Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Reports of Editorial's Death Are Greatly Exaggerated (or, Why Mike Shatzkin Is Wrong)

Readers of this page or the @BloomsburyPress twitterstream know that I think Mike Shatzkin is one of the smartest observers of the publishing industry today. I cite and retweet the posts from his Idea Logical blog so often that I sometimes feel I'm just a distribution service for him. So I'm perversely happy to report that I think one of his most recent posts grabbed completely the wrong end of the stick.

His title says it all: "Marketing will replace editorial as the driving force behind publishing houses." Mike starts with a thumbnail history of the rise of sales departments in publishing, noting rightly that large sales forces and the tools they used--cover, catalogue, and the summary of key selling points we call title information sheets or tipsheets--were "critical factors to a book's success." I agree with Mike that as he has often written in other posts, the ability to put titles in front of readers simply by getting a lot of them on bookstore shelves has been for a long time the biggest "value added" by publishers for authors. The sheer scale of a big publisher's sales operation, its reach into the widest number of bookstores (or other outlets), was often its key competitive advantage.

So far, I'm with him. And I'd largely agree with the next part of his history, which explains that as the marketplace changed (he points to e-books but in fact online bookselling was critical long before the e-book explosion), "selling"--getting books onto shelves--became only a part of the much broader effort to make consumers aware of a title and motivate them to buy it. Publicity, advertising, author branding, and nowadays an ever-evolving range of social media now outweigh wooing booksellers as critical parts of the process of delivering the author's work to readers. I concur with Mike that the "pull" function of motivating buyers has eclipsed the "push" function of bookstore sell-in in importance.

(Parenthetical note:  This isn't to say booksellers, or sales reps, aren't crucial! The hand-selling that good booksellers do is actually the best marketing we have, creating that "pull" at the store level.)

"So," Shatzkin writes, "marketing has largely usurped the sales function. It will probably before long usurp the editorial function too." This is where we part company. Mike believes that publishing houses "went from editorially-driven in my father's time to sales-driven in mine," and that "the new transition is to being marketing-driven." The fact is that all great publishing houses, and I would argue most really successful ones, are driven by editorial taste, passion, and savvy. ("Savvy" includes commercial savvy, a point I'll come back to.)

I know we bloggers are supposed to make lists, so here's my list of 5 Reasons Editorial Still Drives Publishing.

1. First of all, as my old boss Tom McCormack used to say, "salepeople can't sell, marketers can't market, publicists can't publicize, until editors bring in the books." However the marketplace has changed, attracting and developing new works that people want to read is the sine qua non of a publishing house. Sales couldn't perform this function, nor can marketing.

2. The current explosion of self- and small publishers and the hugely expanding universe of titles available makes the role of a trusted curator that much more valuable. It's a cliché in the business that publishers' brands are meaningless to consumers. But with tens of thousands of new titles, mostly mediocre or worse, flooding the market, that is going to change. Houses whose editors consistently find works that readers respond to are going to have the most success.

3. The development of those works--that is, editing--is still a really vital part of what publishers offer authors. It's easy to romanticize, and overvalue, the mystical author-editor bond and the brilliant contributions of editors who turn sprawling stacks of manuscript into future classics. Such transformations are very rare; more often, the best an editor can do is take a book from a B plus to an A minus. Nonetheless, that might be what breaks that book out of the pack--there are a lot of B plus books out there. And whenever I meet with prospective authors and ask them what they're looking for in a publisher, the first thing most of them say is "an editor who will help me make my manuscript the best it can be." So the editing process is still a place where publishing houses truly do add value.

4. Most important, the best editors ARE marketers. To acquire and edit a book well, an editor needs to identify and understand the audience for that book, whether it's a poetic literary novel or a frat-boy memoir.  Editors need to understand those potential readers and what they're going to respond to in a book; with more specialized content (say, history or science or cooking) they need to know something about the field. The editor has to articulate the "sales handle"--the reason why someone would part with $10, $25 or more to own this particular work. (That sense of the reader's interest is also critical in the editing process--the way you edit the book is shaped by what you intuit readers are looking for in it. So "marketing" and "editing" are not in fact separable.) All of this is what I meant above in saying that great publishers are driven by taste plus commercial savvy.

Sometimes an inspired sales or marketing person, or a publicist, has a new inspiration for how to pitch or package a book, and often those colleagues will refine and sharpen the editor's take on it for their own purposes. But as my marketing colleagues will remind me, it's the editor who has to generate the passion and excitement that gets the machinery of the house moving. When editors don't do that, it's hard for marketers to manufacture that excitement themselves.

