Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Introducing a Terrific Young Historian

In my first post on this blog I promised not to use the word "excited" more than once a month. But sometimes there's no other word to describe how an editor feels about a book. I've just published a new work of history that quickened my pulse from the first time I read the proposal: Rawn James, Jr's. Root and Branch: Charles Hamilton Huston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation. This book tells one of the most important, most dramatic, yet least known stories in American history, and makes it not only exciting, but deeply poignant.
     When we think of the Civil Rights movement, we tend to think of the 1950s and 60s, and scenes made famous by television-the bus boycott, the March on Washington, the Freedom Rides. But some of the most compelling, most dramatic, and most  important victories took place long before then, in America's courtrooms, where two determined lawyers waged a decades-long battle against racial injustice.
     The men were Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, attorneys for the NAACP. From the 1930s to the 50s, they crisscrossed the country, going from backwoods county jails to the Supreme Court to fight for the legal rights of African Americans.  In the Deep South, they sometimes slept in their car because no hotel would give them a room. They were heckled, threatened, and sometimes in danger of their lives. But in those days bigotry was not confined to the backwoods--it went all the way to the nation's capital. When Charles Houston argued his first case before the Supreme Court, one justice turned his chair to face the wall so he wouldn't have to look at a "colored" lawyer.
     What the justices could not ignore was the razor-sharp arguments, and the relentless preparation, of Houston, Marshall and their colleagues. Case by case, slowly, methodically, but relentlessly, they dismantled the legal principle of "separate but equal" that had kept blacks as second-class citizens even after they emerged from slavery.  Over some  two decades, they laid the groundwork for the landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, that outlawed segregation in public schools and led to the collapse of Jim Crow. Without Houston and Marshall, there would be no Barack Obama. 
     These two great advocates are also a great pair of characters. Charles Houston was a stern, buttoned-down, no-nonsense guy. As a dean of Howard Law School, he turned it from a rinky-dink night school into a rigorous institution whose mission was to turn out the lawyers that could meet the white elite on equal terms. Marshall was his brightest student and his protégé, but in personality his opposite. Thurgood was casual. He loved to lean back and tell off-color jokes over a glass--or maybe a bottle--of bourbon.  The two complemented each other perfectly. In effect, Thurgood became a surrogate son to Charlie. Sadly, Houston worked himself to death and died just before the Brown case, the one he'd been building toward, came to the Supreme Court. But Marshall did his mentor proud: not only did he win a historic victory in Brown, he would become the first African-American to join the Supreme Court.
     Rawn James Jr. is a lawyer himself, and an heir to the great legacy laid down by Houston, Marshall, and those that followed. He tells this story with gusto, with a great sense of pacing and rhythm, and it truly comes to life in his pages. This is Rawn's first book but I'm sure it will not be his last. It's the debut of a dynamic new historian-and, yes, I'm excited by it.

(You can see Rawn talking about his book below, or visit his website,, for more about Root and Branch.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Publishers Need to Learn to Talk to the Animals

I've been reflecting some more on the recent debate over e-book prices. Michael Cader's much-applauded post on the topic made the point that in general publishers have not done a good job of explaining either the reasons for their pricing policies, or even the basic facts about the marketplace. He's right, and the situation highlights a problem that the industry is still just beginning to grapple with: big publishers are not used to thinking of readers as their customers.

For a century, publishing has had (as Shiv Singh noted in a presentation at Digital Book World) a business-to-business orientation. Big publishers' customers were retailers, a few wholesalers, and libraries (mostly sold to by wholesalers again). On the rare occasions when an individual reader ordered a book from the publisher, fulfilling the order was such a hassle that the author actually got a reduced royalty because of all the extra costs incurrred.

True, publishers directed some of their marketing (such as advertising) to consumers, and we tried to reach individual readers with publicity. But even our publicity efforts were largely aimed at a small ring of intermediaries like book reviewers or radio/TV producers.  The idea of telling a story about ourselves or our industry to the reading public, or explaining to book buyers why our products cost what they do, wouldn't have occurred to most publishers a few years ago.

