The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit – Long term road test

The Flavour Thesaurus

In 2013 I had not one but two never-opened copies of The Flavour Thesaurus on my bookshelf, courtesy of ex-colleagues from the publisher, Bloomsbury. My reactions to the book could have been summarised as: “lovely package; dig those plum coloured page-ends and oh my god what an offputtingly academic concept; I wonder if I can re-gift …” In fact I think I did give one away.

The other, thankfully, I kept. But for at least two more years, I still didn’t read it. Even when I became the Designated Weeknight Cook in our house, I didn’t read it. I was an un-confident cook, reliant on methodically following explicit recipes. Jamie – yes; Hugh – yes; Sarah (Raven) – hell yes. Segnit? Too scary.

Banana omelettes broke the spell (do your own egg joke). My son, ten years old at the time, wanted something eggy for breakfast but vetoed all the usual options. I went in search of something unusual and found:

Make a 3-egg folded omelette as you would ordinarily, except add 1 tbsp caster sugar and a pinch of salt as you beat the eggs. Fry in butter and then fill with a small banana, mashed or sliced as thin as pennies, before folding.

Not only was this an instant hit with the boy, but it gave me a tiny thrill to have learned a new food in two – TWO! – elegant sentences. How grown up. How pleasingly unlike the suddenly rather Janet-and-John-feeling instruction manuals I’d been using.

I was surprised to find actual, practical recipes in The Flavour Thesaurus. I thought it was going to be all musings on combinations and science. And, to be sure, it does have some science, and some musing. What chemical compound makes x smell like y etc.

I was even more surprised at how witty it is. Written in quite the opposite of the dry, technical style I’d ignorantly imagined, in fact. Niki Segnit writes twinkling prose.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was just how encouraging it is. This book sweeps you along in a wave of delight at tasty possibilities, and the ways in which food can be relished and explored. Not in an nerdy, lab-coat way, nor in an elite, connosieur-y way, but in an everyday, unfussy, sometimes quite greedy way. And I bloody love that.

Having dipped in to the Thesaurus regularly, and found it useful when I had a random ingredient to deploy, I eventually decided to read it thoroughly. So, over the course of about a year I read an entry or two … while taking a calm moment, shall we say. Any recipe I fancied making, I marked in pencil, then added to my Righteous Recipe Repertoire.

Particular favourite discoveries include socca (a chickpea pancake you can make in the oven then rip into pieces to go with tapenade – Rosemary & Onion p319) and a beautiful cauliflower, date and walnut coleslaw, reverse engineered from a dish the author ate in a cafe (Cauliflour & Walnut, p124). And there are dozens more that are now firm favourites in our house.

I won’t list them all, but I will try to convey the many ways in which this book is transcendently brilliant, with my top ten Flavour Thesaurus quotes:

Freshly grated nutmeg puts the ohh into aubergines. There should be a global chain selling paper cones of nutmeggy fried aubergine slices. (Oh-bergineTM. I’m rich!).

Aubergine & Nutmeg, p82

On the subject of guacamole, some say that leaving the avocado stone in will prevent discolouration. My view is that if the guacamole’s around long enough to find out, you’re not making it right.

Avocado & Lime p199

But doesn’t a strawberry dipped in chocolate just look like a fruit wearing big knickers?

Chocolate & Strawberry, p18

According to Elizabeth David, aubergines and cheese are a less than ideal combination. If you’ve ever wrapped a soft stole of chargrilled aubergine around the quivering white shoulders of delicate mozzarella, you may beg to differ.

Aubergine & Soft cheese, p82

I could never remember: angels on horseback? Devils on horseback? Pigs at the beach? Swine before pearls?

Oysters & Bacon, p150

(pecans and walnuts are nearly always interchangeable, although pecans are sweeter, less bitter and easier to slide under doors).

Walnut & Anise, p234

Just as a good fish soup should have a slightly disturbing oceanic depth, so a proper wild mushroom soup should live up to its name: a wolf in soup’s clothing.

