Publishing A-Z

A Volatile Industry

Yesterday’s blog linked you to some fascinating articles about the publishing industry. One friend wrote an insightful comment on the blog and cited the article where Boris Kachka proclaimed “The End” on September 14, 2008 in New York Magazine.

To illustrate how volatile this industry is, let’s look at two of the people featured in the article.  Jane Friedman is no longer the CEO of HarperCollins (which she was at the time of the original meeting) and Bob Miller resigned today as the head of HarperStudio. HarperStudio was creative with a unique financial model (see the article for the gist of it). But on a web site set up to answer questions about this development HarperStudio wrote this:

“Of our ORIGINAL goals, I’d give us a 6 [out of 10]. But there were other goals that cropped up along the way that were unintended benefits.”

Founded in April 2008, it has already changed in less than two years. Their first year was developmental as it takes time to acquire and produce new book titles. 2009 was a tough year for the economy in general and publishing was not immune. Thus the changes. They stop short of saying it didn’t work very well, but the tone of their answer page is very much a “let’s wait and see what the future holds.”

From my perspective I continue to remain upbeat and positive. A year ago the industry “puckered.” Layoffs and reorganization had hit most publishers in late 2008 and early 2009, the carnage was visible. Today, we literary agents are working with the survivors. The difference is that, out of necessity, most publishers are now in the business of risk management. They must be careful with their publishing decisions. Few can afford to “experiment.”

But this is a cycle we’ve seen before, with many nuances that make this era quite unique.

And yet we continue to work in an industry that is like no other. The words we write, the ideas we conceive, the truth we impart can make a difference.

Let me leave you with something Ursula LeGuin once wrote:
“In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.  Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find–if it’s a good novel–that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before.  But it’s very hard to ‘say’ just what we learned, how we were changed.”
(Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, second edition, Putnam, 1979. Page 158. Available on Google Books.)

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Is This the End of Publishing?

You owe it to yourself to read the following links and then watch the embedded video. We are all quite aware that the book publishing industry is in the throes of considerable change. Sales channels are shifting and marketing channels have splintered.

Some folks are dismayed by this, and others see it as opportunity. But, as usual, a middle ground can be found. And that middle ground is displayed in the video below.

But first, the articles to read:

The New York Magazine proclaimed “The End” on September 14, 2008 in an article by Boris Kachka.

Publishers Weekly agreed on January 5, 2009 in an article by Peter Olson, former chairman and CEO of Random House .

Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, chimed in on December 10, 2009 in his insightful blog.

Richard Nash continued the assault on January 5, 2010 in an interview on GalleyCat. More was added the next day.

The below video originally prepared for a recent Penguin sales conference by the UK branch of Dorling Kindersley Books. Watch the entire piece without interruption.

Let me know what you think!

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Is Print Dead?

There is an unsettling myth being perpetuated about the death of print books. The news of print’s demise is simply not true. It sounds a bit like Mark Twain having to write a note to a reporter saying “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

To fully explain I need to start with the music industry.
The impression is that all sales are now digital. And iTunes has killed the physical CD. This is not true.

Approximately 12 songs fit on a CD. And since individual songs can be downloaded, the only way to compare physical CD sales with download sales is to divide the number of songs downloaded by 12. That way you have a one-to-one comparison.

With that assumption in place, Apple is the #1 retailer of CDs in America. No surprise. The surprise is that they only comprise 25% of sales. Walmart is #2 at 14% and Best Buy is #3 (my guess is that Amazon.com is #4 but wasn’t mentioned in the article).

Why is that surprising? Because that means 75% of all sales are still “hard copy.” Physical CDs. It is significant that Apple’s share has increased as a percentage of all sales from 21% in 2008, up from 14% in 2007. But it still means the physical product is outselling the digital by 3 to 1. (In total dollars, across all forms of music, digital downloads comprise only 35% of all music sales.)

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The Wave of Digital Creativity in Books

I went to high school in Hawaii (I know.. a rough life) where I learned the joys and perils of body surfing. That experience is a great metaphor for the new “waves” of digital revolution we are seeing in the publishing world.

The key to great body surfing is waiting for the right wave and then time your push just right. The ride is exhilarating (I still remember riding inside the tube of a perfect wave off the beaches of Kauai). BUT if you catch the wrong wave or mistime the push, there is no ride. Or worse, catch a wave that throws you wildly into a bunch of rocks…

But unless you are in the water and making attempt after attempt you will never achieve the perfect ride.

I see this metaphor applied to the new world of digital publishing. It is really fun to play a small part, but even more fun to watch others be extremely creative in their experiments. There are some very bright and exciting people trying new things in merging the traditional book with all things “interactive.”

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