With each new year comes a slew of New Year’s resolutions: eat better, exercise more, read more books. It also brings with it the opportunity to reflect on the past: what’s gone wrong, what’s gone right, and what can we change?
In that spirit, Publishers Weekly brought together eight of our New York–based 2018 PW Star Watch honorees and finalists from big and small publishers and other bookish businesses for lunch at one of New York’s most beloved literary haunts, the West Village’s Café Loup, to discuss the present and future of the book business: What does publishing look like now? What do they think publishing will look like in 10–20 years? And what do they want it to look like?
In attendance were New Directions Press codirector of publicity Mieke Chew; Stonesong literary agent and MLE Consulting founder Melissa Edwards; Roaring Brook Press editor Emily Feinberg; Akashic Books director of publicity and social media Susannah Lawrence; Doubleday editor Margo Shickmanter; Atria Books editor Daniella Wexler; Read It Forward senior editor Abbe Wright; and Serial Box cofounder and chief content officer Julian Yap. (Wright, who had another obligation that afternoon, left lunch early.) Aside from those who had worked together before, such as Edwards and Feinberg, or at the same company, as with Shickmanter and Wright, the attendees had never met each other—not even at the Star Watch party last September. “I feel so cordoned off in my world,” Wexler noted early in the lunch regarding this point. “It’s so nice to see other people from other places.”
A more connected industry is among the changes those involved with the future of publishing hope to see.
Discussing the contemporary publishing landscape, the conversation quickly turns to two topics: politics, the subject of many of the book business’s bestselling titles in 2018, and television, a perennial bugaboo and occasionally uneasy ally of publishers.
“The politics thing has taken over,” Wexler, an adult fiction editor, says. “It’s the reason the nonfiction bestseller list is dominated by mostly partisan political books and some memoirs that speak to why what happened, happened. On the other side, I think it’s affected the fiction list, because it’s really hard to launch amid the noise of all the anxiety and discord around our country’s political dynamic. I think it’s tough to work in publishing now. Hopefully that’s just an aberration, but it’s hard to say.”
Feinberg, coming from the children’s book world, sees the cultural explosion of issues of diversity and equality that have long been a focus in that space to be fruitful, albeit charged. “The #MeToo movement, and obviously the politics of the time, are really calling to light a lot of systemic issues that have always been here,” she says. “I think a good thing is that most publishers, at least the Big Five, are starting to have real diversity initiatives and are promoting authors of color over white male authors. LGBTQ stuff is getting more attention, which is great, but obviously it could get a lot more—and there are politics within that space in the children’s world, too, because of people deeming what’s appropriate for kids and what’s not.” However, she adds, children’s publishing professionals ultimately all share the same goal: “We all want to make sure that kids have access to books that they need. And I think the political climate has forced us to really look at ourselves a lot, and very closely.”
Wright, who runs a digital media vertical owned by Penguin Random House, agrees. “I definitely see a rise in the acquisition of more diverse voices, and the urgency to promote them just as widely, if not more so, than some of the other authors who have maybe gotten those priority titles in the past,” she says. “In that way, some really small novels can make it to the forefront, which I think is really exciting. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, for instance—it was really exciting to see that do well. I also see a rise of sorts of the ‘rise and resist canon.’ So whether that’s Rad American Women A to Z, Notorious RBG, Unladylike, or books by Rebecca Traister, there’s this group of books that is really popular and acts as a sort of direct response to what’s happening politically.”
In addition to politically charged books, Edwards says that, in the children’s world, there is also a budding desire for “really warm, timeless, happy-making fiction”—but “whether or not that’s actually what’s selling is hard to say,” she adds. Feinberg notes that she did see a spike in interest from readers in rosier subjects, especially in picture books. “There was a book this year that Roaring Brook did called Be Kind, that was literally about being kind, and it sort of surprised us all,” she says. “The author’s amazing, and the illustrator is amazing, but neither of them had hit the New York Times list before, and that one was on the list for several weeks, maybe longer. Then another one, called All Are Welcome, hit number one at the New York Times—and it’s very hard to get on that picture book list, because the same books kind of stay there all the time.”
Yap, whose Serial Box publishes serial fiction digitally in an episodic, season-based format similar to many television shows, notes that he saw the television landscape, which often relies on the book industry for properties to adapt, veering away from darker shows toward lighter, Hallmark Channel–style fare. “I was talking to a TV exec recently who said, ‘If someone gave me Game of Thrones today, I would not greenlight it,’ ” Yap says. Not all at the table agreed—The Handmaid’s Tale, one of Amazon’s banner shows, was mentioned as a counterexample, along with the news that Margaret Atwood would soon publish a sequel to the novel from which the show was adapted—and it quickly became clear that television, and the book business’s wary attention to it, was a divisive topic.
