Barca vs Real: The Football Paradigm
It’s the end of the footy season (or near as dammit) and my thoughts turn from the merits of the 4-3-3 formation to the state of modern publishing – like it does. In a sense, it is in Spanish football that we can discern the trends evolving in the publishing industry and how to make the future better. An obvious comparison, I would’ve thought.
So lets get down to brass tacks. Although there are parallels between publishing and soccer, there are glaring differences too. For a start, football is rich and publishing is broke. But putting that aside, both have spawned global brands that span the world. Cristiano Ronaldo may be on a par with J K Rowling in terms of media celebrity (google them both and you could make some sort of lame-ass comparison). Additionally their operating models hold lessons that can be regarded (pardon the pun) as transferable.
Real Madrid is the most successful side in Spain. It operates much as the main (big five) publishers in the UK. In recent decades, it has given a name to this strategy; the Galáctico system. The essence of this strategy is to buy success. You purchase the world’s top players and maximize your income from merchandising and the publicity these star signings. With enough stars, you become a galaxy of star names (Hence the word Galáctico). This compares with what mainstream publishing to an uncanny extent. Celebrity memoirs and the ‘transfer’ of literary superstars from one to another seems to be the way they generate traffic, publicity and sales. The drawbacks of this system in football is that it’s expensive, leaves very little room for home-grown players to emerge (Real have only promoted one player to the first team in the past 15 years) and, most importantly, it is an approach that does not guarantee success.
Success is the name of the game both in footy and books. And, although historically Real Madrid are the most successful side in Spain, Barcelona are catching them up. Barça’s model has been in place for about thirty years and has been bearing fruit for twenty or so. Particularly recently (Five league titles out of the last seven) it has become the envy of the world. So how have they done it?
The Barça system is ostensibly a transplant from the Ajax Amsterdam model of the early 1970s. This model sets a system of play, based on simple basic principles, and has every team in the club (from under 12s to the first team) playing the same way. In the long run, it will produce teams of players that have come through the ranks and know how to complement each other. This system worked like a charm in Holland, but because of a lack of money, all their best players got poached. Barcelona has the advantage of deep pockets and has been able to implant this system with staggering success. Not only have they won a hatfull of trophies, their system and players were the backbone of Spain’s World Cup-winning side (Villarreal and Valencia have also implanted similar player-development models). The essence of the Barça approach is this: You develop your own players, coaches and managers in-house. You buy outside only when you have to or you spot a bargain. This doesn’t guarantee success either, but it does deliver batches of great players from time to time.
Publishers in general are moving away from the Barcelona principle. To emulate them they would have to nurture their writers from an early age, commit to them long-term and trust their writers as a group/cohort to move forward as a group. Does any publisher do this? Authors’ contracts are becoming less and less supportive to long term development. Contracts for new writers are shrinking from three to two books, advances are withering on the vine. Only the independent publishers seem to be resisting this trend (apart from the advances bit). If only the independents could break down the barriers, dammit, maybe there’d be more books out there worth reading.
Well, that’s more or less it for this particular tortuous comparison. I’d love it if a canny independent press would suddenly find themselves with a dozen best-selling authors on their books after nurturing them from debut novels. A pipe dream perhaps, but maybe its the only alternative to the Real Madrid publishers ‘parking the bus’ with unreadable tripe and trying to batter the hell out of any creativity in the opposition. You can guess which team I support by now, can’t you?