We all love libraries, but maybe we could love them a little more. Some money-minded publishing folk even wonder: what effect do libraries have on book sales? Luckily, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez can help answer that question, and many others.
Guy is Chief Content Officer at LibraryPass, and till recently ran the Panorama Project, which measures the impact that public libraries have on reading and on book sales. Before that, he worked in a range of senior publishing and marketing roles, and ran a wonderful book-making conference called Digital Book World. He has a sharp eye for lazy thinking, and that rare ability to grasp both the big picture and the tiny details that make it up.
Links from the show:
Arthur Attwell 0:03
Hello, and welcome to How Books Are Made, a podcast about the art and science of making books. I’m Arthur Attwell.
Arthur Attwell 0:21
As a child in a small country town, visiting the library was one of my most wonderful outings. I’m sure many of us have memories like that. It’s no wonder libraries have been called palaces for the people. Of course, as a white kid in the 80s, I had access to those palaces that most of my fellow South Africans did not. Many of us have grown up taking them for granted, and that is very dangerous, because we don’t fully appreciate their value and their importance. They provide so much more than paper books. They provide access to the internet, training, all kinds of social services, and a welcoming place to learn and to feel safe, often from very real dangers. Making libraries accessible and useful to everyone is critically important work.
Arthur Attwell 1:14
You’d think that publishers, as book people, would be their greatest champions. Weirdly, that’s not always the case. Money-minded publishing folk worry that libraries reduce book sales, especially when they provide ebooks to their patrons. They wonder what effect do libraries have on book sales? Thankfully, there are people who can answer that question with confidence. One of them is someone I’ve long admired for his work in the book-making world.
Arthur Attwell 1:46
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is Chief Content Officer at LibraryPass, and till recently ran The Panorama Project, which measures the impact that public libraries have on reading and on book sales. Before that, he worked in a range of publishing and marketing roles, and ran a wonderful book-making conference called Digital Book World. He has a sharp eye for lazy thinking, and that rare ability to grasp both the big picture and the tiny details that make it up. Guy, I am so excited to be talking to you at last. I have followed your work since Digital Book World days, so I’m really chuffed that you’re here. Thanks for joining me.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 2:26
Appreciate the invite. I am thrilled to join you.
Arthur Attwell 2:29
I was going through everything you’ve been working on over the last, well, many, many years in all different capacities and, poetry and magazines and comics, you ran a very successful digital publishing conference, and for the last couple of years, you’ve been working mostly with libraries. I really don’t even know where best to kick off exactly. Since you’ve just started in a new role, and it’s all about comics, I believe? That sounds too good to be true. How are you settling in at LibraryPass, and what are you enjoying the most?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 3:04
Yeah, so LibraryPass is kind of a unique opportunity that combines a few really cool things personally. Our main product is ComicsPlus, which is a digital collection of comic books that previously existed as a consumer product. LibraryPass as a new company kind of acquired the product and has repositioned it specifically for the library market. It’s been fascinating to be able to stay within the library world, to join a company whose business model is explicitly built around affordable access to digital content through an unlimited simultaneous access model. It’s focused initially on comics, which is, you know, a personal interest of mine from way back as a kid being into comics, in, later in adult years coming back to comics.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 3:55
I had a side gig for a little while where I was the executive editor of a comic book website, so being able to kind of combine libraries and comics is a really cool opportunity. Plus, I’m reunited with my former boss at Library Journal, Ian Singer, who’s also a good personal friend, you know, coming off panorama project, which when I first took that over felt like, Oh, this is the dream, can it get any better? This is kind of, okay, the way to make it even better would be to go work for a company, doing the things that I personally believe are the right ways to engage and support libraries, and retreaters. It’s been a month that I’ve been with them full time. They were a client for a few months prior to that where I was just helping them get some of their backend system set up. It’s been really great to make that transition full time and really did to dive in and work with this great content, engage with libraries, not just as an advocate or intermediary, but now I’m working directly with them to support their efforts to connect readers to greate content.
Arthur Attwell 5:03
Fantastic. I want to dig in a little bit there around digital content and libraries. I think in the last few years, the idea that libraries are just for paper books has been widely debunked, thank goodness. But you know, let’s go there just in case. Can you tell me a bit about how libraries do provide digital content and services?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 5:24
Digital content and services have been part of most libraries offerings for many years, I mean, back in, flashback 10 years ago to the first Digital Vook World. That first year, libraries weren’t on the agenda at all. Not that libraries weren’t dealing with ebooks and digital content. But from Digital Book World’s perspective, they just weren’t part of the conversation. And there was a notorious presentation at the 2009 tools of Change Conference, where a librarian Katie Dunneback did a demo of the like, I think it was 25 or 27 steps to check out an ebook from the library through OverDrive.
