My old employer just included me on a mass email, asking me generically to apply to its revamped company. The following arrived five minutes after I got off the phone with the only friend left at Houghton who managed to avoid being laid off in the past year (or who read the writing on the wall and jumped to a competitor or freelance work): Continue reading
In a letter sent to its industry partners last month, Random House, the world’s largest publisher, announced it would offer all of its audio books as unprotected MP3 files beginning this month, unless retail partners or authors specified otherwise.
Publishers are getting knowledgeable about how the digital world works. I figured that would happen sooner or later, since they can actually commission research and have had wings of their companies experimenting in online delivery for years. It’s the authors I’m worried about. Fiction authors mostly. Creative writers are so often enamored with the trappings of writerlyness—drafting on legal pads (okay, maybe not so much younger writers), getting their thinking done in the back corner of a cafe—that I’m not sure they’ll be as open to online, DRM-less audio versions of their writing. It’s a different attitude, by and large, than that held by writers of the various non-fiction genres. It’s an irony not lost on the publishing industry, that non-fiction writers are the ones more eager to get their “story” out there any way possible, whereas fiction writers are more protective. I’ll be curious to see if/how different writers react differently to DRM-less downloads of their books.
Yesterday a site I designed went live. My employer had taken over management of an online academic journal—the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance—but in its 1994-2006 version, the method was simply to post the text on static HTML pages or as PDFs.
When we took it over, it was clear there was a lot of potential for relaunching the site on blogging software—Wordpress—so that readers could give the authors direct, public feedback. While there are journals covering the same topic (Disasters Journal for example), ours is the only one set up to allow academic-quality writing with turnaround times of a month or less. This means, for better or worse, JHA isn’t peer-reviewed, but when a humanitarian crisis hits, researchers can get feedback almost right away.
Even though there was a built-in readership, I was shocked to fire up JHA this afternoon and see 9 comments on the newest article. It’s reassuring that after 24 hours a) the site works and b) the site works for the various kinds of people reading it. But the best thing of all is that something that challenged my coding knowledge ending up doing what it was intended to do, on time, and isn’t ugly.
There’s still more work to do. There are some bugs in the archives, our work-study folks will take months to get the 1994-2006 articles formatted and posted, and I haven’t done nearly enough testing for cross-browser compatibility, accessibility, and page sizes (the front page is 213kb, not acceptable for our readers in Africa). But it’s up, it works, and people like it. I’m very proud.
Just yesterday was the first official sit down for Puffin. Publishers and editors, marketers and directors carefully assembled and put down their pointy objects in a gesture of peace, to take a pause and ask those same questions. What does Puffin mean today? What do we want to remember (well, besides all of it)? It could not have come at a better time either. 2006 is looking to be a milestone year of achievement. And while there were plenty of ideas for promos and savvy publishing projects that tell the tale of Puffin while shaking up those dusty bookstore shelves, it was obvious that these questions are not limited to the 9 or so people in the room. Not to mention that I have hardly worked here some 9 months. What do I know?
So I open the question to you. What does Puffin mean to you? What do people remember? Cherish? Judge? Criticise? And what would you like to see us do in 2010? Afterall, like Penguin, Puffin is not a brand that just sits there idly on the shelf. It is a part of us all. Or is it? What say you? And who knows, we might even pilfer your ideas.
The Times is reporting that Judith Regan, the HarperCollins imprint publisher, was fired in part for anti-Semitic remarks made on a heated phone call with a HarperCollins lawyer.
“‘Of all people, the Jews should know about ganging up, finding common enemies and telling the big lie,’” Ms. Regan said, according to a transcript of Mr. Jackson’s notes provided by Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president of the News Corporation.
According to the transcript, Ms. Regan went on to say that the literary agent Esther Newberg; HarperCollins’s executive editor, David Hirshey; HarperCollins’s president, Jane Friedman, and Mr. Jackson “constitute a Jewish cabal against her.”
I won’t defend a publisher like Regan. Her plan to have O.J. Simpson “confess” in a fictionalized tell-all made me ashamed to be part of the same species. But I also won’t defend HarperCollins and News Corp., its corporate owner. First of all, people who make a company gobs of money, however ill-gotten, don’t get fired for being anti-Semetic on an in-house phone call. They get fired, as Regan did, for publicly-visible bad judgment. Second, even if Regan said what she did in the context the HarperCollins lawyer describes, the two corporations come out looking terribly vindictive and hypocritical.
