Winter 2012 could be a difficult time of life for the Mayans, but is publishing ready for a new era? As the year draws to a close, Helen Bagnall reflects on the risky business of centralised intellectual property.
William Lareau’s business self-help title of 1997 “Dancing with The Dinosaur” declared everything in business had to be re-learnt to thrive in the new corporate age. Sound familiar? As publishers begin to reposition publishing as books plus content and brand building it can seem that digital is demanding all of book publishing dance to its tune.
Launching into branded IP without any extra resource or budget is one of the reasons the digital dance floor is being approached slowly. Publishers are often portrayed as eyeing each other nervously in the digital sphere, ready to decry failure before projects have even gotten going, but in reality are looking for sustainable business models to bring new revenue streams from the new platforms. With limited budgets, stretched staffing and little governmental investment it can often seem it’s only the tech companies over at Silicon Roundabout that get to be knee-deep in experimental fun.
There has also been an undermining assumption that publishers can begin to act like lean start-ups, but is this not expecting break-dancing from an industry stretched almost to the limit? Publishers know the rough shape of the digital answer but are almost forced to refine their offerings publicly whilst reassuring those above that there will be an audience for their work that will cover any costs eventually. Risks are almost impossible to take if you have to guarantee their success before you start. No wonder when one leading agent called an editor in a big trade publisher this year to pitch some digital projects only to be told that the publishing house were already doing one digital book this year and so didn’t want to hear any pitches for any others.
The big trade publishers may find it too hard to act editorially exactly like lean, quick moving and reacting start-ups, no matter how their back office functions are merged. But there has been a lot of watching and learning and this year, and at last some significant visible steps forward in to the world of centralised brand development.
Pre-merge Penguin were first off the mark, modifying a video games model, named ‘Genesis’ in which many small projects were begun with the view of developing them and holding on to all the IP as they grew, creatively developing content in as big a way as possible.
Earlier this year the first project broke out of the Genesis stable at Penguin, a teen lifestyle brand named Girl Heart Boy, it is a YA ‘guide to boys, dating and everything in between…’
Alex Clarke, Publishing Director at Penguin describes Girl Heart Boy as ‘the first time Penguin have worked this way, creating a lifestyle brand in-house, which is proper joined up work, designed to exist multi-platform and with the option to develop on to broadcast.’
The project is collaboration between Penguin and BeActive, the company who specialise in web content designed to scale up for television with ease. This concept is designed to support the existing business models for both parties, Penguin can stick to what they do best, creating excellent books, however they can benefit from a company so used to marketing digital content. For the bloggers launch the teen influencers were won over with as much frozen yogurt as they could manage (including ‘unlimited toppings!’, as one remarked).
The YA blogger community, an unimaginable marketing force before social media were suitably seduced. As for BeActive, they get to work with the excellent editorial skills of Penguin, develop a proof of concept for a potential TV show, are able to have exploratory sponsors to cover the creation of the show and to hype the show accordingly.
Nuno Bernardo the Managing Director of BeActive explains the idea behind the collaboration as building to a ‘proof of concept and an audience to take to a TV company, both of which are increasingly important for persuading commissioning editors to green light a project.’
If this first project from Penguin foreshadows a workable structure emerging for the development of IP, another option is to restructure. In Autumn, Walker Books announced Helen MacAleer was stepping up to become the Chief Global Development Officer and also crucially MD of Walker Productions the entertainment production arm of the publisher. This essentially makes Walker books the first publishing house to control the means of television production.
Helen MacAleer explained, “As the industry continues to evolve, it’s vital that Walker focus on diversifying the business beyond traditional publishing models and plan to make sure that the many quality properties on the Walker list worldwide benefit from all the new opportunities opening up to us.”
Walker Books has long been taking simple successful steps towards continuing as a traditional publisher whilst securing and centralising the power of the IP. They have also long pursued a strategy of relationships; both Helen MacAleer and Head of Marketing Julia Posen came from BBC Worldwide, and so understood both the benefits and the challenges in having a TV vehicle for your publishing project. Their background also ensured Walker comfortable with managing the many relationships, and the sharing of information needed to create a truly multi-platform property in a digital world.
It is perhaps not surprising that children’s publishing is leading the way in this area. Children’s publishing is a much easier fit with a consumer products structure and often coexists with the demands of merchandising. A floppy rabbit plush tends to sell a bit better than a cuddly Will Self.
However, this August Random House also announced a new dedicated unit, Random House Enterprises to look at IP opportunities cross platform. Their appointee Jo Edwards similarly comes from a consumer products background in a television company, Discovery Communications. Like Penguin and Walker, it seems finding partners for mutually beneficial collaboration is top of their list of approaching the problem of how to do more for authors in a digital world.
The events of 2012 seem to have allayed the fears that publishing might go the way of the Mayans and the music industry through careful and considered strategic steps in to digital based on their strengths, resources and more importantly the business of books.
Further reading: You can read a quick Q&A with Eric Huang, Director of New Business and IP Acquisitions at Penguin UK here.