Category Archives: publishers

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When publishers compete–or not?

No, I’m not blogging about the highly competitive (hah!) Publishers Softball League, though I do have many happy memories of cutting out early summer afternoons to play left field for the Penguin Penguins, only to get our butts kicked by the NY Times and Time Magazine. Who routinely stocked their teams with ringers, by the way–so much for journalistic integrity!

Instead, I wanted to point you to our friend Mike Shatzkin’s recent blogpost about subscription services, and how Penguin Random House has opted out of the game. Mike makes a convincing argument that PRH is making a mistake here, but what really struck me more than anything else was his opening statement:

“I sometimes feel like I’m the only guy in town… contemplating out loud how Penguin Random House might use its position as by far the biggest commercial trade publisher to make life a bit more difficult for its competitors.”

Indeed, with all the consternation over Amazon, the notion that publishers might actually try to compete against each other for market share seems beside the point. And according to Mike, it seems like PRH is avoiding opportunities for competition, whether by wrongheadedness or design. I’d add, too, that from my agent’s perspective, it feels like PRH is NOT flexing its muscles, whether by limiting submissions or demanding contract concessions. Rather, it feels like they’ve gone out of their way to stress that the merger hasn’t affected business as usual, nor will it in the future.

But how long can that last? Especially now that Amazon and Hachette have come to terms, I would certainly expect PRH to be under more scrutiny. Mike suspects that a competitive move in kid’s ebook subscriptions is coming is coming down the pike, though that seems fairly minor to me. But I’ll be very curious to see in the new year if at some point PRH takes over from Amazon as the publishing industry villain–or at least competes for the title.

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When friends succeed

1746-v1-150x.PNGThe Publishers Weekly edition which was published right before I left on vacation featured Flatiron Books on the cover and I was so pleased to see that.

I have known the founder and publisher, Bob Miller for a lot of years starting when he was an editor at St. Martin’s way back when, through his tenure at Warner Books (now Grand Central) , then Delacorte and then on to establishing Hyperion which, in its day, was a huge success.

Bob is now well on his way to another thrilling achievement with this new imprint of Macmillan Publishing.  After being in business for a little over a year they already have a number one New York Times bestseller: WHAT I KNOW FOR SURE by Oprah Winfrey.  I’m sure this is only the beginning and I am so pleased for my good friend and his super team, which includes the brilliant Amy Einhorn who recently relocated from Penguin .

Over the last several years we in publishing have watched numerous companies consolidate and our colleagues lose their jobs as a result. Many have left the business altogether; others are just getting by or trying to create new careers for themselves within the publishing world.  This isn’t easy, which is why it is always encouraging to see an old colleague’s new success.

We should all be rooting for their success, in fact.  I for one am hoping that we as an agency can contribute to that.  Congratulations to Bob and John Sargent, Macmillan’s CEO, and your talented crew for your courage in starting something new during a perilous time.

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Those wide open spaces

Many years ago, before I was an agent, I directed all book and magazine publishing for a large newspaper syndicate.  While those of us who didn’t work directly in editorial for the syndicate—publishing, licensing, sales and the executive suite—had our individual offices, some of them very spacious, the heart of the staff worked in an open bullpen.  There, they communicated easily with each other as they edited the writers with whom they worked.  In fact the editorial staff who worked in my division also worked in an open bullpen-like area, writing and editing material and sharing their ideas with each other.

Last Tuesday, many, many years later, Miriam and I attended a party held by HarperCollins to celebrate the relocation of their offices from Midtown to the Financial District downtown. The layout was open and airy with people sitting in bullpen-like settings.  Some, who previously had window offices still had offices with glass walls so that they could see out and those passing by could see in.  This layout, we were told, was meant to foster a spirit of collaboration.  In addition, I would guess that there was an overall downsizing in terms of the number of square feet the company now occupies, which will enable the publisher to spend money on the titles they are publishing rather than on rent and maintenance of the many floors they took up at 10 East 53rd Street.  Bottom line, my general impression was a very positive one.

