Category Archives: news

Will books survive if Barnes & Noble doesn’t?

There is no shortage of articles that have been written over the last few years (and beyond) about the death of publishing. There’s little doubt that the industry has changed dramatically since I became an agent in 1999. Back then we had meetings to talk about digital books, and the consensus was it was not going to happen, at least not anytime in the near future and not in a way that would have a dramatic impact on the sale of print books. Well, we all know what a big impact digital publishing has had on the book market in recent years. The good news is publishers are still finding ways to maximize print sales as well as digital sales so it’s another revenue stream to mine that has cost benefit to publishers.

This recent piece in newrepublic.com speaks to a specific, if not new, concern for publishers and the book business – the potential demise of Barnes & Noble. Bear in mind, this has been a topic of conversation for many years and despite rumors, challenges and financial constraints, B&N is still in business.

Alex Shephard mentions in the piece: “In a world without Barnes & Noble, risk-averse publishers will double down on celebrity authors and surefire hits.” That might be true, but we’ve been seeing this for a long time. Same with his assertion that “Literary writers without proven sales records will have difficulty getting published, as will young, debut novelists. The most literary of novels will be shunted to smaller publishers. Some will probably never be published at all.” This has been a refrain we’ve heard on repeat for years.

My sense about the retailer’s impact on the book business if it were to shutter its doors is that it would be a significant and negative impact, but not an insurmountable one. No question, B&N has been a wonderful partner for bringing books to a wider audience. They provide some very nice opportunities for books and authors, from in-store events to co-op advertising (front of store placement) to their now 25 year-old Discover Great New Writers program. And while publishers still rely heavily on B&N’s feedback on many things, including covers (I’ve had several covers change at the last minute because B&N didn’t like it), the truth is that the number of books they purchase for their stores has dropped dramatically over the years. Yes, they still carry lots of copies of the big bestsellers, as do all the retailers, but they take a lot fewer copies of almost everything else.

This, in part, has resulted in smaller first printings for most books from years past with the hope that if the book starts selling, publishers can quickly hit the reprint button and fulfill market demand. But that doesn’t feel like new news to me. I hope B&N can survive and find a way to thrive in a very difficult market, but I feel strongly that even if that doesn’t happen, authors, publishers and agents will figure out a way to make it work, just like we’ve always done.

 

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Celebrities + celebrity imprints = perfect together?

So, Publisher’s Lunch announced today that Lena Dunham and her partner Jenni Konner are launching a new imprint at Random House named after Lenny, Dunham and Konner’s popular newsletter.  I have mixed feelings.

Everything I’ve heard and read about Lena Dunham suggests that she’s a thoughtful, intelligent young woman with a lot of opinions and a love of literature.  Her business partner, I’m sure, is equally gifted.  That said, does the publishing business need another celebrity imprint?  And, to what end?  What do celebrity imprints bring to the table other than the star power of the celebrity they are affiliated with?  And, is that star power a transitive property as far as book buyers are concerned?

Recently, in fact, a number of celebrity imprints have been announced—Gwyneth Paltrow, Chelsea Handler, Oprah Winfrey, Derek Jeter, and  Johnny Depp (which, huh?) now have deals with big five publishers and a mandate to buy books that sell.  Well, good luck with that.

I like to think that publishing books that enrich the culture, entertain a sizable audience, and have staying power in the collective imagination is a specialized craft.   Much in the same way that a lot of people who know nothing about the arduous process of writing a book think they can write a bestseller, it seems to me that many underestimate the equally arduous process of identifying, curating, developing, massaging, producing and promoting a work of literature.  Obviously, I get that it’s a dog eat dog world out there and that publishers need every little edge they can get in order to get their product the attention it deserves, but I worry that resources that are going into supporting the celebritization of book publishing would be better used in bolstering regular, centuries-old publishing models—with editors/publishers who don’t have a Hollywood pedigree but know a good idea/manuscript when they see one and know how to shepherd it through the publishing process into the hands of readers who care about the prose and ideas and not the celebrity behind the imprint.

