In defence of grumpy old men. The publishing world needs cantankerous codgers

From Unherd:

In every culture, in every era, you will find the archetype of the cantankerous old man. He’s ubiquitous in cinema — the aged, scowling hero of Gran Torino; the feuding codgers of Grumpy Old Men; the dementia-stricken patriarch of The Father — but no less so in real life, where you can find him parked in an easy chair on the shady side of the porch, yelling at the neighbourhood kids to get off his lawn. He can be a comic figure or a tragic one, an object of respect or ridicule, but you ignore him at your peril. The next American president, after all, will be a cantankerous old man. We just have to decide if we want the one with the spray tan and the multiple felony indictments, or the one who recently confused the current French president with the one who died in 1996.

Some old men lose their edge as they age, while others develop a sharper one. Otto Penzler, the white-haired proprietor of the storied Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, would seem to be the latter. Now 81, Penzler is a polarising figure within the mystery writing community, the kind of person whose name elicits either a grin or a wince. In addition to building from scratch the biggest mystery bookshop in the world, he has edited dozens of mystery novels and anthologies and overseen multiple publishing imprints. At the height of his power, a good word from Penzler could make a writer’s career.

But his good words, his critics note, were reserved largely for white, male, heterosexual writers — and Penzler has a reputation for being less than reverent about the sacred cows of his more progressive peers. In 1991, he publicly criticised the women’s mystery writer’s group Sisters in Crime in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: “It’s a negative, flawed concept. It’s an organization that espouses non-sexism but is sexist.” In 2005, he described cosy mysteries as “not serious literature”, adding: “Men take [writing] more seriously as art.” More recently, he excoriated the Mystery Writers of America after the organisation, under pressure, rescinded its plans to honour mystery novelist and former prosecutor Linda Fairstein with a “Grand Master” award for literary achievement. (This was part of a broader campaign to cancel Fairstein over her role in prosecuting the Central Park Five, spurred by a Netflix series that portrayed her as the case’s chief villain; a defamation lawsuit brought by Fairstein against the series’ creators is currently making its way through the courts.)

Among those who dislike him, these incidents are seen as damning evidence in favour of Penzler’s defenestration. A recent X thread, prompted by his upcoming appearance at a mystery event called Bouchercon, bemoans his continued influence despite what the author describes as his “terrible opinions and inexcusable behavior” — although the behaviour in question, as I discovered in the course of reporting this piece, is more a matter of rumour than record. For those who remember the MeToo-era debacle of the Shitty Media Men list, it’s character assassination via whisper network: people will tell you that there are stories, but plead ignorance when asked to relate one. Penzler’s status as a Bad Man is entirely vibes-based. A snub here, a brusque comment there. Once, perhaps, there was a confrontation with a female critic who had panned a book written by one of Penzler’s friends, after she showed up uninvited to a party at his bookstore.

. . . .

Mystery writing, like the rest of publishing, has undergone a reckoning in recent years — and what the diversity activists want is nothing less than a metaphorical asteroid hit, an extinction-level event that clears out the pale-male-stale old guard, and ushers in a colourful new world order. There’s just one problem: metaphorical asteroids, unlike their physical analogue, don’t actually kill the dinosaurs. And while it’s one thing to campaign for the ouster of dead white men from their various places of honour in the sciences, or the arts, or atop the lists of history’s greatest works of literature, it’s quite another to be confronted with live white men — men who’ve worked hard all their lives to get where they are, who do not agree that they have outlived both their relevance and respectability, and who are not about to slink off into obscurity just because the passage of time and the sensibilities of a new generation have rendered both their identities and opinions unpopular.

This all-encompassing presentism, in which every person must be judged by his worse offences against the pieties of the Current Thing, has found an even easier target than our oldest living citizens: those who are recently dead. It’s a phenomenon that makes for some interesting reads in the newspaper’s obituary section. “Herman Cain, a former Republican presidential candidate and supporter of President Donald Trump who pointedly refused to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, has died after contracting COVID-19,” reported Reuters in 2020, while a New York Times obituary for former Interior Secretary James Watt informs readers that he “insulted Black people, women, Jews and disabled people”, before it describes his life or contribution to politics. As the writer Oliver Traldi quipped, “before you read about this man’s life, let’s precisely calibrate your sense of to what extent he was on the right side of history as conceived by readers of this absolute rag in the current year”.

Meanwhile, some progressives have taken it as an article of faith that we cannot wait anymore for these living relics to exit the world’s stage; we have to just push them out of the way. This sentiment was palpable in the MeTooings of people like Garrison Keillor, Al Franken, Leon Wieseltier, and Frank Langella, as well as the ouster of older white men from positions of influence in media, the arts, and more during the Covid-era Awokening. Even if you didn’t necessarily think these guys had done much — or anything — wrong, there was a sense that perhaps they should just go away on principle, for the sake of the cause. Hadn’t they been in power long enough? Wasn’t it time for them to step aside, and give someone else a turn?

Link to the rest at Unherd

As regular visitors to The Passive Voice know all too well, PG has very little respect for many/most of the people who work at traditional publishing houses, old and young, male or female, bond or free. He’ll spare the patient visitors to The Passive Voice another rant about the exploitation of authors that qualifies as, “The way things are done.”

Vivendi to divide group and put divisions, including Hachette, on stock market

From The Bookseller:

Vivendi has announced that it will carve up its group into four separate entities which will be listed on the stock market.

This follows its recent takeover of Lagardère, owner of Hachette Livre, France’s largest book publisher, and is prompted by the need to “fully unleash the development potential of all its activities”, the group said in a statement. Until now, it has suffered from a “significantly high conglomerate discount”, which has reduced its value and hampered its subsidiaries’ ability to acquire other companies, it added.

Book publishing will be bundled together with media, entertainment and distribution, which includes Hachette, the Prisma Media magazine publisher and retail outlets in railway stations and airports. The three other entities will be the Canal + pay TV network, the Havas communications firm, and an investment company to look after all the group’s assets in culture, media and entertainment.

Lagardère is the world’s third largest general public and educational book publisher, and a “leading global player in travel retail”, with its chain of shops under Relay and other brands, the statement said. It is present in 40 countries and has more than 27,000 employees.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Time for the Query Critique. First I’ll present the query without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline.

From Nathan Bransford:

Now then. Time for the Query Critique. First I’ll present the query without comment, then I’ll offer my thoughts and a redline. If you choose to offer your own thoughts, please be polite. We aim to be positive and helpful.

Random numbers were generated, and thanks to Dan, whose query is below.

December 19, 2023

XXXXXXXX Literary Agency

Dear Ms.XXX,

I hope this letter finds you well. I see that you are registered for the upcoming Thrillerfest 2024, and I would like to introduce my novel, ONCE A DETECTIVE…, and express my interest in securing your representation.

ONCE A DETECTIVE… is a work of commercial fiction in the private detective genre. In present time, Detective Dan Burnett, with 30 years of experience with the NYPD, fails his physical and chooses retirement over desk duty. At fifty-five, he’s too young to do nothing, so he becomes a private investigator and learns the ropes from a P.I. with a similar history. Divorced, his one source of true happiness is his college-aged daughter. After assisting his new partner with some ongoing cases, he lands a case of his own: a beautiful woman whose brother was murdered. After two years, the NYPD had given up on the case, so it’s now up to him to find the murderer. The suspects are Las Vegas casinos, where the brother owed a million dollars, and his second wife, who inherited millions upon his death. He doggedly works the case using his life-long skills with the help of a former colleague, the NYPD detective originally assigned to the case. Tracking a mob hitman leads him on a chase across the country, searching for the truth and ultimately finding it.

Inspired by my favorite novels by Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, and others, I have woven a story of mystery, suspense, and romance.

I have recently retired from a life as a real estate developer and ocean sailor, and I finally have the time to pursue my longtime passion for writing and storytelling. To promote my work, I am in the process of creating an author’s web page that will link to social media.

Following is the first chapter for your review. I am happy to provide the complete 61,000-word manuscript at your request, and am also open to discussing revisions to align with your publishing vision.

Thank you for considering ONCE A DETECTIVE… I look forward to the opportunity to discuss this project with you further. Feel free to contact me by phone or e-mail to arrange a meeting or provide feedback.


As with so many queries, this one could benefit from more vivid details. The plot here feels extremely standard (retired detective becomes PI and investigates murder). That’s not necessarily an issue, provided the details, style, and setting feel fresh.

. . . .

Here’s a pretty simple formula you can use to stick the landing:

[PROTAGONIST(s)] must [DO X AND/OR Y AND/OR Z] in order to [GOAL/REWARDS] / or else [CONSEQUENCES].

Not every final line needs to follow this precise formula. Maybe in some plots you want to spell out the rewards a bit more, others to clearly articulate the consequences. But if you utilize this formula, you’ll quickly give the agent a sense of what’s ultimately at stake for the protagonist as the novel heads toward the climax.

. . . .

Here’s my redline:

December 19, 2023

XXXXXXXX Literary Agency
 [This is almost assuredly an email, not a business letter]

Dear Ms.XXX,

I hope this letter finds you well. I see that you are registered for the upcoming Thrillerfest 2024, and. I would like to introduce my commercial fiction novel, ONCE A DETECTIVE…, and express my interest in securing your representation.

ONCE A DETECTIVE… is a work of commercial fiction in the private detective genre. In present time, After 30 years with the NYPD, Detective Dan Burnett, with 30 years of experience with the NYPD, fails his physical and chooses retirement over desk duty. At fifty-five and divorced, with a college-aged daughter as his one true source of happiness, he’s too young to do nothing, so he becomes a private investigator and learns the ropes from a P.I. with a similar history. [Missed opportunity to portray the other P.I. more vividly] Divorced, his one source of true happiness is his college-aged daughter.

¶After assisting his new partner with some ongoing cases, he lands a case of his own: a beautiful woman whose brother was murdered two years ago [Be more vivid/specific about both the woman and the brother]After two years, tThe NYPD hads given up on the case, so it’s now up to him to find the murderer. The suspects are Las Vegas casinos, where tThe brother owed a million dollars to Las Vegas casinos, and his second wife, who inherited millions upon his death. HeDan doggedly works the case using his life-long skills with the help of a former colleague, the NYPD detective originally assigned to the case. Tracking a mob hitman leads him on a chase across the country, searching for the truth and ultimately finding it. [Very flat final line. Consider something more like “Dan must do [X AND Y] in order to [GOAL/REWARDS] or else [CONSEQUENCES].]

ONCE A DETECTIVE… is complete at 61,000 words and will appeal to readers of Inspired by my favorite novels by Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, and others, I have woven a story of mystery, suspense, and romance[Consider more current comp titles]

I have recently retired from a life as a real estate developer and ocean sailor, and I finally have the time to pursue my longtime passion for writing and storytelling. To promote my work, I am in the process of creating an author’s web page that will link to social media[This isn’t going to inspire an agent’s confidence that you are at the baseline competency for technology usage as an author]

Following is the first chapter for your review. I am happy to provide the complete 61,000 word manuscript at your request, and am also open to discussing revisions to align with your publishing vision. [Goes without saying] Thank you for considering ONCE A DETECTIVE… I look forward to the opportunity to discuss this project with you further. Feel free to contact me by phone or e-mail to arrange a meeting or provide feedback. [Goes without saying]


Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

The majority of the wealth of human knowledge

The majority of the wealth of human knowledge is owned by a few publishing companies that hoard information and make billions off licensing fees, although most scholarly articles and journals are paid for by taxpayers through government grants.

Abby Martin

Life Inside the Fiction Factory: Dan Sinykin on Conglomerate Publishing

From Public Books:

For the average reader who loves getting lost in books, there’s usually no reason to pay much attention to the shifts occurring in the industry that undergirds their passion. But that doesn’t mean that the tremors that are regularly rumbling through the book trade won’t lead to tectonic shifts that transform the books we love. For example, it may not matter this week, or next week, that Americans are reading fewer books, or that last year the Justice Department blocked a merger of two of the five largest publishers; but both of these facts will ultimately shape which books end up in readers’ hands. In his magnificent new book Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, Dan Sinykin, an assistant professor of English at Emory University, traces how changes to the publishing industry have also driven changes to the fiction we read. In September 2023 Dan and I chatted about some of these changes, and what they mean for conglomerate publishers and for nonprofit independent publishers that are inventing new ways to publish in the shadows of the giants. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Clayton Childress (CC): In Big Fiction you rely on a truly impressive depth of research and engaging storytelling to explain the twists and turns of US fiction. Something that struck me is that when it comes to fiction and changes in fiction, we almost always think of authors. Be they authors we love or hate, we assign them with a superhuman ability to drive trends and changes in publishing. That’s not quite right, though. How is the story you tell in Big Fiction different from that more standard, author-centered story?

Dan Sinykin (DS): You’re right. We love authors! We love the fantasy of creative people sequestered in solitude to craft stories for us. It’s a fantasy with a strong hold over us, a fantasy upheld by profiles, biopics, and listicles, all undergirded by the expansive business of marketing and publicity. But it is just that: a fantasy, a myth, and one that’s convenient for capitalism. An author’s photo is more appealing to the consumer than the publisher’s colophon.

Lots of people contribute to the books we read. Editors, of course, though there’s an omertà on them saying so, so much so it’s comical. Editors contort themselves to insist they only serve the author’s vision. This is a disingenuous professional credo exemplified—and, arguably, institutionalized—by Maxwell Perkins, who shaped fiction by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe but severely minimized his role.

In the 1970s, literary agents and marketing departments became more involved in making books. Revolutions in format (mass-market books), wholesaling (Ingram), and retailing (B. Dalton and Waldenbooks) expanded and transformed audiences for books, creating new and different incentives for publishers. And publishers—previously small and owned, often, by the founders or their heirs—were swept into multinational conglomerates governed by shareholder value, demanding quarterly growth.

Authorship—responsibility for the words we read in the pages of our books—is distributed widely across these figures and forces.

Big Fiction concerns this conglomerate era, which begins in 1960, matures in the 1980s, and continues today. I found that, if we look beyond just “authors”—if we also take into account agents, scouts, editors, marketers, managers of subsidiary rights, wholesalers, distributors, and retailers—we end up with something like a conglomerate superorganism: conglomerate authorship.

It’s an extremely difficult phenomenon to keep in view because English grammar privileges individual agents over distributed forces. But I do my best!

CC: That’s such an interesting observation about English grammar. And this totally dovetails, as you write about in Big Fiction, with the emphasis in fiction on the embodiment and perceptions of individuals, and with the rise in the late 20th century of what’s referred to as autofiction (fiction that’s not shy about drawing from the author’s identity, experiences, and life).

What’s the story behind how the distributed cognition of the “conglomerate superorganism” ends up driving a rise of something as self-referential as autofiction?

DS: What could seem more personal, more individual, more author-centered than autofiction? In Ben Lerner’s 10:04, the protagonist, Ben, even sequesters in solitude—on a residency in Marfa—to write. In fact, Ben wonders the same thing you do, Clayton! Within the pages of the novel, he asks why a big New York publisher paid him a strong six-figure advance to write an autofictional art novel. Seems like a bad investment!

Why is autofiction such a buzzy genre in the conglomerate era? But the mystery dissolves if we think in terms of the conglomerate superorganism: the collective constraints, incentives, and intentions distributed among so many figures.

We—consumers—love authors! We love gossip. We love to get behind the scenes. That’s why biography and memoir perpetually sell. Autofiction incarnates the figure from the author photo (carefully shot to be intriguing by specialized author photographers, such as Marion Ettlinger and Nina Subin). The last thing the conglomerate superorganism wants is for its books to be recognized for what they are: industrial products.

The conglomerate superorganism wants to hide. And there’s no better screen for it to hide behind than autofiction, which testifies to the creative, expressive individual author whose name is emblazoned on the cover. Meanwhile, the author becomes a channel, a vessel, expressing not personal genius but conglomerate desire.

But of course the last thing the author wants is to become a conglomerate vessel! Autofiction is good here, too. The author gets to write about herself writing, being an author in the world, having agency. It’s a grasp for control in a publishing context where authors keep ceding it—a kind of structural defensiveness, revealing generalized anxiety.

CC: It’s fascinating in that in carving out intellectual space from the big institution of conglomerate publishing, authors maintain their subjectivity while ceding the object of attention to the institution itself; the author is an agentic figure, but, in her fiction, her topic is being an agentic figure within the mothership of a conglomerate publisher.

Yet Big Fiction is far from a screed about the horrors of conglomerate publishing. While publishing is a big, slow-moving institution, it’s an inhabited institution—as people around my parts like to say—and the actions and reactions of individuals to that institution ultimately end up reshaping it.

Who were some of your favorite people to research for Big Fiction? What changes or shifts in big publishing did they contribute to?

DS: Oh gosh, I love this question. First, please let me share a quote from your book, Under the Cover, that guided my process. Updating Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory, you write, “down in the dirt, rather than action in any given situation always being automatic, to participate in a field regularly requires deliberation: people have to figure out if the rules apply to a situation, and if they do, which of the rules are the ones that apply, and how they do apply or not.” Conglomerate authorship is made up of its parts.

People are strange and sometimes unpredictable. Because of this, much of my book is dedicated to bringing these people to life to show how they took action, leading to our contingent world of books: this one, rather than any other.

And publishing history is full of characters: self-mythologizers, charming weirdos, horrible cads. There’s Jane Friedman, the publicist who liked to tell people she invented the author tour. (She didn’t.) She started as a typist at Random House in 1967 when it was a terribly sexist place. Bennett Cerf, the company president, would come by and pull her ponytail. She sent Julia Child on a spectacular tour—“We had parted the Red Sea. Julia made mayonnaise in a blender. We sold 500 books”—and rose through the ranks, like so many women of her generation, from marginalized “publicity gal” to executive, culminating in a tenure as the CEO of HarperCollins. She was a major force in the expansion of marketing and publicity departments.

There’s Morton Janklow, the corporate securities lawyer whose friend was having trouble with his publisher over his positive book about Richard Nixon. The publisher acquired it before Watergate and was feeling queasy about publishing it afterward. So Janklow put the screws to the publisher—and loved it, so he became a literary agent. He changed what it meant to be a literary agent. Before Janklow, no one knew the extent of legal power writers had but had let lay fallow. Here came big advances, big auctions, big money—for the elite few.

There’s Sessalee Hensley, mysterious Sessalee Hensley. She’s difficult to find much information about, though everybody talked about her in awed tones. For a period in the 1990s and 2000s, Hensley, as Barnes & Noble’s chief fiction buyer, vied with Oprah as the most consequential person in books. “If you talked to a publisher in the early 2000s,” Keith Gessen wrote, “chances are they would complain to you about the tyranny of Sessalee.” She was like Madonna, a one-name figure: everyone just called her Sessalee. She showed the influence that retail could have on publishers, who learned to anticipate her judgments.

