It won’t be long before we look back and marvel at how bestselling books are produced today. The system of remote production by disparate artists, followed by their discovery by publishing houses, won’t be around forever. There are too many inefficiencies, lost opportunities, and glaring weaknesses in this system. This really hit me in Berlin at the Klopotek Publishing Minds conference.
Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury, gave a talk that seemed to originate from a decade in the past. Nigel can’t mention books or industry news without bringing up their publication of HARRY POTTER, as if there’s anything to learn from a once-in-a-millenium publishing surprise. What really floored me was a discussion we had in an executive roundtable. I mentioned the danger publishers face for building up IPs that they don’t own. And the publisher of possibly the most valuable book IP in the game didn’t quite grasp the opportunity lost.
Imagine if Bloomsbury owned the world of Hogwarts. What if a new book was coming out next week about a young girl entering her first year at the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry? Can you imagine the lines that would be forming? The jolt in the arm to the publishing industry as a whole? I would like to argue that not only is there a different way to publish popular fiction in the future; I’m going to try to convince you that it’s already happening.
Let’s detour for a moment and look at the way other popular storytelling mediums work. TV shows, which one could argue represent the height of storytelling right now, are created by teams of people. If done properly, more minds make for a deeper and richer story. Video games and films are produced the same way. Music acts have been put together by managing producers. Look at the way American Idol and other talent shows guide and create brands with some semblance of ownership. It is a rare case in many of these industries where a solitary figure creates in isolation and then brings their work to a producer or distributor. And yet, most books work this way. They don’t have to. And they haven’t always.
Carolyn Keene is a famous example of the power of engineered worlds. This was the pseudonym for the many authors who wrote Nancy Drew stories. The Hardy Boys series was written with a similar mechanism. Writers were hired; they were given assignments and deadlines; and they were expected to produce. They didn’t waste their time writing blog posts and filming videos with their dogs in the background. They worked. Like TV and video game producers.
The most important consequence of this was that the publisher owned the franchise. Not just the rights, but the IP itself. The current system has publishers building up the reputation of the author—the author has become the brand—which leaves the publisher powerless to direct the flow of the IP. Authors can delay. Or miss deadlines. Or stop writing altogether. They can move off to other genres, leaving billions on the table in the case of Bloomsbury. They meddle in film, TV, and video game adaptations. We generally either get in the way or don’t get enough done.
If you think collaboration is impossible when it comes to the single narrative of books, you’d be wrong. The most successful writer in the industry today, James Patterson, employs a method similar to what Edward Stratemeyer concocted for Nancy Drew. And the number of bestselling dyads includes Preston & Child, Niven & Pournelle, Charles Todd, and many others. JA Konrath has used this method of production. But the most incredible and lucrative example comes from a different sort of book. Comic books.
Marvel is the perfect example of the power of owning IP. They can continue to produce, plugging in new writers as others come and go. They now oversee most of their film adaptations, which make billions at the box office. Marvel is owned by Disney Studios, another example of this power. And to really highlight the lost opportunities and how this transition will work, Disney recently acquired the Star Wars IP from Lucas. The originator’s hesitancy to exploit the film potential is now another trilogy in development, with another three origin films also slated for release. And I’ll be one of the millions who lines up to see everything they produce.
Can artistic projects be ruined by too many chefs? Undoubtedly. They can also be ruined by artists who lose their way, their inspiration, their focus, their drive.
In my fourth month at New Harpercollins, I’m going to do something both old and new. We’re going to hire a handful of talented writers who work for us. They come to the offices, sit in a room, and they don’t procrastinate. They are going to begin outlining a brand new IP. It could be an epic fantasy world, or a complex web of romances, or a gritty western, or a new spy hero, or technical thriller . . . but I’m going to go with a science fiction universe.
They’ll brainstorm as if they’re making a game world. A world rich with history and texture. And then we’ll outline the entire rough plot of the universe, figure out its heroes and villains, and structure the novels to come. With a dozen authors working in teams, the goal will be a new novel in this universe to release every two months. The investment will be for a dozen novels over two years, similar to how TV shows are given a chance to take root. If there is no traction during the releases, we’ll pivot or look at our marketing strategy. If no traction after two years, we’ll launch another world. Or we could employ a “pilot” model as TV does, though I think it would be better to publish a trilogy rather than a single book.
The goal is to build a vast library of material to draw from. Writers can come and go. These writers will be earning a solid living, working in dynamic teams, enjoying stability but also some creative freedoms. Publishers could exploit their most popular universes with film, video games, apps, comics, TV shows, cartoons. Decades from now, one of these worlds could have the richness of the Marvel universe. And the publisher would own that universe.
Again, the top earning worlds today work much like this. It makes the old system of waiting to discover a story, building that author’s brand up to the point that they have all the power, and then being unable to profit from the IP seem awfully quaint. It’s such a powerful idea that I’ve toyed with testing it out. A group of creatives could do this just as easily as a publishing house, as long as the IP was controlled by a company and not the artists, so the latter could come and go as they see fit. Hell, I’ve already got a new universe in mind. It’s fun to think how much more awesome that universe would be if it were in more minds. And how great readers would have it if books were rolling out every two months.