Or, am I being an old fuddy duddy?  Do I need to accept the fact that there might be a Kardashian imprint down the road?  What do you all think about celebrities who dip their toes in publishing waters?

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Between the World and Me

As most of you know, the 2015 National Book Awards winners were announced this week. I did a quick skim of the list and was incredibly pleased to find that Ta-Nehisi Coates had won the non-fiction category. I had read his book in short bursts on the subway to and from work—a small volume, but one that I could only read in small doses. Reading his work, I was reminded of a class I had taken my senior year in college, titled “Black Apocalyptic Fiction.” We had discussed a question similar to what Coates asks in Between the World and Me: “What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it?” My final paper for that class focused on art and scholarship and how so much art and literature was focused on eventually creating a kind of scholarship that people used to dehumanize African American bodies.

So I was particularly interested when I noticed Coates’s answer to the question that the NBA posed to each finalist and winner: “In the process of writing your book, what did you discover, what, if anything, surprised you?”

Coates answered, “I discovered how hard it was to make the abstract into the something visceral. My goal was to take numbers and stats and make people feel them with actual stories. It was to take scholarship and make it literature.” (emphasis mine)

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I have immense hope—despite everything—that scholarship will continue to emerge through literature created by people of color and that a new art will emerge as a reclamation of the body and self.

Watch Ta-Nehisi Coates’s acceptance speech:

What did you think of this year’s winners? What do you think about the future of diverse authors?

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Collapse of the Kindle?

E-readers like Amazon’s Kindle have forever changed the publishing world, but are we seeing the beginning of the end of the e-reader? Amazon has been getting its fair share of bad press lately, and now it can apparently add declining Kindle sales to its list of troubles.

I absolutely loved Jennifer Maloney’s piece in The Wall Street Journal, and in my opinion, I think she is right: the phone will drive future book sales—not the e-reader. With our increasingly mobile lifestyle, convenience and the ability to multitask are king, and our phones afford us both. I bought the iPhone 6 Plus, in part, so I could take advantage of the huge screen and read whenever I had a moment, which is exactly what I’ve done. My Kindle has been useless ever since (and to be honest, I think I lost it but don’t really care). Carrying around a phone and an e-reader seems counterproductive when just one can easily accomplish the task.

I’m very curious to see how publishers take advantage of this burgeoning trend to package books for the mobile phone. Amazon’s dominance in the book and e-book marketplace began, in part, because of the Kindle and the necessity for a complete book buying ecosystem to accompany the e-reader. Amazon’s Fire phone was a bust, so what does it mean for the retail giant as Apple, Google, and other players continue to flesh out their bookstores and build up lively reader communities for phone readers?

How do you read e-books? An e-reader? Tablet? Smartphone? Over someone else’s shoulder? Oh, and this drinkable book is amazing. Just another reason why print books are best.

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Taboos

A couple of weeks ago, I was at my alma mater to speak to the Columbia Fiction Foundry folks about publishing.   The session was structured as an interview and one of the questions posed to me was how we handle books about taboo subjects.  I liked that question because it’s one that’s seldom asked but which is important to anyone who works in publishing (or any media, really).  Given how charged the political environment is, not just here but globally, freedom of speech is a tricky, sometimes dangerous concept for those who work in the business of communicating ideas.   And, yet, we take on projects all the time that have the potential to offend some or many.  The rule of thumb for us is that if it’s something that doesn’t personally offend us, or it offends us but we think there’s merit in furthering the conversation on that particular topic,  we don’t shy away from representing it.

This week, along with everyone else in the country, we’ve been talking about the Rachel Dolezal story and wondering if there is a book in this very bizarre journey of hers.  The fact is that her actions have offended large numbers of Americans.  Given how volatile the subject of race is in this country, that’s not surprising.  But, regardless of where you stand on this individual’s weird appropriation of a group’s identity, it seems to me that the conversation her story has engendered is a good one.  I’ve read several interesting articles about this now, among them this one by our friend Sam Freedman, which have approached the topic in diverse, but  insightful ways…and isn’t that what free discourse is about?  I still don’t know what the book would be, but maybe it’s one about the very notion of discussing taboo subjects.

