Category Archives: Book Industry Online

Penguin Random House: ‘A Couple of Drunks Propping Each Other at the Bar’

If the biggest publisher in the world says that its recent merger “should not be interpreted as a couple of drunks propping each other at the bar,” what image comes to mind?

I would say it’s two drunks propping each other up at a bar.

The comment was made by the head of Penguin Random House, John Makinson, to the Economic Times of India.

He said that Random House and Penguin didn’t merge because they were “worried about our survival or that we were too small to be competitive” against the “impact of companies like Google, Apple and Amazon and how they disintermediate publishers.”

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

Really? That sounds exactly why Penguin and Random House merged, why Hachette bought out most of Hyperion, why Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins may decide to merge as well.

Afraid of being obsolete and technologically small, Penguin Random House is trying to buy its way into the competition with Google, Apple and Amazon. Feeling overpowered again and again, it will seek new mergers to cover the pain.

The bar metaphor is so true — Penguin and Random were drunk with power during the physical-book years. Now the print-on-screen years make them feel unnecessary and confused, so back to the bar they’ve gone to feed that acquisition addiction.

A big mistake of many CEOs like Makinson is to dwell on growth and power for traditional publishers rather than the centuries-old system of publishing procedures inside — the timeless discipline practiced by salaried professionals of selecting, editing, designing and producing literary works of merit.

I know it’s easy to criticize the mainstream (since I do it all the time), but deep inside these gluttonish corporate structures are at least a few people struggling to keep  the house’s standards high when it comes to literary quality and commercial appeal.  It’s too bad these dedicated pros have become the pearl in the oyster (irritating everyone, dismissed and often overruled by management) because they’re also invaluable.

A second mistake: Makinson said that “publishing is growing but the growth of bookstores has come to a stop.” Wrong. Independent bookstores are on the rebound, as recent statistics have shown. A smart publisher should know that word-of-mouth for new authors still begins at the brick-and-mortar level and is much more stable and accurate information than, say, sales rankings at any time on Amazon.

And the reason independent bookstores are strong?  For many, the key is to stay small, serve the local community well (book groups, author appearances, children’s programs, First Amendment protections) and hand-sell, hand-sell, hand-sell.   (As opposed to the direction Penguin Random House and other merger-minded publishers are going, which is to “grow” [what an icky word] dozens of boutique imprints but deny them freedom to publish.)

I loved the way novelist Ann Patchett, who started her own bookstore in Nashvllle, Tennessee, in 2010, described “the comfort about being around books” in a retail environment when she appeared with Terry Gross recently on NPR’s Fresh Air:

“Bookstores are home,” Patchett said, speaking as a reader and customer.  Any “building full of books that can come home with me,” she added, is “a world of endless possibility and opportunity.”

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Patchett opened Parnassus Books after the other two bookstores in Nashville closed.  As she told USA Today, starting a new bookstore in the Digital Age felt like “opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire.” The fact that Parnassus is thriving today does not mean that Patchett and Hayes are bucking a trend. “We are the trend,” she says, bless her.

But here’s the point of all this for me. When I hear people like John Makinson malign independent bookstores, or Jeff Bezos slash prices for the purpose of knocking out bookstores (why else would he do it?) or Barnes & Noble whine about unfair competition against its e-book reader Nook (aw. take another dose of your own medicine), I want to stop all that noise and do something about the problem.

Happily, bookstore owners believe that readers can make a difference. In fact, that’s the heart and soul of what they believe.

As Ann Patchett said to Terry Gross, for independent bookstores, proactive customers are the answer: “If you want a bookstore in your community — if you want to take your children to story hour, meet the authors who are coming through town, get together for a book club at a bookstore, or come in and talk to the smart booksellers — then it is up to you. It is your responsibility to buy your book in the bookstore, and that’s what keeps the bookstore there.

“It’s true for any little independent business. You can’t go into the little gardening store and talk to them about pesticides –  when do you plant, what kind of tools do you need –   use their time and their intelligence for an hour and then go to Lowe’s to buy your plants for less. That you cannot do.”

Ann Patchett's new book of essays is "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage"

Ann Patchett’s new book of essays is “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”

It’s refreshing to hear a bookseller speak directly and unequivocally about readers acting independently and responsibly to secure the future of bookstores.

Heaven knows the  book industry will be sinking further into chaos for some years to come. That’s what makes it, for me, a privilege to pay full price for a physical book or an e-book at an independent bookstore.

You know where each sale’s profit is going — not in the pocket of some meglomaniac billionaire or corporate giant but into the store’s budget for more books, each one deemed worthy to sell to any one of us, and to programs that enhance the neighborhood’s cultural roots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Bill Chleboun

I’ve never known anyone in the book industry who was as loved on both coasts as Bill Chleboun (pronounced clay-bone).

Bill was my former colleague in the book review department of the San Francisco Chronicle. When he died recently of heart failure at 81, a light went out in the book world, and I don’t mean b.c. (before collapse). He was reading books on an iPad two weeks before his death.

Bill was hired by the Chronicle in 1982 to sell advertising space for the floundering Sunday Book Review section that I had been editing for about six months.

