Friday, December 19, 2008

Think on it

Not much time but I wanted to post two links, with a bit of commentary.

First is the fantastic Citizen Reader offering something to cut through the syrupy and stupid sweetness offered by magazine year-end top ten lists. Yes, CR has instead posted The Worst Books of 2008 - with nice summations following each title. Scott McClellan's a weenie, Thomas Friedman's a jackhole, and that person creating so called "buzz"? "I'm thinking he and I don't share the same taste in books." Well done!

Second is this rather irritating but often right-on op-ed from author Lawrence Osborne (*not* actor Laurence Fishburne), in which publishers are given the what-for. Osborne makes some good points. For one, he lists the problems editors are reporting, with his own critique of their reports:
Industry insiders provide a depressing catalog: a failure to acquire the kind of franchise authors now topping the bestseller lists, a lack of editorial insight and supervision (resulting in longer, sloppier books that bore readers stupid), extravagant author advances, agents all too happy to sacrifice the long-term interest of authors for short-term profit, incompetent management at the top and a lack of books that have commercial impact.
Then he offers some nice feedback, often in blunt form:
But just as newspapers are dooming themselves by cutting the very thing they alone can provide--in-depth, on the spot reporting--so publishing houses are dooming themselves by trying to run in somebody's else's rat race and cutting the very thing we turn to them for: writing itself.

Amen! The problem is in fact commercial publishers who are not even going after "the next big thing," but instead are chasing "the big thing to follow the last big thing."

He ends by suggesting publishers reach the post-college, literate folks like, oh, the author's son.

My son and his friends, who are in their early twenties, read Houllebecq and Bolaño and Sebald and Coetzee without any problem at all. Those writers speak easily to their anxieties and concerns. And yet none of these writers would have found American publishers if they hadn't first succeeded in their countries of origin.

We the readers, the people, are not dumbed down media serfs obsessed with celebrities, dosh and movie rights. You are.

This man has the leisurely tones and metaphors of a posh English dandy lazily blabbering in a hotel tea room, but his points are true. I fear they may not reach the needed audience, however - especially seeing as this was published by Forbes!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A little late to add this NPR audio about "dreaded returns" but it seems more prescient than ever. No?

Lynn Neary did a 7-minute looksie at the archaic process of publisher returns back in June of this year. Take a listen for a simple, clear primer on the problem of returns.

Publishing slowly moves forward

If we're going to be trapped in some recession or depression, we best make the most of it, right? So we need to institute some changes to publishing that will make it a more efficient industry.

Shelf Awareness is linking to a Wall Street Journal article (sorry, think it's subscription-based) by the ever-reliable Jeffrey Trachtenberg on news that Borders will buy books from HarperStudio on a non-returnable basis. This is unusual, for folks not in the know:
Under the terms of the deal, the nation's second-largest bookstore chain by revenue will get a deeper discount on initial orders of books published by the new imprint of News Corp.'s HarperCollins Publishers -- 58% to 63% off the cover price, instead of the usual 48%. In exchange, Borders won't return any unsold books to HarperStudio, instead probably discounting them in the store.
Borders needs the discount and probably assumes it can use the inventory, if it doesn't go under, and HarperStudio can send off the books without having to worry about them coming back. The return system in publishing is archaic, so this is progress.
"Returns have never made sense in our business, and with the recent economic downturn, publishers and booksellers are more open than before to experimenting with models that might decrease waste and increase profit," said Robert Miller, president and publisher of HarperStudio. When he started the imprint earlier this year, Mr. Miller said he intended to shake up traditional book-publishing economics.
Shelf Awareness added their own two cents with the link, noting: "If selling nonreturnable spreads and everyone isn't too exhausted by the effort, perhaps the industry will then re-examine another of its 'quirks': the manufacturer's suggested retail price printed on the book."

PS I wanted to add a worrisome update, also posted in Shelf Awareness, regarding a place I've mentioned before: the Bookstore Restaurant in Wellfleet, MA. I have not been here still, but I want to go now more than ever after reading this story in Cape Cod Today about its struggles - not over the ever shrinking economy, but because of their inability to update their septic system. If it's not one thing, it's other! The place still looks amazing.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Going forward or looking back?