I’ll stop there or else I’d go on and on. I loved the people so much I added a glossary to the end of Big Fiction with dozens of micro-biographies, sometimes highlighting curious little bits I learned about someone along the way.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Whenever PG reads about Big Publishing writen by someone with inside knowledge of the business, he invariably asks himself why any intelligent person, including authors, would want to be involved in such a bizarre and dysfunctional industry, especially when insiders so often believe themselves to be so precious and special.

Big Five Domination of Adult Bestseller Lists Slipped in 2023

From Publishers Weekly:

The Big Five’s grip on the hardcover bestseller lists continued in 2023, as 84.8% of the 2,080 positions on PW’s weekly hardcover lists were occupied by titles published by major houses. But for the second year in a row, the Big Five’s hold on the lists loosened a bit, dropping roughly three percentage points from 2022, on the heels of a similar three-percentage-point drop that year compared to 2021.

Penguin Random House’s failed acquisition of Simon & Schuster in late 2022 didn’t prevent the nation’s largest trade publisher from increasing its hold on the hardcover bestseller lists last year, with its share of list positions rising to 36.7%, from 34.6% in 2022. Simon & Schuster (14.2% in 2023 vs. 14.3% in 2022) and Macmillan (7.7% in 2023 vs. 7.9% in 2022) had minimal declines, while HarperCollins (16% in 2023 vs. 17.5% in 2022) and Hachette Book Group (10.2% in 2023 vs. 13.7% in 2022) posted more significant drops.

The two independent publishers that did the most to chip away at the Big Five’s control of the hardcover lists were Entangled Publishing and Grove Atlantic. Entangled’s original edition of Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros was on the hardcover list for 33 weeks, and a special edition of the novel was on the list for six weeks, as was Yarros’s Iron Flame, which was published late in the year. Grove’s The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese also stayed on the list for 33 weeks.

The Big Five’s grip on the hardcover bestseller lists continued in 2023, as 84.8% of the 2,080 positions on PW’s weekly hardcover lists were occupied by titles published by major houses. But for the second year in a row, the Big Five’s hold on the lists loosened a bit, dropping roughly three percentage points from 2022, on the heels of a similar three-percentage-point drop that year compared to 2021.

Penguin Random House’s failed acquisition of Simon & Schuster in late 2022 didn’t prevent the nation’s largest trade publisher from increasing its hold on the hardcover bestseller lists last year, with its share of list positions rising to 36.7%, from 34.6% in 2022. Simon & Schuster (14.2% in 2023 vs. 14.3% in 2022) and Macmillan (7.7% in 2023 vs. 7.9% in 2022) had minimal declines, while HarperCollins (16% in 2023 vs. 17.5% in 2022) and Hachette Book Group (10.2% in 2023 vs. 13.7% in 2022) posted more significant drops.

The two independent publishers that did the most to chip away at the Big Five’s control of the hardcover lists were Entangled Publishing and Grove Atlantic. Entangled’s original edition of Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros was on the hardcover list for 33 weeks, and a special edition of the novel was on the list for six weeks, as was Yarros’s Iron Flame, which was published late in the year. Grove’s The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese also stayed on the list for 33 weeks.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Is Self-Publishing a Good Choice for Authors in 2024?

Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Talk about self-publishing has diminished in the last few years.  Most of the “Kindle Millionaires” that surged onto the scene a decade or so ago have evaporated from indie writing communities.

Some of them are, of course, busy writing their next bestseller. But a lot either got traditional publishing contracts, like Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking (remember them?), or they moved on to more lucrative careers.

Writing about self-publishing isn’t wildly fashionable these days. Formerly prolific indie advocate Joe Konrath has only updated his blog, The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, once since 2019. D. D. Scott, of the Writers Guide to E-Publishing dropped the blog long ago

But the hottest phenom in publishing last year, Colleen Hoover, started as an indie author — and she still self-publishes some of her books. You can’t argue with her amazing success.

Why Self-Publishing is No Longer Big News
Here’s the thing: The Self-Publishing “Revolution” of the previous decade was tied directly to the “Ebook Revolution.” Indie publishing was sparked by the advent of the Kindle.

When Amazon launched the Kindle in the late ‘oughties, customers needed ebooks to read on it. And Amazon opened up a marketplace for self-publishing to flourish. Indie authors who sold their ebooks for under $5 became bestsellers when they competed against trad-pubbed ebooks priced at $10 and up.

And wise indie authors still price their books below the Big 5 prices. They can afford to, because there are no agents and publishers to skim off the bulk of the profits.

The fact self-publishing isn’t big news now is exactly because it’s so successful. It’s zooming along with no roadblocks, so there’s no news. Authors who take their indie careers seriously are making a lot of money self-publishing. They’re doing their own marketing and turning out books quickly for their growing fan bases.

They also write in genres that sell to voracious readers who generally buy ebooks, like Romance, mystery, thrillers, and sci-fi/fantasy.

These genres do well in subscription services like Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, Kobo Plus, Scribd, etc. Subscription services are growing fast, according to The New Publishing Standard. Kindle Unlimited paid out $575 million to self-publishers last year.

However, children’s, literary, upmarket fiction and “book-club” women’s fiction still tends to sell better in hard copy.

. . . .

I see that a lot of new writers who are planning to self-publish will immediately start talking about book signings and getting books into physical bookshops.

But that’s not where an indie should be putting their energy. Book signings can be fun, and a physical book launch party can be an important celebration for the author. Swag like bookmarks, mugs and T-shirts can be a blast to design and prepare.

But these things are about fun, not making big sales.

That’s because in-person events are not the way most indies sell their books. (With the exception of nonfiction self-help books. If you’re a motivational speaker, you can sell a lot of hard copy books at your speaking engagements.)

. . . .

Self-publishing does mean giving up some fantasies. Self-published authors rarely, if ever, are interviewed on NPR or reviewed in The New Yorker. Chances of being invited to participate in a TV talk show are minimal.  You probably won’t see your book in the window of your local Barnes and Noble, and you won’t be chosen for Reese’s or Oprah’s book clubs.

If these things are essential to your image of being a published author, either let them go, or keep slogging on that query-go-round and get yourself an agent and traditional publishing deal. Not a lot of traditionally published authors get national radio interviews or reviews in prestigious magazines either, but you’ll have a fighting chance.

. . . .

If you’re self-publishing, you’re going to be selling mostly ebooks, you are going to need to do most of your marketing online. Online marketing means establishing a major social media presence, as well as having an enticing website (and preferably, a blog. ) You’ll also want a strong email list of subscribers.

If you’re not interested in online marketing, self-publishing probably isn’t for you. The slow death of X-Twitter has made online marketing more difficult. If your demographic is over 40, Facebook can still help, but for most genres, you need to be on Instagram, and if you write Romance or YA, you definitely need Tiktok.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

The OP was generally right about the facts, but PG wonders if serious indie authors have the sort of “fantasies” the OP describes.

PG has known a great many indie authors, including more than a few who hired him to break out of their traditional publishing contracts with large New York publishers.

(Reminder: PG is retired, so he doesn’t this sort of thing any more. Please don’t ask.)

Typically, the authors who wanted to escape from traditional publishing contracts and the necessary New York literary agency 15% taken off the top wanted to self-publish so they could make more money and run their own shows.

They wanted to make more money because most traditionally published authors don’t make much money from their writing either. “Don’t give up your day job,” is advice a large number of traditionally-published authors hear from their agents.

As with any endeavor, some of PG’s now former clients did very well financially, adding a zero, sometimes two zeroes, to their previous annual writing incomes. Others didn’t have the knack of running their own business and didn’t do so well.

Everybody who escaped from their publishers and agents did share one benefit that was important to them.

They were the boss now.

They ran their own business the way they thought best. They could write what they wanted to write their books in the way they wanted to write them without explaining or justifying their choices to anybody else.

One more simple fact is that traditionally published authors whose last name isn’t Obama or another with similar public awareness also have to do social media marketing. And lots of other chores and homework assigned to most traditionally published authors by somebody at their publisher or their agent.

Some Parting Words for the Book Biz from Jim Milliot

From Publishers Weekly:

Ever since I joined PW in April 1993, my objective has been to write and publish articles that would help everyone in the publishing industry succeed. Leveling the playing field by providing information to help smaller companies and startups compete with entrenched players has been a guiding principle. It’s a rule that’s helped me navigate the incredible changes publishing has experienced, since spring 1979 when I used the American Book Trade Directory to find phone numbers for independent booksellers to determine their hot-selling titles for a story for the BP Report newsletter.

While PW still reaches out to booksellers today, we, like many in the industry, now track bestsellers with BookScan. The evolution from using phone calls to gather data to using online services exemplifies one of the two most important ongoing developments that I have witnessed in my 44 years covering the business.

Technology has transformed publishing in every conceivable way, from how books are acquired to how they are printed, marketed, discovered, and sold. And while book publishing has a reputation for being technology resistant, the industry has weathered the digital revolution better than most media businesses. E-books now augment print books, rather than replacing them as had once been widely prophesied. The sales surge for downloadable audiobooks seems likely to continue, especially since the newest tech trend, AI, will allow many more stories to be converted to audio editions using synthetic narration. And online retailing has made books easier to purchase than ever. The fact that technology companies, going back to RCA’s 1966 purchase of Random House, have been drawn to publishing shows the importance of the written word and quality content to what has become a knowledge-based society.

The second ongoing trend is consolidation. I had a front-row seat to watch an industry once characterized by hundreds of independent presses, many family owned, give way to the rise of corporate publishing. So, too, bookselling was transformed from those thousands of indie booksellers I found in the ABTD to a retail space that was dominated by the bookstore chains.

It was sad to see many indies go out of business as Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Borders, Crown Books, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and numerous regional chains sprung up, but the advent of the chains made all of bookselling more professional and made books more accessible. In many ways, the heyday of the chains in the 1990s was one of the most exciting periods that I experienced. The entire industry expanded to meet the greater demand for books, spurred in part by the growing number of retail outlets.

It was also during the 1990s, of course, that Amazon was born. There is no doubt that Amazon has had the biggest impact, for good and bad, on publishing and bookselling over the course of my career. (And it led to the demise of a number of those 1990s bookstore chains.) In doing research for this piece, I discovered a story I wrote in 2008: “Amazon: Friend or Foe” detailed publishers’ complaints at that year’s London Book Fair, including many about Amazon’s then-new policy of making publishers that use print-on-demand go through its BookSurge subsidiary. That same story covered publishers’ desire for an online competitor to Amazon to emerge, fears that the company would move into the content creation business, and concerns over e-book pricing.

In 2023, Amazon is the unquestioned master of online sales, but consolidation has also led to a publishing ecosystem in which other parts of the business have their own dominant players. Ingram is the king of trade wholesaling; Baker & Taylor dominates library wholesaling; ReaderLink handles distribution to nontraditional retail outlets; Barnes & Noble is the dominant physical bookstore chain (though it is heartening to see the revival of indie bookstores). And of course, book publishers have the Big Five.

To be clear, all these companies are very good at what they do, but I worry that they are becoming islands unto themselves. I think the entire publishing ecosystem would benefit from more cooperation and transparency. Tackling issues that affect all of publishing, such as sustainability and AI, would be aided by a team approach. Fighting among trading partners often makes for great stories, but I’m not sure it’s the best approach to navigate the new challenges the industry will confront.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG’s reaction to the OP is that the author has a strong belief in things as they ought to be with NYC becoming/remaining the center of the book universe.

“To be clear, all these companies are very good at what they do, but I worry that they are becoming islands unto themselves. I think the entire publishing ecosystem would benefit from more cooperation and transparency.”

In ancient times the big publishers in NYC reigned as Masters of the Universe.

Then Amazon showed up.

  • Not the right kind of people, at all,
  • Located on the wrong coast
  • No idea how books should be sold
  • Trying to sell books online when, as everyone knows, The Book of the Month Club is the only company that ever succeded in selling books in flyover country, a place where women in Iowa organize book clubs to distract them from their empty and unfashionable lives.
  • Should be permanently banned from membership in the Ancient and Honorable Order of Publishers, including total bars to any Amazonian members, past, present, or future, which prohibition prevents any Amazonian from serving as, First Ceremonial Master, Second Ceremonial Master, Director, Marshal, Captain of the Guard, or Outer Guard.

Print Book Sales Fell 2.6% in 2023 (Still ahead of 2019)

From Publishers Weekly:

Helped by a 1.7% increase in the fourth quarter, unit sales of print books fell only 2.6% in 2023 from 2022 at outlets that report to Circana BookScan. The dip was less than many industry members had feared this summer, when sales were steadily declining and were down 4.1% after the first nine months of the year. Eight titles sold more than one million print copies in 2023, the same number that topped that level in 2022, five of which came from two authors: Colleen Hoover had three titles crack the million-copy mark and Rebecca Yarros had two.

The strong performance by Hoover and Yarros helped drive up sales of adult fiction titles by almost 1% over 2022, a solid performance considering sales in the category jumped 8.5% in 2022 over 2021. No other category posted an increase in the year, though the declines in most segments were far less in 2023 than in 2022. Within adult fiction, the fantasy genre performed best, with sales jumping 51.7%, led by Yarros’s two bestsellers, followed by a 24.2% increase in sales of horror/occult/physiology titles. Graphic novel sales had the biggest decline, down 22.4%, but was still the third largest subcategory within adult fiction.

Sales in the largest print segment, adult nonfiction, fell 3.1% in 2023, a much slower rate of decline than in 2022, when sales dropped 10.3%. The category received a big boost from two memoirs, Spare by Prince Harry, which sold more than 1.2 million copies, and The Woman in Me by Britney Spears, which sold more than 908,000 print copies. Overall, sales in the biography/autobiography/memoir category increased 1.8% last year, topped only by the 6.4% increase in the religion segment and the 3.8% gain in travel.

While overall adult sales held up fairly well in 2023, children’s sales continued to struggle, with juvenile down 4.7% and nonfiction off 7.1%. Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man: Twenty Thousand Fleas Under the Sea was the top seller in juvenile fiction, selling almost 1.1 million copies, while Jeff Kinney’s newest Wimpy Kid title, No Brainer, sold more than 515,000 copies.

The year saw something of a bounce back for frontlist sales, which declined only 3.1% last year compared to over 10% a year ago, while backlist dipped 2.6%, from a decline of 3.7% in 2022.

Sales performance by format was something of a surprise in that hardcover sales, despite price increases, held up better than trade paperback, with hardcover sales falling 1.6% compared to a decline of 2.6% for trade paperback. Mass market paperback all but disappeared last year, with sales falling 15.6% and accounting for just 3.4% of all units sold. Board book sales were basically flat at 48 million copies.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

For those whose memories need a little assistance – 2019 was the Covid Plague Year.

PG’s favorite excerpt, “The year saw something of a bounce back for frontlist sales, which declined only 3.1% last year”

AAP’s September StatShot: US Book Market Up 0.8 Percent YTD

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its September 2023 StatShot report released this morning (December 12), the Association of American Publishers (AAP) cites total revenues across all categories to have been flat as compared to September 2022, at US1.4 billion.

The American market’s year-to-date revenues, the AAP reports, were up 0.8 percent at US$9.4 billion for the first nine months of the year.

As Katy Hershberger at Publishers Lunch today is noting, children’s books continued to gain in September, up 5.2 percent over the same month in 2022, sales this year reaching $272.8 million.

Publishing Perspectives readers know, that the AAP’s numbers reflect reported revenue for tracked categories including trade (consumer books); higher education course materials; and professional publishing.

. . . .

Trade Book Revenues

Year-Over-Year Numbers
Trade revenues were down 0.4 percent in September over the same month last year, at $905.9 million.

In print formats:

  • Hardback revenues were up 7.2 percent, coming in at $379 million
  • Paperbacks were down 4.9 percent, with $299.1 million in revenue
  • Mass market was down 39.5 percent to $11.3 million
  • Special bindings were up 11.8 percent, with $27.1 million in revenue

In digital formats:

  • Ebook revenues were down 1.8 percent for the month as compared to September 2022, for a total of $85.2 million
  • The closely monitored digital audio format was up 3.2 percent for September 2022, coming in at $69.9 million in revenue
  • Physical audio was down 24.4 percent, coming in at $1.2 million

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes that the Association of American Publishers includes far more publishers than the large trade fiction and non-fiction publishers in New York City, the ones that the New York Times uses for its best-seller lists.

The AAP stats include educational publishers that provide textbooks for all of the different levels of education in the US. It also includes religious publishers and business publishers providing books for the business, medical, law, technical and scientific markets.

Why Do Publishers Close Imprints?

From Jane Friedman:

Imprints have long been getting closed, merged, reorganized, and reborn over publishing’s history, but this summer raised new frustrations and fears among authors about how and why it’s happening. In June, Penguin Random House (PRH) announced they would merge the long-respected Razorbill into Putnam Children’s (retaining the full team in doing so); in July, HarperCollins announced the closure of Inkyard and the layoff of Inkyard’s staff. Harlequin Teen (started in 2009) was relaunched as Inkyard in 2019, publishing both YA and middle-grade fiction.

We talked to three industry experts about what prompts imprint closures and what authors should expect if they find their imprint on the chopping block.

The most straightforward explanation for imprint closures: lack of sufficient sales. It’s only logical: Publishing is a business, and if the imprint doesn’t earn its keep, there’s only so long it can continue. “Publishing companies today look at imprints through the cold calculus of earnings,” says Paul Bogaards, a longtime Knopf exec who now runs Bogaards Public Relations. “The consolidation that is taking place across the industry—and the closure of imprints—is principally tied to economics.” He says that business managers across the publishing industry review yearly profit & loss statements, and if an imprint is consistently in the red, watch out.

Publicist Kathleen Schmidt, who has had a long career in traditional publishing, agrees. “If the acquiring editors of the imprint are bringing in projects that aren’t selling well enough as frontlist titles, chances are they will not backlist well. While there isn’t a specific frontlist sales number associated with being a profitable backlist title, publishers often know, based on similar books, which ones have the ability to sell steadily over time. If an imprint isn’t producing titles that will add to a publisher’s backlist, it becomes a liability. Additionally, if an imprint’s frontlist titles continue declining sales rather than remain steady or become profitable, it makes more fiscal sense to fold the imprint into an existing one. Often, when this occurs, the staff at the imprint being shuttered is let go.”

In the case of Razorbill and Inkyard, it helps to consider current sales trends: The children’s market has been declining. In 2022, children’s hardcover sales were down 12.5% versus the prior year and below their levels from 2020 and 2019. Circana BookScan reports that frontlist children’s hardcover sales fell more than 20% last year. Additionally, Barnes & Noble has been reluctant to stock children’s middle-grade hardcovers because they are often returned unsold to publishers.

