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Category: publishing (Page 4 of 9)

Will Amazon take the place of traditional publishers?

stack of amazon book orders

That’s what Sramana Mitra, writing at Forbes magazine (last month), thinks. Mitra believes that publishers must be treating their authors very badly, because most authors make little money on most books.

Well, guess what: hardly anyone makes money from book publishing — except for UPS. (So, yeah, the industry needs to be reworked. But is Amazon really a panacea?)

Anyway, Mitra figures that if we just take out all those unnecessary bits that keep draining money from authors’ pockets — you know, like agents, editors, designers, marketers, publicists, printers, sales reps, and hand sellers — why, that would just leave a ton more money for the writers!

Mitra, by the way, is “a technology entrepreneur and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley. She has founded three companies and writes a business blog, Sramana Mitra on Strategy. She has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.” So what exactly does she predict?

Let’s say, in the new world, Amazon becomes the retailer, marketer, publisher and agent combined and takes 65% of the revenues, offering 35% to the author–we end up with a much better, fairer world.

Vertical integration is where Amazon is headed. Jeff Bezos is a shrewd business man. I would be very surprised if he hasn’t figured out the inefficiencies of the book publishing business and Amazon’s opportunity.

The company recently announced it would require all print-on-demand publishers to use its BookSurge print-on-demand service for their books sold on Amazon.

Over the next few years, Amazon likely will use its power to build direct relationships with authors and gradually phase out publishers and agents. It will first go after the independent print-on-demand self-publishers and get the best authors from that world. Amazon will then take on the large publishers.

For decades, the publishing industry has taken advantage of authors. Amazon: authors are counting on you to turn the table!

So all you up-and-coming authors with your first novels, get ready to pitch that manuscript directly to Amazon! Oh, and don’t forget to get yourself a really cute author photo.


And it won’t hurt (much) to do some homework: check out books for writers here and here.


Image via Matt Cutts: Gadgets, Google, and SEO.


Books and Buddha-nature

alberto manguel's library

Alberto Manguel, author of The Library at Night, among other books, writes lovingly in the New York Times about his current library south of the Loire Valley in France and his other libraries that grew into this one.

But Manguel is a hoarder — a habit I’ve been trying to rid myself of. As books overflow their places throughout the house, I am trying to be freer about sending them on their way to other readers, like a kind of wheel of literary samsara.

Manguel goes so far as to write “I have dozens of very bad books that I don’t throw away in case I ever need an example of a book I think is bad.” He does describe a single prisoner he released: “The only book I ever banished from my library was Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, which I felt infected the shelves with its prurient descriptions of deliberately inflicted pain. I put it in the garbage; I didn’t give it to anyone because I wouldn’t give away a book I wasn’t fond of.” He won’t even lend books, writing that “If I want someone to read a book, I’ll buy a copy and offer it as a gift. I believe that to lend a book is an incitement to theft.”

I am devoted to books, but if we keep all the things we love and only give away those that we don’t love I think we are very far from achieving Buddha-nature.


Via Sans Serif, who writes of a modest literary inheritance, “Some of the books I decided to give away, some were so beaten up they had to go in the recycling bin…. But a number of the books from Alabama made it onto the bookshelf.”


Shown: A portion of Manguel’s library, from the NYT article.


Photo Wednesday: abandoned books

abandoned books

This photo of books simply left behind after a St. Louis Public Library move comes from nathansnider’s photostream.


Print publishing caught in pricing bind

odysseus between scylla and charybdis, by fussli

Print publishers are currently caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of a weakening economy and higher prices for essential costs such as paper, freight, and postage.

The soft economy pressures publishers to lower prices on books, but this is difficult to do with the cost of paper at an all-time high. Gas prices have caused freight charges to rise markedly. New federal regulations make it easier for the postal service to raise rates, and another increase takes effect today.

Many publishers will respond by lowering quality — using cheaper grades of paper and cutting costs wherever possible (although eventually I think they will be forced to raise prices nonetheless). But with the web as an always available instant provider of content that is almost free to users, can print publication compete for large numbers of consumers? Another approach would be to recognize print as an exclusive product for a literati class and accept smaller print runs and higher prices.

Difficult choices.


Shown: Odysseus between Scyla and Charybdis, Johann Heinrich Füssli, 1794-1796.


LINK: As costs soar, will prices follow?


Publishing role visualization

Don’t waste time taking those long multiple-choice tests where half the answers seem equally right but answering one way says you should be an airline pilot and another means you’re destined for accounting. Instead, take Tom’s instant vocational test. Based on science! Results guaranteed! And it’s random!

Okay, ready? What we have here are the first pages of results from flickrCC for a few publishing-related activities. Which set of images do you immediately respond to? Don’t look at each thumbnail, just get a quick impression. And absolutely no thinking allowed.





Marketing [Specialist]
marketing specialist

Graphic Designer
graphic designer

Okay, I admit it, I just like images.


