Two summers ago, Will Evans (aka Bromance Will) came to Rochester for the summer to learn about how to launch his own press dedicated to international literature. Although he did help out at Open Letter by reading a bunch of manuscripts, editing High Tide, doing some marketing and publicity, and arranging a bunch of Frankfurt Book Fair meetings, the hours we spent watching Euro Cup matches and talking about publishing in the most general terms (“Chad, how does distribution work?”) was probably the most important part of his apprenticeship.
Anyway, two years later, Deep Vellum—the press Will was figuring out while he was here in Rochester—officially launched on May 8th (which happens to be my son’s birthday, and that of Thomas Ruggles Pynchon). Here’s the press release:
On May 27, 2014, Deep Vellum, an independent non-profit publisher of books in translation, launches in New York City, timed to Book Expo America. Its debut authors are recipients of numerous international awards and worldwide acclaim, several of whom have never before been available in English.
Led by Publisher and Executive Director Will Evans, Deep Vellum was founded to connect the world’s greatest contemporary writers of literature and creative nonfiction with English-language readers through original translations, while facilitating educational opportunities for students of translation in the Dallas community, and promoting a more robust book culture in Dallas and beyond.
“I was inspired to start Deep Vellum when I learned just how few literary translations were published each year in the U.S. and how many timeless works of literature remain to be translated into English,” said Evans. “I wanted to start Deep Vellum in Dallas because this is an exciting, vibrant, ever-evolving city that supports the arts and big bold ideas. My dream is to publish the world from Dallas, raising the profile of world literature in America’s book culture, and promoting the cross-cultural dialogue that comes from reading translated literature.”
Deep Vellum is pleased to announce the publication of its debut book Texas by Carmen Boullosa this fall. Highlights of the fall list include:
Texas by Carmen Boullosa (October): Loosely based on the little-known 1859 Mexican invasion of the United States, Texas is a richly imagined evocation of the volatile Tex-Mex borderland, wrested from Mexico in 1848, in the combustive time just before the American Civil War. Described by Roberto Bolaño as “Mexico’s greatest woman writer,” Boullosa views the border history through distinctly Mexican eyes, and her sympathetic portrayal of each of her wildly diverse characters—Mexican ranchers and Texas Rangers, Comanches and cowboys, German socialists and runaway slaves, Southern belles and dance hall girls—makes her storytelling tremendously powerful and absorbing. With today’s Mexican-American frontier such a front-burner concern, this novel brilliantly illuminates its historical landscape is especially welcome.
Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories by Mikhail Shishkin (November): The first English-language collection of stories by the only author to win all three of Russia’s major book prizes and a worldwide celebrity, including five stories that have been published in various English-language sources (Words Without Borders, Read Russia Anthology, Spolia, the Independent, New England Review) and several previously untranslated stories (including two previously unpublished in any language). Shishkin is the first and only writer to win the three major Russian literary awards (the Russian Booker, National Bestseller, and Big Book Awards).
The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol (December): Winner of the Cervantes Prize in 2005 (the “Spanish-language Nobel”) and considered one of Mexico’s greatest living authors, Pitol makes his English-language debut with The Art of Flight. Also the first book in Pitol’s “Trilogy of Memory,” which Deep Vellum has signed to publish in full, this collection of essays and stories blends the genres of memoir and creative essay in an imaginative swirl of reflection and contemplation as Pitol looks back on a life lived through literature and travel.
Sphinx by Anna Garréta (Feb 2015): A debut novel, originally published in 1986, by the incredibly talented and inventive French author Anne Garréta, one of the few female members of OuLiPo, the influential and exclusive French experimental literary group whose mission is to create literature based on mathematical and linguistic restraints, and whose ranks include Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, and Raymond Queneau, among others. Sphinx is a remarkable work of literary ingenuity: a beautiful and complex love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and “A***,” written completely without any gendered pronouns or gender markers referring to the main characters. Sphinx is not only the first novel by Garréta to appear in English but the first work by a female Oulipian published in English.
The Indian by Jόn Gnarr (March 2015): The Indian is a highly entertaining, bittersweet autobiographical fiction by the world-famous Icelandic comedian and Mayor of Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr, described by VICE Magazine as “boundlessly creative and extremely compassionate.” Diagnosed as a child as “retarded” because of his severe dyslexia and ADHD, Gnarr spent several years in a “home for retarded children.” He finally escaped, only to find himself subject to ridicule in regular schools for being slow and red-headed. Subjected to constant bullying, young Gnarr watched Westerns, always rooting for the Indians to defeat the bully cowboys. Taught in schools throughout Iceland, The Indian resonates with young readers as much as with parents of children with emotional and learning issues as with readers of world literature. The Indian is the first novel in a trilogy on Gnarr’s youth that Deep Vellum will be publishing in its entirety.
Deep Vellum has been awarded grants from a number of cultural organizations, including the Hemingway Grant from French Cultural Services office, for Anne Garréta’s Sphinx; the Transcript Grant from the Prokhorov Foundation for Mikhail Shishkin’s Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories; a PROTRAD grant from the Mexican government’s FONCA program for the Sergio Pitol and Carmen Boullosa novels; and a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines & Presses.
Distributed by Small Press Distribution, Deep Vellum’s books will be featured both domestically and internationally. Deep Vellum is fiscally sponsored by The Writer’s Garret, a nationally recognized literary nonprofit.
For publicity inquiries, contact Erin L. Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org or 347-581-0211.
That’s a pretty impressive list of titles . . . I’ll be surprised if Consortium doesn’t jump on this and start distributing Deep Vellum with their spring 2015 list.
Congrats, Will, and I know we’ll be reviewing all of these books on Three Percent as they come out . . .
Last year we brought out Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, one of my favorite books of the past few years. (And a title that deserves to at least be shortlisted for this year’s BTBA . . .)
At the time I talked to Arnon about doing two of his other books—The Man without Illness and The Asylum Seekers—since we all love his work so much, and thought that Open Letter could serve as a home for some of these older books. He seemed thrilled about this.
We made an offer to his new representative, Oscar van Gelderen (who took over Arnon’s properties after Ira Silverberg went to run the Literature Department at the NEA, but is primarily a Dutch publisher), and after following up with him a half-dozen times—he held our offer for months upon months—we received the following reply this morning:
It took some time before we could respond to your offer, the reason being we are looking carefully at the publishing situation in each country wherein Arnon is published.
And although we have enjoyed working together with Open Letter on Tirza, we have decided not to accept your offers for Arnons books. Sales for Tirza have been quite poor, as far as we can judge (when do we receive royalty statements?), and visibility in the media has been limited. We love the Open Letter list, its quality, but we feel Arnon needs a publishing house with more sales power. We dont mean this in a disrespectful way, au contraire, we know how Open Letter operates and we can see the upsides of that strategy too, but we need more power and marketing force in order to get Arnon the breakthrough he deserves (in each and every country).
For the moment we have put things on hold in the USA and UK, we want to decide in a later stage whom we want collaborate with. Arnon is currently writing his novel about his mother, a book, we feel, with lots of sales potential. For us it would be thé Grunberg book to break open the market, get him out there, and find the readers he truly deserves.
In the meantime, please send us some more information regarding sales of Tirza, we are curious to know how it sold sofar.
All the best,
Oscar van Gelderen
Arnon Grunberg Agency
Yeah, it’s still pretty disrespectful, buddy.
The sales have been modest—over 2,000 copies, but still—which is one reason we’re moving to Consortium for sales distribution. We’ve been doing all sales representation ourselves (and with the help of the fantastic George Carroll out in the Pacific Northwest), and that’s much more complicated and difficult now than it was 10 years ago. Literary books—in translation, in a crowded marketplace—will probably always sell between 1,500 and 4,000 copies on average, but hopefully Consortium will push us toward the larger end of that spectrum.
Back to kvetching: Last April, Arnon sent me a translated version of an article he had written about Greece, in hopes that I would be able to find a magazine interested in publishing this. Under normal circumstances, this would be an agent’s job; my assumption was that Oscar doesn’t know that U.S. landscape as well as I do, and was looking for some help.
So, for no money or other considerations, I spent some time talking to various publications and eventually got Andrew Leland from The Believer interested and the piece appeared in the September 2013 issue of the magazine. You’re welcome, Oscar!
Putting aside my emotions for a second, let’s consider how wise a move this is on Oscar/Arnon’s part.
In case you’re not aware of Arnon’s publishing history in the U.S., in 1997, Farrar, Straus & Giroux brought out his debut novel, Blue Mondays. A few years later, 2001 to be exact, St. Martin’s brought out Silent Extras. Three years later, Other Press brought out two of Arnon’s books, Phantom Pain and The Story of My Baldness. Then, in 2008, Penguin brought out The Jewish Messiah. And finally, in 2013, Open Letter publishes Tirza.
For a lot of international authors, that’s a damn fine run. Over the course of 16 years, five different publishers brought out six of Arnon’s books. The part that might be troubling is the five different publishers. Conventional Wisdom states that if a publisher sells an acceptable number of copies of a particular author’s book, they like to go on with that author, build a backlist, etc. My guess—and maybe I’m wrong—is that FSG, Penguin, Other Press, didn’t get the attention and sales that they were looking for, which is why they only did 1-2 books then moved on.
From a typical agent’s perspective, this is not a good thing. Publishing people talk, partial sales information becomes accessible, and any new editor considering a new book from this author can look back on this pothole-filled publishing history, and . . . probably think long and hard about signing on the author’s new book.
So, in contrast to having a situation in which Arnon had a publisher willing to do 3+ of his novels—more than any other previous publisher—Arnon is now going out into the marketplace with a lot of baggage . . . I wish him luck. All I want is to be able to read more of his books—something that probably won’t be possible (Especailly for his backlist titles) for the foreseeable future.
Then again, there always is the self-publishing route . . .
What is this? The much-delayed “favorite movies of 2012” episode of the Three Percent Podcast? It is! Better late than never, right? Yes, it is. Stop disagreeing, please.
This week, Tom is joined by Nate, and they grit their teeth to discuss The Master (P. T. Anderson) and Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino_), after having forced one another other to finally watch the each other’s favorite movie of the year. Also on the docket are the likes of: Rust & Bone, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, Moonrise Kingdom_, Argo, and, god help us, Lincoln. (And no one, at any point, talks about soccer.)Read More...
Although information started leaking last week, it wasn’t until this morning that the Penguin-Random House merger was made official:
Publisher Pearson says it has agreed a deal with German media group Bertelsmann to combine their Penguin and Random House businesses.
Under the terms of the deal, the two businesses will be run in a joint venture called Penguin Random House.
Bertelsmann will own 53% of the joint venture, while Pearson will own 47%.
First off, I think “Random House Penguin” is a much better name, mainly because of the ambiguity—is it a Random-House Penguin? or a Random House-Penguin? Makes the new über-publisher seem both literary and playful.
The tie-up between Penguin and Random House marks the first deal between the world’s big six publishers. The others are Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster. It would bring together the publishers of the Fifty Shades series and Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks.
I keep reading this “Fifty Shades AND Jamie Oliver” line, and, to be honestly ignorant, I have no idea what it signifies. “This new MegaPublisher will publisher Super-Successful Book #1 PLUS Super-Successful Book #2!!!! ZOMG!!” Honestly, if you told me right now that Random House already published both of these, I’d totally buy it. It’s not like these are two random products suddenly being lumped into one administrative mess: “It’s going to combine Twilight and Gilbert Sorrentino!! Holy shitsnacks!”
Anyway, on to the real content: the creepy consolidation of two massive publishing entitles:
Pearson chief executive Marjorie Scardino, who is leaving the firm at the end of the year, said: “Penguin is a successful, highly-respected and much-loved part of Pearson. This combination with Random House… will greatly enhance its fortunes and its opportunities.
“Together, the two publishers will be able to share a large part of their costs, to invest more for their author and reader constituencies and to be more adventurous in trying new models in this exciting, fast-moving world of digital books and digital readers.”
In case you’re wondering, “be able to share a large part of their costs” equals “eliminate redundancies, especially in terms of personnel.” I hate to be the voice of cynicism, but all the “No jobs will be lost! We will rule the world together!” lip-service being paid to Penguin and RH employees has about a 99.9% chance of turning out to be utter and complete bullshit.
Based on recent results, combining the two firms will create a business with annual revenues of about £2.5bn and about one-quarter of both the UK and US book markets. [. . .]
“In the UK the market share will be around 27%, so they may have to divest themselves of some non-core interests,” said Philip Jones from the Bookseller magazine.
27%?! That’s fricking INSANE. And in no way can this be good for the book world. I don’t want to get into all that right now—I have sales calls to make, classes to teach—but putting so much power into the hands of one entity that produces a limited amount of books, yet will be defining culture, is fucked.
Which, for many, will bring to mind Amazon’s position in the marketplace . . .1 Speaking of Amazon:
“Amazon has 90% of the ebook market – if [the competition authorities] allowed that to happen, how can they block a merger that gives Penguin Random House 27%?”
And that’s really what this about, isn’t it? Making a company big enough to negotiate with Amazon in a way that will reap it shittons more money and profit. Great.
By random contrast, I just want to point out this WSJ article about the “semi-socialist” Bundesliga. (Referred to as a “soccer paradise.”) It’s a really interesting contrast between the free-spending, unmonitored Premiere League in the UK, and the less-profit motivated Bundesliga in Germany. Not only is the quality of the Bundesliga better—there are more teams with a legit chance to win the title, in contrast to the Chelsea, Manchester x 2, dominance in the Premiere League, or the Real Barcelona duo in La Liga—but the clubs are financially better off (Munich made $230 million last year, which exceeds the commercial revenues of Arsenal and Man United combined) AND more people are attending the matches.
What does this have to do with RHP? Nothing, really. But the idea that there is an alternative model to flat-out late-age hyper-charged capitalism—one that can be more successful in all the key areas—is a very captivating one.
1 This is a bit of a flawed analogy though. Amazon is a provider, a retail outlet that takes what is made elsewhere and dominates the chain from production to consumption. By contrast, Random House Penguin will control what is made available. This is a stark and horrifying difference. Amazon is predicated on the idea that “more of everything is better”—more books sold to more people in more formats equals more money—RHP is all about the production and sale of products that will benefit itself only. For all of the issues that people have with Amazon’s corporate practices, they are geared towards providing customers with what they want, when they want it, and at a reasonable price—it’s their tactics to achieving this that are circumspect. RHP will be about blockbusters and leveraging its enormous impact to restrict buying options, or at least direct customers into buying its products for the benefit of the corporate shareholders. In my mind—in which product diversity trumps everything, since the things I like are often not in line with mainstream anything—this RHP situation is a million times worse.
Right now I should be getting on a plane in Cape Town to head back home after the 29th International Publishers Congress. UNFORTUNATELY, the
jags employees at Delta’s ticket counter in Atlanta refused to let me board the plane since my passport doesn’t contain a complete blank page. OK, I get it, I get in, countries have laws and those laws must be obeyed, but eff you ATL airport for not having extra visa pages to stick into my passport, and eff you South Africa for being so strict (supposedly Delta gets fine $10,000 for every passenger arriving there without a blank passport page).
So after spending 13 hours flying to and from Atlanta (WHERE THEY LOST MY BAG), I came back home to Rochester and wrote this speech which Jens Bammel, Secretary General of the International Publishers Association, read on my behalf.
It’s really cool that he was able to do this—I felt horrible for having to miss the conference—and also cool that Ed Nawotka ran it in Publishing Perspectives. You can read the whole thing at the link above, but here’s a bit from the end, where I tried to tie everything together into some points of advice for everyone:
The Long Term Is the Only Race Worth Winning
We have entered a confusing age in the evolution of books and publishing. After ages of conglomerations conglomerating and other inward mingling trends (e.g., B&N making the same books available everywhere in the country, like McDonalds hamburgers), the world has suddenly fragmented. Certain books are only available on Amazon, there are 10,000 for every sub-genre of a sub-genre, and readers live everywhere, accessing it all in a plethora of ways.
This is daunting to some, exciting to others. For a small press looking to do books that fit a particular niche (a la Open Letter), this is a fantastic situation. Unlike years past when we fought for space in the same five review outlets and tried to convince the same booksellers to handsell our books, we can now go directly to our customers, and can cultivate an audience in ways that never existed before.
So, to sum this all up into one list of tips and anecdotes, here are some thoughts on how authors, translators, agents, and publishers can take advantage of this situation:
Agents: Quit screwing around with e-book rights. I know that for some, this is the touchiest of touchy subjects, but when an agent doesn’t sell us the e-book rights to a translation we’re publishing, I want to condemn them to a dark circle of hell. Audiences are diverse, readers like to read in all formats, why would anyone stop the momentum a publisher might have with a book in the hopes you can sell these later to some larger company? This is ridiculous and my experiences with Zone and Children in Reindeer Woods—which sold out quickly and were unavailable while we reprinted and sat around NOT having the e-book rights—point out the stupidity of this agenting policy.
Translators: Community is your greatest hope. Most everyone in the book industry is whiny. And underpaid. And underappreciated. Translators more than most. But in a world in which expertise exists outside of the conventional outlets (newspapers, magazines, radio shows), translators can be extremely valuable in cultivating a community of readers interested in a particular book/set of books. Make all the connections you can—books aren’t sold through reviews or advertisements anymore, they’re sold when one reader talks to another reader.
There are also bits for Publishers, Authors, and Everyone, but you have to visit Publishing Perspectives to read those . . .
As we announced last week, for the rest of June, all nine of our ebooks will be available for $4.99/title—a pretty good bargain, especially since they’ll go back to the standard $9.99 on July 1st . . .
You can find info about all our available ebooks by clicking here here. (In case anyone’s interested, the best-selling ones from the last week are: The Golden Calf followed by The Pets, and then Guadalajara and Death in Spring.)
After making our pricing announcement, Ed Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives asked me to write a piece explaining our decision, some stuff about ebook pricing in general, and my problems with the $.99 ebook.
Here’s a link to Why Selling Ebooks at 99 Cents Destroys Minds, which includes this:
But what’s really at the top of the e-book best-seller lists? As of this very moment (10:10 pm on Wednesday, June 8th), here are the top five and their prices: A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner, $0.99; My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler, $1.99; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, $5.00; Summer Secrets by Barbara Freethy, $4.99; and The Help by Kathryn Stockett, $9.99.
So aside from The Help, which is the 9th bestselling book in paperback, the top five are all $5 or less. And aside from The Help, none of these books are in the top 10 for Literary Fiction paperback sales. So what does this mean?
At BEA, Keith Gessen introduced me to the works of John Locke (probably not the one you’re thinking of), a best-selling Kindle author whose books are all sold for $0.99. He made over a hundred thousand of dollars in royalties last year — far exceeding the wildest dreams of most every mid-list (if John Locke is even midlist) author in the country. Having read the opening of one of his “Donovan Creed” novels, I can assure you that he’s not selling all these books due to his talent. No offense intended, but let’s be real about this — it leads to a much more interesting conundrum.
And goes on from there . . .
Ed wrote the daily “conversation piece” for Publishing Perspectives, which he entitled Can Affordable Literature Ever Compete with ‘Palatable Plonk?’
As discussed in today’s feature story, you can now buy any number of e-books for 99 cents or less on Amazon. Few would mistake what’s being sold so cheaply as high literature, but one has to acknowledge that it takes skill to craft something that a large audience of people will enjoy.
In the wine business, the fact that you can now buy drinkable box wine in your local gas station/supermarket has indeed expanded the audience for wine. The hope is that drinkers, as their palette becomes sophisticated, will move up the price scale to sample more challenging fare. [. . .]
Can the same be said for the book business? Certainly just think of fiction as red wine, and non-fiction as white, each goes with a mood, setting, circumstance.
Ultimately, the question is not whether inexpensively priced literature entice new readers and serve as a gateway for readers to discover new writers, but can it ever compete, at lower prices, with the John Locke’s and Amanda Hocking’s of the world? And, at the end of the day, does it matter so long as everyone’s needs get met?
In my opinion, the answer is no, not when — to go back to the wine analogy — the cheap stuff can get you just as drunk. Of course, you also have to remember that with the cheap stuff, once the buzz wears off the hangover is often much worse — and you’ll have an even harder time facing yourself in the harsh light of day.
Be sure to check out the comments—that’s where the real fun comes in . . .
In another case of we’ve-been-writing-about-this-for-years-and-now-it’s-happening, Inside HigherEd has a report from the Association of American University Presses conference called Could Pirates Be Your Friends?
In a session titled “Is Piracy Good for Sales,” [Garrett Kiely] the Chicago press director did not suggest that piracy be encouraged or legalized. But he made a case for ignoring pirates — and even appreciating piracy that might, in some cases, boost the visibility of certain titles that otherwise would have languished behind a pay wall.
