Friday, December 17, 2010

A Lawyer's Perspective on Publishing, and on Fair Use

I confess that I take a somewhat geeky interest in matters of publishing law. But even if the law holds little allure for you, as a publisher you can't avoid legal questions. Every editor has to negotiate contracts, secure permissions, and make sure that manuscripts don't run afoul of libel or privacy laws. And writers need to pay attention to the same questions. So I was happy to learn that Mark Fowler, an experienced publishing lawyer who has also been an author, is now blogging about publishing-law issues at I have myself benefited from Mark's astute counsel (and unflappable demeanor) in the past, although he does not currently represent me or Bloomsbury Press. I recommend his site to editors, writers, agents, and anyone else who wants to understand some of the peculiar nuances of our business.

Last week Mark posted about the always confusing and often contested topic of "fair use"--the doctrine that permits one author to quote another's copyrighted material for purposes of comment, criticism, or scholarship. As he observes, it has been an unfortunate development in recent history that lawsuits or other aggressive moves by rights holders have discouraged some authors from using certain quotations, and in some cases has forced them to paraphrase or omit the texts that they're writing about. I agree with Mark that while authors need to be careful, they shouldn't be too diffident about relying on the principle of fair use. Many times I have quoted to authors some lines I have virtually memorized from the Chicago Manual of Style that I thumbed through constantly when I first started in publishing.
"Fair use is use that is fair--simply that....The right of fair use is a valuable one to scholarship, and it should not be allowed to decay through the failure of scholars to employ it boldly."
I was happy to see that these lines still appear (though slightly modified), in the new 16th Edition of the Manual. They still hold true.

 (Illustration: Lawyers by Honore Daumier, via Wikimedia Commons)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why We Should Get Ready for a Plunge in Print-Book Sales

I wrote earlier this week that publishers need to prepare for a decline in print-book sales that's much steeper than what we have seen thus far, and that is likely to accelerate the reshaping of the industry. The reasons why this seems inevitable derive not from any intrinsic superiority of e-books, nor any growing technophilia or screen-tropism of readers, but rather from the structure of the market. 

For one thing, e-book sales don't replace p-book sales on a one to one basis, as my colleague Evan Schnittman points out in his post "E-Books Don't Cannibalize Print, People Do." Evan argues that once you have adopted an e-reader--whether it's Kindle, Nook, or your iPhone--you soon give up buying print books. You become so happy with the convenience of instant purchase and the bookshelf-in-your-briefcase that you virtually give up purchasing hardcovers--in fact, he argues, you'll simply forgo a title that's not available in e-format. 

I don't think this holds true 100% for all readers--I read e-books aplenty but still buy p-books. But my hunch is that Evan is pretty much on the money: the graph of p-books purchased by an e-reader owner is a step-function. It doesn't slope down gradually, it drops almost straight down once someone becomes an e-book convert. (The good news for publishers is that (a) those e-book sales can be more profitable than print and (b) the graph of e-books purchased by the new e-thusiast is of course also an upward step function, from zero to lots. Lots of evidence suggests these e-thusiasts buy more books than ever, partly because it's so easy to do. But right now I'm focusing on print, which is a less happy story. Keep in mind that those e-reader owners are usually avid readers, i.e. they are our best customers for print books.) 

So at the level of individual consumers we're losing not just one print-book purchase at a time, but potentially scores, or hundreds, as that person adopts e-reading. Now look at this at the level of bookstores. Right now e-book sales constitute, at a rough guess, 10 percent of the market and their share is growing rapidly. For many small businesses, especially in a low-margin industry like ours, losing 10 percent of your sales volume is the difference between profit and loss. Even a 5 percent dip is a challenge; imagine looking at a 10 percent dip and thinking, next year it'll be 15, and the year after, who knows? Yesterday I linked to an NPR story about a couple of independent booksellers who have prospered despite the difficult market, and hats off to them. But over the past several months, stories of bookstore closings have, alas, been more common. This week, two beloved indies in Minnesota announced closures, explicitly pointing out that they have lost customers and sales to the e-book revolution. One store owner made the complaint, common among booksellers, that customers browse her shelves to decide which books to download at home. " We're really now a showroom for books." You can see why these folks may decide it's time to call it quits.

This, too, is a step function. When a bookstore closes, the sales at that location don't slope down, they drop to zero. Multiply this across many bookstore closings--including locations now being closed by the chains. Furthermore, many surviving stores, in self-defense, are devoting more shelf space to nonbook items, which means fewer print books stocked, and fewer sold. With all this, it seems clear to me that print sales are going to fall, if not off a cliff, down a teeth-rattling escarpment. Just to tighten the spiral, we're also going to see smaller print runs, thus higher per-copy costs, thus higher prices for printed books--which is only going to push more consumers toward e-books! 

What all this means is: up to now, e-book sales have been growing faster than hardcover sales have been declining, so overall big publishers have been seeing growth. But we may soon reach a tipping point where because of the loss of sales outlets, print sales drop off much faster than e-books replace them. I remember the wailing and gnashing of teeth--and the austerity programs and downsizing-- among publishers back in the 90s, when the chains' great expansion of superstores leveled off (that is, when sales merely stopped growing, never mind declining).

I'm not predicting apocalypse here, or even calamity. As I said in yesterday's post, I expect hardcover books, bookstores, and publishers to survive, and some even to prosper. But I am predicting major disruption. 

(Photo: Cliff diving in Cyprus, via Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More on P- versus E-Books: Bookstores, and Printed Books, Aren't Dead. But...

Yesterday's post, in which I mused about whether we were living through a "phony war" period in publishing, generated thoughtful comments in several places around the web.  Several readers questioned my statement that we were likely to see a steep drop in print book sales in the near future. One said that e-books had been boosted by the Kindle, but "they could just as easily be just another fad like Tamagotchis, as I personally ascribe the drop in hardcopy book sales to a mix of the recession and the fact that there's just nothing out there I really want." Another said print and hardcover sales were not really "at war" and that they could continue on parallel tracks. Another said that e-book sales had enormous room to grow (inarguable) and that it was more likely print sales would grow alongside of e-books.