“Streaming destroys art, and then replaces it with entertainment,” Chew says. “I feel like the conflation of entertainment with art is the most depressing thing that could ever happen.”
“But we can agree that TV is part of the culture, right?” Yap asks in response. “We’re all human. Whether you want to call it entertainment or art, we’re all contributing to the culture.”
“It’s a total homogenization of culture,” Chew says. “Streaming has changed everything. I hope they’re not comparable. I don’t think literature is entertainment.”
Shickmanter notes that, whatever the difference between books and television shows, as far as those trying to get them into the hands of audiences, “they’re all about time, and how time is spent,” adding, “More than we’re serving as a breeding ground for TV or anything, we’re all in competition for how people are spending their time when they’re not at work, or with their family.”
In that space, Yap argues, TV is crushing the book world. “Forty-five million people read more than 11 books a year in America, vs. the 90 million people who read one to 11 books a year, and the rest don’t read any,” he says. “Whereas television is hundreds of millions of people.”
That has led to what Edwards sees as increasing ties between publishing and Hollywood. “You can see on the agenting side that they’ve started to have more of an emphasis on L.A. now,” she says. “I’ve noticed more agents are given the opportunity to go to L.A. to make connections with Hollywood and to strengthen the bond between our agents and Hollywood, to make sure there’s more synergy.”
At big publishers, this means more room for experimentation. “I know Emily Bestler, who has her own imprint at Atria, did a partnership with Alloy Entertainment,” Wexler says. “I can’t speak exactly to how fruitful or not it was, but the idea was we would develop things in tandem. We would develop a book at the same time that they would develop a TV show—it was on purpose from the get-go that there would be two different versions of this one story, and that we would be communicative throughout about when one debuts versus the other.”
At smaller publishers, it’s a whole other story. “TV has no bearing on anything we’re doing,” Chew says. “Absolutely none.” Lawrence, for the most part, concurs. “I think it comes down to what a publishing house is interested in doing, and what they consider to be a measure of success,” she says. “For Akashic, a successful book for us is probably a ‘failure’ at a lot of the Big Five companies. But our company is structured differently. The majority of our contracts are on a profit split model.” While Lawrence says Akashic “prides itself on being author-friendly,” she acknowledges that authors sign with the press “not necessarily expecting to hit the New York Times bestseller list, probably because we’re not going to print enough books to make the list. That’s not how we’re focusing on what a successful book is for us. If an adaptation happens and it becomes a wild success and it’s based on one of our titles, then that’s wonderful, but that’s not something that we go into publishing aiming for.”
Which is maybe for the best, because, as Wexler points out, television schedules move at a glacial pace compared to the nine-month publication schedule she and many of her colleagues are used to. (Feinberg, for her part, notes that picture book publication schedules are closer to two-year blocks.) “At this point, I don’t take seriously at all when someone options for film or TV. The actual success rate of those—the follow-through—is low,” Wexler says, adding that, though she thinks it’s great if a book does make it to the screen, “It’s not something I can center my life around.”
Chew, on the other hand, is all for patience. “New Directions is built around a completely different long game, which is this idea that we’re prepared to wait as long as it takes—the whole backlist was built around this idea that each book will become a classic,” she says. “It’s just a matter of how long we’re prepared to wait. We’ll wait 20 years—we’d rather wait three months, but....” she trails off, adding, “We don’t think about films. We want the Nobel. That sounds really cocky, but it’s just a completely different business model.”
Chew says that, for a publisher like New Directions—small, literary focused, heavy on translations, and rarely seeing blockbuster sales—awards are still the major sales accelerator. “What’s been really huge for New Directions was the National Book Awards reintroducing their translated literature category, and The Emissary, the Yoko Tawada book we published in 2018, winning it,” she says. “That was huge for us, because, and this is where art and entertainment comes into it, the National Book Awards uses different entertainment models to promote art.” NBA’s promotional efforts start well after a book has been released, and have as their goal “making sure that people find out that this great book of literature is available,” she notes. “That’s really exciting, and all of the translated literary awards have been huge for New Directions.”
What hasn’t been good for New Directions has been the slow but steady disappearance of books criticism, and its replacement, Chew says derisively, with listicles. Chew recalls a conversation she had with a Croatian publisher about the decrease in book criticism in the four years she has been doing publicity. “He was like, ‘Yeah, that happened in Croatia ages ago,’ and I said, ‘Well, what happened to all the critics?’ and he said, ‘They have blogs now, which barely fucking anyone reads.’ ” That leaves listicles and best-of roundups in place of a robust conversation around books, Chew says, and, as a result, she’s watched many of her colleagues in the industry run to any internet celebrity they could find to help get their books some attention. “Pandering to influencers is just, like—I’d rather fling myself off a cliff,” she says.
