Ask The Editor

December 30, 2008

Reports of the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated

A colleague sent me a link to an essay on the fate of book publishing that appeared last week in The Washington Post. Its author, Andre Bernard, was formerly an editor and publisher at Harcourt, a major house that’s suffering through significant problems. It’s not surprising then that he views the downturn at his old house and other venerable publishers as perhaps signaling the end of book publishing:

“… I can’t help thinking that as this year gasps its way to its merciful end, something terribly sad is happening, that a vague, general shift in the cultural landscape will alter how or what we read in some still indefinable way; that a quirky, creaky, financially insupportable business that in spite of itself produces that most desirable and perfect of objects — the book — is perishing, and that we are yet to fully feel the loss.”

Here’s the thing. Books aren’t going away. Yes, book publishers are in serious trouble. Bookstores are closing. But the book lives on. The books we read will indeed change but they always do. Books have changed in response to markets and technology since the first authors scribbled on papyrus.

We can predict some changes because they’re already happening. Major publishing companies are focusing even more on big “sure-thing” books. But other books are getting published as well, some by the authors, themselves. And some are doing quite well in their niches. Local independent booksellers are disappearing. But books are spreading to shelf space in general retail establishments.

Books are being sold via websites. They’re being touted in clever videos on YouTube and in blogs and promoted directly to online book groups.

Just as we’ve seen the web open up opportunities for writers of shorter forms of news and commentary, we will inevitably see electronic formats open up more opportunities for writers of long-form fiction and non-fiction. With costs such as printing, shipping and returns no longer an issue, publishing will be economically feasible for just about anyone who is willing to invest time, money and energy into promotion.

So, take heart. The book will not perish. It will change. As all things change. Be prepared to adapt so you can take advantage of the opportunities that the changes present.

Happy New Year to all.

December 28, 2008

Nonsense from The New York Times on book publishing

The New York Times is a great paper but, every couple of weeks or so, it can be counted upon to print some unsupported and unsupportable drivel. Today’s exhibit is its report on the reasons why book publishing is in trouble. Here’s a taste:

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Don’t blame this carnage on the recession or any of the usual suspects, including increased competition for the reader’s time or diminished attention spans. What’s undermining the book industry is not the absence of casual readers but the changing habits of devoted readers.

In other words, it’s all the fault of people like myself, who increasingly use the Internet both to buy books and later, after their value to us is gone, sell them. This is not about Amazon peddling new books at discounted prices, which has been a factor in the book business for a decade, but about the rise of a worldwide network of amateurs who sell books from their homes or, if they’re lazy like me, in partnership with an Internet dealer who does all the work for a chunk of the proceeds.

They get their books from friends, yard sales, recycling centers, their own shelves, castoffs …

You get the picture. Buying and selling used books at yard sales, in bookstores and online is, according to this article, bringing down publishing.

And, as a result, Powell’s is in trouble? Huh? Powell’s is best-known as a seller of  used books. Its huge collection is available to buyers both in-store and via its website. It has always gotten those used books that it sells from people who tend to buy and sell used books. If Powell’s is in trouble, could it, in anyone’s wildest dreams be because of (pause here, please, to appreciate the lack of logic) the availability of used books?

The book industry isn’t in trouble because used books are available. If that were the case, Powell’s, listed as one of those in trouble, would be doing just fine. It provides a market for used books. And why, if people could bring down an industry by buying and selling used, couldn’t they bring down the industry by going to the library instead of the bookstore?

No, the book industry is in trouble for all the reasons it’s been in trouble for the past several years. And now, like virtually every other industry, it’s being hurt because, during a recession, people cut back on expenditures.

That’s why even Powell’s isn’t immune.

Publishing has been hurting for years and it’s easy to trace the history, if one thinks before opining. Independent bookstores were the first to suffer when, a few years back, like independent stores of all types, they had difficulty competing with big box chain stores that offered comparatively huge inventories and at significant discounts. Then Amazon crowded out the big box stores, offering far larger inventories, discounting even more and making it more convenient so that the big box stores started to falter.