I'm afraid I must disagree with all these commenters. I do think the decline in print book sales is inevitable and probably irreversible, as I'll explain. But I want to emphasize a couple of points: First, I hope it's clear that I am not celebrating this trend. I personally love bookstores and all those other things that are part of the print-book experience--yes, the smell of books, the pleasure of reading a beautifully designed volume, and even the book sitting on my shelf as a souvenir of the experience of reading it. I'm too young to have known Fourth Avenue when it was New York's Booksellers' Row, but my idea of paradise is Harvard Square in the 1970s when practically every block had a bookstore on it.  I think any community without a bookstore is impoverished, and I certainly hope never to see the day when new books aren't available in print form.

Second, although I believe the number of bookstores and amount of shelf space is going to shrink drastically, I'm not in the least suggesting that wonderful stores (and beautiful printed books for that matter) aren't going to survive. In fact, it's the wonderful stores that will survive--the RJ Julia's, the Books & Books, and, I trust, my neighborhood's tiny jewel-box of an indie, Three Lives & Company. Stores like these, creatively run, deeply connected to their clientele, carefully curated, and a pleasure to visit, can thrive just as other creative retailers do even under tough conditions.  Thankfully, booksellers like this can be found all over the country. Just yesterday, NPR highlighted some first-rate booksellers who are beating the odds (read the piece or listen here.) And although I find many chain bookstores disappointing, there are some that serve their localities well. (In Encino, CA, 3250 local residents have liked a Facebook page devoted to saving their Barnes & Noble.)

Likewise, the printed-book-as-object, though it may become more of a luxury item, is always going to be one of the world's best gift items (including gifts to oneself, of course). And much as I like reading on my iPad, I'm always going to prefer a paperback in the bath or at the beach. For this and many other reasons, printed books are not going to disappear.

BUT a publisher has to accept the realities of the marketplace, and for better or worse, like it or not, the market is going to see a steep falloff in brick-and-mortar retail and a corresponding downslope in the sale of printed books. Those two facts are closely connected and I'll expand on why in my next post.

(photo of Shakespeare & Co., Paris, by Ian Britton. Creative Commons license)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Last Country House Party? E-Books and Publishing's Phony War

From what I can gather around town, major trade publishers have been having a pretty good year--a surprisingly good year, given a lingering recession and the widespread predictions of the death of the book business.  And it seems pretty clear a primary reason, perhaps the reason, for our good results is the  explosive growth of e-book sales.

The introduction of the iPad, slashed prices on the Kindle, now the color Nook and the long-awaited arrival of the Google e-bookstore--all these have helped to drive a massive increase in e-reading. While print book sales have declined in the past year, e-books, with lower per-unit costs, have more than taken up the slack. Even for houses where gross sales have declined, profits may well have increased. And many of us in the industry expect a bonanza after Christmas, when everyone who has just opened their gift Kindles and iPads loads them up with new e-titles to read. We could see a surge in e-book sales that makes the year look triumphant for book publishers.

I can't help wondering if what we're living through right now is like the "Phony War" of 1939-40--the period when war had been declared in Europe but Germany had yet to assault the countries to its west. The country-house parties went on as before, but the storm was coming. 

Right now e-book sales are,  not exactly gravy for publishers, but a profitable layer on top of print sales that have yet to fall off drastically.  But that won't last.  As Mike Shatzkin starkly put it this week, "every book purchased online is another nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar bookselling." As the e-book trend continues, more bookstores are going to close--both independents and chain locations. Both B&N and Borders have been closing superstores and also devoting more space to non-book items, further reducing shelf space and inevitably book sales.  

I don't know when it will happen, but we're likely to see bookstore sales go from "declining" to "plunging" in the near future. Shatzkin's take is that "what brick-and-mortar booksellers will experience in the first six months of 2011 will be the most difficult time they’ve ever seen, with challenges escalating beyond what most of them are now imagining or budgeting for." My impression is that most publishers are not budgeting for these challenges either. When they start to hit home, we may have to take our motor-cars back from the country houses and get ready for the Blitz. 

P.S. If you believe, as I do, that independent bookstores--and even well-run chain bookstores for that matter--are a vital part of our literary ecosystem, please remember to do your Christmas shopping there. 

(Still from Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, 1939.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Doctor Takes Questions: A Q & A on Publishing with Doug Morrison

I recently learned of writer Douglas Morrison's blog, The Novel Road, which is worth a visit for anyone interested in the writing trade, especially the fiction side of it. He posts links to a variety of other blogs and articles, and has been conducting his own series of author interviews, with writers such as Brian Haig, Robin Becker, and Dale Brown. Doug flattered me by including me among his interviewees this month, asking a lot of good questions about editing and publishing, which I answered to the best of my ability. The best part is that Doug included two of Thomas Rowlandson's satirical images with his post. (The one here is captioned Dr Syntax, in the middle of a smoking hot political squabble, wishes to whet his whistle.The Doctor is in black by the fireplace, next to one of the smoking squabblers.)

Here's the Q & A, with thanks to Douglas Morrison:

Doug Morrison: Do you have a character, from a manuscript you have edited, that has left a mark on you?

PG: Many, so I’ll pick one from a manuscript I’ve just published: Stephen Douglas, who lost the presidential election of 1860 to a dark-horse candidate named Abraham Lincoln. Douglas was on what we’d consider the “wrong” side of the slavery issue, and he had often acted from expediency and ambition. But when he knew he was about to lose the office he had coveted for his whole career, Douglas barnstormed the country trying to hold the Union together. He literally died trying to prevent the Civil War. The story is told Douglas Egerton’s book Year of Meteors, and I found it surprisingly moving.

Year of Meteors by Douglas R. Egerton: Book CoverDM: The editor in you must have an intuition for the “special” book; the one that seems destined to huge sales or a place in literary history. Among the books you have worked with, what made your “I knew it” list?

PG: The humbling thing about being an editor is the flip side of your question: how many of the books you know are special never achieve the sales they deserve. That’s much more common than thinking “I know it” and seeing the title on the bestseller list. But it’s exciting when you’re right. I knew David Hackett Fischer’s Washington's Crossing was a masterpiece when I first read it—it was brilliantly researched, wonderfully written, and thrilling to read. It became a New York Times bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for history. But I have had the same feeling about other books that never hit the jackpot that way.