As the publishing industry squirms in the pressure cooker created by an ever weakening economy, blogs and other media outlets are scrambling with how to portray this unique world of editors and publishers.

I was less impressed with Ethan Hill's article on Barney Rosset than I wanted to be, in Newsweek. Actually, I should say that if I came across the article in Newsweek, I would have just been impressed that they were devoting so much space to someone in publishing, but coming across it as a link posted by The Casual Optimist, I was less impressed. For those who don't know and don't have the time to click through, Rosset purchased Grove Press for $3,000 in the early 1950s, when it was nothing to speak of and he wasn't much either, and turned it into the leading home for avant-garde and popular literature, fighting seemingless endless obscenity laws with writing from Bertolt Brecht, William S. Burroughs, Samuel Beckett, and many other white guys (sorry!). I appreciate the article's objectivity - Rosset's no hero in some ways, but he's fascinating and important - but even with the article's length, it still seems to be skimming on the top of this topic, not delving into it in an intriguing or particularly useful way. It's worth a read as this kind of history in publishing is often quite fascinating, but it may leave that bad taste in your mouth that said history often does - rich white guys being rich white guys, isn't this one rich white guy great because he "took such a chance."

And then looking forward, we have all these open forums for discussing what will become of modern book publishing. The Penguin blog (yes, that Penguin) is looking forward by "inviting authors, typographers, cover designers, printers, technologists, retailers, literary agents, publishers and geeks to come along and consider if and how technology can transform and perhaps improve on The Book." Don't know how much "buy-in" will happen there. I mean, they have a vested interested in hosting such a discussion that makes the use of their blog or somewhere else on their website a less-than-desirable venue for a frank discussion. And in a truly mainstream but strikingly pedestrian manner, over at the Huffington Post, Hugh McGuire asks about "hybrid readers" - those of us who like printed books but are open to e-books and other digital creations. I don't think the name works, quite frankly, and I am shocked by how basic this article is given McGuire's other work (namely, LibriVox AND the Book Oven Blog). I blame the Huffington Post, which is publishing too fast and loose, having contributors churn out light content written up on the fly.

So the best plan is to look back as we go forward, but where to look and then where to go?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

There is a whole lot of crash-and-burn talk going on with writers these days. I was just talking to one author I edited who is a freelancer, and he was talking about places - magazines, websites - wanting more for less. And the big problem is, it's not even a matter of the publishers holding back necessarily! In many cases, no one is making money. So if you go chasin' it, you might end up staring down a big empty hole.

So what to do? Call Obama!

Two new articles have come out about whether President-elect Obama should revive a Federal Writers' Project like the one that we had in the 1930s following the Great Depression. Are we ready for a literary bail-out? (So asks Jennifer Schuessler at the NY Times' Papercuts blog.)

Paul Greenberg's piece will appear in this Sunday's NYTimes, arguing not to resuscitate the old FWP model, but to instead model the AAA - Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which worked to lower the production of produce. Why? Well...

Overcapacity has been something generally acknowledged across the writing industry for at least 10 years. In a 2002 essay in The New York Times, the onetime best-selling novelist and story writer Ann Beattie mourned the situation of the modern writer, living in a world where people are more interested in “being a writer” than in writing itself. “There are too many of us, and M.F.A. programs graduate more every year, causing publishers to suffer snow-blindness, which has resulted in everyone getting lost,” she lamented. That Ann Beattie must now compete on Amazon with a self-published author named Ann Rothrock Beattie is proof of how enormous the blizzard has become.

I'm always amazed at the number of people who claim to be or want to be writers, versus the smaller number of people who really and truly read books.

Greenberg's piece is somewhat tongue-in-cheek but still of interest to those of us who worry about just how much garbage clogs your modern corporate bookstore.

Greenberg ends with a biting quote from Graham Greene:
“Are you prepared for the years of effort, ‘the long defeat of doing nothing well’? As the years pass writing will not become any easier, the daily effort will grow harder to endure, those ‘powers of observation’ will become enfeebled; you will be judged, when you reach your 40s, by performance and not by promise.”

