The genius of gut-driven publishing choices…

Thank God that people still insist – insist with the force of a kind of madness – to throw all thoughts of commercial success out the window and instead follow some unbridled chaotic inspiration that has nothing to do with sales/data/established traditions/funding requirements/popular approval/ratings. And also for the astute publishers and producers and directors who decide they will give a chance to risky material, like Dr Seuss (rejected by 27 publishers for being too strange), Hemingway (rejected for ‘being tedious and offensive’), the pitches for Mad Men and Breaking Bad (rejected for their unusual take on American life), the scripts for Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects(for non-linear plot-lines). Thank God for that because we end up with truly original, disturbing and joyful material.

I have just finished reading about a conference debate on ‘data-driven’ versus ‘gut-driven’ publishing decisions on the day I have two meetings at Radio 2RPH, a community broadcaster in Sydney where I carry out some work.

The main activity of 2RPH is to read to people – magazines, books, newspapers, and develop programs which serve the interests of our listeners. But who are our listeners? Originally intended to serve the blind community, 2RPH (wearing the outdated and no-longer-used acronym Radio Print Handicapped) now serves a wide range of people who for countless reasons don’t/can’t/won’t read (where do you start: disability, isolation, mental health, learning, age-related or debilitating conditions, plus people who work in cars/trucks/computers and are what we categorise as ‘time-poor’ and ‘eyes-busy’ – we had a debate about whether these are actually a new branch of disability in our urban environment – only half jokingly in fact).

In terms of deciding on programming, we have our own ‘gut-driven’ versus ‘data-driven’ problems. People who have difficulty accessing print media are not likely to fill in online questionnaires to provide us with the type of meaningful feedback which contributes to sufficient ‘data’. Our gut tells there is some programming that is always going to do well. Reading fiction is one of them.

Up until recently we had only read popular published writers. But what about original material written by ‘emerging’ Australian writers (read ‘unknown’) who could inspire our listeners. We experimented. We had great success with two trial-runs of programs – one of which was by a new writer, Jenny Sheldon, who agreed to have her recently launched book, I Will, serialised.  Would it inspire our listeners? Well it inspired us a lot – and one of our producers was passionate enough that we bent every rule we had about using only high-audio-quality voices to read.

I used to sit and listen to Jenny Sheldon read out her work in writers’ groups while she was constructing her book. It was powerful work – raw, honest, real, without a trace of self pity or pumped up courage. The effort it took for her make it physically through a reading added another layer of understanding into how much difficulty she would have faced writing it. Jenny has aphasia (a type of mental gap between what you think and what you say), halting speech, and the use of only one hand, conditions resulting from a stroke. Everyone who has come into contact with Jenny during the whole process of writing her book has been elevated by her attitude and her experiences. She is not living the same life as an English teacher and singer that she had before, but it is a rich one that has branched out into writing. Her book can help thousands (40,000 people in Australia suffer a stroke annually – almost 800,000 in the US).

Jenny’s book, by way of experiment, was serialised at Radio 2RPH in Sydney where I sit on the Board and a couple of committees. At our 2RPH programming meeting we discussed the technical issues of recording a voice which is ‘challenging’ to the ear. As a radio reading station relying heavily on high audible quality of voices, (the audition process is stringent) this was worst case scenario technically speaking. We were able to modulate to smooth out Jenny’s sentences, plus we had a producer who was willing to read the main part of the book so that we could have both a ‘taste’ of Jenny’s voice in the more personal parts of the story and a fluid professional voice for the main parts. If we could manage that, we said, we now had proof positive that we could manage a range of of other disability affected voices (cerebral palsy for instance).

Now that we had the whole book recorded (8 hours to be serialised in half hour segments) we also had an audio book. Could we on-sell it? What would be the royalties for the publisher? Could we form an alliance with a publisher and attract other writers who could have their work read on radio.

Audio books are the fastest growing segment of the international publishing industry – it is referred to as an ‘audio gold rush’. In the 2018 publishing environment,  growth of print sales was minimal – ‘flat is the new up’ being the mantra, and an average 3%  growth globally was considered an upswing. Whereas there was a whopping 13% growth in audio sales**, and 45% growth in revenue. Audio is hitting new markets with audio versions of books drawing in younger and more male audiences, and being heard increasingly on smartphones.

Back in Glebe, Sydney, Australia, we are looking at Jenny Sheldon’s newly produced audio book and marvelling that what started off as a ‘generous’ and good minded gesture on everyone’s part, had the potential to turn into a much needed income generator for all parties.

Which brings me back to my original issue. Thank god for people who write out of inspiration rather than because they think it will sell. And for those selectors who pick risky work because they have a feeling it will do well, as opposed to depending on formula and data.

Because that kind of data would force us all to watch back-to-back reality TV (on the small screen), and formulaic unchallenging movies, and reading endless uplifting self-help books (the popular item in publishing this year now that the ‘adult colouring-in books fad is over). All of which are great, have their place, but not in surfeit. You cannot forge and evolve as an exciting innovative industry if all you ever do is predict from the past. Even publishers are catching up. The audio boom has caught them by surprise. They could not have predicted that. And one of the liveliest debates (apparently) at the 2018 Future of Books international conference was about how much publishers/agents are relying on data to choose manuscripts, as opposed to gut feeling. The confession made by agents is that in the final analysis they rely on their gut instinct about a work. And thank god for that too.

For this blog I have drawn on the following resource (the excellent online Magazine, Books and Publishing).


** . Most of the growth seems to be in people aged under 45 (US figures in 2017, 45% of Audio book readers are under the age of 45), and most are heard on devices such as smartphones (47%) .