What If You Saved an Imprint and Nobody Came?

December 3rd, 2008 · 52 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

If you’re in the publishing industry, today’s news about cuts and layoffs and reorgs and whatnot was devastating. Nobody was safe. Not Thomas Nelson, not Simon & Schuster, not Irwyn Applebaum. You start to look around. Who’s next?

At Random House, it was clear that saving the imprints was key. Markus Dohle talked about aligning “existing strengths and publishing affinities” and how this imprint or that will be better, stronger, safer. As if that matters. Who really cares if Crown or Knopf or Ballantine or Bantam Dell survives? I’m serious. Who. Cares.

No really, who cares if these groups are retaining editorial independence while combining strengths? Is that really going to change the business dynamic, or is it just focusing on the wrong problem?

Imprints are just boxes on an org chart. To most of the buying public, they mean nothing. To some of your acquisitions editors, they mean nothing. To the bottom line, they mean nothing. You can have a hit book from any possible label, to borrow from another business’s lingo. It ain’t the logo on the spine, it’s that magic combination of book and audience and right time/right place.

I am not disparaging the talents of Gina Centrello, Sonny Mehta, or Jenny Frost (I’ve particularly been a Centrello fan for a long time), but the emphasis on maintaining their individual silos doesn’t begin to address the real problems facing publishing today: financial structure, changing readership, and, sorry, old-fashioned notions of of monetary priorities (differentiating between financial structure, where I mean big-ass corporate commitments beyond the nuts-and-bolts of publishing books).

Not a single word of Dohle’s letter acknowledged that a generation of readers is growing up with a less-than-paper-bound relationship with books (unless you count the obligatory “the way the business is changing” language). Not a single part of this letter — and I get that it’s not a roadmap — told me that the leaders of Random House are the people who have the vision necessary to bridge publishing as we’ve always known it and publishing as it will be ten years from now. Twenty years from now.

In twenty years, publishing will be very different.

(And I know people who work for Random House, today’s moral lesson, and know there are great minds who get this in ways I don’t.)

I am not convinced that businesses who answer to shareholders who demand profits — who define profits in ways that don’t match the business model — can survive if they emphasize quality and artistic value. Those are not characteristics our culture seems to value. So many books appeal to what (I’m sorry to say) are niche readers. To emphasize these over, well, books that make a lot of money is not in the interest of shareholders.

This is where I believe we are going to see an incredible rise of independents, publishers who get that small is beautiful, that there is profitability and then there’s profitability. You can’t meet debt obligations if you don’t bring in big numbers. There is an inherent clash of cultures in big publishing. It can be balanced, but I worry that a business that focuses on maintaining labels doesn’t really see this.

Right now, I’m feeling that we’re going to see one catastrophic failure in publishing. Not because the people who buy and market books are not good at what they do, but because of those outside influences. I’m not sure how it will happen, nor can I guess what it will look like. But the business has created an infrastructure that doesn’t necessarily reflect the real world — and worse, has been folded into a business model that doesn’t reflect how the publishing industry thinks or functions — and it’s going to be ugly.

Focusing on imprints is focusing on the wrong problem. For each big publisher (and some small), it’s important to understand today’s market and tomorrow’s. Those that really get the importance of balancing these sometimes conflicting needs will emerge strong and successful — on terms that make sense to that publisher — those that don’t, won’t.

I know who I’m betting on…

File Under: The Future of Publishing

52 responses so far ↓

  • bowerbird // Dec 4, 2008 at 12:41 am

    i bet you’re betting on those who
    will emerge strong and successful,
    and not on those who won’t…


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  • Fran Toolan // Dec 4, 2008 at 5:38 am

    This is all eerily similar to the 1980’s to the early 1990’s. Does anyone remember how RH got all those imprints to begin with? (I was working with them when they acquired 18 publishers in the space of 2 years). Lots of acquisition of small independent presses. It was a competition among all the big players. Once that field of independents was harvested, the big guys all merged.

    how did we get names like Harper Collins, Penguin Putnam, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, or even Bantam Doubleday Dell (before it was merged into Random House)?

    I think we may see an accelerated recurrance of that cycle, before the industry stabilizes, and there is a new world order in publishing… again.

  • Melissa // Dec 4, 2008 at 6:35 am

    I agree with you.