And all this affected book publishers and authors. It was the independent bookstore merchants who told regular customers about the new books that they knew those customers would enjoy based on past reading habits. Once the personal relationship between bookseller and customer was gone, the book buyer had to find his or her own next good read. So books that were prominently displayed in big box bookstores got the customer’s attention. Publishers typically pay many $thousands for that prominent placement, which makes selling any book that doesn’t get significant promotional support more difficult. So, authors of books that weren’t expected to become bestsellers sold even less than they might. Amazon, too, has pay-for-play arrangements with publishers.

And now, everything is worsened by the recession. Nobody (other than Amazon), is selling as much this year as last, not clothing merchants or electronics stores or toy stores or booksellers. Publishers, trying to limit their risks, are looking for sure things: books by authors who have previously had bestsellers and books by celebrities.

What does all this mean to writers? It’s most certainly not that we will be ruined by the purveyor of used books. But we must recognize that the business of publishing is changing. We either adapt or fail.

There will still be a market for books — but in a recession bordering on depression, the market for everything is smaller, books included. So, we are forced to think in new ways. A forward-thinking colleague, with many books published by major publishers to his credit, has started his own publishing company. I believe that may be the way to go for many of us.

Random House needs huge sales in order to cover overhead, stay in business, and profit, but authors who become publishers actually need fewer sales than if published by Random House to earn as much.

What authors do need to learn is more effective marketing and promotion. And, since book sales, like other sales, seem to be moving more and more to the web, that means mastering promotion on the web. Which is a good thing for authors because promoting on the web can be far more economical than coming up with the thousands required to get books displayed on the tables in the front of the store at Barnes & Noble or Borders.

December 24, 2008

A very merry Christmas to all

Filed under: Commentary — editorialconsultant @ 9:45 am

Just a quick note to wish everyone great holidays and a wonderful New Year, from me, and from these guys.

December 22, 2008

Tips for succeeding in a tough market from top literary agent Adam Chromy

Adam Chromy heads up Artists & Artisans, Inc., a literary agency and management company that’s enjoying unusual success in a difficult publishing climate. Chromy’s iconoclastic, strategic approach allows him to look at the changes the industry is undergoing not just as challenges but as opportunities. Read what he had to say during our recent interview. I believe you’ll find it refreshing and eye-opening.

ANITA B: The publishing trades are full of doom and gloom. Yet, you mentioned, when we last spoke, that you’re having your best year since becoming a literary agent. Tell me to what you attribute that success.

ADAM CHROMY: Thanks for asking, Anita.  Mostly it’s just a matter of timing.  I have heard that it takes at least five to 10 years for an agent to build a substantial client list – and that is after the agent has usually spent many years as an editor or an assistant to an agent.  I came to this industry six years ago without any experience in publishing and started right up as an agent selling books – but it has only really been this year that my client list has caught up to my ambition. So the overall industry may be down and I will do less than I would have in a healthy environment but my growth this year over the last has been great.

And I also have to credit my awesome clients – many of them are selling their second or third book, and I have even had some clients whose first books failed to sell come through with big books for me to sell this year.

We also have a great agent working with me now named Jamie Brenner – she is building a great list of literary fiction and nonfiction and commercial women’s fiction.  Having someone as good as her to work with has really helped our company take off.

Finally, this year we transitioned from being a literary agency to a management company.  So we are actively engaging Hollywood contacts to get our clients’ books adapted to film and TV projects. This will be great for the clients, their books as well as us.  And we just got our first green light for a show in October!

ANITA B: Tell me a bit about one or two of your better-known projects.

ADAM CHROMY: We had a good year for literary fiction:  James Howard Kunstler’s novel, WORLD MADE BY HAND (Grove/Atlantic), was chosen by NPR’s Alan Cheuse as one of the best 5 novels of 2008. And Michael Hogan’s BURIAL OF THE DEAD received universally glowing reviews. We also had a nonfiction hit with Andrea Lavinthal and Jessica Rozler’s FRIEND OR FRENEMY which is also on the way to being adapted for a TV series. And we should have several big books coming out in 2009.

ANITA B: What are the most important changes affecting book publishing now and what changes do you see coming in the future?

