Veteran Editor Makes a Case for Publishing's Pros

Daniel Menaker - peoplewhowrite

Daniel Menaker

UPDATE: Chris Hughes is selling The New Republic. Four years after buying the magazine’s majority stake, followed by a mass exodus of key staffers, Hughes admitted in a open letter to staffers on Medium.com that he “underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate.”

Random House’s onetime Editor-in-Chief Daniel Menaker has written a strong argument in support of publishing’s need for professionals on Slate.com. In the piece, Menaker goes straight after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and New Republic‘s Chris Hughes, writing:

I can’t help suspecting that whether they consciously know it or not, people like Jeff Bezos and the New Republic’s Chris Hughes want some of that [cultural hero status ascribed to those who, by good bets and good luck in the casino that is publishing, have somehow survived the grinding—tectonic—friction between creativity and business and made a go of both]. Well, they can’t have it.

Likening them to “patrons of old”, Menaker adds: 

…they can stand back and support it, sponsor it, admire it. They can give it parties at retreats in New Mexico. They can even sort of own it. But they can’t have it. Because they need to make a lot of money. And because they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge.

(More darkly and Freudianly still, since they can’t have it, maybe they want to kill it.)

Menaker also deals with those who argue that publishing’s elite (publishers, editors, traditionally published bestselling authors, and some readers) are the only ones mad at Amazon’s perceived efforts to open the industry gates to include more aspiring writers and offer readers a greater breadth of choice:

They are often writers who have failed to get published by mainstream publishers, even good independent presses. Or readers who decry “snobby,” difficult books. One of the loudest voices in this group denunciation belongs to Barry Eisler, a self-published author who told the Guardian that the signatories of the Authors United letter to Amazon were in “the top 1 percent” who “have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.”

This is simply not true. Publishers are of course always looking for something new, different, better. Like the record producers of the ’50s and ’60s—Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, Jerry Wexler—they want nothing more than to find the next extremely important or highly profitable artist. If they’re one and the same, even better.

Menaker’s points are well-taken, and true to a large extent.

In spite of Amazon’s work to woo writers from publishers via their agents with transparency through easy to read sales dashboards and big advances / monthly royalty checks, there has never been any indication that they truly care about good literature or know what it is. They’ve hired the right people, published some high profile names, and launched a contest, but their “everything store” branding and democratic ratings and reviews-based algorithm never felt congruent with the sadomasochistic nature of the publishing business in which, for most writers, an editor’s validating (and exclusive) pat is the only salve that can staunch the steady drip of literary insecurity. The irony is, many scribes like the exclusionary model of the current publishing industry because, if they are able to squeeze through the needle’s eye of publisher approval, they feel good enough, smart enough, like, gosh darn it, people like their work.

That desperate truth in mind, Amazon was still able to unsettle this Stockholm syndrome relationship by looking ahead.

Every industry was slow to understand the role social and digital media, and the internet would/could play in extending businesses and individual brands, but traditional publishing was among the slowest — ceding ground to start-ups and other entrepreneurial players as a result. While publishing personnel had become content with the painful poetry of life in the industry of letters — Menaker recounts “email after email studded with forlornly cheerful exclamation marks, years between signed contracts and on-sale dates, almost funereal editorial and marketing meetings, book fairs held in hangars filled with unbounded enthusiasm almost indistinguishable from desperation…” and “endless chicken-salad-and-Diet-Coke lunches that end with almost-sure-to-go-unread books being exchanged” — inventors and investors were introducing and funding social reading and writing platforms like Goodreads and Wattpad, recommendation apps like BookShout, ereaders like the Kindle and iPad, and subscription services like Oyster and Scribd. Many of these upstarts, crashed and burned (R.I.P Sony Reader), but they acted as breadcrumbs, opening readers up to new experiences and possibilities — and leaving traditional publishing scrambling to compete.

Obviously, technological innovation, in and of itself is not enough. For example, algorithms have yet to take the place of a friend’s book recommendation. Amazon alum Jason Merkoski, who was part of the team that built the first Kindle, admitted: “When it comes to book recommendations, retailers have the literary sensibilities of a spreadsheet — they’ll just recommend the most popular books to me, or books that other people also bought, but they know nothing of the soul and sparkle of a great book.”

