26 September 08 | Chad W. Post

Yesterday, E.J. and I were talking about the presentation on the “state of publishing in the U.S.” that he has to give as a Frankfurt Fellow. I thought it would be funny—and totally unexpected—if instead of giving the usual doom and gloom speech1, he provided a vision of an ideal book culture, one overflowing with bookstores, book reviews, and sales dollars. Even for translations. One in which there were readers for every writer, midlist authors could live simply on royalties and government subsidies, publishers and editors would live glamorous lives on par with movie execs, and returns were a thing of the past. Along with “Reading at Risk” reports and articles.

Of course, this publisher wet dream will never take place. (Touch of the doom and gloom, but seriously, here’s a bit about the Harper Studio attempt to enact a non-return policy.) And even if it did, publishers would still complain about discounts to bookstores, about having to still increase their profits, and about the demands placed on them by their authors.

But after joking about this for a while, it occurred to me that this publishing paradise didn’t really include the reader . . . As a reader rather than a publishing professional, my vision (or exaggerated vision) of the ideal book culture is a bit different—all books would be available anytime anywhere (be it in the proliferation of independent bookstores or online) to satisfy my every instantaneous longing for whatever book comes to mind, there would be even more blogs and social sites where I could get trustworthy info about the type of books I like, and (in my most radical vision) all books would be essentially free.

Also not going to happen, but I think this is sort of representative of the big gap between publishing executives and actual readers.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but the chain of information from publishers to readers is incredibly long and almost totally one-way. Here’s a theoretical example of this flow from start to finish:

Author send manuscript to agent, who sends it to editors, who likes it and shares with publisher and other employees. They decide to buy the book based on a (partially) fabricated and idealized P&L sheet. The marketing department plans promotions for the book, the publicists start talking with review outlets (mainly newspapers and magazines and radio and TV—more on that in a second), the sales staff meets with buyers at bookstores. Once the book ships to stores, the booksellers (aside from the buyer, and especially at the chains) find out about this book for the first time, and then when a customer comes in, they clerk it.

(To digress for a moment—although this whole post is essentially a digression—by “clerk it” I’m referring to the growing number of bookstore employees who don’t really know a lot about literature or bookselling, instead they just clerk sales. They work cash registers and shelve books rather than promoting discoveries and sharing the “love of books” that supposedly got them into this low-paying field. Not to vilify the chain stores, but we all know the sequence of befuddlement that typically occurs when you ask about a book non on the best-seller list. I can’t reproduce the shock I had in a Borders last month when a woman was looking for The Shadow of the Wind and the bookseller/clerk had no idea what she was talking about and couldn’t find it in their computer. She almost left thinking that the book wasn’t there, or maybe didn’t even exist. Stupidly—and sort of condescendingly—I walked both of them over to the stack of 8 copies that were faced out in the fiction section. That ain’t bookselling. And the erosion of interactions between readers and real booksellers—of which there are many, you just have to know where to do—is a real detriment to book culture as a whole.)

Back at the office, the CEO has no idea who is looking at or buying these books, he/she can only see general trends, sales figures that are quasi-inaccurate (returns can happen at any time) and review coverage. If he/she gets any information about the book’s reception it’s from his/her own staff, from bookstore owners, maybe from other publishing people.

Sure this is a bit cynical and not the entire picture, but it’s easy to see how this disconnect between producers and customers exist.

A case in point is the BookExpo America. I’ve been to a good share of trade shows around the world, including the London Book Fair, Frankfurt, Guadalajara, and Buenos Aires. London excluded, all of the others have times in which they are open to the general public. A public that tends to go ape-shit crazy for all the books on display, all the authors in attendance, etc. Like the kids in Frankfurt dressing up as their favorite characters. In Guadalajara, Jorge Volpi is treated like a literal rock star. I saw a crammed event in which people screamed and jumped up and down when he was introduced. Then they all left with bags and bags of books.

All of these shows also have “trade only” times/days in which publishers can talk with each other and with booksellers and critics, and “do business,” but each show also recognizes the importance of including your audience in this celebration of publishing.

Here in the U.S. at BookExpo? No outsiders allowed, and not a chance in hell that this will ever change. Instead, in part because of this disconnect referenced above, publishers only want to cultivate and interact with a) each other, b) agents, c) buyers at bookstores and d) reviewers. At the same time, every publisher/editor/marketer “knows” the audience for any given book.

Although I’ve never been there, I’ve talked to a number of people involved in ComicCon, and the culture there seems much much different. It is a fan-based event, but one in which fans can interact with creators, publishers, whomever, telling them what they do and don’t like about TV shows, comics, movies, etc., etc. Clearly this is much, much different that the book market (as currently set up), and almost by default, people get more excited about comics, TV shows, and movies than they do about reading a book alone in their house (the cultures surrounding these other media are way more connected than the ones for most books), perhaps because these other media tend to be more viscerally entertaining.

Nevertheless, as Lance Fensterman of Reed Exhibitions mentioned when I was talking to him about about this, the graphic novel industry is one of the only growth areas in publishing these days, so even if there are certain “entertainment” advantages, it’s my opinion that we should examining what comic publishers do to see if there are a few strategies that could apply to the rest of the book trade. And this strong interaction with customers seems like a big one to me.

I have no solutions, and although we’re tying a few things with Open Letter to more connect with readers (like this blog, like our subscriptions), we’re not doing anything that radical or game-changing. But we really should. I’d like to start sending review copies to more readers for one. The people on LibraryThing and Good Reads have done a ton in helping promote Open Letter and our first titles. And it’s not just about selling. It’s really rewarding to talk with people who just love books and read books and aren’t really part of the publishing scene. (Of course, I love my colleagues as well.) And as everyone knows, positive word of mouth is way more valuable than the sale of a single copy of a book.

For years, publishers have stuck to the viewpoint that market research, that identifying readers and fans is basically impossible. They relied on chance encounters, the people who show up to readings, to opt-in mailing lists, all the while constantly reassuring themselves that there is no branding in the book business at the publisher level. (Frankly, that’s just bullshit, and a subject for a different post.) Nowadays, with social networking sites, and other Web 2.0 (or whatever) technologies, this actually is possible, and other industries are capitalizing on reaching their audience while book publishers fret about pirating e-books and the death of newspaper book sections1.

There’s not really a point or conclusion to all of this, except that I think by really engaging with readers, publishers (especially smaller ones) have a much better chance of being successful, either as a non-profit (readers can help find donors) or a for-profit (readers help create more readers). And, by knowing your audience (for real), there’s a better chance that book culture could evolve into something that satisfies the desires of both groups.


1 I’m convinced that American love—and are possibly addicted to—fear and catastrophe. When the “sky is falling” our news coverage is at its best, making us feel like the whole world is about to implode, keeping us glued to the breaking news scroll. And people love to write about “the end of publishing” every so often, to remind everyone in and out of the scene about how everything is screwed. Or we use statements like “only three percent of all books are in translation.” (Or in my case, pointing out that three percent is an insane dream number.) It’s like that set-piece in Underworld about Lenny Bruce’s bit during the Cuban Missile Crisis in which he randomly would yell “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!” during his routine. I’m not necessarily against the moaning and gloom and doom and whatnot, but in terms of publishing, I think it would be better to look for innovations and ideas instead of going all Eeyore about the soon to be end of everything we hold dear.

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