ADAM CHROMY: Everyone seems to be talking about publishers publishing fewer books and paying smaller advances. But we are ready for that. In business school (yes, I have a business degree from NYU not a lit degree from an ivy league school) we learned that the railroads went out of business because they thought they were in the railroad business. They held on to railroads as the world moved on to trucks, planes, etc. They would have survived if they realized they were in the transportation business and changed with the times. That lesson will always stick with me. So I never say we are in the book business. We manage storytellers and experts with valuable knowledge. We are ready to advise them in the professional distribution of their material in books, film/TV, the Internet and any other media that will benefit them. So if the publishers go the way of the record companies and railroads we are ready and will survive because people have consumed stories since Homer and always will.

: What advice do you have for authors hoping to find agents and, ultimately, get publishing contracts?

ADAM CHROMY: I advise authors to build audience.  Authors who want publishers to publish their books and build an audience for them are misguided.  Publishers will publish the books of people who have already built an audience.  Blog, publish short stories, win a contest – do something to build audience.  Or write a phenomenal novel.  But the more audience you have the greater the tolerance for the quality of your writing.

ANITA B: What would you recommend published authors do to help their books stand out?

ADAM CHROMY: See above and keep doing it – half your job as an author is to keep building audience.

ANITA B: Are there particular types of books that acquisitions editors tell you they’re looking for right now  – and is this any different from what they were looking for in previous years?

ADAM CHROMY: Everyone is saying they want books from celebrities and established authors – they want safe bets.  If it’s a debut is should be a marketable high concept with exceptional quality and polished execution.

ANITA B: Anything else you want to add that you believe is important for authors and aspiring authors to know?

ADAM CHROMY: Successful story tellers and promoters will be rewarded more than ever in this new climate, but there will be less midlist and lower level spots.  So authors should be prepared to work hard and hope for a big score.  The low level authors will be mostly relegated to offering their books free online or in POD. So if you want to make a living as a writer, you need to be prepared to work hard, catch some breaks, and make sure you have great management (like us).

Good luck.

December 18, 2008

Could you win the Breakthrough Novel Contest?

Amazon and major publishing house, Penguin Group, are again teaming up to find the next breakthrough novel. Could your novel be the one? If you are an author of fiction whose manuscript has yet to find a home, you have nothing to lose by entering and everything to win. Unlike a great number of writing contests, this one doesn’t require an entry fee. And the top prize is a publishing contract with Penguin.

But you needn’t be the Grand Prize winner to come out ahead. Several of last year’s runners-up also ended up with major publishing contracts. That’s thanks to their books’ exposure to judges who are among the biggest names in publishing including bestselling authors, literary agents, and acquisitions editors. This year’s judges are just as impressive.

So, get that manuscript in its best possible shape now. Entries are only accepted between February 2 and February 8, 2009. Good luck.

December 16, 2008

Major changes in the business of selling books

Filed under: Commentary,News,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 11:35 am

The following post will sound a bit “inside baseball” to those not familiar with publishing norms but, bear with me, because this is an important issue for every author and aspiring author.

Borders, the second largest bookstore chain in the U.S., has agreed to stock books from HarperStudio, on a non-returnable basis.

Since the Great Depression, virtually all book publishers have “sold” books to bookstores on consignment, permitting those bookstores to return unsold books for full refunds, even picking up the cost of shipping unsold titles back to the warehouse. While it may have been an essential incentive during the biggest economic crisis of the last century, in today’s market, it can be the practice that puts some publishers and authors out of business.

When books are returnable, publishers can’t accurately assess their profits and losses, even after all their inventory has been shipped to retailers. And authors can’t accurately estimate the sales of their titles, or reap the rewards of unexpectedly good sales, for a year or more. Authors’ royalties are always in doubt because many if not most publishers delay paying out some percentage of royalties due to the possibility of returns.

It’s not unusual for 30 to 40 percent of books shipped to be returned, often damaged just enough so that they can’t be resold. Those returned books are the ones you find on remainder tables for pennies on the dollar.

It’s a brutal business model in the best times.

And it’s not going away just because HarperStudio and Borders have made a different kind of agreement. Virtually every other publisher still does business with bookstores on the old model. But everyone is going to be watching, to see whether this new model makes sense for their own businesses. As an incentive to Borders to take its books on a non-returnable basis, HarperStudio will give Borders a greater discount off the list price.