Schmidt says, “Over the past two to three years, B&N has skipped buying many titles because they are no longer willing to take as many chances on debut authors and are being conservative with numbers on previously published authors with mediocre sell-through. Further, B&N store managers aren’t overstocking categories. The cuts in children’s titles are a good example of this. In the YA category, BookTok plays a big part in what B&N carries. Independent bookstores only account for a small percentage of book sales. Amazon is truly where sales are concentrated right now, and though they stock pretty much everything, it doesn’t mean it sells. Discoverability is a major issue there.”

Andrea DeWerd, who runs The Future of Agency and has worked in marketing and publicity at three of the Big Five publishers, says that sometimes imprints spend too much on acquiring books, and “the sales simply aren’t there” to back up big advances. She sees that as more of a risk with personality-driven publishing, where an important editor is given their own imprint due to connections or relationships that bring in high-profile projects (and often high expenses). While imprint closures can appear sudden, she says once you look back, you can often see the signs that it wasn’t working.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Italian Publishers: Toughen Europe’s AI Act Regulations

From Publishing Perspectives:

A potentially pivotal moment occurs this week in the closely watched development of the European Union’s “AI Act.”

Markets in many parts of the world, not just in Europe, are following along for clues and cues in terms of how artificial intelligence can be developed and applied “safely”—and even that term safely can be hotly debated, of course.

On Wednesday (December 6), the AI Act is to have its fifth “trilogue.” That’s the term for a negotiating session in which the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the European Union. Previous trilogue meetings on the Artificial Intelligence Act were held in June, July, September, and October. Originally, the idea was that this December trilogue would finalize the bill for the bloc this year, but there’s increasing concern that the timing of such progress will be take longer. This, on legislation that saw its first draft in 2021 and was first proposed in 2019.

What has happened in the interim—you won’t be surprised to read—is the rise of “foundation models.” Sometimes called “general purpose,” these are the systems designed as large-language models built for “deep learning” that can be adapted for a wide array of scenarios. This contrasts, of course, with the concept of a traditional program designed to handle a specific and narrow task set, maybe speeding up a bit of office drudge work. Such less ambitious programs require nothing like some foundation models’ contentious free-range feeding on information—often copyrighted content—to build their algorithmic-response structures.

A foundation model is a form of what’s called “generative artificial intelligence,” meaning that it can generate output from a broad base of ingested data.

At the highest intentional level, the over-arching core of discussion around this legislation has been, to quote the EU’s material, to handle “concerns especially with regard to safety, security, and fundamental rights protection.” But if the devil is usually in the details, a construct of digital details presents such a major chance for devilry that many observers now are worried about this important legislation’s progress.

Needless to say, the upheaval around OpenAI last month when its board fired and the rehired Sam Altman seemed to confirm fears that a major corporate player in the AI space could be thrown into turmoil by inscrutable internal governance issues. As Kevin Chan at the Associated Press is writing today, once the Altman fiasco had played out, European Commissioner Thierry Breton said at an AI conference, “‘At least things are now clear’ that companies like OpenAI defend their businesses and not the public interest.”

And yet, much discussed in coverage on the run-up to Wednesday’s trilogue is an unexpected resistance that’s been mounted by France, Spain, and Italy, which presented a pitch for self-regulation among AI players.

At The Guardian, John Naughton wrote up this “Franco-German-Italian volte face,” as he calls it, as the result of everyone’s worst fears: “the power of the corporate lobbying that has been brought to bear on everyone in Brussels and European capitals generally.” More broadly, the assumption is that in each EU member-state seeming to make that about-face and start talking of self-regulation as the way to go, something has been promised by industry advocates for the local national AI companies, a divide-and-conquer effort by lobbyists.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes that the reaction of the European publishers sounds a lot like that of American publishers.

As far as regulation is concerned, the current AI programs/services he has tried have their AI capabilities online, so geographical fences like the the European Union’s “AI Act” are unlikely to prevent individuals or organizations who wish to use AI services offered over the internet from a provider located anywhere in the world.

As one cyberlaw website put it, “Some believe that the internet should be operated as if it were a land all its own, independent of national policy.”

Booker judge admits it’s nearly impossible to read ALL the books.

From Lit Hub:

In a refreshing “quiet part loud” moment earlier this fall, this year’s celebrity Booker judge, Peep Show’s Robert Webb, admitted publicly that it’s basically impossible to read the entire pre-longlist pool of 163 books in seven months. While that’s not exactly a novel-a-day, as Webb suggests, it’s pretty damn hard, particularly if you have a day job that has nothing to do with reading books.

Webb’s big mistake, of course, wasn’t that he didn’t finish every single novel, but that he admitted it. Most of us who read professionally can tell by the 50-page mark if we don’t like a book: the DNA of truly great writing is usually there in each sentence, each paragraph, and so we read on.

. . . .

It’s always been the case that the more you look behind the scenes of literary prizes the more arbitrary (and silly, frankly) the whole enterprise seems. If we’re being honest, the point isn’t to pick the ONE TRUE best novel (that’s not how art works) but rather to remind the broader public that novels exist, that they should be celebrated, and, while we’re at it, purchased in hardcover for $29.99.

Link to the rest at Lit Hub

PG suspects there are many different and more effective ways for selecting the Booker prizes than by inviting a group of traditional publishing insiders to read (or not read) the candidates and then vote according to the best interests of their publisher.

PG is not suggesting that such behavior would ever occur in the hallowed and dusty halls of major publishing.

Publishers Launch Weeklong #ReadPalestine Campaign

From Publishers Weekly:

Publishers for Palestine, a coalition of more than 350 publishers from around the world, has organized a weeklong campaign called #ReadPalestine, held November 29–December 5, during which participating publishers are offering free ebooks by Palestinian authors and about Palestinian history and culture.

More than 30 ebooks are free to download throughout #ReadPalestine week, timed to coincide with the U.N.’s International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The titles include fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and are available in eight languages. Among the titles on offer are Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear by poet Mosab Abu Toha (City Lights Books), Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer by journalist Phyllis Bennis (Interlink Books), and Hamas: From Resistance to Regime by historian Paola Caridi and translated by Andrea Teti (Seven Stories Press).

. . . .

The campaign encourages indie bookstores and libraries to participate in #ReadPalestine week through book displays and social media posts, and for readers to share their favorite books by Palestinian authors and about Palestine with the hashtag #ReadPalestine.

Publishers for Palestine was established earlier this month, publishing a statement of solidarity on November 3. The letter called for “an end to all violence against Palestinian people” and invited “publishers, and those who work in publishing industries around the world who stand for justice, freedom of expression, and the power of the written word, to sign this letter and join our global solidarity collective.”

. . . .

“Publishing, for us, is the exercise of freedom, cultural expression, and resistance,” the letter continued. “As publishers we are dedicated to creating spaces for creative and critical Palestinian voices and for all who stand in solidarity against imperialism, Zionism, and settler-colonialism. We defend our right to publish, edit, distribute, share, and debate works that call for Palestinian liberation without recrimination. We know that this is our role in the resistance.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG has no patience for any form of anti-semitism. From the date of Israel’s founding, when it was attacked by seven neighboring Arab nations, to today, when the worst sort of anti-Semitism is generated constantly by much of the Arab world, none of Israel’s neighbors regards a period of peace as anything more than a pause to replace their dead soldiers and rearm for the next attack.

The anti-Semitism of today is a direct descendant of the Nazi death camps and gas chambers.

For PG, Exhibit A of the steepening decline in values in America’s higher education system is the rise in the number of students and professors who are joining in the anti-Semitic campaign of hate for Jews.

With regard to the OP, a great many talented Jewish executives, editors, and authors were deeply involved in the growth and development of New York publishing during the 20th Century. The “publishers” supporting the “global solidarity collective” that is encouraging the Arab slaughtering of Israelis in their beds and the dismembering of Israeli children is proof that they have lost any sense of decency and are beneath contempt.

That the publishers participating in this disgusting campaign while claiming the “right” to be free of recrimination upsets PG even more. As the publishers might say, “Words have consequences.”

X remains primary social media platform for publishers

From The Bookseller:

Publishers say most of their social engagement still comes through X, formerly known as Twitter, though they are now actively engaging with alternatives such as Threads, BlueSky and Mastodon.

Since business magnate Elon Musk completed his buyout of the networking site in 2022, there have been a number of changes, notably to the platform’s verification policies, stripping verified blue ticks from accounts which hadn’t signed up for its paid-for subscription service. Links to articles also changed to only show the associated image without the headline, making it difficult to share news. This has prompted the book community’s use of the platform to dissipate, but most publishers still see X as their main social media platform as it still has the largest number of active users and newer alternatives are not yet set up for scheduling.

Jack Birch, senior digital marketing manager at Bloomsbury, told The Bookseller: “The users that have left Twitter/X since Musk’s takeover have not gone to a specific destination; they have fragmented across different platforms such as Blue Sky, Mastodon and Threads, as well as other platforms. As a company, we felt that Threads had the potential to be the biggest competitor to X, given Meta’s history of running successful social media apps and an existing audience that they could convert (cleverly linking Instagram followers to Threads at the click of a button). We hoped Instagram and Facebook users could pivot to a text-based social network, as well as pick up people leaving Musk’s X. However, after initial enthusiasm, interactions and impressions have dropped off a cliff.”

He believes that despite the press for dwindling numbers on Twitter/X, it remains the place for “influential media figures” such as journalists and celebrities and is still where “news breaks first”. Birch also cited how two of the more recent campaigns, Ghosts: The Button House Archives and The Rest is History, “performed exceptionally well on X, partly due to pre-existing, established fandoms, as well as each book’s content suiting the platform”.

He said that Bloomsbury believes Mastodon and Blue Sky are “currently too complicated for the general user to have wider popular appeal at least at the moment”. He added: “Our social media management platform, Sprout Social, does not currently allow us to schedule posts on these two platforms. With all of this in mind, we have put more energy into our Instagram and TikTok channels. Though content usually takes longer to produce, we are seeing excellent returns on engagements and impressions. As a company, we also have direct relationships with Meta and TikTok, and are able to solve any issues that may affect our accounts.”

“The social media landscape has always changed very quickly, but, since Musk’s takeover of X, it is even more unstable than it ever has been before. We have a large, and engaged, social media following on Meta, TikTok and X; it is still there where we see our key audience.”

A Bonnier Books UK spokesperson said: “We’re continuing to use Twitter/X across a number of our imprints, and so far it is proving fairly resilient with an active community of readers, media and influencers. Ultimately, we’re committed to going where our readers take us, and to ensure that we offer our community the space and the content to connect, debate and celebrate their love of stories – whatever the platform.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG suggests that, regardless of social media platform, traditional publishers are going to be small fish compared with real celebrities, tech companies or just about anyone else with the slightest bit of talent. For one thing, a talented social media influencer can maker significantly more money than the CEO of a book publisher.

He’s pressed for time at the moment, but feel free to compare the number of X followers of publishers with television networks, online news sites, newspapers, popular authors or just about any other provider of information or entertainment and post your discoveries in the comments.

Yahdon Israel Pulls Back the Curtain on Publishing

From Publishers Weekly:

In March 2021, days after he was hired as a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, Yahdon Israel went on Instagram Live to tell his thousands of followers what kind of books he was looking to acquire—essentially a call for submissions, which Big Five editors rarely put out.

He would be acquiring eight to 12 books per year, he said, and briefly rattled off the genres he was looking for. But for most of the livestream, he painted a picture of the sort of writer he wanted to work with: writers with strong senses of selves as well as business acumen, who understand that their art is also a product and that their work doesn’t end with turning in manuscripts. He encouraged anyone who fit the bill to email him directly.

Later that day, he received an email from a self-taught, unagented writer named Aaliyah Bilal with the manuscript for a debut short story collection about the lives of Black Muslims in America. It was titled Temple Folk.

“This book is the proof of concept of what hiring someone like me could mean for this industry,” Israel said of Temple Folk, which was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. As an editor, Israel is keen to circumvent traditional channels—for instance, he hosts livestreams instead of lunching with agents—to engage directly with writers outside of the literary establishment. Temple Folk showed that alternative methods of acquisition can yield extraordinary results.

“She knew who she was and she knew who she wanted to be as a writer,” he said of Bilal. “But how would an agent have found her?” For Israel, looking for authors outside of their usual habitats—your Iowa Writers Workshops, your Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences—creates a healthier literary ecosystem.

“There are people who don’t have an agent, don’t have MFAs, and are probably writing something fire—and there’s actually no way to get to that person,” he said. “You’re trusting—or you’re hoping—that the cream rises to the top, but that only works if there are reliable and consistent factors that are finding cream in all its forms.” The onus, he said, is on the publishing industry to actively seek out talent, whether it be authors or employees, in unconventional places: “If you look for it, you’ll find it.”

Israel himself came to S&S without a traditional publishing background. Though he had long been deeply involved in the literary world—he served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and the selection committee for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, taught at CUNY’s MFA program and the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and founded the Literaryswag Book Club, among other endeavors—he had never before worked at a publisher.

But the circumstances of his hiring, he stressed, were “an anomaly.” In late February 2021, Israel reached out to Kathryn Belden—a friend and Scribner’s editorial director—to let her know he was looking for a job in publishing, hopeful it might lead to an informational interview. Within a week, he was being courted by S&S CEO Jonathan Karp and then-publisher Dana Canedy. To his surprise, they offered him a senior editor role, despite him being prepared to start in an entry-level position. “Without those people,” he said of Belden, Karp, and Canedy, “I’d still be circling the outer perimeter of the industry.”

At every opportunity, Israel gives due credit to his colleagues—a personal practice that encapsulates the philosophy behind his social media presence. He’s become known for using Instagram to demystify the publishing process, and in doing so, he hopes to show readers—especially those who might balk at the prices on hardcovers—just how much work and how many people are needed to publish a book.

“Part of that transparency is about getting consumers to really think about, well, why does this book cost so much?” he said. “Because there’s a lot of labor from a lot of people that contributes to what you’re reading. It’s about getting people to appreciate labor that they don’t see, to think about the entire process that extends beyond and in addition to an author.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Toward the Next Literary Mafia

From Public Books:

Imagine a US literary culture—perhaps in the year 2030—in which African Americans are the editors of the New Yorker and the Atlantic MonthlyPoetry, the Paris Review, and n+1; the editors in chief of Random House and Simon & Schuster and W. W. Norton and Graywolf; the editors of the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books; as well as the founders and editors in chief of a handful of new, thriving, and critically acclaimed publications and publishing houses (whether independent or bought out by the conglomerates), and upwards of 30 or 40 percent of all employees throughout the industry as a whole. Or imagine the same scenario, with the people in those positions all being instead, say, Cuban Americans or Vietnamese Americans.

We’re hardly on track for such a transformation of the field. But if something like this were to come to pass, it wouldn’t be without precedent.

In the first decade of the 20th century, it was both virtually impossible and virtually unheard of for a Jewish person, irrespective of their individual talents, to be hired for any job at a major American publishing company—even if they were Ivy League graduates, heirs to family fortunes, and had brilliant literary minds. They couldn’t get hired on the editorial staff of a widely circulated American magazine, or be granted a professorship in an English department at a prestigious university, either. But all that started to change in the decades after the 1910s, when Jews entered the industry en masse. In addition to founding many of the today’s largest publishing companies, Jews became so influential throughout the industry that by the 1960s American writers as different as Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac, Katherine Anne Porter, and Mario Puzo began to complain about a “Jewish literary mafia.” In short, a minority group went from almost complete exclusion to full literary enfranchisement in a matter of decades.

Understanding that history can help us to understand what will be necessary if we’re serious about finally having a more diverse, less exclusionary publishing industry.

If you read articles about publishing in the US, you’re already aware that a lack of diversity is a pressing problem right now. You may have seen the hashtags #publishingsowhite and #publishingpaidme; read the many essays, perused the surveys, and cringed admiringly through recent novels, like Zakiya Dalila Harris’ The Other Black Girl and Uwem Akpan’s New York, My Village, which serve up publishing’s unbearable whiteness for our edification and horror. You may also have noticed recent efforts to bring some long-overdue diversity into the companies that produce the books we read, like the hiring of Lisa Lucas to lead Pantheon/Schocken. And, as an extensive, wildly important PEN America report by James Tager and Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, published last October documents, as well intentioned as these recent efforts to address the problem may be, those of us who want to see a more diverse publishing industry have reasons to be skeptical.

We’ve been here before. More than thirty years ago, the Association of American Publishers surveyed its members and found that “out of a total of 69,550 employees, 9.3% were African Americans, and 20.8% could be considered minorities,” mostly “in clerical categories.” An extensive 1994 report in Publishers Weekly remarked that “no one … dispute[s] the fact that the book publishing industry lacks representative numbers of African American, Asian and Hispanic employees.” Two years later, a New York Times article reported that even while African American consumers bought hundreds of millions of books each year, only “3.4 percent of the managers, editors and professionals who choose the nation’s popular literature” were African American. The article also noted that “there are so few Hispanic employees … that it’s not unusual that a major publishing house like HarperCollins … runs its new Libros line of Hispanic literature without a Hispanic editor involved in the project.”

By the 1990s, then, at least according to those articles, increased diversity in publishing was already a widely shared goal. And, at that time, a variety of initiatives, including new imprints and companies, were created to pursue this goal. As Publishers Weekly phrased it at the time: “Everyone agrees that there should be more minorities in the business.”

Why then, some thirty years later, haven’t those efforts made much of a difference? Why did it feel, in the mid-2010s, like the conversation was starting from scratch—and why, as the PEN America report phrased it, has “the debate over the lack of diversity in publishing … seemed to stagnate, or to progress only in fits and starts”? Most importantly, how can we make sure that the efforts being made right now to increase the diversity of publishing will actually increase the diversity of publishing?

To answer those questions, we have to understand not just the fact that American Jews overcame prejudice to thrive in the publishing industry, but how that happened.

First, it’s important to acknowledge just how drastic the transformation was. Publishing, and US literary culture in general, was, once upon a time, viciously and openly antisemitic. While a few Jews had already succeeded as writers and in other culture industries, it is 1912—when Alfred Knopf got a job with the accounting department of Doubleday, Page, & Company—that is generally recognized as the first time an American Jew was offered employment by a major US publishing house.

Anti-Jewish discrimination didn’t disappear then. But, over the half century that followed, American Jews flourished in the book business. They founded Random House (later Penguin Random House) and Simon & Schuster, the two mammoth companies whose merger was recently stymied by the government. They also founded Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; Boni & Liveright; Viking; Pantheon; Farrar, Straus and Company; Basic Books; Grove Press; and many others.