    Book publishers need to rethink their companies. Many haven’t done a logo redesign since movable type came into existence (and some not since before that). They need to look at the ‘entertainment’ products that do well today (aren’t books entertainment?) and the companies that make them. Apple is probably the most successful of these. In the companies lifetime, which is much shorter then that of many book companies, they have already ‘updated’ their logo many times – remember the old apple full of rainbow stripes? In addition to allowing books to become more hip, creating a corporate brand would increase cross-selling of books, and add-on sales in bookstores – where it counts. The idea behind strengthening the imprints is a good idea – building a brand around the company rather then the authors that write for it – but, unfortunately, in today’s day that’s simply not how it is done. Readers just don’t know or acknowledge WHO prints what. They just buy w/e books are written by authors they like or that appear on Oprah’s book club list. Publishers COULD, conceivably, create brands where every book within that brand would meet a niche’s needs, and advertise as a brand rather then doing each book individually, but … that needs to be in place before you decide to strengthen imprints. It needs to be done from the ground up.
    I agree with your points about small publishing companies having the non-monetary advantages in today’s publishing world; and I think that perhaps that is what Dohle is trying to achieve: creating many mini companies within one huge one. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will work.
    (I write a lot more about this here: http://mbreau.wordpress.com/2008/11/28/some-cheese-for-that-whine-books-and-self-publishing/)

  • mark // Dec 4, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Small is beautiful. Softskull. It won’t be twenty years. It will be five.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 4, 2008 at 11:28 am

    mark — you nailed it in one. you get a super gold star!

  • MikeShatzkin // Dec 4, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Boy, there’s a lot to agree with here.

    But it isn’t about “big” or “small”. Big still has huge advantages over small.

    It is about FOCUSED in a way that means something to a consumer, or not. And that usually means vertical. Which none of these imprints are.

    I take Fran’s point about rollups. The rollups of the future will be vertical. The question is whether today’s publishers will be rollERs or rollEEs. Random House took no steps with this move away from being an eventual rollEE.

  • tao // Dec 4, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    nice post

  • nicola griffith // Dec 4, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Kassia, mark, I think even five is optimistic. I think we’ll see sales and bankruptcies by 2010, perhaps even early 2009. I’m also wondering if we’ll see writer-based coops forming…

  • Andrew Wheeler // Dec 4, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    “Nobody was safe.”

    Hachette looks pretty safe. And I’m sure others are as well. Knowing who is safe…now that’s another question.

    “Not a single word of Dohle’s letter acknowledged that a generation of readers is growing up with a less-than-paper-bound relationship with books.”

    Are they? Check out the charts in this week’s PW. Teens and twenty-somethings are buying a lot of books — ink-on-dead-tree books.

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  • Jonathan Dozier-Ezell // Dec 4, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    Publishers have to get better at discovering what readers want to read. While paper to electronic reading is certainly going to be a force that tugs on the strength of publishers large and small, I’ve become convinced that the essential problem is publishers not providing enough of what the public wants, or, in a related problem, publishers not knowing how to market to the needs they are meeting. And as pressures are increasing, I’m not seeing anyone actually getting better at this. Looking at the publishing industry lately reminds me of a game of Hungry, Hungry Hippos.

  • Mike Cane // Dec 4, 2008 at 3:59 pm

    It’ll probably play out like this:

    1) Borders goes under (watch to see if Sony stops supplying Readers!)

    2) Which makes one entire house go under


    3) Other congloms realize books suck for overall corporate profits and unload them to private investment groups

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 4, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Andrew — you’re right that Hatchette seems solid. Word is that they’re cash rich, though I worry that they don’t have another Stephenie Meyer title to prop up the list (the lack of Rowling was one of the things that doomed Scholastic). Thomas Nelso laid off staff too.

    And yes, teens/young adults *are* buying books and reading/writing a lot more than they get credit for. It’s been something I’ve been saying for quite some time. But their relationship with books and reading material is changing. Physical books are part of the reading mix; I see most of that generation as readers who choose the right medium for the time, place, and content. It’s wrong for us to pretend otherwise

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  • Andrew Wheeler // Dec 5, 2008 at 7:08 am

    Kassia — e-books have been the next big thing for the entire time I’ve been in publishing, and that’s almost twenty years. Like flying cars, their widespread adoption has always been about five years in the future. E-books are finally getting some traction, with the Sony and Amazon devices, but that’s happened before. So far, they’re not even as big as audiobooks, which are a pure niche market and were never considered the future of the industry (aside from a few hysterical pundits in the early ’90s).

