The Jane Friedman-Open Road Media Model: Thinking Creatively About Backlists and Acquisitions for Your Publisher

Original article: Publisher’s Weekly‘s Open Road Launches Series for Controversial Works

Open Road Media is an ambitious new publisher that focuses on acquiring eBooks from authors with large, underappreciated lists, defunct publishers, and other creative avenues to create an impressive digital platform of primarily backlisted titles. The company’s CEO, Jane Friedman, once rewrote the book on marketing by inventing the author tour, and now relies on professionally designed book trailers, social media, syndication, and other unconventional methods to sell books that other publishers, major and minor, have passed up.

While Friedman, who recently visited Emerson College to speak about her publishing career, is currently intent upon getting the first “e-riginal” eBook in the New York Times Book Review, she has already succeeded in a contemporary publishing model that shows the potency of eBooks as a primary channel of sales with the right marketing strategy. Equally important, she has relied upon the old publishing model of creating themed lists of books that will attract audiences.

Most recently, as described in the article above, Open Road launched Forbidden Bookshelf, which takes older books that exposed a dark, uncomfortable truth but never achieved enough exposure to sell or reach a wide audience. Of the five initial books on the list, many were published in the 80s and 90s, and all of them to my knowledge by different publishers. It’s hard to find information on their past publishing history, because they were all essentially defunct until Open Road rediscovered their potential and purchased them.

Relying on backlists is nothing new to major publishers, who can take risks on exorbitant author advances because of the safety nets provided by contemporary bestsellers like Harry Potter or Twilight, or by the classics everyone reads in school, or is supposed to, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn. There is an uncreative complacency inherent in this model, where big publishers rely on and market guaranteed moneymakers and let other old titles stagnate. Friedman’s publishing house taps into the very resource that big publishers have left dormant, and succeeds as a result.

If you get an acquisitions or marketing job with a major publisher, don’t spend all of your time on new titles if you can. Some new editors have made a name for themselves finding out-of-print, obscure, or public domain titles, repackaging and rebranding them without an expensive author advance, and selling them to great success. Another example: at the risk of sounding both morbid and callous, there’s a major market for the unfinished or unpublishable stories of deceased authors, from Nabokov’s unfinished novel The Original of Laura to Octavia Butler’s undiscovered short stories (Open Road recently acquired Butler’s stories).

But even then, these strategies perpetuate the idea that publishers need to find the next bestseller or gem in the rough, rather than create a compelling list of several titles from what you have. In the digital age, all a book may need to suddenly start selling is a revamped cover that looks fresh on a digital platform.

But how easy could it really be to just make a compelling list from old titles? I’m glad you asked, hypothetical reader! I think that lists can be compelling on their own, like Open Road’s inspired flirting with controversy, or they can stem from current events or blatant plagiarism. Here’s some examples:

Piggybacking on major classics: If you’re sitting with books like Huck Finn and Grapes of Wrath on your list, you can cash in on them individually or look for other road trip or transformative journey novels to group with them. Find modern narratives of race to accompany sales of Invisible Man and Native Son. Sell despicable protagonists with Lolita. Think Amazon’s effective recommendation system, only tailored to your publishing house’s list rather than to KDP titles and your competitors.

Feminism in any genre: In solidarity with #yesallwomen, whip out old titles with strong female protagonists, or speculative societies dominated by women. You can look at the success of recent Kickstarter campaigns like Women Destroy Science Fiction and Athena’s Daughters to see how readers are craving stories with empowered women at the forefront, so dredge through the majority of your male-dominated titles for older works that will still inspire interest today and repackage them for a contemporary audience.

Hollywood and hipsters: when Star Wars episode VII comes out in a year or two, pull out the space operas from your list that inspired Lucas or expanded upon his model. For this week’s dragon-themed movie and show finale, pull out your own dragon-themed books and claim they put Drogon and Toothless to shame. Basically, show awareness of pop culture and current events happening around you in order to attract young reading audiences, while also asserting bluntly how much books are than other forms of media. Book lovers eat that kind of thing up (or at least I would).

I believe that publishers should be more dynamic about eBook marketing when it comes to taking advantage of their massive backlist, and that if publishers ever become serious about taking book distribution out of Amazon’s hands and back into their own, then they have a lot to learn from Open Road about improving their digital marketing platform. For better or worse, we’re joining publishing in a dynamic period of growth and change, and predicting how publishers should change themselves to survive and thrive will hopefully prepare us for what’s ahead.

Thanks for reading!