Arthur Attwell 6:05
Wow. And this was the friction that publishers loved.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 6:10
It became a joke for a long time about, you know, this is what it takes to get an ebook from the library, and you couple that with well, between the internet and the Kindle, why do we even need libraries anymore? What do libraries offer? Almost always talked about from by people who hadn’t engaged with the library in years, or you know, lived at a certain economic threshold where the value of a library was kind of invisible to them, because beyond content, you know, libraries became really community social support services. So things like getting passports and tax information, and even learning how to use your brand new Kindle, all of those things became part of what libraries offered.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 6:52
From a digital perspective, whether it’s access to databases, literal access to the internet, because you don’t have it at home, magazine collections … ebooks are part of a really bigger picture when it comes to digital content. You know, what’s interesting, I think, is sometimes publishers lose sight of that, that they’re not the only player in the game when it comes to libraries. The whole debate around pricing of ebooks always kind of loses. There’s other places libraries spend their money on digital content. You push that envelope too far, you’re not just going to lose out to other publishers with better pricing, you’re going to lose out to other digital content products with better pricing.
Arthur Attwell 7:35
For someone who’s never used a digital product from a library, these digital products being used in the library on premises, as it were, or from home, but logging into your local library?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 7:45
Both. So historically, it was initially in the library. Then over the years as libraries built out their online services, so that people didn’t have to necessarily come into the branch to take advantage of the different things the library had to offer. Almost every library offers online access to all of their digital content, either through their own websites directly, or through relationships with digital content providers, where the authentication process you’re going directly to that product but you’re using your library login, whether it’s your library card or some other authentication method. That support is coming through the library, even if it’s a platform outside of the library’s website.
Arthur Attwell 8:28
You mentioned publishers. The role you just left was at The Panorama Project, where you tackled one of the elephant-in-the-room questions in publishing which is, What effect do libraries have on book sales? Why was that an important question to answer?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 8:45
Two things, I mean, there’s been the historical publishers discomfort with library ebooks, because a long time ago, there was a piracy concern which vendors like OverDrive were able to address. One of the interesting things in that first Digital Book World conference, Brian Napack from Macmillan did a whole presentation around how Macmillan was going to tackle piracy. One of the unspoken things in his presentation that was kind of well-known in the industry was one of the biggest sources of piracy were, you know, the killers in the house. It was people sending out the PDFs of ARCs, to their friends that then found their way onto pirate websites. It wasn’t actually someone breaking the DRM on a consumer ebook that was driving piracy. There’s always been this concern that the availability of ebooks through the library and the increasing lack of friction as the platform’s got better. OverDrives Libby app is arguably one of the slickest reading apps in the marketplace. People love it more than they love their Kindle app in some cases. That lack of friction and, more importantly, the consumer demand for ebooks through the library have driven up circulation. That’s led to some publishers questioning that impact on consumer sales.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 10:12
I think it was 2015 when traditional publisher ebook sales kind of plateaued and then started kind of this gentle decline. There were big predictions for years that ebooks were going to take over the world print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, and the future is you know, self publishing, digital publishing, and farewell print. Fast forward to 2020, even before the pandemic, which has had an interesting, really interesting impact on print sales that I don’t think most people would have expected, but even prior to the pandemic, print has been chugging along just fine. In some areas growing in certain categories, particularly among younger readers, while ebooks were you know, steady, and then audiobooks were the new big thing that were getting the hockey stick growth. Some publishers though have always suspected that ebook lending was a negative for consumer sales, despite consumer research that has suggested otherwise, that library users are also active buyers, libraries are a key point of discovery for titles that, you know, there’s the best sellers that everybody knows about, and that’s, let’s, let’s charitably save 5% of the output every year, probably less than that. That’s 95% of books that get published every year that the average reader never knows about, because it doesn’t get the big marketing push. If it doesn’t get the book, big marketing push bookstores aren’t putting it on their shelves, they’re certainly not putting it on a front table featuring it.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 11:43