    I’m Generation X — which was then the amazingly technologically-savvy new group of people who were going to do everything electronically. Then it was Gen Y, and now it’s the Millennials — it’s the same story with a new cast of characters every five years.

    Forgive me if I remain cynical on the subject…

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  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 5, 2008 at 8:11 am

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think ebooks are going to be the next big thing. I think — and the way the market is evolving — they’re going to be *a* thing. Part of the reading mix. People choose what they read, where they read, how they read. And when you look at the numbers of ebooks, you have to look beyond what NY houses are publishing. The audience for print remains dominant, but the audience for so-called niche products, ebooks, audiobooks, is growing and maturing.

    On top of that, you (not you personally, of course) need to consider reading in general. While certain types of non-fiction are consumed in book form, other types are better suited to different consumption. People purchase and read ebooks without even realizing they’re doing so. They listen to podcasts, watch videos. Electronic media for these consumers is often a means to an end.

    Maybe there will be a day when all paper books disappear; I can’t see it happening in the near future. But it’s clear that, in addition to the generation that is growing up digital, we have readers young and old (ebooks are an amazing choice for older readers due to their inherent accessibility traits) who are actively using digital media to read, listen, view, communicate. Some book people really get this; they understand that it’s not about business as usual, it’s about accommodating readers. Some book people — too many, I think — remain focused on the book as a symbol.

    While I love my books, I am less romantic about the artifact, more interested in my ability to get to what I want when I want to.

  • Rae Lori // Dec 5, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    Kudos, co-sign and QFT. Most of the industry’s answer to this is “pfft, people aren’t reading”. Er what? People are definitely reading just in different ways and in different mediums.

    Smart business would dictate that you go where the people are, learn what they want and deliver. But publishing is veerry slow to change and while they’re taking their time, the independents, smaller presses and forward thinkers seem to be the ones take that extra step into the future to deliver what readers want.

    Great post as always, Kassia.

  • Zoe Winters // Dec 5, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    Hey Nicola, the “writer-based co-op” is an idea I’ve turned over in my head a couple of times. I’m just not sure how to make it work without it looking like another brand of “subsidy publishing” which was another brand of “vanity publishing.” It’s possible I’ve just got too much else I’m doing right now to worry about it, but when people start coming up with a feasible writer co-op plan that lets us independently put out our work with more “size” behind us, without being “subsidy publishing,” some interesting things might start happening.

    As it stands right now though, one of the major problems I see across the boards is the bookstore returns policy. Great article on it here:


    I think a lot of the problem with the publishing industry’s economic model has to do with the bookstore returns policy. It’s just, well, lame. And like any lame horse, it needs to be put down.

    I don’t think ebooks are taking over, but I think they are a good marketing effort to help sell print versions of the same book, ala Cory Doctorow and others like him.

    Andrew, I think part of the reason ebooks can’t gain traction is because no one can agree on a standard format. Music has mp3’s not five hundred different formats that don’t work on various music players.

    Publishers have been resistant to really working out the ebook problem and finding a uniform format everyone can agree on, or barring that, ereaders that can read all formats. Until that happens, I don’t expect ebook sales to shoot up, except to the extent they already have due to the economy which forces people to buy cheaper, which in many cases means ebooks.

    And I agree with Kassia, it’s all about accommodating readers. I don’t like ebooks, but me not liking them doesn’t factor into whether or not I offer them for other people to read who DO like them.