Book design fees

Recently I had occasion to research rates charged by designers for text-based book work. I was trying to determine a reasonable price for a 320-page hardcover collected poems, interior and cover/jacket design. Since I have mainly worked with heavily illustrated books over the past decade I had lost touch with going rates for text-based projects.

According to the 2001 edition of the Graphic Artists Guild handbook of Pricing and Ethics, for an average poetry book a designer might charge $7,500 to $15,000 to design and set the interior plus $1000-$2000 for the jacket. That gives a total range of $8500-17,000. Those figures are seven years old, but several people say the prices in this publication skew high.

For my informal survey I consulted four designers.

Designer A would charge $4-5/pg, depending on complexity, on top of the design charge of $350-$500. Cover design would range from $350-$1000. If there’s a lot of text prep (coding), he charges that hourly ($50). This gives a total of $1980-3100, plus coding, by far the lowest fee in my sample.

Designer B would charge $20-25/page “all in” as a nonprofit/university press discount rate for a non-illustrated book. Plus revisions at $50/hour. This would come to about $6400-8000, plus revisions fee. She says she gets $35-50 per page for an illustrated book from a commercial press, which obviously would as much as double the total.

Designer C would charge $1500 for the jacket + $1000-2500 for interior design + $8-15/page typesetting. When she totaled this up she got $8800, suggesting she favors the high end of her range, and I expect she would much more often come in there than at her low end.

Designer D would simply charge a flat rate of $35-40/page. This would come to $11,200-12,800. He claims “some people charge $65/page.”

It’s interesting to see the different bases designers use for calculating fees and the different rates and totals yielded ($3100, $8000, $8800, $12,800; plus extras) for the same job.


More posts on graphic design:

[catlist ID=32 numberposts=10]


Sad Young Lit Guys

sad young literary men

Nice conceptual book cover, via Book Design Review. Literary aspirations can be a heavy burden indeed.


Book sales rising

The Association of American Publishers reported on Monday that book sales rose 7.2 percent in January, with adult paperback sales showing the largest increase, an astonishing 37.6 percent.

At a time when overall consumer confidence is turning down, what could cause such a jump in book sales? I offer two possibilities:

  1. People are cocooning — staying home and reading rather than going out and spending.
  2. There is a flaw in the methodology used to produce the data. Perhaps booksellers were busy with Christmas sales and family commitments in December and slid some sales over to January in their reports.

It will be interesting to see if this uptick continues.

Vocabularium rerum

vocabularium reurm, a printed book from 1495

An early printed bilingual dictionary, the Vocabularium Rerum provided German readers with the meanings of common Latin words and phrases. This edition (photo from Helga’s Lobster Stew’s photostream) was printed in Venice in 1495. According to HLS, the book can be seen”open to the public in the library at the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry on 16th Street in DC.” The label in the photo says that there are three known copies, the other two being in London and Vienna.

Notice the perfection of the printed book as an information technology — after about 513 years, the data is still perfectly readable. From a book design point of view, observe that the bottom and outside margins are larger than the top and inside margins. On a spread, this holds the facing type areas together; it also provides a place for the reader’s fingers. This page has nice even type color, especially considering the variation in type size.

I hope that label is on acid-free paper! I would not have set it directly on the page.

Why are book editors so gullible?

love and consequencesFake memoirs are in the news again, with the usual hand wringing. No need to go into the details, which have been thoroughly reported. Instead, let’s think about what might make book editors so gullible.

Book editors are a peculiar mixture of optimism and cynicism. They begin as idealistic literature enthusiasts — they probably start with a ridiculously low-paying job, just because it’s “in publishing” — but those who survive are all too likely to get fried by the strains of book publishing (an extremely difficult business) and turn into cynics who will publish any crap if they think they can push it off the shelves.

But inside these crusty exteriors an optimist still lives. Each time a manuscript arrives on their desk they are hoping that it will be the book — the one that will sell like crazy, maybe be a critical success. The editor’s career, in fact, depends on that manuscript showing up.

So when editors find a promising memoir, they want it to be true. They are predisposed to believe. That’s the optimist in them. Meanwhile, the cynic in them says, Even if it isn’t true, who will know or care?

This might sound extreme, but I think it is fair to say that on some level many editors today despise their readers — they know they are putting out garbage, so if people are buying it, it must mean they have no discrimination. So the editor has come over time to believe that readers aren’t smart enough to question the authenticity of the book to be published. After all, they’ve swallowed plenty before now.

What can be done? If publishers care to change — and they will, if their bottom lines start to suffer — they need to take the process of vetting manuscripts out of the control of editors. A book editor is never going to be like a newspaper reporter who at least understands the concept of challenging sources (that’s another story).

The only safe way to handle this is for an independent person, a fact checker who is not reporting to the editor, to vet manuscripts whose authenticity can be questioned. Unless an approach like this is adopted the fake memoirs will continue to flare up periodically, as natural a phenomenon as sun spots.

Are women human?