No matter what kind of publisher you are, the group agrees that, in this era of massive amounts of content being generated, you’re struggling to find a way to have your book break through the noise. Discussing publicity, the group couldn’t land on a single celebrity or program of national importance, besides the book clubs run by Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, that consistently move the needle on a book’s sales. NPR’s Fresh Air has proven a boon to some publishers, such as Akashic, but not all. BuzzFeed lists, the group agrees, do pretty much nothing in terms of sales boosts, and the late night hosts—Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Meyers—are hit or miss, although Shickmanter notes that Meyers gives an “incredible gift” to publishers, as he is willing to spotlight debut fiction on a national stage. The Today show and Good Morning America both still have clout, but they aren’t the kingmakers they once were, the group agrees; the New York Times Book Review went barely mentioned.
For the whole group, promotion was a tricky space. It’s clear that the future of publishing, like its past, is dependent on making audiences aware of its books—but now it’s in an era in which it is almost impossible to predict how audiences are going to find books. Yap argues that the best method for predicting how books may sell is having more data: “It’s tough for the Big Five, because they sell books to booksellers, and then the bookseller sells it to people,” he says. “One of the reasons why Serial Box is direct to consumer is because we were like, ‘We should have that data!’ And frankly, as a platform, when the time comes, I hope that we partner with large publishers when we get to that point. And then we can share that data with the publishers. Amazon’s all about keeping that data, but that data is so important. That data is what people are reading.”
The data from book retailers has gotten better thanks to NPD BookScan, but the available numbers are still imperfect—some bookstores don’t report, e-books and digital audiobook sales aren’t reported, and event and school and library sales usually don’t get reported, either. And for some, even publishers’ perennial ally, independent booksellers, aren’t always seen as a bellwether of a book’s success. One of the attendees, in fact, noted that there was only one book on her list where indie bookstores “dictated” its success.
The lack of transparency with major accounts about data has Wexler, for one, in favor of more direct sales. “Direct to consumer makes a lot of sense to me,” Wexler says, “because it’s saying, ‘If you’re going to be the intermediary and not help us with discovery or data, then maybe we need to talk to our readers.’ ”
The Time and Money Problem
There’s not enough money and there’s not enough time. Those were the major takeaways of a portion of the conversation conducted on background about what working in publishing is like. Money is a touchy subject in the industry, as it always has been, and editors have put in long hours on nights and weekends for most of the history of the American book business. But while none of this is new, it does provide new challenges in an era in which you need an undergraduate degree and internship experience to hold even the lowest-paying job at most publishing companies while sky-high rents and college loan debts make living in New York on a publishing salary borderline impossible.
This results in a dearth of demographic diversity in the industry with regards to socioeconomic circumstances—which results in the perpetuation of a workforce that is not only predominantly white, but predominantly from well-to-do backgrounds. Most of those assembled at the table say that, when asked by aspiring publishing professionals for tips about the industry, they warn them about salary issues. (One attendee was “shocked” at finding out the difference between what executives at big houses make per year vs. what an average employee makes.) This financial issue was hammered home last year by the PW Salary & Jobs Survey, which found that the average salary in 2017 for those of its 664 respondents who had worked for fewer than three years in the industry was $36,000.
The lack of cultural diversity in the industry, too, is lamented. That shortfall was another made clear by our survey, which found that 86% of respondents were white. And while women make up the bulk of the industry—80%, according to the survey—attendees stress that frustrations for women seeking to get ahead in the industry remain, pointing to female peers being skipped over for promotions they believe they deserve. The pay gap in the industry certainly illustrates this. In 2017, the average salary for men who responded to the survey was $87,000, compared with $60,000 for women. Women also held only 59% of management jobs, compared with 84% in editorial and 83% in sales and marketing. That is a significant disparity.
One attendee illustrated the economic issue by speaking to personal experience. A background free of student loan debt, thanks to parental coverage of college tuition, meant the ability to take a low-paying job and stay long enough to attain a stable salary—with the attendee’s parents available to provide more financial help when necessary. That, the attendee asserts, is not available to everyone.