  • Gina Frangello // Dec 5, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    Outstanding post, Kassia. Unfortunately, I fear the fall of the Borders Group, as some mention here, is going to impact small indie publishers even more profoundly (or more quickly) than it does the conglomerates. My second novel was set to come out with Impetus Press in May 2009, and last month Impetus dissolved their LLC and declared bankruptcy due primarily to the astronomical returns they were being slammed with by the Borders Group, and the outdated Depression Era model of booksellers not having to make any financial investment on the books they order, so that returns cost the publisher wild amounts of money, owed to their distributors. The charges from Impetus’ distributor slammed them and drained them of all their money–they were being charged more frequently than they were being paid. They tried to change over to SPD for distribution, due to its friendlier indie-press policies, but the $$$$ they were being charged to do that is what put them over the top to having to fold . . . now all 6 titles in their pending queue, including mine, are out on the street, and their earlier titles are effectively out of print since they have no distribution. It’s a nightmare. Small and mid-sized indies don’t have the financial resources to withstand a meltdown of Borders or this archaic system by which the publisher takes all the financial risk, whereas a bookselling chain like Borders can wildly place orders far beyond what it can reasonably sell by new or emerging writers, and then just return them at no risk to themselves, driving an indie’s limited resources into the ground. Some indies counter this by not working with the chain bookstores at all, going with super-small distribution companies, or doing most of their bookstore placement by consignment–but that ghettoizes indie titles so extremely that it’s impossible to get any real national visibility. So most continue to chase after chain store placement, even though it may ultimately bankrupt them.
    Unlike the conglomerates, which court certain key titles they expect to be off-the-chart bestsellers and then pour the kind of resources into them to make that happen, most indies only publish books they love, serious or innovative books that don’t tend to attain blockbuster status (and don’t have the marketing budgets to make that happen even if they did stumble across a DaVinci Code.) So they don’t have a big cushion of profit to fall back on when deciding to publish riskier (literary fiction) titles, the way the larger publishers have. Believe me, I realize that in the long run corporate publishers are feeling this same crunch and they, too, are starting to fall apart, as evidenced by the latest PR from Random House. But (and I say this sadly, as the founder and Executive Editor of an indie press myself, OV Books), it is more than likely that the indies will fall right alongside the giants . . . or rather that the small thuds of the indies will, like with Impetus, only foreshadow the giant crashes made by the Random Houses of the world. It’s incredibly depressing, and I’m not really sure WHAT the answer is. Maybe it has to do with technology and reducing printing costs and distributing in alternative ways. But I know I’ll keep fighting the good indie ink-on-the-page fight at OV Books, and I appreciate it that thinking people are taking up this issue and blogging about it.

  • nicola griffith // Dec 5, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Zoe, well, maybe a few of us could ponder the notion and see what we come up with.

    I’m not sure I agree with you, though, about format. We do have a format everyone can read: Word and its ilk. It’s just that it frightens authors because others could mess with it. But, hey, people can mess with mp3 files, too. Writers need to stop being so precious and paranoid about their work. IMO.

    But if anyone wants to chat, in a general way, about this coop thing, let’s either do it here (if Kassia doesn’t mind–I don’t want to do any unwelcome threadjacking…) or drop me an email at nicolaz at aol dot com.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 5, 2008 at 9:02 pm

    threadjack, blogjack, take it to all limits — I love that people are going in directions I haven’t considered. As th song say, give me more, give me more…

  • Bryce Milligan // Dec 5, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    As the publisher/editor of a small, admittedly “literary” press, I am hoping that readers do in fact notice who publishes what book. Most readers, I think, recognize that when they pick up a book from Graywolf, Copper Canyon, Milkweed, Wings, et al., that they are getting a particular kind of book — well edited, well designed, well crafted inside and out. Of course we are all scrambling to figure out how to adapt to the new markets — meaning greener e-markets — and survive the recession, but the name of the press, our “brand” if you will, MUST have meaning for the reader. We (small publishers) strive to publish books that fulfill our personal and often idiosyncratic visions. That is not what one expects from the conglomerates.

  • Zoe Winters // Dec 5, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    Hey Gina, I know bookstore presence can be important to indies, but it’s not on my personal radar. I’m mostly looking to go fully online through all the online distribution channels available to me.

    But then I’m putting out my own work, and I am willing to not even chase the bookstore market. The online bookbuying market is plenty big enough for me to chase, for my own personal needs for awhile. Until the bookstore returns policy goes bye bye, I’m just not willing to play on those terms. It’s a good way for my business to go bankrupt before it’s really out the gate.

    Though I know that isn’t an option for all or most small publishers.

    Nicola, I’m shooting you an email now.

  • Changes in Publishing « Proud to be a Paperback Diva! // Dec 6, 2008 at 3:41 am

    […] What If You Saved an Imprint and Nobody Came? […]

  • Cheri Vause // Dec 6, 2008 at 5:47 am

    Big isn’t always better. Look at AIG. Scarfing up all the little guys leaves new authors literally no place to go. The present economic crisis proves that all the economic models those Harvard MBA’s created are warped, based on a ficticious economy. If I were in the publishing business I’d hunker down on my haunches and just sit it out. People will always buy a book based on whether they like the author and the story not the label.
    And, paperbacks are highly desirable because of their affordability, the lightweight nature of the beast, the fact you can put them in your purse, and read in the bathtub (if they happen to fall in you aren’t out twenty bucks).