That’s just one of the titles shortlisted for The Bookseller‘s Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. The full list of candidates:

  • I Was Tortured By the Pygmy Love Queen
  • How to Write a How to Write Book
  • Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues
  • Cheese Problems Solved
  • If You Want Closure in Your Relationship, Start With Your Legs
  • People who Mattered in Southend and Beyond: From King Canute to Dr Feelgood

The Bookseller is a a British magazine. This is the first I’ve heard of this prize, but apparently it has been awarded since 1978. The corporate takeover of publishing has not removed all of the quirkiness from the industry.


Selling chapters

the pickwick club, a serial publicationSo the digital age brings us full circle, back to the serial publishing of the Victorian era. Random House has announced that it will test selling books by the chapter online.

I’m old school enough to prefer a physical book, but certainly there are plenty of indications that readers will commit to an online series if the topic is right. RH begins with Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Apparently it’s a kind of motivational or how-to book. Library Journal offers this short review:

Chip Heath (organizational behavior, Graduate Sch. of Business, Stanford Univ.; Rumor Mills) and brother Dan (consultant, Duke Corporate Education; cofounder, Thinkwell) team up on a tacky topic. They borrow the “stickiness” metaphor from Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, which examined the social forces causing ideas to make the leap (“tip”) from small to large groups. The Heaths focus on the traits that contribute to an idea’s ability to catch on, or “stick.” Urban legends—like the one about the traveling businessman who is drugged and wakes up minus a kidney—are prime examples of such stickiness. While totally untrue, these tales make for great retelling, and we seem primed to fall for them. Using engaging examples from around the world, the authors illustrate the six principles of stickiness: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories (SUCCES!). Their fun-to-read book will appeal to communicators in every field who want their messages to be more effective.

Not really my sort of literature (“SUCCES”? What language is that?) but, okay, it’s the kind of thing that could do well, I suppose, considering all the websites that are out there telling you how to reach a wide audience with your blog or to “copyblog” effectively, etc. etc.

But what I’m not sure about is the pricing. Each of the book’s six chapters plus epilogue will sell for $2.99. That means, let’s see, 3 times 7 less 7 cents … the online book will sell for $20.93. Meanwhile, you can buy the hardcover book from powell’s or from amazon for about the same price, or even a few dollars less. The cost of producing the printed book is surely much more than the cost of producing an electronic version for download, so why isn’t the electronic version much cheaper?

Apparently RH sees the opportunity to make significant profit, and it doesn’t think price is a factor in the print/electronic decision. I guess the premise is that if you want to read electronically you don’t worry about what the print version sells for. I don’t know if they have market research to back this up, but it suggests that there is a developing audience that is resolutely opposed to print.

This is just more evidence that books on paper are reverting to their original function of elite objects for a sort of priestly class.


Recognizing scam publishing offers

Ellen M. Kozak has written a nice summary at Wisconsin Lawyer about “Spotting the Publishing Scam.” You can read the full post there, but I think it’s worth summarizing the main points:

  • Real publishers don’t make offers overnight. A publisher who offers an agreement a couple days after the ms. arrives is pulling a scam.
  • A scam publisher may be especially persistent in pushing its contract
  • Check out the publisher on the web and in bookstores
  • Vanity publishers ask for money; real publishers don’t
  • Token advances, such as $1, should be viewed with suspicion
  • A publisher that grossly overprices books may be hoping to make money off sales to authors — in such cases the contract will likely show a below normal number of free copies (normal tends to be around 10-20 copies)
  • A highly restrictive option clause is a common feature of scam contracts
  • Rights not specifically assigned by the agreement should be reserved by the author, not the publisher

In my experience — having negotiated many book contracts — agents generally represent authors better than lawyers, because lawyers know contracts but agents know the book industry. The author of this article, however, is an exception. She appears to know the law and publishing.


via Adventures in Writing


Ousted L.A. Times editor blasts newspapers’ “psychology of surrender”

james o'sheaFor the second time in a little over a year, the Los Angeles Times has lost its editorial director over conflicts between the editorial side and the business side of the paper. Last fall a similar drama played out when Dean Baquet (now Washington, DC, bureau chief for the New York Times) was fired by the paper’s owner, the Tribune Company, for refusing to axe newsroom positions.

At that time, James E. O’Shea was brought in from the Chicago Tribune to take over editorial direction of the paper, on the assumption that he would be more sympathetic to management. Moreover, in December Chicago entrepreneur Samuel Zell took over the paper and criticized the previous management, saying that the paper’s viability depended on improvements on the revenue side rather than the cost side.

But on his departure, last Monday, O’Shea sent a memo to his staff in which he wrote the following. (BTW, articles in the New York Times and elsewhere have alluded to the memo or excerpted from it but have not run or linked to the full memo. I think that illustrates a fundamental problem with contemporary news journalism right there.)

I made these farewell remarks in the newsroom today and I wanted to share them with everyone in case they took off the holiday and were unable to attend. I wish all of you the best and thank you for all of the help you’ve given me over the last 14 months.

