Publishing Then, Now, and Later – A Conversation

By Karma Bennett

On November 17, a group of prestigious publishing veterans got together to reflect on the publishing industry and talk shop. NCBPMA members in attendance were bracing themselves for some bad news – 2009 hasn’t exactly been a fun year in the industry. But lo and behold, the panelists were smiling! And they had some good things to say! 

The notes will hardly capture the dynamic and engaging guests in this November’s NCBPMA meeting. Scott Lettieri, Reporter and News Anchor at KGO Radio, engaged the speakers in a conversation that wove the history of publishing into its current context. He began by situating the book in its present context: Where are we? Where are we going? Is the book dead? 

The luminous Deena Drewis, senior editor at the Sacramento-based Flatmancrooked Publishing, began the conversation by talking about the unique publishing program they are doing at their company. “We started in March of 2008,” she said, smiling. “We feel lucky to have come onto the scene at this time because it’s forced us to be innovative.”  

The hallmark of the program at Flatmancrooked is a limited print run: 400 books, and then print on demand for 2nd edition. All first editions are signed by the author. This way they don’t have to recover the cost of books that don’t sell.

Eric Reid, literary agent at William Morris Endeavor who flew in from Los Angeles, chimed in. “In the film business we have a different perspective: looking for treasure trove of intellectual properties – something other than toys. The book will always be there,” he added. “It’s about adaptation. We’re always looking for stories.” Reid explained how his colleagues will comb through trade magazines like Publishers Weekly, as well as online sources such as Publisher’s Marketplace, looking for film ideas. Reid gave an example of some of the difficulties they have: Ben Stiller is one of their clients and he wants to do a Beatnik book. Since Beatnik books aren’t really written anymore, it was up to Reid to hunt one down that would be suitable for adaption.

Alan Rinzler, executive editor at Jossey-Bass (and author of this fantastic blog) had ready statistics to back up his assertion that the book is not dead. “In overall sales, the book is down only 0.7% compared to overall retail sales [down 9.7%].” “Which shows,” he said, “that people would rather read than eat!”

 “There are so many new resources and opportunities,” he added. “There have never been more ways to design creative customized marketing techniques for each new book. And new scientific research in neuroscience has shown that we have an inherent need to tell stories, to write books that search for meaning to teach, learn, and be inspired.” In response to a comment by the moderator about first time authors, Rinzler pointed out that more first novelists are being published than ever before.

Lettieri’s next question was a little more specific. “What do you love about your job?” he asked.

“Story-telling is requisite to culture,” explained Drewis. “We’re not suffering from a lack of talent. You emerge feeling that you’re putting out this work of art. People have to be more committed than ever if this is what they want to do with their lives.”

 “I just like the free books,” said Reid, which got a chuckle from the audience. On a more serious note, he went on to say that with film and books “you have a measure of immortality. You are dealing with a product that is exported all over the world.” He put it in an even grander perspective: “Anything I work on is going to be in the Library of Congress and the National Registry.”

“I went back to school to become a psychotherapist to learn how to deal with writers,” said Rinzler. “It requires a lot of support and empathy and love.” Rinzler recalled that marketing books was a very different matter when he started in the business: Editors would call their friends at the New York Times Book Review to pitch a book; it was all about reviews and advertising. “You’d never see Ernest Hemingway or John F. Kennedy on the Today Show,
 he pointed out. Then the author Haim Ginott became a regular on the Jack Parr show with his parenting book (“Between Parent and Child”), which was a big breakthrough. Jackie Suzanne was the first author to cultivate bookstores with personal book signings. Since then, it’s become more about the author. “What’s interesting to me,” Rinzler said, “is how many different ways there are to sell books. There’s no magic formula.  Nobody can really predict what will sell a book!    Ultimately we have to confess that it’s what we call ‘buzz’ that sells books, which is basically one person telling another ‘you have to read this’!”

What feeds your decision process? asked the moderator next.

Drewis shared more about Flatmancrooked’s unique publishing process: “Our author hand-wrote a love letter for all 400 people who bought her novella.” Drewis said that they look for good work but also the kind of charming, dedicated personality that would be best suited for that kind of creative dedication.

Reid claimed that his life will always be “schizophrenic” because finding a book he loves doesn’t mean he can make a movie out of it. “You can read something and say ‘This really moves me,’ but the nuts and bolts of the movie business…sometimes it’s really difficult. There are books I read five years ago that we are trying to put together now because I remember them and they’re exactly what we’re looking for right now.” He adds that the elevator pitch is a key part of the process: “I hear all the time: ‘What’s the big idea?”

“At Jossey-Bass, we talk about two things: authenticity and passion,” said Rinzler. “That really is a short way of describing what we look for in a book: something that comes from the author’s deepest emotional life, not a cynical pursuit of fame.”

Then he added, “We also try to get everyone – sales, marketing, art directors – in on the book, and if the entire team isn’t happy with it, we can’t put it out there.”

Lettieri then asked next about radical changes in publishing.

Rinzler pointing out that there’s a big shift from print to digital reading. “Young folks under thirty are like digital natives. There’s never been a time in their lives when they didn’t have computers and cell phones. I’m a digital immigrant, coming to these shores later in life. But my children and grandchildren read as much as I do. They read all day. But they’re using different devices.”

