HOLT UNCENSORED #71
by Pat Holt
Wednesday, June 30, 1999:
HEYDAY BOOKS AT 25
GO JOE, GO
YET ANOTHER CONSOLIDATION
HEYDAY BOOKS AT 25
Enough for the moment about consolidation in mainstream publishing (see below for the latest intolerable news). Enough about who's #1-5 in the conglomerate sweepstakes for stockholders' (not readers') benefit.
Let's climb the stairs off University Avenue in Berkeley to the heady environment of Heyday Books, which, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, has published hundreds of fine titles, many about Native American history and modern culture, many more about California history and wilderness.
A certain urgency sets in as we meet Malcolm Margolin, founder and continuing head honcho of Heyday. He does not talk about market-driven this and brand-conscious that, about creating "more leverage in negotiating terms with giant retailers" (see below) or finding out what readers want from a press like Heyday.
Bob Gottlieb, former head of Alfred A. Knopf, once remarked that there are two ways to publish books: One way is to chase after the "market" - to find out what people want, publish it and market it back to the audience; the other is to publish what you love and hope the world catches your fire. Gottlieb chose the latter.
Today, after so much talk about publishing to "common interest audiences" and establishing "market niches," it's refreshing to see how unabashedly selfish Malcolm is, artistically speaking. He's watched his press struggle through some extremely lean years, yet he isn't interested in money all that much OR in pleasing readers.
"If people stopped reading entirely, I would still like to publish books because of what it does to me," he says.
"What appeals to me about publishing is the whole commitment of dealing with a body of amorphous material, making decisions, working continually until it gets better and better.
"It may take someone a minute to read a page, but eight hours of effort are condensed to get to that page. I just love what it takes to get to that kind of intensity of thought and commitment. I love what it does to the author and publisher, and to all the rest in between. And I think it does something to the person at the other end. But whether there's an audience for it or not is really an afterthought and a pious hope."
Pious hope! What a term for a publisher to use! And, he adds, "the hope has to be tested every day. My hope is that when I really want to publish a line of books, say, on California poetry, I'm enough in touch with the culture that if it fascinates me, it will fascinate others. My hope is I'm not off in some strange cul de sac where I'm holding a mirror in front of myself, that I represent a constituency of more than one.
Some observers in the mainstream have fatuously noted that more than 50,000 small presses now exist in the United States - more than enough, they seem to say, to fill the gaps left by mainstream houses that publish fewer and fewer literary works, regional histories, poetry collections and other low-volume-turnover books. But the gaps are horrendously difficult to fill.
"For a long time I felt what was limiting Heyday's capacity for growth was the lack of good manuscripts," says Malcolm. "As a small press there's the feeling you're at the bottom of the feeding chain. You don't get to see a manuscript until it's been rejected by every large publisher in New York, and then it goes through the larger publishers of the West Coast. Finally somebody will become converted to the beauties of the small press - somebody who's been rejected by everybody else - and wants to have their book published by a 'small house that cares.' "
But the tide, as is so unexpectedly true in many areas of publishing these days, is a'turning. "It's only in the last couple of years that either my standards have dropped or Heyday's reputation has grown, but we are just getting gorgeous manuscripts - and we're inventing a lot of new projects, some of the best that we've ever done."
How does an independent press on "the bottom of the feeding chain" publish gorgeous books and stay alive? See Part II next week.
GO, JOE, GO!
Now don't tell me that corporate heads in the "new" book business today aren't people with a solid background in books.
Take Joe Galli, the new prez of Amazon and former executive at Black & Decker, the power tool company with actual type on its chainsaws, and a place where Galli built a reputation of having "led the revival" that turned things around.
You knew Galli was a reader when Prudential Securities' Nicholas Heymann told CBS Marketwatch just the other day that he, Galli, got an offer from Pepsi, which he declined.
"It was a question of whether [Galli] would take a secure, traditional post with Frito-Lay or ... go for the next generation business," according to Heymann. "He decided to go for the bigger step. They must have offered him a big package." Man, it's hard to turn down those extra salty jumbo bags.
Expectations are that Galli will have some "creative ideas" for Amazon, and for a man with his experience, you can imagine what they might be. Considering how beautifully and irresponsibly Amazon has performed as an online bookseller, losing millions every quarter while making independent bookstores look slow and obsolete, perhaps Galli might want to take a chainsaw to Amazon's vaunted "business model" (that's it, Joe!).
Of course rumor has it that Amazon will soon offer a new "Double Nacho Tuesdays with Morrie" and has hired Ray Charles to go audio on Amazon's home page by singing uh-HUH to "Suzanne Somers' Get Skinny on Fabulous Food."
