Darwinian Evolution at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Frankfurt Book Fair days are the best of days, and also the worst of days. Within several huge halls are assembled a good segment of the global publishing community, and if you stand above the hubbub and watch carefully, you can detect ruthless Darwinian evolution at work.

Publishing has always selected winners and losers. The way for an editor or small publisher to succeed is to match a book to a market, using an intuitive sense of what that market wants. Junior editors are promoted at larger publishing houses when they earn their stripes by finding and backing a successful book. Many books do not succeed, and editors with a low strike rate are less likely to get promoted. The same applies to small and start-up publishers, battling for attention in the distribution and retail systems. If they have a good strike rate, they get enough cash flow to acquire more titles.

Success or failure in publishing rests on the intuition and judgement of editors. Publishers over the last few decades have outsourced printing and distribution functions to achieve economies of scale without ill effects, because these functions were irrelevant to the success of their house.

At Frankfurt Book Fair, I attended a seminar on the role of the editor in a “Brave New World”. One publisher said they had outsourced creation of multimedia applications, another said they were building this capability in-house and were now calling their editors “project managers”. The third (the only trade publisher) was diplomatically silent, but said his team was enthusiastically embracing e-book conversions.

The second editor spoke of some failures they had already experienced due to poor user-interface design. I started to puzzle over a question as I listened. Is the same failure not caused by bad, clunky writing, full of clichés? Why were these editors not taking the same approach to procuring applications that they used every day for procuring new books? The options they were discussing; “Build it yourself” or “outsource”, are both similar to the “contract a writer” scenario. If you know the writer is outstanding, then you have no problem – but how many hundreds of writers are rejected by publishers before one is contracted?

There is intense competition in the application development market, similar to the competition to get books published. With over 10,000 “children’s education” applications on iTunes, the world is ready for some discerning editors to select only the best. A publisher would then have a good chance of creating a best-selling application using their marketing capability, just as they would create a best-selling book.

The other option available these days is to “crowd source” creation of an application. Put up the book you want to create an application for onto one of the myriad crowd-sourcing sites, and seek submissions for the best concepts/pilots. Creative developers are lurking in all corners of the world, ready to generate fantastic concepts and ideas, if only they could find a project or a sponsor.

Perhaps the problem with the seminar was that the third publisher (who said very little) had already decided on one of these different approaches to procuring applications, but was unwilling to share it? I suspect it would give a marvellous competitive edge, so I will be watching what this house releases in the way of applications over the next year.

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About Lisa Buchan

Lisa Buchan is the Founder of Prato Consulting (and its imprint Prato Publishing), a company dedicated to supporting book people on the journey to a new era. If you have innovative new global services for publishers, agents or writers, Lisa wants to know!
This entry was posted in Crowdsourcing, Digital Management, Ideas from around the world, Industry Trends. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Darwinian Evolution at the Frankfurt Book Fair

  1. Hello Lisa,
    Thanks for posing this question; it’s one that is near and dear to my heart (I was executive editor with both Random House & Harper; I’m an agent now, but still think of myself as more editor than agent). I think acquisition editors at major houses DO face challenges in the years ahead, as to some degree understanding of all the digital and multi-media possibilities in any given project will become more and more necessary. But, if I understand what you’re saying, I disagree with the notion of crowdsourcing the editorial role. Sometimes the passion and expertise of the one trumps the roar of the crowd. I see a future where writers use online communities to hone their skills, but informed personal vision is necessary, I believe, to sustain the viability of any art. Editors acquiring new projects typically hold a rare set of skills–the ability to empathize with both reader and writer, to recognize and promote talent with an eye to the market at the same time, to help the writer find the best in himself and express it, and to coordinate the business of publishing with the art of editing/designing/advising. I hope we don’t see skilled acquisition editors replaced by product developers. A book is a product, yes, but some can be so much more.

    • Hi Jody,
      I believe we are in agreement. I intended to make the point that the discernment of the editor was unique and irreplaceable, in contrast to developers and writers, who have varying degrees of talent, and who are usually best at one particular type of creation. Crowdsourcing of development (of applications, fixed format and other multi-media creations) is simply a new way of seeking submissions for a project, and the editor can then judge which ones are best for the target audience they have in mind.

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