Pan Macmillan’s Lloyd at FutureBook Hack: “Ask what you can do for readers”
“I think we haven’t done the great things yet.”
Are you an author? If so, would it surprise you to know that that line came from a publisher?
It did, and Sara Lloyd, Pan Macmillan’s digital and communications director, was set on making sure that the participant-hackers of the first-ever FutureBook Hack understood that she -- as a representative of a major power in UK publishing -- knew how much the industry! the industry! needs to take things to the next level.
"I think we haven't done the great things yet and thats what you guys are here for," she told them.
“Publishing is reading and talking about it,” she said to the group in Saturday’s round of opening comments at University College London. “How we publish books is that an editor reads and loves a book so much they want others to read it too.”
As some of her colleagues from other houses were doing that morning, Lloyd was working to convey to a group of largely non-publishing people (developers, coders, programmers, designers, engineers) the sorts of ways publishing is trying to learn to think – with a digital head on a longtime print body, if you will.
Like so many industries, when the digital dynamic hits, publishing has found it hard to realize that the way forward is to embrace it and let it re-invent your values, not resist and swat back at it. To hear Lloyd speak this weekend was to get that her shop is making that turn and beginning to ask digital questions in a search for digital answers:
“We would like to see how all the forms of data around a brand author or a genre or category could be pulled together in interesting ways to deliver something different/special to fans in a way that will pull in new readers,” she told the beanbagged assembly.
“How can we leverage data to enhance readers' experiences rather than seeing data as purely an insight driver for us?”
Good questions just kept on coming, as Lloyd spoke:
“In children's books, there is already the obvious 'read along' for the digital version, but how else could audio be integrated into the experience of discovery, selection and sharing of books and reading?
“How do we recreate the sense of personal service, personal recommendation” many readers credit to in-store experiences “and encourage people to stop living in echo chambers of themselves and people like them” in online-recommendation systems?
Lloyd’s bottom line: “Ask what you can do for readers, not what you can do to solve the problems of publishers.”
If authors could have listened in
When I spoke with Lloyd after her presentation (she, like the other publishers, gave a fast five-minute talk), I told her how much I found myself wishing authors could have heard what she and the others had to say.
Was it author-centric? No, it was reader-centric, and that’s as it should have been.
But authors would have heard publishing people talking in ways they frequently think “the gatekeepers” don’t think. As represented by Lloyd, these folks were seriously keen on finding ways into the digital context, not avoiding it or forestalling it.
The morning was filled with an avid interest, even an urgent interest, in developing an understanding of what digital reality can mean – by which I’m trying to say not just replicating print but actually discovering new forms and means that exist as and because of digital capabilities in publishing.
So I asked Lloyd how well authors she speaks to understand the publishing establishment’s zeal for evolving into and about digital potentials.
“Most of the authors I speak to,” Lloyd said, noting that these are primarily Pan Mac authors, “do know that we care about this stuff. If you’re in publishing and you don’t care passionately about reading and the sharing of ideas, then why are you in publishing?”
In general, however, as I pointed out to Lloyd, we don’t seem to hear as frequently from traditionally published authors about their experiences as we do from self-published writers. This may be a perfectly normal part of self-publishing being the insurgency – you expect to hear more from the crowd that wants to change things, in any situation, after all – but it can cause a very skewed picture of the current scene to develop. The picture quickly becomes one of author-publisher confrontation that, of course, may well not be at all the case inside the publishing contracts and relationships from which we hear so little.
I think Lloyd may be somewhat advanced in her own sense of where “communications” includes the company’s creative corps.
“At Pan Mac, we talk with authors a lot,” she told me, “and we share ideas with them and share concerns with them. We also meet readers with them,” with the authors, she added, in what sounds like a particularly enlightened element of her author-relations approach.
“We do events,” Lloyd said. “I think physical, real-world events are really important...The more I talk about digital, the more I think it’s about the experience of sharing ideas.”
With Lloyd sitting there being her personable, open self, I went ahead and asked her something you’re going to see me going on about for a while now:
Why are we not hearing from the traditionally published authors more?
It’s not contractual, Lloyd assures me: nothing in contracts she is seeing should muzzle a traditionally published author who might like to speak up for his or her experience with a publishing house.
“Well, have you not heard Kerry Wilkinson saying that?” she asked.
Fair enough. The Bath-born Wilkinson is something of a poster child for having been a top UK Kindle seller with Amazon who followed his self-publishing success with what he adamantly describes as the “legitimacy” of traditional publishing in successive contracts with Pan Mac.
In late February, he told The Bookseller:
"In 2011, when I was Amazon's top e-book author for a while, there were people I knew very well who shrugged at that fact…In 2014, when Macmillan put up a massive billboard in Manchester, I had strangers tweeting me photos; people I hardly know texting me to ask if I'd seen it…That sort of old-fashioned advertising – posters, billboards – gives your name a normalcy that can't be matched by Kindle chart positions or e-book sales."
There’s a lot to what he’s saying, summed up in his line, “I’m with a good publisher – and I’m very pleased.”
But Wilkinson, as Lloyd and I discussed, is something of a special case, having established himself as such a successful self-publisher and learned that side of his career.
Indeed, as Lloyd points out, Wilkinson may be better able to describe and detail the differences in his experiences simply because he has had such strong goes in both contexts. This puts him into a rare, if enviable, class.
Overall, notice how rarely we hear such shining comment in favor of the established route.
We hear some of our great champions of self-publishing and entrepreneurial writing on a daily basis, and these are important voices, helping us to define ever more clearly the potential and the challenges of independent authors.
But we don’t seem to hear as much from the traditionalists.
“And I don’t know why that is,” Lloyd said to me as we thought about it together. We talked of how publishers can lose the PR battle over time when the great majority of authors we hear from seem to be those on the independent side of things.
“They’re all different, of course, all human beings,” she said, “and most authors just aren’t that loud about things – that’s why they might be more interested in writing.”
Perfectly right, of course, and this conversation with Lloyd was one of the high points of the FutureBook Hack for me because it gave us both a chance to wonder “where the traditional authors are” when it comes to the debate at hand.
Lloyd’s messages to the hackers ran consistently parallel to the needs and interests of the publishers’ authors and their ability to reach their readers.
“How could we use nearfield comms, geolocation tagging, or personalisation of any other sort to drive data flow, passion, sharing and loyalty?”
These are questions too good to keep to the FutureBook Hack setting. And as Lloyd was chatting with me, I found myself hopeful that we can get more balance and range into the discussion of publishing and authors’ experiences.
What I saw at FutureBook Hack was Pan Mac, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins and Faber all working together, speaking honestly of their needs to the tech community, with little evident self-censorship of how they spoke to and with each other. It was a healthier room than a lot of authors might expect, in other words -- less fraught with competition than it was energized by research.
When Lloyd says the question is more about what can be done for readers than for publishers, it sounds to me like the perfect chance for authors to join in.
I say let’s let’s hack the author experience, as well, and find out more about it.
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Image by Sarah Shaffi: 15 June, at University College London, Sara Lloyd speaks at FutureBook Hack
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