Potato & Mushroom p91

Cooked asparagus spears are lovely dipped in soft-boiled eggs, especially if you follow Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s tip of slicing the tops off and then adding a little butter and a few drops of cider vinegar to each yolk for a hollandaise-like effect.

Egg & Asparagus, p132

Dill is complex, demanding and opinionated. Think Velma in Scooby-Doo (basil is Daphne).

Dill p189

Lastly, there’s one of my husband’s signature dishes, the Dalston Dinner, akin to a fish supper but with the added advantage that you don’t need to leave the pub to eat it. Simply empty a packet of salted peanuts into a bag of salt and vinegar crisps, clench the bag shut and shake. Mysteriously more delicious than it should be. Good with lager.

Potato & Peanut p92

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did I ever tell you I used to be …

It’s a year on from the death of my dear friend Dan Oliver. Capturing his singular character in a blog post is quite beyond me, and it’s not really my place even to try. So instead I thought I’d just relate something that conveys some of his spirit and says much about what he leaves behind.

Dan’s humour repertoire was broad. It was strong on wordplay (he roundly ignored the old hack at the BBC’s Three Rules of Comedy: “No puns, no puns … no fucking puns, Danny”) and featured many personal catchphrases, deployed with glee. Our university evenings were often punctuated by surprising utterances from an apparently otherwise comatose Dan, who’d lift his head off the sofa just long enough to croak “I’ll fight anyone for a quid!” or the equally implausible “I’m in charge”.

As a close friend rightly observed at his funeral, this slightly absurdist sensibility fitted him perfectly for parenthood. He would delight his four children with claims about his … career, prior to their arrival, with the preamble “did I ever tell you I used to be …”

In the days between his death and funeral, the kids listed some of these roles. Highlights included:

A scarecrow

A bison

Lord Voldemort

A battleship captain

A crow

A unicorn

Jesus

An eagle

Pope

One Sunday before Christmas last year, they brought that list over, and we had a craft session round the dining table.

Each of the kids made a sketch of their favourite alter ego of their dad’s, then gouged it into lino, which we printed.

Their mum then had the tricky task of combining the four images – all of animals, interestingly – into a Christmas card. I think it turned out beautifully.

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Bonus feature: I usually do a Christmas card – also a lino print – based on something significant from our family’s year, like an object we liked on holiday or whatever. This year, at my wife’s suggestion, the card celebrated Dan by way of reference to the poem he had me read at his funeral. The beautiful Japanese Maple by Clive James.

japanese-maple-card

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:

Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?

Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that. That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colours will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

A year on, I miss Dan very much. What cheers me is the way his four beautiful, talented, unique and just downright appealing children are growing as people; they have personality to spare, and are gloriously true to themselves. And their mother, in addition to keeping all their lives going with heroic energy and resilience, nurtures their characters in a way which I’m sure would make Dan feel proud, as it always used to.

Totes Amazing

This is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Bookseller’s Marketing and Publicity Conference 2016. It’s about “trade marketing” in publishing …

 

It is a rule, in publishing, that any marketing brainstorm, if it goes on long enough, will end up with someone saying “ooh, shall we do a nice tote bag?” It is our default setting. Hands up who doesn’t have a bag of bags, like this, at home?

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Not that we shouldn’t make bags sometimes. They can be very effective. This point was made to me by Lucy Fisher of Sheen Bookshop, the other day. She unleashed this remarkable statement …

I’m going to use the word ‘gusset’ here…

… before going on to explain that the durable construction of the Vintage 25th anniversary bag had impressed her particularly. So she’s used it a lot. And therefore it’s been very visible in the Sheen … ah … ‘hood. An excellent result for Vintage.

So I’m not against tote bags, per se. I’m actually making, believe it or not, a wider point.