One issue that I know worries some authors is that bookstores will be even more focused on stocking only surefire sellers if the practice of return-to-sender is ended. But book publishers are already limiting what they acquire to books they believe have a shot at becoming bestsellers. See my earlier post for more details. So, authors have little to lose that hasn’t been lost already and, potentially, much to gain.

December 15, 2008

Enter Slate’s “Times Richest & Neediest” writing contest

Filed under: Commentary — editorialconsultant @ 4:50 pm

The online magazine, Slate, likes to poke fun at some of the sillier articles that appear on occasion in The New York Times. And what could be sillier than the woeful tale of a teen who is being ever so slightly less spoiled by her well-to-do parents as they tighten their belts. No more take-out sushi. No more private Pilates classes. What further indignities may yet be visited upon this young woman?

Or, for that matter, her peers?

Slate invites readers to come up with their own ideas. Compose a parody about the “Times Richest and Neediest,” and if yours is the one judged the best, it will appear in Slate. Details here.

Ready. Set. Sharpen those tongues and pencils and have at it.

December 12, 2008

Buy books for Christmas III

Filed under: Commentary — editorialconsultant @ 11:14 pm

Yes, I’ve been pitching the perfect gift — a book — for a while  now. I’m not the only one. There’s a new website where various celebrities present lots of good reasons why books should be on everyone’s holiday lists.

Here are a few from

  • “Books make great gifts because they are an amazing way to kill time while your web site is buffering.” Jon Stewart
  • “Books make great gifts because they are a perfect way to get a conversation started.” Barbara Walters
  • “Books make great gifts because they make great friends. Your cherished book can hold your secrets, and you can tell it every secret you have. And, it can’t blab.” Maya Angelou

December 9, 2008

Launching a new novel… with a funeral?

Filed under: Advice for fiction writers,Commentary,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 6:40 pm

After getting rejection letters from 16 publishers, Mary Patrick Kavanaugh decided to bury her dreams of major publishing house success — but that’s about all she’s burying.

Despite dumping her manuscript in the open casket, and inviting others to grieve with her, Kavanaugh is actually embarking on her publishing journey, not ending it all. Kavanaugh self-published her new novel, FAMILY PLOTS, through iUniverse.

With her attention-getting book launch, mentioned everywhere from The New Yorker to Andrew Sullivan, I predict that Kavanaugh will do well on her own.

It’s not inconceivable that, if she does, one or more of those major publishers will come calling.

Which holds a lesson for other authors whose works don’t snag a publisher the first time around. If you have a great manuscript, a good marketing hook, a knack for promotion, and are willing to put the time, money and effort into getting your work attention, rejection isn’t necessarily the end of the line. Just ask M.J. Rose.  Or Richard Paul Evans.

Put writers on Washington’s rescue agenda

Filed under: Commentary,The Publishing Biz — editorialconsultant @ 2:32 pm

Every day, more news comes out that negatively affects writers, editors, and others in publishing. The Chicago Tribune is filing for bankruptcy.  Magazines are cutting rates. Some are canceling stories they’ve already assigned. Book publishers are reportedly canceling some contracts and offering lower advances on the new books they do acquire.

Will Washington lend those in publishing a hand, as it’s done for Wall Street and appears ready to do for Detroit?

Any federal effort to put back to work the hundreds of thousands thrown out of work in the nation’s hard-hit industrial, construction, airline, and financial sectors should consider displaced news media workers–including those newly laid off from the publishing industry–as well.

The Federal Writers Project operated from 1935-1939 under the leadership of Henry Alsberg, a journalist and theater director. In addition to providing employment to more than 6,000 out-of-work reporters, photographers, editors, critics, writers, and creative craftsmen and -women, the FWP produced some lasting contributions to American history, culture, and literature. Their efforts ranged from comprehensive guides to 48 states and three territories to interviews with and photos of 2,300 former African-American slaves. These are preserved in the seventeen volumes of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

Sounds like a great concept. I hope someone in Washington considers a new Federal Writers Project.

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