Dear Corporate Publisher,

Since last year was the worst year in publishing history—that is, the worst year since the year before—I’ve got a few questions for you (along with some unsolicited advice):

Are you publishing all of your authors, or are you just printing most of them? Because if you’re just printing most of them, why bother? Why not re-allocate all those printing and shipping costs into marketing the books you’re actually publishing? Just a thought.

Does the reading public really need a million titles per year? Wouldn’t it be a little easier to sort out the growing demand for a hundred thousand? Don’t get me wrong, I like eclectic, I like many voices, but it seems to me a hundred thousand is a lot of voices. You only published fifty thousand in 1990, and as I recall, the industry was in better shape.

Instead of acquiring books at the budget deadline (books which you have no real intention of marketing beyond a little co-op for 90 days to fill table space at the chains—where your titles are gathering dust in a warehouse, as the demand stacks up at independents), why not re-structure?

Why not give all your titles the benefit of marketing support, publicity budgets, tour budgets? Do you think they might sell more than a thousand copies? Do you think you might have less returns?

Why not make your sales reps lives easier by cutting your catalog in half? Maybe that would allow your reps to push your backlist—after all, you’ve already printed the books, already paid the advances? Hey, and that’s another way to fill those invaluable brick-and-mortar stores without publishing a million titles per year. Maybe if you marketed your books, instead of letting them sit heavy in the chains, you wouldn’t have to pay all that postage on all those returns? Just a thought.

Why not teach your publicists to take bloggers seriously? Have you noticed that newspapers are dying out? Have you noticed that a lot of book blogs are generating serious traffic in the maven market—the one market most helpful in creating advance buzz? Oh wait, and it doesn’t cost you anything! The bloggers come to you, offering to promote your books (because they already know about them because their ear is more to the ground than your publicist), and yet, often as not, you don’t even reply to their e-mails, or interview requests. Maybe you should be aggressively profiling these people and offering them swag? Maybe you should be pitching them. Just a thought.

Why not hire better graphic designers? Most cover designs suck. I’m sorry, but if I have to look at the sweaty withers of another horse running into the sunset, another vintage lampshade, another goddamn dog, I’m gonna’ shoot myself!

Why not boldly target new audiences, instead of mourning the loss of the ones you’ve already alienated? The reason I ask is this: I wrote a book, it sold modestly well due to the forces of luck and a lot of sweat, but I must’ve heard a thousand times: I gave your book to my niece so-and-so, and she loved it—and she /never/ reads. I’m serious, I hear it all the time.

Maybe we could make books cool again. There’s a lot of cool books being written, but nobody’s making them cool (see sweaty horse withers, and publicist with no faith in blogs).

Maybe “Reality Hunger” is more like a “Big Mac Attack.” Maybe you shouldn’t publish books that feed this hunger. Maybe you should just stick to your guns and believe in the tried-and-true novel—put your best foot forward, so to speak, and quit pandering.

Maybe you should start dictating markets again.

I know, I know, you’ve got answers for all these questions, corporate publisher. You’ve got your best practices, you’ve got your market research, but you haven’t got any balls.

XOXO,

je

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3G1B is the collaboration of four friends and colleagues in the book business. Together, they review books and stories, interview authors, and maintain an ongoing conversation about publishing, bookselling, writing, pr, and nearly anything else.

JONATHAN EVISON is the author of All About Lulu and West of Here and TNB's Executive Editor. He likes rabbits. He also likes being the ambiguous fourth guy in the “Three Guys” triumvirate. He is the founder of the secret society, The Fiction Files (if he told, he’d have to kill you). He has a website, but it’s old. Just google him.

DENNIS HARITOU has bought books for Barnes and Noble for seven years, for warehouse clubs for five, and has led a book club. He is currently Director of Merchandise at Bookazine.

JASON CHAMBERS has been in the book business for over fifteen years, including tenures as General Manager/Buyer at Book Peddlers in Athens, GA, and seven years as a Buyer and Merchandise Manager at Bookazine. He now works as an bookstore consultant and occasional web designer.

JASON RICE has worked in the book business for ten years at Random House in sales and marketing and Barnes & Noble as a community relations manager. Currently he is an Assistant Sales Manager and Buyer at Bookazine. His fiction has appeared in several literary magazines online and in print. He was once the pseudonymous book reviewer Frank Bascombe for Ain’t It Cool News. He’s taught photography to American students in the South of France, worked as a bicycle messenger in New York City, and for a long time worked very hard in the film & television business in NYC. Production experience includes the television shows Pete & Pete, Can We Shop ( Joan Rivers' old shopping show), and the films The Pallbearer, Flirting With Disaster, and countless commercials---even a Christina Applegate movie that went straight to video.

