Hachette Internal Memo – What does Publishing Mean? (Updated)

Below is the text of the internal ‘leaked’ document as published by Digital Book World on December 6th.  Let’s deal with the first obvious points. This is not a document intended only for the eyes of Hachette Book Group staff and management, and it is certainly not a complete document. The ‘audience’ it addresses is not internal because the voice is directed outward and is forthright and defensive of the values the publishing industry believes in and tries to represent. This document was intended to be seen externally outside of Hachette Book Group – if not now – then most probably shared at some future industry or public forum.  In fact, bluntly, this is about as leaked a document as Monica Lewinsky walking into her local launderette, dumping her blue dress on the counter, and announcing, ‘Bill Clinton did that!’
For now, let’s just deal with the content of the document rather than any supposed greater context.

“Self-publishing” is a misnomer.

I’ve honestly no real idea what the above statement means.  I’m assuming the author of the document is alluding to the constant misuse of the terminology of the phrase ‘self-publishing’ and I would have no argument with that. The phrase itself is used in ways it was never indented to mean. I think the author or publishing mogul of the Hachette document is inferring the phrase used in the context of ‘self-publishing companies’.

Publishing requires a complex series of engagements, both behind the scenes and public facing. Digital distribution (which is what most people mean when they say self-publishing) is just one of the components of bringing a book to market and helping the public take notice of it.

We get a further insight to ‘self-publishing misnomer’ with the above paragraph.  The direct suggestion is that ‘self’ cannot be used in the same sentence as ‘publishing’ because publishing is a ‘complex’ business operating behind the scenes. The inference once again is that the ‘self’ should be obliterated from the business and the corporate ‘engagements’ of publishing. Publishing can be a complex business if an author does not understand how it works but I don’t see why an individual author with business acumen cannot navigate this supposed bizarre and alien world that only publishers should know about or dare to engage in. Day in day out I refer authors investigating self-publishing to freelance professionals offering their services – many having had years working within the established industry.
This argument, which is often used by commercial publishers to tarnish all self-published book projects, is what I call the ‘Mummy knows best’ argument. Take this to its extreme and we would have no cottage industries, small esoteric and dedicated presses, freelance professionals who lost their jobs within the publishing industry, or for that matter, any kind of foresight, innovation and entrepreneurship in the world. The attitude embodied in this document is exactly why the industry changed little for hundreds of years since Guttenberg and has clearly only now realised it has been asleep at the wheel since the 1980’s when large retailers and media corporations moved in on it’s perceived turf.
But most importantly Hachette throws out the deliberate spanner in the works when they say, Digital distribution (which is what most people mean when they say self-publishing. What a load of utter bollox! Who is ‘most people’? Despite the digital publishing march, most authors new to publishing, and self-publishing, understand it solely in terms of physical books printed and stocked in high street stores. I accept, many self-publishers can be naive, but here is the reality. Live with it and move on. It was primarily academic presses, self-publishing services, and authors, who quickly embraced digital publishing/technology and the merits of the Internet and social media before most publishing goliaths turned off the alarm clock and got out of bed.

As a full service publisher, Hachette Book Group offers a wide array of services to authors:

I’m fascinated how this commercial publisher now refers to the nature of its business as ‘a service to authors’, as if it were serving king and country, without fee (in this case royalties and advance against an 85% take on their part), out of civil and moral duty.  I applaud Hachette if this is a suggestion of a moral stance not to monetise the dreams and enthusiasm of many authors to see their books in print, either by way of offering self-publishing services to the ever-growing slush piles of manuscripts or offering paid writing workshops and manuscript evaluations.  Perhaps I have it all wrong and, in fact, Hachette is just laying the foundations to become a ‘full service publisher’ – a phrase used by so many of those so-called dirty little vanity houses.

1. Curator: We find and nurture talent:

By definition:
A curator (from Latin: cura meaning “care”) is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution.
Let it go Hachette. You are not a curator. The modern publishing industry faced with all the changes and challenges is not the place to preserve heritage (celebrate the works of art, perhaps), but you are not running a museum – so drop the pseudo pretentions. Hachette may very well care and want to manage, but you do not FIND talent. Give some respect to the many literary agents who work tirelessly with authors to identify and nurture talent.  They are the ones now who now deal with all that ‘shit’ you used to get and have to tell the author to get lost. Hachette, like many publishers, gave the identify and nurture gig up many years ago. So, please, don’t pretend you get your hands dirty when you (for the most part) don’t! It’s like throwing a house party, saying you are cooking, and ordering from the best top-notch restaurant in town as a take-away.

