Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Publishing is like Major League Baseball

Joe Wickert's blog entry about my friend and neighbor, David Berlind, sparked this blog entry. But this entry is nothing about DRM.

Living in Massachusetts - at least in suburban Boston - if you like baseball, it's almost impossible to not be a Red Sox Fan. I, myself, was converted during the 2004 season, when this woolly, rag-tag, bunch of baseball misfits, started mounting a serious challenge. For my whole life, I had been a rabid Yankee fan. I grew up in New Jersey, and idolized Micky Mantle, and all of his team mates from the great teams of the 60's. (On a side note, if you are a baseball fan from that era, you have to, have to, read October 1964 by David Halberstam!) My conversion has now put baseball on the same plane as religion and politics as far as discussion items go with family members and extended family members of my paternal household. You don't talk about them unless, you are looking to create dissonance.

Anyway, the Boston Red Sox are, since John Henry bought the team in 2003, arguably the most successful franchise in all of US sports. I don't think that they are quite on par with Manchester United (in the UK), but they are getting there. This being with their small, anachronistic, 100 year old stadium, and a media market that is no where near the size of New York, LA, or Chicago. It is not unusual now for the Red Sox to play an 'away' game, and find that the number of Red Sox fans in the stands are equivalent to the number of fans their to root for the home team.

How did this happen?

In my opinion, they focused on, and do two things extremely well: 1. They put a great team on the field, and 2. They make it easy, and fun, to be a fan.

Look at this team. With the exception of Manny Ramirez - whose huge contract was in place before 2003 - the Red Sox have a team of players that have either come up through their farm system, or were considered expendable by their former teams. Did anyone even know who David Ortiz was when he was with the Minnesota Twins? Arguably, the most exciting players on the team are Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathon Papelbon, and Jacoby Ellsbury - all players who came up through the Red Sox Farm system. The key thing is that all these players came into a system where they were helped to thrive, and, become part of the team with a tenacious winning attitude fostered by their organization.

And who among you, if you are a fan of baseball, has not heard of Red Sox Nation? Red Sox Nation has taken the whole concept of 'Fan Club' and turned it on it's ear. Red Sox Nation is everywhere, it's incredible. Near the end of this season, they even had a televised presidential debate - for those campaigning to be the president of Red Sox Nation - that was moderated by Tim Russert.

Ticket prices in Boston are probably the highest in Major League Baseball (yet they sell out every game), and so we don't go to too many games, maybe one or two a year. But, I still get an email almost every day from the Red Sox, keeping me up to date with the latest news of the team, pointing me to players blogs, and generally, pumping me up as a fan. These emails obviously allow me to buy tickets, but you really have to search for that button. The point is, they come after me, and keep me engaged with the team, long after my personal interaction has faded into memory.

Ok, so how does this relate to publishers, and publishing?

1. Think of the analogy of authors as 'players'. This fits on many levels. Authors have agents, players have agents. Authors either 'fit' with a house, or not, the same as players. Authors have coaches - both personal and professional (editors), the same as players. Interestingly, though, there is no organized 'farm team' for authors? Wouldn't that be an interesting concept for a publisher to take on - developing talent? Most publishers would argue that they do this, but none that I know of have any formal program for building talent.

Furthering this, publishers should give the authors the platform and tools to become superstars in their own right. The individual players on the Red Sox all have their own fan bases in addition to that of the team.

Lastly, why can't authors be made into a 'team', especially for promotional efforts and philanthropic causes. Why does every author event have to be about a single individual. Wouldn't it be less grueling (for the authors and publishers), more productive, and less costly to create an author tour with 4 or 5 of your leading authors for the upcoming season?

(Isn't it interesting how that word 'season' pops up in both baseball and publishing.)

Now, about us fans. I'm sure that you have figured this one out - we are readers. I also get emails almost everyday from Barnes & Noble, and Borders, but they are all about price and discount, so I hardly ever read them. If I have an interest in baseball, and have proven that through my purchases, then why don't I receive emails that specifically target that interest, and tell me what's going on in that area, and point me to blogs that cover it, - and oh, by the way, we have a great new baseball book coming out. Why aren't publishers and retailers, trying to help me find what I want to learn, instead of trying to push their products down my throat?

This is what I referred to in my last post as 'Reader Services'.

I also think the time is right for publishers to try to 'brand' themselves again. Many have dabbled in this before, but few have made it work. There are a million bloggers out their that will disagree with me on this, saying that no one buys a book because it was published by an individual publisher.

Well, I think that publishers have the opportunity again, if they develop a farm system of authors, have specified mission, work their authors as a team, and are the conduit for engaging the fans. Maybe, if we take this analogy one step further, you can think of ticket prices the same as book prices. The Red Sox sell out every game at a premium price with nary a discount in sight. Wouldn't publishers love to replicate that model??

good luck out there.


Joe Wikert said...

Hi Fran. Wow, you covered a lot of ground in this post. I'll try to not show my Yankees favoritism in my reply... ;-]

You're right that most publishers (myself included) would probably say we do try to develop our authors and their talents. Could we do more? Absolutely. As far as branding is concerned, it's the rare and special publisher that has been able to build/maintain a household brand name these days. In the computer book world, O'Reilly is an excellent example and potentially the only one. I work for Wiley and I know most of my customers don't think of Wiley when they go to buy a computer book. They think WROX, Sybex, "For Dummies", and other brands that Wiley publishes, but they don't necessarily think "Wiley".

Authors are more of a brand today than ever before. And while I'd like to say that most big publishers can offer marketing and PR platforms to make authors that much more successful, it's often the author's own platform that's much, much more important. It's been interesting watching author platform become so much more valuable over the past 10 or so years. I tend to think it's extremely important for us publishers to figure out how to coach authors into building better/stronger platforms. You're right that authors can band together and create an even bigger platform; we've used that technique with Wiley authors a lot over the years.

Keep up the great work on this blog...and although it pains me to say it, congrats on winning 2 of the last 4 World Series!

Fran Toolan said...

Thanks, Joe.

I didn't think that the publisher had to be the brand, but as you say, Wiley has several successful brands, and what is to stop them from moving forward and getting bigger? That is ostensibly why publishers have imprints. They just don't use them effectively. Why isn't WROX a major sponsor of Mashup Camp? I can imagine a whole public trade show related to Dummies that would be fun and entertaining for the whole family.

On the author side, if the editors are the 'scouts', then why does every author need to get to the big leagues right away. With all the new POD technology out there, you can afford to publish more authors, with a relatively few copies in the market. Let them hone their skills under that model, and when they are ready for the big leagues, push them to the limit? Do you have a program for young, hot authors?

Joe Wikert said...

Hi Fran. I guess some people might say that self-publishing is the AAA or minor leagues of publishing. If someone can do well in the self-publishing world they'll get the attention of a big publisher. I don't totally agree with that perspective but it's definitely been the case for some authors who were unable to get a contract with a big publisher.

To answer your last question I'd have to say that no, we don't have a good program for young, hot authors. That's something to consider though as we refine our ever-changing role in this dynamic industry.