Saturday, July 3, 2021

Whose Business Model Is Broken Anyway?

It's been some time since your friend the Doctor has posted here--preoccupied as he has been with sorting out the syntax of authors far and wide--but a publishing story in, of all places, the New York Post, has prompted him to pick up his quill and stab it into the inkwell, with a snort of irritation. 

Once again poor old book publishing, the Post's Keith Kelly tells us, is to be "disrupted," this time by the online platform Substack, which has already taken a whack at disrupting magazine and newspaper publishing by peeling writers away from their media-company employers and offering their content directly to readers via subscription. Now, apparently, it's coming for the book industry. 

Media journalist Zack Greenburg, who has written four books for houses like Penguin Portfolio and Simon & Schuster, will release his new book, We Are All Musicians Now, in weekly installments on Substack. A paid subscription will cost $5 a month or $50 a year (typical of Substack); he will also post other content weekly that readers can get free. In the Post, Greenburg sounds pretty jazzed: "All in all, with the advance money being in the same ballpark, I’d rather go to a place where I can be my own boss with a higher upside than try to force it through an old business model that I think is broken." 

I'm all for exploring new business models, but when I hear someone bashing publishing as "broken," I cock a skeptical eyebrow. As I've said in my own book, What Editors Do, publishing has been declared broken repeatedly since Gutenberg. The industry has plenty of problems, but in fact it has weathered the digital era--and even a worldwide pandemic-- far more successfully than many other media businesses.  To compare Substack's "disruptive" model with conventional books,  let's look at the "value propositions" side by side by doing a little arithmentic. 

A typical book might run 75-100,000 words. Let's say Greenburg's is 80,000, just to make this math simple. And let's say Greenburg posts a 2000-word excerpt each week--that's long for a Substack but we'll assume he's a real fast typist....It'll take 40 weeks, roughly 8 months, to get his whole book posted, by which point a subscriber has paid $40 (or $50 if they went with the annual rate). 

In other words, the subscriber is paying $40-50 for content they could buy for roughly $25-30 in the form of a hardcover book, or $10-15 as an ebook. In either of those formats, they could read the whole thing at once (no waiting a week between chapters); bookmark or search passages--even give it to another person in the case of the print book. 

So Greenburg and Substack propose to charge their consumer a price four or five times what tired old conventional publishing would ask for a more convenient, more enduring version of the same product. But they will dribble it out over several months. Well, that's a new business model all right!  But it's not clear to me that it's any kind of improvement on what "broken" old book publishing has to offer, from a reader's perspective. 

Maybe what Greenburg believes is that it's a better deal for him, and given the markup just described, you'd think it would be. But that's not clear either, given the chunk of subscription revenues that Substack takes in return for what it advances an author. Other authors who got Substack advances have not necessarily found the economics favorable. One, Matthew Yglesias, concluded accepting an advance had cost him nearly $400,000 in subscription revenue.  

I'm no knee-jerk defender of traditional publishing, as readers of earlier posts here are aware. And writers are entitled to make a living however they want--there is no easy way, goodness knows. But bashing the industry as "broken" is a cheap shot, especially if your whizbang new model is a worse deal for readers.

[photograph via] 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

What Editors Do Goes on the Road--and on the Air! A Conversation on BookTV, or Maybe in Your Neighborhood

With my book What Editors Do now actually available to buy, I've had the pleasure of appearing in bookstores to talk about it, so far in the company of very articulate contributors and other colleagues. Our first outing, on January 9 was at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., one of the truly great independent stores in America. Naturally, given their location, P&P is especially strong in politics, history, and current events, and they have  showcased many books that I've published and hosted many of my authors over the years. So it was a particular thrill for me to headline a book event in my own right.

One of the things that makes indie booksellers great is they really know their community and their customers, and they did, as usual, a wonderful job of attracting an audience to our event. We had a standing-room crowd who helped make a very lively discussion by asking lots of good questions.  I was joined for this event by two contributors to What Editors Do, Cal Morgan of Riverhead Books and Susan Ferber of Oxford University Press, and by Gail Ross, a veteran Washington agent who has represented many terrific nonfiction books, often by the capital's heavy hitters and top journalists.