By now I am sure you have all heard I am leaving the Los Angeles Times after 14 months as editor of the paper. I will never forget the day that I walked into this newsroom, which was furious about the firing of my predecessor, Dean Baquet. As I entered the Globe Lobby, the security guard handed me a pass. It was good for one day. I remember thinking this was going to be one of the toughest days of my life. Actually, today is probably a little tougher. I am leaving here after making many great friends and before I got a chance to do everything that I wanted. But that’s life and I accept it.

I know there’s a lot of talk about why I am leaving so let me set the record straight. In discussions about the current and future budgets, it became clear that Publisher David Hiller and I didn’t share a common vision for the future of the Los Angeles Times. In fact, we were far apart. So David decided he wanted a new editor.

As I’ve said on numerous occasions over the past 14 months, I intended to stay here and lead this newspaper to the greatness it deserves. But David decided he wanted to terminate my employment and get another editor. I wish the new editor the best.

Although I didn’t really accomplish all of the goals that I set when I arrived, I know that this newsroom today is better off than when I walked into the door, and I am proud of all that we did together. We’ve accomplished a lot in just 14 months. When I came to this newsroom, I pledged to maintain the quality of the LA Times, and I did, even though I had to cut budgets and shrink the staff.

Despite those cutbacks, we successfully transformed this place into a true interactive newsroom with a web site that is far more successful than when I came. In fact, traffic on LATimes.com was up by a staggering 187 million page views over December 2006, an extraordinary achievement and one that should generate pride in our ranks. Our coverage of the fires that’s truly worthy of a Pulitzer Prize is just one example of why record numbers of print and online readers depend on this newsroom. During my tenure, we also turned around a Sunday magazine that was drowning in red ink when I arrived; it’s now rebounding and is in the black. With a modest investment in new resources, we created a new fashion section that generates millions in new print and online ad revenues and a successful new Calendar weekend section. The formula for success? A small investment in new resources more than pays for itself with added revenues.

We also created a new multi-media Guide section and web site; we redesigned Travel; we stopped the bleeding in circulation by being one of four papers in the country whose daily circulation was up in the last reporting period; and we broke news, the heartbeat of a newsroom, lots of it. The Sheriff Corona story; the diversion of U.S. anti-terrorism aid in Pakistan; I could go on and on. The quality of the paper under my time as editor didn’t decline. I am proud of that given the financial pressures we faced. And most important, there’s a talented stable management team in place that cares about the news that flows out to the public under the name of the Los Angeles Times.

This is an incredibly talented newsroom and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know many of you. I think Steve Lopez is the best daily newspaper columnist in the nation, one of a few that I would compare favorably to Mike Royko. And that’s saying a lot for someone from Chicago. There are lots of others who I could name but I don’t have the time. I didn’t get the time or opportunity to get to know some of you better and I regret that. One criticism I accept is that I spent too much time in my office and not enough time in the trenches, where I belong. So I apologize if I seemed a bit remote. As anyone who knows me well will tell you, that is not like me. I didn’t make enough time to do what I’m really good at: rolling up my sleeves and editing a story.

This is a tough time in the company and the industry. I understand that. I spent much of my career covering business and economics. I understand the realities of the bottom line. I am not some naïve, starry-eyed journalist who can’t accept economic reality. I know you have to cut back in hard times. I’ve done that more often than I care to mention. I also know this is a time of transition with change sweeping throughout the industry. But when you don’t agree with the future course of the newspaper it’s best to simply move on. There are plenty of other challenges out there for me and I don’t intend to sit around idle. There are bike rides to be had, books to write and hopefully another opportunity or two to make a difference. I am not a quitter.

One thing I want put on the record, though, is that I disagree completely with the way that this company allocates resources to its newsrooms, not just here but at Tribune newspapers all around the country. That system is at the core of my disagreements with David. I think the current system relies too heavily on voodoo economics and not enough on the creativity and resourcefulness of journalists. We journalists have our faults, but we also have a lot to offer. Too often we’ve been dismissed as budgetary adolescents who can’t be trusted to conserve our resources. That is wrong. Journalists and not accountants should seize responsibility for the financial health of our newspapers so journalists can make decisions about the size of our staffs and how much news remains in our papers and web sites.

The biggest challenge we face — journalists and dedicated newspaper folks alike – is to overcome this pervasive culture of defeat, the psychology of surrender that accepts decline as inevitable. This mindset plagues our business and threatens our newspapers and livelihoods. I believe that when Sam Zell understands how asinine the current budgetary system is, he will change it for the better, because he is a smart businessman and he understands the value of wise investment. A dollar’s worth of smart investment is worth far more than a barrel of budget cuts.

