Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Complaints from within

Peter Osnos, founder of PublicAffairs and general publishing gadfly, has written this piece for The Century Foundation, where he is a Fellow. The headline is "Harry Potter and the Rest of the Book Business." How provocative.

In fact, it's just a rant about him not being able to get a book that he read about, and then it becomes criticism about the limitations of modern publishers who cannot fulfill potential customers' desires by having enough copies of books available. HP7 was the exception, hence the headline. I can appreciate what he's saying but this seems a bit cheap and easy. He is taking off his Publisher hat and putting on his Customer and announcing loudly, "I'm ALWAYS right! That's the expression!"

I guess I clam up anytime someone pushes for publishers to chase customers this hard, even if I understand that publishers cannot just rest on their laurels and expect readers to come to them. It's a new age. But can't he see, as a Publisher, that it's not always beneficial financially to print more copies? In this case the book got amazing publicity which translated into demand. First of all, what if that publicity didn't pan out? A lot of media is unreliable like that. And secondly, I'm here to tell you that not all publicity generates sales. You can get great publicity and not sell many books, so printing 30k because the Washington Post is a sure thing is not always the best idea, especially for a smaller house with more limited resources.

And how did he manage to write this li'l article without criticizing the chains at all for their buying? In fact, it becomes a celebration, this article, or rather a commercial - for Amazon. But if B&N and/or Borders shuts out a book for whatever reason, the publisher can produce 8 million copies of a book and it doesn't mean it will necessarily be easy to buy.

I just think he should have sat on this for one more day, perhaps, and widened his critique.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Booksellers in the past or in the future?

Stolen from the great blog Book Patrol, this interesting video on a street bookseller in India. Pretty incredible stuff that makes you question, on a quite fundamental level, the importance of books and their manner of distribution.

My first time to embed a video, so advance apologies for any technological difficulties...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Yet another reason to love Harry, I suppose

From one of my favorite sites, Grist, which does snarky environmental news (and does it exceedlingly well), comes this exciting information:
Welcome Back, Potter
Final Harry Potter tome is "greenest book in publishing history"Hear that? It's the satisfied sigh of millions of Harry Potter fans who finally have the long-awaited seventh book tightly in their grasp. The final installment of the mugglicious series is said to be the greenest book in publishing history -- a good thing, since it's set sales records at retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. Sixteen publishers around the world used eco-friendly paper for the edition, including U.S. publisher Scholastic, which went the conventional route for the last Harry book and faced a boycott as a result. In all, says Markets Initiative, a Vancouver-based group that helps publishers go green, the switch for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has saved nearly 200,000 trees and avoided almost 8,700 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Which totally makes up for the fact that Harry dies in the end. Or does he?

I guess this is, in fact, rather old news, as they first posted something on it here quite awhile ago, but it's news to me - and good news at that. Their latest article on it is here.

More on green initiatives on a less busy day.

Monday, July 23, 2007


I don't believe any publishing blogger, at least until tomorrow, is allowed to post on anything non-Harry Potter. And to be honest, even though I admittedly have not read past the second book, I have no problem with that. And I'm kind of tired of the people rebelling against it because, quite frankly, it seems like harmless fun to me. Sure, the image of a grown woman dressed as a 14 year old wizard disturbs me, but the only real evil I can find is in places like Walmart capitalizing off this massive interest in reading shown by so many adults and children.

(and yes, I can appreciate the concern that Americans don't get this excited about something more sophisticated - ie, when did adults ever line up like this for a book written at an adult level.)

Moving on, here's the round-up from Shelf-Awareness:
Quickly some statistics:Scholastic estimated that 8.3 million copies of the 12 million first printing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows sold in the U.S. on Saturday. By contrast, in 2005, some 6.9 million copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince sold on the first day.
The New York Times estimated that if the average price per book was $20, "Americans spent nearly $170 million for the book in one day." The AP (via the Seattle Times) calculated that sales of the book averaged more than 300,000 copies per hour or more than 5,000 a minute.

It goes on to talk numbers from Borders, B&N, Amazon, and yes, Walmart, but I don't feel the need to include just how much richer the shareholders became.

I myself was at the charming Books, Etc. in Portland, Maine, where my partner snapped up a book just after midnight. It was sweet to see the anticipation, and then to hear the applauase and general "horrah!" when midnight struck and the first book was sold. Admittedly, as someone who doesn't do groups, who gets uncomfortable when too many people follow one line of thought, I grew a bit itchy while returning from the cafe car on the train coming back and found no few than four people reading the book in the few rows between where I entered our car and where we were sitting - adults and children alike, and all kinds, from a jockish 13 year old to a middle-aged businessman by himself to a teenage/possibly college-aged woman. I want to celebrate the diversity, but some part of me is envisioning them all looking up, glassy-eyed, and coming at me with arms out like trained, brainwashed killers. I mean, replace HP with the Bible and I'm getting off the train at the next stop.

But NO! I won't be won over. This is a victory for books and for reading and hopefully, for independent bookstores. Says Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, co-owner of Windows a bookshop in Monroe, LA, quote in Shelf-Awareness:
"I swear I think we're reaching the tipping point where people are really starting to value the independents and make a little extra effort to support them. Those people coming in today aren't buying here just because we have the best party (which we do--oh my god, it was fab), but because they are willing to pay and extra $15+ for the book (and the extra tax) to buy with us."
Well done, America!

PS I want to add to this post this interesting article from Jon Healey in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times, in which he talks about the early spoilers. He himself does not spoil anything - fear not, fans - except any rebellious notion held by those in support of said spoilers.