The University of Chicago Press has published hundreds of titles in e-book form, including a number of “trade” books, which are aimed at a general audience and are considered more likely to become profitable. But when the press recently analyzed which of its books were being pirated, it found that most came from the more obscure, less lucrative parts of its list.
“The majority of the titles that were infringed upon were scholarly monographs,” Kiely explained. “It’s very hard to find a correlation between the appearance of these books on these sites, and lost sales. In some cases you can’t help but think that . . . obscurity might be our biggest problem, rather than piracy.”
The cost of combating piracy — a tedious and sometimes fruitless exercise — may, in such cases, far exceed the cost in lost sales from having those titles available for free, he added. Allowing more obscure titles to change hands freely on the Web might even result in buzz, which could eventually translate to more sales, Kiely added.
Unfortunately, I suspect there are still about 159 panels on “how to combat piracy” that I’m going to have to suffer through/write about before publishers come to terms with their misguided attempts at stopping motivated readers from swapping their books.
As any and all long-time (or probably even short-time) readers of Three Percent know, we pick on publisher websites quite a bit. (See for instance, any and every post about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)
Most often they deserve it for many of the same reasons that we like to make fun of book ads. I’m totally ripping off Richard Nash here, but if every company advertised its products the way book publishers do—a picture of the product with three quotes saying how great it is—capitalism would’ve crumbled long ago.
And just look at this mess. All the “You Might Also Like . . .” crap is annoying at best, especially since it’s followed at the bottom by “New Books Similar to This One.” And where’s the info about the book (ISBN, price, page count)? Near the bottom of the listing in all italics. You’d never know it, but if you click on the image of the book cover, you get to read an excerpt! And what’s up with all the ads and “Hot@Harper” shit? My six-year-old daughter has better aesthetic sense than the people who designed this.
BUT, occasionally a corporate press gets it right. Like with FSG’s Work in Progress monthly newsletter/website. (Granted, this is apples to oranges in comparing to Harper’s trainwreck, but I’m willing to bet Harper’s monthly promo emails are as aesthetically confused.) Not only is this site elegant, it looks like something you’d want to read, and the marketing aspects of it are subdued and enhanced with interesting content. Such as this conversation between Marion Duvert and Richard Howard on Roland Barthes (Barthes? Can’t imagine another “big” publisher referencing him—AND Samuel Beckett—in their monthly promo-newsletter):
So he called me just to say hello, and say that he would like to come to New York, and could I show him around a little bit because he had never been here.
I said certainly, and that I looked forward to it very much. He arrived. He had the first copy of, I think, Mythologies in print. The first day was very proper and careful. But we got along very well. It was apparent that he had made the right choice, and that we were going to be friends. I suppose that means I met the man first. But he came carrying a book, and I think he knew that I was a translator; and he wanted me to see it. I did translate right away three or four of those pieces that were published in various periodicals here. That was the beginning.
I don’t think he ever again read any of my translations [of him]. I don’t think he had any . . . it isn’t that he didn’t have interest. He would say that he didn’t know English well enough to have it make any difference; it was just his satisfaction that they were in English. At the beginning I think there was some interest in that fact, but I never heard from him again on that subject.
I would ask him questions. I remember calling him up once and saying that he had referred to somebody inadequately or incorrectly, as I just knew. Did he want me to silently correct the mistake? He said, “Oh, of course. Do whatever you want. I have no idea.” And then there was some question of some king or even Egyptian pharaoh, and he said, “Well, make it up. Make it up. I don’t remember the case myself. If it’s not correct in the French text, just make up something.” He had decided that I was trustworthy, and he could rely on me to take care of such things, and there was no further discussion about it. He was not an anxious author about his translations.
This month’s issue also includes interviews with Edith Grossman and Natasha Wimmer on Mario Vargas Llosa, both of which are pretty interesting:
Chapman: You’ve translated a number of García Márquez’s novels—another Latin American Nobel laureate—who is lionized as much for his influence as for his writing. Do you also see the Vargas Llosa imprimatur in younger writers?
Grossman: I can’t really answer that question except in the broadest terms. Vargas Llosa’s influence may lie in the intertwining of the personal and the political. García Márquez’s influence is more stylistic, I think: the intertwining of fantasy and reality, perhaps. They both owe a great debt to William Faulkner and, most of all, to Miguel de Cervantes. On the other hand, the impact of the Latin American Boom on young writers everywhere was enormous, and I don’t think Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie, for example, would write the same way without that older generation of Latin American writers.
Chapman: Speaking of the next generation, what was your reaction to Granta‘s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” list?
Grossman: I was very happy that Granta devoted an issue to young Spanish-language writers. In fact, I translated one of the stories, by a Peruvian, Santiago Roncagliolo. He’s a wonderful writer—I did a novel of his, Red April, a couple of years ago.
Kudos to you, FSG, for figuring out this interwebs thing and how 21st-century digital marketing can work. If you’re interested, you can subscribe here.
OK, so typically I like—or at least highly respect—Jeffrey Trachtenberg’s Wall Street Journal articles about publishing. He’s one of the better book reporters out there, and it’s nice that the WSJ covers our little industry. But his new piece, Authors Feel Pinch in Age of E-Books, is a bit troubling.
There are two main points in here, both of which are valid and will play out over the ensuing years: 1) advances for literary novelists (especially debut writers) are down from the “golden days,” and 2) ebook sales are increasing while hardcover sales are decreasing, and the economics of this seem disadvantageous to everyone.
One of the interesting assumptions in here lies in that “golden age” crack above. As Trachtenberg points out, a lot of literary novelists receive “small” advances from their publishers:
In some cases, independent publishers are picking up the slack by signing promising literary-fiction writers. But they offer, on average, $1,000 to $5,000 for advances, a fraction of the $50,000 to $100,000 advances that established publishers typically paid in the past for debut literary fiction.
Let me try and break this down a bit: First off, within the past decade, the number of fiction titles being published has skyrocketed. Click on the top press release on this page to download a pdf of publishing stats from 2002 to 2009. As you can see, fiction has basically doubled, from 25,102 books published in 2002 to 53,058 in 2008, and a projected total of 45,181 in 2009.
In terms of opening the doors to more writers and making more forms of literary expression available to readers, this is a great thing. But unfortunately, book sales (regardless of format), don’t really keep pace with this. Apples to oranges here, admittedly, but the most recent stats from AAP indicate a decrease in net sales for publishers of $.4 billion.
It doesn’t take a MBA to see that with slow growth in sales and rapid expansion in offerings, something has to give.
For anyone who doesn’t know how advances works, here’s a brief overview: in the traditional publishing scheme, authors are offered an advance for the rights to their books. Although certain behavioral economics-based stuff comes into play here (reputation of the author, perceived bidding wars, friendships and loyalties), in the most pure economic sense, advances should be based on what an author is expected to earn back through sales. So, if you expect to sell 3,000 copies of a $15 book, and are planning on offering a 8% royalty rate, a $3,600 advance would be appropriate. Other things can figure into this, such as foreign rights or film sales, or whatever, but generally speaking, this is how this should work.
Just going with those numbers for a minute, in this case, the publisher would receive $45,000 in total revenue from these sales, which has to cover the author’s advance ($3,600), the printing costs (~$6,000), bookseller discounts ($22,500) and marketing expenses ($3,000). (Typical Digression: I’m taking a pricing class now in which one of the main tenets is that you don’t include fixed costs—salaries for salaried employees, sunk costs of overhead, etc.—when figuring out whether to take on a “project” or not. Most publishers will include these costs in order to demonstrate just how fucked they are when it comes to publishing books. I’m going to let these go for now, because it is impossible to figure fixed costs when analyzing what it costs to make a book. We operate with low overhead and next to no employees. Random House does things a bit differently.)
To pull this back to the article at hand, this is where I think Trachtenberg ends up focusing on the wrong thing. His main beef seems to be that it’s totally screwed that publishers aren’t keeping food on the plates of literary authors. And as someone who loves, loves, loves, writers and their books, I agree that this situation sucks. Do I wish all my writerly friends could get $200K every four years in order to live well (enough) and have the opportunity to write a genius work during this period? Absolutely. But for that to happen, from a semi-sane economic perspective, they’d have to sell 167,000 copies of each of their books. That’s quite possible if your name ends in Larsson or Franzen, but for most literary writers? Fuck. And. No. Five figure sales are decent for the majority of writers, with quite a few of those 50,000 works of fiction selling far, far fewer copies.
One could (has? will?) write a series of articles about why these sales are so low (blockbuster model, crappy distribution schemes, more attention paid to nonfiction than literary fiction, the Internet, etc., etc.), but the main point is that there’s a fairly direct correlation between sales and an author’s earnings.
And here’s the weird leap in the article: As Trachtenberg points out, royalties for hardcover sales are much higher than those for ebooks. (According to the graph, an author get $4.20 on the sales of a hardcover, $2.27 on an ebook.) This is absolutely true, but the thrust of the article seems to make this some sort of zero-sum game in which the growth of the ebook market will eventually overtake the sales of hardcovers, and suddenly everyone will be twice as poor as they used to be. (Not to sidetrack this already rambling post, but these royalties—15% for hardcover, 25% for ebooks—aren’t standard throughout the industry. Just saying.)
What he doesn’t mention is that a) this has been the case since the existence of paperbacks (numbers I work with: 10% royalties on hardcovers listing for around $25, 7.5% on paperbacks selling for $15, which means an author earns $2.50 for a hardcover sale, and $1.13 for each paperback unit), and that b) this is simply price discrimination with different customers buying different forms of the products at different prices. It’s really not all that uncommon or as catastrophic as it’s being portrayed.
The nagging assumption here is that no one will buy the hardcover if a cheaper ebook is available, thus screwing the entire payment system. That ebooks cannibalize sales. But there’s not a lot of evidence for this yet. I’ve heard a number of anecdotes contradicting this and stating that people who wouldn’t buy the hardcover are buying ebooks (thus expanding the audience), or more disruptive to the WSJ argument, that giving away free ebooks has led to increased sales of the title overall.
If anyone has hard data, send it along. The only thing cited in this piece is that “sales of consumer books peaked in 2008 at 1.63 billion units and is expected to decline to 1.47 this year and 1.43 billion by 2012.” Is the decrease in sales of hardcovers? Trade paperbacks? Mass market titles? And the insane growth in ebooks (estimates that these will make up 20-25% of total unit sales by 2012), is that reflecting only a decrease in sales of hardcovers? Or are these replacing the mass market romances people used to buy? All the data here seems weak and speculative.
I know this is longer than Clarrisa, but quickly, there are two final things I want to say . . . First off, rather than focus on ebook pricing and the
backwards slow-to-adapt struggling publishing industry, we should instead focus on audience development. We simply do not live in a culture that can support 50,000 works of fiction a year on sales alone. Period. If we all paid full price for 100+ novels a year, well then, maybe. [Insert witty joke about the total impossibility of that happening in a culture that still supports American Idol.]
Check this quote from Nan Talese:
“We aren’t seeing a generation of readers coming along that supports writers today the way that young people supported J. D. Salinger and Philip Roth when they were starting out.”
Yep. We aren’t. And probably won’t.
Also, this whole “author’s deserve $50K advances for simply putting words on paper” argument is weird to me. I don’t mean to sound like an elitist, but seriously, of the 50,000 works of fiction published in 2008, how many deserved to be? 20,000? 100? Somewhere in between, surely, but the point is, some books are simply printed, others are works of art that won’t appeal to everyone, and a select few are picked up by the mainstream culture and make tons of money.
I’m a bit touchy about this article because it seems to be attacking indie presses (“they only offered a $3,500 advance! Cheap bastards!”), which is misguided, and because it’s reinforcing a publishing system that is failing. And next week, there will probably be a piece about how Random House’s advances are way too high and that the blockbuster model is ruining our culture. There’s just nothing sane here.
To counteract the latent vituperative bent of this post, I think everyone should check out OR Books. Incredibly innovative, great authors, zero advances, quick turn around time for books, and only selling through their website. This is a different option. It runs counter to everything talked about above, and, if successful, could provide some ideas that other publishers could learn from. Learn and adapt. The answer isn’t always to freak out; sometimes topics deserve reflection and thought, and sometimes there’s a third way to do business.
Today’s feature article at Publishing Perspectives is an interview with Rafi Mohammed about pricing, specifically about the “1% windfall” (increase prices by 1% make $$$$) and “dynamic pricing” for books. Here are a couple choice excerpts:
PP: Author Cory Doctorow has framed this debate as price elasticity versus price discrimination, with Amazon believing that lower prices create more demand and publishers holding on to the belief that differing products released over time maximizes profit. Does this properly characterize the actions these companies have taken?
RM: I disagree with Cory on both accounts. On the Amazon side, price elasticity is about choosing the right price to make the most profit. Amazon has been choosing to sell e-books at a loss for some time. That decision indicates to me a different strategy. Could it be about the profitability of selling devices and taking a loss on the content? Maybe it is about capturing market share while the e-reader market in its infancy and creating lock-in with consumers?
On the publisher side, price discrimination doesn’t exactly describe the choices they are making either. Price discrimination implies that prices fall over time as perceived value of the product falls and the choice by several publishers to create a second window for e-books, their most profitable product, after the release of the hardcover, doesn’t match up. There are again other motives at play. Windowing e-books protects hardcover sales and the retailers that depend on them.
PP: Digital distribution creates a variety of new opportunities for how products can be priced including the price of free. What sort of experimentation should publishers be considering?
Dynamic pricing is the biggest opportunity for publishers. For example, if a new release catches on, the price of the book should be increased. I am not suggesting doubling the price, but adding one or two dollars to the retail price creates a huge impact on the profitability of that title. Hospitality managers change the price of the rooms at their hotels constants to match current demand. Publishers should consider the same.
Yeah, I’ll bet that would be a breeze. And that readers would totally love watching prices fluctuate based on how many times they see someone reading a book on the subway. You could join a book club and pay $2 more for a title than you would’ve had said book club never existed. Dynamic pricing would be a lot simpler with ebooks, especially those sold directly from publisher to reader, but I get a headache just thinking about implementing something like this with print books, bookstores, and wholesalers with constantly fluctuating prices. And looking to the hospitality industry as an example of what publishers should do made me vomit a little bit in my mouth. Next thing you know we’ll all be aping the airline industry and charging extra for the cover or page numbers or some such thing . . .
Today’s Publishing Perspectives article on the forthcoming Argentine ebook market is really interesting. Octavio Kulesz from Teseo delves into some of the difficulties facing Argentine publishers regarding the creation and sale of ebooks, making a case for Argentinean entrepreneurs to come along and save the day.
Therefore, the foundations for the resurrection of the industry have been laid: the users have started to demand online content and the public sector has shown it is ready to meet the industry’s need for new skills and infrastructure. However, as I have tried to point out, traditional publishing houses probably won’t leave their current lethargy — for they cannot do it without jeopardizing the very grounds of their business, which still revolves around paper copies consigned in physical bookstores.
In my opinion, given that the migration of the industry won’t come from analog publishers suddenly becoming digital but from new players joining the game, what we need now is a new generation of digital publishers entering the scene and taking over. This will require a big effort from that cohort, but the attempt will be worth making, since what is at stake is no less than the vitality of the forthcoming Argentinean (e)book industry.
I’ve been fascinated with Argentina since reading Hopscotch fifteen million (or so) years ago, and have been fascinated with the Argentine publishing scene since visiting Buenos Aires on an editor’s trip a few years back. Argentina happens to be the Guest of Honor at Frankfurt this year, and I’m planning on writing a number of stories about the Argentine publishing scene for the Publishing Perspectives Show Daily.
Anyway, you can check out Octavio’s complete article by clicking here.
Last Thursday the publishing news of
month year century broke with the announcement that the Andrew Wylie Literary Agency (one of the largest, most powerful, most intimidated, most unscrupulous literary agencies out there) had launched Odyssey Editions so they could publish ebook editions of a number of backlist titles by the best-selling Wylie represents, such as Midnight’s Children, Invisible Man, Lolita, Portnoy’s Complaint, Borges’s Ficciones, Brideshead Revisited, and many more.
Approximately 5 minutes after this was announced the entire book world went a little bit apeshit.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, although it is sort of a wet dream for anyone really interested in the future of the business of publishing . . . To an outside reader, this might seem pretty mundane—suddenly some famous books are available for the Kindle—but it’s actually a very layered story, the ramifications of which will be playing out for months and months to come.
Maybe the easiest way to unpack this is to go through each of the parties involved and look at their level of pissed. And there’s no better place to start than Random House.
Frequent readers of this blog are most likely aware of my skepticism with regard to the big corporate commercial publishing model. These presses do amazing, fantastic books—immediate case in point is David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet—but I can’t say I’m a big fan of the way they rely on the blockbuster model, on producing more and more books to outrace returns, etc., etc. There’s no need to rehash all the “This is the End of Publishing! We’re all gonna die!” lines of thought, but it’s worth pointing out that ebooks are one of the crucial issues—how much they’ll sell for, what royalties should be, how this could jack a press’s cash flow, and so on.
From a publisher’s perspective, Wylie’s move is pretty much a direct assault. First off, there’s the whole question of whether this is even legal. Prior to the advent of ebooks, contracts would usually assign a publisher the right to “print, publish, and sell the work in book form,” which, pretty typical when it comes to book contracts, is a bit vague. I don’t know exactly what’s in a Random House contract, but obviously royalties rates for hardcover and paperback editions are stated, as are any and all subrights, such as splits for film or foreign sales. But what’s missing from most all of these is any mention of ebooks. Who really knew this would be an issue? And besides, doesn’t “book form” include electronic versions? It’s still a book, right?
At least that’s the line of argument that most publishers try and promote. Little problem is that almost ten years ago, before the Kindle was a glimmer in Jeff Bezos’s eye, Random House filed an injunction against the epublisher Rosetta Books, claiming that Rosetta had violated Random’s rights by publishing e-versions of a number of Random House titles. Unfortunately—for Random—they lost. (Here’s another summary of the case.)
This test case established that unless specifically noted in a contract, an author owns the ebook rights to their works. Therefore, the estates technically control ebook rights for all of these classic titles that Wylie represents, thus allowing him to either a) sell the ebook rights to the highest bidder or b) simply publish them himself.
When I was in France last fall for the study trip, this issue came up once or twice. Our trip took place shortly after Jane Friedman had launched Open Road Media and had bought the ebooks rights to a bunch of William Styron titles out from under Random House. A few of the big publishing people who were on the trip argued that rights situation aside, this was really offensive, since [insert publisher here] made all the original investments to promote these titles and help establish them as “important works.”
And it is true that Wylie is riding a bit on the coattails of those who came before him. Does Odyssey need a marketing budget to promote The Adventures of Augie March? Fuck and no. It’s Saul Bellow for Christ’s sake. Just let people know it exists and that’s good enough. (At the moment the sales ranking for the Odyssey edition of Lolita is #577.)
So, insulted, irritated, and whatever, Random House issued a missive against Wylie, including this awesome section:
The Wylie Agency’s decision to sell e-books exclusively to Amazon for titles which are subject to active Random House agreements undermines our longstanding commitments to and investments in our authors, and it establishes this Agency as our direct competitor. Therefore, regrettably, Random House on a worldwide basis will not be entering into any new English-language business agreements with the Wylie Agency until this situation is resolved.
Maybe New Directions will be able to retain the rights to all the Bolano books they’ve been publishing . . .
Oh, and yeah, if I didn’t mention it before, Odyssey books are only available through Amazon. Which pissed off a few other groups of people, including independent bookstores and readers who don’t use a Kindle.
Michael Orthofer has a great post about this whole situation that touches on the Amazon-exclusive issue. In many ways, this is unfortunate, but whatever. I’m not entirely sure Wylie is really trying to “reach readers” at all—this seems more like a provocation to increase ebook royalties while making a little quick money for some of his big time authors.
On the independent bookstore front, Square Books in Oxford, MS, put together a Wylie World display featuring books that are “not for sale”:
Amazon manufactures a reading device, the “kindle,” which requires its owners to buy digital merchandise exclusively from Amazon – a bit like our selling you books that you could read only by using the bedside lamp you must also purchase from us. And this would be the only way you could read these books. Wylie’s authors’ electronic books will be available only via the kindle, only via Amazon, a soiling of first amendment principles that many of the agency’s authors, such as Arthur Miller and Salman Rushdie, have fought so hard to protect.
As you look at this display, we encourage you to think about the ramifications of this effort to vertically integrate the book industry and limit or exclude access to information and free expression. And, as always, we encourage you to support independent booksellers everywhere. Together we can let books live.
Again, not breaking news that indie stores are in trouble and that ebooks are disruptive to their (struggling) business model as well. But this display illustrates the level of pissed that’s going on at both of the key players in this deal. Publishers have their own issues with Amazon and seem a bit more focused on Wylie, the rights issue, the possibility that other agents could do something similar . . .