DM: The editors I’ve researched, seem to stick to comfort zones when they choose a manuscript. Have you ever gone outside your comfort zone?

PG: I’d hate to think I always publish in a “comfort zone,” because I think you should always be looking for works that challenge you and that are different from what you have done before. At the same time, it’s hard to be a good publisher for a MS you don’t know anything about or you’re not enthusiastic about. For instance, my politics are moderately liberal, but I’m always ready to publish books that make good arguments for conservative positions, or far-left ones for that matter. On the other hand, I’d never be the right editor for a book on organic gardening, because I’m not a gardener of any kind. I don’t think you should edit a book that you’d never buy in a bookstore. To publish something well, you have to know how to connect with its intended reader. So I don’t ask, “is this in my comfort zone?” I ask, “do I know who would want to read this and how I’d get them excited about it?”

DM: Publishing Non-Fiction has a higher degree of speculation (i.e. advances, deadlines) than Fiction Publishing. Is this a true statement?

PG: To use a favorite publishing phrase: it depends. In general the advantage of publishing nonfiction is that you can identify the audience for it and have some idea how to reach that market—whether it’s organic gardeners, Obama-haters, Civil War buffs or dog lovers. You can make some guesses about the market based on how other titles have performed. In fiction, it’s much more unpredictable, with the major exception of genre fiction. Historical romances, cozy mysteries, steampunk, anything in a series –those niches help you target the readership. But for many novelists it’s hard to predict how a new work will sell, so it’s highly speculative. In general I’d say fiction is more of a guessing game for a publisher.

DM: What is Bloomsbury Press looking for right now?

PG: That’s a question I’m always reluctant to answer, because there aren’t one or two things we’re “looking for.” We are always looking for well-written books that have something interesting and preferably original to say, on a subject of importance. I have written more about this on our website,

DM: I send you a 150,000-word manuscript. It’s a mess, the title is even misspelled , but you read the first page and it catches your interest. Do you send it back with a note explaining, “Spell Check”, margins and sentence fragments, or do you keep it? What state do you like to see a manuscript in before you work on it?

PG: In all honesty, if you can’t spell the title I’m not going to read much further unless your first paragraph is stunningly brilliant. Authors who can’t achieve a baseline level of professionalism are, in my experience, extremely unlikely to write a book that can be published with success.     

DM: How much author editing is too much? Where should an author stop editing before submission?

PG: Keep editing until it’s really good, but by that I don’t mean “tinker obsessively with your MS for months.” Get feedback—candid feedback—from readers you trust. I work with a lot of scholars. In the academic world, even the most senior authors routinely show their drafts—sometimes single chapters, sometimes whole manuscripts--to other people who know their subject really well, and get their comments. It amazes me how often an author will say something like “I showed this to three readers and they all thought it was the best thing I’ve done,” and it turns out the readers are her husband, her mom and her next-door neighbor. Find some readers who aren’t afraid to tell you your script is boring, and get their comments.

DM: Freelance editors, hired by authors. The consensus with literary agents seems to be an author doesn’t need one. You would think a closer to finished manuscript would cost them less to move forward?

PG: I don’t know which agents you have talked to, but I question that “consensus.” Most of the agents I know tell me it’s getting harder to sell anything that needs work, because editors are reluctant to take on really time-consuming projects. And I know a lot of freelance editors who are being hired by authors and agents to get their work ready to submit to publishers.

DM: I’ve written about how I think editors may be going into a “Gold Rush” market for their skills. I base this on the increasing number of fairly sloppy e-books that seem to make it onto the market. Will Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc, have to address this problem? If so, what’s your solution?

PG: I’m not sure what problem you’re referring to. The sloppiness of e-books is often a problem not in the writing or editing, but in the conversion of print book text to e-book format. This is a matter, more or less, of proofreading, not “editing” of the kind that I do. And I think it will dwindle away as publishers learn to plan their work flow to incorporate e-books. That said, I am sure that the skill of editing manuscripts and preparing them for publication is one that will continue to be needed, in whatever format books are produced.

DM: I’ve written a post on literary agents, in an ongoing series I call “Writer’s Angst”. What would you like writers to know about the world of the editor? The Publisher?

PG: Even though we have to say no to 95 percent (or more) of the submissions we receive, no editor was drawn into this business by the idea of turning people down. We’re always hoping that the next thing we read is going to be something that we love.

DM: Dr. Syntax is an incredible site, offering insights to both new and experienced writers. How do you find the time to blog and maintain the incredibly high standards at Bloomsbury Press, as well as have a personal life?

PG: Thanks for all those flattering adjectives. I squeeze the blog in as best I can, and readers will probably notice that I sometimes go a long time between posts, which mostly reflects how much else is going on in my working life at any given time.

DM: You wake up one day and decide to pitch it all to write a great book. What would the subject be and who would edit it?

PG: I have often thought I’d like to write about the history of publishing in the early 20th century, which is so often held up as a golden age. I’d love to examine how the dynamics of the industry worked. I suspect the book business in Maxwell Perkins’ day was closer to ours than we commonly believe.

DM: The Publishing Industry is facing enormous challenges in the not so distant future. A number of smaller Houses have closed, Literary Agencies are taking on fewer, if not more select clients. Paint us a picture of the Publishing Industry five years from now.

PG: Predicting the future of publishing even two years from now is probably impossible. But I think within ten years it will look very different. E-books will be a much bigger piece of the market, but we don’t know whether they’ll be the predominant format. Conversely, retail bookstores will be many fewer in number. The shrinking of retail space is going to hurt the revenues of publishers, big publishers in particular, and we may well see more consolidation of major houses. I suspect author advances will go down on average—again I mean at the larger houses. Meanwhile I think we’ll see an increase, maybe an explosion, of alternatives to the big-house model of publishing. Smaller houses, e-book-only publishers, houses that sell books on a subscription basis as well as conventional print sales. Maybe every bookstore will have an Espresso machine printing books on demand in the front window.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Foot-Long Subs, or, One Publisher's Reflections on the Curious, Sometimes-Maddening Trend Toward Putting Enormously Long Subtitles on Everything


Quick: What do these books have in common?