Rather, what’s clear is a need for synergy between online capacities and on-the-ground efforts. Case in point: without the brick and mortar support of Barnes and Noble, Amazon Publishing titles have failed to break through. Innovation, together with the passion Menaker ascribes to publishing’s soldiers, is necessary to the industry’s survival.

Menaker sums up his salvo by asserting the need for professionals to guide the publishing industry — no matter what incarnation the in flux industry ultimately takes. “It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves,” he says, “to explain what, if anything, will replace them.”

I would argue that addition, not necessarily replacement, is the way forward. Publishing companies need strong business development teams devoted to seeking out innovators and partnership opportunities that place and keep them in the position to lead industry conversation and evolution. Editors, marketers, sales staff and others need to be empowered to nimbly experiment. Authors need to be brought to the table, rather than coddled and cosseted like talent. And all the players, from publishing companies to bookstores to literary prizes need to be working together to mutual benefit. In other words, the gatekeepers need to tear down the gate themselves, and, with the help of some that might have been peeking in from the outside, rebuild it.

Now Publishers in Japan are Pissed at Amazon Too

Amazon.com logoA group of Japanese publishers is voicing concern over Amazon’s recent negotiation tactics with them. Asiaone.com reports, “Several Tokyo-based publishers said Amazon recently unveiled a four-point system that rates them based on the size of the commission they pay for selling books on the US company’s vast website, among other criteria. Amazon then pushes hardest to promote books from publishers who agreed to the most favourable contract terms, which directly impacts how a book sells, they said, confirming a report by Japan’s Asahi newspaper this week.”

American publisher Hachette and Swedish publishing conglomerate Bonnier have separately expressed similar frustration with Amazon. In May, Hachette became locked in a battle with the e-tailer when negotiations over ebook prices broke down. Amazon reportedly began delaying and “refusing orders” of books published by Hachette, and recommending other books to customers seeking specific Hachette titles. The standoff has extended into a conflict between Amazon and authors united with Hachette writers.

Meanwhile, Bonnier has also alleged that Amazon is bullying them. Quoting a piece by The Digital Readers Nate Hoffelder, a blog post by independent publisher Melville House points out that Bonnier will feel the squeeze most in Germany:

“Germany has fixed price book laws; publishers set the retail price and retailers are not allowed to discount their books more than (I think) 10%. As a result, any money that Amazon squeezes out of a publisher ends up in Amazon’s pocket, and not in the pocket of consumers.”

At ReadersUnited.com, the Amazon Books Team addressed the Hachette drama, saying any publisher who refuses to reduce prices is compromising revenue opportunity for writers and publishers and reducing the number of readers for whom books are accessible.

Amazon’s Japan office has declined to comment.

HarperCollins' Relaunched Site Encourages Readers to Buy Directly from Them

HarperCollins site features prominent Buy Button_peoplewhowrite

HarperCollins’ site features prominent Buy button.

Should publishers focus on selling books directly to customers, Calvin Reid’s recent piece on Publishers Weekly asks, referencing the relaunch of HarperCollins’ website. I think the answer is yes. And writers should be direct selling too.

The internet has made it possible, and in many cases necessary, to create one-stop shops for all manner of experiences and commodities. People increasingly want to visit one destination that enables them to learn, browse, and shop; and they want to do so at the destination they choose, whether that destination is a bookstore (brick and mortar or online), an etailer like Amazon, a book review community like Goodreads, a writer’s website, or a publisher’s website.

In his PW article, Reid points out, “in a time when physical retailers are under intense competition from Amazon and other online outlets, many publishers remain leery of even appearing to undermine booksellers.” This is likely the reason many houses have been loath to build out their retail and fulfillment capabilities. But the reality is all entities online are competing, in one form or another, for eyes and shares.

As Russell Grandinetti, Amazon’s senior vice president for Kindle, recently told the New York Times’ David Streitfeld, “You have to draw the box big. Books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against Candy Crush, Twitter, Facebook, streaming movies, newspapers you can read for free. It’s a new world. It’s so important not to simply build a moat around the industry the way it is now.” It’s up to each entity to create a distinct enough brand experience and offer consumers a differentiated experience.

Is this call to shore up their direct selling function a distraction from publishers’ primary role? Sure, but it’s the world we live in now. Writers have had to become publicists, marketers, and more as constrained resources have made certain publishing services a privilege reserved only for legends, veterans, and bestsellers. Agents’ roles have morphed too. Publishers also need to adjust to the new normal.

