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When They Talk About You at #DBW14: You’re Branded

Image - iStockphoto: Mysh Kovsky [1]
Image – iStockphoto: Mysh Kovsky


NEW YORK—The Digital Book World Conference & Expo [2] (DBW) isn’t designed for authors.

And that’s fine. Various sectors of the industry! the industry! have every right to get together by and among themselves to consider things from their own viewpoints and on behalf of their own interests.

At Digital Book World Conference & Expo 2014 - Photo: Porter Anderson [3]
At Digital Book World Conference & Expo 2014 – Photo: Porter Anderson

As good as our authors are at contorting themselves, day by day, in the search for how to exercise their craft and genius in a world that keeps changing, I’ve wished many times that our writers could be along on these occasions to see and hear how the establishment talks to itself.

Then again, at other times, I’ve been worried at how many authors don’t seem to think it’s important to listen to publishing’s internal dialectic. So much to learn there. But our entrepreneurial author movement may at times be just as guilty of dissing the suits as the suits can be of denying the rising force of authorial careerists.

DBW14 banner [2]In its fifth anniversary stomping of the hotel carpet — held this week in New York — #DBW14 was again led by longtime publishing wonk Mike Shatzkin as a show the business built. Shatzkin’s elevator pitch was ready at the outset of his comments: “The purpose of this event is to provide the information and insight publishers need.”

At times, the 1,500-person, three-day conclave was gently rocked with corporate consolation, as in Sourcebooks publisher Dominique Raccah’s talk on reframing failure as opportunity and even inspiration.

At other times, #DBW14, as we hashed it, crackled with inquiry: consultant Joseph Esposito revealed that some library book suppliers will ship faster—indeed with Amazonian efficiency—if librarians place their orders through “our friends in Seattle”; and so, he told us, many librarians are doing exactly that. Prime stuff, baby.

[pullquote]If authors were able to sit in on some of these great hotel-ballroom colloquies, one thing they’d hear these days is a new emphasis on mentioning “value for the author.” Even old dogs can learn new talking points.[/pullquote]This was the first time I’ve seen an entire plenary-session sequence devoted entirely to Amazon. The only thing missing in that keen debate? Amazon. I’d like to have seen a representative of the company join Esposito and author Brad Stone of The Everything Store. The horse’s mouth was missing. Shatzkin tells me, however, that Amazon was invited to provide a representative for the program and declined. (Side note: He tells me that Apple and Barnes & Noble were similarly invited to participate in the conference program; like Amazon, they declined.)

In the first-ever DBW workshop laid on expressly for literary agents facing digital upheaval, there was an intriguing, lively conversation headed by Jason Ashlock about how mutually supportive agents usually are, despite obvious competitive elements in their work.

At other times, that very digital reality seemed to gas the room like an ether and leave the huge crowd brooding. One of the most-tweeted comments came from HarperCollins’ Susan Katz: the rate of change in technology today “is the slowest it will ever be for the rest of your life.”

Mike Shatzkin [2]
Mike Shatzkin

As Shatzkin put it, between DBW 2010 and DBW 2014, we have found ourselves faced with “a single dominant retailer, a single dominant book chain, a single dominant publishing house.”

That most dominant dominance, the digital dynamic, is “working us over completely,” as Marshall McLuhan told us it would.

If authors could sit in on some of these great hotel-ballroom colloquies, one thing they’d hear these days is a new emphasis on mentioning “value for the author.” From executives of the biggest warehouse-to-website publishing houses to the “chief evangelists” of those garage-and-duct-tape start-ups, you hear such phrases as “our work must benefit the author”; “our initiatives need to support our writers”; “we’re committed to creating more value for the author.”

Call me unfair, but I believe these invocations of “our authors” are coming far more frequently than they used to from our conference podiums. Even old dogs can learn new talking points.

And because these hills were so alive with the sounds of “value for the author,” I was especially glad for an unscheduled session on how to author that value.

Shatzkin and the show’s producer, F+W Media, added a quick presentation from Codex Group’s Peter Hildick-Smith, always among the most concise and instructive on a confab stage.

[pullquote]One of the most-tweeted comments at Digital Book World came from HarperCollins’ Susan Katz: the rate of change in technology today “is the slowest it will ever be for the rest of your life.”[/pullquote]”The Author Brand Opportunity” might hardly be what some authors feel they want to hear. There’s push-back, of course, from some in the author corps who enjoy the “branding” terminology of the corporati.

But Hildick-Smith’s interpretation of Codex’s research speaks not only to the faithful of the mainstream publishing church at DBW but also to those lilies of the field, our self-publishing authors (did I almost type “self-punishing?”), some of whom are achieving newsmaking clout as big sellers and insightful industry commentators.

Indeed, even as DBW sat down in New York, Julie Bosman went into the New York Times with, Romance Novelist Wins Big Valentine [4], the news that St. Martin’s will pay “an eye-popping eight-figure advance to Sylvia Day” for two books of a series called “Blacklist.”

Day is a so-called “hybrid” author, both traditionally publishing and self-publishing. Here’s an interesting Q&A with Day [5] from DBW’s Jeremy Greenfield from BEA time last May here, if you’d like to know more about her.

