Tue 1 October 2013 at 12.25 pm

Scott Pack: Choose Your Own Adventure

Missed this event?  Find out what our students thought in the summary blog below...

by Elaine K. Phillips

Scott Pack, the Observer-dubbed Most Powerful Man in Publishing, is secretly a game show host.

He stands in front of a classroom at Oxford Brookes University. Two book cover images are projected on the screen. Of the fifty-plus MA Publishing students in the room, not one of us has heard of either book.

‘Pick which one has a success story’, Scott says, ‘or you’re out. The last one in wins.’

He gestures toward the grand prize—a teetering stack of The Friday Project books—and those of us who aren’t drooling knit the brows. How on earth do you pick, based on just the covers?

Scott laughs. ‘It’s basically a game of luck.’

It’s also a thinly-veiled metaphor for the publishing industry—and Scott’s path through it.

A string of happenstances took Scott from uni dropout to HMV manager to Waterstones head buyer. After shaking up Waterstones—and earning the Observer’s accolades—Scott took on The Friday Project, then an independent publisher but now one of  HarperCollins’ most innovative imprints. Today, Scott and his team transform digital content—such as stories posted on writers’ forums or Authonomy, HarperCollins’ community website for writers—into print products.

But not necessarily print. As Steve Ball explained in Editorial Management that morning, print is just one format option among many. To choose the right one, you’ve got to know your target market.

Sometimes this means you must trust your author’s gut. About ten years ago a major publisher offered a massive advance to Tom Reynolds, whose blog about his ambulance escapades had amassed an equally massive following. Reynolds was thrilled, but insisted that the publisher sell his ebook… for free. All the content was available for free on his blog, he reasoned, so why would his fans pay for an ebook?

Well… because we say so, the publisher said, and dropped him.

Along came The Friday Project. Scott, trusting Reynold’s instinct, gave the ebook away. Word-of-mouth marketing took over, and the rest was history. Blood, Sweat and Tea (2006) brought in £10k in TV option rights, spawned the TV series ‘Sirens’, has to date sold 300,000 copies—and proven Reynolds’ point.

Other times, your market knowledge will prompt you to trust your own gut. Say you’re about to publish a children’s fantasy trilogy’s final installment. The book is brilliant, but you’re worried: in the six years since the first book, your original readers have grown up and moved on. What do you do?

When Scott faced this situation last Christmas with John Lenaham’s Shadowmagic, he fell back on instinct and Blood, Seat and Tea’s precedent, and gave the series’ first ebook away. New readers, he figured, would get hooked on the first book, then happily pay £2.99 for the second, and even more for the third.

He was right. By January, 75,000 people had downloaded the first book for free, and the number of Amazon reviews flew from 30 to 500 plus. All those freeloaders-turned-fans pre-ordered Shadowmagic for £4.99. The Friday Project made a nice profit, and Shadowmagic got the readers it deserved—all because Scott trusted his gut.

Of course publishing success requires more than gut instinct; as we’re learning in our Marketing & Sales Management module, it takes data-led product positioning. Moreover, giving content away is the business world’s hot new trick, as Nicholas Lovell explains in The Curve.

Or, maybe it’s not. Maybe, like a game show, it really is luck.  

The former editor of Victorian Homes and Flea Market Décor magazines, Elaine is currently an MA Publishing student at Oxford Brookes University and an editorial intern at Osprey Publishing. Read her thoughts on contemporary literature, digital publishing, and the industry’s future here.