5. By the way, not only do editors need to know what readers in a given field are looking for. The best ones also find things that readers aren't looking for--yet. They recognize when an author has written something that doesn't fit an established template yet is fresh and compelling enough to create its own audience. It might be a first novel by David Foster Wallace, Art Spiegelman's Maus, or The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. Marketers are great at selling books to audiences they recognize, but usually very reluctant to embrace things they don't recognize. The first question marketing asks an editor with a new project is, "what are the comp titles?" When the answer is "there really aren't any" the editor meets stiff resistance. So a drawback of a "marketing-driven" house is likely to be that it follows trends rather than sets them--over the long term, a recipe for diminishing returns.

Mike's column cites the example of a small publishing house where the head of marketing is also an acquiring editor and remarks, "I think many publishers will come to see the benefits of marketing-led acquisition in the years to come." But the fact that one smart, creative person with an editorial background has a marketing job doesn't mean that marketing is taking over editorial. In fact, it might be the reverse!

There is no question that marketing is now more important, and more complex, than it has ever been in publishing, and it is likely to become even more so. But--and I say this with complete respect for the many superb marketing people I have worked with--as long as publishing houses as we know them exist, editors will remain at their heart.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Tweet Not Your Query, Author, or, Why I Don't Read the Slush Pile Anymore

When I began working in publishing, one of my jobs was to read the slush pile--the stack of unsolicited book submissions that pour into the mailbox of any publishing house. In those pre-email days they poured physically through the mail slot in our office door, five days a week. As a young, optimistic eager beaver, I cheerfully tore open envelope after envelope, imagining I might find something brilliant inside.

Many publishers back then had already declared they wouldn't accept unsolicited, unagented submissions, but I thought authors shouldn't be penalized just because they had not been able to find a literary agent. Perhaps I would find a work too original, too daring for the commercial-minded book peddlers to have picked it up, or discover a rustic genius who had banged out the great American novel at her kitchen table and sent it off to publishers without even knowing what agents were. After all, the tales of bestselling authors who have been discovered in the slush pile (such as Tom Clancy and Martha Grimes) were the stuff of industry legend.

I was rapidly disillusioned. Of course, I had expected that 90 percent of what was in the slush pile would be unpublishable--and so it was. The many, many ways in which slush can be unpublishable are fodder for much editorial-department humor, but my point here is not to shoot the fish in that particular barrel. What I came to realize is that the task of approaching a publisher is a useful test of common sense and some of the basic skills required for authorship. Writing a book demands the ability to do probably some kind of research; to string a sequence of coherent paragraphs together focused around a central idea; and to have some idea of what the sort of person who's likely to read your work will be looking for in it.

This is not in the least to suggest I don't recognize how challenging it can be to find a publisher, even for a very good book. I have both respect and sympathy for anyone setting out on that quest. What I'm saying is this: If you are thoughtful and imaginative enough to write a first-rate novel, say, or a gripping historical narrative, you should be able to apply those skills to the process of putting your work in front of an editor. You should not just chuck your query letter into a mailbox addressed to "Editorial Department,  Random House" or "To Whom It May Concern". Rather than just sending your stuff to every house in the Literary Market Place from Abbeville to Zebra Publishing, you should find out whether the publisher you're querying even has fiction, or children's books, or whatever, on its list. You would not believe how often my imprint, which states on its webpage it publishes NONFICTION, receives queries from novelists. If you have a little more common sense and a bit more enterprise, you can probably figure out that it makes sense to query publishers who have been successful with the sort of book you're writing; take it one step further, and you can track down the name of an editor who worked on such a book. I am always receptive to a letter from an author who says, "I'm writing a book that I think will appeal to readers of XYZ Title and I saw that you edited it."

But by definition, writers in the slush pile have not taken these elementary steps. They have not gone through the thought process, or done the legwork, necessary to put a well-targeted pitch into the mailbox of a specific person, they have trusted to luck or perhaps the dazzling quality of their work, or they simply haven't thought about it one way or the other. That doesn't mean they aren't gifted; maybe they are naive, untutored geniuses. But it does mean they're not professionals. They aren't thinking about their work or their careers in a businesslike way. And that simply means the odds  that they can be successfully published are really slim.

I don't mean this snidely. Creativity being what it is, it's always the case that there are talented writers out there who are totally naive about what might be involved in getting your work published. And once I even found a pretty talented mystery writer in the slush pile, who went on to write several books. That was one author, though, out of the hundreds and hundreds I sifted through--meaning it wasn't 90 percent, but well over 99.9 percent, whose work had not been viable. Given the state of the marketplace, where it seems to take more effort than ever--by both publisher and author--to make a book work, I've had to conclude that the time I might devote to panning the slush pile for gold nuggets is that much less time that I have to spend on all my other tasks.