I began by talking about the three phases of editing that I identify in the book, which provide the organizing principle for it. Cal talked about the "editor as evangelist," from his chapter "Start Spreading the News." Susan discussed working with scholarly authors writing for general readers, based on her chapter, "Of Monographs and Magnum Opuses." And Gail offered the agent's perspective on the role editors play in getting a book from the author's keyboard into the reader's hands. We had a great conversation, and happily, it was all recorded on video by C-Span's BookTV, which has already broadcast it a few times. You can watch the whole thing on the BookTV website--click on this link.

If you're in the New York City area, heads up: I'll speaking again about editing and publishing on Thursday, February 22 at another superb indie bookstore, Book Culture on 112th Street near Columbia University, with another great panel of contributors plus a guest star, Shaye Areheart, director of the Columbia Publishing Course, which has trained people for careers in publishing for three-quarters of a century. Come and bring your questions! Info on the event here.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

BookExpo Snapshots: Editors’-Eye-Views of the Publishing Industry, mid-2017

BookExpo, the annual booksellers and publishers convention, has traditionally been the moment for media and book-business observers to take stock of the industry. Like many things about traditional publishing, BookExpo has shrunk in size and schedule in recent years, though it now includes a consumer-oriented portion called BookCon. But editors, sales reps, and booksellers still walk the floor and ask each other “how’s business?”

So I thought I’d honor the tradition and gather some impressions from colleagues. The natural place to start was a ready-made panel of experts—the contributors to the forthcoming essay collection WHAT EDITORS DO, edited by yours truly. (For more on the book, see yesterday’s post.)  I circulated a few questions to my 26 co-authors. Interestingly, many of those who answered were not attending BookExpo, probably because for those who are, this is a crazy-busy week. But I got some thoughtful responses from editors representing Big 5 trade houses, university, and literary indie publishing.

Herewith some brief selections from their answer, with a few of my own comments thrown in. As usual, different perspectives give us a variegated picture of the industry, where cautious optimism is streaked with the awareness of challenges.

What was the first BEA
you attended? What do you remember of BookExpos past or present, or what are you looking forward to?

Jane Friedman
Jane Friedman (Blogger, consultant and industry observer at  My first BEA was 2004 in Chicago. I don't remember much from that first year, but I attended every year after that for about 10 years. The best part was always meeting and spending time with authors. The worst part was always the lines, lines, lines, and crowding—and feeling done with humanity by the end. I'm not attending this year, but I know it's partly a mistake. Some serendipitous encounter always happens that makes the discomfort and exhaustion worthwhile.

Susan Ferber  (Executive Editor, Oxford University Press):  I have actually never attended the BEA! Since I work for a university press, my highest priority is the conferences in my academic discipline. 

Diana Gill  (Executive Editor, Tor/Macmillan): My first ABA was while I was still in college, courtesy of one of my very first publishing mentors. I remember being so very excited to see the booths and to get ALL THE GALLEYS.  I couldn't believe how cool it was. Your first BEA is a rush, whether it was many years ago or for the new assistants just starting out.

Peter Ginna: I have written elsewhere of memorable BEA experiences and characters. One that was happily not my own was a peer of mine who toiled in an imprint of Random House, back in the days when Random caused a stir by spending a million dollars on a vast, elaborate BookExpo booth featuring an actual House in the middle of it. Along with other low-riders on the corporate totem pole, he was stocking the shelves in the booth when an unfamiliar-looking suit, cocking his head to examine the custom-made fixtures, said, how does it look? The new recruit said, candidly, I think it looks like a French pissoir. It was then that he found he was speaking to Alberto Vitale, Randoms CEO.

Carol Fisher Saller
What is the most underappreciated positive development in publishing recently, or the most overhyped negative one? What about the flip side—what is the most underappreciated threat or challenge to book publishers? 

Carol Fisher Saller (University of Chicago Press, author of The Subversive Copy Editor): From the get-go, I was amazed at the hysteria over e-books and how they were going to destroy publishing. Instead, we've seen publishing explode in many new directions, with more kinds of things to read in more kinds of formats than ever before.