His first step was to create an honest regional best seller list, quite a phenomenon at the time. I had long believed that the tastes of Bay Area readers were far more diverse and adventurous than the New York Times best seller list reflected, and here was a way to prove it.

Every Tuesday, Bill called fifteen Bay Area booksellers and asked them what was selling in Fiction, Nonfiction, Hardcover and Paperback categories. Later they would just fax their lists in, but Bill understood the single cohesive factor at the heart of the book trade — gossip — and spent much of the day talking about authors coming through town, surprise up-and-comers, big-budget flops, impulse buys and front-of-store merchandising.

Best-Seller-List-fixedOn Wednesday, Bill called the publishers whose books were going to appear on the best seller list that Sunday and told them the good news. No one took his calls at first — marketing directors and ad managers hated talking to newspaper sales reps — so Bill started with secretaries and assistants who were glad to hear gossip from the stores and to make the announcement to their bosses that one or two of the house’s books would be listed that Sunday on some West Coast newspaper’s list.
Continue reading

THE DIY AUTHOR RETURNETH (AGAIN)

What To Do When the Mainstream Yawns: Pt 3

I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime: Unpublished authors so smart and so quick on the Internet that they’re selling their work through iPhones apps, iTunes and eBook readers without going through that cranky old sluggish machine called mainstream publishing.

Here’s  author Seth Harwood (see last two columns below), who recently attended Bouchercon, the mystery writers’ conference, and sent this dispatch:Seth Harwood

The New Thing

“The new thing  seems to be authors putting their unpublished works out on Kindle themselves and selling each title for .99 or $1.99, of which they keep 35 or 70 cents respectively.

“The idea is that you can get new Kindle owners to stock up on cheap titles to fill their device when they get it. A few authors have sold upwards of 4,000 copies of unknown books and are using that launching pad to get bigger deals from publishers. Who knows how many of those buyers actually read the book.

“Of course, there are still roughly 40 times more iPhones and iPod Touches out there sold than Kindles, so the biggest action among individual authors lies in getting their books sold through Apps at equally low prices.”

The Old Thing Reacts

I must say I wouldn’t have believed that people who love books would buy titles based on price rather than quality if I hadn’t found myself in the freebie sections of Audible.com and iPhones for months now or warmed to the notion of trying short stories for 45 cents and why-not-take-a-flyer thrillers by unknowns for .99 to $1.99.

(And just to show you those free first-chapter offers can stimulate sales, my apologies to psychologist/author Wayne Dyer for smirking when I saw the title of  his new book, “Excuses Begone! How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits” from Hay House (288 pages, $24.95). I used to think Dyer has been writing the same self-help book for the last dozen titles, but solid research and reference to a fresh plan of action in Audible’s free Chapter One convinced me to buy the damn thing.)

It’s not that any of these electronic versions replaces traditional books (and let’s stop talking as though they do; we won’t know for a long time). What we see now is new access to the printed word and new ways to build the reading audiences for books in every form possible. (For example, I’m hardly alone when word of a new book arrives  via the Internet and I call my local independent bookstore to get a copy.) Continue reading

Homophobia? At Amazon?

THEY’RE AT IT AGAIN

I keep thinking about that delicious homophobic snafu that stuck it to Amazon last month and demonstrated the growing power of Twitter, however deliberately flash-in-the-pan it was.

The incident roared to life a month ago and died so fast that it didn’t seem important, but for me, something oddly familiar about it kept pinging away at the old postmenopausal memory. Finally I remembered an event 10 years ago in which Amazon behaved in an even more bizarre and homophobic manner that still has relevance today.

The Latest Episode 

Last month Amazon abruptly removed gay/lesbian-themed titles from its powerful sale ranking system. In a weekend, thousands of books were ineligible for certain title searches, best seller lists and other critical functions.

An author sent a query to Amazon’s customer-service department asking why the books were being removed. Ashley D of Amazon.com Member Services replied that “we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists.” 

Well, “adult” is hardly the category to dump an entire classification of books, since the term signifies “pornographic” (think: “adult’ bookstores).  But it is the correct term to use if Amazon officially believes that everything homosexual is offensive and needs to be removed from, you know, normal people’s eyes. 

(A thoughtful explanation of why a sales ranking on Amazon is so important, along with a list of explicitly sexual hetero books that were not censored and non-explicitly sexual gay books that were, can be found here.) Continue reading

Three Things I’d Like to See #1

#1: ONLINE ROYALTY ACCOUNTS FOR AUTHORS

(Note: This seems like an obvious next step for the book industry, although publishers hit the roof when I’ve shown it to them, as you’ll see. – Pat)

If you were an author, wouldn’t it be great if your publisher gave you a password to your own royalty account?

This would be an online, frequently updated, always accessible, entirely confidential page on your publisher’s website that would replace the current system.

As frequently as you wish, you could check sales of your book, the rate of returns, the percentage taken out for reserves and varying royalty rates for bulk sales, special sales, premium sales, electronic sales, and so forth.

As it is now, most authors have to wait six months for a printed, snail-mailed royalty statement that’s filled with outdated information that’s mired in financial gobbledygook their own agents can’t decipher. Continue reading