Or, other agents could at least start demanding higher royalty rates for ebooks. Enter stage right—the Authors Guild, who issued an interesting statement that has four main points: 1) yes yes yes authors control their ebook rights and publishers can suck it, 2) it’s scary when an agent becomes a publisher, 3) exclusive deal with Amazon equals bad, and 4) this is all a result of stingy publishers:
To a large extent, publishers have brought this on themselves. This storm has long been gathering. Literary agencies have refused to sign e-rights deals for countless backlist books with traditional publishers, even though they and their clients, no doubt, see real benefits in having a single publisher handle the print and electronic rights to a book. Knowledgeable authors and agents, however, are well aware that e-book royalty rates of 25% of net proceeds are exceedingly low and contrary to the long-standing practice of authors and publishers to, effectively, split evenly the net proceeds of book sales.
Bargain-basement e-book royalty rates will not last. Low e-book royalty rates will, as e-book sales become increasingly important, emerge as a dealbreaker for authors with negotiating leverage. Publishers will, inevitably, agree to reasonable royalties rather than lose their bestselling authors to more generous rivals and startups. We suspect publishers are well aware of this and are postponing the unavoidable because it seems to make sense in the short run. We believe this is short-sighted.
(My absolute favorite line from this release: “A major agency starting a publishing company is weird, no matter how you look at it.” Yeah. Totally weird.)
Who knows what’s really going to happen with all of this. As Boyd Tonkin stated in this post, “Wylie aims to provoke, and to annoy. He has done both.” These ebook concerns have been brewing for a long time (the Rosetta thing is ten years old, the Authors Guild has been bitching about ebook royalties for years), and it’s interesting to see that Wylie’s forced the issue now, a couple weeks before the entire publishing industry tends to shut down, only to emerge in the pre-Frankfurt build-up . . .
In the end, I’m more fascinated by this whole situation that concerned about it. It does totally suck that we don’t have ebook rights to most of our titles—mainly because foreign publishers were really reluctant to include these in a pre-Kindle world—and that now the agents have a bit more power in terms of negotiating with us over these rights. It sucks that I sort of respect Wylie for throwing down the gauntlet and livening up the whole ebook debate. It sucks that I don’t have time to reread Lolita (although I would read the actual paperback edition).
But it’s great that this publishing kerfuffle lead to the creation of the
EvilWylie and GoodRandomHouse twitter accounts. Not the funniest of twitter accounts, but still, it’s fun to see tweets like this:
EvilWylie Thank you for following! Evil Wylie has granted you exclusive rights to turnJaneFriedman’s tweets into a musical.
EvilWylie even sent one directly to me . . . After grumbling about how stupid Arizona is as a state and baseball team for trading Dan Haren to the Angels (he should've come back to the Cardinals), I was informed that EvilWylie had negotiated that deal. Bastard!
This PW article by Judith Rosen actually came out last, but I got so busy with life—and the BTBA longlist write-ups—that I never had a chance to post about it . . .
Entitled “Indie Presses Find a Home on Campuses,” the piece focuses on the handful of presses located on university campuses, what the advantages are the presses and the universities, and how this model functions.
When South End Press relocated from Cambridge, Mass., to the Brooklyn campus of Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York last fall, it joined a handful of presses that have formed partnerships with universities. In some cases, these presses have been launched by academic institutions, which have created such imprints as Open Letter at the University of Rochester or Apprentice House at Loyola University in Baltimore. No matter the ownership, these houses more closely resemble indie presses like Akashic Books than traditional university presses with their more scholarly bent and editorial boards. [. . .]
Campus presses can strengthen existing academic and outreach programs as well as assist universities in developing new ones. When poetry publisher Alice James Books began forging what has grown into a 15-year relationship with the University of Maine at Farmington, it coincided with the university’s decision to offer a B.F.A. in creative writing. “The B.F.A. program existed a few years before Alice James came along, but we were fairly close on the heels, and definitely helped shape the program into what it is today,” said executive director Carey Salerno. This summer the press will participate in a new University of Maine at Farmington program for younger students, a weeklong writing camp for high schoolers.
There’s a section about Open Letter, Three Percent, and the University of Rochester’s translation programs as well, pointing out the various ways the Press and academic programs are intertwined.
It’s interesting to me how many non-university presses there are at universities these days—including a few that I wasn’t previously aware of, such as Ahsahta Press and Apprentice House. There’s a long article that could be written here about the fall of the current publishing model and how this arrangement offers hope for the future of literary publishing. . . . But that’s for another day. In the meantime, one book that really gets into this issue, and is definitely worth checking out, is The Business of Books by Andre Schiffrin.
So guess what’s not pictured above in the image of the brand new iPad and its crucial apps? IBooks, the “magical bullet” that’s going to “save” the publishing industry . . .
OK, so I’ll admit upfront that I was more than a bit skeptical about the iPad/Tablet/Slate before the lackluster (at least by liveblogging standards) Apple presentation this morning. I figured this would be one crazy-ass device that would allow you to do basically anything and everything you wanted anytime and everywhere you wanted. You could talk on the phone while surfing for new music. You could play video games while reading Moby-Dick. You could text while e-mailing. Crazy. Shit.
If you’ve been even somewhere near awake over the past few months, you’ve most likely been inundated with the hype and holler about how Apple’s
“mystery” “magical” device is going to change the world. And most importantly to everyone I hang with: Fix the Publishing Industry.
See, e-books are a tricky thing. I’ve written in the past about the promise and problems of e-books. (In summary: you can reach virtually everyone solving some significant printing and distribution problems, but damn, is that new way going to be co-opted, and pricing models are essentially screwed due to our supply-demand dynamics and the lure of $9.99.) But that’s not really what I want to talk about here. What I’m more concerned with re: the iPad is the all-in hope that the big publishers have that Apple and its overgrown iPhone will change the world and allow them to continue publishing in the way they’ve always been publishing with a model that’s decades out of date.
There are two elements driving the hope the big presses (Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Penguin) have in Apple: better terms than Amazon.com and the coolness factor.
The first is a pure money issue. Publishers hate Amazon.com’s $9.99 price (even though Amazon.com pays out to publishers at whatever price publishers set their e-books at, occasionally losing money on the sale of these e-titles in hopes of capturing a larger market while pleasing cheap-ass customers like myself who would never pay more than $10 for what’s essentially a glorified .doc file) and the fact that Amazon.com has all the control and gives publishers only 50% of the revenues from sales of the e-books (same as what they give for sales of physical books, but let’s all ignore that for the moment). Apple on the other hand is like a godsend to commercial presses: you can set your own prices! and Apple will only take 30% of each sale! This translates into $$$$$!!!!!
If only it were that simple . . . I don’t have the necessary data or mental capacity (at the moment, at the moment) to crunch all the numbers, but my guess is that getting 20% and jacking prices a bit doesn’t really end up resolving all the cash flow and cost issues plaguing publishers. It’s a help, definitely, but it only delays the inevitable realization that a model based in publishing more faster to outrun returns is essentially doomed when people don’t buy that many books.
And there’s part two of the “Apple Will Save Us” argument: that the uber-cool of the iWTFever will create demand. That, like the iPod, this new device will totally turn the hipsters onto reading eBooks. Really? Who believes this? Listening to music does not equal reading a book.
But let’s go for it a second and witness the incapacitating neuroses that plagues book publishing today.
To recap: A huge part of the grand hope in the Apple “magical” (how many times did this come up in the Apple presentation? Like a million? And since when is technology magical? What kind of paradoxical shit is that?) is that suddenly, thanks to the vision of Steve Jobs and the genius of Apple designers, an audience will be created that suddenly craves books. This is some god-like shit going down. From the barren landscape of gamers will rise a whole new generation of book nerds. Uh, OK.
These were the hopes going into this morning’s sermon on the mount. And in a way, they’re both naive and enthusiastically optimistic. Who doesn’t want to believe that Apple can revolutionize reading? If this “magical” device got kids hip to Open Letter books, I’d buy in. Fully. And if all my friends could keep their jobs because the revenue split suddenly tipped a bit—even better.
But the device? Well . . . I think we can all universally agree that the presentation was more than a little underwhelming. There was no big game-changing feature. Nothing you absolutely need but didn’t know about beforehand. Basically, this seems to be one big, powerful iPhone sans phone capabilities, camera, easily usable keyboard, multitasking capability . . .
Although the iBooks store may well have been the key new announcement, a lot of the focus on the gadget comment blogs was about the video—both for TV/movie-watching and for gaming. This is a bit iTouch with a cooler graphics processor and the possibility for some fierce video games.
I’ve been trying to figure out all day who exactly this device is for. I’ve read some convincing accounts about how this appeals to the general, non-tech-savvy web surfer who just wants to chill with a touch screen and doesn’t care about limited memory capacity and the way this device resides uncomfortably between a portable smartphone and an actual computer.
Will e-book connoisseur jump at the chance to pay
$499 $800 and $30/month to download e-books that can turn pages at the whisk of a fingertip? Time will tell, but I’m going to place my bets on “No.” It’s not portable enough, useful enough, or cheap enough to even come close to tempting me. And I desperately want to embrace the e-book world.
Who will use the iPad? All the teenage gamers who love the iTouch. It’s slightly more expensive, but a way cooler device. Bigger. BIGGER. And more colorful.
So good luck with all that. All props to Random House for staying out of the game for the time being, although I wonder if that’s because of some iPad doubt, or if it’s more about the epub format that Apple’s using. Cause lockdown Apple security be damned, if those books on iBooks are in epub format, book piracy is about to spike like never before. Which I still believe is good for the future adoption and cottoning onto of eBooks, but I can’t imagine any of the big presses are psyched to see that happen.
But what’s really insane to me is that the publishing industry is so blind to its shortcomings. Instead of trying to create a demand in good, interesting books that people want to read, they’re hoping some overly slick device will create that interest for them. And that way they can keep publishing heaps of drivel and not deal with the fact that they’ve lost touch with
reality readers and the ability to reach and cultivate an audience for books. When you need a third party’s device—a device in which the function most pertinent to you is like the third or fourth coolest thing about said device—when you need that device, that magical device to save you from yourself, you are fucked.
Cool device? Sure. Innovative? Meh. Magical? No.
Maybe I’ll be wrong. Shit, I hope I’m wrong. But if I had one of these things—and I read a hundred plus pages every day—and had the choice between video, gaming, and books, I’ll tell you what I ain’t going to choose . . .
On the surface, the op-ed piece that FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi wrote for the Tiimes this past weekend seems pretty mundane. His main point seems to be that good editors at good publishing houses make good books better. Or more directly: publishers do more than simply print and sell books. They have special knowledge about book-world things that not many other people have.
All that is true. Absolutely. And I don’t think anyone would really argue with that. (We all know the value of a great editor, right? And although authors will bitch—they always bitch—about the amount of publicity their publicist is getting them, I doubt more than a handful of authors would really enjoy all the legwork that goes into pitching a book to reviewers, arranging a tour, etc.)
Even Galassi’s conclusion feels a bit tautological:
In this increasingly virtual age of open access and universal availability, it’s important for readers to keep in mind what it is that a publisher does for an author. A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.
An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created. In this way, e-books are no different from large-print or paperback or audio versions. They are simply the latest link in an unbroken editorial chain, the newest format for one of man’s greatest inventions: the constantly evolving, imperishable book — given its definitive form by a publisher.
(Although I must admit, I’m a bit confused by the closing line. Is “man’s greatest invention” an imperishable book as produced by the publisher or simply an imperishable book? Is this some chicken-and-egg zen thing? Like there is no book that presupposes a publisher?)
To the general reader, this op-ed piece might not sound like much. But this is actually a pretty well-crafted statement about a couple of touchy e-book/future of publishing issues.
First off, in the very first paragraph, Galassi brings up the situation regarding the e-book version of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. In case you’re not familiar with the behind-the-scenes positioning related to this, the basic story is that although Random House is the publisher of the print version of Sophie’s Choice, Jane Friedman of Open Road Integrated Media (and formerly of HarperCollins), bought up the e-rights and this will be one of the first e-books she publishes.
In response, Random House issued a blanket statement claiming that the “book and volume publishing rights” in their standard pre-e-everything contracts actually included e-book rights, thereby preventing estates from selling off e-book rights to some other publishers. Er, in Galassi lingo, “e-book distributor.”
Rather than jump into this legal fray and try and make a claim that, like the constitution, these old-school contracts are totally open to interpretation and subtle time-adjustments, Galassi instead appeals to the logic that without a great editor (and publicist and sales force and and and), Styron wouldn’t have been known for shit, and thus Random House should be the one to benefit from his success—in whatever form that takes. Remember, there would be no e-book if there weren’t first a print publisher.
This argument is definitely appealing. No one likes to think that they could do all the ground work on something only to have a third-party come along and profit off of your hard work and expertise. And the subtle move of making Open Road a e-distributor is kind of brilliant. In the court of public opinion, Galassi’s scoring some major points here.
And although it may not be as explicit, I also think you could read this piece as the beginnings of an argument about how e-books should cost the same as a print version. After all, the amount of editorial expertise and work that goes into producing an e-book is the same as what goes into the print version . . .
E-book pricing and rights issues are the 2010 battlegrounds, and this is a great foundation-laying piece for one side of the argument. Galassi is one of the best publishers in the business (and I say that not just because of his on-going commitment to literature in translation), and a pretty brilliant guy. And I know that I would be seriously pissed if someone came along and bought the e-rights to some of our books right out from under us and managed to make
thousands hundreds tens of dollars off of Kindle sales.
That said, the business world is the business world, and where there’s an opportunity to make money, someone is going to step in and exploit it. It’s the American Way. Right? And as sick as pure capitalism makes me, it only seems fair that authors have the right to benefit through new sales of their work that have opened up due to technological advances. Maybe if Random House, FSG, and the like offer their authors an incentive (a new advance just for the e-book sales?), the estates wouldn’t be tempted to sell the rights to an e-book distributor . . . Simply laying down a claim to these rights—solid argument and all—feels just a bit totalitarian and creepy.
Then again, that’s why/how these companies are making millions of dollars in profit every year . . .
Michael Orthofer has complained in the past about the crappy format of World Literature Today online, and he’s absolutely right. WLT (along with the Review of Contemporary Fiction, another publication resisting the online world) is one of the most interesting magazines being published today concerned with international literature.
Unfortunately, since so little of its content is available online—and what is available is in an odd format—it doesn’t get near as much play as it could from other bloggers, etc. In a way, WLT would be an awesome test case on the power of “free” . . . if they gave away more content, would they actually lose subscribers? Or would the probably increase in links to WLT, discussions about articles, etc., lead to an increase in attention and people willing to pay for the print version?
Ah well. Anyway, the new January/February 2010 issue is now available, and the few articles online are really interesting. There’s a piece on Japanese noir writer Natsuo Kirino, three poems from “Emerging Author” Jorge Galan, and pieces on Taiwanese and Korean literature.
Worth checking out . . . even if you have to pay for it.
Every time I feel like I’ve said all I really want to say about e-books and digital revolution (see all of these pieces from my recent trip to Paris), some crazy announcement or other is made, feathers are ruffled, barbs are traded, and I feel the insane itch to comment . . . And no matter how much I try and resist (just look away from the Simon & Schuster/Amazon.com pissing contest, just walk away), I always feel like I’m sucked back in.
This time it’s two separate and seemingly unrelated articles that got me to thinking about e-book release dates. First, from the Wall Street Journal:
Simon & Schuster is delaying by four months the electronic-book editions of about 35 leading titles coming out early next year, taking a dramatic stand against the cut-rate $9.99 pricing of e-book best sellers.
A second publisher, Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group, said it has similar plans in the works.
“The right place for the e-book is after the hardcover but before the paperback,” said Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS Corp. “We believe some people will be disappointed. But with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”
I’m sure any and all regular readers of this blog already know where this is going. There’s no point in focusing on the “predatory pricing” tactics of Amazon.com in this particular post. (Tactics which sound pretty similar to the “predatory pricing” tactics of the big box stores a few years back, but wtf? those price cuts helped corporate publishers to consolidate and expand, so there wasn’t nearly the same amount of hand-wringing as there is when a tactic starts to nibble at their bottom-line. I’m not making any judgments about Amazon.com or B&N or Borders or the business of bookselling as a whole, but fuck me does this whole thing sound hypocritical. To pull from my favorite bag of sports cliches—winning makes all problems go away. But once you start losing, it’s time to point fingers . . . And in this recession, big publishers are making the Detroit Lions look legit.)
But I can’t resist making fun of this: “with new [electronic] readers coming and sales booming, we need to do this now, before the installed base of e-book reading devices gets to a size where doing it would be impossible.”
Yeah. Booming sales of e-books is a huge problem. Everyday publishers lament the fact that readers are buying their books. That activity must be nipped in the bud!
OK, to stop being facetious for a second: clearly Carolyn Reidy doesn’t hate the people who buy S&S titles, she hates the fact that they won’t pay the inflated hardcover prices that have kept this industry afloat and static for the past X number of decades. Those bastards! If these sales continued to expand, no one would be paying $29 for a 400-page book of questionable worth. And then S&S would have to figure out how to cut costs, how to publish more successfully, etc., etc. And that would suck. For Carolyn Reidy. So instead, she wants to at least delay you e-book readers from getting your e-book when you want it.
This decision follows a pretty standard model: You can see the movie at the theater now, or wait 9 months for the DVD; you can buy the hardcover now, or wait a year for the paperback.
You can buy the physical CD now, or wait . . . crap—that analogy doesn’t work. Wonder why . . .
The big gamble here is that readers value immediacy over price. That you want a book so bad that you’re willing to pay an extra $12-18 to get it rightnow instead of waiting four months for the discounted e-version. And that there’s no clear differentiation between p-book readers (god I hate that term, but whatever) and e-book readers.
Which could be totally wrong.
I don’t know how much market research S&S has done on e-book readers (I’ll guess zero, but who knows, maybe they polled their own employees), but it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which there is a group of readers who have invested $250+ in an e-reading device and only want to buy e-books, and a different group of readers who only like to collect hardcovers, and a third group that will always wait for the paperback. (I fall into that category.)
If this is the case, and if e-books are booming, and if the people who read e-books help spread the word about titles they read and love to other readers who fall into one of these three categories, than S&S maybe handcuffing their own sales by preventing books from achieving their maximum sales velocity when released.
Just imagine if a CD came out, then we all waited four months to buy it through iTunes. Most of the reviews and publicity would take place at one point in time, whereas a massive amount of sales would happen at another. There’s a real disconnect here between marketing efforts and word-of-mouth, but whatever, Reidy gets paid the big bucks to make money for shareholders and increase the bottom line, not to increase the access readers have to great literature.
Over the weekend, Margo Rabb wrote an interesting essay for the New York Times called Steal These Books about which titles are most often stolen from bookstores. There’s one paragraph in particular that caught my attention:
But this doesn’t mean that every reader is contributing to the bottom line. Only 40 percent of books that are read are paid for, and only 28 percent are purchased new, said Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry. The rest are shared, borrowed, given away — or stolen.
Those are some fascinating statistics, especially in relation to how we conceive of e-book readers. Granted, this is in relation to books that are actually read and we know most publishers really only care about books that are sold (a fine, but financially crucial distinction), but it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the e-book world.
One reason publishers are so jacked with optimism for an e-book future (as long as it conforms to their present ideas re: pricing, DRM, etc.) is because it will allow them to cut down on all of this “borrowing” and “giving away” of books. Things will inevitably change, but for now, the idea of being able to sell a e-version to every single person who wants to read the book, jacking these percentages way, way up just through technological limitations, is very appealing. To some people.
Not sure how long this has been available online, but you can now download a lot of the presentations from the inaugural Tools of Change Frankfurt conference.
Lot of interesting ones, including:
In my spare time [sic], I’ve been reading Ted Striphas’s very interesting The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, which was released by Columbia University Press earlier this year, and very thoughtfully reviewed by Richard Nash in the most recent issue of The Critical Flame. At some point, I hope to write a review of this as well—it’s a very well-done book, with a number of interesting points about the development of the book industry and the relationship between publishers, booksellers, and readers.