Along with founding their own firms, around midcentury Jews also began to be hired, and began rising to leadership positions, at the major US publishing houses founded by non-Jews in the 19th century, like Doubleday, Harper, and Wiley. Jews were instrumental in innovations like the Book-of-the-Month Club and the popularization of mass-market and trade paperbacks. In the postwar decades, elite English departments finally began to hire them, and by the 1970s one estimate suggested that 13 percent of all English professors at the leading American universities were Jewish. Jews were even more conspicuous among the editors and critics whose reviews helped books get attention. There wasn’t ever an actual “Jewish literary mafia,” but it’s true that by the 1970s discrimination against Jews in US literary culture had become a thing of the past. 

. . . .

How can we explain this wholesale eradication of antisemitic prejudice in the publishing industry, when other forms of exclusion, like structural racism and patriarchy, have been so resilient in so many areas of American life?

There are several ways to answer that question, but one of the most compelling explanations has to do with the way that a minority group enters an industry. When minorities join a field gradually, in small numbers, they tend to suffer from what the sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter famously described as “tokenism,” on the basis of her study of an American corporation in the 1970s. Here’s how she describes tokenism:

Women who were few in number among male peers [in their departments] … sometimes … had the advantages of those who are “different” and thus were highly visible in a system where success is tied to becoming known … [but more often] they faced the loneliness of the outsider, of the stranger who intrudes upon an alien culture and may become self-estranged in the process of assimilation [and so] their turnover and “failure rate” were known to be much higher than those of men in entry and early grade positions.

In Kanter’s view, at least, this experience was not primarily the effect of gender or misogyny, per se, but of minority status. She argues that “any situation where proportions of significant types of people are highly skewed can produce similar themes and processes.”

But that’s not inevitable: a minority group can enter an industry in a different way. Economists have shown that if they enter a field together—and establish themselves as a significant cohort within it—members of a minority group can derive substantial benefits: better information sharing, tools for building and strengthening trust, more effective sanctions, and so on. The structural advantages that accrue to members of ethnic niches explain the many surprising concentrations of minority groups in contemporary American industries and fields—the fact that, for example, “one-third of all U.S. motels are owned by Gujarati Indians” and that “the concentration of Korean self-employment in dry cleaners is 34 times greater than other immigrant groups.” While discrimination clearly contributes to minority employment patterns, too, this vein of economic argument suggests that concentrations allow members of an ethnic niche to prosper within a field.

The Jews who entered publishing beginning in the 1910s did so, emphatically, not as tokens, but as a niche. Alfred Knopf worked only briefly at Doubleday, where he would have been the token Jew, but he quickly left that position to found a company with his Jewish wife and father and other Jewish employees, where he was part of a niche. Within a decade, this Jewish niche in publishing expanded, with many of the personnel across the different firms related through family or social ties. Thomas Seltzer, who published books first on his own and then at Viking, was Alfred Boni’s uncle; the founders of Random House and Simon & Schuster were young Jewish men who had previously worked at Boni and Liveright; and on and on. Even when they were hired at historically antisemitic and majority non-Jewish firms, departments, and publications, Jews could rely on their connections to their Jewish relatives, professors, and contacts elsewhere in the literary world for support. The Jewish ethnic niche that emerged allowed individual Jews in publishing not to suffer from tokenism but, on the contrary, to benefit from their minority status. And, as they flourished, they transformed the field, introducing or popularizing many elements of literary culture that now seem quintessentially American.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Yet another reason to avoid Big Publishing, it’s run by racists.

Big Publishing Killed the Author

From The New Republic:

The suggestion that Beloved, Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel about slavery and its afterlives, is also a parable about the publishing industry would be bizarre, even offensive—if, that is, Morrison herself hadn’t explicitly suggested it. For years, Morrison had felt not merely penned in by her career as an editor at the publishing giant Random House; she had felt indentured, “held in contempt—to be played with when our masters are pleased, to be dismissed when they are not,” as she declared in a speech six years before publishing Beloved. Upon leaving her job at Random House to focus on writing full-time, she felt “free in a way I had never been, ever.… Enter Beloved.” It was, she continued in the novel’s preface, “the shock of liberation”—liberation from the world of corporate publishing—“that drew my thoughts to what ‘free’ could mean.” In the novel itself, Morrison has Baby Suggs, the protagonist’s mother, describe freedom from slavery in strikingly similar terms.

In despairing of the modern publishing industry, even comparing it to bondage, Morrison was far from alone. Indeed, as Dan Sinykin, an assistant professor of English at Emory University, argues in his revelatory new book, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature, the increasing consolidation and corporatization of the publishing industry—a process Sinykin calls “conglomeration”—profoundly changed not merely the way novels were published but also the content of those novels. As publishers grew far larger—and ever more concerned with the bottom line—the lives of editors and authors transformed. More than ever before, they became cogs in a corporate machine, responsible for growth and returns on investment, necessarily responsive to the whims and demands of capital—and these pressures increasingly showed up in their output.

It’s a compelling thesis, albeit one that fits easily into a fast-growing literature on the forces shaping the art and media we consume. A decade ago, the critic Mark McGurl argued that the postwar relocation of American fiction writing to the campus—and especially to university creative writing programs—resulted in novels that follow now-familiar rules (show, don’t tell; write from your experience, etc.). Another influential critic, James English, pointed to the rise of an “economy of prestige”—and especially to the Booker and Pulitzer prizes—to explain the reputational ascendancy of certain genres (e.g., historical fiction) and those genres’ consequent scarcity on bestseller lists. More recently, McGurl reentered the fray to assert that the behemoth of all behemoths—Amazon—has single-handedly reshaped contemporary fiction, and still another scholar, Laura McGrath, has shone a light on the significant role played by literary agents in determining the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is marketable for the modern novelist.

Nonetheless, Big Fiction is a fresh intervention, principally due to the richness of the context Sinykin provides and the impressively broad array of evidence he marshals. In his first book, American Literature and the Long Downturn, Sinykin drew on archival material and close reading to argue that the distinct economic miseries of the last half-century—deindustrialization, deregulation, the decimation of organized labor, and widening inequality—led a great many late-twentieth-century American novelists to turn to apocalyptic fiction, imagining escape or salvation in the form of “total annihilation.” Now, wielding many of the same analytical tools, Sinykin retells that same story—but with a larger cast of characters. The same economic forces that led authors to write about the end of the world led to the corporatization of publishing, which in turn compelled authors to turn inward, to obsess over self-reflexive concerns, to create stories of individuals struggling against the end of their world.

Before the 1960s, U.S. publishing was a family affair. Small, privately held “houses” (as they’re still anachronistically called) decided what to acquire based mainly on their relationships and references. If a favored author didn’t sell, oh well, an editor might sigh, hopefully, he (and it was usually a “he,” almost always a white “he”) would do better next time. While mass-market paperback publishers brought “genre” fiction (Westerns, mysteries, romance) to the masses, the houses strove to put out literary fiction (more challenging, more aesthetically interesting, or so the prevailing wisdom dictated)

Then everything changed. In 1960, the newspaper Times Mirror Company purchased the mass-market publisher New American Library, inaugurating what Sinykin calls “the conglomerate era.” That same year, Random House went public and, flush with newfound capital, acquired Knopf and, a year later, Pantheon. Conglomeration spread rapidly, with well-capitalized behemoths gobbling up mass-market houses and old family-run firms with equal fervor. Over the next decade and a half, the electronics company Radio Corporation of America acquired Random House, a Canadian communications firm nabbed Macmillan, the Italian conglomerate that owned Fiat swallowed Bantam, and Gulf + Western bought Simon & Schuster. Ultimately, conglomeration consolidated more and more imprints under single roofs, with the German conglomerate Bertelsmann seizing Doubleday in 1986, Random House in 1998, and Penguin (via a merger) in 2013.

The economic downturns of the late twentieth century, starting in the 1970s, did nothing to halt the rise of conglomerate publishing; in fact, they accelerated the process. Management consultants arrived, and they contributed to a fundamental shift in the way U.S. publishers did business. Editors, who had previously enjoyed considerable freedom and made decisions based on their personal preferences and gut instincts, now had to do so by reference to a balance sheet; they had to prove that each title they wished to procure would be a moneymaker. “Editors,” Toni Morrison claimed in her 1981 speech, “are now judged by the profitability of what they acquire rather than by what they acquire.” This led editors to take fewer risks and go out on fewer limbs; it led literary novelists to adopt the techniques of their lower-brow counterparts, turning to what sold.

Sinykin points to the illustrative example of Cormac McCarthy, who was lucky enough to start publishing under the old regime. For 28 years, starting in the mid-1960s, he put out dense, difficult novels with Random House without ever selling well enough to get a single royalty check. When his old-school editor retired in 1987, McCarthy—aware he was navigating a new world—hired a literary agent for the first time. Fortunately for him, he piqued the interest of rising super-agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, who moved him over to Knopf, where his next novel would be overseen by editor Sonny Mehta and others, the new generation. Relocated to a new imprint, with a new editor and an agent, McCarthy changed his style; he abandoned his abstract plots and instead wrote a Western, the story of a young cowboy mourning the death of his world, embracing many of the techniques of genre novelists as he did so. That novel, All the Pretty Horses, soared to the bestseller lists upon its publication in 1992; it sold 100,000 copies and was adapted into a blockbuster movie. Cormac McCarthy became and remained a star.

Link to the rest at The New Republic

PG says that times change, businesses change and people change. The Good Old Days didn’t always feel very good for the people who were living there.

Fixing Racism in the Book Business

From Publishers Weekly:

Publishing attracts people who love books, reading, and ideas. But for many Black professionals in publishing, there’s a disconnect between the love of the medium and their work experiences, which can be rife with isolation, exclusion, and stalled routes to leadership.

The challenges these workers face reflect the central argument I make in Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism and What We Can Do to Fix It (Amistad, out now): that key aspects of hiring, organizational culture, and advancement are structured in ways that maintain racial inequality.

Organizational culture refers to the norms, values, and expectations that characterize a company. Aspects of organizational culture are usually implicit, so they may not be apparent until they are violated. Furthermore, they vary widely between companies and industries.

Many publishing houses can be characterized by clan culture, wherein staff are expected to work collaboratively. This type of organizational culture might seem benign—how could working closely create problems for Black employees?

Constance, one of the workers I interviewed for my book, provides an instructive example. A professor of chemical engineering, she found that the clan culture in her academic unit encouraged close collaborations and connections. But it also left colleagues unable to see or rectify the chilly climate she experienced as one of very few Black women in a white-male-dominated space. A clan culture in publishing might encourage workers to view each other as family, but if companies aren’t paying attention to racial dynamics, Black workers may end up feeling more like distant cousins at best.

Many companies try to rectify these issues with diversity training. These trainings have become nearly ubiquitous. But despite their prevalence, mandated trainings can, according to a 2021 piece in the Economist, actually do more harm than good.

Researchers found that mandating diversity training can make white workers resentful and less interested in and sensitive to racial discrimination at work. Perhaps surprisingly, as shown in the anthology Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience, Black workers, too, are often uninterested in diversity training, which seems more intended to achieve regulatory compliance than address the real issues Black workers encounter in the workplace.

I found this to be the case for Amalia, a journalist I interviewed. She worked for an outlet that encouraged her reporting on race and culture. But she also noted systemic barriers to hiring Black journalists and experienced extreme racist harassment online. Diversity trainings aren’t designed to address these issues. Black workers in publishing may experience similar situations and feel that diversity training does little to offset the challenges they encounter.

Finally, my research shows that advancement isn’t just shaped by skill and success but through networks and connections, especially with mentors and sponsors who can aid career advancement. For Kevin, who worked in the nonprofit sector, being a Black man surrounded by mostly white women colleagues made finding mentors and sponsors difficult. He usually felt pigeonholed by his supervisors’ perceptions of him, which he felt were shaped by racial and gendered stereotypes. The 2019 study Being Black in Corporate America, from nonprofit thinktank Coqual, found that Black workers have less access to managers and supervisors than colleagues of other racial groups. For Black workers in publishing, this can adversely impact routes to promotion and help explain underrepresentation in leadership roles.

So, what can publishing do differently? Fortunately, there are evidence-based solutions, as demonstrated in Getting to Diversity: What Works and What Doesn’t by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev. Instead of mandating diversity training, publishing houses can institute diversity task forces that identify and rectify racial issues related to hiring, work environment, and advancement.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Perhaps a boycott of traditional publishing is in order.

‘Fourth Wing’ Publisher Vows to ‘Swiftly’ Resolve ‘Frustrating’ Misprint Issues With Sequel ‘Iron Flame’: ‘We Are Committed to Making This Right’

From Variety:

The publisher of best-selling romantasy book “Fourth Wing” is working to “swiftly” resolve the “frustrating” misprint issues with “Iron Flame,” the sequel from author Rebecca Yarros, which sold more than half a million copies on its Tuesday release day alone.

Entangled Publishing, the owner of Red Tower Books, the imprint behind “Fourth Wing” and “Iron Flame” issued a statement to Variety on Friday, following numerous social media posts and online customer reviews that cited misprints with physical hardback copies of “Iron Flame,” as well as the new holiday edition of “Fourth Wing,” both released Nov. 7.

“Entangled Publishing acknowledges that a limited number of copies from the first edition print run of Iron Flame, the highly anticipated sequel to Fourth Wing, have been affected by printing errors,” the statement reads. “We know that these misprints, no matter how common in the industry, have caused disappointment among those who eagerly awaited this release. We understand how frustrating it can be to receive a misprinted book. The satisfaction and joy of our readers is at the heart of what we do, and we stand by our products, our authors, and, most importantly, our reading community.

“In keeping with our values of quality and responsibility, we are committed to making this right. We are actively working with our distribution partner to create a solution for those who wish to exchange their copy but are unable to do so at their original retailer. Our printing company is also working to produce the additional copies needed to facilitate this process. Entangled Publishing appreciates the patience and support of our readers as we work to swiftly resolve this issue. More details will be available on our social media platforms in the coming weeks. Thank you for your continued trust, enthusiasm for Iron Flame, and the incredible stories we share.”

According to several videos posted on TikTok, customers found damaged and bleeding sprayed book edges, typos, missing pages, and upside down pages and endpapers in certain copies of “Iron Flame” and the special printing of “Fourth Wing.” One user shared a video that showed her copy of “Iron Flame” said “Fourth Wing” on the spine of the book, underneath an “Iron Flame” dust jacket, but did in fact contain the printed pages for the 640-page sequel book, not “Fourth Wing.”

“Iron Flame” is Yarros’ follow-up to “Fourth Wing,” her New York Times best-selling romantasy that was released in May by Entangled Publishing’s Red Tower Books. “Fourth Wing” introduced Violet Sorrengail, a first-year student at Basgiath War College who became a dragon rider after training her whole life as a scribe, a more peaceful calling.

Link to the rest at Variety

Thank goodness Ms. Yarros used a traditional publisher who deploys armies of editors and proofreaders to make certain readers always receive high-quality products for the prices they pay, unlike the scummy self-published authors who don’t offer the protections that professional editorial and quality-control procedures provide.

Traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. Which should you choose?

From Nathan Bransford:

Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of agents and publishers or to take arms against a sea of books on Amazon, and by being among them, rise above? To die, to sleep (oh wait you won’t), to sleep perchance to dream of fame and riches… aye there’s the rub.

Ahem. Sorry.

So. You have yourself a book. Should you just go ahead and self-publish and see how it does? Should you try your luck with agents and publishers? Should you try agents and publishers first and then self-publish if that doesn’t work?

. . . .

But once you have a general sense of the differences between traditional and self-publishing, you’ll have decisions to make. Having traditionally published my Jacob Wonderbar series and self-published How to Write a Novel and How to Publish a Book, I’ve seen both sides.

. . . .

Dispelling myths

Before we get to some of the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing, I feel the need to dispel some myths.

For some reason, rival camps of traditional and self-publishing devotees continuously spring up online and besmirch the other side, even as the number of authors who have dabbled in both traditional publishing and self-publishing (like me) continues to rise.

Some self-publishers (often adopting the “indie” moniker) profess that traditional publishing is the stuff of retrograde dinosaurs and haughty agents looking only for authors who aren’t like them and that no one should even waste their time sending out queries.

Some traditional publishing types paint self-publishing with a broad brush as little more than vanity publishing for books that weren’t good enough to make it through the traditional publishing process.

These caricatures don’t have any truth to them. Both self-publishing and traditional publishing are viable paths.

Traditional publishing has its merits. Self-publishing has its merits. Traditional books can catch on. Self-publishing books can catch on.

What’s important is that you choose the process that’s right for your project based on what’s important to you and what your strengths are.

Get in tune with your goals

So before you go down this path, get in tune with your goals.

I’ll get to more detailed questions later in this post to help you weigh that right approach for your project, but really sit with your thoughts for a bit and gauge the elements of writing and publishing that are most important to you.

Why did you write the book? How important is it to you to make it revenue positive? Do you want it out there in a big way or are you content just having copies you can give to friends and family?

Starting this process with some self-reflection and getting in tune with your writing goals will prime you to make the best decision.

7 questions to ask yourself

Okay. You’re now open-minded about choosing the path that’s right for you and you’ve gotten in tune with your goals.

Here are questions to ask yourself to help narrow down which path you should choose. And if you’d like to talk it through with me, feel free to book a consultation.

Is your book a niche/passion project or does it have broad, national appeal?

In order to attract a traditional publisher, especially one of the major ones, you’re going to need to have a book that fits into an established genre, is of appropriate length, and has mass commercial appeal. As in, it’s something for a broad audience, not a narrow niche. And if you’re writing prescriptive nonfiction, you need to be one of the top people in the entire world to write that book if you want to pursue traditional publishing.

Nearly everyone who has ever written a book views it as a potential mega-bestseller, but this really requires some honest self-assessment.

Does your book have broad, national appeal or is it niche? Is it a potential bestseller or something you just wrote to, say, have your family history recorded for posterity or to get a bee out of your bonnet?

I like to use the airport bookstore test here. Is your book something you could potentially see on sale in an airport bookstore?

The major publishers (and the literary agents who work with them) are going for broad, mainstream audiences. If your potential readership is more narrow, you might want to go directly to a small press or self-publish. If you are writing nonfiction and lack a significant platform, you may want to just go ahead and self-publish.

But if you can genuinely see it reaching a wide audience, you can give traditional publishing a shot.

How much control do you want over the publishing process?

One of the things I like most about the traditional publishing process is its collaborative nature. You’re working with experienced professionals who bring a wealth of expertise to bear at every stage of the process.

But this does mean giving up some control. Your agent may want you to revise your work before they send it to publishers. You will almost assuredly be edited by an editor at a publishing house. You won’t have approval over your book’s cover and you’ll probably only have mutual consent on your book title. You’ll have limited control over how and where your book is marketed and things like discounts and promotions.