HarperCollins and News Corp. were in the clear, weren’t they? They had the public’s goodwill after at long last firing the shrewdly cynical Regan. Why then release notes of this phone call, particularly after tolerating and profiting from Regan for the past decade? It’s rubbing salt in a self-inflicted wound.
UPDATE: Could a potential lawsuit by the family of Ron Goldman—a lawsuit that could force News Corp. to reveal its decision-making in bringing the Simpson book to market—be the reason the corporation so very badly wants to distance itself from Judith Regan?
…and last year’s?
…and the year before?
New Yorker: The Good Book Business
Miss Snark is at her best not when fuming at writers (she’s great with that too) but when she’s fuming at other agents and pseudo-agents:
For $85 you can send your manuscript electronically to the Sobol folks. They say they’ve got the staff to have your manuscript read twice and commented on. (Miss Snark has no problem with this-for a differing view check out PubRants)
Then, if your manuscript is selected as a first round winner, it gets read by two more people (also no problem).
Then, if you make it to the final round, you must agree to be represented by the Sobol Literary Agency if you want to win the prize and be published.
That’s the problem.
AAR rules are VERY specific that charging people to read manuscripts is NOT ok for reputable agents. Sobol spokespeople say they have administrative costs. Yea, so what. I do too and I struggle along without charging people.
You can have a contest; you can have a literary agency. You cannot have both at the same time.
There are NO other contests—not Romance Writers, not the Hillerman, not the Kirkus, NONE, that require you to sign with an agency before winning.
And not just ANY agent; they want you to sign with an agent who has no sales, isn’t an AAR member, and has no understanding of how an agency actually works and what it does. In other words you have an “agent” who doesn’t value the role agents play in publishing.
BoingBoing blogged (here and here) about editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s excellent argument that as much as people think publishing is bestseller-driven, the facts don’t bear it out. Publishing is and has always been “okayseller”-driven:
Bestsellers aren’t the whole of publishing. Every year, we publish a great many okaysellers. You guys buy them because they look interesting, or because a friend has recommended them, or because you liked another book by that author. Marketing push only goes so far.
A quick test: raise your hand if you only buy bestsellers. No? Okay, raise your hand if the majority of your book purchases are current bestsellers. Right. Now raise your hand if your bookbuying decisions are based on marketing buzz. If you still aren’t raising your hand, you’re a normal book-buying reader, and the Wall Street Journal is chin-deep in hogwash on this point.
Nielsen Hayden goes on to suggest that anyone who recycles the best-seller nugget “really needs to get out more.” Hear, hear.
What BoingBoing and all but a couple of Nielsen Hayden’s commenters don’t touch upon is how conventional wisdom has come to be that publishing is a bestseller, winner-take-all industry.
Put plainly, the laws of scarcity mean only a handful of books get mentioned. Five major publishers compete for shelf-space at two major bookstore chains while pushing for reviews in the ever-fewer literary pages of the newspapers owned by ever-fewer owners. And, as on the Internet, conversation is what drives interest, so reviewers review the same books in order to create a dialogue. This is the case, at least, for fiction. People come to believe blockbusters are what drive the publishing industry because blockbusters are all they hear mentioned.
For trade books in general, though, commenter Larry Brennan makes the salient point when he asks, “What’s the correlation between heavy retail book buyers (say 20+ titles per year) and buyers of best-sellers?” Intuition suggests that there is none, that people who buy many books are not the same as those who buy bestsellers; moreover, those who buy one bestseller don’t necessarily buy another bestseller: the pool of buyers is different. As contradictory as it sounds, bestsellers are statistical anomalies. Without an engineered system of scarcity to guarantee a minimum of success, setting out to publish bestsellers would be a disastrous business model.
Success is defined in different ways, of course. By traditional business standards, the publishing industry is probably healthier than it’s ever been. More product than ever, more money moving in and out, and more technological innovation since the invention of the offset press.
But if the ups and downs of the major players are all that get attention, then the industry looks dysfunctional indeed.
“Do one thing that no one else does, and do it well.” That’s a basic rule of publishing, whether for a magazine, for a book, or for a literary journal. Find your niche, and exploit it.
But a corrolary mistake is to believe your niche equals a specific kind of person.