It has at least occurred to some houses by now (and some vertically focused houses and imprints are well along at this), but it's a long way from being fully absorbed by the industry. Publishers are a bit like Dr. Dolittle, slowly learning to "talk to the animals." I'm not being pejorative to either side in that remark. Dr. Dolittle loved the animals--but it took him a while to speak their language. Our readers were out there in all their wonderful variety; we loved them; in our way we took care of them--but we never had a conversation with them.

So, at the same time publishing houses are struggling to master the "disintermediated" marketplace where we can, and must, communicate with end users directly, on top of the old, hard work we have to do of telling people about our titles, we have to explain about how the industry works and why $14.99 for a great new novel is not a ripoff.

All of which gives one pause about the "agency model," where publishers set and enforce their own prices. Just as we have no expertise in talking to readers, we have no expertise in what prices work best for what kinds of titles when. Kassia Krozser notes that "price is an important tool in the arsenal of retailers" who are constantly in conversation with readers, and add their value by getting books into those readers' hands. 

Don't get me wrong--I don't believe in rolling over and ceding the job to Amazon or some other behemoth. Just as we have to learn to communicate with readers directly--that is one reason I write this blog--we're going to have to fool around with different pricing schemes and start to figure out for ourselves what works.  Doing so will involve a lot more talking to the animals. 

(Illustration by Hugh Lofting from Doctor Dolittle in the Moon)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Recalled to Life: Kirkus Reviews Finds a Surprise New Owner

Kirkus Reviews, the pre-publication review outlet, was expected to close a few weeks ago, but has now had a reprieve. As Daily Finance reports, the business has been sold to shopping-center mogul, and bookstore owner, Herb Simon, better known for owning the Indiana Pacers. This may seem odd news, but it's good news. As I said in an earlier post, with the huge number of titles clamoring for attention (and often going with virtually none), any service that can help pick some needles out of the haystack is really useful. 

Kirkus will keep its editors and continue to publish bi-weekly. It plans to "beef up" its digital offerings--where there should be plenty of opportunities. Kirkus at one time licensed its reviews to Amazon--I wish they would again, to complement the, er, less gimlet-eyed notices from PW I often find there. Or wouldn't you like to have, say, an app on your iPhone that would deliver a pithy, one-screen-size review of a book you're leafing through in a bookstore? Kirkus would be well suited to that. 

We'll wish the rescued Kirkus success--and hope that their near-death experience may make them a little kinder toward the books they review. Just not kind enough to be boring. 

(image by Phiz from A Tale of Two Cities

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cutting Through Some of the Nonsense about E-Book Prices

I’ve been trying not to let e-books monopolize this page, but it’s a subject that’s hard to avoid with so much happening. This week we had a New York Times article about the ever-contentious topic of e-book prices, on which vast quantities of hot air are expended.
The Times notes that many readers are complaining, not to say outraged, about the idea of paying more than $9.99 for e-books—the price that Amazon has aggressively promoted in its effort to sell Kindles. 

At Publishers Lunch, his indispensable blog/newsletter, Michael Cader had a terrific piece yesterday debunking some notions implicit in the NYT article, and urging publishing people do to a better job of explaining to the public the widely held fallacies about e-book prices. I’ll write more about this myself, but his points are so cogent that I might as well start by quoting some of them:  

* $9.99 never was the top e-book price; people pay more than that every day
[When there was no Kindle, many e-books, including those for Sony Reader cost well above $9.99. And from the beginning of the Kindle store, plenty of titles were above that price. As Cader notes elsewhere, three recent surveys, two presented at Digital Book World, one this week by Goldman Sachs, strongly suggest that while price is important to e-book buyers, there are—as you’d expect--more important elements to a buying decision, such as author reputation.]