This all requires a collaborative mindset and ceding some of the decision-making. Your publisher may well make some decisions you don’t agree with, and some that might even drive you a bit insane.

Meanwhile, with self-publishing, everything is up to you. The edits, cover, title, fonts, marketing, price points… it’s all your choice.

So if you have an extremely precise vision of what you want your cover to look like or are dead-set on including your own illustrations, self-publishing may be the way to go. If you’re willing to be flexible, traditional publishing is an option.

How much does the validation of traditional publishing matter to you?

There’s still something gratifying about making it all the way through the traditional publishing process, having your work validated by professionals, and getting paid for your efforts.

The names Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster… they still matter to people.

But maybe you don’t care one whit about the name of the publisher on the spine of your book. And that’s fine too!

Gut check how much a publisher’s validation matters to you or whether you’re fine going straight to readers.

How important is it for your book to be in bookstores and libraries?

Traditional publishers still have a significant competitive edge in the print era because of their distribution and sales infrastructure. If you want your book widely available in bookstores and libraries, you are going to need a traditional publisher.

Sure, you might be able to strike up some individual relationships with local bookstores, but traditional publishing is the surest path to having your book widely available in stores and libraries across the country.

Now, in a world where close to the majority of books are purchased online, maybe this no longer matters to you. If you self-publish, you can have your book available on Amazon alongside all the other big names.

But if you care about being in bookstores, traditional publishing may be worth a shot.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG stifled himself (a rare occurrence). Feel free to comment.

PRH UK had a “good year, boosted by a great bestseller performance.” BTW, you’re fired!

From The New Publishing Standard:

The “38 roles” being eliminated at PRH UK is not huge in the layoff scheme of things, rather just one more tranche of redundancies across the US and UK publishing industry that momentarily gains a headline, and is then forgotten.

Jobs? Hey, this is business. No-one said you had a job for life. Least of all now.

Forget all the BS about record profits, soaring global readership, literacy rates “through the roof,” etc. (Markus Dohle, May 2023). Take no notice of the fact that PRH CEO Tim Weldon has literally just told us PRH UK had a “good year boosted by a great bestseller performance.”

Didn’t you know the publishing industry is facing challenging times? Headwinds, in fact.

Explains Weldon: “Global geopolitical and macroeconomic factors have created volatility and uncertainty for all economies and businesses, which have escalated over the past few years. On a micro level, the book market is impacted in many ways by these factors. It is getting increasingly harder – and more expensive – to do business, driven by cost inflation, supply chain complexity and a slowing market coming off the high of the pandemic. Paper, for instance, is more than 20% more expensive than it was in 2018. Increasing book prices (resulting from the rising costs) have buoyed the market but overall volumes are down by 4.5% versus last year.

Wait, what? Obviously Weldon didn’t get the memo from former PRH CEO Markus Dohle, who as recently as May was telling us how bright the future of publishing is. Said Dohle, “Physical bookselling is having a great renaissance,” adding, “I’m optimistic about the future of a diverse books retail landscape going forward. The physical format…is getting a lot larger, and that doesn’t show any signs of weakness. It’s quite the opposite.

Just to be clear.

Dohle: “Physical bookselling is having a great renaissanceThe physical format (that’s print to normal folk)…is getting a lot larger, and that doesn’t show any signs of weakness. It’s quite the opposite.

Weldon: “Increasing book prices (resulting from the rising costs) have buoyed the market but overall volumes are down by 4.5% versus last year.”

Dohle: “I’m optimistic about the future of a diverse books retail landscape going forward.”

Weldon: ” It is getting increasingly harder – and more expensive – to do business, driven by cost inflation, supply chain complexity and a slowing market coming off the high of the pandemic.”

So are we to presume the headwinds Weldon talks about suddenly appeared since May?

Obviously not, and that’s just one more example of why the May TNPS polemic addressing Dohle’s disturbing disconnect with the realities of publishing needed to be written.

But Weldon and Dohle are cut from the same cloth. Both Old Guard gatekeepers, sincerely believing they know what’s best for the unwashed reading masses. Both living in a corporate bubble comfortably apart from publishing realities and the daily struggle to pay the bills that mere employees and regular authors face every day. And both staunch opponents of digital innovation in publishing. Subscription, anyone?

This was Weldon in 2014, after Scribd and Oyster first got into subscription:

We are not convinced it is what readers want. ‘Eat everything you can’ isn’t a reader’s mindset. In music or film you might want 10,000 songs or films, but I don’t think you want 10,000 books.”

Who can possibly argue with that? This man knows a reader’s mindset. That is why PRH publishes so few books, because nobody wants ten thousand books to choose from. And as we all know, even back in 2014 no bookshop anywhere had ten thousand books. That would be ridiculous.

What he was saying, of course, was that nobody wants ten thousand digital books, because that’s a slippery slope for what Dohle calls “the physical format”, and that’s always been the driver for PRH policy. Keep the brake on digital consumption to protect Dohle’s bet on print.

And as the years rolled by, Weldon kept on misreading the market. As the Pandemic arrived in 2020, PRH UK was among the first publishers to furlough its staff, not for one second imagining that lockdown might bring more people to the book market, leading to record profits in 2021.

And of course Weldon, and Dohle, immediately shared those record profits by raising author royalties.

No, hold on. In my authorly dreams.

Weldon explained in 2014 that PRH was always looking at how much authors were being compensated.

Authors are, alongside readers, the foundation of our business. We are always, always looking at our commercial arrangements with authors to make sure they’re fair and equitable.”

Which of course is why, a decade on, after record profits and revenues, amid a “renaissance“, a market that “shows no sign of weakness“, and unbridled optimism “about the future of a diverse books retail landscape going forward,” royalty rates remain unchanged. And jobs are being shed at a rate of knots.

And that brings us full circle to the thrust of this essay, which is that jobs and pay in publishing, along with royalties and advances for those who are “the foundation of our business,” authors, are no more secure today than ten, thirty or fifty years ago.

Weldon on the latest job cuts: “I appreciate this is very difficult news. People are – and have always been – at the heart of our business, and so as a leader you never want to have to make these kinds of decisions.

Those may be very sincere words, although I somehow doubt Tom’s losing sleep over it. His job is secure.

But here’s the thing: Industry jobs are lost, we read it in the industry news feeds for five seconds, and then we get on with our own lives. These 38 role eliminations will be forgotten next week as another bout of industry job losses somewhere else briefly pops onto our radar.

Sometimes jobs have to go. Companies have to move with the times. We all understand that. “That’s life,” we say, and get back to listening to music on subscription and watching films and TV on subscription while ranting against the very idea of subscription books. The sky is falling!

But supposing those 38 jobs had been lost due to AI… What a different story it would be.

Not because we care any more about the person who lost their livelihood to AI (who can point to anyone who has?) as opposed to “a slowing market coming off the high of the pandemic,” but because the very initials A.I. strike irrational fear into what Lee Child would call our “lizard brains.”

Show me the court case where lawyers are busy fighting for author or employee careers because a publisher is shedding jobs or not renewing publishing contracts or not paying enough royalties. It doesn’t happen.

Yet right now there are lawyers milking the AI publishing bandwagon, getting paid to tell a judge AI is a threat to author careers.

. . . .

Just look at the feeble submission to the UK government that various publishing industry bodies knocked up to try influence British govt. thinking (I use the term loosely) about AI. As if the UK government gives a flying fig about jobs and authorly rights in publishing.

Authors, translators, narrators, industry employees, et al, all have a right to be treated with decency and dignity, to fair remuneration, and to have their IPs protected.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PG is a big fan of The New Publishing Standard, in part because it has a broad international focus different than most publishing news periodicals which mostly focus on a single country or a small group of countries. Visitors to TPV may wish to check out TNPS.

How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction?

From The NewYorker:

In 1989, Gerald Howard had been a book editor for about ten years, and his future filled him with dread. His primary fear, he wrote in a widely read essay for The American Scholar, was “a faster, huger, rougher, dumber publishing world.” He had entered the industry during a time of profound change. In the course of a few decades, American publishing had transformed from a parochial cultural industry, mostly centered on the East Coast, into an international, corporate affair. Starting in the nineteen-sixties, outfits like Random House and Penguin were seen as ripe targets for acquisition by multinational conglomerates like RCA and Pearson, which wanted to diversify their revenue streams, whether through oil, textbooks, calculators, or literary fiction. These parent companies changed the business of books, inciting an arms race that encouraged publishers to grow larger and larger, consolidating and concentrating the industry into a few giant players. Howard’s career had overlapped with this period of flux, and he saw before him a brutal, profit- and growth-obsessed landscape, inimical to his work. Corporate publishers like Penguin moved and grooved “to the tune of big-time finance,” he wrote. This dance was no “fox-trot; it’s a bruising slam dance,” he observed. “From down here on the shop floor, the results often look ludicrous and disastrous.”

Last year, shortly before the antitrust trial that successfully blocked a planned merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, Howard, who had recently retired, wrote for Publishers Weekly looking back on how the industry had changed in the course of his career. The slam dance had continued, its pace only more harried. The corporate houses had grown exponentially since the eighties, and swallowed up their competitors. Trade publishing was dominated by an even smaller group of companies that exerted an immense influence on the reading habits of Americans. When Penguin merged with Random House, in 2013, Howard took to calling the resulting behemoth Cosmodemonic Publishing. The scale of the company, the thousands of employees and hundreds of imprints, were, he says, “simply too large and abstract for a mere editor to get his head around.”

Howard still had hope for publishing; his “worst fears,” that the Cosmodemonic realm would engender a “race to the commercial bottom and a relentless quest for profits above quality,” hadn’t come to pass. Books were still good, the work still worthwhile, despite the stiff headwinds. But he admitted to a nagging unease: “At a certain point in my tenure at Penguin Random House I just gave up trying to understand a lot of the emails that arrived from corporate and would just hit delete, asking myself quizzically, ‘And the contribution this makes to the actual publication of actual books is . . . ?’ ”

That discomforting riddle—what these business machinations contribute to the actual publication of actual books—is the central question of Dan Sinykin’s “Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature.” Sinykin argues that the corporate ethos that dominates the modern publishing house has exerted such an overwhelming influence on the way books are written and published that it has inaugurated a new epoch: “the Conglomerate era.” As he sees it, the consolidation of the industry that began in the nineteen-sixties and seventies transformed American fiction and “changed what it means to be an author.” The stakes of Sinykin’s inquiry are to explain “how we should read” fiction published in the U.S. during the past half century or so, a period during which every book, no matter its preoccupations or themes, could be said to reflect a greater entity: the corporation.

Sinykin’s study begins in the postwar years, when publishing was a smaller and more cloistered world. The companies were mostly family-owned and -run, bookstores and book critics were influential but far fewer in number, and costs were less daunting. The editor Jason Epstein recalls, at the time, an author could sell “six or seven thousand copies” and “make the average book profitable.” When Epstein joined Random House, in 1958, it was owned by its founders, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, a pair of cultured patricians who were famous for publishing James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” in 1934. The company was housed in a Gilded Age mansion that served as a second home for its writers. W. H. Auden felt comfortable enough to show up in house slippers to hand in his latest work.

Soon after Epstein started at Random House, Cerf and Klopfer decided to take the company public. The change had a tangible impact on the way the business was run. Epstein writes in his memoir “Book Business,” that Cerf, newly accountable to shareholders, “would chew the corner of his white linen handkerchief in anguish whenever the stock fell.” When Random House was privately owned, it could withstand a “slow season,” because publishers knew that selling books required patience. But the need to balance concerns of taste with sound financial decision-making made it harder to play the long game: enter the profit-and-loss statement, the five-year budget, and, eventually, the need to frame every book as a potential best-seller.

This same story was unfolding across the industry. In 1960, New American Library, one of the country’s largest and most successful mass-market-paperback publishers, was acquired by the newspaper company Times Mirror and then forced to reckon with a McKinsey-led reorganization. Another mass-market publisher, Pocket Books, went public that same year and merged with the trade publisher Simon & Schuster in 1966. A year after its I.P.O., Random House acquired one of its rivals, Knopf, and then the whole enterprise was gobbled up by the electronics conglomerate RCA, in 1965. Across town, Doubleday began a spending spree in the late sixties to keep up, launching a broadcast subsidiary and acquiring a number of radio and TV stations throughout the country. (In a little more than a decade’s time, Doubleday would buy a majority stake in the New York Mets.)

As publishers scaled up their expansionary aspirations, new powers emerged: forces like literary agents and chain bookstores, intricate marketing campaigns and high-stakes auctions, helped to forge a different way of doing business, a process of diversifying and rationalizing that led to a larger, more stratified, and more economically conscious sphere, dominated by daunting hierarchies of power and money.

Today’s publishing house is closer to a hedge fund than a tastemaker. Every book that it acquires is a bet on profitability. The financialization of the acquisition process functions like an index of risk, creating a “system in which homogeneity . . . is encouraged” to minimize bad bets. This system affects all houses, no matter their size. Every season, Big Five publishers are incentivized to pursue best-sellers, authors whose works can scale into a franchise or a movie. Meanwhile, independent publishers and nonprofits such as W. W. Norton and Graywolf Press seek to carve out their own niche in this ecosystem by focussing on books with small but ardent audiences (poetry, the literature of marginalized voices). Sinykin sidesteps the question of whether this system has made books worse. He wants to demonstrate something trickier: how the process of authoring a book has become subsumed by a larger and larger network of interests, changing what it meant to be an author. Critics and scholars, Sinykin contends, are uncomfortable displacing the author when studying literature. His book is an earnest attempt to focus attention on the non-authorial figures involved in a book’s creation. Instead of individual writers, he wants us to think in terms of a “feedback loop.”

If there is a villain in “Big Fiction,” it is the “romantic” conception of authorship—the idea that writing a book is as simple as an author sitting down and marshalling their creative forces. This sense of the author, Sinykin thinks, is “a mirage veiling the systematic intelligences that are responsible for more of what we read than most of us are ready to acknowledge.” By “systematic intelligences,” he means the coördinated efforts of the dozens of people who touch a book before it makes its way into the hands of a reader.

Before conglomeration, Sinykin asserts, writing a book “was a completely different experience.” Once, a would-be novelist’s chances of being published depended on “how easily you could get your book in the right editor’s hands.” As the number of those involved in publication expanded, authors had to meet new criteria. “Could marketers see a market? What would the chain bookbuyers think? Could publicists picture your face on TV, your voice on the radio? Could agents sniff subsidiary rights? Would foreign rights sell at the Frankfurt Book Fair? Might your story be remediated? Would it work in audio? On the big screen?”

Sinykin calls authors who successfully navigated the maze of agents, marketers, and booksellers “industrial writers.” This group includes chart-topping genre writers, such as Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, and Stephen King, and also literary novelists who managed to work within the new system. Among Sinykin’s most succinct and persuasive case studies involves the career of Cormac McCarthy. In 1965, McCarthy’s first novel, an allusive Southern gothic called “The Orchard Keeper,” was published by a legendary editor at Random House named Albert Erskine. Erskine, who had been a steward for the company’s most distinguished writers, including William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison, found a manuscript by McCarthy in the slush pile and committed himself to fostering his career. Though McCarthy’s early books rarely sold, he was able to survive outside the market with the help of fellowships and grants secured through Erskine’s influence.

When Erskine retired, in 1987, McCarthy needed a new patron. He reached out to Lynn Nesbit, an agent who represented Robert Caro, among others. Nesbit passed McCarthy on to her protégée, Amanda (Binky) Urban. By chance, Urban was an admirer of McCarthy’s work. She made it her mission to insure that his next book would be a hit. She called up Sonny Mehta, who had recently been installed as the editor-in-chief of Knopf. Mehta sent McCarthy to an ambitious editor named Gary Fisketjon. As Fisketjon went to work on McCarthy’s prose, Mehta and his most trusted publicist, Jane Friedman, the woman credited with inventing the author tour, set about “aggressively marketing” McCarthy’s reinvention. They enlisted the photographer Marion Ettlinger to shoot a dashing author portrait and the designer Chip Kidd to create an enticing cover for his next book. That book was 1992’s “All the Pretty Horses,” which sold a hundred and ninety thousand copies in its first six months and was adapted into a Hollywood movie in 2000, starring Matt Damon. By 2007, when Oprah’s Book Club and the Pulitzer Prize anointed “The Road,” McCarthy was no longer perceived as a writer of difficult, obscure fiction but an approachable mainstream celebrity author.

Many of Sinykin’s claims about how fiction has changed in the past fifty years—that novelists are under pressure to bring in consistent profit, that literary writers have incorporated genre tropes into their work—are broadly true. But his account of how individual authors have responded to conglomeration requires us to take on faith many of his claims. We never see a manuscript page or editorial interventions that might illustrate these writers’ explicit acquiescence to the market interests of their stakeholders.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

2022 StatShot Annual Report Highlights

PG Note: Sales and revenue statistics in commercial publishing are not the easiest to pin down nor are they the most reliable. Part of the difficulty is related to the fact that none of the major U.S. trade publishers are independent/standalone companies. The five largest publishers in the United States are Penguin Random House (owned by German-based Bertelsmann), Simon & Schuster (owned by CBS), Hachette (owned by French-based Lagardère), HarperCollins (owned by News Corp.), and Macmillan (owned by German-based Holtzbrinck).

When a company is a subsidiary of another, larger company, the majority of publicly available financial information focuses on the sales, revenues, costs, etc., of the parent company. When the owners of the large parent companies provide financial information, they may gather several different subsidiary companies together in a group, e.g. the “Media Group” or the “News Group” which may include subsidiaries in the news business, radio/television broadcasting, commercial publishing, etc.

The numbers shown below are from an Association of American Publishers publication titled “Statshot”. To the best of PG’s knowledge, the Statshot numbers are what the publishers voluntarily provide to the Association and are not audited to ensure accuracy.

End of PG Note

Estimated Industry Revenue for 2022 was $28.10 Billion 

  • Industry-wide revenue declined by 2.6% during the year, going from $28.85 billion in 2021 to $28.10 billion in 2022.
    • During 2022 the industry’s largest category, Trade (consumer books), decreased by 6.6% to $17.36 billion in terms of estimated revenue. 
    • Higher Education revenue decreased 7.2% to $3.18 billion.
    • PreK–12 Education increased 16.6% to $5.61 billion.
    • Professional books decreased by 6.0% to $1.47 billion.
    • Religious Presses, a subcategory of Trade, decreased 6.0% to $1.27 billion.
    • University Presses, the smallest category reported, declined by 7.7% to $414 million.

