Friday, 29 May 2009

Of Success and Salt (or dare to fail not fail to dare)

Twitter and its simultaneous capacity for both linear and lateral information flow remains very much in the (book industry) news (and on my mind) at the moment with the NY Book Expo Tweetup being the talk of the fair and over here in the UK Salt’s Just One Book campaign attracting attention.

That I am a Salt groupie and therefore hopelessly prejudiced in their favour is a well-established fact. But you don’t have to be a fan to discern that Salt make beautiful, intellectually rigorous books in collaboration with authors who like being published by them. However Salt have yet to create a robust business model even though they have been pushing boundaries to achieve this – most particularly in their innovative use of social media to promote the company and its authors.

The power of Twitter and #hashtags is that suddenly, off the back of Just One Book there now exists a fast, simple mechanism to search and follow others who are also rooting for Salt. (And the same applies for thousands of other special interest subjects that people are using hashtags to flag up for others.) Through this mechanism Twitter has led me to a variety of postings about Salt including ghostwriter Jane Smith’s blog (not one I would normally visit, aimed as it is at authors). What drew my attention was not the fairly brief post (23 May) – but rather the fierce debate that ensued in the comments column. One anonymous reader (who subsequently identified him or herself as "Rae") had been dismissive of Salt’s campaign as a “gimmick” and was rounded on by a number of Jane’s more regular followers some of whom are Salt authors. However I was struck by the remarks "Perhaps Salt Publishing should try publishing books people want to read rather than resorting to emotional blackmail…” and – on the Salt website - “There are just too many steps for the uninitiated, other book websites are not quite so cumbersome - I guess that's why they aren't having problems with sales”.

I found myself pausing to reflect whether there is something of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome going on here. Are those of us deeply engaged with books and publishing so blinded by our beliefs and our self-belief that we can’t risk seeing ourselves through the eyes of others? The comment thread reveals both an unwillingness to tolerate criticism and some of the unwritten expectations we have of the way in which people comment on blogposts and in discussion fora. This is not the first time I have observed a dissenting voice raising the ire of a committed and converted community of followers and in doing so often terminating a discussion.

It seems to me, however, that Rae raised three most apposite points -

1. "Perhaps Salt should publish books people want to read...”
This is a statement freighted with assumptions – first and foremost that people are aware of Salt’s books in the first place. According to the Salt Confidential blog, Chris Hamilton-Emery has been humbled by discovering just how little awareness there is of Salt outside those with a real commitment to poetry. It is evident that for all of their Facebooking and assorted innovations, Salt have remained outside of the mainstream and consequently many active book buyers remain unaware of their lists. The reasons for this are too diverse and numerous to enumerate here. Now the real crux of the matter is that the exposure the Just One Book Campaign grants them will get books and authors into new hands, or rather in front of new eyeballs. Ergo we will soon see whether Salt are publishing books people want to read if – after Just One Book – sales can be sustained at significantly higher levels than before the campaign. If not, maybe it tells us something that we don’t really want to know.

2. (re website) “there are just too many steps for the uninitiated…”
Here was genuine feedback from someone who had made the effort to visit the site. And it was slightly shocking to read given that many of us in the industry envy Salt’s content-rich web site. But because we are engaged we don’t need to evaluate the site objectively for its new-user-friendliness (and how many of us are guilty of that in relation to our own sites). If writers and publishers resent and reject such useful feedback from first time visitors – then we deserve to fall victim to our own hubris.

3. “…other book websites… not having problems with sales”
Of course many other book websites are run by large retailers and not by independent publishers. The fact that Amazon, B&N and The Book Depository set the standard for the online book purchasing experience is a real problem for under-resourced independent publishers (not to mention everyone else in the supply chain). The rest are playing catch-up. (As an aside, the assertion that others are not having problems with sales is debatable and unanswerable. Are we talking about publishers or retailers here? Other poetry publishers may well be having problems with sales – but if they are part of a larger group there may be other resources deployed to support poetry, and then of course some others have long-term public funding arrangements in place.)

As a result of watching the Just One Book campaign, I am renewed in my belief that just because a company publishes wonderful books, it does not follow that they are a successful publisher. Production and editorial values alone do not make for publishing success. Publishing, as practised by commercial publishing ventures, is about creating lists that successfully reach a paying market (which may or may not be the end consumer) and are therefore profitable. The required scale of that profit is for the publisher to determine according to their own objectives and shareholder or stakeholder pressures. But whilst there are many measures of creative and artistic success in the form of literary gongs and industry awards, Mr Micawber’s advice about what represents financial success still holds true today.