Which is: we publishers spend a lot of money on trade marketing – marketing to retailers –  and I think we get stuck in certain habits. Habits like making bags and mailing proofs and other material. But does any of it work? And if so, which bits? And is that changing?

Before we look at those questions, let’s remind ourselves why we do trade marketing. It’s because, try as we might, we can’t sell enough books ourselves, so we need retailers’ help.

A point concisely made, by Jessica Killingley of Hodder:

Nothing sells books like a bookseller

Stephen Page recently blogged for The Bookseller about how we should embrace the symbiotic relationship between publisher and bookseller. I tend to agree.

Let’s also quickly remind ourselves what trade marketing actually consists of. What is it that we’re making and doing?

Things with text: samplers, blads, presenters.

Other physical stuff – tote bags of course, mugs, pens, mousemats, cupcakes, booze, keyrings. As Chris White at Waterstones calls it: gubbins.

Email newsletters, social media activity, advertising in trade press, conferences, roadshows, dinners and drinks.

We pay for all this stuff, to persuade retailers that our books are worth pushing.

So. Does any of it work? Let’s consider the gubbins first – the physical material. I called a senior book buyer at a leading retailer and asked them “how much of the stuff that comes through the post to you from publishers  goes straight in the recycling?” They said:

Almost all of it.

So that was a bit of a buzz kill.

But they did admit that some things made an impression.

Really, really good proofs, for example. They said that design and production of proofs was absolutely key, because an original, interesting, desirable proof demonstrated conviction and differentiated the book. It wasn’t a total surprise to hear that, but the certainty with which it was expressed was quite striking.

That conversation reminded me of a time, many many years ago when I was at Bloomsbury, and we thought we’d invented a really clever thing when we wrapped up proofs of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in brown paper and string and sealed them with wax and a special stamp. Looking back, I’m sure that wasn’t in the least bit original and  it’s probably worked for centuries. Chaucer probably wrapped up superproofs of The Canterbury Tales, in an effort to mobilyse ye key influencers. But for Strange and Norrell it went down a treat. People could tell we knew it was a special book.

Nowadays, publishers get even more value from visually striking proofs, because people share photos of them online, so social media multiplies the impact of the work. Fancy proofs cost loads, but it seems clear that they work.

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What else does?

I asked Lucy Fisher and also Roz de la Hay, from Main Street Trading (and new prez of the BA) “what persuades you?”

Small … and personalised

They both agreed that stuff which was relevant to them and relatively undemanding stood a chance. They felt pressured and annoyed by large mailings of stuff that wasn’t tailored to them. It’s homework they don’t need.

Packs of printouts and documents and leaflets and letters… even nicely written letters from editors don’t always get read.

Something that’s part of a story

This was an interesting observation. Lucy mentioned the package she received for Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave, published by Sceptre. She’d already been told by her rep that the book was inspired by the author’s grandparents’ experiences in the war, so when this evacuee’s suitcase, with pics of them, and rations, turned up, it became part of a story being told about the book.

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Psychologically, this is very potent, I think. When I do coaching sessions for publishers about how to pitch books, we talk a lot about not telling the story OF the book but telling a story ABOUT the book.

If you ask most publishers about their most successful campaigns, particularly for novels, they’ll say “we started talking about it x months ago and just kept on talking about it.” Good campaigns are often long campaigns; a long campaign allows you to develop a story about your book, increasing anticipation by adding layers of new information and material – more visuals, more stuff about the author, and so on.

Moving on from gubbins, into other areas, both Lucy and Roz agreed that meeting an author almost always helps you sell their book, and makes you want to sell their book. Unless, of course, they’re a dick. Which the vast majority are not. We know this, but we might not know it quite enough. Lucy mentioned a bookseller at Waterstones Chiswick who met Marian Keyes many years back and found her so charming he pledged to stock every single one of her books as long as he drew breath. And he has kept to his word. And that’s money in the bank.