So, what taboos would you tackle or shy away from in your own writing?  And which would you like to see more deeply explored in print?

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Why I love picture books

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As I’m sure you heard, there was a massive fire here in New York yesterday afternoon, and it happened just seven blocks away from our office. From our windows, we could see the huge cloud of smoke it produced–it looked something like this:

<> on March 26, 2015 in New York City.

And when I walked out the door of our office at 5, the hallway by the elevator had the telltale chemical aroma of a building fire. I have to say it freaked me out a little—the smell immediately brought me back to 9/11, when I lived downtown and woke up to that smell for a couple weeks.

But when I got home and told my 3-year-old son George about the fire, the first thing he asked was to read one of his favorite picture books, MY FIRE ENGINE by Michael Rex. And that, in essence, is one of the reasons I love picture books. There’s something amazing about a toddler’s ability to relate to the real world and make sense of it through the pictures and story of a book, and through them that view of the world becomes remarkable positive. While we adults worry about the safety of the victims and firefighters, or how a gas main might blow up our own building, a toddler sees only the bravery and camaraderie of the fire squad. Not to mention all the cool gear they get and the awesome trucks they ride…

It’s thanks to books like MY FIRE ENGINE and FIREFIGHTER FRANK that George tells us he wants to be a fireman when he grows up—and I’d be willing to bet that plenty of actual firefighters were inspired to some degree by the books they read as kids. While not every picture book is blatantly inspirational, it’s rare to find a picture book that doesn’t have some positive takeaway. They’re healthy for grown-ups, too—while I wallow in the darkness of my musical tastes (thanks, Uncle Lou) and fret over death and taxes, a picture book read with George always brings me back into the light.

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Who will write the revolution?

Like most New Yorkers, I was shocked by yesterday’s grand jury ruling in the Eric Garner case. I only wish I wasn’t on babysitting duty last night and could have joined the protest that marched up the Upper West Side past our apartment–instead, I watched on TV with the roaring drone of helicopters flying low overhead our building. Creepy, to say the least, though it was a relief to see this morning that the protests were mostly peaceful and that the cops didn’t lose their cool.

But as I read the paper and tried to wrap my head around how the grand jury could possibly have let Pantaleo off when the video evidence seemed so crystal clear, it got me thinking both about the power of narrative and the role of books in other protest movements. Bear with me here, but I’d argue that when political and social change arises, especially here in America, books often play a prominent role, if not a central one–off the top of my head, I’m thinking of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, THE JUNGLE, SILENT SPRING, even up through ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

And while, true, these examples come from a time when people didn’t have information available the way they do now, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the emotional connection people felt to these narrative and the characters therein ran far deeper than simple exposure to unknown atrocities. Particularly in a case like this, one power of fiction is to make sense of the world when our eyes tell us that something very wrong just happened, and yet we’re at a loss with how to deal with it or effect change.

So, as we struggle to deal with the Garner decision, I wonder if the power of a book-length narrative could help pave the way for the much-needed police reform. Whether it’s a fictionalized insider look at the NYPD or a novel from a victim’s perspective, maybe we need that emotional response to a book in order to help move us forward. So hey, if there are any writers out there who feel the revolution will not be televised but written, I’d love to hear from you…

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Damned if we do?

Something like 20 years ago when I was a publishing newbie I came across a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about a rare disease in Africa that was positively biblical in its devastation.  I was, of course, immediately obsessed with this gruesome hemorrhagic fever whose survival rate was statistically negligible.  Frankly, and shamefully, I thought it was a great horror story and one happening far enough away that it posed no real threat to a young woman in New York City who wasn’t planning on traveling to remote parts of Africa any time soon.   I desperately wanted someone to do a book about it.   Jane, who was bemused by my weird enthusiasms (she’s grown accustomed to them in the two decades since), and I tried to contact a couple of journalists who might have direct access to information on the ground.  But while we were casting about without the help of e-mail and Skype,  it was announced that Richard Preston was working on The Hot Zone.  We had been scooped.