Publisher Discussion Series #1: Orbit Books

When you enter into an interview for an internship—or more importantly a job—with a publisher, it’s important to not only know and enjoy the types of books and authors on a list, but also know the ways that the publisher has attained success and established itself as a reputable service provider for clients (authors) and consumers (readers). In this series, I will be profiling the types of publishers or specialized imprints that I would love to work for at some point in my impending career; in describing the technical reasons for their success and the qualities that make them attractive for prospective employers, you should hopefully be able to see the patterns to look for in your own ideal job locations, and describe these patterns when outlining your reasons for applying in a cover letter or interview.

Orbit Books:

Description (from Hachette Books Group’s website): “Orbit is the new Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint at Hachette Book Group. Orbit publishes across the spectrum of Science Fiction and Fantasy—from action-packed urban fantasy to widescreen space opera; from sweeping epic adventures to near-future thrillers. We publish approximately 40 titles each year from both established and debut authors. Visit us online at Orbitbooks.net.”

Accolades: Several of Orbit’s authors have won or been nominated for the most prestigious sci-fi/fantasy awards in recent years. Ann Leckie and Kim Stanley Robinson won the 2013 and 2012 Nebula Awards, respectively. Mira Grant has been nominated for four consecutive Hugo Awards, and Ken MacLeod, Ian M. Banks, James S.A. Corey, and N.K. Jemisen have also been nominated for Hugos, all within the last decade.

Business model: During a February excursion to New York with my graduate program, I met Orbit Senior Editor Devi Pillai at the Hachette offices, and she briefly described their formula of success: with a staff of only a few editors, they publish the majority of their titles from first-time or self-published authors, focusing on building up the lists and reputations of new authors rather than acquiring a lot of big-name authors. This model succeeds, I would argue, because they do not have to rely on authors like George R. R. Martin, who will bring in huge revenue sporadically but require a long investment and huge author advance; rather, they invest in enough new talent at discounted rates that, if they succeed, will offset the small costs of any authors who do not live up to their potential.

My impressions: Here are some observations of more technical reasons for their success:

  1. Foregoing hardcover for eye-catching paperbacks: When you peruse the Sci-fi/Fantasy section at B&N—excluding the new arrivals section—you may find your eye drawn by plus-sized paperbacks with huge, eye-catching covers on their massive spines: Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country, James S. A. Corey’s aptly-named Leviathan Wakes (which was recently optioned for a SyFy series), and the recent Nebula winner Ancillary Justice, to name a few. Orbit’s strategy of relying on no-name authors for its revenue means that it has wisely avoided expensive hardcovers, instead selling new titles at $15-17 that appear massive enough to offer good value for the reduced price.
  2. An amazing cover design team: As much as I love the narratives themselves, I have to give credit to whoever designed Orbit’s book covers for many of my purchases. When I researched Orbit’s titles after visiting their office, I was shocked how many I had already bought simply by spotting them in bookstores. Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy, N.K. Jemisen’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and Gail Carriger’s Soulless had all caught my eye with their reliance on bold color schemes, stark contrast of said colors, and other elements that an artist would describe better than I could. (Note: Ms. Pillai was the first editor to tell me how much they love being flattered about their books; the lesson here is that I really wish I had done my homework so I could have gushed about all of this in person).
  3. Keeping their authors and editors active in the blogosphere: This one speaks for itself, but Orbit has an excellent website where you can find author interviews and posts about their favorite characters, writing strategies, and so forth. If you’re going to rely on new authors for your business plan, your goal is to get them on social media interacting with readers to establish a brand and a friendly, accessible identity. Just as importantly, you make the author feel part of a community; authors will always fear that their peers’ books are somehow getting more attention or better treatment from editors, so keeping them active is vital for morale. One useful case study would be to compare Orbit’s website, which focuses mainly on their authors and products, and a site like Tor’s, which instead has a lot more pop culture sci-fi/fantasy to draw in a more casual audience.

Orbit in the news: Though this hasn’t come up for me as of yet in an interview, it might still be helpful to know of the achievements and problems that a publisher is facing when you interview. In this case, Orbit has come under fire recently for failing to give out free copies of the books of their Hugo-nominated authors, claiming it protects the authors’ revenue by limiting access to free and DRM-free copies of the books. The nominated authors have publicly disagreed with this stance, placing Orbit and its parent Hachette under further scrutiny. While this particular topic seems unlikely to come up in an internship interview, prospective editors should be aware of these types of issues, and where they stand on them, before being confronted with a question about how you would handle the problem or respond to any backlash.

 

I hope this was informative, not only for avid sci-fi lovers, but also for anyone preparing for an interview. It’s good to be able to name-drop a couple of authors you enjoy from their list, but anyone can do a Google search and it’s difficult to know how an individual editor will respond to an easy claim. Instead, try doing the research that shows you are thinking like an editor, not a reader, and see if it comes up. Even if it doesn’t initially, your preparedness will make the first days of your job that much easier to adjust to. I’ll switch away from sci-fi to a different type of publisher altogether for my next one in the series.

Thanks for reading!