Yowser, huh?

The other article considering this idea is by Mark I. Pinsky over at The New Republic. A bit more straight-forward, this article includes a nice brief history of FWP and does at least imagine, if not call for, a resuscitation of the federal program.
This time, the FWP could begin by documenting the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion. Like the original FWP, the new version would focus in particular on those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media. At the same time, the multimedia fruits of this research would be open-sourced to all media, as well as to academics.

Interesting concept to consider. However, try to sell this idea to anyone who gets a whiff of the blog Daily Routines, which chronicles "how writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days." Some show discipline, sure - Toni Morrison writing before dawn, when her children would start to wake, or J.M. Coetzee writing seven days a week - and then you have the others who are a bit more... eccentric? Says Truman Capote:
I am a completely horizontal author. I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.

Can you imagine the conservative reaction to that man getting a federal subsidy? Not so much, but I'm certainly glad his writing made it into the world.

Back to the drawing table perhaps...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

More Discussions on the Future of Publishing

Given "Black Wednesday" in publishing, how should we go forward in the book world? This conversation is occurring around water coolers, online, in papers, etc..., and most of it has been said before.

But I was intrigued by the ideas offered up by David Nygren over at The Urban Elitist, in a post titled "The Future of Publishing (Maybe)." How humble. (I will admit I have not followed his blog, so I don't really know his usual p.o.v.) His vision of what publishing will become is actually quite promising, without being extreme or nihilistic.

I appreciate his point about the end of corporate publishing dominance - appreciate in that I'm pleased by this forecast, but also that I agree with its logic. He posits that theory while still allowing for gatekeepers - but these gatekeepers, egotistical or not, will not necessarily be driven by profit, or by shareholders looking only at the bottom line:
I expect the rise of “super readers,” such as Oprah has become (though not on that scale). Each super reader will have his or her own following. Many of them will be mini-tyrants, but at least the power will have moved from the profit-centered board room to those who truly care about and appreciate the content. As we have currently, various reading groups, online review journals and bloggers will also drive readers to content that might otherwise have been ignored.

This is exciting to me, and offers more promise for writers than counting on editors at corporate publishers who have marketing people and shareholders breathing down their necks, shouting to find the next big thing.

I also agree with his not-so-shocking concept of independent publishers needing to build a community, to know their niche. The concern there is always profit, or even staying afloat (forget making money), but Nygren explains that production costs and even marketing will be lower and the royalty arrangements we now have will change, so cash will flow differently. There also won't be the same warehouse costs.

I do worry that this new arrangement means less labor, as in fewer people employed by the publishing industry. Everyone can get published but no one can get hired. With print culture moving online, and being more accessible for less money, are we just discarding manual labor in the world of books and magazines and newspapers? Will there be unskilled labor jobs created? Like the discussions around environmental changes, with green collar jobs now becoming a real expression with meaning, I wonder if we need to discuss this aspect in the culture of writing and disseminating information.

Sorry I can't post as much, this week and running up to the holidays. Christopher has an idea for the top books of 2008... only I don't read many new books. If mine can be old books read in 2008, I may be better off?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Publishing News Flash II - Random House re-org

Publishers Weekly is reporting some changes at Random House, which is being seriously reorganized. See the letter from Markus Dohle, RH Chairman, here. Welcome! to the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group!

This document is interesting to read just to get a sense of how many imprints exist under RH, which has gobbled up a number of publishers over the years. But have no fear! Dohle says: "I want to stress the fact that all the imprints of Random House will retain their distinct editorial identities. These imprints and all of you who support them are the creative core of our business and essential to our success." Ah, what a relief...

Lines like this - "Because of the current economic crisis, our industry is facing some of the most difficult times in publishing history" - are scary indeed, though. And best of luck to two departing bigwigs - Irwyn Applebaum and Steve Rubin, freshly out of work with the re-org.

I hear PW and Publishers Lunch email alerts are filling inboxes all over the publishing world. Corporate publishing employees must feel under siege!