Preston’s book became a huge bestseller and it spawned a successful film.  Ebola entered the public’s consciousness much in the way it had for me, as something horrific that didn’t really affect us but which titillated us with the kind of fear a zombie movie might instill.  Today, of course, the threat is far more real and, with our porous borders, far less “over there.”  The world is quickly realizing that the spread of Ebola is a global health crisis and one that must be stopped in its tracks if we are to avoid even more catastrophic losses of human life.

So, as I obsessively read the headlines and listen to reports on NPR, I think, again, that a new book on the disease’s trajectory this time around is necessary and even imperative.  Except that the more mature me is  aware of the negative psychic and moral implications of capitalizing on tragedy in a way my much more clueless younger self was not.  And so once again an uncomfortable aspect of our business rears its head.  When is it too soon to write about tragedy?  What is the correct way to hype a big book touching on the suffering of thousands?  We in the publishing world, like journalists, are responsible for midwifing work that illuminates, enlightens, educates, and entertains.  But, we’re not in the trenches risking life and limb to get the story and making money off tragic events is sometimes hard to stomach.  So, do we pursue that book now or do we wait?

There are fascinating stories coming out of this current crisis and not just one book, I’m sure.  Where do you guys fall on the subject?  Should there be another Hot Zone?

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All you can read books

It’s been very interesting to watch the unveiling of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s new subscription-based e-book program. It’s not a new concept. In fact, entertainment and media industries have been heading this way for a long time. Netflix provides consumers with unlimited streaming of television and movies for a flat flee. Spotify provides the same for music. So why not books?

Kindle Unlimited isn’t even the first to offer the all-you-can-read buffet. Oyster and other similar companies have been around for some time; yet none have Amazon’s platform. Or its ability to stir up controversy.

Some of Kindle Unlimited’s critics have historically been Amazon’s staunchest supporters: self-published authors. They’ve claimed that they stand to be hurt the most from the program, in part because of the different royalty structure. Royalties will be allocated from a set fund divided across all borrowed units, which may mean lower royalty payments. Not only that, but self-published authors who choose to opt out of Kindle Unlimited so they can distribute to other vendors, such as Nook Press and Kobo, stand to drop in the Amazon bestseller rankings because Kindle Unlimited “sales” count towards those hourly standings. Pro Kindle Unlimited authors, on the other hand, argue that authors will benefit greatly from the discoverability that Kindle Unlimited and such rankings could provide. Unknown authors can potentially shoot up in rank, even if those “buying” their books never get around to reading them.

And what about on the consumer side? On the face of it, $9.99/month for an unlimited number of books seems like a great deal. But how many people subscribing to Kindle Unlimited actually read enough books every month to make it worth it? It’s one thing to binge-watch shows and movies on Netflix or binge-listen to music for hours on end on Spotify. But binge-reading is a whole different ballgame.

I’d like to hear what our readers think of Kindle Unlimited. Will you subscribe? If you’re an author, do you enroll?

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The value of gossip

A couple of weeks ago, we had a staff lunch—where we order a bunch of delicious food and sit around talking about what’s on our mind regarding our business and the industry in general.  In the past, I have learned a great deal from these sessions and I believe our staff has as well.

Sure enough, there was some heated gossip along with the yummy cole slaw.   We dished about what was happening at various publishing companies—Amazon and Penguin-Random in particular—and how these events would affect our business and our clients.  There was a really interesting exchange of news and ideas and I think we all felt afterwards that we got some good inside information, as well as enjoying each other’s company.

All of this made me think about industry gossip and its value.  I can see, as I did at our lunch, that when important news and information gets passed around (even if it’s just hearsay) and its implications are discussed and analyzed, we can learn a lot…I certainly did.

After the lunch, I found this piece, which ran a couple of years ago in Forbes and which underlines various aspects of office gossip.  Do you all engage in a lot of office gossip?  Do you find it useful?