On the bus this morning, I read a bit about the Cheney Report (named after its author Orion Howard Cheney) that seemed very appropriate for this blog. The so-called Cheney Report was commissioned by the National Association of Book Publishers (NABP) after the stock market crash of 1929 to get a better handle on what was going on in the book industry at the time. I’ll let Striphas take it away:
After fifteen months of exhaustive research on Cheney’s part—and a comparable degree of nervous anticipation on the part of the NABP—the 150,000 word Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-1931 (Cheney Report) was published in early January 1932. The eminent sociologist Robert Lynd assayed it in the Saturday Review of Literature, concluding that “it blows the lid off the book industry.” Indeed, the report was incisive and unrelenting in its criticisms of every aspect of the book industry and beyond. Cheney blasted publishers and booksellers for relying on intuition to guide important business, editorial, and purchasing decision rather than operating on a scientifically sound, statistically driven “fact basis.” He disparaged editors and publishers for their lack of creativity in developing the talents of first-time authors and scolded them for “murdering” potentially successful titles by releasing them into a field already so overcrowded that they simply “cannibalized” one another. Cheney was troubled by the lack of uniformity in the size and materials of printed books, which, he believed, drove up manufacturing costs unnecessarily. He chided advertisers adn book critics for generating insufficient interest in books and consequently for failing to help readers make informed decisions about what to buy. He condemned librarians for overstocking popular fiction and (like the booksellers) for making practically no effort at systematically studying the interests and reading habits of their clientele. Cheney even lambasted “uninspiring teachers” for their “unsound teaching methods,” which, he believed, resulted in their failure to stimulate adequate interest in reading among students ranging from preschool to college.
His big beef was with distribution methods, and the long-term impact of this study (creation of ISBNs and bar codes) is pretty impressive. Although I’m the first to object to business school people implementing their “economic science” on anything artistic (or even publishing), I do love this typical publisher response to the study:
Despite Cheney’s claim to have produced the report “in a spirit of objective sympathy,” his pedantry, harsh criticism, and acerbic tone seem to have gotten the better of him. The document generated what’s best described as a mixed yet largely defensive response from book industry insiders.
The situation is more complicated these days than it was in 1932 (pre-Internet, pre-superstore, pre-decline in newspaper book coverage), it’s curious how many of these problems still plague the industry today . . .
Anyone who’s met me knows that I can, on occasion, speak a bit fast. Almost incomprehensibly fast. Especially if English isn’t your first language . . . This “talent” kind of came in handy at the 21st Century Publishing Symposium at the Reykjavik International Literary Festival last week. The symposium was extremely interesting, with presentations by Kristjan B. Jonasson on the Future of Icelandic Publishing (I did a video interview with him that will run at Publishing Perspectives later this week), Heiko Strunk on Lyrikline.org, Helga Frese-Resch on finding and publishing literature in translation, and Alexander Schwarz on e-books.
I somehow managed to fit the bulk of my speech (which is probably 45 minutes long spoken at a normal, understandable clip) into about 20 minutes . . . So, for the benefit of anyone who attended the symposium and couldn’t understand a word I said, or anyone in general interested in the future of e-books and literature in translation, click here to download a pdf version of the entire presentation.
In terms of the Festival—I am writing a longer piece about it for Publishing Perspectives, and will post another update later today about some of the interesting authors I met in Iceland. And hopefully I’ll even have a few samples to run over the next few weeks . . .
In the meantime, enjoy this picture of a bone in the prison cells in the basement of the President of Iceland’s house. (I’m just going to let that statement stand as is for the time being.)
PW‘s Soapbox pieces can be a bit hit-or-miss, but the one this week from Douglas Rushkoff (author of several books, including Life, Inc., which, along with Gaddis’s JR, should be mandatory reading for all business school students) is pretty fantastic.
There’s nothing particularly new in Rushkoff’s depiction of what’s happened to the book industry, but it’s always good to be reminded of how the corporate structure has screwed with culture in such an insidious way (Andre Schiffrin’s The Business of Books also offers a great look at how the corporate consolidation went down):
Publishing is a sustainable industry—and a great one at that. The book business, however, was never a good fit for today’s corporate behemoths. The corporations that went on spending sprees in the 1980s and ’90s were not truly interested in the art of publishing. These conglomerates, from Time Warner to Vivendi, are really just holding companies. They service their shareholders by servicing debt more rapidly than they accrue it. Their businesses are really just the stories they use to garner more investment capital. In order to continue leveraging debt, they need to demonstrate growth. The problem is that media, especially books, can’t offer enough organic growth—people can only read so many books from so many authors.
So begins consolidation. In order to achieve the growth shareholders demand but the businesses can’t supply, corporations embark upon mergers and acquisitions, even though, in the long run, nearly 80% of all mergers and acquisitions fail to create value for either party. [. . .]
The same thinking led the conglomerates to hone in on publishing. Top-heavy, centralized bureaucracies know how to work with a B&N better than with a Cody’s or a Spring Street Books. And they applied their generic corporate management to a ragtag crew of book nerds, most of whom wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—know a balance sheet if their lives depended on it. Finally, unable to grow as fast as their debt structures demanded, these corporations have resorted to slashing expenses.
This we already know. (Some of my friends know this more personally and directly than others.) But what I like about Rushkoff’s piece is his optimism about the future:
The good news is that much of this talent—book editors, publicists and sellers—is ready to rebuild what Wall Street has seen fit to destroy. Book enthusiasts are not giving up. I get e-mails constantly from editors asking if I’m interested in writing books for their new, independent publishing houses. Many offer smaller advances but higher royalties and more attention to details—like the quality of my writing. I also get correspondence from people opening independent bookstores in the shadows of vacant outlets, stores that would be happy with a hundredth of the sales volume that made their larger counterparts unsustainable.
Behind the bad news, there is much to look forward to. Our industry has for too long favored those skilled at negotiating the corporate ladder and punished those who simply publish great books. Now that publishing has revealed itself to be a bad growth industry, it is free to rebuild itself as the vibrant, scaled and sustainable business the reading public can support.
Right on! Book lovers of the world, unite!
But seriously, I think there really is something to this. Look at all the great new presses and bookstores—mostly started by relatively young people with a lot of passion and energy. For any number of reasons—struggles of corporate publishing, e-books, implosion of chain retail stores, etc.—the next few years should be very interesting. (Although I can already see the comment below about how none of this matters since everyone spends all their time online instead of reading and kids hate books and etc., etc.)
Very interesting speech from Richard Nash on the future of publishing and the need for publishers and readers to be more connected:
(Some Twitterer mentioned that Richard seemed a bit like Tom Cruise in Magnolia . . . I can see that.)
The recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has a really interesting piece by Peter J. Dougherty—director of Princeton University Press—on the future of academic publishing. Rather than lament the slow, never-ending death of print, he takes a different approach:
And while university presses grapple with the economic and technological challenges now affecting how we publish our books — the subject of a thousand and one AAUP conference sessions, e-mail-list debates, and news articles — discussion of what we publish seems to have taken a back seat. And understandably so. Why obsess about content if books as we know them are about to become obsolete in favor of some yet-to-evolve form? Has creative destruction spelled the end of books?
He argues that scholarly publishing has two distinct advantages over its competitors: 1) “books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments” and 2) “university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas.”
From there he proceeds to lay out four components of a “content revolution” that would progress in parallel to the ongoing “delivery revolution”:
First, include on our lists more titles from the burgeoning professional disciplines: engineering, law, medicine, architecture, business, the graphic arts, and the information sciences. Those fields are driving the growth of our host universities while redefining the limits of culture in new and exciting ways.
Second, become much more purposeful and assertive in publishing books that define whole fields, including important advanced textbooks. University-press editors would add depth and ballast to their lists by looking for that next great advanced text in our traditional fields, such as social theory, comparative literature, or art history, as well as in emerging fields. That kind of publishing is often dismissed as cookie cutter, but it’s not.
Third, publish more books for worldwide readerships. As the globalization of knowledge continues apace, American university presses are positioned to engage readers in ways unimagined a generation ago. By infusing our lists with titles of international interest, we can better exploit the technologies that bring the world closer to us.
Fourth, work more closely with departments and centers within our host universities to adapt their work — sponsored lecture series, etc. — into books, monograph series, and other such initiatives. We should be planning our future lists strategically within our host universities in order to maximize the relative strengths of press and campus alike.
It’s a very interesting article that doesn’t necessarily address the larger financial issues that are dragging down university presses, but it is forward-thinking in terms of what sorts of things UPs should/could be publishing. But I can’t imagine many humanities scholars are going to like the suggestion to publish more books on “professional disciplines,” but his attempt to quell potential critics is interesting:
I am not suggesting that university presses should abandon or even reduce our commitment to traditional humanities fields. History, literature, art, politics, and philosophy form the core of university-press publishing, and always will. However, by integrating more technical subject matter into our publishing, we can add color and depth to our lists. The mere introduction of new ideas into the culture of university-press publishing would add vigor to our operations while inspiring in editors in the humanities and social sciences new exciting cross-disciplinary books. Books, better than any other literary form, can speak to the ever-widening chasms that define the modern, intellectually diverse research university. We should embrace the challenge.
Last week, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, Jenn Northington, Stephanie Anderson, and other independent booksellers started a conversation about the benefits of eARCs—electronic versions of the Advance Reading Copies all publishers send out to reviewers, booksellers, bloggers, etc.
My complete post about this can be found here, but the main impulse behind this idea is that a) ARCs are expensive and wasteful, and b) for booksellers (or reviewers) who receive 50+ books a week, an e-reader makes a lot more sense than hauling around all these titles. (For someone who likes to ride his bike to work, I’ll attest to the fact that these galleys can seem heavier than frickin’ gold at times.)
Over at GalleyCat, Jeff breaks down the galley costs for commercial publishers to demonstrate that a one-time investment could save them millions:
Let’s face it, all the major publishers are pretty much sending their galleys out to the same reviewers year after year. That’s why, if the reviewers’ offices are anything like mine, they have a good stack of 100-150 books coming in every week (no exaggeration) from every major, mini-major and independent publisher.
This is where the “saving the $1.5 million a year” comes in to play. If all the publishers are sending their galleys to the same 1000 reviewers, why don’t they send everyone an eReader.
“But (gasp) Jeff, that would cost too much money!”
Would it? Would it, really?
Let’s examine the costs:
x $1/ U.P.S. mailing cost
x 375 titles/year
$1.5 million /year
That’s $1.5 million a year the average major publisher is spending printing and mailing out to the same 1000 reviewers every year.
Now, let’s examine how much it would cost to mail each reviewer all a Kindle, including shipping costs.
x $400 /Kindle
x $0 / galley
x $0 / U.P.S. galley mailing costs
x 375 titles/year
That’s $400,000 the first year and not one penny more year after year.
This doesn’t even take into account the fact that the $400,000 could be split by any number of publishers or publisher associations, thus saving even more than the $1.1 million in the first year.
I hate to play the pessimist, but I’m sure that until the big publishers figure out a DRM scheme that they’re happy with (sounds like 2001 all over again), they’re not going to want to go ahead with this sort of idea.
And although I have my concerns about how the rise of e-books will play out in the marketplace, I do think that in an industry where shipping companies are the only ones that ever seem to make any money, something like this makes a great deal of sense.
Putting aside the environmental, financial, and promotional advantages to sending eARCs to independent booksellers, the one paragraph of Jessica Stockton Bagnulo’s post that troubled me was this:
I think for a lot of booksellers right now, the idea of an e-reader provokes growls of hostility because it’s associated with the Kindle, which is a proprietary platform sold and administered by Amazon, our primary competitor. We indies can’t sell ebooks for the Kindle, so if readers buy a Kindle it means, on some level, lost sales for us. But the Kindle is not the only e-reader, nor even necessarily the best! The Sony Reader, the iPhone, the Google phone, and other electronic devices can also be used to read ebooks — and those platforms are wide open for ebook sales from indie bookstores, provided our ecommerce technology is up to par.
Just as we have to educate our customers (and ourselves) that Amazon is not the only option for buying online, we’ll have to make some efforts to make sure those who want to read ebooks know that they have options besides the Kindle, and that they can still “read indie while reading e” (feel free to steal that tagline). And ebook-reading booksellers are the perfect group to start spreading that word, to make sure that we can make ebooks a part of our business model rather than just more competition.
This all sounds good, but I’ve yet to see a realistic, functional business plan for an independent bookstore that incorporates the selling of e-books. Or even beyond that, a plan that even accounts for the attrition of book sales due to an increase in ebook popularity.
Independent bookstores run on such a small margin that if sales of e-books reach a certain level, I think bookstores are going to have to go through a transformation to stay in business, but I honestly can’t figure out what the end result of this transformation would look like.
The “bundling” idea—which Bob Miller of HarperStudio—is one that’s been talked about a lot. Basically, a reader could buy a book from a store, and then for an additional $2-$5 get a code to download the e-version of that same book.
Personally I doubt that I would ever do this, but some people might, and it’s not a bad way of incorporating bookstores into the equation.
That said, I think it’s foolish to overlook the draw of immediacy that e-books/readers will have over the mass readership in America. Americans are pretty impulsive people, and the idea that a book (or album, or whatever) could come up in conversation, and within one minute — without even leaving your barstool — you could purchase and download that book/album/movie is like crack to most of us.
If e-books do become a preferred way or reading — due to price, availability, the coolness of the e-reading gadget, etc. — then why would you ever go into a bookstore? To browse the physical books that you’ll then download through your e-reader for half the price? That’s not a viable bookstore business model.
Some people have also floated the idea of indie bookstores selling e-versions through their website, which, in my opinion, is beyond impractical. Most indie stores have very rudimentary e-commerce sites, despite the fact that people have been selling things online for decades . . . That’s probably not going to change if these same stores start selling e-books for download through their sites.
Sure, one can pretend that loyal customers will still purchase a download through their local store because they love it so much, but a) most customers aren’t loyal and b) unless that purchase can happen immediately and wirelessly (a la buying a book with a Kindle), it’s just simply not going to work.
Besides, a viable business model for e-reader creators is to include a “e-store” that’s wirelessly linked to the reader itself, allowing users a seamless interface between wanting a book and purchasing it, and Amazon/Sony gets to keep the profit from sales of the reader and sales of the book. Win-win . . . for everyone but bookstores.
I know that even if e-book sales expand, physical books will still exist. It’s not that which worries me. It’s the idea that with enough book sales turning electronic and occurring outside of bookstore, the miniscule margins keeping booksellers afloat will vanish . . .
So, maybe I’m missing something. Or maybe someone out there has a brilliant concept of what bookstores will look like in an e-reading future. Either way, feel free to e-mail (chad.post at rochester dot edu) or post your comments below. And I’m sure I’ll write more about this topic later . . .
I have to visit a graduate seminar later today to talk about e-books and the future of the publishing industry, so the impact e-books will have (or rather, are having) on publishing structures (like indie bookstores) has been very much on my mind the past few days, so finding Jessica Stockton Bagnulo’s post about recent discussions among smart indie booksellers about e-readers was absolutely perfect.
Jessica’s main focus in her post is on replacing traditonal print advanced reading copies with e-version—something that makes a lot of logistical sense to me. The unit cost for printing galleys is more than the unit cost for the finished book, and (for small presses at least) it’s quite an expense to print and mail even just 250 ARCs of a book. Not to mention that these 250 copies have a pretty weak reach. A huge proportion go to reviewers who never review the book anyway, with only a handful ending up with enthusiastic booksellers.
And from a bookseller’s perspective, not having to receive and carry around tons of heavy books makes a lot of sense:
Here’s the next most important issue: E-readers make sense for people who read in massive quantities. Many of our sales reps are already reading on Sony readers, and it makes sense for booksellers too. We’ll all most likely still be reading plenty of pbooks (that’s print, or “real” books), but since it’s in our job description to read widely and quickly, carrying around many on one device makes sense.
This sentiment is echoed in Jenn Northington’s modest proposal, in which she presents this idea:
my initial idea was pretty basic: publishers provide a small group of booksellers, who they already send loads of arcs to, with an e-reader. then, they make those ARCs available as, say, pdfs to download. the bookseller, in exchange for the e-reader, agrees to read x number of ARCs from those publishers per season.
Which also sounds reasonable, especially if the upfront costs were split by a number of groups: a consortium of publishers (big and small), the American Bookselling Association, Sony (I doubt Amazon would be a welcome partner in this, and Apple is too full of itself to see any gain from engaging with booksellers in this way), and possibly the bookstores themselves (like $10/reader to demonstrate a commitment to the project).
Jenn lists a ton of the pros and cons to this idea, with “increased access to ARCs for booksellers” being the pro that’s most appealing to me.
There are a number of other indie booksellers writing about this same idea, including Stephanie Anderson from WORD, Rich Rennicks of Malaprop’s, Arsen Kashkashian of Boulder Bookstore, and Patrick from Vroman’s.
And just for the record, NetGalley was designed as an interface for publishers to distribute e-galleys to reviewers and booksellers and other “professional readers.” From what I’ve heard (I have yet to use the service), it’s pretty solid, the only problem being that there’s a per galley charge to publishers, something that indie e-ARC idea wouldn’t necessarily include. And NetGalley (at least for now) only allows you to read the books on your personal computer, which works against the inherent transportability of a physical book or an e-reader.
Anyway, I think the eARC idea is a complete winner, and I really hope this moves beyond the conceptual stage . . . I’d be happy to send 1,000 eARCs of Open Letter books to booksellers across the country.
I think the bigger problem for a press like ours is to try and get booksellers to pick up our books when a Corporate Rep is visiting these same booksellers every few weeks, telling them about THE NEXT BIG THING from Conglomerate X that will be EVERYWHERE next week and that ALL the customers will be talking about. (Sorry—maybe I should start a unnecessary CAPS blog.) But that’s the case now, and by distributing way more e-versions of a book, there’s a much better chance that some bookseller will “pick up” one of our eARCs and get excited about it. (I think that’s a necessary quote.) Although this is one of my big concerns for our e-book future—whether or not e-books in general will make it easier for small presses like ours to directly reach readers/reviewers/booksellers, or if the old systems will dominate even more than they do now thanks to their money and their extensive infrastructures, making it even more difficult than ever to break through the marketplace noise than it is now. More on that in Part II . . .
Over at MediumAtLarge, Lance Fensterman has started a short series of posts entitled “Who Is BEA?” on what BookExpo America is and how it should evolve.
Ultimately I believe the event’s success is measured by the demand and buzz publishers create for their book(s) and how meaningfully they impact the people that impact book sales in our market. Did the publisher put themselves in a position to create more buzz for it’s books by participating in BEA than if they’d stayed home watched 30 Rock and ate potato chips?
If that is indeed the ultimate test of BEA’s value to publishers – “making” books – then how will the show continue to hone it’s offerings and identity to foster that? I offer a few broad themes that BEA needs to continue to evolve to, embrace and execute:
- Touch the books and meet the authors
- All the shows a stage
- Think outside the light box
- Create new media buzz (but where?)
- Influence the influencers (From Part I)
In the second post, he looks more specifically at the first three points, which all focus (more or less) on the presence of authors at the fair and the interaction between these authors and booksellers, librarians, members of the media, etc. For example:
Think Outside The Light Box – Stages built by BEA to highlight authors is more a stop along the way than a final destination towards a more engaging and media friendly event. Ultimately, the big booths themselves need to be questioned and reexamined. BEA is working with a few key exhibitors to fundamentally alter the way they approach exhibiting at BEA. I give the example of the Marvel booth at New York Comic Con or San Diego Comic-Con. The booth is a wide open space surrounded by large hanging banners (for promotion and a clear delineation of where the “booth” is), signing stations along the edge for creators to interact with fans, a PA system, some flat screens running promos and the days schedule and a stage where interviews and creator talks take place. The booth is jammed. Always. Marvel understands that they, their sales catalog or the staffers are not what people are there to see. They are there to meet the writers, the artists and to see what is new and hot – how better to do that in real life instead of in a flyer or a catalog. They put there most important assets forward – the creators and there products. We need to work with BEA exhibitors to think out side the light box (the author book jacket blown up and put inside a lighted box hanging from the booth) and put the authors up front whenever relevant.
Overall, it seems like Lance is pushing for BEA to be more “interactive” (for lack of a better term). Less passive (“Hi, would you like a catalog?”) and more active in terms of creating buzz via actual interactions between actual people.
Part III should be available online on Wednesday. And if you’re interested, here’s my take on BEA and its evolution.
He may have resigned from Soft Skull, but as evidenced in a recent post, at his personal blog—always a source of great erudition and entertainment—Richard Nash still has a lot to say about the business of publishing, the so-called “death of the book,” etc.:
People, the book will live on with the publishing business!!! That is not really what is changing, and to the extent that it might be, it will only be because the writers and the readers want it to.
The book isn’t in trouble, it’s that everyone who takes some of the money that a consumer pays for an author’s content need to re-justify their share and not assume that because they used to get that % they still in fact deserve that %. And I sense too many people hiding behind the notion that this has something to do with grandiose cultural notions about the life and death of the book rather than more quotidian concerns about the vision and competence of individuals populating this business.
On one extreme, booksellers, wholesalers, sales reps, publicists, editors, and agents could all fail to make a good case for a piece of the action; another extreme is that they all succeed in making that case. Unsurprisingly, I think it will likely be somewhere in the middle—some intermediaries are likely to be necessary, others not. I firmly believe that people with the talent to persuasively communicate the merits of cultural content are going to do immensely well in the future (and, depending on their inclinations, immense could mean lots money, or lots high-brow authority, or both, or something else immense entirely) and I suspect that people who are now publishers’ sales reps, and indie booksellers, and publicists, and so forth will number amongst those.
