For all of the uncertainty surrounding the future of the publishing industry—from the poor economy to the painful layoffs and restructurings in the wake of the digital transformation—to understand what's really hurting us, all you have to do is visit your neighborhood bookstore.
Here are some of the titles I saw displayed at my local bookshop recently: in new nonfiction, I came across Speaking of Freedom: The Collected Speeches of George H.W. Bush. Any collection is suspect, but you really have to question the need for a volume of political speeches two decades old.
In the sociology section: The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with VirginityIs Hurting Young Women. Who exactly is the audience for this book? Self-hating virgins? Those seeking to deflower them?
On sale now: A History of Cannibalism. Illustrated! A gift book! The subtitle is stupendously, kaleidoscopically all-encompassing: From Ancient Cultures to Survival Stories and Modern Psychopaths.
Just a few shelves away: Jesus, Life Coach, with the subtitle: Learn from the Best, a companion to the bestselling Jesus CEO, not to be confused with Jesus, Entrepreneur; Jesus on Leadership; or Jesus in Blue Jeans.
Then there are the arcane books, the ones that dare to be obscure on the assumption that if people will read about cod, or oranges, anything is possible. Who could resist a history of the potato, titled, of course, Potato. Amazingly, this wasn't the only work available on the subject. There's also The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World. Wasn't it intellectually responsible of the publisher to limit the scope of the subtitle to the Western world?
The best-packaged sex book portrayed a scantily clad woman perched on a saddle—Ride 'Em Cowgirl: Sex Position Secrets for Better Bucking. The most unusual was Vibrators, featuring 100 of the best devices in the world, all artily photographed. I had assumed this was published by some outré left coast indie house, but when I looked on the spine, I found the HarperCollins logo. My wish for this book is that Oprah will name it one of her favorite things, and NewsCorp will be compelled to print illustrations of vibrators in its next annual report.
We all know that a good book should make a promise. But some of those promises have gone outrageously over the-top: How to Make Anyone Fall in Love with You… How to Make Someone Fall in Love With You In 90 Minutes or Less…The 4-Day Diet… The 3-Hour Diet… I Can Make You Thin…Stay Rich for Life…Have a New Kid by Friday.
On the new release table sat two instant Bernie Madoff books, issued in trade paperback, presumably because the people he swindled can't pay hardcover prices. Within two weeks of the Madoff scandal, I received queries about seven different Bernie-related projects, all from well-regarded literary agents. All of this brings me to a point I have made relentlessly for the past four years: publishers must control themselves!
We are acquiring and publishing too many books. We buy them opportunistically, and at times thoughtlessly. We edit and launch them too quickly. We market them carelessly and ephemerally. Too often, we abdicate our responsibility to be filters, guides, guardians and gatekeepers. And now, as in many other industries, we are suffering the effects. Anyone in a bookstore can see that.
The underlying problem facing the industry is twofold: there are too many books, and too many of them are derivative of each other. You've heard of Gresham's Law—the idea that bad money drives out good. Our industry has long suffered from Grisham's Law, where opportunistic authors and publishers try to imitate John Grisham and other category leaders with books modeled on someone else's commercial success. That strategy might make sense if there were great demand for these imitators, but in today's overcrowded, competitive marketplace, this kind of thinking is dangerous, because it devalues the environment into which we present our work.
It seems likely that the influence and cultural centrality of major publishers, as well as other producers of information and entertainment, will diminish as digital technology enables more and more people to create and share their work. This is exactly why publishers must distinguish themselves by doing better what they've always done best: champion books that offer carefully conceived context, style and authority.
Other mediums may be faster to market, but publishers will always be the ones best situated to invest time and resources into major works and to market them with overwhelming force. Whether it's Robert Caro on LBJ, or What to Expect When You're Expecting, masterly works will continue to stand out. No technology or competing enterprise is likely to pose a serious threat to that endeavor.