Conferences and roadshows also got a good write up from all the booksellers I spoke to, because they helped make books memorable for them. They are places for publishers to carry on the stories they’re telling about their books.. And they facilitate personal relationships with publishers, marketers, publicists and authors.

Authors, in fact, are key to trade marketing. Seemingly becoming more so. I’d say that an author personally visiting one hundred bookshops is actually a form of  trade marketing. And it certainly works, as Penguin and Emma Healey have demonstrated with Elizabeth is Missing. And this concerted focus on authors deliberately forging relationships with booksellers is a very significant trend,. Again, it’s amplified online, but the personal connections are themselves vital.

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At the head office level of trade marketing, there’s been movement towards very bespoke, very integrated work on key publications. I was struck by how effective m’colleagues at Profile had been at enlisting Waterstones to adopt SPQR by Mary Beard. Their sales and marketing team managed to build a lot of momentum by plotting with Wats head office and with individual shops about the book, over a period of months. Co-creating launch plans with them, and then reporting back those plans to other parts of the chain, always communicating, treating it as a shared mission …

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With the big key accounts, bespoke campaigns are becoming ever more significant. There’s a lot of advertising and digital content ostensibly created for consumers, but actually part of the package for the retailer, to meet their needs.

And this bespokery even extends to the product itself. Special editions aren’t just an afterthought any more, they’re an integral part of a big campaign. We’ve seen this most strikingly with the multiple customer-specific editions of Gone Girl, which bring a channel-marketing focus to the actual product.

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So, that gives us some idea of what works in the way of physical marketing (gubbins) building of personal relationships and custom campaigns with the key accounts.

How about digital stuff?  emails and social media … do those things work?

I think there are some excellent examples of publishers using email and particularly social media to influence their trade allies.

This work tends to be almost completely invisible externally, for obvious reasons. Hodder & Stoughton’s communications channel for Waterstones staff is called @Hodderesque and it has a private twitter feed, that only Waterstones staff are allowed to follow.

Why Twitter?

Twitter is non-invasive – Nicole Charge, @Hodderesque

(which makes it sound like they chose Twitter in favour of colonoscopies, but you get the point.) In contrast with those bulky mailings I mentioned earlier, Twitter is not homework. And, because it’s run by very keen and friendly book lovers (in the sales department, actually, not marketing), who genuinely like chatting with booksellers about books, it’s effortlessly authentic and natural. And because it’s not public, the booksellers feel safe to say what they like and be honest. They request proofs and then genuinely hand sell the ones they love.. This has yielded a lot of sales for books with no marketing budget. Unlike fancy proofs, social media work like this is free in budget terms, Though it does take up a lot of staff time.

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HarperCollins started a similar scheme – Harper Insider – around the same time. Ben Hurd told me it was important to them to engage booksellers’ interest first before they start trying to demand stuff from them. Permission marketing, in other words.

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There’s a give and take of time and attention which is about as far as you can get from a mailshot. It has generated very customer-focused, useful material

Seuss

 

And their principal focus isn’t on individual books, it’s on relationships with booksellers.

We only do things that progress a relationship – Ben Hurd, HarperCollins

That’s a brisk trot through what seems to work, in physical, personal and digital versions of trade marketing. Four trends have emerged, I think.

1) Visual

Very simple. If something is cool, pictures of it get shared online. Hence #Bookpost. I can’t see why this dynamic wouldn’t continue to grow in importance.

It means that producing original, fabulous, high concept proofs and material is better value than ever, because social media acts as a “force multiplier” as they say in the military. And, as we saw earlier, this work demonstrates confidence and commitment very persuasively.

2) Bespoke

Publishers seem to be doing ever more to meet the individual needs of their trade customers. Ads, digital assets, “co developed” product.

And this trend might actually point the way to a future even more exaggerated, where publishers have senior staff who aren’t sales people or marketing people, or publicists, but who get to command all those resources in the service of the retail channel. Call them Channel Directors. I know it’s a crushingly corporate idea, but there’s a logical case for it. Because these relationships are so important for our business.