The Sea Around Us.   The American Way of Death.   The Best and the Brightest.   Dispatches.   All Things Bright and Beautiful.   Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

They are all bestsellers, and all, if not classics, at least milestones of popular culture from the 1950s to the 1980s. And they all lack something they certainly would have if they were published today: a subtitle.

As a publisher, there’s one moment I dread in the list-planning meetings where editors present their upcoming titles to colleagues. It’s when someone says, "We need to talk about the sub." Back in the 20th century, a subtitle might have told you the genre of a book (“A Memoir”) or supplied a setting (“Across the Pacific in a Raft.”) Today, as I'm hardly the first to observe, a subtitle often becomes an ungainly skein of phrases clattering along behind the title like tin cans on a newlyweds' limousine:

The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Châtelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world

A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform--and Maybe the Best

How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West

How Barack Obama, Media Mockery of Terrorist Threats, Liberals Who Want to Kill Talk Radio, the Self-Serving Congress, Companies That Help Iran, and Washington Lobbyists for Foreign Governments Are Scamming Us…And What To Do About It

The Amazing True Story of a Missing Military Puppy and the Desperate Mission to Bring Her Home

It's as if, instead of drawing a reader to a book with indirection and allusion, we feel the need to spell out the reasons to buy it. Twenty years ago, I remember a very smart colleague of mine telling an author, "You don't have to write 'Horse' under the picture." Today, perhaps, we do.

It’s tempting  to see in this a dumbing-down trend in our culture. A less jaundiced view might be that subtitle-mania simply reflects the changing marketplace for nonfiction. In the days of The Sea Around Us or Dispatches, readers could find book reviews—with a few hundred words of description—in newspapers and magazines; they might even see authors talking about books on television. Today, printed book reviews have all but disappeared, and good luck finding a non-celebrity author on a talk show. Our best shot at communicating what a book is about might be throwing it all on the jacket so that a customer—browsing in a bookstore or online or, just as likely, Googling the '86 Mets or Fred Harvey—can't fail to see it.

One fact of publishing life has not changed, from the putative golden age to the brazen present. If you’re a celebrity, you can skip a “sub” altogether, no matter how terse or idiosyncratic your main title. From Laugh and Live by Douglas Fairbanks (1915) to Reminiscences (1964) by Douglas MacArthur, from Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin (1979) to See, I Told You So (1993) by Rush Limbaugh, the more famous you are, the fewer words you need on your jacket. The ne plus ultra in this direction was the 1992 work that combined a single-name author and a single-word title in one nuclear blast of notoriety. Perhaps that’s why titles and subtitles have been getting longer and longer. After MADONNA: SEX, what less can you say?

[Many thanks to Creative Nonfiction magazine, for whom  I wrote this piece and who kindly permitted me to repost it here. It appears in CNF's current issue (number 39) along with many other meatier essays. You can find the table of contents and some sample articles here.]

Friday, October 22, 2010

Another Thing You'll Never Be Able to Do with E-Books (Video)

Hats off to Bookmans Entertainment Exchange in Arizona for this wonderful video, which I found thanks to Galleycat. More about the video here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock's Bomb: Suspense, Surprise, and Emotion in Narrative

Although I am a nonfiction publisher at the moment, I still love to read fiction in a variety of genres, from literary novels to thrillers. And I think for most editors it’s impossible to read a book without your editorial reflex twitching from time to time, especially when you see the author make a misstep. This week I have been reading an adventure novel that made me think yet again about the distinction between surprise and suspense--and in a broader way, what draws readers into a narrative. 

Something I frequently say to nonfiction narrative authors is, “Imagine how they’re going to do this when they make your book into a movie.” 

Filmmakers learn to boil a story down to its essence, and to find the most dramatic way to organize the elements of a narrative. They think about this stuff all the time. And it was Alfred Hitchcock who gave one of the most famous explanations of how suspense and surprise differ

There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean. 

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!" 

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

The “bomb under the table” example has been quoted almost ad nauseam by now. In fact, when I looked up Hitchcock’s quote online I found various writers complaining what a cliché it had become. However, when I first heard this principle cited, by my former boss Tom McCormack, he added one valuable further distinction, which I have not found widely discussed.*  

Once again, imagine a restaurant where there’s is a ticking bomb under the table, and we in the audience know it’s going to go off in fifteen minutes.  Now imagine one of the characters knows it as well, but can’t reveal it.  With this, the suspense ratchets to another level. Not only are we aware of the impending explosion, we share in the character’s anxiety to get away and the excruciating effort of acting totally unconcerned even as the bomb ticks down.  The emotional connection we have to a character for whom this situation is a matter of life or death makes the suspense we feel that much greater.  

Hitchcock’s bomb is simply an extreme way of focusing attention on the most essential question the author of any narrative, fiction or nonfiction, needs to ask—and answer—about a given storyline: Why should we care? The more emotionally invested readers are in what happens to those in the story, the more compelling it will be. And our emotional investment comes from understanding what the stakes are for those characters. 

*I am sure Tom credited Hitchcock for the insight, but I have not been able to find an original Hitchcock reference. Sources welcomed

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Wikipedia and "Open-Source History"

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez's Tumblr tipped me off to a neat post by James Bridle at More accurately, to a post about a neat project that Bridle has undertaken: he has created a multivolume printed set that records the editing history, from 2004 to 2009, of the Wikipedia entry for the Iraq War.

