s always been kind of a problem. But there are more and more avenues and more and more companies that are willing to take a chance, even on one book, although it’s difficult. When you only have one title, it’s very difficult to find a distributor. But if you’re thinking in terms of something that could replicate itself, or a series, I think that there are a lot of places now that you can go where you can find distribution into physical bookstores, and of course, distribution into the e-book channel.

KENNEALLY: And presumably the bookstores are speaking about – well, bookstores are only a part of it. It’s the retail business at a general level, that these kinds of distributors can work with.

HARRIS: Again, it comes down to – I always have this little mnemonic, where I said it’s first content, and then it’s relationships, and then it’s expectations, and then it’s planning, and then it’s timing. And I think those are the five elements. If you want to have a successful book, having content is the most important thing. Relationships are the second most important thing. And having relationships that grow out of the content seem to me to be so much smarter than just going along with somebody who was on the team because they started ten years ago.

KENNEALLY: So you’re speaking, though, to an audience here at the Yale Publishing Course, of people from the industry, from the lots, if you will, the back lots of Manhattan. And they’re here, and how are they going to respond to this message, I wondered? They’re probably thinking, well, at some point, when I lose my job, I’ll be part of this team?

HARRIS: Well, actually, first of all, this is a very varied audience. It’s – a lot of it is international. Not everybody is from the back lots of New York publishing. I think there are six people from Random House, but otherwise, it’s an incredibly varied group of people.

And so, what I’m hoping to say to them is that they’ve got to recast themselves. They’re got to think of themselves as publishers, and kind of individual actors, rather than being a cog in a wheel.

KENNEALLY: Well, you know, I wonder if you have any experience contrasting the experience in the United States with other countries. As you mentioned, this is very much an international audience. Do the publishers from India, for example, or from the Pacific or even from Europe see things any differently, or are we all in the same problem together?

HARRIS: I think, when I was doing my PowerPoint, I made a couple of slides that talked about reinvention. And then I think everybody in every presentation up until now has been talking about reinvention. And in fact, it’s the topic of one of the guys who’s speaking before me.

So, I think everybody is – whether they’re concerned about their career, or they’re comfortable in their career, they’re still thinking, I’ve got to recast myself, I’ve got to rethink about the way I’m – what I’m bringing to my job. And somebody yesterday quoted me last year, where I quoted Tina Brown as saying, rather than having a job, start to think of it as having a gig. And if you start to think about putting together successive gigs, I think you’re going to be a lot more successful than thinking, I’m a salesperson, or I’m a production person, or I’m an editor. I think you’re going to need a vast array of different disciplines to succeed today.

KENNEALLY: And certainly that’s true. And you say, the gig idea, I’m thinking jazz musicians, though they’ve had to teach, and they’ve had to play out, and maybe do some recordings, and maybe they’ve got something else on the side.

HARRIS: Absolutely. And I think that this is the time when people who are flexible and curious – and I think curiosity is a big part of this – have the freedom to start to experiment and do different things. And it’s a lot more exciting than it used to be.

KENNEALLY: Bruce Harris, publishing strategist, joining us today at the Yale Publishing Course, speaking about publishing a la carte, alternative strategies to traditional publishing methods. Bruce, thanks so much for talking to me.

HARRIS: Thank you very much.

KENNEALLY: And for all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, this is Chris Kenneally, wishing you a great day.