Who exactly, and structured in which way, that’s what remains to be seen. But the book is fine. Focus on connect writers and readers and you won’t have to ask for whom the bell is tolling.
Right on. The problems the industry is going through at the moment isn’t due to the product itself (the book), but with the model.
Sad to see one of my favorite publishing people leave their job, but based on his post on Soft Skull’s blog I’m actually encouraged about his future:
When I explained to my colleagues yesterday that I would be consulting and freelancing, some were concerned this was a euphemism for leaving publishing. It is anything but. For me, my departure is actually about my passionate belief in the future of publishing, in the future of community built around long-form edited narrative texts, in the future of connecting writers and readers, in a Web 3.0 that’s about the filters. I’m going to take this opportunity to go even deeper into publishing, to double-down, to go all in . . .
Richard is extremely intelligent, and having talked to him at length about the future of publishing, I have high hopes for all of his future projects.
Scott Esposito’s series on independent presses in the recession continues with a look at Coffee House and its founder, Allan Kornblum:
SE: How sensitive is Coffee House to unexpected changes in grants and donations? For instance, if some of your expected grants got stuck in limbo due to budget cuts and freezes, would this force you to postpone titles?
AK: At one point Coffee House income was 60% donated and 40% earned. During the last two years, those percentages have flipped—not because of a drop in donated (which has been flat) but because of an increase in earned income. I know we’re in a world-wide recession—it’s not just a US problem. But between US sales and translation rights sales, we think we can continue to build on our recent growth in earned income. But whenever I say things like that, I have to remind myself and my listener that you have to have an “optimism gene” somewhere in your emotional make-up to be a publisher. I try to cock my head, get some distance, and coldly evaluate our books and the marketplace, and I think I’ve done that and I still think we can continue to improve our earned income. Time will tell if the idealistic part of my personality has fooled my realistic side. But to answer your question—for the moment, we believe we will be able to live up to all the commitments we’ve made to authors. If the recession drags on longer than anticipated, we’ll have to reassess our resources and our plans.
And his bit about the difference between corporate publishers and presses like Coffee House is spot on:
As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good. Survival is a key part of serving the public good, but we’re not under pressure to make the same kind of margins as a for-profit house must make to serve both of its missions. And expectations are different—our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings. And we don’t get into pissing contests with our peers, bidding up celebrity memoirs so a competitor won’t get it. But all that being said, we’re all at the mercy of the moods of the booksellers.
Today’s Publishers Weekly Daily included a pretty big announcement about the future of BookExpo America, which includes some significant changes, and some interesting/disturbing implications.
First off, the specific changes:
The annual meeting, set for New York May 29-31, will now also be held at New York’s Javits Center through 2012, a decision that scraps plans to hold BEA in Washington, D.C. in 2010 and in Las Vegas in 2011. And beginning next year, Reed will hold the convention entirely during the week under a compressed schedule.
While there have been no changes to the 2009 show, starting in 2010 BEA will run from Tuesday through Thursday, rather than its current configuration which begins with an education day on Thursday followed by exhibition hours running from Friday through Sunday.
And in terms of a public day:
“At this point, BEA is not looking to involve consumers in the show per se,” said [Lance] Fensterman. “However, we are interested in those people who influence book sales within the general population via channels that perhaps did not exist five years ago. So, in the short term, our focus will be on exploring initiatives to bring such influencers into the event but not the general population of consumers. This strategy may take on several different forms as it evolves but with only minor steps in 2009.”
Lance is a friend, a really sharp guy, and one of the people responsible for the New York Comic Con, which took place last week and was enormously successful.
More on NYCC in a minute, but what I find weird about these changes is that they essentially make BEA more insular than it’s been in the past, rather than letting the expo evolve into something more dynamic and crucial to book culture.
Initially BEA (the trade show formerly known as ABA, short for American Booksellers Association) was a show primarily for and about booksellers. That’s changed a bit over time—publishers don’t take that many bookstore orders at the show, and as a result they cater a bit more toward reviewers, to generating hype. Fewer booksellers seem to walk the exhibition hall each year—which makes sense, since more publishers will be targeting them and sending catalogs, review copies, etc., to all these stores anyway—and instead spend more time at the panels and education seminars.
Beyond BEA though, most booksellers I talk to are really big on the Winter Institute, a separate show that’s only attended by fellow booksellers and a handful of publishers with enough cash to sponsor an event. (The imbalance of this and the disconnect between independent booksellers and independent publishers is a topic for a different post.)
Although everyone loves a publishing party, BEA seems to be becoming less and less important to booksellers as Winter Institute grows in stature. Which is great—the idea of having a huge show to hand out catalogs that you’ll bring to a store a week later does seem a bit redundant and wasteful.
By keeping BEA in the most expensive city in America for the next three years, I suspect that bookseller attendance will start (or continue?) to wane. And the stores in New York City? Probably the ones that benefit the least from a show like BEA since they’re right in the thick of things day-in, day-out.
So if the Winter Institute is more bookseller-centric, BEA should (in theory) be more publisher-centric. Which is sort of is. The best aspect of BEA is that it offers a chance for people from all parts of the book industry to get together, to talk excitedly about books, to exchange ideas in a lively, friendly environment.
And that’s great, although the amount of money, time, effort spent on this as attendance (from all sides) wanes, is starting to drag on the show. Too much time is spent writing about how foot-traffic on the exhibition hall seems slower than usual, that there’s no breakout book, that it may not be worth sending so many people next year, etc., etc. I mean, publishing people can be pretty whiny, but for an event that should be a celebration—for most it’s a chance to prove we’ve made it another year—it would be good if the focus was on all the great, energizing things that came out of BEA.
Basically, I think the expo needs to evolve, to become reenergized and essential, especially to publishers. And the best way I think that could happen is by starting to open this up to the public. Readers are the one segment of book culture that’s not at all represented at the fair, and also the one segment that we’re all supposedly in business for and because.
Almost every major book fair throughout the world—Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi, the Buenos Aires book fair (which is open on some nights till 4am!)—are open to the public at times. It’s a chance for publishers to get readers excited about upcoming books, and to sell some backlist titles that aren’t readily available in stores.
I suspect the big presses, the Simon & Schusters, would hate this idea, mainly because they really want to keep customers at arms length and love the insularity of an event that’s easy (in town), and attended primarily by businesses that they already deal with. (Customers are just messy.) And I’m sure this attitude has no effect on their recent struggles.
It seems really shortsighted, and quite frankly, dangerous, to resist some more progressive change for BEA . . . With a new focal point, BEA could become an even better show, and on that serves a very real—and hopefully profitable—purpose. This changes announced today, show that Reed Exhibitions is looking at the now defunct BEA Canada and trying to make adjustments to keep BEA relevant and alive, but these modifications just don’t go far enough.
(My sneaking suspicion is that allowing “influentials” into BEA—readers who tell other readers about books! what a concept!—is a way of getting big publishers to admit that there might be some benefit to letting in some part of the public. Baby steps, baby steps . . . Blow that door open Lance! Every reader is a potential influential!)
Granted, there’s a big difference between fan culture (like for comics or anime or whatever) and a literary reader, but nevertheless, there are interesting lessons to learn from reports about the NY Comic Con. Just a sampling:
The country may be reeling from the worst economy in years but you couldn’t tell it from the tens of thousands of fans pouring into the Jacob Javits Center for the fourth annual New York Comic-con this past weekend. The show opened on Friday afternoon to a respectable crowd after a morning of trade and professional presentations, but the fans showed up in force on Saturday—a sell-out for the day was announced on Friday—and the Javits Center was a beehive of enthusiasm and commerce. Reed Exhibitions v-p and NYCC show manager Lance Fensterman said this year’s show drew nearly 77,000 fans, up from the 67,000 attendees last year.
That’s more than a 15% increase in attendance . . . during a recession. Speaking of sales:
The logline for the show is definitely “What recession?” More than one person referred to the con as an “escape” from the realities of unemployment, and global deflation. Indeed, though many — The Beat included — feared that vendor sales would be dismal at the show, everyone we spoke with directly has had better than expected sales, and from the busy, bustling mood on the floor, you’d never know that January’s job numbers are going to be horrific.
Huh. You let people in, let them enjoy the work you’re doing, and they buy it—who would’ve thought?
Just to beat a dying horse, at the current time, there’s no possible way to register to attend BEA as a book lover. If you’re an “author” you need an ISBN. If you’re a “educator” you need to provide your principal’s name.
But for NY Comic Con, “consumers/fans” can get in for the whole weekend for $60, or for a single day for $40 (or $50). So, 77,000 paid approx. $4 million to Reed to attend the fair. That’s 77,000 people who attending presumably to buy comic books and graphic novels, and who are likely to spread the word about what they saw/bought/read to others. To recap: they spent considerable money to attend, spent money in the show, and then told others to spend money. (And I’ll assume a lot of people got really excited about one project or another and is currently spreading the word . . . )
There’s no way this would happen for BEA, but if it did? If 77,000 people showed up to talk about and buy books? Wouldn’t that be the sort of activity that could help increase reading in America? Isn’t that what we’re all in this business for?
(One quick note: booksellers might object to the idea of publishers selling directly to customers in this grand, publicized fashion. I think there are ways to work this out, maybe even benefit bookstores—like giving out sample chapters of a forthcoming book with a refund coupon for x% off if the reader buys the book at an independent bookstore—but this post is way, way too long already.)
The latest entry in Scott Esposito’s fascinating series of interviews with independent publishers about publishing during a recession is now available online. This time he talks with Richard Nash, publisher of Soft Skull, and one of the smartest (and most articulate) people in the field when it comes to talking about the business of books.
Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?
Richard Nash: There are several distinct things going on at once. The first is the macro-economic problem which is indeed giving cause for gloom as it has caused a serious drop on aggregate adult trade book sales, greater than any recession heretofore.
The second is the shift on what media consumers purchase, and how they consume it, occurring for books, music, television and film—because it is the smallest of those industries, and because its technology—the printed book—was the most robust and fine-tuned of the analog technologies, it is only know we’re starting to see the impact. And the impact is currently less on the industry itself; it’s more that the cumulative effect of the changes from other industries, chiefly the amount of content consumed online, is drawing people away from the printed book format. The shift can be cause for gloom if you’re of the handwringing temperament, but it is far more an opportunity to rid the publishing business of a lot of cant and laziness and arrogance.
The third is the effect of all the other, non-consumer-facing change sin technology, especially that of supply chain management, in combination with the above two trends. Basically, retailers and wholesalers have been rapidly shifting risk from themselves back onto the publisher. Retailers order fewer and fewer copies of each book, believing that if the book is a failure, they’ll be stuck with less slow-moving inventory, and if it is a success the publisher can just reprint and ship them more. Retailers and wholesalers share less of the burden of printing books on spec., the publisher ever more. This has been especially hard on independent publishers, without the capital/cash flow to be doing extra lower profit margin printings of the book, and getting stuck with higher initial units costs because they’re printing 2500 copies rather than 3500 copies of an average title. The macroeconomic situation has made this worse, and the collapse in music sales (pace the second observation) has hurt retailers like Tower, Virgin, Borders, putting more pressure on the books to perform . . . This phenomenon is cause for gloom, though it has been going on for years and won’t stop really until there’s been a significant shift to digital download of books, and to subscriptions for direct-to—consumer physical books.
And his comments about Anita Elberse’s article on the blockbuster model and how this model will play out over time are both hilarious and accurate:
RN: Oh she’s really not done much research—she’s only looked at the corporate model, and developed theories about what works on their system. Which is self-fulfilling, since their system is designed to work that model. It’s really quite dense. Almost hare-brained. [. . .]
Corporate houses were already shifting to publishing fewer titles, and the recession will accelerate that process. They will continue to follow Elberse’s model, which will cause them to become smaller and smaller companies, since chasing blockbusters has never worked in books except one or two years out of every four or five, when they’re lucky. There will be layoffs in all the down years, which will be the majority, until they’re really just backlists with a sporadic hit factory attached.
All of Scott’s interviews are really interesting, in part because there does seem to be a greater awareness among independent presses about how things are changing and about what business models/strategies need to be instituted in order to survive and continue serving the reading public.
This article in the Christian Science Monitor about e-books and indie presses is fantastic for showing how smaller presses are more proactive when it comes to e-anything.
But it’s not the bigger houses, such as Macmillan or HarperCollins, that are moving the fastest. Instead, some of the most extensive restructuring efforts are being undertaken in the independent publishing world, traditionally a hotbed for innovation and experimentation.
Last month, in a much-trumpeted example, New York’s Soft Skull Press announced it would begin to move its entire catalog online. Richard Nash, Soft Skull’s publisher, tells the Monitor, “The aim is to have every one of our front- and back-list books available [digitally] by the end of the year.” (Heavily illustrated books, which are very expensive and unwieldy to convert, will likely be the exception.) If successful, it would be a feat unmatched by any corporate publisher.
And the reasoning why places like Akashic and Soft Skull are getting things done online before the bigger publishers is a sentiment often repeated on this blog:
“In general, I’d say the big publishers tend to be really dinosaurs, intrigued by e-books but afraid of them,” says Paul Biba, the coeditor of Teleread, a leading e-book blog. “[Younger readers] have grown up with a whole different way of looking at the world, and I don’t think many publishers understand this. They think people are just sitting down in leather chairs and reading hardcopy books.”
In some important ways, the infrastructure of a typical independent press is better suited to a digital transition than its corporate counterparts. Smaller staffs mean decisions can be made quickly, without much internal friction. And editors and writers are often more open-minded when it comes to distribution and marketing. As the publishing world undergoes its most radical changes in centuries, the fast and light ethos could be an asset.
And on the other end of the spectrum, it’s equally cool that Matvei Yankelevich from Ugly Duckling Presse is quoted as saying
that many followers of independent publishers have an emotional attachment to the printed word. “I don’t think,” Mr. Yankelevich says, “that people who are reading poetry, for example, would buy that poetry in e-book form. They might read a sample of the poem online, though, and that might put books in the hands of the audiences. It’s more a question of opportunity.”
If you’ve ever picked up an Ugly Duckling book, you’ll know why Matvei is “emotionally attached” to print—their books are stunning, with great texture and a very unique look and feel. And the quality is great as well, which is why UDP has a couple finalists on the Best Translated Book of 2008 award for poetry.
(I have to admit, it’s great to be able to point to an article that includes three of my favorite presses . . . )
It’s probably not the best strategy to wait until things start to implode to talk about flaws in a particular business model (*cough* investment banking cough auto industry cough), but now that the publishing industry is falling apart it seems like there has been an enormous number of articles about what’s wrong with the system, what’s going to happen in the future, etc., etc. The latest is Lev Grossman’s “Books Unbound” summary in Time.
Pretty good overview, and when he puts it like this, it really does seem like our industry is totally back-asswards:
Publishing has deeper, more systemic problems, like the fact that its business model evolved during an earlier fiscal era. It’s an antique, a financial coelacanth that dates back to the Depression.
Consider the advance system, whereby a publisher pays an author a nonreturnable up-front fee for a book. If the book doesn’t “earn out,” in the industry parlance, the publisher simply eats the cost. Another example: publishers sell books to bookstores on a consignment system, which means the stores can return unsold books to publishers for a full refund. Publishers suck up the shipping costs both ways, plus the expense of printing and then pulping the merchandise. “They print way more than they know they can sell, to kind of create a buzz, and then they end up taking half those books back,” says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of PW. These systems were created to shift risk away from authors and bookstores and onto publishers. But risk is something the publishing industry is less and less able to bear.
If you think about it, shipping physical books back and forth across the country is starting to seem pretty 20th century.
I swear, the only ones who really wins in this game are UPS and FedEx. It’s not like stores make money by paying someone to order too many books and then pull them from the shelves and ship them back, and it certainly doesn’t help publishers or authors . . .
There’s a lot more that can be said about what’s wrong with the current model, but Lev goes one step further and paints a picture of what the “new publishing” will look like:
In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But Genova and Barry and Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn’t serving. We can read in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one—an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too.
So if the economic and technological changes of the 18th century gave rise to the modern novel, what’s the 21st century giving us? Well, we’ve gone from industrialized printing to electronic replication so cheap, fast and easy, it greases the skids of literary production to the point of frictionlessness. From a modern capitalist marketplace, we’ve moved to a postmodern, postcapitalist bazaar where money is increasingly optional. And in place of a newly minted literate middle class, we now have a global audience of billions, with a literacy rate of 82% and rising.
Put these pieces together, and the picture begins to resolve itself: more books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City’s entrenched publishing culture. Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.
There’s more to this issue that I could possibly unpack in a paragraph, but it seems to me that the publishers most well suited to this sort of “riotous jungle” are the ones that have a particular vision, that inspire public trust, and that are most interactive with their readers. More crassly put—the publishers that have a strong brand. Which is funny since for years publishers have been claiming that books don’t work this way, that there isn’t a brand awareness or allegiance among readers. (And there probably isn’t when you’re talking about wide-and-low general publishers.)
This also represents the sort of paradigm shift that Richard Nash likes to talk about—that publisher need to evolve from the current business-to-business model to a business-to-consumer model. I think that concept is at the heart of what’s going on in publishing these days, and although I don’t think publishing or reading or books will ever end, it’s easy to envision a time in which book culture has evolved in a way that’s not exactly like Lev’s vision, but is much more in that direction than how things function now.
Over at Urban Elitist, David Nygren has put together a description of what a e-book only publishing house could look like. I think David would be the first to admit that this model is neither fully complete or the only possible model, but it’s an interesting scheme, and one that ties into the world view that Lev Grossman recently put forth.
Here are a few of David’s points:
- eBooks only (or mostly).
- The publisher accepts authors, not manuscripts.
- Therefore, authors can publish whatever they feel is necessary: something book-length, something article-length, a short story, a paragraph, a sentence, a poem, a play, a script or a rant. Fiction or non-fiction. Finished or not finished. The idea is not to create and package “books” but rather to create a forum and content delivery system for quality writing that will appeal to a certain type of reader. Think of it almost like a hybrid book/magazine publisher.
- Most content is free.
- Most revenue is ad-based. The publisher and the author share revenue from ads on the author’s home page and pages with the author’s content. If content is downloaded to a reading device, it still has the ads. Use either a pay-per-click or pay-per-impression model.
- Readers can purchase subscriptions to a publisher or to an author. When they do, they get ad-free content and perhaps some value-added content (if such a thing exists). I know, this sounds like Salon.com circa 2004, but just try it and see.
- Update: Readers can also purchase ad-free content by the unit, rather than buy subscription.
- It’s not really ebook only. Readers who want to order print-on-demand cheap paperbacks or beautifully well-made hardcovers can do so and pay properly for the privilege. If readers want something, the publisher should gladly take their money for it, at a profit (shared with the author).
Who knows how well this would work (one commenter complains about the ads, claiming that we already have too many in our lives; Wowio has been successful with this, but I wonder how appealing advertising in books like this would be to companies), but it’s an interesting project. And one that involves no bookstore component . . . something that scares me, if this model were ever the dominant model. But that might be more of my fault for clinging to old viewpoints. Perhaps what’s necessary is a corollary scheme laying out what a bookstore (or maybe “book center”?) could look like.
The future of publishing is a hobby-horse of mine, and I’m always excited to find someone else — like David Nygren at Urban Elitist — writing long, intelligent articles about this topic.
A lot of his ideas will be familiar to frequent readers of this blog, but the way he describes the situation is insightful and interesting. One bit that really caught my eye was about “gatekeepers”:
Other Gatekeepers: There will be many more publishers, and perhaps many more books, than there are currently, so people will still want some official stamp of approval before spending money and time on a book (even if it’s an e-book that can be obtained for free or for far less than a printed book). I expect the rise of “super readers,” such as Oprah has become (though not on that scale). Each super reader will have his or her own following. Many of them will be mini-tyrants, but at least the power will have moved from the profit-centered board room to those who truly care about and appreciate the content. As we have currently, various reading groups, online review journals and bloggers will also drive readers to content that might otherwise have been ignored.
The December Issue of the Frankfurt Book Fair Newsletter is now available online and includes a number of interesting pieces.
The article on the 10th Anniversary of the German Book Office, which highlights the difficulties of getting German titles published in English translation and the job the GBO is doing to make this happen is interesting if for nothing else than Lorin Stein’s quote that “In America the market for translated literature is—almost without exception—the most sophisticated readership we have.”
The article on creating networks of young publishers focuses on the Society of Young Publishers and the German young publishers groups and the desire to create a large “international network for young publishers—from Iceland to the Arab world.” According to this piece there will be an exploratory meeting at this year’s London Book Fair and BookExpo America, with a first event to take place at next fall’s Frankfurt Book Fair.