So then you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got libraries, and if you’re really good publisher, maybe you have your own website and online initiatives that are driving awareness for those books. There’s no there’s no actual public data that supports the belief that libraries cannibalise sales. Macmillan in particular, not only was the publisher with the strongest belief, they conducted, allegedly and experiment with Tor, to measure that impact that they then claimed they saw a negative impact on consumer sales and then decided last summer to turn this into a company-wide policy where they were going to embargo the availability of new ebooks to libraries for the first eight weeks. The assumption there was … it says a lot about publishers marketing perspective, when it comes to new books. If eight weeks is the window, you’re giving books to maximise their consumer sales, and then this supposedly cannibalisation channel can kick in. It says a lot about that best seller mentality about frontlist versus backlist, you know technically frontlist is it was published in the past year. Macmillan’s definition of frontlist, clearly, is two months, and then we’re moving on to the next book. Being able to answer those questions about, What is the actual impact libraries are having when there’s not a good faith transparent public conversation about that impact?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 13:14
That’s where Panorama really came in. What we needed to dig into first was a data driven initiative before I joined. The realisation there was publishers are never going to share that data with each other, partly for competitive reasons, and partly for legitimate concerns about collusion that bit once on that. But in some ways, I think, the competitive aspect is even more important for them. Because you look at PRH, you know, the biggest publisher in the US. Put them in the middle when it comes to library terms, but I put them at the top when it comes to advocating for libraries and, you know, putting their money where their mouth is, in terms of no restrictive policies, in terms of embargoes, not the best pricing. You know, I don’t think they’re librarians favourite, but they’re definitely not the worst. But they have, you know, a robust library marketing system, they have a robust consumer marketing infrastructure. They have a lot of research and data that some of their competitors don’t because they’re just not as well resourced, or they don’t prioritise it. I always look at them as an interesting reference point. Well, if PRH, the biggest publisher isn’t out there saying libraries are cannibalising sales, maybe there’s some other factors here that need to be looked at.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 14:36
That’s where Panorama kind of pivoted from, alright, we’re not going to try and create this big data repository and do deep dive analysis. We’re going to try and change the conversation and try and bring the industry to the same table. Start having the same conversation instead of talking past each other and start to find some baseline areas of agreement that we can then build from. That’s where the Immersive Media Research came from. That’s where the Library Marketing Valuation Toolkit came out of where that enables libraries to actually put literal monetary value on everything they do in support of a book. If you were doing this with the local bookstore, or a local media outlet, this would have cost you x. That’s valuable information for libraries to properly value what they do, even more so than publishers. Personally, I think it’s valuable information for authors and agents to know, because most authors and agents have zero understanding about how libraries work, any interview with an author, there’s usually some throwaway line about their love for libraries and some formative experience they had with libraries. But at the end of the day, they don’t control their publishers lending policies, the pricing terms.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 15:52
So author’s understanding, hey, this library in the Midwest, in one event you did with them contributed $18,000 of marketing value. How does that equate to your overall marketing program? I guarantee you, there’s no publishers spending $18,000 on a single event in the Midwest, for a debut novelist. That’s the kind of data that absent the big data driven initiative that Panorama initially envisioned. We pivoted to, Let’s help libraries, at an individual level, establish their own value. Initiatives like that, the goal was if we can kind of make some headway there that changes the conversation a little bit, that puts some data in the public sphere that then can be countered … And at that point, then, you know, Macmillan, you want to continue to say libraries cannibalise sales? Here’s hard data. Where’s your data that says otherwise?