Our world and our industry are firmly in the midst of a transition in the way entertainment, information and ideas are delivered. There will be more upheaval to come. The essential things that attracted us to publishing, however, the love of a good story, the quest for meaning and illumination will go on. But we must change our ways.
Here's some specific advice for coping with the upheaval now facing us. Some of these 12 suggestions will be obvious—and not all of them immediately feasible. My hope is that they will at least start some conversations.
End Kabuki publishingAs devotees of Japanese theater know, Kabuki is resplendent with elaborate costumes and highly stylized acting, completely lacking in any resemblance to modern reality. I am amazed by how much of publishing today is a Kabuki of ritualized and empty artifice.First, there is the launch meeting, where editors rave about books, many of which are not finished, some not even written. Then comes the sales conference, the apex of Kabuki, at which sales reps express their enthusiasm for excerpts from the mostly incomplete books. Next, the catalogue, in which ambitious plans and printings are announced to generate enthusiasm from booksellers, who have little reason to believe what they are reading. How many electrifying novels and groundbreaking investigations can there be in any season?End the Kabuki! Curtail the launch meetings. Stop the seasonal catalogues and post them online closer to the sales call. Eliminate sales conference. Have monthly meetings with a rotating team of key sales reps right before they're about to sell the book.Prioritize and specialize
Work on a limited number of specialized books. If you're one of those generalists assigned to an entire list or if you have an impossible number of books to service, try to persuade your superiors to let you rethink your job so you can spend more time on books you can actually help. Do not perpetuate the illusion that you are paying attention to and doing something for every book. We all know that's a canard.
Tell the truth
If publishing houses are going to retain, or, in some cases, regain their status as cultural guardians, they must assume greater responsibility for their product. That means speaking truthfully about books internally before they are published. Marketing professionals should tell editors when books don't deliver on their promise. And they should rally vociferously around the books that do. Limit the hyperbole found in catalogue copy and flap copy.
If a title falls short of the house's standards, don't market it. Don't even distribute it to bookstores. Publish those titles as e-books and print-on-demand only. Don't waste trees, warehouse and energy costs on them. If the author and agent don't like it, give them the opportunity to go elsewhere. Implicit in this suggestion is a larger criticism about the editorial process by which books are acquired and published, which brings me to...
Stop the copycat books
They are the equivalent of pack journalism, and most of the time, we wind up looking like a bunch of rats chasing a chunk of stale cheese. Once, in an editorial meeting, a senior colleague remarked that there's always room in the marketplace for another good biography of a major historical figure. Maybe that was true before so much information became available online, but in this environment, you'd better have a good reason for adding to the record.
More editorial quality control
When a book is published and it's available for sale, the imprimatur of the company on the spine of that book ought to mean more than the fact that the editor deemed the work contractually acceptable. Too many of the books we publish aren't as good as they can be, often because the author rushed to meet a deadline and the editor could only do so much, or crucial feedback from colleagues was delivered too late in the process. Ideally, no book would be launched until the people launching it had actually read it, discussed it and decided it was ready for the world. I know you're thinking this isn't feasible, which brings me to my next point, which only divisional leaders can address.
Imprints for everyone
Organize publishing teams into small groups responsible for their list of books from the moment of acquisition through its backlist life. Give those teams a budget, and the latitude to make their own decisions, and hold them accountable for the results. Make them stand behind every book. For example, an editor, a publicist and a sales/marketing representative would generate and manage their own list. Limit free-roaming managers who flutter from one title to another without any direct responsibility.
For a long time, I assumed publishing companies needed sales and marketing executives in generalist positions to focus the priorities of the house, but that's just more Kabuki. Books only the editor has read become bestsellers. Titles launched with a battalion of support go straight to the remainder bins. We all like to believe we are essential to a book's success, but the truth is, we are a marginal factor. The author, and the book, matter most, followed by the media, booksellers and readers. We're facilitators. The most important decisions we make are at the acquisition and positioning stages. That's where sales and marketing experience is most useful and why those executives should be assigned to specific titles at the outset.