That goes directly against what we all wish we could do – sell directly to the public – but if you asked me which was the more likely future; powerful Channel Directors or half our sales being direct-to-consumer … I’d say the former.

3) Sustained

Sustain

 

Don’t get the reference? Then you’re too young and I despise you.

Short promotional windows don’t define the sales effort anywhere near as much as they used to. With Amazon’s dominance and Waterstones being less overtly promotional, the sales profile of a book is flatter. The game now is about involving retailers in the story about the book, and keeping them engaged, well after publication. Some huge recent bestsellers have very much been defined by how the publisher has worked with the retailers to keep them going. The Girl on The Train, for instance.

4) Personal

Finally, People buy from people, we know that. And as The Wonderful Jo Carpenter from Orion reminds us:

The one thing that hasn’t changed over the ten million years we’ve been selling books … is that personal recommendation works

We might quibble with her timescale. Although I do love the thought of amoebas in the primordial ooze chatting about the new Maggie O’Farrell.

Perhaps Emma Healey visiting 100 bookshops, and Hodderesque and Harper Insider and others promoting books one tweet, one jiffy bag at a time, show that while nothing beats word of mouth, the version of word of mouth we can actually do, that we’re good at initiating … is publisher to retailer and author to retailer.

But it’s got to be done right. Communicate with the right people, in the right tone. Indiscriminate mailings and generic publishing “passion” are no substitute. And by the way, the retailers i spoke to gave particularly short shrift to the blanket passion pitch saying something like “I loved this so much I missed my bus stop”. Which is, in fact, on the banned list:

 

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This is a personal campaign of mine. Feel free to contribute.

Perhaps we can push that thought about recommendation further. One could say, if one were being a bit pretentious, which one often is, that recommendation is the animating dynamic of our entire industry and indeed our reading culture.

It’s quite easy to promote music, tv and movies using a quick taster of the thing itself – we can absorb a song on the radio or a trailer really quickly. It’s not so easy with books. They die without verbal recommendation. You need to have people saying “you’ve got to read this” … and then explaining why.

If we do manage to articulate really good pitches, when we’re trying to market a book to our retail allies,  using all the tools we’ve discussed, perhaps we not only persuade them, but also equip them with persuasive language which they can then use, to their customers, the readers. We’re almost setting up memes of recommendation …

So, though a lot of trade marketing is done by habit, and wastefully, the good stuff works.  And it might be more influential than we give it credit for, when it’s done consciously and cleverly, and it may even be growing in importance.

In a world where marketing to consumers is such a pitilessly hard task, perhaps trade marketing is actually our secret weapon.

Thank you.

Pedalling

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Francesco Moser knew how to pedal. optimizedcyclingsolutions.com

 

Some people find contentment planting one training shoe repeatedly in front of the other. Others get their jollies thrashing through chilly waves. I can’t see running or swimming as anything other than a chore but put me within leg-reach of a pair of pedals, any pair of pedals, and I’m happy.

 

Ideally those pedals would be the ones on my road bike on a sunny Saturday morning but really anything is better than nothing. I get a perfectly decent hit from the heavy old fixed I ride to work, a spin bike at the gym … frankly even a pedalo will get my calves twitching under the right circumstances (those being: any circumstances)

 

Why? Partly because pedalling is something I can do at least half well. I spent 38 years of my life being incapable of sport, then I found one I could do. Being able to push a crank powerfully is therefore deeply satisfying.

 

But mainly I like to pedal because it just feels right to me. It reminds me of what the great Northamptonshire and England cricketer Frank Tyson wrote, about reveling in “the glad animal action” of fast bowling; deriving satisfaction from the physical deed itself, irrespective of its result.