The 21st century cousin of the slush-pile submission is the query-by-tweet. Not only do we get "Dear Editor" letters, we see messages like this on Twitter.  Hey, @BloomsburyPress, I've written a teen paranormal romance. Ppl say it's next TWILIGHT-DM me for details!  After seeing one too many of those, I tweeted in response, Dear Authors: Twitter is not the way to query us. And this imprint is nonfiction only. If you want to get published, please do yr homework.  Instantly--this being Twitter--I received a stream of tweets disparaging Bloomsbury Press as arrogant and ignorant of the new world where "publishers need to impress and adapt, not writers. We have other avenues."

Now, I celebrate the fact that authors have many ways of reaching readers. Yet as in any other form of writing, it's important to suit your content to the medium. Twitter, a medium of 140-character blurts, is not a good showcase for your ability to write a work of 70,000 words-plus. And since even our Twitter profile says @BloomsburyPress is a publisher of "140+char serious nonfiction," an author who queries us about his YA novel has failed to clear even a pretty minimal threshold of effort. My abovementioned tweet was not intended to disparage or discourage authors, but to offer straightforward, good-faith advice. Twitter is a great tool for authors--but so was the telephone. Neither of them are the right tool for finding a publisher.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Publishing and Bad Publishing Are Not the Same Thing: A Publisher's Response to "An Agent's Manifesto"

The London agent Jonny Geller stirred up a lot of discussion, and a flurry of Twittering, by posting "An Agent's Manifesto" a week or so ago. Jonny contended that in the "maelstrom" of the current book business, authors are being forgotten, taken for granted by booksellers and, in particular, by publishers. The original post seems now to be behind a paywall but it's extensively quoted here and here. He writes:
The author is not an object which a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication. If they have a problem with the cover, blurb, copy or format, then something isn’t right….Remember, we don’t have a job without [the author]. For those of us still working in the legacy business of publishing books, here’s a reminder of the primary mover in this chain.
A great many people retweeted his column or commented on it using words like "fantastic." And his dim view of publishers was echoed elsewhere. At her blog, the novelist and ghostwriter Roz Morris had even more negative opinions of my colleagues:
It is common, behind the scenes, to hear editors talk about authors with undisguised loathing – not just individual ones who may be difficult, but all of them, authors as a breed. There is a culture that authors must not be listened to.
I have to say that I don't buy these generalizations about our business.

I have worked at publishers large and small--two Big Six houses, a literary indie, a university press, and currently a house I'd describe as mid-size. Never, ever, at any of them, have I heard authors discussed with "loathing." At all of them it was fully understood by editors, marketers, and management that the author is, in Jonny's words, "the primary mover" in the publishing firmament. The whole enterprise would not exist without authors. To put it another way, as one of my colleagues says, "the author is our customer." I simply don't know anyone in publishing who thinks of an author as "an object we have to step over to achieve a successful publication."

At Bloomsbury, we regard the author as a key partner in marketing the book, because as Jonny correctly observes, "the author is the expert" on the subject, setting, and likely readership of her book. We want to tap into that expertise, and use the author to help mobilize the networks of readers who are going to respond to what she's doing.

I have made clear elsewhere on this blog that I'm fully aware publishers often fail authors (and themselves for that matter)--for all sorts of reasons. One is simply the tendency of any complex organization to screw up from time to time. Another is that most publishers are under-resourced. Trade publishing is a chancy and low-margin business, and there's rarely enough money and man-hours to lavish on each title--on any title--as much as it deserves. In the hustle to get things done, there can be a temptation to take shortcuts--and one of the most ill-advised shortcuts is to discount the author's input about jacket design, flap copy, or marketing ideas when they are at odds with the publisher's. This does sometimes happen, and sometimes with the arrogant justification that "we're the professionals." I have no hesitation in saying this is simply bad publishing, and any author who experiences such treatment is right to resent his publisher for it. But in my experience it's relatively rare.  It may be more common at the biggest houses, where the sheer volume of titles can, at its worst, lead toward a book-as-widget mentality. Throughout our industry, however, dedicated people are expending sweat, toil, and sometimes tears to meet authors' expectations.