We all know that what makes Wikipedia valuable, and also problematic, is that its entries can be edited at any time by any user. This makes it, on the whole, remarkably accurate--anyone who scorns Wikipedia as a mishmash of rumor and random errors should read about the study that found it stacked up pretty well against the Encyclopedia Britannica. But if it's terrific in the aggregate, for any given topic, at any given moment, Wikipedia is capable of delivering information that is factually wrong, politically skewed, or simply incoherent, depending on who was last on the "edit" page. Bridle's compilation of the Iraq War edits, I'm sure, will demonstrate this clearly.  As he observes,
It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead.”
If you land on this Wikipedia page at the wrong time, you might find unhelpful "information" like that. But most of the time you'd get a lot of useful facts, 95 percent of them or better probably accurate. And as James Bridle points out regarding the Iraq War, the constant changing of the article is itself a valuable fact--a record of our historical knowledge as it lurches forward--or sometimes back.
This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.
For anyone pondering the value of Wikipedia compared to "traditional" reference sources, an absolute must-read is an essay, now several years old, by the late Roy Rosenzweig, one of the pioneers of digital history, titled "Can History Be Open Source?" It's quite long and addressed principally to his fellow historians, but deeply thoughtful and open-minded. His overall assessment of Wikipedia is quite positive. He too compared Wikipedia to more established sources (Microsoft's Encarta and the American National Biography), using biographies as his sample, and concluded, 'Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history."

Rosenzweig found that where the ANB was superior to Wikipedia was not so much in factual accuracy, but in the overall quality and richness of articles that draw on, instead of the wisdom of crowds, "the skill and confident judgment of a seasoned historian." Reading the Wikipedia entry on Abraham Lincoln next to the ANB article by James M. McPherson, he says
the difference lies in McPherson's richer contextualization [and] even more by his artful use of quotations to capture Lincoln's voice, by his evocative word portraits....and by his ability to convey a profound message in a handful of words. 
Admittedly, putting Wikipedians up against James McPherson on Lincoln is sort of like sending the people sitting in the bleachers up to bat against C.C. Sabathia. This is only to say that encyclopedia entries, like any other kind of writing, are better done by a single talented person than by a committee, but it doesn't mean the committee version doesn't have value. 

There is much more to Rosenzweig's article than this, and for anyone who's thinking about plunging into the nine volumes of The Iraq War, it would be a good place to start. 

(Photo from James Bridle's Flickr set, reproduced under Creative Commons license)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

You Thought Getting Used to the Kindle Was Hard? Try the Codex

I have posted a link to this clip elsewhere but it's so funny (and relevant) I had to do it again here. Yes, it's awful when you have to get used to some newfangled technology for reading. Imagine what it was like when you grew up with scrolls.

(The YouTube post of this clip doesn't cite the original source but I'm told it is the Norwegian TV show Øystein og jeg.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Self-Publishing Is the Route to ( ) Success ( ) Failure [Check One]

The literary agent Nathan Bransford, who writes one of the shrewdest and most entertaining blogs about publishing, recently had an excellent post on a much misunderstood topic: just what publishers actually do for authors. (In brief: a lot.)  With the increasing ease of self-publishing in an e-book marketplace; prominent authors dropping their publishers to sell their work themselves, the question of whether and how publishers "add value" to an author's work certainly calls for discussion.

It's a big subject and I'll attempt to tackle it in future posts. But I encourage anyone interested in it to read Nathan's article, and also the comments thread. What particularly struck me there was reports from two different commenters about their diametrically opposed experiences of self-publishing. Author A writes:
Self-publishing is a difficult road to take. As an experiment, I uploaded two short works to Amazon and made them available in the Kindle store. I designed the covers, did the editing, and the layout design and html code juggling that needed to be done in order to get them looking right. And let me tell you, after all of that, the time you have to put in to promote your work is exhausting. And there aren't many ways to do it successfully. The grand total of copies sold thus far (after several months)? Somewhere around 14. Four of which were to relatives. 
A sobering tale. But scroll down a bit further and read this from Author B:
I was very fortunate. After being rejected (but almost making it!) by traditional publishing I let my book set on the hard drive a couple years. Then Kindle store came along and Bezos offered to e-publish my book for free. With nothing to lose I used the digital text platform interface (very easy) to upload my book. I created a cover from a beautiful photo taken by a friend. My book has sold over 5,000 copies, and continues to sell at a brisk pace. I've added more books, and I have a nice monthly income.

What this author said that really surprised me was this:

I don't have a blog, don't use Facebook, have never twittered. I don't even use my name on blogs (like this one). My books sell very well and I'm making more money than I ever imagined, thanks to 70% royalty on Amazon. Marketing is not necessary. 
Even though they report completely opposite results, both of these stories illustrate the same fact about self-publishing: as I have said elsewhere, the skills involved in writing a book are utterly different from the ones necessary to flog it to the buying public. A writer capable of creating a wonderful book may have no aptitude--or as author B's comment suggests, no interest--in networking with readers, flacking her product, etc. That's where publishers come in.

True, Author B is doing just fine without publishers, thank you very much. I take my hat off this to this person who has figured out how to write books that sell without marketing. I'm not sure what big conclusions you can draw from these starkly different stories, although I believe that the experiences of author A are probably more typical of self-publishing. But as I know all too well, many authors have had almost equally frustrating experiences with major publishing houses. And some books truly will sell without marketing, sometimes on the title or even a jacket image alone. Of course, I can't help wondering, if author B's book had come out from an established publisher, and had a creative, energetic marketing push behind it, might it have sold 50,000 copies, or 500,000 instead of 5000? Several titles come to mind that were successfully self-published, then were picked up by major houses and transformed into blockbusters. (For instance, the authors of The One Minute Manager sold 20,000 copies of their book themselves--pretty impressive. But after William Morrow took it over, it went on to sell 20 million.)

None of this is to say that self-publishing may not be viable and even preferable, for some authors, to the old-school method. But when it comes to reaching the largest possible audience, a HarperCollins or Random House, with its marketing expertise and massive distribution apparatus, still offers something pretty powerful.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wylie vs Random: The Thrilla in Manila (Folders)

It's all too easy to complain about media coverage of the publishing business, but as my mother used to say, honestly.... It was surprising to see the wildly erratic spins that some outlets put on yesterday's news that Andrew Wylie had come to terms with Random House for the latter to publish e-books of several prominent backlist authors whose contracts predated the electronic era and made no provision for such editions. (Those contracts are typically tucked away in yellowing manila folders somewhere in the bowels of a publishing house. Consulting those documents, typed on old Royals and Underwoods, sometimes existing only as "carbons," feels like traveling back to the age of three-martini lunches.)  What made this newsworthy was that Wylie and had annouced with much fanfare that the agent was starting his own publishing house that would partner exclusively with Amazon to sell the work of some 20 authors.  Random, which has already asserted unilaterally that it alone may publish e-books of its backlist authors, regardless of contractual omissions, said it would boycott the Wylie agency over the issue. (Sarah Weinman gives a good summary of all this at Daily Finance.)