Trends During 2022 for Retail Channels

  • For the seventh consecutive year, publisher sales via Online Retail channels exceeded sales via Physical Retail channels.
    • Revenue attributed to Physical Retail was $5.22 billion for the year, a drop of 5.8% on a year-over-year basis.
    • 2022 revenue attributable to Online Retail, a channel that includes both physical and digital books, was $8.19 billion, a decline of 12.4% as compared to 2021. 
  • Channels that saw increased revenue during 2022 included:
    • Direct Sales, which grew 12.3% to $7.23 billion.
    • The Intermediary Channel, which was up 0.7% to $5.05 billion.
    • The “Other” Channels, which increased 13.1% to $1.16 billion.

Five-Year Trends in Publishing 

  • Overall, the publishing industry revenue grew 11.0% between 2018 and 2022.
    • Revenue in the industry’s largest category, Trade (consumer books), grew 9.7% during the period.
    • Religious Presses, a part of Trade, decreased 2.4%.
    • Higher Education revenue decreased by 18.0%.
    • PreK–12 Education revenue increased 67.4%.
    • Professional books revenue decreased by 20.6%.
    • University Presses, the smallest category reported, increased by 3.9%.
  • Industry revenue by format for 2018 – 2022:
    • Revenue from Hardbacks increased 4.1% during the five-year period.
    • Revenue from Paperbacks increased 15.6% between 2018 and 2022. 
    • Mass Market revenue declined a total of 37.7%.
    • eBook revenue decreased 2.5% during the five-year period.
    • Revenue from Instructional Materials, which includes textbooks, workbooks, review books, standardized tests, digital textbooks, course materials as well as online tools such as homework managers increased 13.0%.
    • Digital Audio revenue increased by 71.7%.
    • The growth in Digital Audio revenue continues to overtake Physical Audio, which declined by 69.8% during the five-year period.

Link to the rest at Statshot

Another factor in growth rates PG has never seen in any report of traditional publishing growth figures is inflation.

As an illustration of the effects of inflation, an item purchased in 2020 for $1.00 would cost $1.19 in 2023 due to a cumulative inflation rate of 18.9% (in the US).

In the Statshot Five-Year Trends report above states, “Overall, the publishing industry revenue grew 11.0% between 2018 and 2022.” However, the US Inflation Calculator during the period from 2018-2022, the US inflation rate was a cumulative 16.5%, so, in real dollars (and, likely, in other hard currencies), the publishing industry lost ground over that four-year period.

Is Traditional Fiction Publishing Broken?

From Writer Unboxed:

Today’s post was inspired by a novelist friend of mine who has been having a hard time of it lately, and in their struggle to regain footing in the fiction market, suggested that I address the question of how to keep the faith in today’s challenging publishing environment. What follows are my thoughts and observations about what’s going on and why, and what can be done, and whether there’s any cause for hope. I welcome your thoughts and observations, too.

Times are tough these days for novelists who are not long-established perennial bestsellers, literary luminaries, or aren’t named (for example) Colleen Hoover, Bonnie Garmus, Rebecca Yarros, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hannah Grace, or Ana Huang.

Fiction sales to consumers over the past three years have been robust in comparison to pre-pandemic years. Yet, across genres, published and aspiring authors alike are finding it especially difficult to get read, whether that be by editors or agents or the reading public. Authors who’ve been in the business for a while (sometimes for decades) can’t get new book deals. Agents are rejecting new authors at even higher rates than usual. What gives?

I should note that publishing always has a component of what I call “eight-year-olds chasing the soccer ball”—wherever the ball is going at any given time, the herd is running after it. Which is to say that when a given genre or sub-genre starts trending, a significant proportion of the publishing ecosystem, from writer to bookseller and all points between, wants in. In years past, this wasn’t especially problematic for those who exist outside of the trend(s); there was demand for and space for all kinds of books. So what’s changed?

Let’s look, first, at space. National media book coverage has shrunk to almost nothing, and where it exists, coverage has in many cases become so clotted with titles that it’s practically meaningless (take for example, EW’s recent list of “The 42 fall books we’re most excited to read”). Bookstore space is also tighter, due to rising rents, the proliferation of eBooks, and online book-buying. What’s more, many physical bookstores, wanting to capitalize on the biggest trending books, are prioritizing that handful of titles by placing even larger orders and creating big, obvious, exclusive displays. Publishing space—meaning the number of publishing imprints as well as the number of books being acquired—has contracted, too.

Now, demand. Demand is a wibbly concept. Seen one way, it’s demonstrated concretely by what readers are buying en mass. The books they’re buying, though, are less a reflection of what, independent of influence, they may desire than of what they see the most of (this is the principle behind advertising; create demand). By the same token, if we don’t know a book exists because we haven’t seen or heard about it wherever we spend our time, we aren’t going to seek it out—and this creates a perception that there was no demand for it. (This is the all-too-common Kiss of Death for authors’ careers.)

These days, the primary, most effective book-discovery resource is TikTok—where nearly 75% of users are younger than 45, and 44% are under 25. During the early phase of the pandemic, lightning struck Colleen Hoover there. Her blaze was astonishing. If I’m recalling correctly, I think that at one point her books held nine of the fifteen spots on the NYT trade paperback list. Nine! This is, to use an overused word, unprecedented. In 2022, she sold more than 14 million books. Let that sink in for a minute. One author, in one year, sold more than 14 MILLION books. Consider what that says about readers’ book-buying behaviors (the book industry certainly is doing so).

But here’s the thing about phenomenons: they don’t last. The brushfire burns hot for a while, but eventually it uses up its fuel and burns out. The problem, though, is that while it’s burning, the herd runs in the direction of the blaze in the hope of catching fire, and this blaze is possibly the biggest publishing has ever seen.

Another component of the problem is occurring on the bookselling side. The competition among publishers for bookseller notice and support, both pre- and post-publication, is fierce. Influential booksellers are besieged with bound manuscripts and advance copies. They sincerely want to help everyone they can, and this puts pressure on them to read and review as many books as they can, which naturally results in them reading much more quickly than they ordinarily would, which creates unintended bias toward high-concept and/or shorter and/or fast-paced, easily digestible stories, and against authors who write denser, more layered work (unless of course those authors are already “names,” cf. Amor Towles, Abraham Verghese, Barbara Kingsolver).

The same is true for those on social media (IG in particular) who are considered to be book-influencers and who are over-relied upon by marketing teams to “build buzz.” Only, unlike booksellers, they are primarily young (under 35) with reading tastes that already skew toward books that, whether “light” or “dark,” move fast and give them what critic Laura Miller, when writing about Colleen Hoover’s books, described as “all the feels.” Though they sometimes gush about a particular book, often they post lovely but largely ineffectual photos of book stacks. Not only are they trying to influence their followers’ tastes, they’re competing with one another—for followers, for publisher favor, for having read the largest number of books. The FOMO factor here is significant. While there are some really wonderful book-folk in this space, thoughtful engagement with and meaningful feature of a book is more the exception than the rule.

We all know that while writing novels is an art and craft, publishing novels is a business, and staying in business requires lots and lots and lots of books to be sold. Risk is discouraged. So although there are still many agents and editors whose tastes and preferences remain outside the blaze, the current reality is that if a given book isn’t likely to be selected by a celebrity or isn’t BookTok Hot, it’s going to be a harder sell at every stage. Readers who are over the age of 45 and/or don’t prioritize social media are difficult for publishers to reach, and no one seems to have fresh ideas let alone answers for addressing that.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG’s answer to the question in the article’s title: “Yes. And it’s been broken for some time, but it took a while for most readers to discover that traditional publishing is circling the drain and not coming back.”

As someone once said, “How did I go broke? Gradually, then suddenly.”

Big disruption hit book publishing before AI showed up

From Mike Shatzkin:

Publishers Weekly recently hosted a stimulating and smart online session about AI and publishing, thanks to the organizing and moderating skills of Peter Brantley and Thad McIlroy. The day began with a presentation by former PRH CEO Markus Dohle and ended with one by thought leader Ethan Mollick of the Wharton School, which framed the day perfectly. Both of them were enthusiasts for AI. But they also presented what, to me, was the stark contrast on display for the whole day between people who think book publishing is largely the business it has always been and those who are seeing it isn’t and won’t ever be again.

Here’s the long story short. The task of establishing a new title in the marketplace has gotten progressively more difficult for more than two decades and will continue to. A business that used to be primarily focused on the current batch of titles is now increasingly attentive to the long tail backlist. This is structural, not cultural.

When I was a pup, books were mostly sold in bookstores and bookstores focused their stocking attention on what was new and likely to be hot. A plethora of book review media — led by the NY Times Book Review but complemented by reviews in newspapers and magazines and author appearances on radio and TV timed to a publication date, combined with robust and ubiquitous display of featured new books in thousands of bookstores across the country — enabled thousands of titles every year from publishers large and small to sell many thousands of copies, many doing well enough to “backlist” and become enduring sellers.

But, in those days, they didn’t all become enduring sellers that the publisher would keep available “forever”. Keeping books “in print” was not automatic, even though the penalty for not doing so was frequently losing the rights to that book to author reversion. In the 20th century, each “next printing” was a bit of a commitment, usually in the low thousands of copies. If the book was only selling dozens or hundreds a year, it made economic sense to kill it.

Two things changed that calculus. Ebooks don’t require inventory. And Ingram’s increasing competence with print-on-demand — tied, of course, to their wholesaling operation that reaches every bookstore and online seller in the world — meant there was a lower-margin but virtually investment-free alternative to ceasing publication of any title.

And, at the same time, the shape of the market was changing, and continues to. Most books consumers buy are still printed rather than electronic, but stores are not where most of them are purchased. Various online resources, starting with Amazon but also through an increasingly long tail of web sites sourcing primarily through Ingram (who will ship direct to the website’s customer, requiring no “handling” by the creator of the sale), now sell the vast majority of the print books (and, of course, ALL the ebooks.)

Although I get very little pushback from sage publishing veterans when I suggest that “trade publishing as we knew it is dead”, it isn’t at all clear that the surviving incumbents see it that way. (In fact, Dohle pretty much said these are the “best of times”.) They all know, of course, that their sales increasingly come from the thousands of titles they control from their years of publishing rather than the new titles issued this year or recently. But nobody has (yet) said publicly “publishing new titles is getting very hard” or “we’re going to publish a lot fewer new books.” (Of course, whatever the established publishers do, the world will publish many more new books; more in a month than we used to get in a year.)

But it does appear that cutbacks by the big publishers on new title publishing is the current reality. Agents are well aware that their business just gets harder and harder. Big publishers are increasingly encouraging longtime veterans of their companies to take retirement packages. In the 20th century, it was a perfectly reasonable ambition to start at an entry level position at a publisher and have it lead to a many decades-long career. Very few sentient young people would see that as a sensible plan or expectation today.

The math that explains this is compelling. In 1990, there were about 500,000 titles in print in the English language in the world, and not all of them were easily available. Today there are about 20 million titles in Ingram’s Lightning Print database and if you order one tonight, they’ll print it in the next day or two and send it to you. So the competitive set for each new title coming into the world has increased by FORTY times. And the publishers no longer have a moat around their new title launchpads. Bookstores can’t sell enough to make a book happen; the marketplace is online and incumbent publishers have a vastly diminished advantage in that world over many other players.

In fact, publishers increasingly depending on “Internet influencers” to push their books to their loyal followers are now seeing those very marketers turned into competitors by the start-up Bindery Books. So agents will now be considering Bindery as an alternative to PRH or HarperCollins.

And all of this has happened without any help from AI.

One thing AI threatens, of course, is a massive increase in the number of titles made available. One observation missing from the mostly-fabulous AI presentation from PW was the acknowledgment that a 40-fold increase in actively competitive titles has already taken place over the past two decades. There is very little doubt that a new surge of titles in the marketplace from AI will only compound the situation that has changed the landscape over the past two decades.

Link to the rest at Mike Shatzkin

How Simon & Schuster’s Sale to KKR Could Affect the Company

From Book Riot:

Publishing mergers or buyouts may not be that relevant to ordinary readers, but for industry professionals, it’s extremely important. Publishers shape the culture and the landscape of the wider book world, and knowing who pulls the strings helps in figuring out why some books get published or not.

In November 2020, Penguin Random House, the largest trade book publisher in the United States, sought to buy Big Five competitor Simon & Schuster. Two years later, in November 2021, the Department of Justice filed a civil antitrust lawsuit to prevent the proposed merger. According to the Justice Department, combining the two publishers would “create a publishing behemoth” that would harm authors and consumers.

With how big of a deal it was, publishing professionals expressed concern about the proposed merger. “With fewer publishing houses, there will be less competition for authors and books, which means that the remaining companies have more power to set prices,” one investment analyst said at the time, adding that it would lead to reduced competition.

Fast forward to August 2022, the parties went into a trial that required the appearance of many important figures in the industry, including Stephen King and some publishing executives. In November 2022, the decision was made: the proposed merger was successfully blocked.

But it’s not the end of the story. After Penguin Random House’s unsuccessful bid, Simon & Schuster went on to shop other buyers. Its owner, Paramount, had attempted to sell it several times because it didn’t fit into its core business of video and streaming.

But at last, in August 2023, the publisher announced that it was being sold to private equity firm KKR for $1.62 billion. If the sale of Simon & Schuster goes through, and it looks like it definitely will, how will it affect the publishing company and the publishing industry as a whole?

. . . .

KKR said in a statement that it will let Simon & Schuster become a “standalone private company” in order to maintain its “99-year legacy of editorial independence.” “We’re not going to tell them what to buy, what to publish, or what not to publish,” said KKR advisor Richard Sarnoff.

The equity firm also has plans to support the publisher’s expansion by extending its domestic publishing program, expanding distribution, and focusing on international markets. What’s enticing is that it said it will also create an equity ownership program for the publisher’s employees.

This change is beneficial because it could help the employees of the publishing company; the model could even be copied by other publishers down the line. “The sale of Simon & Schuster would appear to be good news for its workforce. A merger with another publisher would have inevitably resulted in staff layoffs and redundancies,” writes The Conversation.

Simon & Schuster’s sales increased by about 10% to $1.1 billion in 2022, with audiobooks accounting for the majority of the increase. The credit also goes to bestselling authors such as Colleen Hoover, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Jenny Han, Chloe Gong, Jennette McCurdy, and Stephen King.

Aside from what has already been reported, there doesn’t appear to be anything unfavorable about the buyout on the surface. The publisher will merely change hands, its employees will get shares of the company, the merger scrapped for now. However, this is far from the truth.

As an investment firm, KKR will probably make sure that Simon & Schuster is highly profitable. There may be some minuscule editorial and administrative changes here and there to make sure it posts big profit growth. And then, when it becomes profitable enough, KKR will likely sell the publisher to another investment firm, just as it did with RBMedia. Hence, neither KKR’s ownership of Simon & Schuster nor the shareholder benefits it wants to introduce is not set in stone. The publisher may have to find new owners again, possibly shaking it up all over anew.

“Simon and Schuster’s sale to KKR is likely to have a significant impact on the company, both in the short and long term,” says Gary Hemming, financial expert at ABC Finance.

According to Hemming, the sale is likely to result in a company restructuring in the short term, with the possibility of job losses and changes to the company’s operations. In the long run, the sale may result in a shift in the company’s focus because KKR may have different goals and strategies for the company than the previous owners. It may also result in an increase in the company’s debt, as KKR may purchase the company using debt financing, as it did with Toys “R” Us.

To Natalie Abiodun, a business and finance analyst and founder of various financial tool websites, selling one of the Big Five publishing houses can have repercussions across the industry. To remain competitive, she says that competitors may need to respond or adjust their strategies. Potential changes in publishing deals and contracts may also have an impact on authors and agents. “The sale of Simon & Schuster to KKR has the potential to shake up the publishing industry.”

. . . .

Although KKR promises to leave Simon & Schuster alone, and its efforts to help it grow seem promising, its embroilment in issues in the past and present leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.

KKR had acquired various companies from many industries before. Aside from Simon & Schuster, it had Toys “R” Us as part of its repertoire. In 2005, KKR, along with two other investment firms, bought the toy company using $6.6 billion of loans. This deal, however, didn’t work out, leaving Toys “R” Us with $5 billion in debt. As a result, it filed for bankruptcy in 2017. It was then eventually liquidated, with 30,000 jobs sans severance pay going down the drain. Amid it all, KKR and one investment firm got at least $15 million from this exchange.

Aside from the Toys “R” Us fiasco, KKR has been embroiled in a lot more issues in the present. It continues to invest in greenhouse-gas-emitting projects with two other investment firms. And despite publishing a climate action plan, KKR said that it will continue to invest in fossil-fuel projects, such as pipelines that are bad for water supply.

Then there’s also the issue surrounding its acquisition of BrightSpring Health Services, a living facility. According to a BuzzFeed News investigation, while a crisis grew in this living facility, where conditions became so bad that nurses and caregivers quit, KKR had concentrated on growing business.

The BuzzFeed News report also found that when KKR took over BrightSpring in March 2019, by the end of 2021, its homes had received far more citations for “dangerous conditions” than is typical for such facilities. This may have led to some of the most vulnerable people under the facility’s care to suffer and die.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG suggests that the contrast between the management style of a very large international private equity firm and the management traditions of a traditional New York publisher is so stark that S&S would have a more predictable future had the company been purchased by space aliens.

Private equity is focused on one goal and one goal only – to make more money, a lot more money, for its owners. Whatever it takes to accomplish this goal is far more important than any other consideration.

PG doubts that self-styled “curators of culture” haunting the dusty corners of traditional New York publishing will generate much in the way of new ideas to generate the sort of money that will move any private equity needles.

So KKR will bring in new management for S&S to pursue the standard private equity business plan, “Move fast, break things and generate lots of cash ASAP.”

A literary agent

A literary agent is nothing but a cheap salesman (or woman); while a writer is a cheap salesman (or woman) who also has to actually write the books.

John Hodgman

The brutal truth about earning out

From Blake Atwood:

What does earning out mean?

When an author signs a book deal with a publisher, the publisher pays the author in the form of an advance on future sales, aka an advance against royalties, aka an advance.

Let’s be optimistic and say that your literary agent sold your book to a publisher for $100,000. That means that prior to your book having gone on sale, you will have made $85,000.

Don’t forget: your lit agent gets 15 percent of what you earn. That number isn’t always the same for every agent, but 15 percent is typical.

That advance money may be paid in a lump sum, but it may also be doled out to you at specific publishing milestones, e.g., when you sign the contract, when you submit your manuscript to the publisher, and when the book is published.

Let’s assume that it takes approximately two years for those three events to happen. At that rate, you’re paid $28,333 three times over two years. Can you already see how even a sizable advance may not mean an author can quit their day job? We haven’t even accounted for taxes yet!