    My greatest fear is losing the classics because the pimple-faced teenybopper is reading the latest vampire story and won’t read Thomas Hardy or Doris Lessing or Steinbeck anymore. The small houses that continually print with painstaking attention to accuracy these wonderful books should be allowed to continue even though they do not make the mega profits.

  • Bryce Milligan // Dec 6, 2008 at 8:04 am

    Again, coming from the perspective an independent literary press (Wings) — I find that sending review copies to bloggers is prohibitively expensive. For example, there are reportedly 20,000 blogs in the US devoted to discussing books. But how many of those actually review books, what are their individual specialties, who actually has a readership? Very few bloggers list a physical mailing address to receive books. Or do these book bloggers prefer to get PDFs rather than hard copies? Does anyone know of a centralized resource for this kind of information? It is all well and good for the blogosphere to tell publishers how to publish books, but some practical, useful information of this sort would be invaluable.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 6, 2008 at 10:17 am

    Bryce — Weird that you made your comment. Edward Champion was talking about this yesterday. I agree the cost of sending books is expensive and the return on investment is iffy. NetGalley seems to be helpful, but it’s not all that. Me? I’d prefer something I can read electronically. I think there’s a great opportunity for someone with time and energy to create a service that connects the right books with the right bloggers — it’s more than getting the word out to book people. I think there’s a strange attraction to having book blogs do book things, when success can come from thinking outside the litblogosphere…

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 6, 2008 at 10:21 am

    Cheri — never fear, the classics will remain on the curriculum (though, for my money, more than a few of them can be dumped in favor of stuff that doesn’t read like month-old toast). I’ve long posited that one problem reading faces, especially when it comes to the YA age group, is that reading is treated as a chore — homework, an assignment, something that *has* to be done — rather than a pleasure.

    It’s hard to convince kids to read for fun when they read for class (there will always be those exceptions who live their lives with their noses stuck in books). We see that fun reading drops off during the heavy-duty educational years for these kids and seems to pick up again once they’ve been established in the adult world (my wild interpretation of reading data, not necessarily the conclusion of real statisticians). This is why I’m so pro books like Twilight — not only is reading fun, but it’s cool.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 6, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Gina — your story hits hard (especially because, well, you know, I loved your first book). The crazy business model *does* have to change. Despite the fact that all the entertainment businesses utilize the returns model, it wreaks havoc when you get slammed with more returns than you’ve reserved for.

    Your arguments about distribution and being at the mercy of chains who don’t shoulder their financial burden has me thinking of ways to make this better. My first thoughts are obvious: don’t give the chains the credit they love. I know this seems facile, but I’m not seeing a great desire on the part of BN and Borders to go out of business entirely. Maybe some tough love when it comes to supplying these chains is in order…also tightening the reins on return policies. Open-ended and all-inclusive are insane.

    I always think that when there’ s a hole, smart people will figure out how to fix it. Since I believe there is demand for these books, I believe there is a way to balance all aspects of getting books to people. In some ways, technology is simply not moving fast enough to make my fantasy vision work, but regional, small run presses are the first there.

    Still thinking….

  • nicola griffith // Dec 6, 2008 at 11:30 am

    Kassia, thanks.

    Zoe, got the email, sent my response.

    Bryce, I think the more specialised and particular the publisher, the more readers pay attention. Bloodaxe, Copper Canyon, Aqueduct, Payseur & Schmidt–you know *precisely* what you’re going to get. No surprises (except with the poetry, or fiction, or design itself, usually pleasant). The big trades and their imprints? No one cares–except review editors. Readers simply don’t notice. IMO.

  • Zoe Winters // Dec 6, 2008 at 12:05 pm


    I don’t believe the current economic crisis can be blamed on Harvard MBA’s. I highly doubt that the BS propagated on wallstreet is what is taught in a Harvard MBA program. Because it’s just not sound business. The largest part of what started this problem had to do with bad lending practices. (And the larger problem, you’re right is the fact that we’re dealing with fictitious money without anything of value to back a lot of it up.)

    I don’t know of any business school that teaches economics like that. The economic crisis can also be laid on us as a culture. We have to “have it now, 12 months same as cash.” It takes an entire society making poor credit related and buying choices, to create a mess this big.

    Banks and other lending institutions should have been leaders in financial responsibility and shouldn’t have pretended that people without ways to pay loans, would mystically find ways to pay them.

    It’s also important to remember that many of the classics of literature were “commercial” and written for the common people in their day. Writing has to speak to the current generation. If it doesn’t, it’s only “great” according to the literati.

