Of course, Penguin wasn’t the only publisher who practiced clear and useful branding. Most publishers did it, and their covers and spines, with their unambiguous branding, signified something important to readers: “This book is just like the last book you read and loved. You’ll love this book, too.”
But such a branding message only works if the publisher is performing real curation: publishing books that have something in common, books that are like everything else in their catalog in some significant way – giving readers a clear message, by the reassurance of their imprint, that “this book is just like the last book you read and loved. You’ll love this book, too.”
This is not curating.
The way New York publishing has functioned for the past few decades can’t be called "curating" by any sensible definition of the word. Even agents and editors admit on their blogs, and have done for years, that publishers take big chances on new acquisitions. They don’t know what is likely to sell and what isn’t.
Most of the books they buy don’t earn out their advances (WHY?! Most of those advances are miniscule; a midlister indie author could earn out some of these advances in two months!) Many of the authors they lift out of the sea of crap prove to be just as crappy as most of the authors who are left behind. A few big hits per year subsidize all the rest – all those books that don’t turn a profit.
New York doesn’t know how to pick consistent winners anymore because New York doesn’t know how to curate. New York doesn’t know how to brand. New York, crucially, doesn’t know why readers buy their books, and what their target readers want each time they step into a book store or open their Amazon app.
Here, my friends, is where the advantage lies. Here is where small presses may find their traction and profit. Here is where publishers can compete with the allure of self-publishing – through true, actual, real curation – through cohesive branding – through understanding what readers want and then, by god, delivering it every time.
If New York ever understood how to curate, there’s no way they can do it now. They are too large. They are too convinced that the book industry can’t exist without them; they think their mere existence should be curation enough. They have forgotten that readers even exist – their end customer (or so they believe) is the book-buyer for a brick-and-mortar store, not the individual reader.
Hybrid authors have confirmed this. Commentary from their New York publishers suggests strongly that New York is shocked and amazed when an author can tell them precisely what demographic buys their books, exactly what that demographic is looking for, and how they respond to certain types of marketing. The fact that reader behavior and preference can be known at all astounds them. Readers are totally invisible to New York, and so New York publishing is fundamentally incapable of effective curation.
Enter the Small Dog
Fortunately, New York isn’t the only dog in the race. It’s just the biggest. Fast and agile small and independent presses can scoop up good authors, brand effectively, target readers flawlessly, and run off with all the sales before New York even knows what the hell just hit them.
Let me introduce you to an independent press I believe is going to make it, and become a major player within its niche – and become the coveted imprint for authors who are writing to that niche.
I first met Mark Bailey, the editor at Torrey House Press, when I submitted Baptism for the Dead to THP for consideration. He didn’t buy the book, but we struck up a bit of an internet friendship all the same. Maybe “friendship” isn’t the right term – perhaps “mildly antagonistic acquaintance with plenty of mutual respect” is better.
Mark tends to be anti-Amazon. He’s a publisher, and so he’s bought into much of the press that spins Amazon as the great slayer of all other publishers, and of bookstores. I’m not criticizing him for that, just stating the facts. The truth is, I know far more people who’ve bought into New York’s attempts to position Amazon as the ultimate baddie than people who see who the real poop-stirrer is in this issue (New York.)
Mark doesn’t like Amazon, and I do, because without Amazon I never would have had my successful self-publishing career – and now thanks to Amazon I will also be a traditionally published/hybrid author, too. I think it’s nice that two book professionals from such opposite ends of the Amazon/New York spectrum can genuinely enjoy discussing the issue, can offer one another varied viewpoints on their respective businesses, and can challenge each other’s assumptions about the industry. Mark and I have certainly had our share of lively debates about the publishing world, and have done much to challenge one another’s perspectives – or have tried to challenge each other, at any rate. I like and respect Mark tremendously as a person.
I like and respect him even more as a publisher. Torrey House Press has the branding-and-curation gig down to an art and a science. Their focus is narrow – that’s smart. They publish fiction and narrative nonfiction that focuses on the land and culture of the Rocky Mountain West, as well as some general, ecology-themed books that aren’t necessarily set in the Rockies.
Torrey House Press has figured out how to identify and zero in on a niche. They have studied their readers – not the book stores they distribute to – and have figured out what those readers want. They provide more of the same, and they’re defensive of their curated brand – they don’t dilute it by throwing in some Kim Kardashian books or OJ pseudo-confessionals, even though those books might sell a lot of copies. They have figured out the ONE thing they’re doing, and they’re committed to doing that ONE thing, and doing it well.
I’m in their demographic. I love the West; I’m passionate about its conservation and its particular magic, and I love a lyrical prose style, which THP provides. I’ve read most of their books and loved nearly all of them. They have successfully identified how to reach their target audience, and have proven that nearly always, they deliver precisely the type of read I, their target reader, want.
I have come to trust their brand. I know that if I pick up a THP book, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it. And when I feel like reading a gorgeously written book about the American West, I don’t go dinking around in a book store hoping I’ll stumble across the right book. I go to Amazon and I type in “Torrey House Press.” Then I one-click anything that’s new from them without even bothering to read the product description, because it’s Torrey House, I know Mark picks winners, and I know I can trust his brand to deliver the reading experience that I want.
THAT is how you do curation right. THAT is the 2014 version of my friends sauntering into their local book store and scanning the shelves for that distinctive color-blocked Penguin paperback spine.
It's Revival Time