To “earn out” means that a publisher sells enough of that author’s book so that the publisher recoups their investment in the author.

In other words, the publisher needs to earn $100,000 before the author will ever see more money as a result of sales of their book.

Considering that an author stands to earn maybe $2.50 per hardcover book and less for other editions, at best, the publisher will have to sell 40,000 books for the author to earn out their $100,000 advance.

. . . .

According to Jane Friedman, 70 percent of authors don’t earn out their advance.

In other words, a majority of authors are paid anywhere between $5,000 and $1,000,000 in an advance and their book sales never match how many the publisher thought they could sell.

Fortunately for these authors, they don’t have to pay the advance back to the publisher. The advance is a calculated financial risk that publishers take on their authors.

. . . .

Literary agent Jeff Kleinman shared an apt visual for advances and royalties: Imagine a jar filled with 100,000 marbles. When you sign a book deal, you and your agent are given those 100,000 marbles. The publisher takes the jar back. Once they fill it back up with 100,000 marbles made through book sales, then the jar overflows and the author (and agent) “earn out” and begin to see royalty checks on top of what they’ve already been paid through the advance.

But that only happens 30 percent of the time.

Link to the rest at Blake Atwood

Here’s a link to Blake Atwood’s Author Page on Amazon. If you appreciate Blake’s insights, you might want to check out his books.

PG notes that it’s not unusual for a wide variety of little nibbles that some publishers and agents sometimes take from the author’s royalties. Some publishers and some agents add little fees for this and that, which can add up. Fedex fees charged by the agent to send you your royalty statements and royalty checks are one small example.

PG regards items such as these as part of the cost of doing business as a literary agent and, as such, the costs should be borne by the agency.

(Note: For simplicity’s sake, the following hypothetical does not include book wholesalers that all large and many small publishers use to warehouse and ship orders to individual bookstores and book chains and whoever else wants to purchase them.)

And don’t forget the notorious reserve against returns. For those who are unfamiliar with this process and how it is sometimes manipulated, PG will provide a quick overview.

  1. Publishers are happy to ship bookstores as many printed copies as the store is willing to accept. How can you expect the bookstore to make towering stacks of a book unless they have lots and lots of copies?
  2. All big bookstores and most small bookstores have the right to return any unsold hardcopies of a book the publisher has shipped to them and receive for full credit of the wholesale price the publisher charged them for the books in the first place.
  3. As an example, Bob’s Big Books orders 200,000 printed copies of Lucky Anna’s first book at the wholesale price of of $10 per book. To spare you any arithmetic, this means that Bob is receiving books with a retail price of Two Million Dollars. If Bob sells all 200,000 copies of the books at the suggested retail price, Bob will be depositing Two Million Dollars into his bank account. Of course, out of the two million, he’ll be paying rent, salaries, taxes, etc., but if Bob is a good manager, he’ll make a bunch of money after paying the related expenses involved with selling 200,000 copies of the book.
  4. However, although Bob has plenty of Lucky Anna’s books to stack up in his bookstore, he sells only 25,000 copies of the book.
  5. What is Bob going to do with 175,000 unsold copies?
  6. Under a long-standing system used by traditional publishing in the US, Bob can send his unsold 175,000 copies of Lucky Anna’s book back to the publisher for full credit.
  7. Bob only has to pay for the 25,000 books he sells for a total of $250,000
  8. The publisher then has 175,000 more hardcopy books sitting copies sitting in a warehouse somewhere.

What’s a Publisher to Do?

1. In a reasonable-sounding accounting manner, the Publisher holds a financial reserve against book returns. Lucky Anna is only paid a royalty for amounts the publisher has actually received, less a reserve for returns.

2. Let’s assume hypothetically that a salesperson for a traditional publisher makes a two million dollar sale of a single title written by Lucky Anna to Bob’s Bookstore. The Publisher determined that setting a return against reserves of $1,900,000 would be prudent.

3. Conveniently, even though the Publisher shipped Two Million Dollars worth of one of Lucky Anna’s books to Bob’s Bookstore, after subtracting the $1,900,000, the reserve amount the Publisher set, The Publisher is required to pay Lucky Anna royalties only on the $100,000 remaining after subtracting the $1,900,000, the amount the publisher has set as a reserve against returns.

4. Multiply the calculations for Bob’s Books by 1,000 other bookstores, and you can see the calculations getting very sticky.

5. When Bob’s Bookstore returns $1,750,000 worth of Lucky Anna’s books to the Publisher, theoretically, the Publisher should pay Lucky Anna royalties on the $150,000 Bob sold beyond the amount the Publisher estimated that Bob would return for credit.

6. “However,” the Publisher thinks, “not every bookstore is like Bob’s. Some of the other bookstores will certainly return a higher percentage of books they didn’t sell than Bob did.”

7. Traditional publishing contracts allow the Publisher to withhold “a reasonable reserve for returns.”

8. “Reasonable” is, of course, in the mind of the Publisher.

9. Back to our hypothetical, the Publisher has sold books to a zillion other bookstores. The Publisher reasonably decides that not every bookstore is exactly like Bob’s. Some will sell a higher percentage of the books shipped to them than Bob did and others will sell a much smaller portion of the books shipped to them than Bob did.

10. Theoretically, a smart and highly computerized publisher would have track records on what the rate of returns each bookstore demonstrated for at least a few hundred of the titles the Publisher had released. But that would require the Publisher to spend a lot of money on analysts and statisticians to examine the data and calculate probable return rates for fiction, non-fiction, various genres, etc. And what English major wants to walk into that bramblebush?

11. PG’s understanding is that, to the extent traditional publishers think about the number or percentage of books that will be returned for credit, they either use intuition and listen to the music of the publishing spheres or they just lump almost all books into a big bucket. Rules of thumb prevail to the extent anyone thinks about accurate forecasting.

12. Given this fundamental truth, PG understands that most traditional publishers hold a higher amount of reserves against returns than they expect they will ever need.

13. Whether anyone does an accurate job of recalculating Lucky Anna’s past royalties should reserves for returns be much higher than the number of actual returns would justify, PG doesn’t know. He has his suspicions, however.

14. However, PG is certain that mistakes will be made by the Publisher and its underlings. He suspects that, on occasion, a mistake will be identified and remedied. On other occasions, a mistake will go unidentified or be ignored on the theory that the Lucky Anna will never ask about it.

15. Theoretically, Lucky Anna’s literary agent is double-checking the publisher’s reports for errors and jumping on the publisher when she locates one. Or, more often than not, the agent is out pushing for new business and delegates the arithmetic to the agent’s underpaid staff. This brings in more English majors earning low salaries into the mix.

16. More than a few agents have lots of turnover of back-office staff and not a lot of time to train newbies thoroughly. Or they have close to no back-office staff.

17. In the United States, there is no official set of requirements that must be met before an individual hangs out a shingle saying they’re a literary agent and are accepting new submissions.

18. Someone can get out of prison after serving a ten-year sentence for accounting fraud on one day and open up shop as a literary agent the next day.

19. What could go wrong?

20. PG acknowledges that there are some very hard-working and dedicated employees in at least some publishers and at least some literary agencies. He has no intention of slandering such individuals. However, he will say that for most authors, accurately assessing who will do a good job on their books and who will not is effectively impossible.

‘No room at the table’: Student authors call for diversifying publishing industry

From The Stanford Daily:

When Kyla Zhao ’21 was looking for agents to publish her debut novel “The Fraud Squad,” prospective agents asked if she would be willing to change her book’s setting from Singapore to America. If she wanted her novel to be more “marketable,” they said, she could make some of her Asian characters white too. Zhao refused and found her current agent, Alex Rice, instead.

“It’s apparently quite common when you’re an author of color that a publisher says, ‘We already have one book coming out this season from a Black author, we don’t need another story from a Black author,’” Zhao said.

Though the publishing industry has long been a rigid and oversaturated environment for authors, the road to publishing can be even more challenging for women and writers of color. Traditionally, books published by female authors are also priced 45% lower on average than those by male authors.

This creates a “zero-sum game” in publishing, said Zhao, and leaves “no room at the table to foster stories from the same community.”

“I think that also goes back to this perception of marginalized communities as a monolith, where everyone in this community has the same experiences,” she said. “There’s just not as much room for diverse experiences as one would hope.”

“The Fraud Squad” tells the story of a woman who impersonates a socialite to infiltrate high society and secure her dream job. Because Zhao is supported by Berkley Books, she can publish and promote the novel through resources like Berkley’s marketing team and cover artists for free. These resources can cost thousands of dollars for a self-published author.

But still, as traditional publishing can push out authors from marginalized communities or limit their creative control over edits, more and more writers are now turning to self-publishing. More than 1.7 million books are self-published every year. 

Aparna Verma ’20 has, uniquely, gone both routes. Her debut novel, “The Phoenix King,” was originally self-published as “The Boy With Fire” in 2021. 

“I want to keep writing the books that I want to write,” Verma said about her initial decision to self-publish the novel. “I don’t want to ever be held back by people’s rules or expectations.”

Verma called her novel “an Indian-inspired sci-fi fantasy that blends futuristic elements with ancient Hindu mythology.” After “The Boy With Fire” gained popularity on social media platforms such as TikTok, it was picked up by a traditional publisher, Orbit Books, and republished in August. For Verma, one vital factor of her positive experience with Orbit was working with a South Asian editor.

“It was so amazing working with a South Asian editor because she just understood all the little intricacies and subtleties,” Verma said. “She didn’t ask me to change the cultural authenticity. She asked me to expand.” 

Verma called for more women and people of color to hold positions of power in the traditional publishing industry. So did Shanti Hershenson, a self-published teenage author from California.

“If I were a man, I feel as though I would be so much more successful by now and I would have so many people reading my books,” Hershenson said.

Hershenson, a sophomore in high school who lives in Carlsbad, Calif., has published 14 books and written 26. She said she has felt and seen sexism during book festivals, where she has witnessed men acting “really passive aggressive” towards young female writers. 

“I had a guy come up to me and try to tell me how my book’s title is grammatically incorrect,” she said. “It’s not. That title went past multiple people before it went out, and I know my grammar.”

Link to the rest at The Stanford Daily

Print Book Sales Fell 4.1% In First Nine Months of 2023

From Publishers Weekly:

Unit sales of print books fell 4.1% in the first nine months of 2023, compared to the same period in 2022, at outlets that report to Circana BookScan. A weak third quarter, in which sales dropped 6.7%, accelerated the decline; for the first half of 2023, sales were down 2.7%.

Sales in every major category fell, with the most notable development being the third-quarter swoon in adult fiction, where sales dropped 7.6%, leaving it 0.2% below the first nine months of 2022. (To be fair, adult fiction sales in last year’s third quarter had jumped 38.5% over the third quarter of 2021.) Graphic novels, which posted huge gains in 2021 and 2022, continued to see sales slide in 2023, with units down 24.3% in the nine-month period. Even with the big decline, graphic novels was the third-biggest adult fiction subcategory, trailing only general fiction and romance.

Despite cooling in the summer, the romance genre was up 16.5% over the first nine months of 2022. While Colleen Hoover didn’t generate the huge numbers she did last year, when sales of It Ends with Us had reached nearly two million copies by the end of September and Verity and Ugly Love had sales of more than one million copies each, It Ends with Us and It Starts with Us each sold about 1.1 million copies so far this year. Other genres that posted good gains through the first nine months were fantasy, with sales up 32.4%, and horror/occult/psychological, where sales increased 21.2%.

Sales in adult nonfiction dropped 4.5% in the quarter, which is slightly better than how the category performed in the first half of 2023, and sales through September were off 4.8%. Adult nonfiction does have the bestselling book of the year so far: Spare by Prince Harry has sold just over 1.2 million copies, helping to lift sales 1.7% in the biography/autobiography/memoir subcategory. James Clear’s Atomic Habits, first published in late 2018, has become a backlist hit, having sold nearly 858,000 copies through September. The computer book category continued to slump, with sales down 16.9%, while sales of home and gardening titles fell 14.5%. The travel category continued its rebound, with sales up 8.6%.

Juvenile fiction sales declined 5.9% in the nine-month period. Only one subcategory had a sales increase, with animal books up 11.7%. The top-selling juvenile fiction title was Dav Pilkey’s Twenty Thousand Fleas Under the Sea (Dog Man #11), which sold more than 923,000 copies, but total sales in the sci-fi/fantasy/magic subcategory, which is where the Dog Man series’ sales appear, dropped 10.9%.

The juvenile nonfiction category had the biggest decline through September, with sales down almost 10%. Its two largest subcategories—history/sports/people/places and education/reference/language—both posted drops of more than 12%. Only sales of holiday/festivals/religion books managed to hold even with 2022.

Sales of young adult fiction had a relatively small nine-month decline of 3.6%. If He Had Been with Me by Laura Nowlin was the category’s star performer, selling more than 506,000 copies.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Children’s Books Edition: PRH’s ‘Banned Wagon’ Rolls Sunday

From Publishing Perspectives:

At Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 18 to 22), programming on tap in many parts of the world’s largest book publishing trade fair reflects the fact that politically driven censorship–frequently targeting children and young adult readers (YA)–is much on the minds of book professionals this year.
Despite the fact that the international sweep of right-wing censorship has recently surfaced in young people’s literature and textbook assaults–in Brazil’s State of São Paulo; in the vast educational system of Mexico; and in the Caribbean’s Dominican Republic–the waves of book bannings powered largely by organized activists in the United States have drawn sharp and understandable attention.

. . . .

Hearing the call, Penguin Random House–the world’s largest and most internationally positioned of trade publishers– is gassing up something new: its “Banned Wagon: A Vehicle for Change.”

The goal is to take the debate right into the American South during Banned Books Week. Putting its fuel budget where its “Read Banned Books” message is, the vehicle not only will showcase a section of 12 frequently challenged books but will also distribute free copies of those books to attendees in each of the cities in which the tour “sits down.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

New York City is lecturing to the unwashed masses occupying the rest of the country so they’ll understand they need listen to their betters and radically change their benighted values and beliefs. Right now.

Book Business Applauds Government Lawsuit Against Amazon

From Publishers Weekly:

The Federal Trade Commission, supported by 17 state attorneys general, finally filed its long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Amazon yesterday. In a 172-page complaint, the government alleged that the e-tailer “uses a set of interlocking anticompetitive and unfair strategies to illegally maintain its monopoly power.” The use of that power, the government continued, allows Amazon “to stop rivals and sellers from lowering prices, degrade quality for shoppers, overcharge sellers, stifle innovation, and prevent rivals from fairly competing against Amazon.”

The immediate industry reaction to the news of the suit was uniform: “What took so long?” Or, in the words of Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson, that it was “about ******** time.” An industry lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, gave a more nuanced view in wondering why it took the government so long to act, pointing to the infamous buy button case in 2010, when Amazon pulled Macmillan’s buy buttons in a dispute over e-book terms.

Even with Amazon’s dominant position over the sale of e-books and print books, the suit doesn’t mention books, which, of course, were Amazon’s first line of business. The suit does, however, highlight Amazon’s hold over the companies who use its online marketplace to sell a range of products, including books, to consumers.

Jed Lyons, CEO of Rowman & Littlefield, was skeptical about how the case will play out, pointing to the government’s “sketchy” track record in lawsuits against major corporations. But even though the FTC lawsuit is more about third party sellers, Lyons said, if “it shuts down unauthorized sellers of new books, which we know are not new books, then that will be a win for book publishers.”

Independent booksellers, which were the first physical retailers impacted by Amazon and the steep discounting on books it employed to attract customers, praised the FTC’s long-awaited action. The lawsuit, said ABA CEO Allison Hill, “is good news for indie bookstores and good news for all small business. ABA applauds the FTC and states’ effort to release Amazon’s stranglehold, and we look forward to the transparency this lawsuit will provide into Amazon’s business practices.”

. . . .

Other industry groups, including the AAP and Authors Guild, have also long advocated that the government investigate many of Amazon’s practices.

No bookseller has been more active in attacking Amazon’s book practices than Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans., and author of How to Resist Amazon and Why. Caine acknowledged that, “while the suit doesn’t go after Amazon’s book business in particular, it can still do a lot to level the playing field. For one thing, it can prove that Amazon is acting illegally or anti-competitively via tactics like preferencing its own products, placing unfair pressure on sellers who list their products for lower prices elsewhere, and forcing sellers and customers onto their Prime platform.”

The head of one independent publisher, who wished to remain anonymous, said that if the government prevails, “it could be very beneficial to publishers.” She then laid out the many challenges publishers face in dealing with Amazon: “I think [the suit] could affect tactics around the negotiation of discounts and fees, etc., with publishers. This would also be a good thing. The negotiations over the years between publishers and Amazon have been brutal. At first, Amazon got big discounts since they were buying non-returnable. Then, predictably, they started returning books and kept the discounts.”

She continued: “Publishers were simply too fearful and too powerless to stand up to their biggest customer. And then Amazon started added all manner of fees, effectively increasing their discount even further. To the extent that Amazon was able to discount books to lure customers away from other booksellers, publishers were effectively subsidizing Amazon’s growth and dominance while watching their margins erode.”

Melville’s Johnson made many of the same points, lamenting that the government’s lack of action up until now and allowing Amazon to use books as a “loss leader” got the company to where it is today. The government further strengthened Amazon’s hand, Johnson maintained, when it sued the major publishers over their e-book pricing policies. That decision “really pounded Amazon’s suppliers, and thus altered the business of making and selling books, probably irrevocably.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Here are a few questions PG would like to put to the traditional publishers celebrating the FTC’s suit against Amazon:

  1. Do you really want your biggest customer to stop selling your books? That’s an option for Amazon. Traditionally-published books are a minuscule part of Amazon’s total sales, a rounding error.
  2. If Amazon decided to shut down its book business on a temporary or permanent basis, would Americans buy more or fewer books? Would Americans change their behavior and travel to physical bookstores once again (assuming they live within a reasonable distance from a remaining physical bookstore)?
  3. Do you really not care about readers who live a long way from a physical bookstore? Have you ever even visited North or South Dakota? Nebraska? Wyoming? New Mexico? Idaho? Nevada (outside of Las Vegas)? Kansas?
  4. Do you understand that the internet provides endless reading material at no charge to readers, reading material that doesn’t include commercial books?
  5. Do you really think your books are not competing for reader attention against free reading material on the internet?
  6. Do you understand how many more Americans log on to the internet every day instead of visiting a physical store of any sort, let alone a book store?

BookLife Reviews – Reach the Right Readers

From Booklife from Publishers Weekly:

A Guaranteed Review by a Publishers Weekly Reviewer Designed to Help You Market Your Book

A BookLife Review is a respectful, knowledgeable 300-word review that includes information designed to help in the marketing of your book, all crafted by a professional Publishers Weekly reviewer who’s an expert in your genre or field.