This company, indeed, this industry, must invest more in solid, relevant journalism. We must integrate the speed and agility of the Internet with the news judgment and editorial values of the newsroom, values that are more important than ever as the hunger for news continues to surge and gossip pollutes the information atmosphere. Even in hard times, wise investment — not retraction — is the long-term answer to the industry’s troubles. We must build on our core strength, which is good, accurate reporting, the backbone of solid journalism, the public service that helps people make the right decisions about their increasingly complex lives. We must tell people what they want to know and — even more important — what they might not want to know, about war, politics, economics, schools, corruption and the thoughts and deeds of those who lead us. We need to tell readers more about Barack Obama and less about Britney Spears. We must give a voice to those who can’t afford a megaphone. And we must become more than a marketing slogan. I know I can rely on this newsroom to do this.

Lastly I want to make it clear that I didn’t quit. Anyone in a top newsroom management job during tough times always wrestles with a crucial question: Where is the line? At what point do you go from “I can deal with this” to “this is simply wrong. ” When I was Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune, I always thought my line was 600 newsroom employees. If the publisher demanded cuts that would take the newsroom below that level, I would leave because I felt staffing would slip to a level that would not allow me to sustain the quality newspaper that the community deserved. The Trib had 610 people in the newsroom when I left.

So when I got here, I wondered anew: Where’s my line: Would it be a newsroom of 800 people? 700? But then I realized the folly of that kind of thinking. I’d been around the accountants and their “metrics” too long. The line you draw is this: Do I believe in the course we’ve set for the future? If the answer is Yes, if I thought the LA Times could resolve its problems by getting smaller and smaller, by being gradually diminished, then I would stay. If not, (and I don’t) then I told myself to take a stand and say enough is enough. If you have to consider closing foreign bureaus and cutting back in other parts of the paper to free up the money needed to cover the Olympics and the most historic political campaign in modern times, well to me that’s no plan for the future, that is not serving the interest of readers. It is simply stupid.

Even though we face tough and demanding times and I sympathize with those who face daunting revenue challenges, I don’t believe that we will succeed long term by giving up; by taking steps that I think will gradually diminish newspapers. I decided to take my stand and say: Change the way we do things. I made that decision and I will live with the consequences. And when I walk through the Globe Lobby for the last time, I can guarantee you that I won’t regret taking that stand. I believe history will prove me right. When this industry stops relying so much on cuts and starts investing in Journalism, it will prosper because it will be serving the best interests of our readers. That’s when we will prosper. I wish you all the best and with that it’s time to say of my tenure here: Dash 30 Dash.

Dash 30 Dash is old-time newsroom lingo for “no more to say” or “end of story.” It derives from the days when stories were submitted in Morse code.


memo via Diggings
image via Frontline


Book cover design: On Fishing

on fishing by brian clarke

On Fishing is a good example of a mostly typographic cover that is distinctive, noticeable, and instantly conveys a sense of the book. The graceful loops of the swashes express something of the freedom and exhilaration of a good fly cast, while the title is forceful and remains readable from a distance.

Perhaps the upright modernist font — which probably began as a form of Bodoni — with its perfectly vertical axis, suggests something of a fisherperson standing steady amid rushing water, as the loops of the castline swirl around.

From a typographer’s point of view, however, the design leaves something to be desired. The hooklike extensions of the s and k are clever, and well enough done, but the connections between the swashes and the letter forms are rather clumsy. The B in particular is quite ugly, and the angle of the swash off the O is at least questionable. The way in which the swash connects is inconsistent: it gets quite thick where it attaches to the B, but it seems not thick enough where it attaches to the O and C.

All in all, a clever design that will probably appeal to all but the most curmudgeonly typophile.


There is some discussion on this cover here.


Online bookseller links for this title:


Independent book publishing, part 3

jost amman card of booksI’ve been surveying the state of independent book publishing. We looked at the changeover from the old system that was characterized by a diverse group of robust independent houses to a system that tends to aggregate imprints under global corporate management. We saw that the international corporations have a wide range of holdings that go beyond just book publishing.

What are the implications of all that? For the today’s smaller independents it has several ramifications.