 

On a good day, a pedalling rhythm can become almost self-hypnotising and the smoothness of your movements – or souplesse, as the French say – is almost soothing; drawing you towards the pedal-nirvana of the veloupte (decades of cycling heritage will produce some fine vocabulary).

 

Even on a bad day, you have the harsher joy of forcing out the pace when it hurts. Cyclists are supposed to like suffering and to some degree most of us do. Again, show me sand dunes to run through or a kettlebell to carry and I will quail. But give me a hill to ride up and the thought of stopping just because it hurts won’t even occur to me. I might slow down when the lactate becomes indistinguishable from lava … but the pain is part of the point, so I won’t stop.

 

The capacity of bike pedalling to complement one’s mood is truly marvellous. The frown brought on by a taxing day of work won’t last long on the bike. When I used to work in an office, I’d typically pull away from the kerb at the end of the day, on my shabby commuter, with my rather hefty backpack and find an immediate pang of quiet delight and relief as I flowed down the road. I usually started steady and contemplative and often stayed that way; the sense of self-determination that comes from moving deliberately through London’s streets, claiming a space on the road, is strong and worth enjoying. Or I might have needed the catharsis of a rampage down the embankment blue-route, drafting riders on better, lighter bikes (bastards) when I can. Either way, the person that arrived at home was calmer, more open and more alive than the person who left the office.

 

Perhaps this all amounts to a bike-specific version of mindfulness. I’m aware of my body’s movements without really thinking about them; noticing the turn, the speed, the flow …

 

Of course there’s pedalling and there’s pedalling. Having spent far too long cluelessly trying to push my cadence up over a hundred because that’s what the pros do, I was delighted at a friend’s suggestion that, particularly on a long ride, the smart thing is to vary your stroke on the hills, so different bits of you get tired while other bits recover.

 

So now when out on the country roads I take the climbs in sets of three. First one is a Froome (I know, I wish, literally). Lots of revs, not much gear. It usually feels smooth and controlled. I might stick my elbows out and stare at my headset for added authenticity.

 

The second one is in homage to Francesco Moser who strengthened his legs by tackling hills in as high a gear as he could grind at around sixty rpm without getting out of the saddle. All the stress is on your thighs. It’s a slow motion churn.

 

And the third one is a Pantani. Albeit not quite because I don’t hold the drops, but it’s an all-body out-of-saddle attack. Like a fighter pilot lighting the afterburners, standing on the pedals is an energy-inefficient way to boost power, but it does bring much needed relief to the legs. And of course it’s a whole different pedalling experience. balletic if you’re in form, more like bike-wrestling if you’re not. But still pedalling…

 

The athletic benefits of ringing the changes, like crop rotation for your body, probably make it worth doing but the conceptual benefit is greater still. You get to pay your very own humble tribute to your cycling heroes and meditate on the sensations produced by your approximation of their distinctive pedaling styles.
Pedalling can be carefree, absorbing, absent-minded, painful (in a good way), painful (in a bad way) fluid or tortuous, but it never fails to make me feel lucky and, ultimately, happy.

Reader Experience Part Two: Stop Publishing by Habit

In the first part of this post, I looked at the many elements that make up a reader’s experience of a book, outside of the text itself; blurb, author biog, endmatter and more. I argued that they merit greater attention, to bring a genuinely reader-focused sensibility to the way we publish.

This concluding part focuses on the (many) practical challenges involved in carrying that out

Some elements of reader experience cost money, all cost time. Some might seem too small to be significant, but they’re not. They add up. Like Dave Brailsford’s marginal gains. (For those less cycling oriented than me, he’s in charge of Team Sky and used to be boss of the GB cycling team). “Aggregation of marginal gains” is Brailsford’s sexy catchphrase. He contends that there’s rarely one big bold silver bullet way of getting a winning advantage, but put together lots of little ones and then you win. A concept we publishers should adopt.