Publishing News Flash - More Houghton Trouble!

It seems Houghton's publisher has gone and resigned! This just in from the New York Times' ever-reliable Motoko Rich:

In a sign of further setbacks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which represents authors like Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer and Günter Grass, the publisher of the company’s adult trade division has resigned.

The publisher, Becky Saletan, who took the job in January, will leave the company Dec. 10.
Last week, the publisher temporarily stopped acquiring new books as its parent company, Education Media and Publishing Group, an Irish private equity concern, said it was not allocating as much capital to the consumer book business.

Josef Blumenfeld, a spokesman for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, confirmed that Ms. Saletan had resigned. Ms. Saletan did not return calls or an e-mail message, and Jeremy Dickens, president of Education Media, did not return calls. The news of Ms. Saletan’s resignation was first reported by The Associated Press.

Literary agents who knew Ms. Saletan were upset by the news of her departure. “I think that Becky is a woman of extraordinary integrity and had quickly become a terrific publisher,” said David Black, whose clients published by Houghton include the cookbook author Dorie Greenspan and the sports columnist Ian O’Connor. “It’s a significant loss.”

Ms. Saletan became publisher earlier this year after the merger of Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt, edging out Janet Silver, who had been at Houghton Mifflin for 24 years.
Houghton Mifflin, based in Boston, was acquired in 2006 by Riverdeep, an Irish software company backed by what is now Education Media. The next year the company bought Harcourt, an educational publisher.

In an interview last week, Mr. Dickens of Education Media said Houghton had about $7 billion in debt and that other publishers had expressed interest in it.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Obama and Publishing

Lori L. Tharps over at the Root offers an article about President-elect Obama's impact on publishing, specifically for black writers. (Via her blog, she directs readers interested in the topic of "Black people in the publishing industry" to the blog WriteBlack, run by Anika, which I hadn't read before. Looks like a fun spot worth visiting.)

Tharps doesn't make any definitive point in the article but nicely opens up this conversation, which is about publishing and of course more, in terms of a national conversation. How do we all discuss race with a black president coming into office? Publishing gets pulled out from other media because it's slower, and Tharps (and many others, myself included) feels it's also slower to publish by and for black people:
In the past month, those of us who make our living from the written word have started to ponder the possibilities. We are imagining the different ways the incoming president might inspire the overwhelmingly white publishing industry to get a clue about our stories... In the world B.O. (before Obama), publishers seemed to operate under the impression that black authors appealed only to black readers. Even worse, that those black readers were interested only in books that involved a lot of sex and ghetto baby-mama drama. For the past decade, support for authors of color with literary ambitions, or even those who just wanted to tell a different kind of story, has been dismal.

Fair play. She gets into the ghettoization of black writing and how publishers only seem comfortable with black authors writing "street" or "gangsta" lit, but what she doesn't address is the problem with corporate booksellers and how they truly segregate black writing separate from other writing, even black fiction versus "literature." That's definitely a part of the equation. When does a writer get to the point where she's next to Toni Morrison rather than Lisa Lennox?

I do appreciate the point Malaika Adero of Atria Books makes: "Sometimes there's this notion that publishers introduce the hot new thing," she says, "but we don't lead, we follow." I don't know if this has to be the case, but I do know, especially in this point in time with the economy shrinking and publishers less willing to take risks, it's gonna be the case for awhile.

But here's another possibility: maybe when the dust settles on this recession, as our economy reorganizes itself, with banks and sellers restructuring credit and consumers shopping in more educated ways - locally, sustainably - maybe there will be an opportunity for a publisher or publishers to go out with a new direction and challenge the kind of thinking that says every new project brought to the editorial board as an acquisition has to have 2 or 3 or 200 precedents, that every new book has to fit the XXXX meets XXXX model. If national, independent publishers are not desperate to make enough to stay open, maybe they will be able to lead - like Soft Skull has done with fiction in recent times. And maybe this can bode well for black writers wanting to break out of the segregated publishing AND bookselling world.

I return to a phrase I find myself saying or thinking a lot these days: Here's hoping!