With my obsession about the future of publishing though, the thing that really caught my eye is this ongoing series about the future of the industry around the world. Right now there are pieces from the U.S., China, Germany, South Africa, and the Arab World, and there are more in the works for future newsletters. I’m a big fan of this series, especially since each entry/region is pretty distinct in its approach and thoughts about the future. A series definitely worth checking out and keeping an eye on.
_This is the eleventh and final part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here, or collected in a single pdf file.
On a more personal level, editors—real, living breathing people, not just the faceless corporation—can reach individual readers in an extremely cheap, effective way. By creating Facebook groups to crowdsource parties, such as what Lorin Stein did for Bolaño’s 2666, or writing personal blogs about books and publishing, editors and independent presses can start to build alliances with readers who believe in what the press is doing.
One of the biggest growth areas—maybe the only growth area—in publishing is in the realm of graphic novels. Again, there are a lot of reasons for this, but one significant reason is the fact that graphic novels (and comic books more broadly) have always cultivated a fan culture in which readers interact closely with the publishers, writers, artists, etc. In our “web 2.0” world, interaction is key, and people who feel engaged with a project or organization are much more likely to do the sorts of things that will spread the word and increase sales and readership. As demonstrated by the success of BzzAgent—a word of mouth company that mobilizes hundreds of unpaid “BzzAgents” to spread the word about new products—word of mouth marketing is extremely effective. The more people who love what you’re doing and feel like they’re helping you to do it, the more they’ll get other people involved, and the more successful you’ll be.
It’s not a complicated concept, but one that sleek, savvy small presses are more likely to capitalize on than amorphous, nondescript commercial houses. Indies also have a chance to leap ahead in terms of using e-books to reach readers. With a loyal fan base and authors who aren’t looking to make millions off their intellectual property, independent presses can play around with the current models, giving away free e-books or selling them at a very low price, all in the interest of generating excitement about a particular author or work.
It was clear to me when HarperCollins announced a special iPhone tool allowing people to access excerpts of HC books by visiting the Harper website on their phone that the big presses are insanely out of touch. The activities of the Institute for the Future of the Book, such as their collaborative online reading of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, or their theorizing about how presses could be structured in a world where content is completely free, are much more cutting edge than what the big houses are doing.
One other thing worth mentioning is the nonprofit model and recent variations on it. Since the revenue stream for nonprofits is diversified—usually about 50% from sales, 50% from donations—these houses are more protected than other presses when the bottom falls out of the market. Granted, foundation giving is slowing up for the time being, but individuals are still donating. And individuals who understand the value of what nonprofit publishers do will continue to donate and help these presses through these rough times. Furthermore, collaborations between nonprofit presses and universities has proven to be very advantageous to both parties, giving the press additional, crucial resources, and giving the university new educational opportunities for its students.
With independent, nonprofit, and university presses doing most of the literature in translation, there’s a chance for the sales of translations to continue to grow in the coming years. As the industry retracts and readers of the literary community consolidate, translated literature could come to the fore, attracting new readers. And as more presses like Melville House, Archipelago, Europa Editions, Counterpath, Ugly Duckling, Graywolf, and Open Letter come onto the scene with reasonable expectations and a willingness to experiment with new ways of reaching readers and new models for how to survive and fulfill one’s mission, the literary world might not be as bleak as some might think.
This is the tenth part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. This is the penultimate part of the series . . .
Currently the marketplace is dominated by the idea that books should be enjoyable and useful, an entertainment alternative equivalent to watching TV or surfing the Internet. But, to be honest, books aren’t as immediately gratifying as a TV show. People who really read, who buy lots of books, are often attracted to the unique things the medium has to offer that goes beyond simple amusement. This discrepancy between books as simple entertainment and books as unique medium could be one of the reasons behind the dismal numbers reported in the NEA Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read reports, which found that in 2006, 15-34 year olds spent less than 10 minutes a day reading for pleasure. And that between 1985 and 2005, household spending on books fell by 14% when adjusted for inflation.
Independents driven by an editorial vision—houses like New Directions, Archipelago, Europa Editions—are in a better position because they aren’t trying to appeal to an enormous range of pleasure seekers, but are engaging with an active audience that is dedicated to the idea of serious literature. These houses are “deep” publishers doing a lot of books within a certain aesthetic range. Commercial presses ten to be very horizontal—publishing a few titles from a huge range of categories. Most importantly though, is the genuine desire to connect with their audience.
Despite having all the necessary resources and reach, commercial houses have historically been pretty bad at truly engaging with their audience. The websites for HarperCollins and Random House are aesthetically disastrous, and have little that draws a reader back or starts an electronic “relationship” with its fans. You may find excerpts and basic book data on the site, but you’ll also find an Obama book next to a cooking book next to a Michael Crichton thriller. There’s not much of a voice present on these sites, and there’s definitely not a sense of community. It’s as if the commercial publishers can only view readers as clients rather than supporters.
This idea that a press partners with its readers rather than simply treating them as customers is a concept that I believe will shape the future of publishing. For ages publishers have cut themselves off from their readers. For instance, the general public isn’t allowed to attend Book Expo, since publishers only want to deal with people in the industry. And the chain linking an editor with a reader is enormous, stretching from the author to agent to editor to sales department to wholesaler to bookstore buyer to bookseller to reader.
There are two main reasons that I think the iPod has been such a cultural force (aside from the “cool” factor): it isolates the user and makes him feel like a unique individual, while providing the listener with a greater freedom of choice than ever before. Parallel to the rise of the iPod and its message of individuality, social networking sites allowing people to connect and share information and recommendations have become more and more popular as well. Each of these innovations allows creators and producers to directly interact with “customers.” This combination of individual enjoyment, the empowerment of nearly unlimited choice, and instant access to a community of like-minded people is incredibly powerful and, in my opinion, is the setting the publishing industry should cultivate to engage and energize a large group of readers willing to explore and enjoy all types of literature.
This is the ninth part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. There are still a number of parts left to post, but these should all be up before the end of the month.
Stage Four: What Happens Next?
Although it seems that everything is doomed (remember what I said about publishing folks?), I believe that amid all this chaos, potential or otherwise, there are reasons to believe that independent publishers, booksellers, and works in translation all could thrive.
Assuming Borders doesn’t make it, or at least a significant shrinkage in chain stores, an opportunity will open up for independent bookstores to make a comeback. For years these stores have been battered out of business due to the volume discounts, enormous floor space, and nationwide branding efforts of the major chains. But at this time, when, thanks in part to the greed that destroyed the financial sector, people are focusing more on “buying local,” independent bookstores can fight back. There have been a number of studies on the economic impact of buying books from a local store, including one conducted last year in San Francisco that found that a 10% increase in book sales in the local market would result in increased economic input of $3.8 million, 25 additional jobs, and $325,000 in additional retail activity. These arguments should appeal to a larger segment of customers than usual during this current/forthcoming recession. In the wake of a Borders collapse there would be a lot of underserved book communities where a niche store could step in and succeed.
One reason indie stores could make it in this sort of climate is the modest nature of their business model. Rather than try and be everything to everyone, stores with specific identities that are integrated into the local community—like St. Mark’s, City Lights, McNally Jackson, Shaman Drum—tend to succeed by cultivating and serving a specific group of loyal customers. Additionally, a number of stores are playing around with the idea of becoming nonprofits. Shaman Drum is transforming into the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center and expanding its community activities and offerings. The indie store as literary center is the antithesis of the box store, and exactly what we need in our world today.
In terms of niche marketing, Amazon UK recently announced a “Literature in Translation” store highlighting works of international authors and presses that publish a lot of translations. This isn’t dissimilar from the annual Reading the World program in which independent bookstores display a host of translated titles in order to draw the attention of readers to the wealth of great books that are available from writers born outside of our borders. This sort of niche marketing—or not even marketing, just providing information about a particular type of book—is highly effective and can make a big difference sales.
It might seems self-serving (or self-delusional), but I think that independents on the whole—nonprofits publishers especially—are in a better position to weather this storm than anyone else. I’ve long believed that the role indies play in book culture would continue to grow in the future, mainly because these presses are branded, they have a particular mission and vision, and their expectations are modest enough to allow for them to publish “real” literature instead of books that seem profitable.
This is the eighth part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. There are still a number of parts left to post, but these should all be up before the end of the month.
The most frightening news of recent times involves the Borders chain. In March, Borders put itself up for sale and had to borrow $42.5 million Pershing Square Capital Management. Borders couldn’t find a buyer, and as a result, had to issue warrants to its largest shareholder, giving Pershing Square even more control of the company. And if that wasn’t bad enough, along comes the financial collapse, and Borders Group Stock falls from $7.80 to $2.44.
A couple weeks ago, Borders issued a memo to Independent Publishers Group, stating that Borders would “not be paying [IPG] for two months due to anticipated excessive returns.” Borders claims to have cash on hand and access to credit, but this is a very frightening message for the entire book world, sending a message about Borders long-term stability. And of course, the independent presses are the first to have to deal with this non-payment . . .
If Borders were to go bankrupt—and this is still an if—it would be one of the greatest catastrophes to hit the publishing world in decades. Even after liquidating as much stock as possible, publishers would receive massive returns, millions of dollars would be lost, and going forward, publishers would have 1,100 fewer stores to sell to.
Even worse, without a Borders store next door, a lot of B&N outlets would become superfluous. B&N could easily close down a number of stores to improve their financial standing, reducing sales outlets even further.
A lot will depend on the upcoming holiday sales season, about which there have been mixed predictions. To some, books are the perfect gift. Lasting, thoughtful, and most important in our economic crisis, relatively cheap. Random House recently launched a campaign to promote just this idea. Books=Gifts started last week and in the near future the New Yorker will do an e-mail blast to 25 million newsletter recipients pushing this message.
Meanwhile, Motoko Rich of the New York Times wrote an article for the November 11th paper about the market’s nervousness. Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio already sent a memo predicting a horrible shopping season, and HarperCollins just reported that first-quarter operating income plummeted from $36 million last year to $3 million in 2008. And a lot of people are expecting a serious downturn in January, regardless of what happens in the next six weeks. Bookstores are already cutting orders, and presses are trimming print runs.
Borders closing and a downturn in sales adds up to a doomsday scenario in which commercial houses are buried in inventory and bad debt, and have to cut costs severely (including personnel) to try and rebuild. A lot of independent presses could just go away overnight. And Barnes & Noble and Amazon would have a lot of power over publishing houses, allowing them to essentially set whatever terms of sale they desire.
Motoko Rich’s piece in yesterday’s New York Times points out the crazy extremes of the book business in these times, comparing Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s “temporary” acquisitions freeze with the situation at Hachette:
As first reported by Publishers Lunch, an industry newsletter, Hachette is giving bonuses equal to one week’s salary to every employee in the company, in addition to the regular bonuses for which staff members are eligible.
Why is this possible?
On the surface these twin pieces of news would seem to suggest that success in the book industry, as with other forms of entertainment, is increasingly dependent on the production of major hits, works that are so successful that they can support a family of less successful siblings. David Young, chairman and chief executive of Hachette Book Group, said that the company had racked up 104 New York Times best sellers this year.
Once upon a time, some publishers suggested, they could cultivate under-the-radar authors and slowly build an audience for them over several books. Now, with few exceptions, books tend to come out of the gate at the top of the best-seller list or be deemed failures.
Sounds somewhat like the essay I’ve been serializing . . . The best quote in the article—well, if you’re a bit self-deprecating and ironic—is this one:
“It is seriously going to be a time for known commodities,” said Esther Newberg, a literary agent who represents blockbuster authors like the thriller writers Patricia Cornwell and Linda Fairstein and Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The Times. “I would hate to be starting out in the business.”
Uh, shit. At least the foreign authors we’re publishing are household names, you know? Like Ricardas Gavelis . . . Or, um, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, both of whom are destined to be Oprah Book Club pics. (Did I mention how an Open Letter subscription makes a great holiday gift?)
Actually, Motoko loaded this piece with great quotes:
“I cannot conceive of ever saying, ‘We’re not buying more books,’ ” said David Shanks, chief executive of Penguin Group USA, another publisher that has had a decent year with successful titles like Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual guide A New Earth and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, which has continued its best-seller status on the paperback list. “You might as well put up a sign saying, ‘We’re out of business.’ ”
This is the seventh part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. There are still a number of parts left to post, but these should all be up before the end of the month.
Stage Three: Financial Collapse, the Borders Situation, Distribution, and Other Bad News
Over the past few years—and the past few weeks—a number of events have occurred that have shaken up the industry as a whole. Some are more severe and immediate than others, but each event is shaping what the future publishing world will look like.
Even if you’re not a consummate reader, it’s been hard to miss the steady decline in book review coverage. Across the country newspapers (facing their own set of challenges) have been laying off book review staff in favor of running much cheaper syndicated reviews, such as those from the Associated Press. In the past year, a number of standalone books sections — including the L.A. Times Book Review — have been folded back into the paper. Book review editors such as Teresa Weaver at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Oscar Villalon at the San Francisco Chronicle have lost their positions. The New York Sun, which, for all its crazy off-the-wall editorial opinions had one of the most cosmopolitan arts sections in the world, ceased publication at the end of September. And the magazine scene isn’t much better. The situation is so dire that the National Book Critics Circle started a campaign to “save book reviewing.” From a publisher’s perspective, this decline is really bad news—the fewer outlets available for review, the more difficult it will be to get any attention for your titles. Especially when everyone’s reviewing the same twelve books . . .
Distribution is one of the key problems for all independent presses. It costs a fortune (rates such as 26% of net sales plus 4% of returns, plus standard storage, catalog, and set-up fees, are not at all uncommon) and despite everyone’s best intentions, giant distribution companies aren’t ideal for getting books into stores. When sales reps are responsible for selling books from more than a hundred presses, it’s physically and mentally impossible to know all the titles they represent and to be able to specifically pitch each of these books to bookstores.
Back in the fall of 2006, AMS—then the parent company of Publishers Group West—went bankrupt, and, as a result, stopped paying the dozens of publishers PGW distributed. And if that weren’t bad enough, this happened around the holidays, and PGW wasn’t able to ship titles to stores during the most profitable time of the year for the book industry . . . Eventually, Perseus bought PGW (they bought Consortium earlier in the year), bringing together an enormous percentage of independent presses in America under one roof, but not before some serious economic damage had been done. Soft Skull almost went under and was eventually sold to Counterpoint, and presses are still laying off employees because of the lingering effects of this collapse.
There’s no need to rehash the epic financial collapse that has rocked the world economy and is sending us into a global recession, but it is worth pointing out some of the more direct effects of this situation on the publishing world. First of all, uncertainty and recessions always kill advertising budgets. Companies take out fewer ads, magazines that rely on ad revenue suffer, and the whole publishing industry slows down. This is especially true in conglomerates that consist of a publishing house, a newspaper, TV network, etc. The media is fueled by advertising dollars, and the lack of advertising could send shockwaves through the publishing industry, on the balance sheets at particular companies, and in terms of further reducing outlets for reaching readers.
I’ve heard off-the-record stories about magazines being in serious financial trouble, and I’ve heard of publishers drastically cutting their list in preparation for tough financial times. [See the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt story from yesterday.] None of this bodes well for literature, much less literature in translation.
This is the sixth part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors a couple weeks ago. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. There are still a number of parts left to post, but these should all be up before the end of the month.
There are a few key differences between the commercial houses and the independents that are worth pointing out aside from the discrepancy in the number of employees and the amount of money each publisher tends to have.
Independents rarely do their own distribution. The lion’s share are distributed by a handful of companies: Independent Publishers Group, Consortium, Publishers Group West, and Perseus. And to complicate things (more on this in a minute), Consortium and PGW are both owned by Perseus. This means that sales reps selling the press’s books into stores work for the distributor not the press itself. And a press looking to sell its books across the country has very few choices on how to go about doing this.
On the plus side, nonprofits are able to receive grants and donations, including money from the state and federal government, a huge benefit that will be touched on below. Donated income makes up a significant part of a nonprofit’s budget, and supports all publishing activities, from paying authors and translators to printing and promoting books.
Just because of the scale, indie presses don’t have quite the same pressure to hit sales goals as commercial houses do. Expectations are more modest, as are advances and marketing budgets. Rarely do you read of an independent spending millions of dollars on a particular book. At the same time, there isn’t as much money available for marketing and publicity, and as a result, overall sales levels tend to be lower at an indie press . . . except when it comes to literature in translation.
It’s worth dwelling on sales expectations for a moment, since it creates such a radical difference between commercial houses and nonprofits. At your typical nonprofit, employees are involved in all aspects of the business. An editor can also be the publicity person, the marketing director might also be in charge of grants. Salaries are slightly lower than at the big houses, but in terms of total cost per book, nonprofits tend to get a lot of bang for their buck. In other words, the average operating expenses—rent, utilities, salaries, benefits, etc.—for a book published by a nonprofit are considerably lower than those of a big house. Obvious, I know, but this means that a press might only need to sell 5,000 copies of a title to breakeven, instead of the 15-20,000 needed at a commercial publisher. Suddenly, the pressures of finding a best-seller evaporate . . .
This isn’t even looking at a situation like the one for Open Letter. As a trade-oriented house that’s part of a university, we don’t pay rent, yet have access to certain things other nonprofits don’t, such as a funding base (alumni) and an endless supply of interns. The stakes are automatically a bit lower, which allows a press to focus more on its mission while expanidn the possibilities of what it can publish.
With a smaller staff, a more manageable list, and reasonable sales expectations, independents are in a better position to invest a lot of time and effort into promoting the literary fiction and books in translation it is publishing. The stereotypical image of an independent (or even better, a nonprofit) publisher as someone who is extremely passionate about the books they’re publishing, someone who spends all his/her time obsessing and worrying about the press, about reaching readers, about finding ways to keep the press afloat, really isn’t that far off. And this contributes to the overall marketing of a press’s books.
Indie presses tend to have a stronger editorial identity than commercial houses, and cultivate a sense of customer loyalty that doesn’t exist for Random House or Simon & Schuster, or others. Soft Skull, Archipelago, New Directions, these are presses that are clearly branded, that readers trust in, and that fans are willing to take chances with. An obscure Finnish author published by Archipelago means something entirely different than one published by S&S. Although indies and nonprofits have fewer resources, there are some advantages to being small, nimble, and focused.
This is the fifth part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors last week. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. And we’ll probably be posting bits and pieces of this for the next week or so.
Obviously there’s more that goes into the resistance of commercial publishers to translations—such as the fact that most editors are monolingual, that without investing a lot of time in international literature it’s hard to know which titles and authors are the most important, that there aren’t as many agents for international works as for American and British writers, that only select editors attend the Frankfurt book fair (it’s all about selling, not buying)—but it all adds up to a situation in which America is “too isolated, too insular,” where we “don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” which is how Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, recently categorized it.
Prejudices, financial losses, and bum legs aside, a number of translations are published in the U.S. every year. In January, I started keeping track of all original translations of fiction and poetry published or released in America this year. (In part because nobody else was. Bowker—the company that keeps track of all statistics about American publishing eliminated “translation” as a category years ago.) I didn’t count children’s books, or graphic novels, or retranslations of classics, or paperback versions of previously published titles. Instead, I focused on works of adult fiction and poetry that had never before been published in English.
According to my records, all of 340 translations were published in the past year. Of those translations, 269 are works of fiction, 71 of poetry. More relevant to this presentation, the six big houses—Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House, and Simon & Schuster—and all their various subsidiaries, published a total of 69 works in translation, or 20% of the total. Most of these 69 books are from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (10), Penguin (9), FSG (9), Knopf (8), and HarperCollins (6), five of the one hundred and thirty presses and imprints that published a translation this year.
In the same way that poetry has fallen to the shoulders of the independent press, approx. 80% of all works of literary translation are now being published by independent, nonprofit, and university presses, which generally don’t operate on the “big advance-big return” model described above.
This is the fourth part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors last week. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. And we’ll probably be posting bits and pieces of this for the next week or so.
Stage Two: Translations, Economic Censorship, and Independent Presses
So where do translations fit into this? Well, basically they don’t. The famous translator Esther Allen once turned me on to the term “economic censorship” to help explain the financial reasons for why big publishers shy away from doing books in translation.
First off, in deciding to do a translation, a publisher is assuming the cost of paying a translator in addition to all normal expenses.
The current going rate for a translation is $125/1000 words, so, for a 70,000 word novel, a translator should get paid $8,750. That’s not a huge amount—especially compared to _Dewey_’s $1.25 million—and frequently at least part of this is offset by grants from foreign governments. But on a profit and loss statement, it is an additional cost that doesn’t exist for books originally written in English.
