Saturday, October 31, 2009

How Ordinary People Can Change the World

I've promised not just to flack my titles on this page, but I did say I was going to tell you about them now and again. That's what makes you publish a book--the urge to share it with other readers.

The one that's on my mind today is The Union of Their Dreams by Miriam Pawel. The Los Angeles Times reviews it this coming Sunday and calls it a "masterpiece." I agree. It reminds me of classics like Anthony Lukas’s COMMON GROUND, or Randy Shilts’ AND THE BAND PLAYED ON in the way it weaves a narrative from the stories of ordinary people that you come to care about intensely.

The story of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers is one of the great American struggles for social justice, an astonishingly successful movement built from scratch. Miriam tells it through the experience of eight people who became key players in the UFW, from workers who learned organizing in the fields, to idealistic lawyers, ministers, and college kids. They found meaning and passion in "The Cause," and did incredible things, including leading the most effective consumer boycotts in history.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Kerfuffle of the Week: E-Book Royalties

One hot topic in publishing this week was Macmillan’s announcement that their new boilerplate contract, across all their trade imprints, will feature a standard royalty of 20 percent of net receipts. This is 5 percent less than the rate offered by some major houses such as Simon & Schuster, Random House (and my own, Bloomsbury). Some houses have paid royalties as high as 50 percent of net.

Here’s an area where, as I've said in an earlier post, we see how our industry has gone from a mature one—where basic contract terms were well established, virtually universal across houses—to what’s almost a state of nature free-for-all as we thrash out how the new, electronic pie is going to be divided.

The 50 percent royalties I just mentioned were blithely agreed to by many publishers back when e-books were mostly hypothetical and e-book receipts were basically zero. For that matter, many agents agreed to rolling them back to 25 for the same reason—it was 25 percent of nothin'.  Now there’s real money flowing in the door and if you’re giving half, or even a quarter of it, to an author, it’s a significant chunk off your bottom line.
Some people make the argument that "e-books don't cost anything to produce," so e-royalties should be correspondingly higher. There are at least two problems with this position:

  1. There are many costs that go into creating a book beyond those of printing the physical volume. These might be a lot smaller if we only produced e-books. But as long as we create print books we're paying for jacket designers, typographers, warehouse staff, review copy mailings, etc. None of those costs go away just because you sell a book on Kindle. (For more on this see Bob Miller's post and the comment thread on HarperStudio's blog.) Maybe what publishers should say is, we’ll pay you a 50 percent net royalty as long as you don’t mind that an e-dition is the only one.
  2. Publishers are also concerned because we don’t know how much the sales of e-books are cannibalizing p-books. It’s one thing if, as e-vangelists maintain, e-book sales are expanding the market and that revenue is additional to print sales. It’s another if the e-book, quite possibly at a lower price, is replacing the sale of a printed book. Again, in that case, the publisher is probably earning less money on the e-book. Its bottom line will suffer unless it can claw back some of the revenue from the author’s share. And right now publishers are more anxious about their bottom lines than ever. 
I can’t tell whether Macmillan is, as the British say, trying it on, or whether they’re drawing a line in the sand here. They are sure to get intense pushback from agents. But I think the skirmishes around this line will get more intense as e-book revenues grow, which they are doing rapidly.

P.S. Agent and e-publisher Richard Curtis has a typically smart and opinionated post on this at He suggests, and I agree, that maybe the bigger news in the new Macmillan boilerplate is their increased focus (and better royalties) on direct-to-consumer sales. The next frontier for publishers is selling books right to readers instead of being dependent on Amazon and the bookstore chains. How to do this while supporting independent booksellers, which is also vital, is a tricky one, but will have to be a subject for future posts.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is Amazon Shooting the Kindle in the Foot?

Publishers are watching the current price war between Amazon, Wal-Mart and Target with misgivings. The retail and e-tail behemoths are offering loss-leader prices around the 9-dollar mark for many new hardcovers, and some fear that pushing prices on major titles down will devalue other books in consumers' minds.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What's On Your Shame List?

Robert Gray, the bookseller who writes one of the most astute and engaging blogs in the book trade, has a wonderful post this week at Shelf Awareness on "The Shame List." The Shame List includes "those backlist books every bookstore would be 'embarrassed' and even 'mortified' not to have in stock when a customer asks for them." He lists a few titles--some you might not expect--that are on his personal shortlist of books he'd hand-sell without even looking at the shelf. And he asks readers what titles are on their own Shame Lists.