Fostering a spirit of collaboration and cooperation in this publishing climate can produce nothing but solid results, in my opinion.  Sure, there is some resistance to this layout—those who previously had privacy don’t have it any more, certainly not as much.  But the benefits include a sense of team building and a  collegial environment.  I think growth will be the ultimate result here and I think this kind of organizational layout will become the norm in the years to come.

Of course, I am always curious as to what you, our readers, think of this idea and I look forward to your comments.

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Book orphans

About two months ago, one of my clients turned in the manuscript for her new novel after having worked on it for several years.   She was a bit nervous but also very excited as this was the first novel she was publishing with her new publisher.  About a week after she submitted the material, I had a note from her editor that she was leaving the publishing house and, in fact, leaving publishing altogether.  She said that she would be editing the book on a freelance basis, but that the shepherding of it through the publishing process would not be her responsibility.

Needless to say, this was pretty devastating news to my client.  As I mentioned, this was a new publisher for her.  She had published five novels with her previous publisher and during those years had been edited by at least five different editors—each leaving the house or the business.  Now she was experiencing being “orphaned” again.

I made a couple of phone calls and as it happens the publisher of this particular house has promised me that he will be looking after my client himself.  Though he will not be doing the actual editing, he will be guiding the novel’s publication and so we’ll keep our fingers crossed that, with his help, this book will be a huge success.

It’s true, though, that the saga of the orphaned book is a real one and, in this age of downsizing and publishing mergers, it could well become a more frequent phenomenon.  This makes the agent’s job all the more important as we have to ensure more than ever that our clients and their work are well looked after and that their books are published well.

Last summer, another one of my clients had his book published after it had been transferred during the writing process to five different editors.  That story did have a happy ending.  The book’s final editor was totally devoted to the work and, in my opinion, his editorial suggestions made it even better.  The reviews have been phenomenal and the sales have been solid.  Equally as important, I have an author who was well satisfied with his publishing experience in the end.

But this is a tricky road to follow and it is important for the agent to be vigilant and take special care.  I found this piece in GalleyCat, which covers the topic and which, interestingly, quoted yours truly

So, I wonder, if your book were orphaned, what would you do?

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Mad, bad and dangerous to know

It took me a while to read George Packer’s endless New Yorker piece about the evil empire.  No, not the Yankees, Amazon!  Most of what he writes about may be news for people outside our business, but all of us much maligned gatekeepers have long known that anyone who doesn’t spout Amazonian corporate-speak like it’s English will feel dazed and confused when dealing with Bezos’ army, and that the company’s strong-man tactics and culture of silence vis a vis the rest of the publishing world seem positively Orwellian.

But what’s interesting about the article is the fact that despite the behemoth’s disdain for publishing as an industry and book readers as a class, Amazon has managed to make books more accessible to a greater number of readers than any entity before it.  It has also, although publishers might deny it vehemently, injected a competitive edge (okay, desperation and rage)  into the book making process that has lifted traditional publishing out of its complacent, vaguely condescending status quo, and challenged it to think about itself and its role in the marketplace in a new way.

Progress?  Who knows?  But, the piece is a must-read for all of us who buy books, often with one click.   After doing so, I hope you’ll share your thoughts about the role Amazon plays for you as a consumer and as an author.

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Oh captain, my captain

So, I now know how my life in publishing will be complete: I will sell a book to Derek Jeter.

You probably saw the news last week that Derek Jeter is planning to be a book publisher when he retires from baseball. Yes, Mr. November is starting an imprint, Jeter Publishing, with Simon & Schuster. Interestingly, unlike other imprints headed up by famous people that tend to reflect their famousness (e.g., Anthony Bourdain signing up his chef buddies), Jeter Publishing intends to publish a wide spectrum of adult and children’s books, not just baseball tomes.

