Tag Archives: Book Publishing

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, They Can

WHEN TRADE PAPERBACKS WORK

Gee, I am still not hearing much enthusiasm from mainstream houses in New York about my idea that book publishers should stop putting out expensive and wasteful hardcover editions at the start of a book’s life and begin with original trade paperbacks instead.

(Here’s how most of the response went: You idiot. Original trade paperbacks are an old and outdated idea. Everybody’s tried it and everybody fails because trade paperbacks don’t get reviewed, don’t make enough profit for booksellers, aren’t taken seriously by TV/radio shows, and are too easily damaged in shipment. Even when they get to bookstores and even when they’re displayed face-up [too rarely!], the covers curl up on the table, so you lose about one out of ten.)

Remember, I’m not talking about established best-sellers that have found an audience willing to pay $30 per copy. I’m talking about books by new authors of midrange or serious literary books who don’t have a marketing budget behind them and can no longer depend on affluent readers who’ll take a chance on unknowns.

A Sales Rep Speaks

So: Do original trade paperbacks ever succeed? Thanks to Lise Solomon, a sales representative for the book distributor Consortium, here is a case in point:

“Last season I sold a first novel (‘Tinkers’  by Paul Harding), which I loved and wanted to make happen in my territory of Northern California. ” ‘Tinkers’  had the help of a Marilynne Robinson blurb on the cover and a great package from the relatively unknown independent publisher, Bellevue Literary Press, which announced the book as a trade paperback original. I had ARCs for key buyers and sold it passionately everywhere I could. Continue reading

Things I Worry about Seeing #1

A NEW KIND OF PARALYSIS?

I may end up posing quite a number of Things I’d Love to See in the publishing industry, but a recent email from an editor in New York points out what a tangled knot mainstream publishing has become — too tangled, it seems, to make any substantive changes. 

The editor’s message responds to a recent column about publishers ending the tradition of publishing a book in hardcover first, then waiting a year for the trade paperback (if any). I proposed that publishers start with the cheaper but still beautiful trade paperback edition first. Especially for books by unknown or midlist authors, the already wasteful practice of publishing hardcovers seems senseless.

And now that money is short, readers are far more likely to take a chance on trade paperbacks; book reviewers who used to require hardcovers (honestly! I haven’t heard that one in 20 years) have been overtaken by bloggers who LOVE paperbacks; and since even publishers dismiss hardcovers as “promotional copies for the trade paperback,” my thought is: Just reverse the process. Continue reading

And Then the Husbands Phoned In…

WHEN PAPERBACKS DID THE WORK

Last week’s column about publishing trade paperbacks first and letting them earn their way into hardcover publication (rather than the other way around) brought a delightful and informative email exchange with California writer Lois Levine.

If you read yesterday’s New York Times piece about authors establishing themselves on the Internet by selling enough self-published books to lure New York publishers into offering a contract, here’s how this was done in BC [before computer] times.

The only difference is that Lois and co-author Marian Burros didn’t have a clue to what they were doing, as evidenced by Photo #1.  (Burros went on to write for the old Washington Star and now the New York Times, but that would come much later.)

Self-published edition in mimeo

1) Self-published edition in mimeo

Here’s how the email exchange went after Lois read the column asking publishers to start the publishing process not with hardcovers but with trade paperbacks:

Lois: You are probably not old enough to remember that my first cookbook, “Elegant but Easy,”  was published in paperback by Collier Books (1968). When it became their best-selling book, it  was then brought out in hardcover by Macmillan. It still sells, though Marian Burros and I revised it in 1998 for Simon & Schuster. It has sold more than 500,000 copies. 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