I can’t remember where I saw this, but I once read a piece by an author about her “Middlemarch test.” If she went into a bookstore and it didn’t have Middlemarch, she knew the place was not up to scratch. Maybe that’s setting the bar too low, but I would certainly agree that if there’s no Middlemarch the backlist pickings are going to be slim.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It’s the Best of Times—No, the Worst—No, Wait, the Best

I went looking for my first job in publishing in 1982, in the third year of a recession. It took months; I interviewed with about 30 different people. “Are you sure you want to work in this industry?” they asked me. “This is the worst time there has ever been to look for a job in publishing.” In fact, it was pretty bad, but finally I found a job at a small, independent publishing house, and discovered I loved the work. A few years went by, and it was time to move on--I hoped to a major trade publisher.

“Are you sure?” I was asked again. Trade publishing was now going through a wave of consolidation. I answered even more ads and wrote even more letters than I had the first time around. I talked to about 60 people. “This,” many distinguished publishers told me in somber tones, “is the worst time there has ever been to look for a job in publishing.”

But eventually I found a spot, and I still loved the work. Fortunately, the next couple of jobs were not so hard to find. In 2006, I had the good fortune to become publisher of a new imprint at Bloomsbury (and the bad fortune to launch my first list right into the 2008 recession, as the economy and the book business melted down together, but that's another story). Last winter I was talking to a friend who had been laid off in the industry bloodletting and feeling discouraged at her difficulty finding a new position. “Don’t blame yourself,” I said. I had heard the words so many times they now rose unbidden to my lips: “This is the worst time there has ever been to look for a job in publishing.”

But maybe, in fact, it isn’t--if you set aside the habitual Chicken Little clucking our industry falls into. Not too long after the conversation I just described, I was at dinner with a few very senior, very smart publishing colleagues. One of us mentioned he knew a student just graduating from college who was interested in publishing. Another asked, “well—would you tell him to go into the business?” “Of course I would!” said a third. “This is the most exciting time I can think of to go into the publishing business.”

I was so surprised at this expression of outright bullishness from a veteran publisher that I had to stop to think about it—as did the others of us at the table. But it didn’t take us long to agree that he was right. Publishing is going to be a fascinating and exciting business over the next several years. It has gone from being a “mature” industry (in business-speak, that means boring) to a dizzying free-for-all. E-books have the promise of expanding readership widely. Social networking offers more effective ways of spreading the word about books than we have ever had. Print books aren’t going away either. My personal belief is that the old-fashioned art of bookmaking will become more valuable as printed books set themselves apart from electronic ones. And we’re already seeing experiments where written narratives are mixed with video or other media to create new forms of literature altogether.

All these developments hold peril as well as promise. The coming years are certainly going to be a difficult and uncomfortable one for many houses, especially the large corporate ones. Price wars, the decline of bookstores, the collapse of traditional publicity outlets, piracy, and other problems will create big dislocations in the industry. But this means publishers are going to try new things on a scale that I certainly haven’t seen in my working lifetime—new business models, new forms of content, new ways of working.

Many of these efforts will fail; if we’re lucky, some of them will succeed wildly. But they mean that publishing, in general, is going to be a more lively, more disorderly, more wide-open business than it has been in a long time—probably since the paperback revolution of the 1940s and 50s. I am sure it will offer more opportunities to smart, creative young talent, especially because it’s younger people who know more about the tools and culture of the web that is going to be the essential medium for publishers reaching readers. For a lot of big corporations, the coming years may be the worst of times: the pain of transformation may outweigh the gain of reinvention. But for the publishing personnel of the future, it could be the best of times. Especially if you like roller-coasters.

Here Goes

Welcome. Having dipped a couple of toes in the Twitterstream, I'm taking a further plunge here. It's surprising to me that while there are scores of excellent blogs that comment on books, writing, and the publishing industry, only a few are written by publishers and editors themselves. It also makes me a little nervous--what do they know that I don't? If I think about this too much longer I'll talk myself out of it so I had better type fast and hit Publish.

What I promise not to do on this page:
  • post glorified press releases (or actual ones)
  • rhapsodize about the mysteries of writing or the thrill of “discovering a new voice"
  • use the word “excited” or “exciting” more than once a month

Here's what I will try to do:
  • Talk candidly about what goes on in a publishing house from one editor's point of view. 
  • Comment on other things going on in publishing that I think are of interest to readers, writers, and other people involved in the world of books
  • Tell you about books that really interest (whew, I almost said “excite”) me, and why
And probably I'll occasionally pass on a completely random link like this.

Your comments are welcome.