Drewis’s message for change for all publishers was consistent with Flatmancrooked’s publishing strategy. She said, “We’re going to make a beautiful book and charge more for it for those who want to hold something in their hands, for those for whom there’s not something that can replace turning a page.” But they also release it digitally at a lesser price. She spoke of the absurdity of the current state of publishing: “There are all these writers out there submitting to magazines they’ve never read!”

Reid’s response related to the accessibility of film as a radical change. “Ten years ago it was difficult to make a movie. The stumbling block was the actual processing of the film. Now, anyone can do that for about a thousand dollars. There are a lot more film makers out there. Take The Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov. Ten years ago you couldn’t do that movie for under $300 million; you could probably do it for under $75 million today.”

Reid mourned the books that will never be because of rights issues. “We have these books in the back of our heads… Walter Tebbit’s The Queens Gambit. He was ill and sold the rights [in the seventies]. The guy who owns the rights now won’t sell them. The Catcher in the Rye will never happen. Don’t think On the Road will ever happen.” He added, “Eve’s Tattoo by Emily Prager would be cinematic, but unfortunately I don’t think anyone agrees with me…I’m still trying!”

A one-word question from Lettieri: Misperceptions?

“That publishers don’t really want to hear from authors,” began Rinzler, who had much to say on the subject. “That we’re an impenetrable fortress populated by an in-crowd that only talks to their friends. On the contrary, editors are always looking for a good new project. We wake up in the morning  suffering from extreme acquisition anxiety. Keep in mind, I have a quota to fill. I’m always looking for books. It’s a 24/7 obsession with me.” He went on: “Here’s another myth: Publishers know what they’re doing. Any honest publisher knows that publishing is no science, no one can predict what will sell, and most books lose money.”

Rinzler also wanted to clear up the misperception that publishing used to be literary and artistic and now it’s crass and commercial. The great legends of book publishing have always been trying to make a buck. Simon and Schuster started out making crossword puzzles. Random House is so-called because they would publish anything.  Knopf imported European books because they were ready-made and cheap to acquire.

Lettieri pointed out that 97% of manuscripts are rejected. Rinzler responded that “because they’re not good enough to be published.” This got a laugh from all.

Reid thought of his work in the film industry as a bonus for authors: “What we do when we call an author, we’re calling them gifts. Most of the time the authors have another occupation, already made the money off the book. A book is just gravy on top of what they’ve already made. They seem to sell a lot of stuff and a lot of times for the agent unless it’s just obscenely bad we’ll read it.”

Lettieri wanted to expand on the details of what makes something “good.”

“I tend to like lean fiction that isn’t too digressive,” said Rinzler. “Does the first sentence make you want to read the second sentence. I’m reading Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem right now. Got me right away. Not formulaic. No bombs going off or murders. He’s a great writer.”

Drewis thinks of a good book as one that makes her uncomfortable with its honesty. “If you trust the author, whether it’s autobiographical or not, it’s about whether you believe that it actually happened.”

If a book was worthy, Reid wouldn’t give up on the effort to find a way to get it to the screen. “There was a great book I found in a thrift store. I thought this could be a great movie. It was a seven year quest: 500 phone calls, going to the morgue of the Los Angeles Times. We found the author’s widow and sold it to screenwriter David Koepp.”

“What were some of the highlights of your career?” asked Lettieri next.

Rinzler remembered when he was very young, he published a book called Manchild in the Promised Land , a best-selling memoir by a gang member growing up in Harlem in the 1950’s by Claude Brown. Claude introduced him to his English teacher, whom he had a big crush on at the time. This young woman said that she had written a book, too, and wondered if Alan wanted to read it. Her name was Toni Morrison, and her book was her first novel, The Bluest Eye

Drewis recalled, “We were in Brooklyn for Emma Straub’s release party. Her father is Peter Straub, and we were all just staring at him. I got to buy him a beer. He was terrifically nice.”

Reid doesn’t get star-struck with movie stars but is a self-described writer groupie. “It scares the heck out of authors. I see Walter Mosley walking down the street, and I’ll say, ‘Walter I love your book!’ He’ll just look at me and be like, ‘How do you know what I look like?’”

After such a lively chat they had time for only one question from the audience: So much depends on marketing today but authors aren’t prepared to do their own work. What can we do to help them?

“We do training,” explained Rinzler. “We hire professional coaches who can help shy authors learn to speak with focus and stay on topic. We try to help them become more comfortable in public. And if they really don’t do well in front of a microphone or camera, we work with them on effective efforts  can be done from their home, like building a web site, keeping up a blog, reaching out on line to their market and building a community of followers through social networking.” Rinzler says he’s become reluctant to sign authors who aren’t willing to participate in self-marketing book promotion.

“We just had our first fiction contest,” said Drewis. “The top three entries, none of them had any sort of online presence. So we have our interns log onto their Facebook accounts and manually add friends. You’d be amazed at how many friends you can make that will support your work! Get a lot of support in pre-production, getting people to commit to buy the signed copies.”

Reid said, “I’ve been lucky to get to work with so many people who are already very connected. Some of the mainstream authors, not so much. We love the fact that these authors are out there. We can bypass the publisher and say, ‘Ben Stiller is interested in your book.’” He added that he thought that there was a big disconnect with the [chain] bookstores. “Barnes and Noble used to keep a list. I don’t think now if you go into B&N, and say, ‘I saw so and so on the Today Show’ you’ll get a blank stare.”

This concluded the final NCBPMA Panel of 2009.

One thought on “Publishing Then, Now, and Later – A Conversation

  1. Pingback: November Notes — The Real Ones « The Monday Muse

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