The press treated the original Odyssey announcement as a bombshell--the normally sober FT intoned, "many executives fear[ed] the showdown over e-book rights would lead to the death of the 500-year-old publishing business as it is known." Yikes! 

This was, ahem, an overstatement. The real issue regarding backlist e-book rights was not whether Random had a valid claim on them (they had some claim, but whether it would have prevailed in court was quite uncertain). It was simply (as I said at the time) that if Random did publish the e-books, they'd have to negotiate royalty rates, and the authors and agents involved would want higher royalties than the 25% of net that has been Random House's usual boilerplate. 

The matter has been resolved, apparently with Random agreeing to some kind of sliding royalty scale on e-books that goes as high as 40%, and Wylie conceding to Random control of e-editions for 13 of his 20 Odyssey authors.  This is a reasonable resolution that probably could have been arrived at with less heavy breathing all around. But press accounts of yesterday's agreement shot off in all directions. One headline said "Random House Wins Battle with Wylie," while the WSJ, apparently looking for its own angle, reported it as "Amazon Loses E-Book Deal."  Evidently "the death of the 500-year-old publishing business" has been averted.

However, whether you consider it a "loss" for Wylie or his clients depends on whether you view Odyssey editions as something he was really committed to, or a great negotiating tactic.  We may have a better sense of that when we see whether Wylie strikes deals with Penguin, Harcourt Houghton, and the other publishers of the remaining "Odyssey seven." 

It's a "win" for Random in that they are surely happy to keep the e-books of authors like Updike and Nabokov; but they are probably not thrilled to have their improved e-book royalties discussed in "the colyums." Especially if they have, as many houses do, "most favored nation" clauses in contracts with other authors. (As a precedent, it won't be cheered by other big publishers either.) 

As for Amazon, I'm sure they would have loved to have exclusive e-books (though just for two years) of Lolita or Invisible Man, so this is a setback for them. But they're still going to be able to sell all those e-books on any device that can access the Kindle store, so they can cry all the way to the bank. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Moomsday Is Coming, or Kindle, Hardcovers, and Deep Blue

For some years in New York I was inexplicably amused by the broadcast ads for Einstein Moomjy, a local carpet retailer, who called their annual sale “Moomsday.” In portentous tones over rolling drums, the spot told us, for days before the event, “Moomsday is coming… Moomsday is coming,” and finally (thunderous drums), “Moomsday is HERE!!!”

I couldn’t help thinking of Moomsday when I read this week the equally portentous announcement from Amazon that Kindle books have outsold hardcovers over the last three months, apparently at a growing pace. The statement got a lot of press attention and inevitably spurred talk of a “tipping point” where e-books start to displace hardcovers as the dominant format. Equally inevitably, this breathless attention provoked a “not so fast” backlash, with commentators hastening to point out that a) not withstanding all these sales, e-books are still a tiny fraction of the overall market b) by some measures the growth of e-book sales has actually slowed since last year, c) Amazon’s figures are notoriously vague and uncheckable –and so on.
Some of this hard-nosed commentary reflects a healthy skepticism toward Amazon’s obviously self-serving publicity and credulous, tech-dazed media. Unfortunately, I suspect a lot of it, especially within the book business, reflects a less creditable willingness to ignore the reality that our business is about to be massively destabilized as print sales fall off, e-books soar, and bricks-and-mortar stores will be culled like baby harp seals. That’s a brutal way of putting it but I suspect the process will be about as shocking to our delicate sensibilities.
Like Moomsday, the day when e-books displace hardcovers , is coming…it’s coming… and one day it will be HERE, whether or not the moment is marked by Amazon’s arbitrary announcement. (Should we call it, e-oomsday?)

For the foreseeable future, e-book sales are only going to grow. And as Mike Shatzkin has been hollering from the rooftops, e-book sales don’t have to get even close to parity with hardcover sales to make the numbers of a lot of retail bookshops unsustainable. It’s a bleak fact that the margins of retail booksellers are not that large. If print book sales drop significantly, as they must, we will lose some indie stores and almost certainly see chains closing many locations—thereby decreasing retail exposure for printed books, depressing their sales and driving e-book adoption even faster.

Please note, I am not celebrating this trend. I love printed books and real bookstores. I’m simply trying to look dispassionately at what’s happening. The e-book vs. print contest reminds me also of the famous chess matches between world champion Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing computer. When Kasparov first played Deep Blue in 1996, he won, to cheers from those all over the world who wanted to believe in the superiority of man over machine. But a year later, an improved Deep Blue beat Kasparov. I would have loved to believe that human genius could go on outwitting ever brainier computers forever. Sentiment aside, though, I had to accept it was inevitable that massive computing power would at some point simply be able to flash through potential moves quickly enough to outmatch even a Kasparov, however inelegantly.

However much we love printed books, we have to accept that within a short time, they will no longer be the dominant format. I’m not prepared to guess what percentage of sales they’ll represent a few years from now, but I’m sure that the pie chart will look drastically different from how it does today—and that the follow-on consequences from that will be much greater than many of my colleagues are yet imagining. E-oomsday is right around the corner.

image of Garry Kasparov from

Friday, May 21, 2010

Amazon, Crossings, and J. A. Konrath: Is This Week a "Game Changer"?

Sarah Weinman has a good post up at Daily Finance about two announcements this week from Amazon: first that they have made a deal to publish a new, original book by crime author J. A. Konrath in their Amazon Encores program, previously devoted to republishing older and out-of-print titles. Konrath, who has promoted his own work very effectively on the web and has blogged about how successfully he has sold his work at a very low price on Kindle, parted company with the trade house who had published his earlier books and now will sell his work directly through Amazon.  Weinman points out that, alongside the second announcement--that Amazon will start a wholly new publishing program called Crossings that will publish literature in translation (books formerly unavailable in the U.S.)--that the online retailing behemoth will now be competing directly with publishers, in an arena where Amazon has some powerful advantages. 