    Bryce (ha! I’m reading a novel with a character named Bryce right now) Check out: http://www.bookconnector.com That might not be exactly what you’re looking for, but it might help you find some of what you need.

  • Shel Horowitz // Dec 6, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    Mike: “Big still has huge advantages over small.” Yes, but small also has advantages over big: working a niche, speed to market, far lower overhead, fewer decision-makers, willingness to really pay attention to their authors–all of this means a nimbleness that Random House can’t touch–and in some houses, the kind of quality and care that Bryce and Nicola were talking about. I’ve published with big houses, small houses, and my own house, and I really see how this plays out.

    Bryce–when I do publicity, I tell them about a book and then let them request (other than the “very-A” list, who get a book immediately, but that’s a short list). Many are quite content to simply do an interview, etc., and that’s not just bloggers but many traditional journalists too. Whee I take a hit on freebie books is to people who write blurbs. One of mine went to press with 55, and each person got a comp book. But it’s well worth it.

    Gina–I feel for you! Much too common a story. Good luck.

    Shel Horowitz, author of Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers and six other books

  • Perry Brass // Dec 7, 2008 at 7:26 am

    This supposedly sagacious blog forgets a few things: 1) in publishing it’s also location, location, location, or in other words, distribution, distribution, etc. So, the big guys get better distribution, especially now that the bigger, better indie distributors have virtually hit the dust, and a lot of smaller presses are again struggling around distribution. 2) all of the word-of-mouth b.s. about the Internet has done nothing for most book sales, nothing like in the past when a good bookstore salesperson could literally produce a bestseller. Now our bestsellers are synthetic: fluffed up from p.r. and conglomeration (as in Clearview Media, which has a lock on 75% of the billboards in the US); 3) reading itself is so far down it’s in the toilet, and even the NY Times is struggling with that problem. We can say “small is better than big,” so where are the small press bestsellers, the “sleepers” of the say, the small books that took off?

    We are not going to find them as ebooks; we are not going to find them as small press books anymore. Where are they?

    Perry Brass, author of Carnal Sacraments, a Historical Novel of the Future.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 7, 2008 at 10:54 am

    I like that, “supposedly sagacious”. It’s one of those phrases that resonates.

    I am only going to speak for myself because book discovery is very personal. I don’t have much time for the luxury of browsing through a bookstore. I don’t have much free time at all (at least none that corresponds with opening hours). So I depend on my trusted network of (mostly online) sources to recommend books. I’d say this word-of-mouth b.s. has worked on at least one reader. I suspect, if I did some research, I’d find it works on others as well.

    Of course, when I do go into Vroman’s, the sales staff is always willing to help me out. And they clearly know their stock. But let’s be honest about this: one salesperson in one bookstore doesn’t a bestseller make (did it ever?). It takes a lot of voices combined to get the job done.

    Let me give you an example: one rep from a major house mentioned (online) that she’s reading a fab, dig-in-and love-it, not-yet-released book right now. Within moments, she was barraged with “who, what, when, how can I get it?” comments. She responded to them (including mine — heck that’s the kind of enthusiasm for a book I can’t resist). Now she’s also hitting physical bookstores as part of her job and talking to booksellers with the same level of enthusiasm. When I get this book in the mail, and if I love it, you can bet that I’m going to share the news with my network, virtual and physical. Imagine if all the people she’s hand-sold this book to do the same? There’s buzz.

    So what if Clear Channel (which I think you meant) owns the billboard market? We don’t buy books from glimpses on billboards (though, yes, seeing the names helps trigger a response when we’re in the position to buy). Just like music, just like movies, so much of marketing books is personal. There will always be the manufactured bestsellers and the authors who, by dint of hard work and some good luck, have huge built-in audiences. But most books have to be sold to readers the old-fashioned way, even if the communication methodology is virtual.

    And while it’s fun and easy to mock the celebrity books and books printed simply for easy money, those books pay bills for other books.

    As for your question of small press bestsellers, I’m not even sure I know what that means. What is a bestseller? How is it defined? If a book is destined for a niche audience, a small group that is passionate but not huge, and that audience finds the book, does that make it a bestseller? In that case, a book like “Firmin” certainly qualifies. It’s not for everyone (I admit that I missed its overall charms, though it was fun to read), but it certainly found an audience, keeping finding an audience if my memory of recent news is accurate.