  • Conventional printing is more expensive for independents because the corporate publishers can gang jobs and order paper in bulk. In fact, at times a small publisher may have trouble even getting on a press at a company like R. R. Donnelley. (They also get less favorable terms.) With an increasing percentage of advertising moving online, printers have their own, equally serious problems, and their viability depends on having their presses running with as little downtime as possible. That means that the large clients are first at the table. Nothing surprising there, but it’s a reality that smaller presses have to live with.
  • Similarly, bookstores are dependent on the corporate publishers who produce most of the bestsellers. We can all name independent bookstores where we used to shop that have gone out of business. When it becomes difficult to meet your obligations, who do you pay first? The independent publisher who represents a small fraction of your business or the corporations that fill the greater part of your store? The result of this situation is that independent publishers are forced to write off more bad debt than large companies do.
  • Distribution is a problem for all publishers, big or small. In publishing’s beginnings, the distribution of printed materials did not present a huge problem, since books were a specialized product intended for a select, known audience. With the increasing democratization of publishing after the Renaissance, it became increasingly harder to match books with their readers. Today, with the multiplication of product and the fragmentation of markets, the task is incredibly difficult. This is especially a problem for independents because of the limited book distribution channels available to them. Getting too many books in the wrong places is as bad as not getting books in the places where their readers might find them. Book distribution is a large subject about which I will have more to say later.
  • It is in the area of promotion where the corporations really have a stranglehold on the market. We have seen that the same organizations that own most of book publishing also have extensive holdings in the very areas where, traditionally, publishers have announced and promoted their products: newspapers, magazines, radio, television. Even film now offers opportunities for cross-promotion, and there are many more nontraditional possibilities that we needn’t get into.
  • There has been a tendency to what I call the hollywoodization of publishing, which involves putting an ever greater percentage of total resources into a smaller number books at the top of the pyramid, to the disadvantage of others, including the so-called midlist books. This, from the corporate point of view, is a sensible conservation of resources. But the result is that the media discourse is saturated with discussion about a few top books. With fewer book reviews available, many feeling obliged to review the books with big promotion budgets — as Gail Pool, for one, has shown — it becomes exceedingly difficult for independents to create awareness of their titles. The problem is compounded by the shorter shelf life of books in bookstores, which makes it difficult for word of mouth to make up for inadequate promotion.

It’s time to draw this discussion to a close, at least for the moment. As some commenters have noted, my presentation has (necessarily, in my view) been a bit sketchy, but to do the subject justice would require writing at book length. I’ve learned a lot just from the comments on these posts, and I hope that I’ve at least provided some foundation for understanding the current situation in independent publishing. At some point later on I’ll come back to look at smaller pieces of the problem one at a time, which should enable a little more depth and detail.

Before closing, however, I should say a few words about how independents might adjust going forward. A few points:

  • The tendency of large publishers to concentrate on broad-market titles may present an opportunity for niche books with narrower markets. Some publishers have created viable operations by working in niches where it is easier to get books together with the appropriate readers. (I confess I still dream of old-fashioned generalist literary publishing.)
  • Technologies of book production have made it easier and cheaper to produce books than ever before. New and improving POD and short-run printing offers the possibility of keeping older titles in print, even with numbers that would not break even with conventional printing for many years. This is good news for public domain, academic, and classic titles, and a clever publisher might find ways of locating readers outside traditional bookstore channels — creativity in marketing and sales is ultimately where the solution lies for independents.
  • Self-publication becomes more feasible than in the past (but, even leaving aside the editorial aspect, self-publishers need to learn more about book design on the one hand and book marketing on the other than is evident today).
  • The internet is best viewed as a revolution in publishing. It inverts printing’s solution to the replication of documents. While printing creates many copies, each providing one view at a time, the internet enables one document to have multiple simultaneous (or successive) views. It brings the reader to the document rather than the other way around. Online publishing could subvert the old print systems in many respects.
  • But not every text is suitable for electronic publication. The printed book is a proven and perfected technology that will endure. It is tactile, sensual, portable, and more. But the economics of print publishing are volatile. Some books might become inexpensive, disposable products, while others might revert to their origins as exclusive items for a privileged class.

Or maybe they already have.

There is so much more to say, but I hear the curtain coming down. I look forward to returning to aspects of this discussion later on, and especially I would very much like to hear more from the perspectives of others.


Related: Glossary of Book Publishing


More posts in this series: part one | part two


Independent book publishing, part 2

rupert murdoch (news corp.) on the cover of time (time-warner)It’s time to get back to the discussion of the dilemma of independent book publishing, following holidays that were more disruptive than I anticipated.

This project began when I discovered that the large changes in the publishing industry over recent decades were not necessarily known even by some who were generally knowledgeable about books.

A caveat before we go on: I’m a guy who likes to make and sell books and knows how to do the various aspects of this. But I’m neither a historian of publishing nor an industry journalist, exactly – I don’t even subscribe to Publishers Weekly anymore. So I can make mistakes. What I would like to establish, however, are the large trends. If I get some particulars wrong, well, as the Chinese literati used to write on their paintings, “Please correct me.”

Last time we saw the storied presses with the country’s longest and most distinguished publishing traditions gobbled up by a handful of giant international corporations. (Thanks to several people who added helpful comments qualifying and fleshing out my account.) Now we have reached the point where a few corporations control most of the country’s book publishing.

In 2003 Publishers Weekly wrote that the five large New York publishers (Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Time-Warner) accounted for 45% of the market’s sales. But these publishers are only parts of the larger entities, which often own many publishing companies. In 1999 Andre Schiffrin wrote that the top 20 publishers accounted for 93% of all sales, and in 2000 he said that 80 percent of book sales are controlled by five corporations: Bertlesman, News Corp, Time-Warner, Disney, and Viacom/CBS.

Today we’ll take a look at these corporations and quickly survey what other sorts of things they own in addition to book publishing companies. In what follows, I use the word “own” for convenience; often control is shared in complicated ways, and “has a major stake in” would be more correct.