Arthur Attwell 16:52
If I’m, if I published a book, I’m a publisher of any size, rarely, but certainly smaller than PRH, you know, midsize, and I want to work with libraries, because I could see that perhaps is this marketing potential that libraries can be another place to show off my books? What are some of the concrete things I can do? What does collaboration with libraries look like on the ground?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 17:13
I think if you’re not one of the Big Five, it’s very different, because libraries, especially when it comes to digital content, but even print, they’re first and foremost driven by consumer demand. They are stewards of taxpayer money. They can’t just randomly buy whatever books they personally think are cool. So it comes back to a marketing challenge. As an individual publisher, no matter your size, I mean, even the Big Five struggles with this with their mid-risks and debut authors.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 17:44
First and foremost, you have to build an audience for that book. If you can build that audience, libraries then become an amplification tool, but they’re not just going to buy your book, your libraries aren’t, you know, warehouses for, you know, wayward books that have no audience. There still needs to be an audience for that book. So what I’ve always recommended, particularly to small and mid sized publishers is, you know, you’re not going to compete with the Big Five when it comes to national marketing. Bestseller lists are big drivers of library acquisition. Pre-publication marketing is a big driver of library acquisition, because it generally predicts bestsellers. So where you have an opportunity to squeeze in is at the local and regional level, you know, focus on … wherever you are, you’ve got a regional group of libraries, their state library associations that you can focus on, if you want to focus on a single state. It partly depends on your publishing operation. Nonfiction in a lot of ways is maybe better suited to engage libraries directly.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 18:52
One of the things that Panorama, we did some research around library events. The assumption is, oh, you know, only the big authors who get put on national tours get to do readings and stuff. That’s not true. Those are the ones who get to do the national tours. But locally speaking, if libraries depended only on the big national tours, they’d only put a handful of events on a year. What our research showed was less than half of library events feature these national, nationally known authors or current bestsellers, they’re predominantly, I think the number is about 70% of their authors are local, within their region. Particularly libraries who see programming as a really valuable part of their services, they are relying on local authors who they don’t have to fly in and put up in a hotel, who ideally have some relevance to the community. That’s where nonfiction potentially is a stronger angle. But even as a novelist, if you’re a local novelist, that’s an angle you don’t have to be, people assume, Ah, well, that’s only for self published authors. No, because again, unless you’re a Big Five A-list author, you might as well be a self published author, a lot of the, a lot of the engagement that’s going to drive your book is going to come from your own efforts, whether you’re a small publisher or an individual author, you know, start with those local and regional libraries, prove that there’s an audience for your book. If there’s not, start super local, yeah, and say the audience from my book is here in town, help me build it. Most libraries are happy to support their truly local author, because they’re part of the community.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 20:35
Now, the assumption there is you are part of the community, you are an active user or supporter of the library. What I’ve seen too many authors do is Yeah, I can’t get any attention from my librarian. They don’t have a library card. They’ve never attended any events at the library. You check their social media feed a few years back, they were probably one of the one saying, Why do we even need libraries anymore? Kindle is the future. So when you want something from someone general rule is, you know, what are you giving back to them? Are you part of the same community? Are you engaged in the same way? That for me is kind of the best reference point for small and midsize publishers. Start at the local regional level, find that local regional hook, whether it’s literally the author is from that area, or there’s something relevant about the book that ties into that communit,y and work on individual relationships, you know, your wholesaler is not going to push you over the Big Five bestsellers, you know, they are a distribution channel that will be leveraged through your own efforts.
Arthur Attwell 21:43
The community spirit that seems to be so obvious in the libraries that I know, my local library here is so wonderful and affirming. It seems kind of crazy to me that I’m seeing so much work being done in defense of libraries at the moment, which seems kind of tragic, because questioning the value of libraries seems about as crazy as questioning hospitals or schools. I guess, as a tech digital person, I wonder sometimes if this ubiquitous commodified, digital content we’re surrounded with has created a sort of unfounded but real prejudice against libraries as if we don’t need them anymore, because everything’s free now and right in front of us. Am I imagining it? Is this prejudice against libraries real?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 22:29
I think it’s definitely real. It comes at least, you know, from a US perspective, I think it comes from a couple of different angles. They’re the people who don’t need a library, they are financially well off, they buy whatever books or information they need, they may or may not be good at research. Here in the US, we’ve seen the downside of digital illiteracy really being played out where anybody can put information out there and be a trusted source, even if there’s no credibility to that trust. There’s an aspect of negativity towards libraries that comes from, Well, you know, I don’t need them, so why does anybody need them? You know, it’s that kind of personal benchmarking. The other side of it is a more cynical, recognising who does benefit from libraries, and, frankly, just not believing they’re important. So you know, if you’re too poor to have internet access, you’re not even on my radar. Libraries, by definition, are less important. If you don’t even recognise the value of the part of your community who does rely on the library for a variety of sources.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 23:43
Then you get the, I think the tech perspective, you know, that kind of big foot into a space disrupt everything, tech is the solution to all problems. I think we’re finally I hope, starting to see the downside of that magical thinking. You look at Facebook. What’s the joke, it was Zuckerberg, it was his way to find women to date, and has turned into this global disruption machine, you know, that drives disinformation and political upheaval. The downsides of tech I think people are starting to finally recognise and the advantages of libraries, I think one of the interesting things here during the pandemic, is what was deemed essential and non essential. Libraries which every year have to fight for their funding and justify their existence, suddenly got deemed super essential, and we gotta reopen the libraries at any cost. So it’s always fascinating. Same things happening with schools and teachers. Teachers get dumped on left and right, but suddenly reopening schools is one of the most important things we can do. Teachers are valuable. Let’s just forget this conversation when it comes time to renew those contracts.