By way of example, in the past week, I've been working with our creative director to find a jacket for a fall title, where in attempting to satisfy the author, we have gone through not less than a dozen different designs. I have exchanged numerous emails with another author, trying to choose a title and subtitle from among 5 or 6 possibilities--this after his original choice had been embraced by our marketing team but he had second thoughts. And I spent an hour on the phone with a third author, negotiating the precise wording of the captions in his photo section. This is not because I'm a unique paragon of editorial virtute; all around me, and not just at Bloomsbury, my colleagues are toiling away with their authors in similar ways. Down the hall from me, a publicist was booking and rebooking flights for an author's book tour in response to her changing schedule. And out in the Northwest a sales rep was arranging a dinner for a debut novelist to meet with booksellers for the region. None of these authors, by the way, are bestselling VIP types, although we hope they eventually will be.

I submit that these authors are, as Jonny urges, being "valued, understood, appreciated, included, nurtured and spoken to like adults." Furthermore, I can think of no other major creative industry where a single artist has so much control over his or her content and how it gets presented to the public. The author has absolute final say over the text of the book (contrast this with Hollywood, where a director may not even have final-cut approval, or journalism, where a writer's copy may be heavily rewritten at the editing desk); and--the above-noted Bad Publishing exceptions aside--typically has consultation even on covers and catalogue writeups. 

Editors, especially, value authors because they are our closest partners in the process. The relationship can be intimate, and like any close relationship it can be fraught. Authors do things that make editors grind their teeth from time to time, just as spouses do to one another. And publishing people do, it's true, vent about authors now and then, just as authors vent about publishers. That doesn't mean there's a lack of respect on either side. 

Several of the commenters on Jonny Geller's and Roz Morris's posts cite "horror stories" they have heard about author mistreatment. I note that most of these horror stories are secondhand. In saying such stories are unfortunate and rare, I'm not saying none of them are true. By the same token, I think most agents do a good job for their clients, even if one of Roz Morris's commenters wrote "I still want to punch something when I think how my agent mistreated me." In any case, I was pleased to see that several authors also posted comments about how happy they were with the care and attention they received from their publishers. It's human nature that "horror stories" circulate more widely than "satisfaction stories."

I have no quarrel with Jonny Geller’s manifesto. Authors will always be at the core of whatever publishers do, and it is worthwhile to remind us of that. But to the charge of disrespecting authors, on behalf of all the publishers I know, I plead not guilty.   

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Field Guide to the Flora and Fauna of BookExpo

The 2011 edition of BookExpo America, or as we call it in the trade “BEA,” has just concluded—the industry’s annual hoedown where booksellers, authors, agents, and publishers gather in the uninspiring setting of New York’s Javits Convention Center to talk shop, promote new books, and of course gossip. I’ve been attending these trade shows for a couple of decades now and I have come to realize that, industry transformations notwithstanding, some things about BEA remain comfortingly the same. Names change, but the cast of characters is familiar. Herewith a field guide to some typical denizens of BookExpo. You might have seen them at BEA2011; I’m sure we will see them at BEA2012.

The Very Important Publisher (or Agent)
This person is easily spotted because he’s one of a small number of people wearing a well tailored suit. He can usually be observed in one of two modes: striding purposefully down an aisle en route to his next meeting (careful to arrive a few minutes late) or standing in the middle of a busy aisle talking on his cellphone. There are of course also Very Importants who are female. Their suits are even better tailored. They speak more softly on their cellphones but you may hear a discreet rattle of their chunky gold jewelry.

The Editor
Editors come in all shapes and sizes, and can usually be seen flitting around from booth to booth chatting with their counterparts at other houses. They chat with agents too, but chewing the fat with their colleague/competitors is actually their favorite thing about BEA, because they get to do it so rarely at other times. The Editor will stand around his house’s booth for 10 or 15 minutes to show that he's pitching in, perhaps halfheartedly waving a couple of catalogues at passersby. Sometimes he will be actively chased off by salespeople or publicists who are actually trying to do business in the booth; otherwise he’ll wave the catalogues until he gets bored (this takes 15 to 20 minutes). Then it’s off for “a meeting in the Rights Center,” which lasts 12 minutes (tells Russian publisher reluctantly, “I don’t think the KGB Cookbook would work for us”). The Editor then takes a meandering course back to the booth, stopping to visit comrades at 5 or 6 houses, pause for coffee, maybe grab a hot ARC from Random or Little, Brown. Finally, he’s back at the booth—whoops, time for that lunch meeting.

The Schnittman
No publishing conference is complete without this person, who looms above the fray peering down on it through his black plastic glasses. He is easy to find, for he will appear on half a dozen panels on The Future of Something, lobbing provocative remarks that will light up Twitter like a pinball machine.  If you see an individual lobbing equally provocative remarks but lacking the distinctive black glasses, back away very quietly. You may be looking at a Charkin.

