Lately I find myself pronouncing a lot on the state of book publishing, an industry that, to my astonishment, I’ve been following for more than 25 years.
I got into the book business just as it began dawning on people that book publishing outfits ought to be run as businesses rather than collected as the playthings of rich men, the way sports teams always had been.
Not coincidentally, by the late 1980’s Nelson Doubleday Jr. had sold his family book publishing venture to Bertelsmann for $475 million and bought a share of the New York Mets.
When I subsequently arrived at Doubleday as an assistant editor, a rumor still floated around that during due diligence the Bertelsmann accountants had found an inexplicable invoice for a cool million dollars. It turned out, so the story went, to be a bill for the new Jumbotron screen at Shea Stadium.
Whether that story was apocryphal didn’t really matter to those telling it, for it spoke to the sloppiness and sense of propriety that had descended on publishing before the shakeup. As a result, the anecdote sure as heck felt true at the time, especially with a few of Nelson’s old buddies still kicking around the halls, one of whom, I recall, had a picture of his own North Shore mansion hanging on his office wall.
The broader point, driven home to all those who remained, was that fresh discipline would be established. English majors would have to learn to read P&L statements. Marketing people — heaven forbid! — would occasionally set foot in the editorial meeting.
To demonstrate their seriousness, the higher-ups at Bertelsmann soon cut Doubleday’s front list — which had grown notoriously bloated — in half. They instituted manufacturing quality control so that the books weren’t falling apart as they’d used to do. The book covers got better, too.
Now, here am I, former editor and agent and non-fiction author, playing a new game on the same field, although some may argue that the field grass long ago yielded to artificial turf.
These days book publishing has become a place where synergies go to die. Every major house is part of a conglomerate, and most of the people who brought those publishers under the roof have been put out to pasture.
Meanwhile, with change afoot — led, as it always is, from the outside — editors, agents, readers and writers are left wondering what will become of us all.
I admit up front that I don’t know, but I’m willing to hazard some guesses.
They’re in the form of lists because, well, ‘tis the season of lists. Five more will follow, but I thought I’d start with the way the outside world perceives book publishing — assumptions that tend to be oversimplifications at best and are often egregiously wrong.
12 Common Misperceptions about Book Publishing
1. It’s all about the front list.
The front list gets all the attention because new things almost always do and the books on the front list are by definition new. Also, an editor’s reputation may live and die with her choices of what to publish next. But a publisher’s real asset — the majority of its good will, in business parlance — is the backlist, those books that deliver steady sales year in and year out. It’s the ballast in the ship, the revenue that keeps the lights on. It’s the main reason why some entity would bother to buy an existing publishing house at all. And the absence of a backlist is the reason why newly formed publishers often prove short lived, even despite occasional front list success.
2. Small publishers care more about books than commercial publishers do.
It seems to be an article of faith among literary types that small publishers put books first while large publishers care mostly about the bottom line. Yet, in my experience, everyone on the editorial floor of a major publisher loves books. It’s why they’re there — part of who they are. And everyone who publishes books — big publishers and small — yearns in their soul for the next book to sell a million copies, even when their intellect tells them it won’t. The main difference is that commercial publishers have bigger overhead to deal with. And — because there are more people in the company — big-house editors have to battle through much more institutional knowledge to get anything done. None of that means they don’t love books.
3. Editors no longer edit.
Someone who used to work at a big commercial house recently told me the story of getting a call a few years ago from his publisher, wondering why he was working from home for the second day in a row. The editor explained that he was working on a crash editing project for a book that was important to the house. “Get into the office,” the publisher urged. “Your problem is that you edit too much.”
While this story may seem to illustrate the opposite of my intention, to my mind it shows the exception that proves the rule. Because the fact is that that editor was taking the trouble to edit.
Just randomly pull some books off the shelf at Barnes & Noble or your favorite independent and read the acknowledgments. You’ll find a lot of people thanking their editors for making their books better. Nobody made them write those thank-yous. They could have thanked their editors for the great lunch or for the advance check, instead.
4. Editors undergo rigorous training.
Unless something has changed since I last spent time on the editorial floor, editors arrive with a presumption that they have strong feelings about how books should read and the willingness and ability to hew them into shape. And, while there are programs out there that teach editing, I’ve never heard of any editor with a job being required to attend such a seminar. More often, it’s trial by fire.
5. Publishers fact check.
Copy editors will pull out the atlas (or, nowadays, pull up the Internet) to make sure Kamchatka is really where the author says it is, but they won’t make a phone call to confirm that the memoirist really attended high school in Peoria. The contract puts the onus on the non-fiction author to tell the truth, and publishers have long relied on those bona fides. Despite being burned, they continue to do so.
6. Bestseller lists feature bestsellers.
A book that never hits a bestseller list can outsell a book that does. How is that possible? Because the bestseller list doesn’t measure aggregate sales; it measures sales velocity. So a book that sells 10,000 copies in one week might make the New York Times list while a book that sells 10,000 copies per month for three years never does.
7. Publishers lose money on books with unearned advances.
This is one of those misperceptions that seem to confirm common sense, but the fact is that a publisher can make money on a book where the author never earns back the advance against royalties. Remember that the publisher is receiving about half the retail price of the book and paying to the author’s royalty account only at most 30 percent of that revenue. If the publisher keeps its costs down, it can use a portion of the 70 percent that’s left to write off the author’s advance and still make money.
8. A big unearned advance will kill your next book deal.
Any editor-in-chief who knows what she’s doing understands that the amount of your last unearned advance is just noise. The next book’s value depends only on what a publisher thinks it will sell in the future. That prediction, in turn, may rely on the number of copies that the last book sold in the marketplace, but the fact that your last publisher made a massive miscalculation shouldn’t — and usually doesn’t — influence what happens to the next work.
9. Big advances guarantee publisher support.
While it’s true that a big advance sometimes compels a publisher to give that book a push, if the marketplace signals that the publisher has completely miscalculated its expectations, that publisher will cut its losses. No co-op. No ads. No phone calls. This happens every day.
10. Authors are rich.
The most visible authors are often pretty well off, it’s true. But most authors who rely on writing as their primary means of support are poor indeed. Authorship, like it or not, is a form of celebrity, and we live in a winner-take-all society with very few winners. That said, even the top one percent of richest authors doesn’t hold a candle to the top one percent of creative people in, say, Hollywood. Becoming an author in order to get rich is like going to the desert in order to become wet.
11. Agents are insiders.
If the market is a herd of elephants, booksellers are underneath being trampled to death while the sales force wipes the blood off their faces and other members of the publishing team stand nearby wringing their hands. In this (really bad) metaphor, agents are a mile away, trying to figure out what’s going on by putting their ears to the ground.
12. The cost of paper determines book prices
The price of a book — like the price of every created thing — rests upon what the market will bear. As for costs, printing, paper and binding are often the least of it. In a business that relies on the intelligent and highly educated, people are the most expensive input. This explains why big publishers are in a flat-out panic over e-books. If a $9.95 e-book displaces a $29.95 hardcover because that’s what the market will bear, the revenue differential isn’t commensurate with the savings on printing, paper and binding. One solution to this dilemma would be to pay those intelligent, highly educated people smaller salaries and relocate them to Bangalore. A more palatable solution might be to find a really rich guy who’s bored with his sports team.