Category Archives: Publishing

11

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.

8

Random is a state of mind

One of the things I’ve always loved about publishing (and which makes saner people twitch with frustration) is how random and illogical many of its systems and processes are.    For a small industry with outsize influence relative to its size, its day-to-day operations feature a lot of crazy shenanigans.  Exhibit A:  This delightful  excerpt from Dan Menaker’s memoir which John referenced earlier this week.

Instead of on sober reasoning and well calibrated risks, a lot of decisions in our business are based on emotional reactions (“I fell in love with the gorgeous prose.”  “The story hit me like a punch in the gut.”  “I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I put it down.”) that a moody, infatuated teenager might find over-the-top, and a measure of wishful thinking that might land normal people in a mental ward (“Let’s give the author of this partial manuscript on goat herding in Tibet a $4,000,000 advance.  We’ll surely recoup most of it in foreign sales—you know how the Brits are about goat herding.”)

As much as we try to be logical and measured, however, the nature of this particular beast is that it is quixotic, mercurial, and hard to pin down using standard measuring tools and equipment.  Just when you think something can’t and shouldn’t possibly, ever, ever, work, it’s a huge bestseller and you and your team look like geniuses for having the foresight to pluck it out of the precariously high piles on your desk, floor,  whatever.  And, just when you think you’ve found the next 50 Shades of Da Vinci Codes, you end up looking at Bookscan numbers in the low four digits.

And, it is precisely that unpredictability, that randomness, that makes what we do so often exciting and rewarding.  It’s gambling, sure, but gambling dressed up in a tux and sipping a martini at a vingt-et-un table in Monte Carlo.  It’s crazy and fun and miserable and painful, but never dull and you have to want to be in the game (as a publisher, agent, author, market  and rights person, etc.) even when it doesn’t go your way.

What say you guys?  Is the randomness fun or is it more anxiety producing and maddening than it’s worth?

1

Scratch

Facebook friends pointed me to this new interview with Jonathan Franzen, which is as entertaining as you might expect. But before it gets into the usual topics of Oprah and the internet, I was surprised at how much the interview focused on money—both Franzen’s pursuit of payment (or lack thereof) and how he eked out a living prior to The Corrections. It turns out the source of the interview, Scratch Magazine, is a new e-zine dedicated to the business side of publishing, and I urge any and all writers—unpublished, debut, mid-career, indie, freelancers—to check it out.

There’s a lot of useful information for writers of all stripes, and it’s refreshing how candidly the articles focus on money. In contrast, I was at a book conference this weekend where I did a roundtable talk with a bunch of writers and editors, and while we did talk some about the financial and contractual side of things, it was very much in the abstract. So it’s nice to see the Scratch team breaking down the dollars and cents—including the subscription they hope to charge—though I do hope that in future issues they’ll offer a few more examples for writers than a life of poverty in Tijuana. Or Somerville…

9

Live from BEA

This post comes from the floor of the Javits Center, where BEA is in full swing, and where—in flagrant contravention of my own plan to  travel light–I have acquired an armload of galleys, posters, postcards, business cards, blads, and countless pieces of candy.  I now have an extra tote bag to lug my swag, deep red welts in my shoulders for my efforts, and a profound sense of contentment  (numb arms nothwithstanding).

 

As ever, I have far too much reading to do to even consider cracking open one of these new ARCs, but it’s always possible that on the train home this evening, one might slip from my bag, accidentally fall open in my lap, and keep me captive for the duration of the ride.

 

Book Expo is a terrific opportunity to meet with out of town publishers, say hello to New York colleagues whom I see all too rarely, and survey the coming season of books.  Also to learn a few things (and not just the location of the “secret” ladies’ room with no line). On Tuesday I attended a  thought provoking conference on book marketing, hosted by the online magazine Publishing Perspectives.  I was curious to note that Harper Collins has hired a VP of “Consumer Insight” to better understand—and ideally grow—its audience, while  Jo Henry  of the global market research company Bowker brought me up short by predicting the demise  of bookstores and traditional review outlets inside five years. Gulp.  I don’t actually agree,  but in the event she’s correct, I’d better hurry to my next meeting.

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.

 

 

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?

 

 

 

8

Happy 2013!