    Finally (and I’m sorry for those who have heard this before), we need to stop with the reading in the toilet meme. First off, it’s defeatist. Second, it’s just not as true as the doom-and-gloom folks like to pretend. People are reading, maybe not as much as we like to think they did back in the olden days (when, let’s be honest, the population wasn’t nearly literate enough to read at great levels). We talk about reading like everyone should be like us — living and breathing books — but readers cross a wide swath of styles, approaches, and tastes.

    Reaching readers means understanding readers. Understanding that some people “read” only audio, read only non-fiction, read only newspapers, read only ebooks, read only hardcover novels (yes, that specific, only hardcover), read only books available at the public library, read only books by a single author (yes, true), read fast, read slowly, read voraciously, read slowly, read in that quiet ten minutes before sleep because they have no other time.

  • Danny O. Snow // Dec 7, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    Twenty years? In FIVE years Google will make moot the terms “backlist” and “out-of-print.” Nearly every worthwhile book ever published will be printed at the local bookstore in a few minutes while the customer waits, or possibly at a centralized plant for shipment the next day. Except for Harry Potter and its ilk, nearly all books will start as “on demand” (POD) books until there’s a proven market for them. The current business paradigm of the big New York houses is already doomed. We’ve already seen this pattern in the music industry, and will soon see it again in Hollywood. What remains is to see if foresighted publishers can embrace the writing already on the wall.

    — Danny O. Snow, senior fellow, The Society for New Communications Research, “a non-profit global think tank dedicated to the advanced study of new and emerging media”

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 7, 2008 at 5:30 pm

    I would buy into the five year model if POD machines were truly affordable and reliable on a micro scale. I think it’s going to take longer than five years for that to happen (I am more than willing and happy to be wrong on this point; it won’t be the first or last time). I also think increasing the efficiency of POD technology will save that pesky returns problem.

    Until all these technologies converge in a nice way (nice also includes affordable, which can be a limiting factor in POD today) we’ll be dealing with a hybrid of approaches.

    And, of course, there’s the backlist and then there’s backlist. We still have that darn rights issue to address. It could take at least five years to untangle all that and more.

    On the other side, I don’t think the motion picture business will see the kind of free-fall that beset the music industry. The music biz, amazingly, did just about everything they could to kill themselves (and, bizarrely, continues this trend even today — if ever there was a business that hated itself, it’s the music industry). The motion picture business, while adopting some of the music industry’s mistakes, has at least shown a willingness to experiment, trying to meet the consumer halfway.

    Big publishing? Well, there are a lot of moving pieces there. Some houses are already positioning themselves well for the changing market (Harlequin and HarperCollins — the former more successfully, I think). Some are not.

  • nicola griffith // Dec 7, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    Perry, I think there’s a lot of confusion about publishing: what is it? what does it do? who is it for? I think it’s madness to think of publishing as mass media. It isn’t. It never has been. For a time in the ’80s and ’90s corporate conglomerates tried to make it so. Those decades were an aberration. Those who continue on that path will end up broke, then gone. IMO.

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  • Zoe Winters // Dec 8, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Hey Kassia, have you ever listened to the Dragon Pages Podcast, with Michael Stackpole? They talk a lot about how publishers are saying: “People aren’t reading anymore.” And how that would be like a ketchup maker seeing ketchup sales going down and concluding “People aren’t eating anymore.”

    More people read than ever. Hello, internet. We just haven’t found the best ways to consistently reach them yet.

    As for distribution for small indie presses, you can easily get into both Ingram and Baker and Taylor without any bizarre hoops if you use POD technology through Lightning Source. Further, you can offer whatever discount you want, and have a returns policy, if you feel compelled to play the bookstore consignment game.

    But watching folks like Scott Sigler build major audiences on the internet, I’m thinking the internet can be harnessed. The trouble is, nobody cares who the publisher is, so the publisher, especially a small press has no branding clout. And not all authors know how to market beyond, set up a blog, print up some bookmarks. And most writers are marketing to other writers.

    Word of mouth sells books. The question is, how do you start the word of mouth snowball and keep it going?

    When I figure that one out, I’ll be making a living.

  • Richard Nash (Soft Skull) // Dec 9, 2008 at 8:58 am

    Oh man, I wish I could have responded earlier, this chain is glorious, truly glorious, kudos as always to Kassia not just for th epost, but for the conversation it engenders in the audience it reaches. I just want to make a few small practical points.