In 1999 (co-incidentally the year Salt was founded) I attended my first Independent Publisher's Guild conference as the newly appointed Secretary of the organisation. From the Platform, Michael Schmidt, publisher of Carcanet, said something that lodged in my mind and has remained with me ever since: "I take a forestry ecology approach to publishing poetry". So saying, Michael recognised that successful publishing needs first and foremost an enthusiastic, informed audience that values what is published highly enough to be prepared to pay for it (a market). Whether Schmidt and Carcanet have been successful in husbanding or enlarging poetry’s habitat is a separate question, and not for now.

If you are paying attention you may recall that in my opening sentence I asserted that Twitter is lateral as well as linear. Even better, the lateral can link back into the linear in serendipitous ways. A couple of days ago a random retweet threw up a perfect example of this by leading me to a blogpost by Mack Collier (@MackCollier) entitled “You will fail at social media.” Intrigued, I read on – and I thoroughly recommend that you do too. Embedded in the post is a video of a TED lecture from Sir Ken Robinson whose 15-minute presentation on why education matters posits that creativity demands we have to dare to fail in order to succeed. This short video has radically altered my thinking about my childrens’ education and training and education in the company I help to run. I can't recommend it highly enough. Sir Ken’s thesis observes that children dare to fail until adults educate that courage out of them – and that this traditional approach to education is disastrous in the context of the global creative economy we live and work in.

Then it dawned on me that what Chris and Jen at Salt have been doing for the last ten years is daring to fail. And when it looked like that failure was complete (in commercial if not artistic terms) they dared to be brutally honest about it – and apply their own brand of wit and creativity to facing up to that reality. How ironic it will be – and how salutary – if that failure is the birth of a level of success they could never previously dream of achieving.


  1. Great post. Thought provoking. Thanks.

  2. I do find that Salt website a bit confusing sometimes.

  3. I think this is a great post. I found Chris' account of repping one of the most gripping things I've read in ages, and it shows that there are uncharted territories for Salt.

    The 'dare to fail' idea is spot on: I once had a CEO who wanted everyone in the place to aim for excellence, he said if you aimed for good you'd never get anywhere, and he said he'd rather see his people fail once in a while, trying to be great, than just plod along. the managers hated it.

    Then there's Beckett: Try again. Fail again, Fail better.

  4. A real interesting summing up. I'm also a fan of salt books, and know a couple of their authors, but I'm pretty daunted by the rest of their list, and you'll have to look pretty hard in London Foyles (which supports alot of smaller presses) and bookshops in their home town of Cambridge to find evidence of their existence. The fact is, publishers aren't retailers, and its the same online as everywhere else. I did work experience at Carcanet years ago, and it was surprising how small an operation it was, given how big a profile (and how many books), but that would be Michael's "forestry ecology" approach - and every day, first task, was to wrap and deliver any orders that had come directly. We're all set up on Amazon or Book Depository, and so its far easier than signing up for every publisher in term...yet those direct sales are probably crucial for cashflow. I wrote on my blog about the need for some investment in the publishing infrastructure and I stand by it. All publishers publish books that people don't want, as well as ones they do, yet literary publishers seem to get criticised when sales are low, whilst the publishers of toilet books or political biogs don't -

  5. Thanks BaroqueinHackney. I agree that Chris's account of repping was really illuminating. And thanks too for the Beckett reminder - that's a quote for my notice board

  6. Bournemouth Runner - yes I live near Cambridge and I've been fascinated by the lack of presence in shops there. But I also know that none of the Cambridge shops are easy for even local interest publishers to sell into. You are right that publishers aren't retailers - but for small to medium sized publishers it is hard to find the balance between committing to the trade (and not pursuing direct sales) - or growing direct sales (through a variety of channels. Direct sales have serious cash-flow advantages over trade and of course they are usually no-return.
    I'm interest that you did work experience at Carcanet. I know their "presence" is way beyond their acutal size - but I don't think that's what Michael meant. He doesn't strike me as being afraid to think big. I think he meant two things 1. Poetry lists (like forests) take time and 2. The habitat or environment of the forest requires just as much husbanding as the trees.

  7. Great post, Sheila. I too found Chris's post about repping illuminating: it brought back for me the experience of repping the lit-mag, metropolitan, I once published, and I was surprised (and I have to say somewhat horrified) by how similar his experience was to mine. But as Katy says, now we know there's an uncharted market waiting to be seized...

  8. Yes, totally agree with you Sheila on Michael's meaning. The ecosystem of PN Review - the various writing classes/schools/poetry masters & Phds - Carcanet itself - poets themselves - being a representative for literature at home and overseas... its definitely forestry; all of that is the environment. Poets, well... poets will be poets. My Carcanet Work Experience was a week a long time ago - but illuminating nonetheless.