The biggest news stories of 2017—as measured by reader interest and impact on the industry—touched on a variety of topics, from big-name book deals and the continued resurgence of print sales to threats to book signings and library funding. The story most likely to continue into 2018 is that of the new efforts to combat sexual harassment, as publishing, like many other industries, works to develop policies to deal with a problem that had long been ignored.
S&S Cancels Yiannopoulos Book Deal
Although the agreement by Simon & Schuster to sign “alt-right” provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos occurred in late December 2016, the fallout lasted well into the first part of 2017, until S&S pulled the plug on the deal in late February. In between, the book, Dangerous, generated lots of controversy. A group of S&S children’s authors protested the deal on the grounds that the publisher was providing a platform to someone known for spewing hate speech, and author Roxane Gay pulled her book that S&S had been set to release. Meanwhile, some defended S&S’s decision to publish the book, saying that to pull it would amount to censorship.
S&S canceled Dangerous in February after a video interview emerged of Yiannopoulos appearing to condone pedophilia and he was disinvited from the Conservative Political Action Conference. S&S returned the rights to the book to Yiannopoulos, who self-published it on July 4. Dangerous has so far sold more than 75,000 copies, according to NPD BookScan. And, for good measure, Yiannopoulos sued S&S for breach of contract. The suit was still pending at the end of 2017.
Amazon Allows Third-Party Sellers to Win Buy Buttons
A decision by Amazon to allow third-party sellers to “win” buy buttons on its book pages drew widespread criticism from authors and publishers. Prior to the change in policy, the primary buy button on a book’s product page—the default or “featured” option—directed customers to new copies of the title from Amazon’s inventory supplied by the publisher. Under the new program, that button could direct customers to a third-party seller if it met various criteria outlined by Amazon relating to price, availability, and delivery time. Publishers and agents are concerned that third-party sellers are supplying Amazon with used books, thus depriving publishers of sales and authors of royalties.
Amazon defended the initiative, explaining that it is in keeping with its policy used for all other categories, and reiterated that only books in “new condition,” which it identified as “brand-new, unused, unread, and in perfect condition,” were eligible for the program. Publishers and authors were extremely skeptical that pristine copies were being offered for sale and suggested that inventory might be coming from remainder companies, book reviewers, and used bookstores. Amazon said it would examine the source of supply for third-party sellers, but, while the controversy quieted down, it remains yet another issue between publishers and their biggest customer.
Print Sales Rose Again in 2016
The explosive growth of e-book sales in 2010 and 2011, accompanied by lower sales of print books, had many in the industry convinced (and petrified) that its old business models were rapidly fading away. But e-book sales began to slow in the first part of the current decade, and in 2013, print unit sales rose for the first time in over three years. That trend has continued; in 2016, print unit sales, as measured by NPD BookScan, were 3.3% higher than in 2015.
The rise in print sales was accompanied by a 2.5% increase in bookstore sales in 2016, following an increase in 2015, which was the first time in seven years bookstore sales were higher than in the prior year. Higher prices for e-books from traditional publishers and “digital fatigue” among readers were two factors that industry members believed were behind the drop in e-book sales and the revival of print.
Print unit sales could be headed for another year of gains. Through Dec. 24, units were 2% higher than in the comparable period in 2016.
D.C. Agents Make Waves in N.Y.C.
In a year that saw content creators of all stripes pivoting toward increased coverage of political topics, two new kids on the literary agency block—Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer, of the 11-person agency Javelin, based in Arlington, Va.—brought their experience as White House staffers for Donald Rumsfeld into the book world. Urbahn and Latimer have proven worthy rivals for D.C.’s premier publishing power broker: the Williams & Connolly lawyer Robert Barnett, whose own list has included such clients as both Clintons, both Obamas, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Andrew Cuomo, and Karl Rove. Javelin has snatched up books by Rumsfeld, Donna Brazile, Tucker Carlson, James Comey, Ted Cruz, Erick Erickson, and Ben Sasse.
Some believe Javelin’s rise is tied directly to Barnett’s waning influence; others aren’t so certain. Either way, Latimer and Urbahn’s promises—of big advances, robust publicity support, and an eagerness to work with both liberals and conservatives—haven’t gone unnoticed by Beltway elites or the Big Five publishers.
Tate Publishing Closes Its Doors
Tate Publishing & Enterprises, a family-owned Christian self-publishing company closed its doors in January, leaving behind a trail of angry customers and vendors. The company was founded 17 years ago by Richard and Rita Tate and is based in Mustang, Okla.; it has been run in recent years by the founders’ son, Ryan Tate. Among the reactions were customer complaints, lawsuits by such former partners as Lightning Source and Xerox, and the launch of an investigation into the company’s business practices by the U.S. Labor Department.
