Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stop the Returns!

So I was looking through the posts on Google Reader from the blogs and papers I read, and while places like MobyLives and Galleycat had interesting news, nothing really inspired me to post. Then Galleycat posted a link to Scott Esposito's interview on Conversational Reading with Declan Spring, Senior Editor at the outstanding literary independent publisher, New Directions. The interview was part of Con Rdg's series on publishing into a recession. Esposito plans to interview players from smaller, independent presses to see how "publishing beyond New York's giants is faring." This is a great idea for a series, so I'll be sure to keep an eye out for his other interviews.

Spring is a worthy first choice, and he makes some useful observations from his position at a venerated press like ND that still needs to work hard to survive in this financial climate. He is less convinced that ND will increase acquisitions based on authors not getting picked up by big commercial houses, and more concerned about how badly returns will ultimately hurt the company: "The biggest factor for us hasn’t been so much big drops in actual sales, but the enormous amounts of returns from booksellers, primarily the chains. " He goes on to explain the incredible value of ND's backlist and the strategy of repackaging some of those classic titles with introductions by big current names - a fairly common and wise publishing practice. They then "are absolutely making sure that on each list we have important backlist reissues that will have a guaranteed sale." His fears of digitization make sense, then: readers won't need these backlist titles in hardcopy if they can just download the text itself. Spring admits,
Coupled with the economy is at least MY rising fear of the digitization of text and the popularity of downloading books on computers, ipod,s and digital readers like the Kindle and the Sony Reader. Riding the subway to work, I see less people reading and more listening to their ipods. Fewer of my friends are reading in the evenings, more are emailing friends and surfing the Internet.
I think many of us have seen this trend. This statement was not followed up by Esposito, unfortunately, leaving it isolated so Spring seems more resistant to technology than I'm sure he actually is.

Excessive orders that are then returned in bulk are killing independent presses - that's the message here. It's a bit boring and pedestrian, but it's a huge problem that I've written about before. Authors should appreciate this problem. As Spring later explains further,
As I said above, the greatest damage due to the economic downfall this year has been due to the fact that the chains aren’t buying as many books up front, they’re reducing their shelf life (our author Eliot Weinberger says books now have the shelf life of yogurt), and in response to the climate, they’re returning more books. That’s incredibly damaging for a small company like New Directions. It effects not only our sales, but how many we decide to print off the bat.

Okay, folks, so time to head over to ND and get to buyin'. I recommend Tennessee Williams' Memoirs, with a foreword by John Waters. Fantastic reading!

PS For those wondering either what was up with Elizabeth Alexander's poem (note: I'm not linking to the poem itself b/c I'm not convinced there are authorized versions online, but maybe I'm wrong...) at the Inauguration or what is up with all the whining happening about it since, check out this wrap up over at BookNinja, with useful links to discussions elsewhere. He doesn't include the NY Times Opionator, which has many interesting comments and links. All the references to Whitman certainly made me more forgiving of the poem...

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