So, the Mayans were just yanking our collective chain and we’re still here in frigid, overcast New York City.  Since DGLMers have been out carousing and overindulging for the past week or so and must now dig out from under the candy wrappers and champagne corks to find manuscripts and proposals, not to mention queries, that need responding to, I thought I’d turn this one over to you.

Any questions, suggestions, random commentary you have for us as we look forward to a new year?  What’s on your mind?  What industry issues do you find incomprehensible and need some insight into?  What are you going to be reading this year?  What are you going to be writing?

Let me know and I will answer if I can or make appropriately noncommittal noises if I can’t.

6

Faking it

I started reading Will Schwalbe’s charming The End of Your Life Book Club recently and was delighted when, early on, I came across this line: “Raving about books I hadn’t read yet was part of my job.” Doing a double-take after reading that sentence, I realized that we publishing people do this all the time:

“What did you think about Gone Girl?” asks someone you just met at a friend’s house who, like everyone else who knows what you do for a living, assumes you’ve read all of the 500,000 or so books that are published each year (give or take a couple hundred thousand).

“Brilliant book!  Flynn is such a rare talent,” you say with conviction and then hope you can steer the conversation away from the topic before plot points are revealed that will spoil the book for you (when you finally get around to reading it) or that don’t actually exist and that will reveal your lack of familiarity with the narrative (few casual interrogators are that sinister, but they exist).

Thing is, why do we book people find it so necessary to pretend to have read something we didn’t.  No one knows better than we do that even speed readers will only get through, at most,  a few thousand books during their lifetime.  That’s what makes books so precious, in fact.  You have to spend time with them.  You can’t take in a 300-page novel in the way you take in a film or tv show.  The process of reading requires time, patience, and emotional readiness.   You don’t just read any old thing; you choose something based on mood, curiosity, intellectual questing, the desire to please a friend or mentor who really, really wants you to love their favorite book as much as you do, or particularly intriguing artwork on a cover.

It occurs to me that being well read is one of those things a certain segment of the population carries a big chip on its shoulder about.  There’s a competitiveness and a need to dazzle others with one’s breadth of literary knowledge that borders on the psychotic.  And, this impulse tracks across all categories (just start up a conversation about books with a sci-fi buff if you don’t believe me).  It seems to me that people in other professions aren’t quite so mendacious about their familiarity with every new development in their discipline.  But we book people just out and out lie constantly about what and how much we’ve read.

Am I wrong about this?  Are you thinking, “speak for yourself you pathological liar,” or do you agree that there’s something about books that brings out the braggart in us all?

Why some authors hate publishers

A long-time client, who is very dear to our agency, pointed us in the direction of a piece by Michael Levin in the HuffPost that I’d missed when it ran last week.  Our client was distressed by Mr. Levin’s assertions about the nefarious tactics mustache twirling publishers use to victimize authors.  Understandably, since Mr. Levin writes with such passion and seeming authority, she was concerned that the picture he paints is an accurate depiction of the culture of book publishing as 2012 draws to a close and we count down to the  Mayan apocalypse (which, of course, if it comes to pass will make this discussion irrelevant).

After reading the piece Jane and I had basically the same reaction which boiled down to “Why do the people talking trash about our business always seem to be the ones who understand it the least or who have a bag full of sour grapes they’re carrying around with them?”  And, then I got all happy because I didn’t have to scrounge around looking for a blog topic this week.

We promised our client that we’d go through Mr. Levin’s arguments and respond to them from our point of view and this, more or less (with my usual digressions and irritating asides), is what I hope to do here.

Mr. Levin’s argument boils down to four salient points:  (1) Publishers hate authors even though authors and the work they produce are their lifeblood. (2) Publishers are reducing advances and royalties across the board with the added perk of also reducing marketing and promotion for their titles. (3) Publishers’ dependence on BookScan (the tracking system for sales) guarantees that unless an author has a boffo success, their career is over faster than you can say “reserve for returns.”  And (4) by lowering the quality of the product because they refuse to pay what good authors are worth, publishers are ensuring that the public stops buying books and turns to other sources (the Internet) for their information and entertainment kicks.

Alrighty, then!  This should be quick(ish).