But while Jeter says he intends to be involved with every book that bears his name, he might first want to read Daniel Menaker’s memoir (an excerpt from which ran in New York Magazine this week) and see what he’s in for. Yes, there’s a whole lot of inside baseball (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the Menaker piece, but I can tell you that much of the craziness rings all too true…

Then again, if Jeter could thrive under George Steinbrenner for so long, I’m sure he can handle S&S. After all, he’s been a savvy businessman from the start–anyone remember Jeter Flakes?

Anyway, back to the original point: I will sell a book to Derek Jeter.

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When traditional publishing works!

With book publishing undergoing such major changes and so many of my colleagues and clients  discouraged by these, one wonders whether the experience of having a first book published will ever be as satisfying as it once was.  The answer is “yes!” Last week one of my projects, a first book, had an incredibly exciting and successful launch.

Five years ago, I read the obituary of Robert Giroux and I thought that there might be a wonderful story about Farrar Straus & Giroux and its authors during its heyday.  I thought about who might write this book and read a very good piece in New York Magazine written by a young writer named Boris Kachka.  Boris and I talked and, though he was initially doubtful about whether such a book would sell, he decided to tackle it.

The idea then became his and the result, five years later is HOTHOUSE: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux.  The success of the book, as is always the case, was dependent on a number of factors:

1)    The manuscript was well written and told a compelling story.

2)    The editing was brilliant.

3)    The launch of the book was thoroughly thought out and extremely well timed.

In fact, Boris produced a terrific manuscript which even in draft form was a real page turner.  Then his editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler did an incredible job of editing the narrative.

Finally, with Jofie’s  passionate mentorship, Simon & Schuster strategically sent out galleys to writers and independent booksellers for quotes.  Authors, including Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, and Larry McMurtry, and dozens of independent booksellers commented on how terrific the material was.

The title topped the August non-fiction Independent Bookseller Recommended list and then the publisher distributed a superb marketing brochure conceived by publishing icon Michael Korda and developed by Jofie, his team and Boris.  Check it out:

HOTHOUSE

In this day of digital distribution, the brochure was mailed out to hundreds of people and the reaction was instantaneous and incredibly enthusiastic.  Everyone who received it wanted an advance copy of the book.

HOTHOUSE was reprinted before it was published on August 6th and was celebrated at a publishing party in the Roundtable Room at the Algonquin.

Of course we don’t know what will ultimately happen in this story, but of one thing I am sure.  As I stood listening to Boris talk at his launch party, I thought, “This is why I love the publishing business!”


The longview…

It’s probably the worst kept secret in publishing that DGLM has been successfully repping a lot of Indie authors.  In fact, the recent RT conference was filled to the rafters with our clients (prompting a delightful voicemail message from Larry Kirshbaum of Amazon to Jane…but more on that in another blog post or over drinks at BEA).

We’ve learned a tremendous amount from these authors about how to successfully self-publish and these lessons have  direct and significant application to traditional publishing.  The smarter houses have committed to a partnership with us and our clients, showing tremendous vision and flexibility in the way they have modified their systems to accommodate the special needs of people who can sell oodles of books on their own, thank you very much.

Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Grand Central, and PenguinUSA have all been aggressive in offering huge deals that are enticing to our authors not just because of the money involved but because of their afore-mentioned flexibility in terms of publishing schedules, contractual terms (including options and non-compete clauses), marketing and promotion, and their genuine desire to help grow these writers’ careers.  And, here’s where the partnership aspect is important.

Some Indie authors are looking at what these publishers are offering and scoffing, especially if the advances being discussed are less than seven figures.  They think, and rightly so in most cases, that they can make that money themselves without giving such a huge percentage to a third party.  They also feel (again, rightly so in most cases) that they can market themselves more effectively than a house that is publishing hundreds, if not thousands, of books per year.   But, as we’ve often discussed on this blog, that’s a shortsighted view because of the intangibles.