In the end, a publisher, or writer, that’s better at direct selling won’t preclude an expert bookseller from courting and keeping a consumer base. More likely, it will force all involved to become better at differentiating their services to customers and others in the publishing ecosystem. And it will make it difficult for one entity to hold the market, and industry, captive.

British Booksellers Caution Publishers Not to Bypass Them

British bookseller Dan Johns - peoplewhowrite

British bookseller Dan Johns said: “If I cannot put my trust in a publisher or a publisher’s rep, I will simply not communicate. I will order my books, but I will not tell you anymore than that. I need to know any information I give to you is not being used to get direct e-book sales.”

The battle for readers between booksellers, publishers, and Amazon continues–although this time Amazon has nothing directly to do with the beef. According to a piece on The Bookseller this week, English booksellers are peeved at publishers for selling titles directly to institutions at the Bookseller Association’s Academic, Professional and Specialist conference in Brighton last week. This incident marks the latest threat to bookstores’ relevance in the age of the e-book. 

Back in 2012, when Amazon launched a publishing division, Barnes and Noble refused to carry their titles which hurt the e-tailer’s book sales may have forced them to focus on bookstores outside the U.S. Last year, when B&N felt Simon and Schuster was not showing strong enough support in their vulnerability to Amazon, the 140-year-old bookstore reportedly reduced orders of Simon and Schuster titles “by as much as 90%.” It took eight months for S&S and B&N to mend fences.

Jack Kerouac Told Publisher: Send Me a Contract or I'm "On the Road"

Jack Kerouac issued an ultimatum re: ON THE ROAD to his editor at Viking - peoplewhowrite

Postcard from the edge

Writers can be a wimpy lot when it comes to dealing with the publishing establishment, but it seems a little tough talk can go a long way. Frustrated by his publisher’s delayed response to his novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac fired off this heated postcard to editor Malcolm Cowley. According to The Gothamist, the postcard was sent months after Cowley told Kerouac: “Automatic writing is fine for a start, but it has to be revised and put into shape or people will quite properly refuse to read it—and what you need now is to be read, not to be exhibited as a sort of natural phenomenon like [the] Old Faithful geyser that sends up a jet of steam and mud every hour on the hour.” The Gothamist adds, “Kerouac’s postcard had a photo of Yellowstone National Park on the front.”

Head to OpenCulture.com for more postcard missives by Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, and other writers.

Are Publishers to Blame for the Decline of Bookstores?

Foyles CEO Sam Husain - peoplewhowrite

Foyles CEO Sam Husain

In an interview with The Bookseller, Sam Husain, the CEO of indie UK bookstore Foyles lamented: “Bookshops are being used as showrooms for people to browse and have a look at what is out there and then they are going to the internet.” Husain blamed publishers for the problem, noting that they give supermarkets and internet retailers more favorable terms than they do bookstores, setting up a situation in which readers browse in book shops, then head online where the book will probably be sold for less.

As a partial fix, he suggested publishers allow stores to sell books on consignment. “Currently booksellers pay for stock and return that which they haven’t sold after a year. Only then they do they get their money back.”

Do you think publishers should do more to support bookstores? Barnes and Noble certainly feels this way, and has even reduced their orders of Simon and Schuster titles because they allegedly feel the publisher is not supporting them enough.

It’s hard to know what is really going on. Publishers blame Amazon for the seismic shift in book buying habits. Bookstores blame Amazon, and in some cases, Publishers. Writers are revolting, ditching their traditional publishers to self-publish and creating platforms to sell their work directly to readers. But at the end of the day, book buying comes down to the reader, no? Publishers, bookstores, Amazon, and writers need to come together (or not) to figure out how and where readers want to buy their books, and why.

Bestselling Author Gary Null Gets His Own Imprint

Gary Null - peoplewhowrite

Gary Null

Health and wellness author Gary Null has partnered with Skyhorse Publishing to launch a new imprint. Not surprisingly, Gary Null Publishing will release books focused on health and wellness. Publishers Weekly reports that the new imprint plans to publish four titles in 2013. Get the full story here.

The Top 10 Publishing Companies By Revenue

The World's Top 10 Publishers by Revenue_peoplewhowrite

Back in June Publishers Weekly posted a chart featuring the world’s 50 largest publishers based on 2011 revenue. Here’s a repost of the top 10. It’ll be interesting to see where Random House falls on the 2012 list after their amazing Fifty ShadesGone Girl year. Check out the full list here.