Arthur Attwell 25:03
Switching a little back to the publishing side of the conversation. 10 years ago, you gave a talk at Digital Book World, that really popular conference that you organised, on the very day that the iPad was announced. You said that day that publishers needed to focus on their job, and that the iPad wasn’t going to change the fundamental issues that publishers face. At the time, I’m not sure what I would have thought of that. But I really think now that that’s turned out to be very true. How do you see it now looking back 10 years later?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 25:37
That whole day was fascinating, because we literally, at the last minute juggled the program a little bit to open time for Jobs’ announcement, because that was the anticipation, the level of anticipation around that iPad announcement was so out of bounds. I mean, it literally was being pitched as the saviour of publishing and not just books, you know, the magazine industry was all over it. I, I’ve always seen myself as kind of never an early adopter, but always interested in what’s coming. I don’t jump on the new thing immediately, but I poke around, out of curiosity. For me, it was clear that, you know, even the premise of Digital Book World, which was a little too ebook centric for my tastes.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 26:28
One of the first external things I wrote, while I was running Digital Book World, I think was for Publishing Perspectives, where I said E is for experimentation, not ebooks. Because for me, you know, the underlying issues were the business model, the shift to Okay, you think the iPad is going to change the future, have you not paid attention to the iPhone? It’s games, it’s social, like your 9.99 ebook is competing with 99 cent Angry Birds, and you think this is going to significantly change your fortunes? Magically, and without you changing anything structurally? You know, F+W was the company behind Digital Book World. Our initial foray into ebooks was awful. It was outsourced to India as cheap as possible, convert them with no QA because nobody cares about quality, they just want it on their device. That didn’t work out so well. You know, there was the initial hockey stick because we went from zero to a little bit. So that’s, you know, exponential growth, but it quickly started to tail off because the quality was awful. And F+W wasn’t unique in that. There was this kind of rush into cheap conversion, get them on the devices, make the money and figure it out as we go.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 27:44
I think the iPad in retrospect, we saw what it was, it’s a consumption device that games were the first, video streaming wasn’t really a thing yet, in 2010. It was kind of in the background. I think Netflix was still predominantly a DVD mailing company. Their streaming offering was just getting off the ground. So you fast forward to today. iBooks is, you know, whatever, it’s there. Kindle still dominates everything as everybody predicted. Barnes and Noble struggled with their ebook devices. They went all in on the Nook, arguably to the detriment of the entire company for years. All that investment in Nook, none of that investment went into their online interface. So bn.com suffered and lagged behind Amazon for years because the iPad was the saviour and so we all need our own iPad. I don’t know if you remember the the failed devices, I can’t even remember some of the names. First was building their own epaper thing that was going to be, you know, Kindle for newspapers. This obsession with devices that ignored business model and consumer behaviour, in some ways continues, you know, you go back to Macmillan, and their belief about libraries and ebooks.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 29:01
Some of that is you’re fighting consumer behaviour. If consumers are demanding ebooks, and they’re choosing the library to access them, that’s not libraries fault. You’re, you’re mad at your consumers. You should be happy consumers still want to read your books. You’ve got a business model problem. How do I continue to make money in this channel, when a lot of my readers are choosing the free, in quotes, option, which always needs to be caveated. With tax money paid for those books, publishers get revenue from library books, with publishers restrictions around expiring terms. There was a library in the Pacific Northwest, I forget which one, I was at a conference earlier this year, and they said 25% of their 2019 ebook budget went to repurchasing expired licenses. You get into this, okay, you’re having trouble selling new books. You’re always competing against an expanding backlist. Now you’ve added a layer of your really popular books are cannibalising your less popular books, because you’re forcing libraries to repurchase those licenses, which means less money for them to buy your new content. You compound that every year, every year a library is spending 25% of their budget to repurchase licenses for popular stuff, you’re limiting your ability to generate revenue.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 30:26
Then for me, the other question is, why are people choosing the library for your ebooks? Is it the price of your consumer ebooks, you know, you fought for agency and won, and your sales immediately started to decline? Maybe again, it’s not libraries fault. They’re not cannibalising sales, you are driving your consumers to a different channel. That’s a purposeful choice in a lot of ways. For me that that’s a reflection of the iPad, the iPad was perceived as a saviour, rather than a challenge to the business model. Library ebooks to me are by some publishers perceived as an enemy, rather than a challenge to the business model.