Still, that doesn’t explain why big publishers shy away from translations. They have the money to spend, and if they thought a book would sell hundreds of thousands of copies, $10,000 is really just pocket change. But how many translations sell hundreds of thousands of copies? Answer: almost none. Over the past week articles have appeared in both the New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal pointing out just how few translations make the best-seller lists. In fact, Roberto Bolaño—currently the hottest author in translation, considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time, and the one foreign author everyone seems to be talking about—has yet to crack the Times Best Seller list.
To be quite frank, with the exception of certain breakouts like Bolaño, Per Petterson, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon (whose books aren’t of the same caliber as the first two), literary fiction in translation sells poorly in the States. I’ve heard that even Saramago was selling in the low thousands (or high hundreds) before winning the Nobel Prize. It’s in no way unusual for a literary translation to sell in the 2,000 copy range. And publishers who sell 4-5,000 copies of a translation feel like they did an excellent job.
Dismal sales figures, along with the additional cost of translation helps make foreign books unappealing to corporate publishers. Sure, you can get the rights on a dime (most advances for literary translations are under $10,000), and you have an almost unlimited number of authors to choose from (rarely do foreign books go to auction), but if you’re only spending a few thousand dollars, your sales and marketing department isn’t going to do much to help this book find its audience. They have to spend their time and energy on the million-dollar advance books—the ones that really matter.
Sales, marketing, and publicity departments at big presses generally treat literary translations as red-headed stepchildren that they have to live with, but really don’t love. Advance sales to bookstores are paltry, not much effort goes into getting coverage for these books, and as a result, sales are wretched, the publisher loses $15-$20,000 on the book, and, in a world where profits have to keep increasing year in and out, the desire to publish more works in translation is quashed. Going back to the horse race metaphor, sure, occasionally a Bolaño comes along and a publisher can cash in, but most translated titles are like a horse with a bum leg. It’s much more profitable to get world rights to a mediocre American author and sell rights to a couple dozen countries. Now that’s a horse that can “win” in a major, global way.
This is the third part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors last week. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. And we’ll probably be posting bits and pieces of this for the next week or so.
Switching over to bookstores, it’s worth pointing out that, unlike other parts of the world, America doesn’t have a fixed price policy. Stores can discount books however they’d like, which has resulted in a fiercely competitive market where Amazon.com undercuts brick-and-mortar stores, Costco sells books as a loss-leader, and traditional independents stores have a hell of a time staying in business. Although Amazon claims that they survive on a “long tail” model (i.e., the idea that single copy sales for an infinite amount of books is far greater than a huge amount of sales for a small amount of titles), most stores operate on the same principle as the big publishers: you make your money by selling a ton of copies of a few select titles. That’s what drives Barnes & Noble and their huge stacks of books, and is the reason why one additional percentage point discount (chains frequently get a 46% volume discount whereas independents get 45%) can lead to enormous profits.
Paul Slovak, the publisher of Viking Penguin, once mentioned that he believed that at any moment in time everyone in the country is reading the same twelve books. Obviously he’s exaggerating—a bit—but it sure seems that way. The books on display at a chain store in New York City are almost identical to the ones on display in Denver, or in Peoria. To explain why that’s the case is actually a bit more complicated than it might first appear.
What it comes down to is which books the big presses have decided to really push. It’s almost like a horse race—you need a winner to keep betting, you have a bunch of horses in your stable, and you put all your cash on the ones you think will “break-thru.” These are the books that the houses advertise all over the country, that they push hard to media outlets, and for which they decide to do extensive author tours. They also use a lot of co-op money to promote these books. Co-op money is cash that a publisher gives to a bookstore to display and promote its books. For example, the front tables at the chain stores are paid for, as are the end caps, as are other special displays.
With these books on display, and heavily discounted, throughout the country, and online, with big, trustworthy publishers spending lots of time and money promoting these particular titles, it’s no surprise that these become the books that everyone is reading.
This is the second part of a presentation I gave to the German Book Office directors last week. Earlier sections of the speech can be found here. And we’ll probably be posting bits and pieces of this for the next week or so.
Although it’s a bit more complicated than this, the survival strategy of commercial publishers is the “a few big books float the boat” model. This is the idea that most books published by a house will lose money, or at best breakeven, but that every year a few titles will explode, far outselling their costs and generating enough revenue to keep the house afloat. You often hear publishers say things like, “we publish those kind of books so that we can do more literary stuff.” That’s a friendly way of saying that they need some obvious money making books to sell well, otherwise the publishing house would be screwed.
Anecdotally, it often seems that these “break-thru” books are completely accidental. Like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or most any book that Oprah ends up selecting for her book club. “Unexpected successes” pop up every single year. Nevertheless, from the top CEOs on down everyone feels the pressure of acquiring, or marketing, or selling, this year’s “big book” and reaping the profits that come along with these sales.
As a result, huge amounts of money are bandied about on concepts and names. Many of which don’t work out so well. A few recent examples are listed at the end of the New York article, including the $8 million advance to Charles Frazier for Thirteen Moons, a book that sold approx. 368.000 copies, leaving $5.5 million of the advance unrecouped. My personal favorite is Dewey: A Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, which is described in typical movie-pitch comparison style as “_Marley & Me_ meets The Bridges of Madison County in this heartwarming true story.” Advance? One and a quarter million dollars.
Having spent so much on books like these, publishers are then obligated to spend a vast amount of money marketing and publicizing these big acquisitions. Granted, a good deal of the advance money is made up by selling translations rights to countries all over the world (a one-way street as I’m sure you already know), but these titles are also expected to sell really well.
It’s worth taking a moment here to look at the math and explain a bit about how book sales work in America. I believe this is pretty similar to other countries, but not entirely. In the States the big publishers have their own sales force and warehouses, both of which cost a pretty penny, but are necessary to ensure that a publisher gets the largest market penetration possible. (More on this when we talk about independent publishers.) Each of the different outlets publishers sell to—wholesalers, independent bookstores, chains, Amazon, Costco and Sam’s Club, libraries, etc.—receive a different discount, usually in the range of 45-50%.
Sticking with Thirteen Moons, the retail price on the hardcover edition is $26.95, so, for each sale, Random House can expect approx. $13.75 in revenue. Leaving all subrights sales aside, and using New York’s sales figure of 368,000, Random House made approx. $5 million in sales of this book. A huge figure for a lot of presses, but a number that’s less than the initial advance, and definitely less than the total costs that went into publishing and promoting the book. I’ll assure you that this wasn’t the book that allowed Random House to do all their “literary” breakeven titles this year.
Nevertheless, this book sold exceptionally well compared to many others. I was recently talking with a former editor at one of the big six publishers, who said that titles he acquired usually sold in the 5-7,000 range, far less than the 15-20,000 copies his bosses expected his books to sell, sales levels that would’ve allowed the book to breakeven. He also said that he always thought his sales were incredibly low (publishers always, always lie about print runs and sales, so the numbers you see in print are inflated) until someone from another big house shared privileged sales info leading both editors to realize that most literary titles just don’t sell very well.
On Friday, I was invited by Riky Stock of the German Book Office to give a presentation to GBO directors from around the world about publishing post-financial collapse. Which is a pretty big topic, and one that will probably dominate conversations post-holiday season, especially if the retail sector struggles as much as people are predicting. Anyway, this is an admittedly incomplete, overly simplified look at the industry, the reigning sales models, and what might happen in the next few years. Oh, and it’s extremely long. I have no idea how many parts this will turn into, but it’ll last for at least a week or two
Stage One: Overview of the Publishing Marketplace
It’s no secret that publishing folk like to complain a lot and are somewhat addicted to “doom and gloom” prognostications about their industry. Sales are never what they should be (nor are salaries), there can never be enough book coverage for a hot title, everyone is under a lot of pressure to meet unrealistic expectations, and with thousands of over-educated, well-read people entering the work force every year, no one’s job feels safe. See this year’s surprise firing of Jane Friedman, CEO of HarperCollins. Or the fact that Peter Olson stepped down after profits at Random House dropped 4.7%. That’s not to say that publishing people can’t relax, or don’t enjoy the business, but it has—increasingly—become a business, and the strings and complications that go along with increasing profit margins impact all the various aspects of publishing and are altering the industry and literary culture as a whole.
There’s a famous publishing joke that goes, “Do you know how to make a small fortune in publishing? . . . Start with a large one.” Throughout modern times, publishing has been a small margin industry. Rich people got involved because of the glamour, the importance that comes from shaping our culture, the joy of working with intelligent artists. Not to mention the cocktail parties. (Nowadays, you can add free books to that list.) Rarely—if ever—did people start up publishing houses with the idea that this would make them millions. Same goes for bookstores and bookstore owners. In the best of times, these businesses aim for 3% profit margins. As conglomerates took over the industry though, and houses started merging, the expectations jumped to the 10% range, fundamentally changing the rules of the game and, in my opinion, pushing the industry into its current tenuous position where a lot of people are filled with anxiety and dread.
This past September, Boris Kachka wrote a nice overview article for New York magazine about the current state of publishing simply titled The End. In this piece he examined several components of the book business, providing evidence about how the system is essentially broke. Here’s how he summed it up:
“Sales at the five big publishers were up 0.5 percent in the first half of this year, bookstores sales tanked in June, and a full-year decline is expected. But pretty much every aspect of this business seems to be in turmoil. There’s the floundering of the few remaining semi-independent midsize publishers; the ouster of two powerful CEOs—one who inspired editors and one who at least let them be; the desperate race to evolve into e-book producers; the dire state of Borders, the only real competitor to Barnes & Noble; the feeling that outrageous money is being wasted on mediocre books; and Amazon.com, which many publishers look upon as a power-hungry monster bent on cornering the whole business.”
Kachka’s main focus is on commercial publishers, which is fine since the big houses are great case studies in what’s gone wrong, and besides his focus on the major houses leaves me something to add to the conversation.
This is shaping up to be a very depressing holiday season—at least in terms of retail. On Friday, the U.S. Census Bureau released some rather sobering figures, including the fact that bookstore sales dropped by 4.5% in September. And if that wasn’t bad enough, in October, the entire retail sector fell by 2.8%, the largest drop ever.
Worth pointing out that book sales are up 1.8% for the first nine months of the year, so this figure isn’t quite as terrible as it first seems. But a steep decline in sales in December and January would be very harmful, especially since those are the biggest sales months for the industry.
I’ve had a few conversations with booksellers recently about the perceived notion that the book business is somewhat recession proof. That during lean times, people avoid buying more high-end presents (flat screen TVs, etc.) and are more inclined to buy a book as a gift, since it’s thoughtful, lasting, and not that expensive.
For the benefit of all stores and publishers I really, really hope this is true. (Personally, a book is about as creative as I can get gift-wise anyway . . .) And to help spur on this idea, Random House is launching a Gifts=Books campaign.
Random is placing the banners on all its sites and in all its newsletters, and will also post them on all major social networking sites, said [Doubleday marketing director Suzanne] Herz. Banners will also be made available to all e-tailers. The New Yorker will do an e-mail blast to 25 million newsletter recipients touting the Books=Gifts message.
In addition, the Bookreporter is counting down 45 reasons why books are the best gifts—one a day until Christmas day. Most are pretty obvious—books are cheap, they provide hours of entertainment—but if this helps get people to buy more books, then I’m all for it. Of the reasons listed so far, this is my favorite:
. . . there’s something available whether you’re naughty . . . or nice
Bookreporter making books sexy one post at a time . . .
(This is where I should insert a blatant publicity plug for our Open Letter subscriptions. At $65 for 6 hardcovers, or $120 for 12, you really can’t go wrong . . . And in case you’re wondering about our spring titles, we’ll be announcing each book individually over the next few days. And if you have any questions—or if you’d like a 6 book subscription to rollover and include books from the fall and spring seasons—simply e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu. I think this is a great gift . . . )
Seriously, even if it’s not an Open Letter book, it’s a great idea to buy books this holiday season. This is an industry that really needs to support itself, and with everyone teetering on the edge, it would be great to hear about some independent stores breaking past holiday sales levels . . .
This post originally appeared on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog.
As Richard Nash and I agreed, the only thing that needs to be said about book piracy is that there’s no where near enough of it. Anyway, here goes:
The possibilities of the internet and our increasingly-connected culture can make a publisher’s eyes light up and can strike fear in his heart simultaneously. As we all know, the internet is a great tool for finding information, for connecting with other people, and now, in this “web 2.0″ world, for creating and sharing your creative endeavors, developing new communities, and connecting with friends and colleagues from all over the world.
It’s also a place where you can illegally download scanned versions of books (a la the last Harry Potter book that was leaked online days before arriving in stores), audiobooks, mp3s, movies, etc. Thanks to filesharing, one-click download sites, and other digital “pirates,” bascially anything you want you can find online for free.
To help give publishers advice on these wonderful/scary opportunities, the International Publishers Association hosted two panels today: “Online Book Piracy: Will the Internet Kill Publishing?” and “Preparing Publishers for Web 2.0.” It was interesting how well these two panels fit together in terms of viewpoint and overall tone, going from a more outraged and suspicious view of how the internet is stealing business, to a more optimistic look at the future of publishing in our digital age.
Martin Steinebach started off the piracy panel pointing out how easy it is for someone to create and disseminate a digital version of a book. Through sites like Pirate Bay (more on that in a minute) and Literature-Free.com, one can find thousands of e-books and audiobooks that can be downloaded for free (illegally, of course) with the click of a button. He also pointed out what an enormous challenge it is trying to shut down digital pirates. Every time a site or distribution method (such as a peer-to-peer site) is shut down, another site or mode of dissemination (such as a one-click download site) comes into existence. Because of the money pirates make via ads and user fees is so significant, trying to completely prevent online piracy is like trying to reverse a hurrican with a small fan.
That’s the situation in Sweden anyway, where Kjell Bohlund is trying to takedown Pirate Bay, but is struggling to overcome the dominant political and social scenes in which these digital pirates are seen as Robin Hood-like figures making cultural ideas available to everyone for free. In fact, in a recent survey 92 per cent of Swedes thought too much time and effort was going into trying to stop file-sharing websites. And the Prime Minister – in talking about illegal downloading – once said ”You can’t make a whole generation into criminals.”
Although stopping illegal downloads seems to be a Sisyphean task, there are a lot of people out there trying to curb their monetary “losses.” (I have to admit that I’m pretty suspect of all statistics on how much money is lost due to pirates. These figures seem to assume that people who “stole” a song or ebook would have bought that particular book or album if only the free downloadable version weren’t available. Which is pure rubbish and is why some publishers are experimenting with free downloads of their books.) The law firm of Covington & Burling is like the CSI team of internet enforcement, monitoring illegal downloads and helping takedown a number of these services. In the near future, educational e-books published by Even-Moor will be able to ”phone home,” allowing the publisher to “track usage of the book by IP address.” (Which sounds incredibly invasive to me. Could you imagine if there was a way that the publisher could tell where a particular copy of a print book was being read?)
The second panel on this thing we call “web 2.0″ (a term which all the panelists agreed was rather silly and meaningless) was much less reactionary. Instead, they focused on mechanisms that could be created to assist in controlling your digital content without creating such a devisive situation. As Mark Bide pointed out, right now our only tool for dealing with online copyright infringement (such as “re-using” someone’s content in a YouTube video) is litigation, which is a costly and ineffective tool. He pointed to Google Books as a better model for dealing with these issues in our day and age. Rather than suing and countersuing over copyright infringement when Google started scanning the world’s books, publishers and Google came together and came up with mechanisms and protocols so that publishers could control how much of their content was made avaialble and what restrictions were put in place. (For example, a publisher could place a restriction that only 10 per cent of a particular title can be viewed by an individual in a given day.)
Gatekeeping and the relationship between audiences and creators was the key for this panel. The web 2.0 model is one of interactivity and re-use. Of allowing audiences to participate in creating content, closing the gap between publisher and reader. Author sites, wiki sites, co-created sites, and similar ideas present amazing marketing opportunities (Simon Juden of the Publishers Association emphasized the new ways in which communities can be formed around ideas, books, or authors, in today’s world, and the ways in which this can be advantageous to publishers), and sticky rights issues. Looking to the future though, publishers will have to deal with these isuses and strike the correct balance that allows readers to creatively interact with a publisher’s content while also rewarding creators and maintaining a certain degree of control over how their intellectual property is distributed.
The EBM was hailed as a way of creating an “unlimited backlist” where customers could come and print out any title they wanted. And as the technology evolved and the machine gets slicker and smaller, it could become more like an “ATM-like bookshop,” with locations throughout the world. . . .
Of course, this idea of preserving old, hard-to-find books and making them available to readers isn’t the cause of the VPR interview:
Since it was installed, some of the store’s customers have been using the machine to produce hard-to-find books from a huge online database of titles in the public domain. But the store has discovered that the machine is most popular with would-be authors who want to turn what they’ve written into a book.
The short piece—complete with Kinko’s like background noise of books being printed and bound—focuses on the people who come in and get their books printed. Some of the titles Lucy mentions are a college dissertation, a book in Russian about World War II, and a genealogical book that someone printed for a family reunion.
Unless the author prevents it, all of these titles are then made available for sale, and the author can set the retail price and receives 100% of the difference between the retail price and cost of production for each copy sold.
First off, I hope Northshire adds on some service fees to that cost of production, so that they can capitalize on this as it becomes more and more popular (and it inevitably will since this allows aspiring authors to avoid the horrible negligence of the publishing industy).
But the vision of a bookstore as a sort of Kinko’s, or a bricks-and-mortar version of iUniverse sends shivers down my spine. I think of bookstores as one of the gatekeepers of culture, not as a one-stop shop where you can buy Ulysses and print that collection of poems you’ve been putting together.
I’m probably just cynical . . . In party because I’ve never really bought into this Espresso Book Machine idea. The future seems to be more in the ebook realm than in a clunky machine that creates cheap paperbacks. Of course, the ebook world will be subject to way more vanity publications that anything else. . . .
It is sort of cool to look at and play with, and does start to replicate the browsing experience one has in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop. Although all titles are purchased through Amazon, the selection is pretty crap, and, as Sebastian Mary astutely points out, pretty conventional and antithetical to the promise of the internet.
It’s debatable, though, whether this kind of heavily-mediated pseudo-serendipity, while a pleasant change from the messy Amazon experience, isn’t one metaphor too far. After all, how ‘serendipitous’ are the book thumbnails I find on its digitally-rendered ‘shelves’?
What concerns me is that, while this site provides something of the feel of browsing a bookstore, this is not only a superficial impression but reproduces the worst of the industrialized mainstream bookstores. The buying practices necessitated in order to keep a large bookstore financially viable these days have skewed the kinds of books that are deemed saleable profoundly; the redemptive promise of the Web was that the magical long tail might create markets for even those niche publications that have been edged out of mainstream publishing and book sales.
Over at the Guardian books blog, Karla Starr has a piece about the cost of books in Argentina:
Then it occurred to me that it’s all down to purchasing power. Take Harry Potter – as plenty did both in Argentina and the UK. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sells for 108 pesos, which corresponds to the £17.99 list price in the UK – though you can find it for a tenner online. But the average income in the UK is £30,000, while in Argentina it’s only the same number of pesos. So buying a copy of the latest Harry Potter costs an Argentine 3% of their yearly earnings. Over in the UK it’s the price of a few cups of coffee. [. . .]
I’ve seen photography books here for 900 pesos. Maybe £150 might seem a little steep for one book even in London, but think of the real cost to an Argentine. Can you imagine paying £900 for a book?
OK, so those are some damn expensive cups of coffee to add up to £17.99 (that’s a mere $35 in weakened U.S. money), but Karla is on to something that I encountered on my recent visit to Buenos Aries, although what I heard about was a bit more complicated and involved the meta-structure of how books flow between countries and cultures.
I’m still not sure I fully understand what happened to Argentina’s economy (the words “got seriously fucked over” come to mind), but when I was on my recent editor’s trip, we met a ton of presses that had started up in recent years, a few of which talked about how the devaluation in 2002 lowered the entrance bar to starting a publishing house. Regardless of the economic explanations, there are a number of cool small presses (like Entropia) that have popped up in Buenos Aires. And these books—to the best of my knowledge—are generally affordable.
On the other hand, books from Spain, from the U.S., from the UK are astronomically expensive in relation to one’s net income. As Karla mentions, the prices aren’t necessarily marked up, but they remain stable across cultures, whereas the net income of the average citizen is much lower. (Using her example, I remember seeing a Philip Roth book for sale for 45 peso, which is about $15, and seems reasonable until you realize that Argentine salaries are not three times the equivalent of their American equivalents.)
An added complication is the way in which Spanish rights are sold. Generally, when Seix-Barral, or Random House Mondadori, or another large Spanish-based publisher brings out a title they have “World Spanish rights.” There is no splitting of the Spanish-language rights—the Seix-Barral edition is the one that is imported and sold in Argentina. Because of this situation, the price isn’t readjusted for the Argentine economy, and these books are prohibitively expensive.