But how to fix the problems that ail publishing? Publishing fewer books across all categories might make it easier for publishers to give more attention to the books that are released, but could also result in books that deserve to be published being passed over. Short books or serialized fiction may help keep people’s attention as attention spans shorten, and that could bring in some lost, or new, readers. But Chew notes that, in overseas markets, it’s often difficult to sell those kinds of books, even if they do well in the U.S. Audiobooks, the group agrees, have been buoyed by the podcast craze. But in the long run, they see audiobooks going the way of e-books—as another way people can read a particular title. Pivoting to audio, then, isn’t the answer to boost sales. And in the end, the group doesn’t propose to have all the answers to issues they all agree need to be solved. They do, however, have goals and ideas.
Yap, a disrupter, says he wants publishers to do a better job of serving people who read fewer than 12 books a year. “I think that all of publishing is built for the heavy reader and not for the light reader, and those are the people who make things bestsellers in the end,” he says. “I think we need to recognize that these people are out there and we need to serve them.” He wants to see people talk about “binge reading” rather than “binge watching.”
Yap also wants writers to be able to afford to just be writers, and nothing else. He points to midlist authors who receive book contracts that don’t provide them with enough income to earn a living, but who could write more than one 300-page book a year. “We’re here because some of these people are amazing writers, and their publishers, for whatever corporate reasons, aren’t going to pay them enough to live on,” he says. “And that’s something I’d like to change. Books should be more diverse, and midlist writers should have a way to make a living doing what they love and not be forced to take these jobs that they hate.”
Chew, in response, says she doesn’t want things to change so much as she wants what she loves about the industry to stay the same. “The things that I would like to stay the same,” she says, “are for libraries to keep buying books and thriving and for people to keep going into libraries, for book criticism not to totally collapse, for the independent bookstores to do well and not to be pushed out by real estate.”
Lawrence points to “the continued diversification and democratization of the industry as a whole” as what she believes is most important for the industry going forward. “I think that it’s going to be a struggle, but a really worthy struggle, for us to figure out how to appeal to a broader workforce and ensure that more people can take these risks,” she says. “Because if you have a more diverse workforce, then by nature the books that are published and the books that are paid attention to reflect the entirety of not just America, but the world.”
Shickmanter says her main concern is also pushing for a more diverse workforce “and, therefore, diversity of content.” That’s an ethical concern, she says, but also “a financial concern, and a retention concern—the way that we treat our employees when we have them, the way that we promote everybody, but also, specifically, if we are hiring people and adding new content that’s outside of our comfort zones. I think a big thing we have to be thinking about more is tokenization. I worry. I see on lists a lot that a story about a dysfunctional white family is considered a neutral book. And you can’t have two books by somebody of the same race on the same list, because ‘We already have our blank book.’ But this book? This is just a neutral book. This is a book for everybody.”
To speed up diversification efforts, Shickmanter says, the predominantly white publishing industry needs to be willing to have “uncomfortable conversations across different levels and departments.” Part of that, she adds, means publishers “should be listening to and following the leadership of such organizations as POC in Publishing about the problems they see in the industry and how we can remedy them moving forward.”
Edwards echoes the need for broader diversity in the industry. “Books being created almost exclusively by 25- to 40-year-old white women means that we’re creating books that we want to see in the world,” she says. “Even if we’re doing so with the best intentions, we’re missing people and getting things wrong. It really is problematic when books come out that are actively harmful, that shouldn’t have hit a blind spot but did. That is something that needs to change, especially in children’s books—because the outcome, the effect, can be so detrimental if we get it wrong.”
Edwards would also like to see better royalties for authors on both hardcover and digital sales. “Royalties have been the same for decades, and the price of the hardcover has changed, so there’s the assumption that the P+L must be different than it was 20 or 40 years ago—yet we’re relying on these old numbers. I was taught when I first got into publishing that the author and the publisher should be partners in the process, and they should be making similar amounts of money on every book. Yet when something is hugely successful, the ratio changes. I’d love to see that not be the case in the future.”
Feinberg, who says she wasn’t a typical reader growing up, wants to encourage all kinds of reading starting at a young age. “I thought I didn’t love reading growing up, but I did love reading fan fiction, and I read some comics,” she says. “That was always not considered reading. And I want, in the kids’ world, which is the only world I can speak to, for that to be encouraged. Let’s keep them going.”
Wexler hopes for an increased emphasis on integrity and principle throughout the industry: “how we publish, why we choose the things we do, how much credence we give to buzz, which is an imaginary invention, how we treat our employees, who we hire, how we interact—I think all that and the bottom line can work together,” she says. “I think we need to be authentic and evaluate things more on their merit and less on outside branding considerations. I think if we just try to express our love of books as clearly and authentically as possible, that enthusiasm and positivity will be infectious, and hopefully bring back the readers we’ve lost to all these other influences. Maybe I’m just being too idealistic, but that’s just how I know how to live.”
Correction: The name of author Mohsin Hamid was updated to correct a misspelling.