The business’s official line—shared in an email from Ryan Tate to Tate authors—called the shutdown “a transition period,” adding: “We are no longer accepting any new authors or artists. All authors and artists will be contacted directly within the next few weeks about the status of your production and your options for completing your projects.”
Authors and artists were given the option of terminating their relationship with Tate before the “transition” is complete. For a $50 fee, published authors were offered the option of receiving print-ready files within 30–45 days by signing a form linked to in the email. The form included the statement, “I understand that termination of these agreements does not entitle me to any refund or monetary compensation whatsoever,” implying that whatever money Tate paid or owed would be forfeited by authors if they wanted their files. Richard and Ryan Tate were arrested in May on charges of felony embezzlement, misdemeanor embezzlement, and felony attempted extortion by threat.
Changes Come to the ‘New York Times’ Books Desk
It was quite the dramatic year for the Gray Lady’s books coverage. Following the August 2016 decision to centralize that coverage by bringing it all under one desk, New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul and editorial director Radhika Jones—who has since left the paper to succeed Graydon Carter as editor of Vanity Fair—oversaw a slew of changes.
Paul’s duties were expanded from running the Book Review to managing all books coverage at the paper. Alexandra Alter, the paper’s publishing reporter, left the Culture and Business Day desks for the auspices of the new Books desk, where she joined the three Times daily book critics. Then Michiko Kakutani, the paper’s chief critic, departed after taking a buyout, and the Times hired Parul Seghal, a PW alumna, as a daily critic. A number of other staffing changes occurred as well.
Then there are the content changes. The paper began experimenting with new nonreview items, both in print and online, and paying extra attention to visuals in the pages of the Book Review.
The Times also frustrated many in the book publishing industry when it axed a number of its bestseller lists—which, famously, are governed by an algorithm that the paper’s reporters and editors know nothing about. Among the lists cut were the graphic novel/manga, mass market paperback, middle grade e-book, and young adult e-book lists.
The Obamas Sign a $65 Million Book Deal
With the largest advance in recent memory, the joint deal struck last spring between Barack and Michelle Obama and Penguin Random House, for world rights to two books to be published by Crown, sent the book world into a tizzy. Many of the details are still a mystery. What we do know is that according to the deal, negotiated by Robert Barnett and Deneen Howell of Williams & Connolly, Barack Obama’s book will be edited by Rachel Klayman, Crown’s v-p and executive editor, who also edited The Audacity of Hope, and Michelle Obama’s book will be edited by Molly Stern, the senior v-p and publisher of imprints including Crown, Hogarth, and Crown Archetype. PRH also plans to donate one million books in the Obama family’s name to First Book in support of the Obama Foundation. The Obamas, Crown added, also plan to donate “a significant portion” of their proceeds to charity.
Booksellers Sue California over Autograph Law
A law passed in 2015 by the California legislature, intended to eliminate the sale of fake autographed sports and entertainment memorabilia, threatened to undermine booksellers’ crucial marketing practice of selling autographed copies of books as part of authors’ visits. The new law had the potential to bury booksellers under a mountain of red tape if they went ahead with autographing events. A challenge to the law quickly appeared on Change.org, and soon after, William Petrocelli, owner of Bay Area–based Book Passage, filed a lawsuit challenging the law with the backing of the Pacific Legal Foundation. In October, the state legislature passed an amendment excluding books and some other items from the law. Petrocelli saw the revision as a victory for free speech.
The Women of Publishing Say #MeToo
In October, following accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein, which put a national spotlight on sexual harassment and assault, PW asked female professionals in book publishing about their experiences. Had they dealt with harassment, assault, or predatory behavior in the industry? Did they feel such behavior had become more or less common over the course of their careers? Did they think publishing is any better, or worse, in this respect than other fields? The answer was plain: in spite of publishing’s high percentage of female workers, the industry has a significant sexual harassment problem.
PW’s first article on the matter, “The Women of Publishing Say #MeToo,” which we published in our October 23 issue, was followed by a number of incidents proving the point, including the resignation of Giuseppe Castellano, executive art director of Penguin Workshop, after claims of sexual harassment by actress and comedian Charlyne Yi; the resignations of two Audible executives—chief content officer Andrew Gaies and chief revenue officer Will Lopes—amid an investigation of workplace harassment; and Lorin Stein’s resignation as editor of the Paris Review after he admitted to sexual misconduct to the magazine’s board.
Librarians Vow to Fight Trump on Funding Cuts
The election of Donald Trump as president set off protests from a wide range of groups, including the American Library Association. The ALA mobilized against the administration’s proposal to permanently eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, thus eliminating virtually all federal finding for libraries and the arts. The NEA and NEH each receive about $148 million annually and libraries about $230 million, which is administered by the IMLS as grants to states. So far, the library community and its allies have successfully held their ground. The 2018 budget passed by the House in September defies Trump’s proposal, fully funding the IMLS and preserving the NEA and NEH, but ALA officials stress that the 2018 budget battle is far from over.