9 responses to “Dear Publisher”

  1. From a reader’s perspective, I learn about most all books I read through the internet from sites such as this. I used to write a Literature & the Arts column for a newspaper, having only given it up about a month and a half ago, and though I’m sure some of my readers bought the book based on my printed column, I believe most who bought the book did so based on the exposure I gave the book either through my website blog or through a Facebook link to that review.

    I agree with you on the interview portion. Publicists need to take bloggers seriously. If we request an interview, grant it. (Unless the interviewer comes off as a psychopathic lunatic then maybe you should pass) I’m more likely to buy a book after reading a fun interview with the author than I am after reading a simple book review. Interviews make the author real for the reader. Many readers (I can only speak for myself really) want to feel connected, in some way, to the author.

    Not to tout the accomplishments of TNB, but I’d be curious, if there were some way to calculate it, how many books viewers of this site have bought based on what they’ve seen or read here, whether it’s an excerpt, 21 Questions, book review, or interview. I bet it’s a lot. A whole lot. With the creation of the TNB Book Club, I am sure those numbers will continue to rise.

    I enjoyed this. You’re a hell of a writer JE.

  2. yeah, that’s the ticket. More of this, please, from every quarter. Every magazine, every website, every writer’s mouth, every gathering. We all feel this way, so where is the sausage being pushed from the grinder? The unrelenting mediocrity of cover design is a hard nut to crack. Hire talented, experienced people instead of recent SVA graduates? It’s a crazy notion.

    On the other hand, every writer needs to spend $500 a year buying other people’s books. Friends, relatives, strangers at expos. Everyone bitches about the demise, but few are willing to unfold the wallet. Personally, I’m ready to man the ramparts. Not just to flog my own back list. Any change in the publishing model is going to come from masses of pissed-off writers and dedicated readers, of which there are many more than the doomsday essayists would have it on deadline. If left to their own devices, publishers, like hedge funds or hockey teams, will blindly follow their model to destruction. No amount of well-worded critique will change that. The question is how do we best direct our disillusionment?

    • Richard Cox says:

      I agree with you, and so I buy a shitload of books. I go to plenty of signings and I buy books from author friends and I don’t ever ask for the promotional copies. This is the same reason I don’t download free music. I can’t sit here and bitch about my books not selling and not be a consumer of media.

      But I dunno if writers buying each other’s books is necessarily going to solve the larger problem, is it?

  3. jonathan evison says:

    . . . great points, fellas . . . and sean, i’m with you all the way about forking out cash . . . i can get any book i want for free, but i still spend about a hundred bucks a month on books at my local indie–usually hardcovers . . .

  4. Aaron Dietz says:

    Yes, yes, and yes! This is like the “I have a dream…” speech of the contemporary writer. Beautiful, JE. Just beautiful.

  5. Judy Prince says:

    Good strong ranty read, J, J, D & J. Points duly noted, as others have commented.

    Just like to add that cover art (and inside the book art, damnit!) can be awesome if—-as with the other points you make—-one thinks outside the box. I see plenty of awesome art from student artists, those very hungry student artists that have years to scramble in order to secure a good “cover” job in ordinary circumstances.

    Perhaps we should be talking about boutique publishing places, which’s kind of what TNB partly is. Boutiques still keep their ears to the ground of discontent and gossip. Corporations run scared, especially lately.

    Keep giving us your ideas—-and facts. Last statistic I read about numbers of books published had the UK publishing half again as many books a year as the USA. THAT gave me pause. And it seems inimical to your message here. Talk to me! Explain!

  6. Art Edwards says:

    Could not agree more on new audiences and new visions for cover design.

    Are you counting self-pubbed in your million? You must be. And while I love the idea of every book out there being its own perfect nugget, I can’t get past the idea that more books to choose from is better, not worse.

  7. jonathan evison says:

    . . .yep, art, that includes self-published . . .problem with more books per house, is that they really only support 10% of them . . .the rest are printed and orphaned . . . algonquin published only 20 titles last year, and 6 of them were NYT bestsellers . . . coincidence?

  8. […] much we know.  He’s talked to Ron Currie, Jr.  He’s talked to Warren Etheredge.  He’s talked to publishers (who may or may not listen) and the other guys at 3G1B.  He’s even talked to […]

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