Arthur Attwell 31:10
That’s fascinating. One thing that really stands out to me when I look across everything you’ve worked on is how so much of your work has been in support of others, a specific kind of role from organising poets 15, 20 years ago, to supporting writers a Pop Culture, Shock and Writer’s Digest, to the focus on practicality, not punditry, in quotes, at Digital Book World. I love that you get excited about supporting others success and celebrating it. Who do you admire right now for taking a smart opportunity or being brave or doing really important work?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 31:48
I was giving this some thought, I think one company that continues to pop up for doing interesting things, and really not getting a lot of credit for it, because they’re not focused on bestsellers, and that’s what the media likes to talk about, and they’re not doing new shiny stuff is Open Road. Open Road Integrated Media. You know, Jane Friedman’s organisation that was initially started kind of in that ebook mania. But she came at it from a really unique perspective, as a senior executive coming out of traditional publishing, she saw a gap that was less about, Oh, ebooks are the future prints gonna die consumer demand. The gap she saw was, a lot of publishers don’t have the rights to these books and they’re not ready to take advantage of it. So that was the first magic of what Jane pulled off that typically doesn’t get talked about. It was that knowledge of contracts.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 32:47
That whitespace that was opening up as ebooks were becoming big for all of these historical backlist titles that are consistent sellers in print that in some cases weren’t available in ebook yet. She pulled that off wonderfully, I think, where I didn’t initially like Open Road, at least her public statements about they were going to kind of become the next Big Six, they were going to dismantle traditional publishing because they don’t have to worry about inventory, blah, blah, blah. I think that was a lot of the tech required hyperbole, to go with it. But what was really fascinating was how quickly they pivoted to marketing being a core strength. Over the years, they’ve continued to double down on that side of the business to, right now I last I heard a third of their revenue comes from marketing other publishers books.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 33:42
In some cases, those publishers are signing the ebook rights over to Open Road because they understand Open Roads skill at marketing not only will benefit the ebooks, but that marketing is better than they can do and will benefit their print books. It’s not just hey, here’s a marketing agreement that we benefit from print and ebook. Some of their smaller publishing partners are like, Look, take the ebook rights, we just are not able to do right by them and we recognise that your efforts will drive print sales of our books.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 34:16
There’s a lot of interesting business intelligence locked up in that company that because they are not bestseller centric, because they’re kind of off the radar of most traditional media they don’t get the attention or coverage I think they deserve. The, the way they’ve pivoted over the past couple of years, unlike a lot of tech companies that are pivoting from failure to failure, they’ve pivoted from success to success. They built out a nice consumer facing operation that they never attempted to go for direct consumer sales. They went for direct to consumer engagement, continuing to push people out to other channels to purchase which for me was always one of the, the smarter ways to go, if you are going to be a broad general freight publisher. If you’re niche, if you’re focused in one area, then you definitely want that direct consumer sales channel as well. But an Open Road, where you’re kind of all over the place when it comes to category and topics and audiences. The approach they’ve taken I think is one of the most underrated success stories in publishing over the past 10 years.