• We identify authors and books that are going to stand out in the marketplace. HBG discovers new voices, and separates the remarkable from the rest.

As I said, you don’t FIND nor DISCOVER. You just decide to agree or disagree with a literary agent’s recommendation on what will suit and sell for your list and the readership market. Even Al Gore doesn’t pretend he discovered the hole in the ozone layer!

• We act as content collaborator, focused on nurturing writing talent, fostering rich relationships with our authors, providing them with expert editorial advice on their writing, and tackling a huge variety of issues on their behalf.

Yes, you do collaborate on content with partners, professionally edit books, and deal with a variety of issues arising for an author in conjunction with their agent. And you focus on nurturing talent only when an author is on your lists. But the above paragraph is probably the most spurious and flower-worded piece in the entire document. Anyone who deals with anything which has content, by whatever method, once it is disseminated, has to collaborate.  When I read the piece I was just waiting for the killer word ‘disintermediation’.

2. Venture Capitalist: We fund the author’s writing process:

You do fund the author’s writing process by way of advance, but don’t push it with the venture capitalist nonsense.  A venture capitalist takes a high-end risk at a very early stage. All business involves risk on new products. A publisher like Hachette takes a limited risk on every book taken on after it has gone through at least one serious gatekeeping post.  If it is any reflection and solace on publishing – I accept – most true venture capitalist wouldn’t touch any form of publishing with a bargepole!

• At HBG we invest in ideas. In the form of advances, we allow authors the time and resources to research and write. In addition we invest continuously in infrastructure, tools, and partnerships that make HBG a great publisher partner.

No, for the most part, you invest in books and the sale of them through retail partners. Remember, a venture capitalist is clever enough not to invest in just an idea. You’re dreaming of the way publishing used to be a hundred years ago. That is not the business now, so stop pretending that’s how it still works. Your partners in this business are way ahead of you in the game, and have been for several years. Your partnerships are about turning the boat in choppy waters as quickly as possible and trying to learn what your partners already know as you go along.

3. Sales and Distribution Specialist: We ensure widest possible audience:

You do and your prowess and knowhow and partnerships beats the pants off what 95% of self-publishers can ever do for their books. That – in a nutshell – is also where most of your future lies. I’m just not sure that role will be as publisher, content manager, or facilitator. Only Hachette can decide that. And right now, I’m not convinced Hachette or any other large publisher knows where it is going to be in the industry in five years time.

• We get our books to the right place, in the right numbers, and at the right time (this applies equally to print and digital editions). We work with retailers and distribution partners to ensure that every book has the opportunity to reach the widest possible readership.

You do, but don’t be complacent and believe you always know where the right place is – not just now, but in five years time. You, or a self-published author, cannot guarantee that your books will get shelf-space no matter how good or professional the product. The seller and reader will always decide. But then, you dropped the ball on booksellers and their influence on your industry a long time ago. Developing sales partnerships now digitally may be a case of entering the game after the horse has bolted.

• We ensure broad distribution and master supply chain complexity, in both digital and physical formats.

Again, you don’t any longer. That’s why you have partners. Remember them?  Have you ever questioned why you now need those partners to function in this industry?
Stop using that phrase – complexity. You are deliberately and knowingly using it to make some distribution (certainly digital) more difficult and inaccessible to authors than it is. I’m actually looking forward to the day when large publishers acknowledge that they have learned a great deal from the work dedicated self-publishers (authors and publishing services) have done in this area. They took some of the risk and ate the king’s food before you dined on oysters.
• We function as a new market pioneer, exploring and experimenting with new ideas in every area of our business and investing in those new ideas – even if, in some cases, a positive outcome is not guaranteed (as with apps and enhanced ebooks).

• We act as a price and promotion specialist (coordinating 250+ monthly, weekly and daily deals on ebooks at all accounts).

Nope, you are struggling to come up with ideas, methods and agreements to deal with the industry you took your eye off over many years. Like an absent landlord, you’ve only just returned to try and take control at the helm.
Remember, after all that ‘nurturing’ you claim to do you have got to sell the damn books. What you are not telling us is how much retailers now control the retail market you are trying to sell into, and the control you have lost over it.
4. Brand Builder and Copyright Watchdog: We build author brands and protect their intellectual property:

• Publishers generate and spread excitement, always looking for new ways make our authors and their books stand out.  We’re able to connect books with readers in a meaningful way.

