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Jhumpa Lahiri's Agent Moderated a Panel with the Editors of "Seabiscuit," "Gone Girl" & "Bossypants"

Molly Stern, Eric Simonoff, Jonathan Karp and Reagan Arthur on The Future of Publishing - peoplewhowrite

from top left: Molly Stern, Eric Simonoff, Jonathan Karp and Reagan Arthur

I don’t need to tell you it was good.

Yesterday, Lahiri’s agent Eric Simonoff joined Jonathan Karp, president of Simon & Schuster and the acquiring editor of Seabiscuit,  Molly Stern, publisher of Crown Publishing and Broadway Books and the acquiring editor of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl; and Reagan Arthur, publisher of Little, Brown & Company and editor of Tina Fey’s Bossypants at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center to talk publishing; and they dropped many gems. A few that I collected:

Almost No Market Research Goes into Creating a Book Cover–Unless You’re Tina Fey.
Publishers only do market testing for books they’ve “invested a lot in.” In the case of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, two cover comps were in contention for the final book. One had the title written as a mustache over a very pretty picture of Fey. The other was, of course, the one with the hairy man arms. Fey liked the latter because she said her fans don’t like to see her looking pretty; they prefer her when she’s quirky looking. The publisher tested the covers at a few malls around the country, and you already know which one won.

It’s Incredibly Important to Have a “Tribe” Behind You.
Whether it’s reviewers, influential authors, bookstores or Facebook fans, it’s important for emerging writers to have a base of support. One panelist cited The Help, explaining that independent bookstore owners really got behind the book in its earliest days.

It will be “Devastating” for the Publishing Industry if Barnes and Noble Goes Away.
The panelists admitted that Amazon’s focus on the customer–from discount pricing to the convenience of delivery and expediency of the Kindle–is an incredibly difficult thing to compete with, but also admitted their current business model can’t withstand the eradication of the chain bookstores. “When chain stores go away, I think impulse buys go away,” one of them noted, while another believed strongly that publishers need to rethink their pricing strategies. “Our entire business is built on pricing inflation,” Stern said. She said decisions needed to be made to ensure consumers get the very best price without causing the industry to lose its shirt in the process.

A Book Doesn’t Have to Have Staying Power to be Acquired.
Books are acquired for a multitude of reasons, one of the panelists explained, and it’s expected that “at best, 25% of the books carry the 75%” that get published.

Advance Copies Are Your Friend.
The best thing you can do before a book is published is get people reading it. By “people” they meant the sales teams that will go on to sell the book to book retailers, librarians, etc. That’s how Gone Girl built. They pre-sold 42,000 copies of Flynn’s book before the first sale.

Publishers are Re-Thinking the Life Cycle of a Book.
Instead of thinking of a book’s life as existing within the first few months of release, then moving on from it depending on its success or failure, Stern said the current market has urged her to “retrain” herself to think of a book’s life as constant. “It’s one book with many moments.”

Fiction E-Books Sell Better than Non-Fiction E-Books.
No known reason why, but the panelists conjectured that it could be due to the demographic and psychographic of the fiction versus non-fiction reader. For example, the non-fiction reader is more likely to be doing research or trying to learn something specific from the book and, as such, might not need to carry the book around the way an avid reader totes their read along for the commute to and from work. The same is true for hardcover in many cases. Gone Girl sells two e-books for every hardcover.

The Second Book is the Most Dangerous for a Writer.
Citing Zadie Smith’s critically panned The Autograph Man and Maria Semple’s Women’s Prize nominee Where’d You Bernadette? as examples of two extremes, Molly Stern and Reagan Arthur noted the exquisite challenge of following a successful or impressive debut, or establishing yourself as worthy of the ink used to write your deal if the first one flopped.

Seabiscuit was Almost Called Four Good Legs
As in the “four good legs” between the jockey and the horse. They also played around with Dark Horse, even printing advance copies with that title. Market testing, mercifully, led them to go with Seabiscuit.

If the Acquiring Editor Believes in You Enough & Has the Power to Persuade His/Her Colleagues, It (Almost) Doesn’t Matter How Much Your Previous Books Sold
Each of the publishers groaned at the hard work of convincing fellow editors and higher-ups about the viability of a book–especially if the author’s sales track record isn’t stellar. But they all shared stories of battles won. I got the impression if they feel a battle is worth fighting, they almost always win.


4 responses to “Jhumpa Lahiri's Agent Moderated a Panel with the Editors of "Seabiscuit," "Gone Girl" & "Bossypants"

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