Let’s say you’re from Marblehead, Mass., you’re Irish-Catholic, and you went to Northeastern on scholarship. That puts you in a certain circle of people, for better or worse.
You’ve stayed in the Boston area after college, and you’ve noticed that despite you and your best friend’s love of new Irish poetry, no one seems to be publishing it. So with the help of a poetry professor at Northeastern, the two of you and your best friend start a modest litmag called An Tua Nua, named after the Irish bar in Boston and dedicated to the work of young poets from cities like Dublin, Belfast, and Boston itself. With your first issue, Wake Forest University Press, North Carolina’s unexpected but famed outpost for Irish poets, takes notice of An Tua Nua, refers several top poets your way, and helps you apply for, and receive, your first grant.
After six issues, though, An Tua Nua folds. The grant money ran out fast. The magazine never got enough subscribers to break even, and it never got the attention around the country, let alone Boston, that you thought it deserved.
You and your best friend conduct the autopsy. An Tua Nua had great content. The design was mature. The website was professional. You promoted your journal at Northeastern, had readings at Harvard Book Store and Newtonville Books, and sold dozens of single copies at the Newburyport Literary Festival. You and your friend look at each other and think, “We love new Irish poetry; therefore, lovers of new Irish poetry will be like us.”
But ah, boyo, there’s the problem. Your logic, which smites dozens of new literary magazines every year, is flawed for two reasons.
First, a niche publication can’t compete against other niche publications if their audience is the same. People like you who happen to like Irish poetry and read An Tua Nua are also like you in that they may read AGNI, Post Road, Quick Fiction, and half a dozen other literary niche publications. They don’t have the time or money for something new.
Second, a niche publication doesn’t survive unless you are willing to go out of your comfort zone and engage your real audience. For An Tua Nua to survive, you would have to fight convention to set up a release party in An Tua Nua the bar; you would have to get to know a few Somerville cops to maybe find out if there are new concentrations of Irish immigrants; you would eshew the invitation to a well-attended event at UMass-Amherst and accept the invitation to a middling event at UMass-Boston; and you might even have to go to a few churches in Southie to gauge, and drum up, interest in private funding.
In other words, a niche is a niche, but it can be a closed system. For all the talk of viral marketing in recent years, remember that even the most potent bugs die out fast if they infect a group in isolation. For a particular kind of literature to spread, it must somehow contact networks that are otherwise unconnected.
As the editor of a literary publication, you have to be that nexus.
A week or so ago I wondered why bookstores were getting magazines before I, a subscriber, did.
So I called the the Paris Review’s circulation manager, the dedicated Caitlin Roper.
The end result? Contact magazines if you think you’re not getting your publication fast enough!
Roper described for me the process by which the Paris Review (and the Believer, for that matter) gets from printer to stores and subscribers.
The Review is printed in Winnipeg. From there, two batches go one of two places—to bookstores via distributors, and to subscribers via a U.S. Mail hub. Until [the most recent] issue 176, that mail hub was in North Dakota—a good location because it’s just over the border from Canada and because mail starting in the middle of the country crosses the fewest mail zones, so it’s cheaper. But the North Dakota hub turned out to be incredibly slow in getting our copies out. Copies addressed internationally took over a month to ship. For issue 176, though, I’ve switched to a U.S. Mail hub in New Jersey . . .
. . . which isn’t as cheap, but results in better fulfillment.
Roper and I talked also about how she wants to stagger deliveries. For a non-time-sensitive publication like the Paris Review (but unlike the Economist or the New Yorker), publishers can hold distributors’ batches to time them to arrive at the same time as subscribers’. It gives you the value you paid for as a subscriber—priviledged access to the publication.
This is what Roper is trying to do with her distributor, subscriber, and international clients. But for it to work, you have to provide feedback. Roper made it clear that, at least in her case, you wouldn’t be a nag if you told her that you experienced a delay. It’s how she weeds out bad distributors, balances costs, and better serves her readers. I’m sure tons of publications—from Wired to Vogue to Tin House—would value that kind of information.
The problem that remains, though, is whether nagging would help weekly publications make better decisions. Weeklies can’t stagger their deliveries, but they suffer from the same problems. For example, the April 3rd issue of the New Yorker was on the newstand at my office building last Tuesday—but I only received my copy today. I get letters from my friend in Niger faster than I get my New Yorker.
So for weeklies, what would you say is the best way to (selfishly) get your copy at the same time it shows on the newsstands?