Recently I was contacted by an Art Director at Penguin Publishing. They are publishing a book about Twitter and wanted to use one of my sketches on the cover. They found it by doing a search on Flickr. Fantastic! The social web works!
The cover was beautifully designed and the sketch looked great. They didn’t have much money but that was fine with me. An email exchange ensued:
“Just credit my web address, davegray.info and that’ll be fine,” I wrote.
“Sorry, it’s policy not to print the web address,” she replied.
I insisted and she replied that the web policy on this was solid.
“Given that it’s a twitter book, what about my twitter address?” I asked. “It’s really simple, @davegray. Very little ink required, and I have thousands of people following me on twitter; I could help you promote the book.”
She declined and so did I. Funny how that works, isn’t it? I can’t see how having my twitter name on their book could possibly hurt anything. But publishers are often stupid that way. It’s the dogma of an industry.
A friend of mine who has written a very successful book told me about a conversation she had with a publisher recently. She told the publisher she wanted to do her next book with the publisher who would do the most to help her promote the book.
“Oh, we don’t do that,” said the publisher.
These kinds of attitudes are not unfamiliar to me. It’s surprisingly common for the people who work in an established industry to be completely out of touch with the marketplace. I worked in the newspaper business for many years and was often astounded by things people would say.
I remember an editor saying to me once “I don’t care what people want to read, I’m going to give them what they should read! Once, I mentioned that I didn’t subscribe to the newspaper because I felt guilty about the unnecessary waste when I didn’t read the paper, and that a lot of my friends felt the same way. My statement was met with shock and gaping stares of incredulity. The horror!
Well, fast-forward about ten years and most of my newspaper friends are out of work, or soon will be. I actually bumped into one of them on the street the other day, and I asked him what was next. “I think I’ll just go down with the ship, Dave” he said.
The newspaper business is dying – people don’t read their local papers anymore, and maybe that’s sad. But it’s the way of the world and a familiar pattern: You gain power and authority, you do something original and the world starts listening to you. But over time you lose touch with them, you lose the link.
It may be too late for newspapers, but I don’t think it’s too late for publishing. However, if you’re in the publishing business, it’s time to wake up. People don’t need you to publish their books anymore. People can publish books without any money, using print-on-demand services that print and ship books as they are sold. They don’t need to be in bookstores any more: Amazon dominates the retail book trade, and it’s only going to get worse.
If you’re a publisher, please, wake up! Get in touch with the market. Your power is diminishing but your value is not.
Publisher friends, I tell you this because I am your friend; I value your contribution and I like you. I want to work with you. But this is an intervention. You need to look at writers and illustrators as partners and collaborators and treat them as such. It’s time to step up in a spirit of partnership, because people will not be knocking on your door and begging for your attention for too much longer. You need to take a hard look at your industry and practices, and, to paraphrase JFK,
“Ask not what your writers can do for you – ask what you can do for your writers.”