* The implicit, false promise of cheap e-books was made by the people who profit, at very nice margins, from selling the devices, not by publishers. Please blame them if you feel deceived.  [Right. Amazon has sold “millions” of Kindles by Jeff Bezos’s account. Which means, at the prices they charge, they are raking in hundreds of millions on Kindle hardware. Was it a coincidence that Amazon had its biggest profits ever last year?]

* Publishers are lowering their ebook prices
Most stories say publishers are raising prices. We in the trade know that publishers are preparing to lower their ebook prices by 50 percent or more, and reduce their own profit margins. But customers don't; they hear that publishers are raising prices. [Another key point. Publishers are actually looking to take less per book than they have been getting from Amazon. And in general e-book list prices are coming down.]

* The new "top price" is going to be $12.99 more often than not
[Cader notes that this will depend on what deals publishers arrive at with Apple, but in general we’re talking about a rise of a couple of dollars.]

Cader’s piece also makes one other important point:

Publishers are hoping to protect smaller and local retailers and ensure that customers have a wide range of real bookstores and online e-bookstores to choose from.

Right again. Low prices are a weapon used by big, deep-pocketed merchants, typically chains, to crush their small, local competitors. Publishers don’t want to see a marketplace that consists of nothing but Amazon and Barnes & Noble. This is, to be honest, partly because most of us in the business have a sentimental attachment to old-fashioned bookstores, the kinds of places where most book-lovers love to hang out.  It is partly because we know that it’s in those independent stores that surprise, hand-sold hits can catch fire and turn into bestsellers. But it’s also because we don’t want to find ourselves with nothing but 600-pound gorillas for customers.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Perfect Book to Read in a Blizzard: Cro-Magnon, the Story of Ice Age Humans

With the mid-Atlantic region recovering from one blizzard and bracing for another, we might be forgiven for wondering whether, instead of worrying about global warming, we ought to be learning how to make igloos. Let me call your attention to the perfect book to read after shoveling three feet of snow off your walk: Brian Fagan's Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans.

Cro-Magnon people were the first fully modern Europeans. We know them best for their stunning cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and elsewhere. But the Cro-Magnons were not just artistically gifted; they were ingeniously inventive. In fact they were the most adaptable and technologically creative people that had yet lived on earth. They lived side by side with an older species, Neanderthals, for some 15,000 years. In the end, the Cro-Magnons were better able to cope with the changing climate as the ice age blanketed Europe: they had better tools, better communication, and warmer clothes. They survived and Neanderthals faded away.

I really enjoy working Brian Fagan, an archaeologist who has a gift rare in his profession for bringing the prehistoric past to life. He can evoke the mystery of a cave flickering with torchlight, or the hesitant, wordless encounter of a Cro-Magnon hunting party and a Neanderthal settlement. A few pages later he can explain the cutting-edge techniques scientists use to date and interpret artifacts or tiny fragments of bone. And he can provide illuminating insights into the ingenuity of humans, revealing how what seem like simple innovations could push human history forward. For instance, what tool--probably more important than the wheel--allowed our Cro-Magnon ancestors to make it though the frigid winters of the Ice Age? The needle. With a sliver of bone pierced at one end, it was possible to sew together hides or furs and make real clothes. Imagine shoveling your walk, or chasing a deer, while trying to keep a bear hide draped over your shoulders and you'll see pretty clearly why this is important. 

If you have enjoyed the works of Jared Diamond--or for that matter, Clan of the Cave Bear and its bestselling sequels, I think you'll find Cro-Magnon an absorbing read. Here's a brief interview with Brian about the book. (Someone said he looks "like Indiana Jones's dad." I think she's got a point there.) 