With an admirable trace of hesitation at trotting out the buzzword of 2010, Sarah calls these developments "game changing" and quotes the ever-brainy Mike Shatzkin in support of the statement. Meanwhile the also-savvy MJ Rose has a great post at her blog making a seemingly contrary statement: she says there are no game changers any more.  So has the game changed, or not? 

At the risk of saying "everybody's right," I have to take a different point of view: I agree with Weinman and Shatzkin that it's a momentous development if Amazon is really going to start competing head to head with publishers. They have already started picking off the backlist of major authors like Stephen Covey and Paulo Coelho, and if they are now going to get into the frontlist business things will get more interesting. But if you look at the larger picture, it's this: EVERYTHING is changing. So many elements of the industry as I've known it are in play that the one thing we can be sure of is, the game is going to be different five or ten years from now. But I think it's way too early to know whether this particular play of Amazon's is going to be decisive in their favor. Here are some things we don't know that will bear on the answer:

The market for books in translation (as Mike S. points out) has historically been pretty small. Can Amazon's retailing power make it much bigger? If not, the Crossings move may be less significant. 

Will Amazon really want to be in the editorial business? It's one thing to find worthy or marketable backlist titles or new books by authors who have proved themselves. Seeking works undervalued in the current marketplace--like translations--is a logical next step. But to truly compete with publishers, Amazon will need editors--people who find new books and attempt to choose ones that will connect with readers. This process is inherently unpredictable and therefore risky and inefficient--very different from their algorithm-driven business of selling existing books, even obscure "long tail" titles. I suspect Amazon Crossings will find, even with the company's unique ability to reach, say, "readers who bought French novels by women in translation," that some titles on their list do much better than others. 

How big a share of the e-book market can Amazon retain as e-readers proliferate? This question is complicated by the fact that you can read Kindle books on devices beside the Kindle, but whether authors are willing to give Amazon exclusivity on their e-books will surely depend on how much of the market they risk giving up.

Or, will Apple decide to compete with Amazon in the same way? The explosive growth of the iBooks store is going to give Apple similar power to Amazon's in presenting authors to readers. So far they have taken a very different approach, dealing only with the biggest publishers and a few aggregators. But they deal directly with thousands of suppliers in the App Store, and may well move in that direction once iBooks are well established.  

How will contract terms shift between authors and publishers in the coming years? Konrath points out that he makes more money self-publishing via Kindle for $2.99 a copy than he might have in a conventional print deal with a major house, Hyperion, at $14.99. If author/publisher deals evolve, as they are likely to, will the marketing and distribution power of a big publisher become less easy to give up? 

How many authors will be able to replicate Konrath's success at marketing himself? Amazon didn't pick Konrath to sign up just because of the quality of his writing. He has been a creative and assiduous promoter of his work, as Jason Pinter observes in a HuffPost piece. In my experience only handful of authors have the marketing savvy and drive Konrath has shown. If you're already a bestselling author, or a celebrity, you may not need Konrath's smarts. But the model that works for Konrath or Covey may not work for a majority of authors. (This of course still leaves the danger for publishers of Amazon creaming off the most profitable books at the top of the sales curve.) 

How will the role of agents affect the way all this unfolds? I'm not the first person to notice that if there's a danger to publishers in disintermediation, there's a real risk of it for agents too. If all an author needs to do to make $400 a day is upload titles to the Kindle store (as Konrath says he's doing), does she need an agent for that? There's a disincentive for agents to move toward a world where they can't auction projects to Random, Hachette et al. Will they push authors in a different direction, and how many authors will value their agents' advice more than the revenue the agents carve off the author's income? 

I realize I'm much better at asking questions on this blog than at giving answers. But my point here is that with the book marketplace in flux in so many different directions (the above are only a few), it's not even totally clear what "game" we're playing, much less whether even big news like this week's has "changed" it. 

Illustration: Matrix Chessboard, via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Doctor Is (Back) In

Dear Readers,

When I started this blog one of my motivations for doing it was that very few trade publishers or editors were actually on the web talking about what we do or how the book world looks from a publisher's perspective. Since that time I've become aware of one reason why: this blog-writing thing takes a lot of time! We do things in the office all day, and then go home to read and edit; somewhere in there we might see our spouses or children, but an editorial job tends to fill up a lot of hours that could otherwise be devoted to exciting activities like blogging, tweeting, and Facebooking. 

I keep hoping I will develop the skill of tossing off the pithy 100- or 150-word blog post like Seth Godin or Chris Brogan, but I seem to be doomed to crank out 300 or 800 word posts that take me hours to write (partly because I can't help myself--I edit them). All of which is a longwinded excuse for the hiatus since my last post. It wasn't that I got lost in the ash cloud on the way home from London--I got submerged in the manuscript pile. I'm happy to say that the manuscripts I neglected this blog to edit over the last several weeks--one on the Pythagorean Theorem, one on health care reform, and one on the morality of animals--were all terrific books that I can't wait to see in print. But I will save writing about those until they get closer to a bookstore near you. Meanwhile I will do my best to resume posting at a regular, not-quite-blistering pace. There is much to discuss, from the mysteries of flap copy to the latest maneuvers in the e-book world and question of whether this week's developments are really "game changing." 

Yours very truly,
Dr. S. 

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Boats, or, How I Got to the London Book Fair

So you've probably heard about the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, 

which has led to the cancellation of all transatlantic flights leaving travellers stuck all over the U.S. and Europe and prevented hundreds of foreign publishers from getting to the London Book Fair, which starts today.  Your correspondent, however, is not easily deterred. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor airborne particles of sulfurous ash and jet-destroying silicates was going to keep me from schmoozing my colleagues from Britain and elsewhere. Undaunted, I set off on Friday from my office in  the Flatiron

for JFK Airport. There, I boarded a plane for Dublin. This was the flight I had originally booked weeks before--not because I am amazingly prescient, but because I got a cheap ticket on an airline I like, Aer Lingus. The leprechauns were with me, because I took what I believe was the last flight to reach Europe that evening. (A later flight to Dublin got halfway and was turned back.) An Aer Lingus official told me they couldn't promise any flights beyond Dublin--but friends in Edinburgh, my next stop, told me Scottish airports were open as of Friday afternoon.