One bidder per company
Literary agents and authors should feel free to submit to anyone, anywhere. But we must exercise restraint. Why pay multiple editors to do the same work? If there are three editors in the same building who keep jostling internally with each other, all that really proves is that two of them probably aren't necessary.
Rarely do multiple bidders within the same house drive up the price of the book. The real cost is in time and energy. When the embattled Tribune Company realized it had numerous reporters from different newspapers covering the same beats, many of them were laid off. The same fate awaits competing in-house editors if earnings continue to decline.
Pay authors to market their work
We all know that one of the big functions of today's in-house marketing professional is to explain why the publisher can't afford to do much marketing. So who has the money? Authors, from the advances we pay them. Publishers should contractually require that a part of the advance be allocated to marketing and promotional efforts supervised by the author. Publishers, of course, must also do their important marketing work. But authors usually write the best promotional copy (they're writers, after all), and they certainly know their readership best. Yet they are underutilized in the publishing process. Empower them.
Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups of Tea, for example, has been sustained by a dynamic author and a multi-year speaking tour, and the hit Twilight series has greatly benefited from Stephenie Meyer's extensive online promotional efforts. At Hachette, I've had a peripheral view of the Twilight phenomenon. It began with an astute, passionate editor and publisher named Megan Tingley, who read the manuscript on an airplane, and made a pre-emptive three-book deal. The readership built gradually, and with the help of much inventive in-house marketing. But everyone within Hachette points to the author as the driving factor in the books' success.
Be loyal to the book, not the ego
Today, the only loyalty that makes sense is a commitment to the specific book. Publishers like to believe they are being virtuous and showing good character when they stand by an author even when the work isn't great. They also assume it is good business, since you never know what blockbuster that author may write next. This mindset might have made sense in an era when authors, editors and publishers did not move from house to house so often.
When I review catalogues, it seems as if more than a third of the titles on any given list are being published out of obligation rather than enthusiasm. Whenever I raise this point, literary agents say, “But what about the small books authors have to write in order to write the big ones?” My answer: digital distribution. If publishers can't sincerely champion the work, they shouldn't pretend. More candor at the outset would result in better publishing.
Announce all deals
Wouldn't it be great if publishers listed all works-in-progress in a searchable, industrywide database? There are several books I know I would not have acquired had I known similar works were already in progress. Too often, authors and publishers keep their work secret under a mistaken assumption that someone else will capitalize on their idea. There may indeed be times when the disclosure of information results in a rush to be first to market. But in many other cases, the awareness of another book might compel an author to rethink or reframe a project to make a book more distinctive from the competition.
Houses are shrinking—and they should shrink further. You can still walk down the hallways of any major publishing house and see more than a few people about whom you will wonder, “What does that person do?” Until you can answer that question for everyone, publishers will be carrying too much overhead.
In the digital age, there should be fewer books, with more marketing for the ones that remain, and more outsourcing to authors and agents. Even mid-list authors would benefit from a smaller, focused list, where their work could stand out more. Such a strategy would also address once-and-for-all the eternal author refrain that the house isn't paying enough attention.
More than one maven has said that advertising doesn't sell books, but to deny the impact of a good ad campaign verges on intellectual dishonesty. Yes, advertising expenditures must be smartly controlled. But many bestsellers, such as Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, were made with significant ad campaigns.
There may occassionally be free lunch for publishers, but there is no such thing as free media. We can't expect news organizations to operate without advertising revenue to cover their costs. Those expenses are necessary to our fundamental purpose of advocating authors. We should proclaim the arrival of everything we believe in, and we should believe in everything we do.
Agree or disagree? Please go to www.publishersweekly.com/Karp and tell us.
|Jonathan Karp is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve. The views expressed here are personal, and not those of the Hachette Book Group.|