  • Bertelsmann owns Random House, Knopf, Vintage, Modern Library, Bantam Doubleday Dell, and Delacorte. It is the biggest television broadcaster in Europe and the largest film producer in Asia. It owns several daily newspapers. It owns a number of radio stations. It owns about 80 magazines.
  • Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. owns Harper Collins and Zondervan, the largest Bible imprint, as well as Fox television, the National Geographic Channel, the Golf Channel, the TV Guide preview channel, and more. With Time-Warner it owns the Book-of-the-Month Club. It recently added the Wall Street Journal to its stable of major newspapers around the world. It owns the Fox movie company, and more
  • Time-Warner owns Warner Books, Little, Brown, and Time-Life. With News Corp it owns the Book-of-the-Month Club. It owns Warner Brothers. It owns more than 64 magazines, such as Time. It owns AOL, CompuServe, Netscape, and things like WinAmp. It owns HBO, Cinemax, Comedy Central (with Viacom), Court TV, TBS, TNT, CNN, and much more
  • Disney owns Hyperion, Miramax, and ESPN Books. It owns Disney Pictures, Touchstone, and more. It owns some 50 radio stations, and the ABC and ESPN radio networks. It owns several magazines such as US Weekly and Discover.
  • Viacom owns Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, Scribner, The Free Press (some irony there), and more. It owns Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, MTV Films, and Blockbuster. It owns CBS UPN, MTV, Showtime, Comedy Central (with Time-Warner), the Sundance Channel, etc. It owns about 40 television stations. It owns several magazines. It owns exclusive advertising rights on buses, subways, trains, kiosks, and billboards in 90 U.S. cities, and more around the world.

Those are just some highlights. A full list would be too exhausting to produce, and — like the crew who paint the Bay Bridge by starting over at the other end each time they finish — by the time you had reached the end of the list properties would have been exchanged and new ones brought into the fold.

Next time we will consider some of the implications of the broad reach of these corporations.


Shown: Rupert Murdoch (News Corp.) on the cover of Time magazine (Time-Warner).


More posts in this series: part one | part three


Independent book publishing, part 1

It’s easy to get so immersed in a subject that you lose track of how much of it is generally known. alfred a. knopfI’ve been talking about the difficulties of independent publishing for so long that it began to seem to me that the subject was common knowledge. Then a comment on this blog made me realize that I needed to take a step back. So, over the next few days, I will do a quick overview of the plight of the independent book publisher.

Let’s start by recalling the contributions of the great American publishing companies of the 20th century. As we go along we can also see what has become of them.

  • Dodd, Mead and Co. published such authors as Anatole France, A. E. Housman, G. K. Chesterton, Kenneth Grahame, and Agatha Christie. It went out of business in 1990, having failed to find a buyer.
  • Doubleday & Co. published Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham, and Joseph Conrad. It became part of the Bantam Doubleday Dell division of Random House in 1998, having been acquired by the German multinational Bertelsmann in 1986.
  • E. P. Dutton published writers like Francoise Sagan, Lawrence Durrell, Luigi Pirandello, John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, and Peter Matthiessen. It was acquired by Penguin in 1986.
  • Authors published by Harper (Harper & Brothers / Harper & Row) included Mark Twain, the Bronte sisters, Thackeray, and Dickens. It was acquired by News Corp in 1987.
  • Henry Holt published Robert Frost, Hermann Hesse, Norman Mailer, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ivan Turgenev, and H.G. Wells. It was acquired by HBJ in 1986.
  • Houghton Mifflin was started by Ticknor and Fields, who published Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and Henry David Thoreau. The company was acquired by Vivendi in 2001 and passed on to Riverdeep in 2006.
  • Alfred A. Knopf used to publish great literature in translation as well as serious original literature. Their authors included Witter Bynner, Robert Graves, Wyndham Lewis, H. L. Mencken, Ezra Pound, Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, D. H. Lawrence, Jorge Amado, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, Yasunari Kawabata, and many more. It was bought by Random House in 1960 and acquired by Bertelsmann (which employed Jewish slave labor during the Nazi period) in 1998.
    Knopf’s list was largely built on translation, but by the time I was the director of Mercury House we were publishing more literature in translation each year than Knopf was.
  • Little Brown’s authors included Donald Barthelme, J. D. Salinger, Gore Vidal, Evelyn Waugh, and P. G. Wodehouse. It was acquired by Time in 1968 and sold to Hachette in 2006.
  • Macmillan published Matthew Arnold, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, and William Butler Yeats. It was acquired by Robert Maxwell in 1989 and after bankruptcy reemerged as the business name of another German multinational, Georg von Holtzbrinck.
  • G. P. Putnam’s Sons published notable authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Vladimir Nabakov. It was acquired by Penguin in 1996.
  • Random House, the world’s largest English-language general trade book publisher, is now owned by Bertelsmann, a multinational corporation with a dubious past; Bertelsmann is based in Germany.
  • Charles Scribner’s Sons published such authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Kurt Vonnegut. It merged with Atheneum in 1978 and again with Macmillan in 1984, and is now owned by Holtzbrinck.
    (Update 12/21/07, a correction from Galley Cat:
    Scribner somehow winds up still a division of Macmillan, but the Macmillan that bought Charles Scribner’s Sons in the ’80s and was then acquired by Simon & Schuster in 1994 was a separate entity from Macmillan Publishers Ltd., which is now the company formerly known as Holtzbrinck.”)
  • W. W. Norton was known for distinguished nonfiction publishing. It is the only publisher on this list that is still independent.
  • William Morrow was perhaps best known for its children’s authors such as Beverly Cleary. It was acquired by Hearst Corporation in 1981 and sold to News Corp in 1999.