Arthur Attwell 35:26
That’s fantastic to hear. Thanks. I love that. As we get towards wrapping up, I wanted to ask about poetry. Poetry has been a big part of my life, my publishing life, but I’ve rarely get to enjoy it much these days. 20 years ago, you were organising poetry events and running poetry organisations. Is that something you still get to be a part of?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 35:48
No. My poetry days is, it’s interesting, you talk about my history of kind of supporting others. My foray into poetry started with the most stereotypical, mid-breakup, hadn’t been writing in years, was a fan of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe slams, went to an open mic, got hooked on it, and for a couple of years, was really active as a poet. Engaged in this scene, started running a venue, a weekly reading myself. That was partly a response to a gap in the New York poetry scene where there were a lot of poets who were really into slam, slam poetry in that competitive aspect but felt boxed in by the format, and also wrote other work. The Nuyorican wasn’t always the best forum for that other work because it was so competition centric. So when I started that venue, it was partly a place for me and a handful of my friends to like, Hey, here’s a spot, we can come and read our non-slam stuff and build an audience around that.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 36:57
That kind of turned into a community of its own, that about two years in, I became less of a poet and more of a curator and host and even some ways my own writing suffered as a result, but at the same time, I never regretted it, because I really loved what I was doing, which was that community building, that providing a space for others. As a writer, I still got a lot out of it, but it also kind of reinforced something that took a while over the years to really settle in on when it comes to marketing. Awful marketer of my own things. But give me somebody else’s thing that I’m really into. I go crazy on it and do things for it that I’d never even think to do for my own stuff. I am very much a, you know, do as I say, not as I do, but in, in a positive way. So, poetry, that that series ran for 16 years, I ran it for the first four. Friends of mine took it over and kept it going. I came back a few times over the years. We shut it down in 2014. I at that point, I’d come back for about two years, was reengaged. But once that shut down, it was kind of closure on that poetry side of my life.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 38:10
I still have a lot of friends who remain active poets and are in the poetry scene and have gone on to great success, so I’m still engaged as a fan of their work. But definitely, at this point, poetry is on the periphery of my life, even though every now and then I get itch to, Do I have something to write? Or, Hey, I haven’t read, you know, a poetry or good poetry book in a while. Let me pick up something that’s not one of my friends.
Arthur Attwell 38:35
I like to tell myself, it’s something that we can get back to when we’re much older. That’s good.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 38:41
It’ll always be there for us.
Arthur Attwell 38:43
It will. Since this is a podcast about making books, have you seen any books lately that you think were really well made?
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 38:49
Sure. I’m still, awkward to admit, predominantly a print person. I respect ebooks. I get there’s an audience for it. Not for me. Same for audiobooks. My wife’s a big audiobook listener, reader. They just don’t work for me. Podcasts I’m good with but longform books being read to me … I don’t have the commute that makes that work. Physical books, to me, are still a really valuable thing. I think where I particularly loved them is when a publisher makes that extra effort to create something special, and not just a commodity to you know, have Amazon ship out. Books that can’t leverage print on demand, to me are the most exciting.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 39:33
Two that I’ve pulled off my shelf, for instance, memoir, The Beautiful Ones. I thought it was just going to be a straightforward memoir and as a Prince fan, that would have been good enough for me. But this is a traditional hardcover sized coffee table book. The production value, the layouts and everything in this thing. This is an amazing book that could have just been a memoir and would have been great. There’s an audience for Prince’s memoir. They took that extra step to really make something that you want to own and not just borrow from the library to read for free in quotes.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 40:11
The other one, my son got me this. It’s Parasite, the movie. It is the, it’s a graphic novel in storyboards. So it’s not a traditional graphic novel. It’s literally that they took his storyboards, which are really detailed, and put it in a graphic novel format with his script. It’s a keepsake that you buy, because you’ve got a real affinity for the work and it’s packaged in a really beautiful impressive way. That then also makes it worth the expensive price, because that’s the other thing. Books are expensive and we live in a world where there’s a lot of demands for our disposable income. Particularly when it comes to digital offerings. 10 years ago, you were competing with 99 cent games. 2020, you’re competing with like 50 different streaming services that are all 9.99 a month or more. And, you know, newspapers have successfully shifted to paid content. So if you want to stay on top of the news, you might have one or two expensive newspaper subscriptions.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 41:15
Books really need to rethink that business model either producing really valuable print objects that people want to own, or changing that digital business model to recognise, this is good content, nobody feels the need to own it, so they’re going to get it from the library or through a subscription program, and you need to adjust your business model not get mad at your partners and readers for their changing behaviours.
Arthur Attwell 41:41
For sure. Oh, that’s lovely. I’ll look those books up and put links in the show notes because those look absolutely gorgeous. Guy, thank you so much. I have got so much out of this conversation. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable. I really want to thank you again for taking the time.
Guy LeCharles Gonzalez 41:55
Well, thanks again for having me. I appreciate the thoroughness in what you went into. This was fun.
Arthur Attwell 42:01
Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this, it would be such a help if you’d take a moment to share that with a friend or on social media. You’d be amazed at the effect that every tweet has on our downloads. So thank you for that too. You can point to others to howbooksaremade.com where I also post links to things we talked about today. We’re also adding transcripts of our episodes there now. How Books Are Made is supported by Electric Book Works where my team and I make books all day, every day, in sunny Cape Town, South Africa.