Publishing in an Age of Change is a collaboration between three of Australia’s leading literary incubators: MeanjinOverland and if:book, that seeks to drive rather than simply react to the debate surrounding the digitization of communication.

‘Agile’ was the buzzword at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing (TOC) conference in New York this February. (While there, I also ate a fantastic catfish po’boy at the Delta Grill in Hell’s Kitchen, but that’s for another blog entirely!)

So what is ‘agile’? Borrowed from 1970s software developers and espoused by Kristen McLean (Bookigee), agile methodology transforms publishing processes in several major ways, for example:

  • Iterative releases (which start small, then repeat and build) of minimum viable publishing products means that publishers can start with manageable modules of content, and build them in connection with readers, rather than relying on a business model that requires investing years on the gamble of a book (especially by debut authors). We are already seeing this with blogs becoming books.
  • Paying as much attention to forward data (such as where an author’s friends/followers are concentrated) as to follow data (like sales) increases publishers’ trend prediction accuracy. If they are not already, publishers will routinely check their marketing strategies match each author’s centres of popularity.
  • Flexible, multi-skilled production teams allow publishers to combine expertise from digital, marketing, and editorial departments—as well as  working with authors—to effectively plan and craft content for emerging markets. Sound decisions around what platform and device an author’s content works best on (e.g. book as app) will rely on having all the information on the table.

At TOC and also the small event held the day before, Book^2Camp, another dominant conversation was the ongoing discussion (and hand-wringing) about the value and power of publisher brand. Changes in the book supply chain mean that publishers are now driven to develop direct relationships with readers, rather than with their traditional ‘customers’, booksellers. In response to this challenge, there has been much debate about publisher brand and community building, leading to a race to capture readership loyalty online through publisher-led sites such as Authonomy and Book Country.

These conversations—agile methodology and publisher brand—have emerged as separate responses to what are perceived as different challenges for publishing: adaptations in workflow versus ways to support and drive sales. But I believe these two conversations are in fact the same conversation. By embracing effective changes to workflow, publishers will also find meaningful ways of building relationships with readers based on a detailed understanding of the contexts in which potential customers engage with content.


Agile fiction?

For works of non-fiction, agile is a no-brainer. Blogs, articles, social media, crowd-sourcing, subscriptions: there are many different modules of non-fiction content that can be developed and released into the public sphere to create engagement, feedback, and income, before and around committing to a book-length project. US educational publisher Kaplan has been an early adopter of agile, and is reporting healthy results in both sales and productivity. Harvard Community Press leverages online conversations for agile content development in their successful cookbook line. The Onion’s Digital Director Baratunde Thurston’s debut book How To Be Black models crowdsourcing, collaboration, and iteration in developing great non-fiction content and audience connection—Baratunde constantly tweaked the direction of his book based on conversations with his editor, his blog and Twitter followers, and his fellow comedians.

Baratunde Thurston keynoting TOC

The big question seems to be: can fiction content be agile, too? McLean leans towards no, while others such as Todd Sattersten (Every Book is a Startup) argue it is, or can be.

Readers of fiction usually do not want to read a great book in the rough: they want the polished, finished product. And writers of fiction usually do not want readers peeping over their digital shoulder as they write. Author and digital crusader Max Barry, after a day writing in view of a real-life public at Melbourne Writers Festival, says it felt like ‘the opposite of what you’re supposed to do, which is something about forgetting the rest of the world exists. It’s hard to be creative and self-conscious’.

There is also a concern that community engagement in the development of fiction content will turn every project into a crowd-sourced mishmash reflecting the lowest common denominator. Snakes on a Plane, anyone?

However, two strands of thought provide potential avenues for the agile development and distribution of fiction content.

As has been observed, there are lessons to be learned from that great author and innovator, Charles Dickens. Dickens serialised. There is some evidence that he incorporated reader feedback into the direction of his stories. He identified that the American market was pirating his work, and toured extensively to support local booksellers who gave him an income stream.

Subscription-based short fiction is a great option for the working writer in the current market—to write this blog post, I am stealing time from my frantic novella-writing schedule to enter the Griffith Review: The Novella Project, and I have just had a novelette published in The Review of Australian Fiction.

New tools allow readers to discover, explore, and extend fiction content beyond the bindings. It has become the professional duty of every author to maintain an authentic and inviting presence in social media, but there are now ways of slicing and dicing content, rather than persona, to connect with readers. Pappus from Serendipite Studios allows authors to easily render shareable microblogs based on comments and discussions around buyable versions of their completed works. The Small Demons Storyverse allows fans to find and amplify content based on personal tastes/obsessions.

Access to the user data from such sites would provide powerful trend prediction tools for any fiction publisher planning their list.


Community development

The romance market demonstrates how the iteration of fiction underpins success in online publishing models. The groundbreaking Carina Press uncovers and builds profitable niche markets such as male/male romance (by women for women) as readers explore and converge on new content. The Writer’s Coffee Shop has lifted the profile of fan fic through the recent success of Fifty Shades, developed in the context of reader votes and feedback.

Heroes and Heartbreakers online community is fostered through innovative real-time responses to social media conversations, filtered through a well-developed genre lens. But manager Liz Edelstein shocked the Tools of Change audience this year when she stated that Macmillan’s ‘end goal is to get as many quality email addresses as possible’. Apart from the ethical concerns this raises, brand-driven community building that relies on the commodification of identity smacks of ‘push marketing’ in an environment where pull is king.

Even micro-calibrated e-newsletters languish unopened while potential customers are busy sharing their likes on Pinterest Books Worth Reading boards and earning Kobo reader badges. Context data produced from interactions around all stages of reader engagement is a rich and largely untapped source for both trend analysis and pull marketing.

Agile methodologies and community development go hand in hand. Building readership means looking past the creation of yet another brand-led ‘community’. Instead, it is vital the whole publishing team—from creatives to techs to editors to publicists—work collaboratively to source, develop, and sell content, based on a rich and emergent understanding of potential readerships.

As Bookigee’s MacLean is fond of saying, ‘The culture of reading is not in trouble, but our current business model is.’ Agile methodologies for developing and releasing content provide authentic, creative solutions for authors and publishers to secure audience share in an evolving market.