He spoke with Rich Pearson of Attributor, a company that researched the spoilers famously posted last week:
The most interesting finding is that the vast majority of the material -- 90% or more -- wasn't being hosted by Potter fan sites. Instead, Pearson said, it was found mainly on splogs that used the traffic to drive up ad revenue. By Attributor's count, about 80% of the web pages with the Potter leaks also had ads. These sites tended to be good at optimizing their pages for search engines, Pearson said, so they would appear near the top of the results when someone searched for "Harry Potter" or "Deathly Hallows." In most cases, the sites simply copied and pasted the same material found on other spoiler sites.
Cultural rebellion by capitalist pigs. I'm all for non-conformity but not when it's powered by those just trying to edge in on bigger profits. People aren't spoiling to fight Scholastic's corporate power.

And it might be worth mentioning that Bloomsbury in UK published HP originally, kicking off this phenomenon, as an independent publisher, and the book's success, in the US at least, is due largely to the work of independent booksellers, when the book was first rather quietly published in the US. The Washington Post's Bob Thompson recently mentioned this, saying, "it's important to remember that the Potter phenomenon started not because of hype but because readers (and independent booksellers) loved the first couple of books."

And here's another good article on Friday nights' events, from Bookselling This Week.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lazy publishing blogger.... Bad publishing blogger...

Buried at work, like so many other editors. Actually, I suppose when many people think of book editors in the summer, they imagine us at our homes on the Vineyard (that's Martha's, for those not in the know) or the Hamptons. They don't picture me dragging my tired behind to an office for long days, 15 minute lunches, and author calls that can go as long as an hour and twenty (though it was an author I like just fine today, for the record).

One distraction I've had, besides work, is Good Reads. Deadly. Very fun, very silly. For the book nerd in all of us.

I've also been trying to get my head around the Houghton Mifflin purchase of Harcourt. Houghton's take on it is here, while Harcourt does not seem to have posted any news of it on their site... unsurprisingly. Something more objective from PW here and the Boston Globe here. But this article on whether it will affect the trade side of both houses is what interested me. The opening was somehow eerie:
When Houghton Mifflin Riverdeep's CEO Tony Lucki said in statement that, “We would like to think that Houghton Mifflin's Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harcourt's T.S. Eliot would truly be proud of what we are announcing today," the subtext of the message seemed clear: HM Riverdeep's purchase of Harcourt is good news for literary publishing.
I don't want to look at the man behind the curtain, but that's one bizarre quote.

We shall see. Any thoughts on this acquisition and the future of the trade sides of both presses are most welcome. Should we be shaking in our readerly boots?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ask the buyer what to sell

Via Shelf Awareness, this New Yorker piece by James Surowiecki - which was actually the Financial Page - talks about Simon & Schuster's recent decision to partner with a website called Media Predict. As the website notes, "Via Project Publish, Touchstone Books will be the first major publisher to put our market-based method for evaluating media content to the test." So a group of readers will evaluate book proposals and choose the top 50, which will then be evaluated by "a team of editors," with the finalist, naturally, being published.

There is a recent history to this phenomenon, with the failed experiment known as the Sobol Award. (See Miss Snark's smart response to this scam.) It was similar in that it created a contest to get yourself published, but it also offered cash prizes. Oh, and it charged participants $85 each, which is what really set people like literary agent Snark off. Rightly so! As the Award's website explains, they didn't generate enough interest to pull it off.

But this deal between S&S and Media Predict is different. I don't believe they are charging money for entries, and they are relying on readers to pick the winner, causing some critics to refer to "American Idol." It's another kind of good ol' fashioned market research, right? Right. But I guess some of us snooty types like to think of books as being above the market, about more than just a product. This is something I've returned to repeatedly on this blog, as I worry that the more we view books purely as product, the more the book as we know it becomes endangered. Survival... endangered... it all comes together.

University presses work in this way, to some extent, from what I've seen and heard. The editors talk to professors and read publications related to the disciplines they publish into, and they try to jump on the trends and publish books professors want to use in courses. But this system allows for more opportunities of originality, it seems. You and I might not be able to always understand an academic book, but many of them are cutting edge, fascinating, very necessary polemics that present an idea or topic that will likely get a tradier treatment years down the road. Textbooks are a bit more led by market research, whereas university press editors get to work with scholars on keeping up with an intellectual discussion - and I say that knowing some might replace "discussion" with "market," which again is just base.

As someone who doesn't own, I imagine that when people move into a neighborhood, they choose it because it has character. Many of them then, once they become owners, work tirelessly to remove any sign of character for fear of hurting the elusive "market." It's all about resale value. I find this tragic, yes, but on a lighter note, truly bizarre. You cannot live in your home, in the space in which you spend very important down time, in fear of the market! Relax, express yourself in that space, spread own and make yourself comfortable. The activities you choose shouldn't harm your neighbors, of course, but they should express your own individuality rather than your ability to follow the status quo. "I assume you'll be putting in GRANITE countertops, William... no?"

So then we get to publishing - on the other end of the profit spectrum from real estate, to be sure. As the New Yorker piece points out, in all it's stark sadness, "most books today are not economically successful, which means that much of the time and money that publishers invest in projects is wasted." Youch. So I want to say publishers need to have a firm identity, and need to stand by that identity and make it consistent, a vision that will attract people and keep people around who will come to rely on the vision of the editor or editorial team. Some good examples of this kind of publishing include McSweeneys - and go buy a book there, as I certainly did, as they're hurting from PGW's bankruptcy! - and David Godine. These places have a secure, strong identity which does not always point so directly to the market.

But I know that's idealistic. Still, do we need to sound as desperate as S&S here, begging readers to just tell us what to publish? I hope not.