The beauty of and frustrating thing about publishing is that it has never been an exact science—and given how many English majors work in this business, that’s hardly surprising.  So much of what succeeds in our world is due to serendipity and that most fickle of all phenomena, taste, that it’s impossible for a publishing “formula” to  show  a higher rate of success than, say, Derek Jeter’s batting average.    But, despite that, publishers offer a wealth of intangibles that are actually quite measurable over the course of a career, among them editorial support, an understanding of the book buying marketplace that is more macro than micro, a team of professionals whose job it is to make the author look good, a belief in books that is almost evangelical, and a brand identity that has evolved over centuries and that will continue to do so.

So, when an Indie client says to us, what can Publisher X do for me that I can’t do for myself, my answer would be, they can help you establish and grow your career with a goal toward longevity.  Given our success with negotiating non-compete and option clauses that allow Indie authors to continue to self-publish while they are working with a traditional house, I honestly don’t see the downside to also having a publisher’s imprimatur as an adjunct to your own publishing efforts.  I do, however, see how having books published by S&S or HC or GCP can enhance your brand and raise your visibility among readers.  Given how crowded and competitive the Indie marketplace has become, I would be heartened to see that an author has been or is published traditionally when deciding whether to buy his/her book.  I think many readers feel the same.

The bottom line, of course, is that as with all of our clients, we want our Indie authors to have long, prosperous publishing lives and we feel that, under the right conditions, a trade house can be an invaluable partner in achieving that goal.    I’d love to hear what you all think about this because it is a subject that I’m becoming very passionate about.

 

 

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Stepping outside the box

Last Sunday, a much loved and major figure in book publishing died.  Peter Workman was an icon of our industry. Not only was he kind and generous, but he was also a creative genius.  Beginning as a book packager, he quickly became the publisher of such bestsellers as What to Expect When You’re Expecting, The Silver Palate Cookbook and many other hugely successful titles.  The New York Times says his percentage of “wins” merited membership in the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame and it did.  One out of every three books he published sold over 100,000 copies.

Why were this man and his publishing company, one of the last independent companies in our business, so successful?  Because time and again he stepped out of the box in his book packaging and marketing decisions.  His willingness to do the untraditional and unexpected was what made him and Workman Publishing so incredibly successful.

We all, I think, can learn a lesson from Peter Workman.  I see it in the book ideas many of my clients present to me.  I see it in the new arena of indie book publishing, which is so exciting.  I see it in publishers’ new willingness to be creative in their pricing and promotional ideas.  Most importantly, I see it in publishers and authors being more willing to work together to publish great books successfully.

We will miss Peter Workman very much.  But I believe we can pay a great tribute to him by studying his many and varied creative ideas and implementing versions of them as we step out of our boxes and conduct and grow our business.

Go with the flow

I’ve been mired in contracts lately which means countless iterations of the same conversation:

Me: “We want X, Y, Z.”

Contracts director: “No.  We can’t agree to that.”

Me: “If you don’t give it to us, we’ll walk.”

Contracts director: “Fine, we’ll give you X and Y, but you’ll have to pry Z out of our cold dead hands.”

Me: “What was Z again?”

Multiply this by three or four contracts a week, reams of e-mails, and some name calling, and you’ve got my life in a nutshell.  At this point, the process is so predictable, I could create a flowchart that pretty much tells you the probable outcome of any negotiation.  Which is what tickles me about this delightful infographic that Galleycat reposted yesterday.

As fast as the publishing industry is changing, some things remain wonderfully constant: Authors’ hopes and dreams either coming true or being crushed into oblivion; insiders trying to game the system; agents, editors and publishers working hard and failing roughly as much as professional baseball players; heavy drinking regardless.

You’d think we’d get bored.  But really, it’s such a thrill when all the stars align and the editorial and development work, the tedious nitpicking of contract terms, and the snarky, despairing, bombastic communications result in a book you’re proud of (and which is sometimes profitable), that you end up just feeling grateful to be part of the process.

What’s your favorite part of the flowchart?