(1)   Publishers are the partners and adversaries of agents.  We work with and against them for the good of our authors, who have our first allegiance.  That said, most publishers (and the term includes all the people who make books happen at a publishing house from the CEO to the intern who opens the mail) we deal with daily, sometimes hourly, are incredibly hard working, thoughtful, engaged, and compassionate.  I’ve said this before and it bears repeating, very few people go into our business to achieve their dreams of Trump-like wealth.  Salaries are low in publishing compared to those in other media, and the work is painstaking and, often thankless (Exhibit A: Mr. Levin).  Publishing types do their jobs—which entail long hours after they’ve left the office sitting with a manuscript that needs to be shaped on a granular level—because they LOVE books.  Period.  With all the challenges publishers are faced with in this increasingly digital world, the level of care they bring to the curating of great (and even not so great) books is impressive.

(2)  Not sure which publishers Mr. Levin is talking about but our agency has had its best year ever.  We’ve sold over 100 books this year and have been paid advances, ranging from five to seven figures, on every one of them.  Perhaps there are some tiny houses that are embracing the “no advance” model but we work with the Big Six as well as many, many smaller independent publishers and have not seen this no-advance/lower-royalty model Mr. Levin describes.

(3)  We depend on BookScan too when we are considering signing up an author.  It’s a tremendous tool that lets you know what you’re up against when trying to find a new home for a previously published author whose book didn’t do well.  Has BookScan ever been a deciding factor in not signing up a book?  Probably, but only if we were very much on the fence about it anyway.  I’d venture to say that this is the same process publishers go through because we’ve had numerous authors whose BookScan sales, how to put it delicately?, were in the toilet and we still sold their next book and the book after that.  Bottom line, if your next idea is great or your genius undeniable, or your platform has reached critical mass, BookScan will not destroy your career.

(4)  Really?  Take a look at the best books of the year lists that are cropping up all over the place right now and tell me if you think important, brilliant, exciting fiction and non-fiction isn’t being published any more.  And, given the fact that book sales have risen in the digital age, it seems that a new generation of readers is turning to…books…for their information and their entertainment kicks!

Seems to me that publishers don’t hate authors any more than authors hate publishers.  In this complicated new world we live in, we all (on both sides of the business) need to take responsibility for our own failures and flaws as well as advocate for our strengths and successes rather than succumbing to paranoid fantasies about how much “they” hate us.

Penguin sues authors

When I started working in publishing (roughly 100 years ago) the business was still one of “gentlemen’s agreements,” of editors coddling temperamental authors, and agents selling books based on a persuasive conversation rather than book proposals (look up Swifty Lazar, if you don’t believe me).  Too, it was always a tenet of agenting that despite the terms in a publishing agreement, there were ways around everything, from an onerous option clause to the repayment of an advance for a cancelled book.

This all worked, of course, because publishers have traditionally been unwilling to persecute their authors (very bad p.r.).  Given the conventional wisdom that authors are fragile, creative souls with no real grasp of practical details—like deadlines or basic accounting—even with cutthroat agents involved, the optics of going after someone publicly for non-delivery and non-payment did not work in a publisher’s favor.  So, often, authors got away with not repaying advances based on flimsy loopholes and how skilled their agents were at scaring or shaming the publisher.

But, times have gotten tough in recent years.  Margins are tighter as a result of the e-book revolution and the Justice Department has decided to stick its nose into publishing practices that many argue it has no knowledge of or understanding about.  So, it’s not entirely surprising that Penguin has taken the rather shocking step of suing a number of high profile writers for non-payment.

On the one hand…well, yes.  If you sign a contract that specifies that you need to repay an advance under certain conditions and those conditions come to pass, any legitimate business would go after you to recoup their money.

On the other hand, this makes me sad, because it feels like yet another of publishing’s intangibles has been sacrificed to the bottom line.   To me it seems that this takes us many more steps away from the days when publishers went out of their way, financially and otherwise, to enable an author—even the most wayward of them (see The Lost Generation)—to thrive creatively and produce the kinds of literature we’re still reading today.  Did they lose some money? Sure, but I’m pretty certain Scribner (and Random House and S&S, etc.) is still collecting on its investment.

What do you all think of this action by Penguin?