(For more information on Brian Fagan and his other books, including the New York Times bestseller The Great Warming, visit

Thursday, February 4, 2010

New Advances in Bookselling Metrics: The Saltometer

Looks like we may have a major snowstorm in New York and the Mid-Atlantic in the next few days. Bad weather is always tough on retailers, bookstores included. But I learned from the excellent bookselling blog, Shelf Awareness, that at least one bookstore has found a hidden benefit to winter precipitation: a new customer "metric."
Although the current trend in bookselling is toward ever more computerized inventory control systems, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wis., shared its unique customer tracking device, known as the Saltometer:
"When there's a heavy snowfall in Milwaukee, it means one thing: massive piles of salt on the sidewalks of our fair city," noted the Boswellians blog. "We here at Boswell welcome it, of course. Not only does it keep the sides of Downer Avenue clear for pedestrians (come on by and see us!), it allows us booksellers to use that most hallowed of marketing tools: the saltometer. What is the saltometer, you ask? It's a highly sophisticated system by which we can look at the white-lined footprints all over the store and see what sections are really the most popular. Sure, we know what books you're all buying, but what about the books you read while you linger in the store on a frosty evening? Yes, the saltometer is the bookseller's friend."
New York City is not supposed to be hit very hard by the storm. I'm secretly disappointed. What could be better than getting snowed in for a day or two with a big pile of books to read?

(Photo of Washington Street, Providence by Jef Nickerson from Flickr)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Because It Can't Be E-Books All the Time: Today It's Monkey Time!

A reader has requested that I post about something other than e-books, Macmillan vs Amazon, etc. Excellent idea. And as this happened to turn up in my in-box just a day or so ago, it seems a good time to turn to the world of children's books. And monkeys. And what happens when a great cinematic auteur encounters the same.

Monday, February 1, 2010

And the Feathers Fly! Amazon & Macmillan Duke It Out

Whew. Just hours after I posted on Friday that it looked like a battle was brewing between big publishers and Amazon over e-book pricing, the fight broke out. I won't attempt to give a blow-by-blow here, but Mike Shatzkin gives a good summary here and there will be plenty of other accounts to come. 

In brief, Amazon went to the "nuclear option," as Shatzkin puts it, by delisting Macmillan titles and it blew up in their face. Many others will analyze this event and I'm not sure the dust has settled yet, so I'll restrict myself to a couple of observations: 

First, it's very interesting to read the Kindle forum posts on Amazon. Their announcement is clearly intended to cast Macmillan as the bully in the situation, even though it was Amazon who punished the publisher. On Amazon's Kindle page, not surprisingly, a vocal audience of Kindle owners, who have come to regard $9.99 as the inalienable right of e-book buyers, are ready to see it that way. (In fact, even before both companies' announcements, posters at the Kindle forum tended to assume Macmillan was boycotting Amazon rather than the other way round.) 

Still, even among Kindle owners, there are several posters who say, "geez, 14.99 doesn't sound so bad, it's still a lot less than a hardcover." Completely lost in the conversation is the fact that all these Macmillan titles might be available for $9.99 if you're willing to wait for them, the way you do for a paperback. I think Macmillan (and other publishers who want to "window" e-books) need to make consumers much more aware of that. 

Also interesting, I also read a hundred or so comments at the NYT Bits blog post on the controversy. There, many readers knocked Macmillan but a greater number (though not at first glance a majority) saw this as bullying by Amazon. In other words, among a sample of people who aren't all Kindle fans, opinion is much more divided. (Naturally there are plenty of "plague on both their houses" opinions and a few gimlet-eyed, "hey, they're both just rational actors attempting to maximize their profits" types.) 

I don't know whether we'll see $14.99 hold as the new standard price for e-books but I think it was fortunate for publishers that Apple came along when it did, before Amazon was able to get a stranglehold on the e-book market. 

Granted, there's much debate, especially outside the Big Six publishers, over whether it's really desirable to raise e-book prices. I'm frankly of two minds about it. Will have to take that up another time. But as Shatzkin points out in the comments threat on his post, publishers who are still absolutely dependent on print books have powerful incentives to slow the erosion of prices, and even the adoption of e-books in general, which are a serious threat to bookstores, still by far our biggest sales channel.  

(Full disclosure: Bloomsbury Press titles are distributed by Macmillan, but Bloomsbury has a separate relationship with Amazon and was not a party to the dispute.) 

Image from