If the busy stage at DBW didn’t come to a standstill at the Day news, the rationale, thanks to Hildick-Smith, was richly on display.

Graphic by Codex BookIntelligence - Peter Hildick-Smith / provided by Digital Book World [6]
Graphic by Codex BookIntelligence – Peter Hildick-Smith / provided by Digital Book World

In a couple of lines, Hildick-Smith was there to say that author name recognition isn’t enough to really move the needle as someone like Day can do. Developing fan fidelity through giving readers what they want is the trick.

That “discoverability” question we wring our hands about?—author brand and topic, says Hildick-Smith. “Fan loyalty drives sales,” he told the crowd. And that sounded a lot like what the self-publishing elite [7] tell us (Hugh Howey, Barbara Freethy, CJ Lyons, Bella Andre, Tina Folsom, Stephanie Bond, and others). Building inventory that bonds readers to you, they say, is the key.

Hildick-Smith sees “author equity brand impact” as a 15-times multiplier of the likelihood of a purchase. Put another way, the “purchase propensity” goes from 3 percent to 45 percent if an author has strong “brand equity.”

Graphic by Codex BookIntelligence - Peter Hildick-Smith / provided by Digital Book World [8]
Graphic by Codex BookIntelligence – Peter Hildick-Smith / provided by Digital Book World

Fiction is particularly vulnerable to these trends and effects, he says, focusing on book buyers’ opinions of authors before discovering a new book. Some 62 percent of genre fiction buying, Hildick-Smith says, may be driven fondness for a known author. In literary fiction, the effect is a bit less, at 53 percent. In narrative nonfiction, the effect is lower, at 41 percent. And in utility nonfiction, author brand/familiarity is the least effective, at about 31 percent.

The most influential purchase decision factor? Hildick-Smith says it’s the last book bought.

His Codex BookIntelligence studies indicate that a buyer of genre fiction is likeliest to be swayed first by favorite-author considerations (43 percent), then topic or message (19 percent) and finally by recommendation (11 percent). In literary fiction, the favorite-author factor accounts for 32 percent, topic or message for 18 percent, and recommendation for 14 percent—an interesting if not major increase in the importance of recommendation in literary.

Graphic by Codex BookIntelligence - Peter Hildick-Smith / provided by Digital Book World [9]
Graphic by Codex BookIntelligence – Peter Hildick-Smith / provided by Digital Book World

Not surprisingly, Hildick-Smith turns to La Rowling’s revelation in The Cuckoo’s Calling to illustrate his point. Sales of that book between April 30 and July 14 of that year, he says, were multiplied some 500 times as it was revealed that “Robert Galbraith” was actually Our Lady of the Hogwarts.

And as Hildick-Smith went on at DBW to describe Codex’s proprietary “author fan fulfillment” index—measuring just how well an author might seem to be handling the interests and appetites of reader-fans—it became clear that another of Shatzkin’s “a single dominant” factors in successful market reach for authors is coming into focus more sharply than ever: readership cultivation.

This is why Hugh Howey [10] talks of self-publishing authors being “maniacally focused” on their readers. Those writers are doing it without even the apparatus and muscle of publishing houses. They’re conquering that fan-fulfillment challenge one reader at a time—a reader earned must be a reader retained.

To be thorough, I need to call to your attention what seems to be a countervailing view to Codex’s emphasis on the author-brand primacy.

The Bookseller [11]The Bookseller in London (for which I do my weekly #PorterMeets newsmaker interview) is reporting today a new assessment in the UK market that indicates a different direction. The story is behind a paywall [11], but its text by Tom Tivnan and Sarah Shaffi reads, in part:

Big-brand authors have grabbed their smallest share of the [UK] print books market in five years, as digital migration continues to reshape publishing. The Bookseller’s look at 2013 author performance based on Nielsen BookScan data, also shows that backlist titles have outperformed frontlist in terms of their relative declines. The conclusions challenge the received wisdom that sales will become more and more focused on frontlist titles and big-brand authors…More surprising is that the share of the overall market claimed by authors in this £1m club has declined sharply—down to 20.4% (£288.4m) from 24.7% in 2012.

Tivnan and Shaffi note, “This is, of course, a print phenomenon. There are, at the moment, no figures available for overall performance of the digital market.” As in the US, the UK is all but blind when trying to assess the ebook market because our data is so inadequate. But the point from The Bookseller is intriguing: at least in print, the “big brands are getting smaller.”

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh [12]
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

But as Hildick-Smith and Codex (and many others in the business) present it, this is a tough call, a high bar for authors to contemplate, regardless of a potential erosion at the top of the print market.

And it leaves us with interesting questions about where the “writer unboxed” should spend his and her time. As voices in the writerly community are heard more and more loudly insisting that we’re putting too much emphasis on business instead of the art, is this our new rift?

Must an author decide whether to write or connect? Can fan fulfillment be a viable goal and achievement for a writer seriously invested in her or his craft?

Remember the old “can we have it all?” question women have had to ask about careers and families? What if authors now must decide “can we have it all?”—both as creative workers and as fan-fulfillment aces?

And just how D is this BW going to get, huh?

About Porter Anderson [13]

@Porter_Anderson [14] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [15], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [16] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [17]