Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Buzzword for Day: Hyperspecialize

That's a pretty good buzzword for publishing's future, right?

Seth Godin might think so.

In a post on his blog today, Godin advises literary agents to hyperspecialize if they want to survive:
To thrive in a world of self-service, agents have to hyperspecialize, have to stand for something, have to have the guts to say no far more than they say yes. No, you can't publish this book. No I won't represent you. No, don't take that flight. No, I won't sell this house, it's overpriced, list it yourself.

He smartly places the literary agent's role into the context of other agents - real estate agents, travel agents - to show the danger one faces in this role as middleman, if one doesn't differentiate one's self. Excuse all those ones. I think you get the point.

But Godin's point is true for publishers in general, isn't it? And isn't this the very thing we editors have been telling authors forever? Well well well, it's really come back to bite us on the ass. You can't just churn out predictable books and make money, because there are too many books out there, and too many self-publishers and vanity presses, and too many venues to advertise a book. The old channels - most notably, newspaper reviews - are wilting, and in their place are springing a million blogs. How much more can you wash down a product and still have a product? That's essentially what's happening, editors, if you are chasing the thing to follow what was once the Next Big Thing.

So editors have to stand out front, take bold risks, and have a sharp, definable, possibly polarizing vision as they build a list. (Of course, the publisher must support them in this, so a constant threat of lay-offs isn't conducive to such confidence.) I've been chiming this note for years. Publishers should return to having identities, rather than just being a collection of books that should sell. That identity should encompass politics, aesthetics, intellectual philosophy, a sense of humor - it should have a personality of its own. Readers will be attracted to that identity and seek it out in this world of options. Don't underestimate smart consumers.

As our world breaks into a million fragments, publishers shouldn't try to gobble up as many fragments as possible but just define their own and create a consistent list with a vision behind it. As Godin concludes, "When markets change, agents can lead the way, not follow along grudgingly." Point!

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