PG: One of the most underappreciated challenges to publishing is the dwindling of mass consumer medianewspapers, magazines, and radio especiallythat have long been a crucial way for publishers to make readers aware of new books. Online marketing and social media have not yet replaced the reach of, for example, the vanished book-review sections of major newspapers. Another real problem for book publishing is its lack of diversitypublishing staffs are far less diverse than America at large. (In a chapter of What Editors DoChris Jackson of One World writes eloquently of why this is a serious issue.) It is not just a matter of social justice, when talented candidates dont get hired or promoted. Its a problem for the industry, which is often out of step with the tastes and interests of the reading population.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf
Katharine OMoore-Klopf (Freelance editor specializing in medical & life science books): I have been concerned about the loss of respect for or loss of knowledge about the value of developmental editing, line editing, and copyediting. As publishing has become more about the financial bottom line than about quality, editing has come to be seen as less of a necessity than it once was. Part of this is because editors in general have been self-effacing, thinking it almost improper to talk about the value of their role in publishing. That must change. Editors of all kinds must speak out in every venue possible to explain what it is they do and why it’s important to the quality of books.

Diana Gill
Diana Gill: I think it's fairly clear that the big 5 will continue to contract and tighten their programs, with all the commensurate effects and spinning of publishing's own wheel of fortune for people at those houses, and for authors new and old. I hope smaller and indie presses continue to provide some alternatives and ideally grow to counteract the contraction.

Susan Ferber: I think we have taken for granted what an incredible development print on demand has meant for publishers, authors, and readers.  There is no need to declare books out of print anymore; we can literally make work available forever, which is a development on par with the printing press in my mind.  I think the death of the print book has been the most overhyped negative in the publishing world.  This has been augured and feared for so long, and for new generations of readers, it is so heartening to see that they love the print form.  It is enduring and old technology can and does have value. 
Susan Ferber

Jane Friedman:  I am encouraged by the new data-oriented research and tools that help publishers and authors better speak to, connect, and market directly to readers. Direct-to-consumer knowledge and marketing has been the Achilles heel for traditional publishers, particularly when compared to Amazon's capabilities, but it really feels like the industry is making some progress. 

As an author-advocate, I wish publishers would take more seriously the need to offer authors more communication and education on book marketing. I know it's not possible for publishers to give all their titles A-list marketing treatment, but by far the biggest complaint I hear from authors is that no one told them or prepared them for what the publisher would or would not do. Greater transparency would be so helpful.

 [BookExop photo via Chicago Tribune] 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

I Wrote the Book on Editing. (I Had Help.)

This blog has gone unrefreshed for far too long now, but your correspondent has not been idle. For much of the past couple of years I have been putting together--editing and partly writing--the book whose cover you see here: What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing. It was commissioned by the University of Chicago Press, the publisher of the venerable and indispensable Chicago Manual of Style, and they'll release it in October. (Feel free to preorder it now!)

It seems ironic that for those who are interested in going into the book business, or those outside it who want to understand it, there is a dearth of published guidance about how editors do what they do, or why, or what constitutes best practices in editing. There are a few very good exceptions to that statement, most notably the late Gerald Gross's essay collection Editors on Editing, first published in 1962, updated twice since, and still in print. I read the second edition avidly when I got into publishing in the early 1980s, and it is still well worth reading, with contributions from many accomplished (in some cases legendary) editors. But EoE was last updated in the early 90s, before Amazon and the internet, among other factors, transformed the industry. It was long past time for another crack at the subject.

What Editors Do is the result. I'm very grateful to the stellar editors, agents, and other experts-- 27 in all--who answered the call to explain the many and varied roles that editors play in connecting writers and readers. The contents cover a broad swath of the publishing industry, including academic and reference publishing as well as trade, children's as well as adult, genre fiction as well as literary. And because self-publishing has become such a vibrant segment of the marketplace and so important for authors, it addresses what happens when authors become their own editors.

In the coming weeks and months, I'll be posting some material from and about the book here. For now, in the hope of whetting your appetite, here's the table of contents and list of essayists. (Click on the images to enlarge.) For further description, see the publisher's catalogue page, or watch this space.