The Swagaholics
These are frequently middle–aged couples who roam the floor together, towing a bulky roller suitcase that kneecaps, en passant, those attendees who don’t remember to watch out in the crowded thoroughfares. For some reason they often wear khaki shorts, floppy hats or other garments that suggest they're on safari, or a botanical field trip. The Swagaholics may be booksellers or librarians; some, I have concluded, are are just people who have like Free Stuff. Each of them grabs handfuls of the ephemera that BEA generates in such enormous quantities: pens, pins, jump drives, T-shirts, keychains, posters--and most prized, but alas, heaviest, galleys—and stows it a tote bag (periodically emptied into the rolling suitcase). I can never tell whether these folks actually read or use any of the stuff they collect; by the second afternoon of the show they have a look of grim determination, but they’re damned if they’ll leave the Javits until the rolly bag is full…

The Wannabe Author
Important note for younger book business staffers: Watch out for anyone whose badge says AUTHOR but does not feature the name of a publishing house. This might well be a self-published author, or more dangerously, someone who has bought a day pass in the hope of pitching his/her manuscript to editors on the show floor (in itself, a warning sign of poor reality testing). Often he’ll have the title of his book on the badge as well, which can make it easier to tell—something like this:
He will lurk near the booth, the whites of his eyes slightly too visible, waiting for a moment to buttonhole someone on the publisher’s staff. If you see one of these nearby, shifting from foot to foot, it’s the cue for “Can I get anyone a coffee?”  Take off for the remotest Starbucks in the hall and don’t hurry coming back.

The First-Time Author
Distinguished from the Wannabe by the key fact this author has a book coming out from an established publishing house; maybe the F.T.A. is even lucky enough to have a “buzz book” or be on a panel. The First Time Author will typically blink a lot, looking from side to side with a slightly dazed expression like a newly hatched chick. She is excited to be at this much-touted conference but confused about what is going on, where she should go or what she should do. The whole thing seems rather…chaotic. After the excitement of her panel discussion wears off the FTA begins to absorb the chilling fact of just how many other books are being published in the same season, the same month, even the same week as hers.  You may see the F.T.A, after her second afternoon on the floor, hastening toward the exit, her blinking now replaced by wide-eyed alarm. 

The Random Peddler
This person is sort of Yin to the Carrot’s yang (see below). In addition to people peddling books as if they were some other kind of product, there are always a few entrepreneurs who come to BEA to peddle something totally un-booklike—think flashlights, wiper blades, pet supplies. This year my eye was caught by a booth selling, I think, molded foot insoles. It seemed completely off the wall, until I realized, after 16 hours of marching up and down the concrete floors of the Javits, everyone’s feet are killing them! (Have a thought for the poor Swagaholics, whose rolly-bag is full and whose bulging tote bags are now weighing them down like lead.) 

The Carrot
I’m not being figurative here. The first time I attended Book Expo was so long ago it was called ABA, the American Booksellers Association (pause to shout out to my fellow curmudgeons who don’t believe that mashing together a non-word like “Expo” with a perfectly good word like “Book” is an improvement on either one, nor that putting the mashup next to “America” can turn the latter into an adjective. But I digress.)  Newly employed by an incredibly literary small press that published things like poetry in translation, classic reprints, and magic-realist fiction, I went off to the old Washington convention center full of zeal to spread the word about our brilliant list. I was somewhat dismayed to find our booth—it was a table, really—in the most distant reaches of the exhibit hall, where only the most dedicated, desperately bored, or navigationally challenged attendees were ever likely to tread.

As a house with little seniority and less clout at the show, we had been relegated to the backwaters with other unfavored exhibitors. Our neighbor on one side was a guy who sold self-hypnosis tapes—Lose Weight While You Sleep, etc. On the other was the author of a self-published guide to juicing, who had hired someone to walk up and down the aisles dressed as a carrot. Needless to say, we weren’t selling a whole lot of our Turkish poetry and essay collections; few likely customers for our wares made it past the carrot.

The urge to market books or other “product” by dressing shills in outlandish costumes seems to be a constant of human nature, for I have never attended a BEA when there wasn’t at least one person in a foam suit or other cartoonlike getup. This year I spotted someone who I thought at first was a giant banana, but turned out to be embodying Mr. Dummy of the Dummies guides. There were also several aggressively cheerful youngsters who were dressed as fairy tale characters, or citizens of Dogpatch, or something else of a rustic nature, promoting I’m not sure what. 

I realize I am being figurative—not metaphoric, but synecdochic—in saying you can count on meeting a Carrot at BEA2012. Maybe all trade shows are like this. If I went to the Consumer Electronics show, would I bump into people dressed as Intel chips or iPods? I suppose in some dystopian future where “books” have been subsumed by “devices,” I may get to find out.