Publishers Reveal the Books They Wish They'd Published

The Illicit of Other People by Manu Joseph deserved to do better, publisher Roland Philipps told The Guardian

Deserved to Do Better: “It got great reviews in a few places, but… not enough sales in a very tough environment,” said Roland Philipps, managing director at John Murray which published The Illicit Happiness of Other People.

To writers who constantly face rejection from publishers, it’s easy to think of them as Wizards of No, or wardens of the gated Publishing Industrial Complex, but of course they’re human beings, and at their hearts, lovers of books and authors. In a new article on The Guardian‘s site  publishers from Simon & Schuster, Penguin Press, Bloomsbury and more reveal the books they think deserved better reception from the press and readers, and the books they wish they published. Click over to read the article and learn about some books you might want to add to your reading list. Personally, I’m really interested in checking out The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph. “Joseph’s second novel confirms him, to my mind, as one of the leading new Indian novelists – he tells great truths about modern India while being thoroughly entertaining,” said Roland Philipps, managing director at John Murray which published the book. I could do without Philipps’ “Indian” qualifier — why can’t Joseph just be a leading new novelist? — but, I get his point, and am glad to learn about Joseph’s work.

Are Agents Complicating the War Between Publishers & Amazon?

Curtis Brown agency has partnered with Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing

Curtis Brown agency has partnered with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing

When Amazon Publishing announced it was expanding to Europe, they announced it via a letter to a list of literary agents. Currently at war with traditional publishers for under-pricing books and distributing books digitally via the wildly popular Kindle thereby undermining sales, Amazon has steadily focused on bypassing publishers to create a direct relationship with agents and writers.

It started with Amazon launching a publishing arm in May 2009, initially aimed at distributing self-published authors. Then Amazon gave authors access to Nielsen Bookscan sales numbers* in an easy-to-understand  dashboard. Soon after, publishers like Random House and Simon & Schuster introduced Author Portals making sales figures immediately available to authors who were formerly only getting hard to decipher royalty statements once or twice a year.

Nine months after they gave writers Nielsen, Amazon announced it had signed a deal to publish author Timothy Ferris‘ new book The 4-Hour Chef. Ferris told the New York Times, “I don’t feel like I’m giving up anything, financially or otherwise [by signing with Amazon],” adding, “Our success will only help the rest of publishing.”

Now, TheBookseller reports that UK-based literary agency Curtis Brown has partnered with Amazon to launch a digital self-publishing program through Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace. Curtis Brown CEO says the program is about “reach[ing] new audiences for our authors” and author Adele Parks is certainly pleased, telling Bookseller.com “My US fans have been continually calling for an e-book offering, so fingers crossed they’ll be as pleased as I am.”

writing is the bomb

mighty pens

I’ve been following the Amazon-Publishers war somewhat closely for the last few years, and it’s hard to know what this all actually means for writers. On one hand, Amazon represents innovation. As more and more readers defect from print to eReaders, and Amazon reigns as the biggest retailer of books by sales, writers can’t afford not to be in bed with them. Agents, of course, understand this intimately. But as Barnes and Noble’s refusal to carry Amazon print titles has shown, authors can’t afford to be on the wrong side of traditional publishers either.

In the next 10-15 years, business realities may force Amazon and Publishers to get in bed with each other, but what writers must realize is the current war is really about us. Without us creating the content, there is no Amazon Publishing, no Traditional Publisher, or Agent for that matter–yet we as writers have been largely silent, leaving the fight to the big boys.

Representing writers’ interest, the Authors Guild has been tangled in lawsuits with Hathi Trust and Google, suing against the right to surface scanned books in search results and library research without compensating Authors. But, where is the grassroots groundswell from writers?

The digital age has given us as writers unprecedented power. Why are we not using it?** It’s safe to say the publishing industry is going to operate very differently in the next decade, but how the changes will impact writers is up to us.

*It’s important to note these sales numbers don’t include Kindle sales which Amazon could furnish if they wanted to, I’m assuming.

**I know, I know. We’re busy writing the Great American/African novel, or just too scared to rock the boat as we seek validation from the agents/publishers we just queried/sent a submission to. Because we need that validation–we need to know we’re good enough. I know. But [insert last paragraph above].