YET ANOTHER CONSOLIDATION
As if out-and-out publishing mergers weren't bad enough, now it seems that Time Warner Books and Simon & Schuster are ready to "form a joint venture for their book operations covering such aspects as warehousing, marketing and sales," says the New York Times.
Well, that's just great, isn't it? Call it a nonclimactic coupling because nobody gets to have a good time with this one. Ah, but the venture, "is inherently logical," says the Times. It "would provide the combined companies more leverage in negotiating terms with giant retailers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com."
More leverage? What the heck for? These bookselling monoliths publish the terms of their in-house advertising and promotions. They state right up front what you pay for - so much for a window placement or a front table or a clerk's hiccup at Barnes & Noble; so much for the Best Seller List or the "We're Not Kidding We Really Mean It These Books Are Great" box at Amazon.
But if the publisher needs MORE "leverage," then what we heard in last Friday's column about "noncompliance" at the chains and online suppliers is true. This means publishers have to police the sites where they pay for such placements and, if they discover acts of noncompliance, have to show a little spine in pointing out the problem to the chains or to Amazon.
The issue at stake, says the Times, is "the influence publishers must have in order to assure that their books are prominently displayed in bookstores and on the Web, a person close to the negotiations pointed out. Size also helps by giving publishers the leverage to see that both potential best sellers and smaller books get some exposure, this person said."
Thanks to "this person" (come on, NYT, name your source!) and the Times for missing the more serious issue. When sales forces are combined, the result is fewer sales representatives with larger territories, which in turn means that fewer calls are made to independent booksellers, who are the real measure of whether the "smaller books get some exposure."
Instead of hoping for the largesse of some Barnes & Noble buyer, who'll give an important but noncommercial book "some exposure," publishers already know that independent bookstores - not all but a strategic number - can handsell such books so well to customers that a large and steady sale can develop to the profit of all.
To forget that, to kow-tow to chains and to Amazon at the expense of independent booksellers, is not only short-sighted and craven, it's an act of self-sabotage that affects all of us. It means the publisher sells fewer copies of the "smaller" titles, so you and I may never see see them. Since nobody sold them properly to bookstore buyers to begin with, many independents simply didn't carry it.
And let's not get into the joys of "telemarketing" - one of those great industry euphemisms for falling asleep on the phone. When it comes to bringing literature to the crossroads of commerce, face-to-face contact between one human being and another is actually preferable to a canned phone call or no contact at all.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thank you so much for bringing to light the communications between Joe Mcginnis and Little Brown (#70). You are exactly right in saying that this is not an indictment of Little Brown, but rather of our industry in general. Why not be honest from the outset? Why not make committments on both sides that will honorably be met? It is partly through the increasingly small global village (thank you, Marshall McLuhan) that, perhaps ironcially, honesty becomes an ever important value . . .
My suggestion is just to make the contract clear and binding and transparent. Thus while the contract from the publisher will be clear about the $300,000 it is paying the author as an advance (or the $30,000, or the $3,000), the publisher is also going to spend a set amount on its promotion and will do what it promises contractually. The author too ought to be obligated, and the author needs to be contractually bound to do his or her part in the promotion of the work by time, money, or other creative means --- all spelled out in the contract itself.
Then the author can say, "Hey, skip my $300,000 and put that money into promotion!", or "I'll give up editorial say in favor of a greater say on the marketing plan" - which, in skeletal form, can be included as an attachment to the binding contract. Any combination of the variables of marketing, editorial or artistic control, advances or royalties, etc. can all be on the table and can laid out with a contractual obligation on the part of each party to perform.
And, as a little addendum here, if the publisher pays for a promotion to a retailer or anyone else, and it isn't accomplished, there will then be legal recourse not only to the publisher who ought to have had it in the first place, but to the author as well.
This is a new world in so many ways, particularly in a business that wants to leap from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century. It provides a wonderful opportunity to reinvent itself in ways that benefit everyone.
Or die as an animal that became to big and cumbersome to adapt.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
So if authors like Joe McGinnis are unhappy with the ways big houses publish them,why do they continue to support them? I see authors bemoaning conglomeratization while continuing to take their own books to these same houses. Why not take their books to Norton, Houghton Mifflin, Beacon, Zoland, Perseus, New Press, etc?
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Re: the McGuiness book. Let's also thank our lucky stars that there are still, and in growing numbers, independent PUBLISHERS out there who know how to take care of their authors, and deliver on their promises.Mardi Link, ed.