When Rodrigo Orihuela of the Buenos Aires Herald gave me a brief overview of this situation, the first thing that came to mind was the way in which ebooks could correct this situation. As Richard Nash recently told me, I’m “radically ambivalent” about the role of ebooks in the future of publishing, but in a specific case like Argentina, I see huge benefits of publishers making titles available at a fraction of the current cost for a print version (such as 15 pesos for the Roth book instead of 45), thus making their books more readily available to an incredibly literary and hungry market. Of course, the cost of the eReader (which may or may not be necessary) could restrict this market, but still, this seems like an opportunity for publishers to use technology to cultivate a larger readership. And although I’m not positive, I’ll bet that there are a number of other South American countries in a similar situation to Argentina whose reading public would greatly benefit from reasonably priced ebooks.
Michael Orthofer has a great rant over at Literary Saloon about “how not to publish translations.” His piece centers around Serbian Classics Press, a press that I’ve personally never heard of (neither had Michael, so I feel like my ignorance is excusable), but one that is bringing out Mansarda, Danilo Kis’s first novel.
The book seems to have been released . . . well, as if printing and binding it were all there was to it. The publisher is Serbian Classics Press, and with their mission of: “publishing classic and contemporary Serbian fiction, biography, literary criticism and reference works in translation, as well as original English language works by authors from the Serbian diaspora” they sound like exactly the kind of outfit we should know about. Except, of course, that we didn’t. That happens — we’re constantly learning about new publishers. But what can we learn about them and their offerings ? Yes, they have a website, but the catalogue-page doesn’t seem to have been updated in years [Ed. note: since 2004!], and we couldn’t find any information about the Kiš-title on it. [. . .]
Which leads to the second problem: not only is there no information at the publisher’s site, this book is not listed at any of the English-language Amazons. (Or Barnes & Noble.)
Imagine that, in this day and age, where every print-on-demand title is listed at every online bookseller. Here’s a book, published in New York in 2008, which you can’t buy through Amazon.com.
One of my big gripes is the way in which small and independent publishers have a tendency to sabotage their best intentions. SCP is a pretty extreme example of how not to do things—although there are others . . .
SCP’s website is incredibly embarrassing. The fact it’s four years out of date is horrendous and the presentation is totally amateurish. Really too bad. The five books listed there sound pretty interesting (as does the Kis!) and there are even excerpts! Of course, there’s no sign of distribution (which is the number one problem in independent publishing right now) and the order form is awesomely outdated—it’s a pdf you have to print and mail in along with a “check or money order.” C’mon guys, today’s world is premised upon the ability to use credit cards for everything.
Putting them aside for a moment, this is a much larger issue that missing an opportunity with a new Kis and being technologically inept. A couple years ago, I moderated a panel at the London Book Fair that included Daniel Soar from the London Review of Books. At the beginning of his bit, he admitted that he was embarrassed by how few works in translation the LRB had reviewed over the past 6 months or so. (If I remember it was something like 3-4 titles compared to 50+ from English.) One of the reasons he gave for this was the lack of context for these books. Most translations published are by authors he’d never heard of and arrive on his desk with nothing more than a two paragraph press release and a reference to author X being the “James Joyce of country Y.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing here, but it sounded like a lot of these titles looked interesting, yet without more information, it was difficult to figure out what to do with them.
Based on the relatively few books that we get in for review (some of which are devoid of jacket copy), I can see how this is a major problem for large, influential publications. It’s much easier to decide whether to review a young American author who has been appearing in lit mags and anthologies, who has been talked about by other editors and reviewers, and who may have even shown up at a number of literary events and gatherings—the context for who this author is already exists. But a book by a relatively obscure international author needs some additional information. That’s one of the reasons publishing literature in translation costs so much—you have to spend a lot more on marketing than you do for an author working in English.
The more savvy publishers become with creating websites, generating buzz, figuring out creative ways to introduce these authors to the reading public, producing informative overview essays that place an author within a broad literary tradition—the better these books will be received and will find their voice. And the more one success will help other titles. I don’t agree with it, but I understand why Barnes & Noble has a thing against literature in translation. For years they stocked translations from a handful of presses that never figured out how to best market their books. When return rates are in the hight 70% range, one starts to generalize that translations don’t sell . . . (On the flip-side, our Icelandic book—The Pets by Bragi Olafsson—will be widely stocked due to the success of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. And yes, I know these are different countries, types of books, etc., but in addition to credit, our book culture is all about trends and duplication.)
I hate to pick on SCP, but this is a disservice to Kis. He actually has a following, one that could be tapped and cultivated. Instead these readers are lucky to find out that Mansarda (MAO has a few things to say about that title as well) is available.
In last Sunday’s Washington Post, Jonathan Karp makes some interesting statements about the future of publishing in his article Turning the Page on the Disposable Book
He starts with an accurate assessment of the immediacy of publishing and its ramifications:
Like most publishers, I want multitudes of readers to buy our books. Moreover, authors prefer publishers who believe in the broad appeal of their work and are committed to selling as many copies as possible. Most authors want their work to be accessible to a typical educated reader, so the question really isn’t whether the work is highbrow or lowbrow or appeals to the masses or the elites; the question is whether the book is expedient or built to last. Are we going for the quick score or enduring value? Too often, we (publishers and authors) are driven by the same concerns as any commercial enterprise: We are manufacturing products for the moment.
Among major publishing houses, the impetus to meet annual profit targets is a fact of life — the basis of budgets, salaries and bonuses. Publishers do what typical executives do: They plan. They forecast. They develop strategies for growth. Unfortunately, these attempts at producing consistent results don’t work particularly well in an endeavor that is only slightly more predictable than a game of blackjack.
This points to one of the big differences between corporate publishing and a nonprofit. Corporations need financial results. Increases in profit, which inevitably lead to producing more books, or books that they believe will appeal to a larger audience. Nonprofits have the advantage of being able to supplement their sales revenue with grants and donations, which should help these presses to fulfill their mission. (Such as receiving a grant to give away copies of a book at a reading, thus connecting more readers with a particular author.) Since nonprofits don’t rely strictly on sales revenue, they can stay away from the “bigger, faster, better” mentality that infests other publishing houses.
Enough about that though, what’s really interesting to me is the way that Karp connects the speed of publishing with its pressure on authors:
Books of this ilk [Ed. note: trendy ones that he described in prev. paragraph.] have always existed. But in the past, they’ve been balanced by substantive books, crafted by monomaniacal authors who devoted years to the work. I can’t prove it empirically, but when I talk to literary agents and fellow publishers, they acknowledge an unarticulated truth about our business: Fewer authors are devoting more than two years to their projects. The system demands more, faster. Conventional wisdom holds that popular novelists should deliver one or two books per year. Nonfiction authors often aren’t paid enough to work full-time on a book for more than a year or two.
There’s no guarantee that a book will be better if an author spends more time writing it, but years of research and reflection often provide a perspective that offers readers a kind of wisdom and authority they can’t get anywhere else.
This is a bit scary, and feels true. And makes me glad that we deal with a totally different sort of book and author.
Karp ends with a sweeping vision for the future of publishing that ends in an odd counterpoint:
The barriers to entry in the book business get lower each year. There are thousands of independent publishers and even more self-publishers. These players will soon have the same access to readers as major publishers do, once digital distribution and print-on-demand technology enter the mainstream. When that happens, publishers will lose their greatest competitive advantage: the ability to distribute books widely and effectively. Those who publish generic books for expedient purposes will face new competitors. Like the music companies, some of those publishers may shrink or die. [. . .]
Consequently, publishers will be forced to invest in works of quality to maintain their niche. These books will be the one product that only they can deliver better than anyone else. Those same corporate executives who dictate annual returns may begin to proclaim the virtues of research and development, the great engine of growth for business. For publishers, R&D means giving authors the resources to write the best books — works that will last, because the lasting books will, ultimately, be where the money is.
Maybe. I do think that things are changing and the publishing industry is going to go through a period of upheaval over the next few years. (Christ, how long can an industry that pays Emily Gould $250K—or thereabouts—for her “memoir” continue functioning?) And I do truly believe that there is a core group of readers (like everyone who reads this blog) who care about great literature and want to read works of art, not the latest whatever.
But I wonder if this “return to quality” will come from the corporate sector, or if readers will realize that there’s a ton of high-quality books coming out every year from independent and university presses. In other words, I wonder which will happen first, a paradigm shift at a commercial house away from overpaying for mediocre books to slowing down and publishing good books; or, if readers will start to turn away from these sorts of entertainment books (they can get their entertainment fix from the internet, or TV, anyway) in favor of “works of quality.”
I could link to a dozen great posts from Ron Hogan of GalleyCat about BEA, but there are two in particular that really jumped out at me, in part because we’ve been talking so much about eBooks and Kindles and whatnot . . .
The first is about Book Publishing’s 2.0 Business Model panel that took place last week and featured independent publisher Derek Powazek, Dave Hanley from Shelfari, and author Scott Sigler. (Sigler is most well known for landing a book deal after serializing and giving away his novel for free online. It’s what you might call, “creating an audience.”)
Anyway, the basic idea is that we shouldn’t be afraid of the internet and giving things away and instead should embrace ways in which readers can interact with one another:
“The old idea that putting something you want to sell in print online devalues the print version is wrong,” Powazek said in agreement, adding that even the distinction between online and offline reading is irrelevant now. And while the book publisher’s role as a source of authority, as exercised by editorial decision, will endure, it’s important to recognize that readers already have the ability to become equally authoritative in slightly different ways. “There are already communities of people out there who consume your work,” he told the publishing execs in the audience. “You just haven’t given them the tools to talk to each other yet.”
According to Wyatt:
But excitement about the Kindle, which was introduced in November, also worries some publishing executives, who fear Amazon’s still-growing power as a bookseller. Those executives note that Amazon currently sells most of its Kindle books to customers for a price well below what it pays publishers, and they anticipate that it will not be long before Amazon begins using the Kindle’s popularity as a lever to demand that publishers cut prices. [. . .]
Amazon sells most Kindle books for $9.99 or less. Publishers say that they generally sell electronic books to Amazon for the same price as physical books, or about 45 percent to 50 percent of the cover price.
According to a few publishing insiders, the current standard for eBook royalties to authors is 25% of net. Which is slightly higher than the 7.5% of retail price standard for print books. With books generally discounted by 45% to retailers, the difference for a $20 book would be royalties of $2.75/e-version compared to $1.50/print. That starts to cut into a publishers profit margin, which is already quite small . . .
One of the most interesting things Jeff Bezos said was that he believes that the Kindle versions are encouraging people to buy more books rather than simply switching from print to digital. (Some publishing execs dispute that claim.)
Contrast both of these things with the report on Gawker this morning speculating (based on some tangible evidence) that Jane Friedman was pushed out of HarperCollins because of money and that Rupert wants to “see new growth.”
What’s a publisher to do? Give away eBooks? Wait for Amazon to “lower the boom”? For corporate publishers these are huge issues waiting in the wings, especially as even more pressure is placed on CEOs to meet expectations. Interesting times ahead . . .
Over the past week at The Digitalist — a blog by the digital team at Pan Macmillan — Sara Lloyd has been serializing her forthcoming Library Trends article on “how traditional publishers need to position themselves in the changing media flows of a networked era.”
Taken as a whole, this is a really fascinating essay about the evolution of publishing in our digital age.
Part one is basically an overview of the situation, pointing out that publishers have always been slow to change, and have functioned in a strict, linear fashion in selecting, producing, and distributing books. According to Lloyd this is changing, both in terms of distribution, and the very nature of a “book” as end-product:
Publishers – and, importantly, authors – will need increasingly to accept huge cultural and social and economic and educational changes and to respond to these in a positive and creative way. We will need to think much less about products and much more about content; we will need to think of ‘the book’ as a core or base structure but perhaps one with more porous edges than it has had before. We will need to work out how to position the book at the centre of a network rather than how to distribute it to the end of a chain. We will need to recognise that readers are also writers and opinion formers and that those operate online within and across networks. We will need to understand that parts of books reference parts of other books and that now the network of meaning can be woven together digitally in a very real way, between content published and hosted by entirely separate entities. Perhaps most radically, we will have to consider whether a primary focus on text is enough in a world of multimedia mash-ups. In other words, publishers will need to think entirely differently about the very nature of the book and, in parallel, about how to market and sell those ‘books’ in the context of a wired world. Crucially, we will need to work out how we can add value as publishers within a circular, networked environment.
One of the key perception shifts that publishers need to make, then, is about the book as ‘product’. Whilst the book continues to be viewed as a definable object within covers, as a singular ‘unit’, publishers will continue to limit their role in its production and distribution, and this is a sure fire way for publishers to write themselves out of the future of content creation and dissemination.
The second part is more about eBooks and the way in which the future involves “ ‘connectivity’ between our differing modes of reading.”
Publishers need to provide the tools of interaction and communication around book content and to be active within the digital spaces in which readers can discuss and interact with their content. It will no doubt become standard for digital texts to provide messaging and commenting functions alongside the core text, to enable readers to connect with other readers of the same text and to open up a dialogue with them. Readers are already connecting with each other – through blogs, discussion forums, social book-marking sites, book cataloguing sites and wikis. Publishers need to be at the centre of these digital conversations, driving their development and providing the tools for readers to engage with the text and with each other if they are to remain relevant. Bob Stein at the Institute for the Future of the Book talks about “the networked book.” … the book as a place, as social software – but basically .. the book at its most essential, a structured, sustained intellectual experience, a mover of ideas – reinvented in a peer-to-peer ecology.”
Part three focuses on the nature of the book as unit and the changes in that concept that are occurring. (I personally think that this sort of “unbundling” will be hugely important to the future of scholarly presses and books, and textbooks. Less so with fiction, although the pre-publication serialization of a novel is an intriguing concept.)
Online science fiction publisher Baen Books’ webscriptions offering puts a value on material pre-publication and demonstrates a successful, early move from unitary distribution and pricing to a flexible, subscription offering. This web based re-creation of the serialized novel using Science Fiction published by Baen Books offers novels published in three segments, one month apart, beginning three months before the actual publication date. Each month four books are made available for $15 per month. About two weeks after the last quarter is delivered, print versions of the books become available in bookshops.
The fourth part brings up an interesting point about eBooks and eReading devices—why are we so focused on downloading when a search and view online model is cleaner and more in line with how we function as readers these days?
Google and Apple, between them already have the solution for eBooks (and it’s not a download solution). Read and search on your iPhone and access via a web browser, anything in print can be handled that way. More to the point: everything in print can be handled that way. Everything will be searched via the web, everything will be accessed via the web. Downloads are pretty much of an irrelevance. The question is: what do authors and publishers plan to do about that?
The fifth section is all about the future irrelevance of publishers if writers can directly reach their readership.
Publishers need to work quickly to define what the quintessence of publishing is, what the core value provided by the publisher is beyond the technicalities of matching content with readers. When pressed to think about this, much of what publishers have to offer beyond the technicalities is qualitative rather than quantitative: stewardship, consultancy, an imprimatur. Will authors continue to value these things enough to believe that publishers are critical to the publication of their works? An interesting question is that of scale. Should publishers be joining forces to create multi-publisher platforms, to dominate content networks by developing critical mass across content types and ensuring that content is interlinked in the most valuable and rich ways? If that is the case then publishers are probably mistaken in handing off this role to Google. In its current form, Google Book Search is already providing the access key to multi-publisher book content. It is, in effect, creating the online book platform. It does little to interlink the various texts but that would be a logical next step. Any publisher which continues to regard Google as a benign partner helping to bring their valuable content to light on the Internet has their head firmly buried in the sand, but in the Internet space, publishers attempting to stand up to Google is a little like a small shoal of fish attempting to push back a tidal wave.
Part six is basically a summing up in which Lloyd makes some statements about what publishers must do to adapt and survive.
Whilst Google has led the drive to make book content ‘discoverable’ online, publishers have been slow to harness web techniques to promote and sell books, both in print and in digital formats. Many, many publishers are still nowhere near even managing the basics, of systematically creating and storing and ‘seeding’ sample chapters, excerpts, audio or video author interviews, schedules of author appearances, links to media coverage, featured material on social networking sites and rich bibliographic material.
I don’t agree completely with her points, but this is a really interesting look at the future of publishing. And I do definitely agree that publishers are generally slow (and loathe) to change, and that technology-wise, we seem to be living in the dark ages, incapable of really utilizing current digital advances to cultivate a readership and sell books.
I’m sure a number of other people have already discussed this, but I just got my hands on the new issue of Wired, which has an article by Chris Anderson called Free! Why $0.00 is the Future of Business.
Aside from being editor-in-chief of Wired, Anderson is the author of The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. (Just to get this straight, the “future of business” is giving away less of more?) The Long Tail was considered to be rather revolutionary, since is posited a business model for things like books that flies in the face of the conventional model. In contrast to selling umpteen-million copies of the 5 or 6 mega-best-sellers out at any point in time (which is the object of most B&N and Borders stores), Anderson argued that the real money is made by selling 1 or 2 copies of an infinite amount of titles, a la Amazon. (Obviously infinity times 1 is greater than 100,000 times 5.)
For a while, this book/concept was all the rage, with people applying it to publishing (everything as print on demand! sell two copies of all deep backlist and you’ll stabilize your sales!) among other industries. The big problem with this idea—in my opinion—is that for most publishers, the “long tail” ain’t all that long. This may make sense for a Random House with thousands of backlist titles, but for a press with a few hundred the economics don’t work out nearly so well. Also, there’s still a huge disconnect between the capabilities of p.o.d. technology and being able to market these titles to bookstores and readers. And a house that can take advantage of the long tail theory, usually isn’t set up for making sure their deep backlist is selling 2-3 copies a year—they’re set up to promote the hell out of the mega-books.
Regardless, Anderson is one of the most interesting theorists of new economic models in this new media age. This new article—and forthcoming book—is no exception. It’s not like he’s rewriting the rules of economics either—everything in this piece places by the standard model that you learn in Econ 101. What is unique is that he takes concepts to the extreme and can understand (and lucidly explain) what happens when placed in our new cultural context. And in this article, he explains the relationship between a digital culture and giving things away.
At the core of his argument is the idea that thanks to the internet, marginal cost for a whole slew of objects is virtually $0.00. (Marginal cost is the variable cost associated with producing one more copy of a particular item. So, printing 1,001 copies of a book versus 1,000.) There are still fixed, up-front costs, but once an object is digitalized, there’s no limit to the number of copies that can be “produced” or “distributed.”
Which in traditional firm economics is like the fricking golden fleece—if you can take over a huge market share, you can become a price-setter and make millions. But the transparency (and file sharing) of the internet has screwed that all up.
Anderson instead details six current models in which a company giving products away for free can still make a profit. Here’s a quick rundown of the six:
All of us experience these things on a daily basis, but not many small business or non-profits seem to be putting much thought into how this could revolutionize their particular industry. Anderson’s final point (in this article at least) is that distribution may be reaching a zero point, but there’s a “limited supply of reputation and attention in the world at any point in time.”
As a business, you still need a way to get enough money to keep the lights on, but the point has shifted from selling product for maximum profit to making your position in the market extremely valuable and using free distribution methods to make this possible.
How does this apply to publishing? I have no clear idea. Maybe by charging $500 for the Kindle, but only $0.01 for a book. (Authors would love that.) Receiving enough donated income to give away digital books for free (while still paying authors). Or by giving away books, but selling tickets to readings. Or giving away digital versions and making expensive collectors editions of books. Or using the Wowio model of subsidizing electronic versions via ad sales. I’m really not sure. But in a field still hung up on DRM and resistant to change, we may be left behind as things like Hulu.com start popping up for other parts of the “entertainment” industry. It’s something worth thinking about and whoever figures it out will dramatically change this industry—hopefully for the better.
Just a month after the eMusic shindig announcing the addition of ebooks to their site, Penguin has decided to back out of the arrangement. According to PW
In other Penguin news, the New York Times reported today that the publisher has pulled out of its deal with eMusic to sell its audio titles through the online music retailer. Penguin Audio publisher Dick Heffernan told the paper that the issue came down to fears about piracy, since eMusic, unlike rival iTunes, sells its titles without the DRM software that prevents files from being copied.
“Fears about piracy” . . . At a time when Radiohead is using an “honor system” and literally giving away its new CD, Penguin is concerned about the possibility that the kids will be swapping non-DRM version of the new Alan Greenspan book. Really?
More importantly—did anyone at Penguin take 10 seconds to read the eMusic About Us page before signing the initial agreement? Was it really a surprise that the audiobook were DRM-free just like all other files available from eMusic?
This is the best quote though:
David Pakman, CEO of eMusic, pointed to the fact that the company had hired a piracy monitoring firm to allay concerns about piracy from publishers. The outside firm, BayTSP, has, he said, found no instance of audiobook files from eMusic cropping up on file-sharing sites.
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