Sir David Brailsford – king of the “marginal gain”

What’s stopping us doing more of this polishing and perfecting of peripheral elements for more books? Two reasons:

First because, historically, we tend to struggle with properly seeing what we do from the reader’s perspective. Because, as many people have pointed out, we have two audiences;  the reader and the retailer. And the retailers pay more.

That leaves us angsting about how estranged we are from the ones who do the reading. We might do a bit of insight work but … that’s it. The readers are “a guilt” as an old boss of mine would have put it.

(By the way, since I mention insight, RX focus – if you’ll forgive the abbreviation – in no way has to be data driven. Though if we do ever get our hands on the data Kobo and Amazon hold on how people use our ebooks, that really will focus our minds.)

The second reason this is challenging: it cuts across our disciplines and departmental boundaries. Or it should if we’re doing it right. We should all contribute to making the books rewarding. Our departmental boundaries are still quite strong and well defended, give or take a few merged “communications departments” here and there. And adopting new concepts across them is tricky, as you’ll know if you’ve ever dealt with metadata or SEO.

And that trickiness occurs mainly because we do things by habit. Why? To get things done. In publishing, we’re busy. If there’s a tried and tested method for getting the book out of the door professionally, accurately, quickly, so you can get on with the next one, then you’re going to do it. I get why micro-bespokery is very hard to find time for.

But we do need renewed focus on giving readers what they find rewarding, what truly responds to the way they use, read and live with the products we make. Focus on the reader experience isn’t a techy, flash vision of the publishing future, its actually quite (sorry) artisanal. It isn’t necessarily data driven, though research would help validate it in many ways, and it’s paradoxically commercial by being uncommercial; it’s selling by giving a good experience rather than selling by selling.

Here’s a few handy questions to ask yourself about the books you’re publishing, which should reveal ways to perfect their reading experience.

  • “What will they say when they recommend this book?”
  • “What are they curious about as they read this book?”
  • “What are we inviting them to do once they’ve finished reading?”
  • “How will they feel about owning and displaying it?”
  • “Does every detail reward the reader?”

In the real world, can you do it? It’s challenging. As marketers, if you start interfering with the product, the books, you’ll piss your colleagues off. But my theory is that you’ll be doing your company a favour in the long run.

To be constructive, here’s a few ideas about how to spread Reader Experience thinking without making yourself unpopular.

  1. Arrange to visit a reading group with an editorial colleague. Ask the members lots of questions about how they read. Not just how they choose books, but how they read. They’ll surprise you. That will give both of you ideas.
  1. Propose a reader experience working group to pick a solid backlist author and see if you can improve their sales by 5% by improving every single bit of each of their books. This is a long term project, because backlist titles don’t reprint every day, but if you pick a solid performer then not only will the improvement be measurable, it’ll also be worth the time spent; that 5% will be a lot of money. And because you’re not messing with the new books critical path, you won’t be obstructing anyone’s workflow too badly.
  1. Ask for the cover brief circulation to include spine, back, flap and author photo, so they’re part of the positioning discussion from the start.
  1. Ask for the cover copy circulation to include any non standard forematter and endmatter and the author biog,  Is it just same old same old? Well … should it be?
  1. Buy your own ebooks. Be a mystery shopper. Notice every stage of the process of buying and reading. Is it satisfying?
  1. Use interns. Normally I hate it when people say “use interns” because they usually mean “hey, let’s get the kids to do the instantgrams”. In this case, send them a decent backlist title a couple of weeks before they start and say “read it and then talk me through your experience of it, literally cover to cover, leaving nothing out and taking nothing for granted”. They’ll have fresh eyes and they’ll surprise you.

I’m going to end on a controversial note and say that in most publishing companies, marketing people are disempowered and their ability to communicate with an audience is underused because it is all too often steered away from the product itself. The product itself is our best channel for communication with readers, so you need to get your hands on it. Ask the awkward questions. Cross the departmental boundaries. Have the row if you have to. Improve the reader experience. If I’m right, you’ll improve the sales. Good luck.