So they were--but by the time I landed in Dublin Saturday morning, Irish airspace was closed and all flights across Europe were cancelled.  The airport was full of long snaking queues of befuddled travelers. (I must say that airline staff were extremely courteous, and almost every traveler around me displayed remarkable patience in a situation that was obviously unlooked-for by everyone.)

I went to Plan B, and booked the next non-cancelled flight to Edinburgh (the next morning). But that seemed dicey, so it was time for Plan C: the ferry from Dublin across the Irish Sea and train to London. The problem with Plan C was that I couldn't confirm on the internet that there were train tickets available--I was far from the only traveler who thought of the ferry solution. But my friends in Scotland told me there was a ferry from Belfast to the Scottish coast, and volunteered to pick me up at the dock (above and beyond the call of duty, since their house looks out on the Firth of Forth--the other coast of Scotland). Thus was launched Plan D.

I got into Dublin and caught the train to Belfast with enough time for breakfast--coffee was what made this journey possible. From Belfast Central, a taxi to the port, where I boarded the ferry to Stranraer. From there, Michael and Jane whisked me cross country to Edinburgh.

And this morning, after a blessedly civilized evening and a delicious night's sleep,  I hopped the train from Edinburgh's Waverly Station to London. 

I confess I actually enjoyed my trip. It was a beautiful weekend to be traveling around Ireland, Scotland, and England, and by the end of it, I felt like Phileas Fogg.  All that was missing from the adventure was a hot-air balloon. 

Tomorrow, I'll be at Earl's Court Exhibition Centre for the Book Fair, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and hoping to scoop up an armful of bestsellers that my fellow Americans aren't around to see. 

Then I just have to figure out how to get home.

(all photos via Wikimedia Commons. In the train photo I have taken a liberty: I did not ride the Flying Scotsman steam train. But Phileas Fogg would have. ) 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Alice Goes Down Rabbit Hole, Pops Up on iPad

As readers here know I still have some doubts about how desirable "enhanced" e-books are going to be. Nonetheless, as with any medium, innovative people will use platforms like the iPad to create some nifty new content (whether that content is really "books" is another question). One of the most delightful things I have seen amid the iPad frenzy is this specially adapted version of Alice in Wonderland, which is now available as a separate app in the App Store.

This may not be as satisfying for a first-time reader as simply sitting with the old-fashioned printed book--but if you know the book and love Tenniel's illustrations, as I do, seeing them come to life in this way is a new sort of pleasure.

Haven't yet got my hands on an iPad long enough to do any reading, but I will soon, and will give the obligatory report on it as a reading device.

Update: Interesting article by one of Alice for iPad's creators here, on how they did it.  And several other children's books for iPad are already on the market--featured in this CNET article.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Should Book Editors Get Royalties?

At Publishing Perspectives this week, the veteran editor and publisher Ann Patty has written a provocative post titled "The Future for Book Editors: Royalties?" Ann, who was a colleague and then my boss at Crown, worked in corporate publishing for decades, acquiring, publishing--and editing--an impressive string of fiction authors. Now a freelance manuscript editor, she wonders aloud whether, in the dawning new world of publishing, what editors do may be valued more highly--perhaps highly enough for an editor to receive a share of royalties. She writes,
enough lamentation! We all know the publishing industry of yore is long gone. What about the future? In the Internet free-for-all book editors may become more, rather than less important. The editor is the author’s interface with the world at large; the other roles in publishing houses, as they are now configured, may become obsolete in the digital future. Publishers may devalue editors, but writers and agents don’t. As business models change, it’s time that book editors reclaim their essential place in the publishing process, and be appropriately compensated for it. 
Ann's piece has generated a lively, not to say brawling, comment thread, well worth reading. Several editors, and a few authors, have said "right on!" Many other posters have said, more or less, "No way!" A couple of the critics suggest an editor's contribution is unimportant compared to the author's. Some point out quite rightly that while editors may provide invaluable help to a writer, they are salaried employees of the publishing house and don't assume the risk, or make the investment of time, that an author working on her manuscript for months or years does. One author pointedly noted that a writer's royalties are small enough to begin with; peeling them away to pay an editor adds injury to insult. 

My first reaction to Ann's suggestion was knee-jerk disagreement. I do edit manuscripts, and carefully, but that's part of what Bloomsbury pays me for. While many things about publishing have changed in the past century, it still seems to me that working with an author to shape the manuscript is a basic part of the editor's job. I don't necessarily feel that doing so (even for a book that, as Ann hypothesizes, becomes a commercial winner) entitles me to extra compensation. If my titles are successful, presumably that will be reflected in what I get paid next year. 

But on further reflection my reaction was more nuanced. After all, freelance editors like Ann are already receiving, in some cases, royalty shares just as co-writers often do.  Authors accept such arrangements--again, occasionally--without seeing them as an injustice. And in a few cases, as Ann's post notes, editor-publishers who head imprints (myself not included) have some profit participation, though on the basis of imprint results, not individual titles. Furthermore, at some houses a significant share of editors' compensation comes in the form of a bonus, which is almost always related, partly or wholly, to the sales of their books. It's not a share of royalties as such, but it amounts to something similar. (These bonuses usually include other benchmarks including company or division-wide performance.) In textbook publishing this practice is more common, I think, and I know of at least one textbook publisher where as much as a third of an editor's pay came in bonuses. 

There are problems with pegging editors' pay to numerical indices, but it's not wholly unreasonable. As I have written here before, I believe one of the problems of big corporate publishing is that editors' performance is often valued in arbitrary and haphazard ways, which leads to poor decision-making. I'm not ready to advocate Ann Patty's proposal, but if publishers do value editing--and want to tout it as part of their "value added" to authors, her idea would be one way of putting their money where their mouths are.*

* In which case, any editor-royalty should come out of the house's share of revenue (and of course, wouldn't be payable when the author's advance--which the editor negotiated--is unearned).