Now, you might say, publishing companies are sold and merged all the time. Why does any of this matter? It is true that such changes in its landscape have been a part of publishing since the Renaissance. But:

  • Never before has such a large percentage of the publishing market been in the control of so few organizations.
  • Never before has so much of American publishing been accountable to foreign owners.
  • Never before has publishing been a piece of giant entertainment multinationals that control not just book publishing but to a large degree its promotion and distribution.

There is no need to romanticize. I’m not saying the old publishers were better or more dedicated people than those in the business today — it’s just that there were so many more of them. Yes, we have more independents than ever in the sense that the bar to printing a book has been lowered by technology so that there are a seemingly infinite number of garage operations. But there’s a big difference between printing a book and being a publishing company.

Today 80 percent of U.S. publishing is controlled by five giant multinational corporations. In my next post we will take a closer look at who they are and how their activities affect the way books are published in this country.


Shown: Alfred A. Knopf in his office, from the Knopf Archives.


More posts in this series: part two| part three


Should books have ads?

Recently there has been an increase in calls for the inclusion of ads in printed books (this “On the Media” report, for example, touches on the idea). There’s a degree of desperation in this — supposedly it would help to address the difficulties of making publishing profitable. Alongside these calls has been the inevitable hand wringing about sullying the sanctity of the book by adding a smudge of commerce. Not that the publishing industry doesn’t have dirty laundry, but it’s felt unseemly to display it publicly.

I say there’s nothing wrong with putting ads in books, and if publishers can really make money this way they should go right ahead. It’s been done before — pick up any mass market paperback from the 50s. The real problem lies on the other side of the equation — the advertiser’s side. Most books produce very small numbers compared to other media. At North Point Press we once had a book make the New York Times Bestseller List when it had only 30,000 copies in print. An ad in a book will get far fewer views or listens than one on television, radio, the internet, magazines, or even the endangered daily paper. Moreover, books today have a short shelf life in stores. Yes, they do have a long life in libraries, used bookstores, thrift stores, and home shelves, but few advertisers are looking to pay big bucks for stale downmarket exposure years from the point of purchase. In fact, the ability of books to endure for decades (or centuries) is more of a minus than a plus, since out-of-date ads only confuse current campaigns.

In general, print media advertising is more about brand exposure and awareness than direct selling. This requires a level of market saturation that would be difficult to achieve through book advertisements. Face it: the virgin pages that publishing people are agonizing over sacrificing on the altar of commerce are just not that desirable. The valuable parts of a book for an advertiser would be the front cover, spine, and back cover, because these don’t require opening the book and could get some store hits from book browsers. For many books these are also the only areas that are full color. But to advertise in these areas would probably kill sales pretty effectively in all but a few market segments.

There may be some niche markets where advertising could work. For example, in a book about whitewater canoeing a discount code for canoes and canoeing supplies might generate some modest sales. Travel guidebooks and other regional publications could get local ads. But in general the reason that books don’t currently have a lot of ads, while magazines and newspapers do, has nothing to do with the purity of book publishers compared to magazine and newspaper publishers and everything to do with the relative value of the book as an advertising medium.

Your shelves

rachel and dan's library at yourshelves.com

Yourshelves.com is a project of kimbooktu, who explains:

I collect pictures of libraries of ordinary people. People who love to read – and collect – books from all over the world. Every time I get a new ‘library’ I am amazed at how book lover’s keep their possessions. The fun part is; all the libraries have something in common. It is impossible to say who owns which library. All the shelves are loved. And most of the time there is too little space.

Gender, country, religion, color. It is said that one’s books say a lot about a person. But all the libraries on Your Shelves! just scream one thing at me. Passion for books. The rest does not matter. It is really about the things in what we are alike. Books.

It’s interesting, from an interior decorating and livestyle point of view, to see the diversity in the libraries. Every one of which is more orderly and less sprawling than mine, which desperately needs editing.

Shown is the library of Rachel and Dan from Schuylerville, New York (Kimbooktu is based in the Netherlands). They “love all kinds of books, but particularly love books about natural history, books about books, historical mysteries, jazz books, and fiction by Michael Ondaatje, George Macdonald Fraser, Sarah Bird, Charles Dickens, Russell Banks, Robertson Davies, Patrick O’Brian and Ian Rankin.”

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