Collaboration

Thursday, 6 February 2020 12:57


How to optimise digital management

What happens when a publishing programme is dictated by the readers? After all, some marketing experts advocate putting the customer first. Should publishers do this too?

This can feel uncomfortable, because a publisher’s value lies in its expertise: the author or the publisher knows best, and readers should be appreciate that. There are practical constraints, too. Publishing processes are tightly costed. For most books the profits are too thin for risks to be allowed. 

Nevertheless, ‘customer first’ is a logical extension of the idea of encouraging an active community of consumers who share interests and want to encourage the publisher to give them more of the same. In that context, the most diligent consumers may become experts themselves, as academics and professionals do. The story here applies mainly to popular non-fiction, information publishing, whether popular or professional. There are some very interesting examples in both children and adult fiction, too, but those will be the subject of a later blog. 

How might it work?

When social media connect readers with the publisher and with each other, the publisher benefits from feedback. This comes from both individuals and from the community they form. If the publisher finds this constructive, everyone wins. The feedback gives information about customers and their interests. The publisher gains knowledge about the interests of this particular market. And the readers get the books they want. The publisher will also learn if they want more than books: perhaps events, or learning courses, or different but related books, or other media products such as music or video and, increasingly, audio.

Conventionally, a publisher is a gate-keeper between writers and readers. If an active community develops, however, it’s not hard to imagine that writers and readers will want to connect with each other. What happens to the publisher then? Does publishing become no more than a financial and production vehicle? Or can a publisher have a more integral role?

A model marketplace

In a different context, imagine an analogy of a traditional, pre-industrial marketplace. Farmers bring food and other goods to sell and locals come to buy. The owner of the marketplace provides stalls, collects rent and gives some security. But it’s more complex than this because the farmers also trade with each other; and locals have goods such as handicrafts and ‘fast’ food to sell as well. Then on market day, entertainers turn up. In short, it’s a collaborative, community event. 

Something similar is also happening when a publisher creates a ‘community marketplace’. In this case, the main ‘products’ are ideas, or ‘content’, and these may or may not use physical books as the medium.

In practice

A publisher specialising in books about crafts and hobbies encouraged its readers to share ideas with each other, and then to trade craft items they’d made. The publisher also set up courses to complement the books, and events where readers could meet. In time, the more successful craftspeople and hobbyists were encouraged to become authors themselves. New ways of sharing knowledge such as videos were encouraged. And this publishing market thrived.

The publisher is the equivalent of the owner or manager of the marketplace, who facilitates the market there. Authors are the farmers and locals are the consumers ... at first. Then in time the authors or farmers also become buyers; and consumers, reader, hobbyists, like enterprising locals, also become sellers. The publisher also provided events with both education and entertainment too, so the analogy still applies. 

The dynamics of the old-fashioned marketplace and the twenty-first century digital marketplace work as if each is a kind of small economic ecosystem, in which one of the main drivers is the enthusiasm and curiosity of the people involved. Potentially, like all successful ecosystems, it is internally sustainable unless something comes along to disrupt it.

Creative participation

When the members of a community connect with the creators, it has much in common with ancient storytellers and their audiences, both contributing to the narrative as the story goes along. Elizabethan theatre was famous for its interactions with the audience, and this is also found in modern forms of entertainment such as immersive or participatory events.

Collaboration between creators and consumers benefits whoever facilitates it. In the case of the publisher, the benefit came in terms of increased sales. Success comes from encouraging active collaboration between individuals and communities around the idea that brings them together; as a result, the idea will evolve. 

People work together like this when there’s a creative team working on a common topic. Even as some elements change, the creative project carries on. 

Community ecosystem

In business terms this describes a commercial ‘knowledge ecosystem’. It can be easier to visualise if ‘ideas’ are seen as the elements that move around. 

In publishing, the small-scale ‘knowledge ecosystem’ is a publishing niche ... with specialised knowledge and interest and enthusiasts who are eager to explore it as much as they can.

Going further, when the enthusiasts collaborate, to take part in the discovery and development of ideas, they create their own kind of marketplace, which thrives the more they participate in it. 

Collaboration encourages community knowledge to invent other knowledge projects. To publishers, that can mean books. In a wider sense it can extend to other partly connected communities, where interests overlap or interconnect. This is a Collaborative Consumer Community model ... which describes something everyone who has worked creatively with others knows well.

In the next blog, I’ll explore what happens when a Collaborative Consumer Community combines with full-circle (360-degree) planning. When this works best, a business plan emerges that is also a publishing plan, a social media plan, a production plan, a sustainability plan, and a new kind of publishing strategy based on collaboration in one way or another with all involved.