    Borders & Indie presses. We’ll be OK, provided that Perseus has to capacity to absorb the hit. Distributors absorb credit risk for the publishers. We’ve pretty much absorbed a good chunk of the potential hit already, since Borders has been returning all year. Also, the inevitable Chapter 11 will mostly be focused on getting expensive leases canceled.

    Start-ups. I’ve talked to a couple of folks who’ve been laid off and suggested that they EVENTUALLY consider starting up a new press. I’d advise against it right now because retailers and wholesalers are shifting all the inventory risk they can onto publishers, and there’s just not enough revenue from electronic publishing to compensate. When it reaches 15% of trade book sales, somewhere in the next 2-5 years, that non-returnable, net 30 day, zero marginal cost of reproduction cash flow will be all it takes.

    Big advantages over small. Primary advantage is capital to absorb inventory risk. That will increase in the short run and not diminish until said risk is reduced with electronic publishing. All the other advantages are declining at various rates — manufacturing economies of scale will become less relevant; capacity to pay for placement in bricks and mortar less relevant as customers become less obedient; general corporate infrastructure economies of scale will either decline are or fairly trivial.

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  • David Thayer // Dec 9, 2008 at 10:22 am

    Kassia, Like Gina, I had a novel due out in 2009. Iota Publishing vanished during the month of October wedged somewhere between Hank Paulson’s Fourth Epistle to the Senate and AIG’s implosion. Iota’s demise happened fast, but, hell,GM is on the same trajectory.
    It’s unclear to me that the book publishing world is suffering demand destruction ( no one reads) or from a biz model that cedes huge control of its destiny to its trading partners, chain buyers, distributors, agents at the front end. We seem overly reliant on the kindness of strangers. That’s the royal “we” btw.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 9, 2008 at 11:10 am

    David — this is absolutely awful. I am distraught (but also very much certain that you will be swept up by someone with both brains and money soon). Please tell me you got your rights back. I am currently very concerned about rights and who owns them.

  • Kassia Krozser // Dec 9, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Richard — I was worried about you! Thanks for weighing in on this topic. Your voice is always one of reason (which, given my flights of fancy, is necessary).

    Good points about capitalization and stability. As David and Gina have shown, small without a solid financial base can be difficult. Heck, we’ve seen this lack of solidity on the part of e-only publishers (this makes me wonder on whole new levels). There’s a need to, first, be realistic about your market and your goals — and then everything else.

    Interesting about the bulk of the Borders returns being received. That has to help everyone’s books (financial, not necessarily reading).

  • KatG // Dec 9, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    I don’t think Random House cares about saving imprints at all. Saying that they are trying to save imprints is just group-speak for “we’re going to cut a lot of jobs and the people who remain will now be doing the work of three positions for the same salary, but we don’t want to admit this is what is happening, so we’ll just call it a reorganization.”

    The big problems that publishing has are distribution/number of vendors, which has gotten too small, and publicity methods. Word of mouth sells books, especially fiction, but first off, people need to know the books exist. Trade publishers are very bad at this unless the people whose attention they are trying to attract walk into a bookstore. Traditional advertising is expensive, sure, with low return, but publishers have been reluctant to come up with other ways to market books and to use the Internet. Nothing is really a niche in trade publishing — every book can have a fair amount of general appeal — if publishers can harness media and have the book out there where people actually encounter it.

    Of course, then there is the the returns issue for print books and the difficulty of invading an electronics market that doesn’t want book publishing for e-books.

  • David Thayer // Dec 10, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Yes, the rights are back with me resting comfortably after their mad cap little journey from my desk drawer. The publisher was explicit about that. He handled this quite well under the circumstances so don’t be distraught on my account, but I appreciate your thoughts.
    Meanwhile I’m circulating another manuscript, proof that someone in this loop is crazy, quite possibly me.

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  • Ted // Jan 12, 2009 at 11:32 am

    If I prayed, I’d do so every night that the big commercial publishers will collapse, go into bankruptcy and be forced to sell their assets. Since the 1960s, they have been interested only in their bottom line and have been indifferent to literary excellence. They are holding publishing back, and it will be better when those “ole boy” publishing networks break up. The general public never buys books based on the name of the publisher or the imprint! Sic Semper Tyrannis to the big commercial publishers!

  • Ted // Jan 12, 2009 at 11:35 am

    But I forgot to add: I don’t pray, and so I’ll simply observe the economics of publishing inexorably destroy the large commercial pulishing companies! Europe does it another way, and those ways of publishing should be explored.