• We offer marketing and publicity expertise, presenting a book to the marketplace in exactly the right way, and ensuring that intelligence, creativity, and business acumen inform our strategy.

• We protect authors’ intellectual property through strict anti-piracy measures and territorial controls.

You need to talk a lot more to readers. Remember them. They buy your books – they are the little guys at the end of the consumer line. If you don’t have a phone number or email, I’ll be happy to put you back in touch with a few of them. Your ‘brand’ doesn’t exist in the world of the people who buy your books. Go talk to Penguin, and even then, I don’t think they could sell you or give away the secret or strategy to selling a publisher brand. It can be done – over many years – if you invest in authors and start from there, working backwards. For a large publisher, I’m not sure it is possible. I suspect your sales team, distributors and wholesalers even see Hachette as a brand. Maybe a few of your big authors could share with you how they built their brand. But then, maybe you already take all the success for that.
Agents protect their authors, for the most part. You protect the rights you paid good money for. I can’t argue with that. I agree piracy is a big challenge for publishers in the digital world, but believe me, it’s not your biggest challenge by far.
This was a poorly conceived document by a publisher who should know better. I stick by my initial statement that this was always intended to be seen externally. Frankly, if this was an honest internal document, then I think Hachette need to ask why they need to explain to their publishing professionals the nature of their business today. I believe it was intended as an outward rebuke rather than a serious inward reflection of where publishing is now. It offers nothing on how Hachette is going to change or embrace the industry as it is now.
We can talk all about what Hachette or any other publisher is doing to contend with the challenges in the book industry as a whole, but the greater question is not are publishers as we know them relevant; the question is;
Publishing –  what does it now mean in a world where everyone has the tools to publish and connect?
Last night, Joe Konrath reflected on this memo document originally disclosed on DBW. Konrath also published an online discussion withBarry Eisler on the subject, and he rightly pointed out that it the document tried to say a lot, but offered little to inspire or make us believe publishers actually get it. For Konrath, publishers need to review royalties offered to authors and be more transparent and speedy, speed up the process of publishing a book, be more smart about marketing, give up the piracy crusade, and lower ebook pricing.

UPDATE – December 12th, 2012
While being interviewed by DBW, Hachette’s, Senior VP of Hachette Digital, Maja Thomas, did reveal what I suspected in the above article – that the ‘memo’ was in fact ‘just a slide from a presentation presentation.’

JG: Last week on Digital Book World, we published a leaked document from your company about what publishers do and why they’re relevant. Can you tell me more about it?

MT: The manifesto is just a slide from a presentation that we started doing more than a year ago with agents because agents were saying they felt that they didn’t know about the digital world, they didn’t understand the nuances around rights and royalties in digital books. We put together this presentation for them discussing our strategies. It’s been an evolving document. We’ve presented it to several hundred agents.

As it progressed, it became clear that we needed to have a slide that said, ‘this is the value proposition that publishers bring.’ It’s part of the overall, ‘let’s explain ourselves, let’s show why we’re a great partner for agents and authors.’

I would say that it had some great success with certain authors and agents and a more limited success with others in terms of what they took away from it or how persuaded they were by it.

Interesting, publishers teaching/educating agents about digital publishing. That’s a big no-no and red flag for me from the perspective of an author. It’s honorable that Hachette felt the need more than a year ago for such a presentation to agents and authors, but perhaps the real question should be; are agents relevant? After all, agents need to be in the know about the industry they are pitching their authors to. Maybe the agency run by Andrew Wylie had a point this year when he put it up to the industry and attempted to launch a digital imprint for some of his authors.

Ultimately, DBW badly dropped the ball here on a fundamental issue and did not probe and flesh out the issue further with Maja Thomas. After all, DBW had leaked the Hachette document last week, built it up, had considerable feedback on their site, and when they had Thomas in their sights, produced a whimsical and meandering piece almost at the behest of Hachette. This isn’t good journalism, and the whole ‘Hachette Affair’ makes me wonder if this ‘debate’ wasn’t just a prescribed and contrived leak as a run up to yesterday’s piece.    

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