Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Independent Publishing as Strategy

I’m reading this book called Blue Ocean Strategy. Like most books I read nowadays, it fell in my hands randomly, but ended up speaking to me personally. The premise is that most companies tend to operate like every other company in their industry. They compete for the same customers along narrowly defined lines. Some find a way to break away from the conventional wisdom of their industry and create a “blue ocean” of “uncontested market space.”

The authors offer Cirque de Soleil as an example. In this case, it breaks from the traditional ideas of what circus and/or theater should be like. The result: There’s nothing else quite like it, which makes competing for customers’ attention much easier and more lucrative.

What does this have to do with poetry? A lot, actually. People don’t like to admit this, but book publishing is an industry, and poetry is a part of that. When we started RMP, we looked at the traditional models for starting a poetry press: Hold a contest, apply for grant money, or both.

Within those basic models, the differences between poetry presses are minimal. If you visit most press websites, their mission statements are the same (“We strive to publish the best poetry.”) What does that mean? As a consultant I heard once says, “It doesn’t mean anything. ‘Best’ is a definition only you and god know.”

Some presses try to differentiate themselves by the type of poetry they publish (“We strive to publish the best [experimental, witness, political, women’s, regional] poetry”). The differences are minute, and what’s worse—the strategy is the same. If every press competes using the same strategy, there will only ever be a small handful of presses that succeed.

Blue Ocean Strategy suggests creating new business models that buck conventional wisdom. I personally can’t stand flying Southwest Airlines, but I have to concede their success. Who thought way back when that an airline could get away with not serving a meal or assigning reserved seats? Those amenities were part of a narrow formula that airlines considered necessary to succeed.

When I look at RMP in this context, I’m encouraged. We’ve abandoned most of the conventional thinking that goes into starting a poetry press. I see a lot of advantages in not competing with other presses for contest fees and grant money. It makes us a lot more flexible, and our future is much less dependent on the trends that affect other poetry presses. For instance, if grant money dries up or so many presses are applying for grant money that each press continues to get a smaller piece of the pie—that won’t affect our ability to keep publishing books.

What we haven’t done is turn those advantages into profitability…yet. Living in D.C., we’re surrounded by the history and mythos of the punk rock scene. Independent music labels that exist as standalone companies today started out in basements. I think when you have something like RMP, where there’s nothing to lose by experimenting, you’re more likely to succeed in the long run.

What we haven't done is figure out how to maximize all the advantages of being a truly independent press. The other message in the book is that companies like Cirque de Soleil and Southwest Airlines create models that brought new value to their customers. I’m not sure what that is for a poetry audience. When we figure that out, I think we’ll be set.


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