As many of you know, I made a move from academic to trade publishing over the summer. The transition has been fascinating, and I think the last 3 months have been the most exciting in my career as my role has shifted from strategic licensing at OUP to overseeing all sales and marketing at Bloomsbury. In my new job I have already participated in nearly every imaginable trade business scenario: retailer terms negotiations, international sales & distribution deals, book launches, author tours, agent negotiations, and even a Man Booker winner.
Perhaps most interesting about my new role is that I am one of the few people in my industry who runs sales and marketing operations on both sides of the Atlantic. Seeing how London differs from New York in trade is fascinating, but what has struck me most is the prevailing zeitgeist regarding world English rights. The proposition that one publisher should NEVER be sold world English rights for a work seems to have become the default position, especially by UK based agents.
This default position is a curious one; it can create the short-term benefit of increased cash up front (it doesn’t necessarily mean that, but I agree it can). However, the downside, as seen from my eyes, is far too great – especially for a new author who needs careful brand and marketing development. A global publishing plan cannot only build an author more effectively, but also make it easier for the agent and author to work with an editor and sales/marketing team. No multiple publishers and sub-agents thinking about their self-centered needs – one company to manage, one relationship to build, one place to go when things go right (or wrong).
Yet this logic seems to be lost on those who are selling us books. To wit, Helen Gamons-Williams is an editor at Bloomsbury who has a wonderful ability to bring a book to life when describing it at our editorial pitch meetings. A couple of weeks ago she pitched a novel that everyone in the room immediately wanted to read. It was a unique tale that blended history with a very surprise ending that, if described any further, would ruin this potentially incredible new novel.
Helen made a preemptive offer for world English and German rights. As we have publishing companies in London, New York, Sydney, and Berlin, we can launch titles on a worldwide basis, in English and German, and create a cohesive and coherent marketing/sales/branding effort. Before the offer was put in, Helen knew the agent had an offer for the UK, but she also knew he thought very highly of Bloomsbury and was therefore confident going in with a large offer for world English rights. Our plan would be to roll out this title in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and Germany with one look, one cover design, one title (except in German!), and one global marketing campaign.
The fact that the book had a plot device – driven twist at the end meant that we would want to publish and promote this title in a very calculated and clever way in order to pique the interest of all markets simultaneously – while not allowing the plot twist to become public fodder on the internet months before the book publishes in all of the markets.
This was a hugely important point in our thinking for this title and for our publishing program worldwide. In a global marketplace where customers can order books online in Australia from the US or UK and pay no freight, it is incredibly important to market a title coherently and wisely with a single brand and publish everywhere at the same time (or as close to it as is reasonable or possible given the differences in language).
This is how we published, with incredible success, Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. Jacobson’s Man Booker – winning novel was working well for Bloomsbury before the award was given because we had been able to buy world English rights, we were able to create one cover design, we had one title, and we had been able to sell one ebook across all markets.
In fact, Amazon had given us a promotional banner and placement on the Kindle store precisely because we had one cover and one title. Amazon customers anywhere could buy the book without insipid territorial limitations in rights, look, and feel. As Howard’s face and book were plastered across television, magazines, and newspapers across the world, one single brand, one single look, one single publisher was conveyed to an eager audience.
The result was amazing as The Finkler Question hit; #1 on the UK Kindle store, #2 on Amazon.co.uk for the UK print version, #7 on the US Kindle store, and #3 on the Amazon.com for the US print version. We have even cracked the NY Times best seller list, with Finkler jumping to #14 this past Sunday.
Yes, these figures are a direct result of winning the Man Booker, but I would argue that the Man Booker prize is most influential in the UK. Furthermore, Howard Jacobson is not a household name in the US and Finkler is set in London, not in NY. These factors make me believe we are looking at something else that is helping drive our US success. I believe that the single coherent brand and look/cover has helped propel Jacobson’s work into the limelight in a way that none of his other books to date have managed to do. Yes, none won the Man Booker (he was nominated in the past), but none published under a single global marketing and sales strategy.
The semiotics of a single cover design uncovers an imprinting effect that carries over from market to market. Howard and the jacket in the UK on the cover of a US newspaper means that the book itself was a symbol of the book – which in turn helped people “see” it when they went to the store or saw it online. The impact factor of having a single look and feel and single marketing plan that is customized for local markets brings marketing back to trade books. Piling books high in stores not only doesn’t cut it anymore as the only way to truly market a book; it simply doesn’t happen enough to rely on.
So here we are on the precipice of a new way of thinking about marketing and trade books. We are in a globalized world that offers us the opportunity to do actual marketing of titles and to create worldwide and globally impactful sales plans. All we need are the rights to do so.
Which brings us back to Helen and her quest to sign this novel by a first-time author. We made our offer and even raised it a couple of times to ensure we were competitive – but without hesitation, we insisted on world English rights. Over and over the question came back – would we consider UK and commonwealth only? Helen bravely towed the line – it must be incredibly hard to fall in love with a book, want to sign it badly, have the money to do so, but know that strategically you must get the whole baby, not just Solomon’s half-the-child solution.
Helen, like the true mother in the Old Testament tale, kept to her line knowing that publishing this work in pieces would weaken it and the potential of this new author. In the end, the agent signed the book in the UK only with another publisher. I assume they are working on selling this in America, as well as Canada and Australia (assuming they didn’t sell commonwealth rights).
The book is fantastic and the rights will be sold in these markets. The problem will come when the book publishes and this first-time author finds himself at the mercy of 3 or 4 different marketing plans, cover designs, publishing cycles, release dates, and discordant marketing iconography. Let’s just hope for his sake some consistency and coherence prevails and he builds a career deserving of his writing.
For us, we will keep pushing our agenda of building our authors and lists on a worldwide basis and hope the industry catches up soon.