Because a BookLife Review is a paid review ($399; $499 for books over 100,000 words), you are guaranteed to receive a review of your book (as long as you can provide a digital version of your book). BookLife Reviews are delivered in six weeks–four weeks if you purchase expedited service ($150). And with your approval, your review will run in the BookLife section of Publishers Weekly magazine at no extra charge. 

. . . .


It’s easy to get a BookLife Review! If you’re a BookLife member, just log in and go to the project page for the book you’d like reviewed.

Link to the rest at Booklife from Publishers Weekly

PG recalls not long ago that paid-for book reviews were among the worst violations of the Iron Code of traditional publishing.

In an earlier post today, we read how Amazon tracked down shady Chinese sellers of paid-for/fake reviews and helped send them to prison.

PG would love to see comments regarding the Publishers’ Weekly “Guaranteed Reviews” program and whether it materially differs from Chinese selling fake reviews.

For those not familiar with the publication, Publishers’ Weekly, which first appeared in 1872, is among the bluest of blue-blood publications covering traditional publishing. Being mentioned in or reviewed on Publishers’ Weekly was formerly a recognition that established an author as a rising star.

Additionally, if anyone is familiar with any reaction Amazon has had to the PW program, PG would love to hear about it, either in the comments or via the Contact PG link at the top of the La Blogge.

Willingham Sends Fables Into the Public Domain

From These Foolish Games:

Fables Press Release

Subject: Fables Enters the Public Domain

15 September 2023

By Bill Willingham

For Immediate Release

The Lede

As of now, 15 September 2023, the comic book property called Fables, including all related Fables spin-offs and characters, is now in the public domain. What was once wholly owned by Bill Willingham is now owned by everyone, for all time. It’s done, and as most experts will tell you, once done it cannot be undone. Take-backs are neither contemplated nor possible.

Q: Why Did You Do This?

A number of reasons. I’ve thought this over for some time. In no particular order they are:

1) Practicality: When I first signed my creator-owned publishing contract with DC Comics, the company was run by honest men and women of integrity, who (for the most part) interpreted the details of that agreement fairly and above-board. When problems inevitably came up we worked it out, like reasonable men and women. Since then, over the span of twenty years or so, those people have left or been fired, to be replaced by a revolving door of strangers, of no measurable integrity, who now choose to interpret every facet of our contract in ways that only benefit DC Comics and its owner companies. At one time the Fables properties were in good hands, and now, by virtue of attrition and employee replacement, the Fables properties have fallen into bad hands.

            Since I can’t afford to sue DC, to force them to live up to the letter and the spirit of our long-time agreements; since even winning such a suit would take ridiculous amounts of money out of my pocket and years out of my life (I’m 67 years old, and don’t have the years to spare), I’ve decided to take a different approach, and fight them in a different arena, inspired by the principles of asymmetric warfare. The one thing in our contract the DC lawyers can’t contest, or reinterpret to their own benefit, is that I am the sole owner of the intellectual property. I can sell it or give it away to whomever I want.

            I chose to give it away to everyone. If I couldn’t prevent Fables from falling into bad hands, at least this is a way I can arrange that it also falls into many good hands. Since I truly believe there are still more good people in the world than bad ones, I count it as a form of victory.

2) Philosophy: In the past decade or so, my thoughts on how to reform the trademark and copyright laws in this country (and others, I suppose) have undergone something of a radical transformation. The current laws are a mishmash of unethical backroom deals to keep trademarks and copyrights in the hands of large corporations, who can largely afford to buy the outcomes they want.

In my template for radical reform of those laws I would like it if any IP is owned by its original creator for up to twenty years from the point of first publication, and then goes into the public domain for any and all to use. However, at any time before that twenty year span bleeds out, you the IP owner can sell it to another person or corporate entity, who can have exclusive use of it for up to a maximum of ten years. That’s it. Then it cannot be resold. It goes into the public domain. So then, at the most, any intellectual property can be kept for exclusive use for up to about thirty years, and no longer, without exception.

Of course, if I’m going to believe such radical ideas, what kind of hypocrite would I be if I didn’t practice them? Fables has been my baby for about twenty years now. It’s time to let it go. This is my first test of this process. If it works, and I see no legal reason why it won’t, look for other properties to follow in the future. Since DC, or any other corporate entity, doesn’t actually own the property, they don’t get a say in this decision.

Q: What Exactly Has DC Comics Done to Provoke This?

Too many things to list exhaustively, but here are some highlights: Throughout the years of my business relationship with DC, with Fables and with other intellectual properties, DC has always been in violation of their agreements with me. Usually it’s in smaller matters, like forgetting to seek my opinion on artists for new stories, or for covers, or formats of new collections and such. In those times, when called on it, they automatically said, “Sorry, we overlooked you again. It just fell through the cracks.” They use the “fell through the cracks” line so often, and so reflexively, that I eventually had to bar them from using it ever again. They are often late reporting royalties, and often under-report said royalties, forcing me to go after them to pay the rest of what’s owed.

            Lately though their practices have grown beyond these mere annoyances, prompting some sort of showdown. First they tried to strong arm the ownership of Fables from me. When Mark Doyle and Dan Didio first approached me with the idea of bringing Fables back for its 20th anniversary (both gentlemen since fired from DC), during the contract negotiations for the new issues, their legal negotiators tried to make it a condition of the deal that the work be done as work for hire, effectively throwing the property irrevocably into the hands of DC. When that didn’t work their excuse was, “Sorry, we didn’t read your contract going into these negotiations. We thought we owned it.”

            More recently, during talks to try to work out our many differences, DC officers admitted that their interpretation of our publishing agreement, and the following media rights agreement, is that they could do whatever they wanted with the property. They could change stories or characters in any way they wanted. They had no obligation whatsoever to protect the integrity and value of the IP, either from themselves, or from third parties (Telltale Games, for instance) who want to radically alter the characters, settings, history and premises of the story (I’ve seen the script they tried to hide from me for a couple of years). Nor did they owe me any money for licensing the Fables rights to third parties, since such a license wasn’t anticipated in our original publishing agreement.

            When they capitulated on some of the points in a later conference call, promising on the phone to pay me back monies owed for licensing Fables to Telltale Games, for example, in the execution of the new agreement, they reneged on their word and offered the promised amount instead as a “consulting fee,” which avoided the precedent of admitting this was money owed, and included a non-disclosure agreement that would prevent me from saying anything but nice things about Telltale or the license.

            And so on. There’s so much more, but these, as I said, are some of the highlights. At that point, since I disagreed on all of their new interpretations of our longstanding agreements, we were in conflict. They practically dared me to sue them to enforce my rights, knowing it would be a long and debilitating process. Instead I began to consider other ways to go.

Q: Are You Concerned at What DC Will Do Now?

No. I gave them years to do the right thing. I tried to reason with them, but you can’t reason with the unreasonable. They used these years to make soothing promises, tell lies about how dedicated they were towards working this out, and keep dragging things out as long as possible. I gave them an opportunity to renegotiate the contracts from the ground up, putting everything in unambiguous language, and they ignored that offer. I gave them the opportunity, twice, to simply tear up our contracts, and we each go our separate ways, and they ignored those offers. I tried to go over their heads, to deal directly with their new corporate masters, and maybe find someone willing to deal in good faith, and they blocked all attempts to do so. (Try getting any officer of DC Comics to identify who they report to up the company ladder. I dare you.) In any case, without giving them details, I warned them months in advance that this moment was coming. I told them what I was about to do would be “both legal and ethical.” Now it’s happened.

            Note that my contracts with DC Comics are still in force. I did nothing to break them, and cannot unilaterally end them. I still can’t publish Fables comics through anyone but them. I still can’t authorize a Fables movie through anyone but them. Nor can I license Fables toys nor lunchboxes, nor anything else. And they still have to pay me for the books they publish. And I’m not giving up on the other money they owe. One way or another, I intend to get my 50% of the money they’ve owed me for years for the Telltale Game and other things.

However, you, the new 100% owner of Fables never signed such agreements. For better or worse, DC and I are still locked together in this unhappy marriage, perhaps for all time.

But you aren’t.

If I understand the law correctly (and be advised that copyright law is a mess; purposely vague and murky, and no two lawyers – not even those specializing in copyright and trademark law – agree on anything), you have the rights to make your Fables movies, and cartoons, and publish your Fables books, and manufacture your Fables toys, and do anything you want with your property, because it’s your property.

Mark Buckingham is free to do his version of Fables (and I dearly hope he does). Steve Leialoha is free to do his version of Fables (which I’d love to see). And so on. You don’t have to get my permission (but you might get my blessing, depending on your plans). You don’t have to get DC’s permission, or the permission of anyone else. You never signed the same agreements I did with DC Comics.

Link to the rest at These Foolish Games and thanks to B. for the tip

PG notes that, absent a provision that specifically prohibits them from being sold, assigned or transferred, most publishing agreements can be assigned/sold to someone the author doesn’t know.

The promises made by employees of publishers regarding ambiguous language in publishing contracts that “we don’t believe that provision means what you think it might mean” or “we would never use this provision in the way you’re suggesting because that wouldn’t be fair to our authors and that’s something we won’t ever do,” while having been accepted by a huge number of traditionally-published authors, are no protection for the author.

As described in the OP, new management or new owners will look to the contract language and, often, give no effect to understandings between the publisher and the author that are not spelled out clearly in the written contracts.

There is an argument to be made that, by the publisher’s earlier voluntary actions, the previous bunch effectively modified the written words of the contract and the former publisher’s purchasers/assignees should be bound by the acts of the previous publisher. However, speaking generally, that’s a desperate legal tactic that may or may not fly, depending on how a judge is feeling on the day she/he hears the case.

That said, most judges on most days will default to looking to the language of the written contract to determine whether the author granted the publisher the right to do what the latest owners of the publisher want to do.

The actions taken by Mr. Willingham, the author of the OP and the creator of the intellectual property under new and unfriendly management, while emotionally understandable, end up trashing the value of Mr. Willingham’s creations.

PG has mentioned the following suggestions far more than once on TPV:

  1. Read every word of the contract. If you don’t understand any portion of the contract, you need to contact a competent attorney who has spent enough time with copyright licenses to know what she/he is doing. (PG used to fall into that category, but he has permanently taken down his shingle and doesn’t practice law any more.)
  2. If you or your attorney objects to any portion of the contract language and the counter-party says something like, “We would never do that” or “We don’t think that provision means what you think it means,” your unfailing response should be some variation of “I’m so pleased to know that. Let’s change the contract language to state the actual ways we’re going to do business with each other to avoid any possible future misunderstandings and keep our business relationship on an amicable basis.”

There are more than a few other things to consider/fix, but the two paragraphs above are the bones of making certain an author signs a fair contract and doesn’t have any nasty surprises with the publisher or whoever manages or buys the publisher in the future.

Two New Histories of Publishing

From Publishers Weekly:

Memoirs by former publishing executives have become something of a cottage industry this year. On September 19, former Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s Turning Pages: The Adventures and Misadventures of a Publisher is due out from Skyhorse Publishing, and on November 7, Lyons Press will release Scribners: Five Generations in Publishing by Charles Scribner III. These titles follow Applause Books’ January publication of Stephen Rubin’s Words and Music: Confessions of an Optimist, which recounts his executive days at Random House and Macmillan.

Unlike Rubin’s book, which at times offers harsh critiques of his colleagues, the upcoming titles are by men who grew up with publishing in their veins. Sargent’s ancestors include Doubledays, while Scribner’s family name still adorns one of publishing’s most admired imprints.

And besides writing books due out within a few weeks of each other, they have some other shared history: Sargent writes in his prologue that his great grandfather, Frank Nelson Doubleday, got his start in publishing when he quit school “and went to work for Charles Scribner, a prominent publisher of the time.” In his book, Scribner notes that while 1897 was a good year for Scribners, the company did suffer a major loss when the business manager of Scribners magazine left, noting that “Frank Nelson Doubleday joined the company 20 years earlier as a fourteen-year-old lad.”

Sargent and Scribner also had a shared mentor. Jeremiah Kaplan hired Sargent to work at Macmillan, and Kaplan would later bring Sargent to S&S when he moved there. Kaplan was the president of Macmillan when the Scribner family sold the company to them. After the deal, Scribner worked for Kaplan as v-p of special projects.

Similar to Rubin in his book, Sargent and Scribner describe publishing as an exciting, rewarding, and at times very stressful life at the executive level. Scribner’s account is cleverly written and punchy, with a focus on how publishing’s movers and shakers (including authors) operated, while Sargent’s memoir maintains the CEO-of-the-people style that made him one of publishing’s most popular CEOs—an approach that got him fired.

To answer the question many in the industry still wonder about, does Sargent disclose why he was in let go in late 2020? The answer is not exactly, but he does drop several clues. When the Covid pandemic hit, Macmillan’s owners, in particular Stefan von Holtzbrinck, were worried about the company’s liquidity and had Sargent implement a number of cost cuts, which included cutting salaries. As Macmillan’s financial results remained better than expected, Sargent convinced von Holtzbrinck to undo the cuts, though Sargent admits he was “impolite” during those discussions.

In August, von Holtzbrinck called Sargent again with a plan to “protect the capital structure of his family’s holdings,” Sargent writes. Sargent reluctantly agreed to implement the plan, but as work on the project progressed, he said he became certain the plan was wrong and that “hundreds” of employees would lose their jobs. (He goes no further about what the plan was. His account doesn’t counter the widespread belief that von Holtzbrinck wanted to sell the trade division, but it also doesn’t discount the idea that von Holtzbrinck wanted to consolidate and streamline Macmillan’s various departments.)

Sargent told von Holtzbrinck in an email on August 21 that he would not carry out the plan, and von Holtzbrinck responded that the plan would be scrapped, since the board agreed it could not go ahead without his support. Sargent writes that he thought things were settled, but “the next day I got the gate.”

Sargent notes that he doesn’t burn with anger over his dismissal and was grateful for the time he had running the company and appreciated the “remarkable autonomy” the von Holtzbrinck family gave him. He also offered a salute to Macmillan employees, saying they will always have his respect and admiration for achieving all the goals that had been set for them.

Until that episode, Sargent had a stellar career and was involved in some of publishing’s most important developments around such hot-button issues as free speech, copyright protections, and publisher relations with Amazon. Regarding the latter, Sargent was running Macmillan when Amazon decided to turn off the buy buttons on Macmillan titles in a dispute over e-book terms. After a week of tense negotiations, a deal was reached, which led Amazon to post an infamous statement in the Kindle forum, explaining that it would have to eventually accept an agreement with Macmillan “because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles.”

Sargent joined Macmillan in 1996 as head of St. Martin’s and quickly rose up the ranks. In the book, he recounts interactions with publishing legends, including Roger Straus as he was heading toward retirement; the decision to publish Monica Lewinsky’s book, which drew criticism inside and outside of the company; and the decision to publish Fortunate Son, a book critical of then–Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush that Macmillan would later need to recall.

Sargent once again dealt with White House issues in 2018 when Macmillan’s Holt division published Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, one of the first books critical of then-president Trump. After word spread about the impending publication, Trump sent a cease-and-desist letter to Macmillan, but the company released the title anyway, and it went on to become one of its biggest bestsellers.

No book about Macmillan can be written without some comment on its former headquarters. The Flatiron Building was one of New York’s first skyscrapers, and though it was elegantly designed, the problem, as Sargent notes, “was everything else.” When the lease was up in 2018, despite much employee support for staying, Sargent decided Macmillan had no choice but to find a new home.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG says the Amazon pricing for each of these books is calculated to generate very few ebook sales, which, of course, doesn’t guarantee that anyone who enjoys reading ebooks will be inclined to purchase print versions of either book.

Of course, ebook sales at reasonable prices generate much more money for publishers than sales of printed books at higher prices.

Amazon Derangement Syndrome still runs rampant in the dusty and spider-infested halls of Big Publishing.

Memo to Malaviya: Ditch the Dohle Doctrine and bring PRH into the 21st century

From The New Publishing Standard:

Revenues up, profits down, workers laid off. The PRH H1 memo to employees paints a fuzzy and incomplete picture, but let’s be generous to newly installed CEO Nihar Malaviya as he sups from the PRH chalice poisoned by previous CEO Markus Dohle’s abortive bid to acquire Simon & Shuster last year.

By the time Dohle finally fell on his sword, the damage had been done. Many senior executives at PRH had jumped ship following the debacle in court where PRH operational policy (read guesswork and gambling) and real market share was laid bare, and the then CEO’s paranoia about subscription was laughably exposed.

Malaviya was left to pick up the pieces and rebuild PRH’s tarnished reputation.

Parent company Bertelsmann is unsurprisingly impressed by the revenue rise PRH clocked in H1, which as Porter Anderson at Publishing Perspectives headlines, saw a YoY rise of 9% to €2.1 billion. But in a report noteworthy for not once telling us how affable Nihar Malaviya is, Anderson neglects to mention that PRH profits for the same period were up less than 1%. Hardly an auspicious start for the new CEO.

Malaviya’s first H1 report presented inherent challenges to the new chief. He’s hardly had time to make an impact on his inheritance – most of the ups and downs can be firmly attributed to the Dohle era, as can the $200 million penalty and untold legal fees that arose from the acquisition fail, that no doubt goes some way to necessitating the redundancies programme Malaviya has been forced to roll out.

On the Court case, Malaviya has been tactfully silent, but did manage a dig at Dohle’s splash-the-cash record with a reference in the H1 report, smugly noting “we acquired several small companies during this year, furthering our ambitions to grow in audio, children’s, and data-driven publishing, as well as in local content, among others.”

That’s something the employee base needed to hear. Reassurance that Malaviya was not on a power and glory grab like his predecessor. But questions remain about Malaviya’s ability to connect with his workforce. Parts of the memo read more like a pitch to senior management and investors than to the team that do the company’s day to day grunt work.

Explained Malaviya: “Industry inflationary cost pressures and increased costs across our businesses have continued to impact us. We have already taken several steps to offset these pressures in some of our markets around the world and will continue to carefully navigate these industry and structural dynamics.”

That’s industry-speak for, we’ve got rid of some of you and more will have to go. 

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

At times, the close followers of major US publishers remind PG of a cult. They’re fixated on every little change or word from inside the walls of Big-But-Getting-Smaller-Publishing.

PG always thought the Dohle play for Simon & Schuster was a stupid idea and bound to attract antitrust attention with a good possibility of litigation. It was an immense distraction for Dohle and, almost certainly, for the remainder of the executive ranks and a goodly number of the PRH peons as well.

Plus major antitrust litigation sucks up breathtaking amounts of money, money that would otherwise be available to fund large advances for any number of ghost-written celebrity books, perhaps even a couple more Barack and Michelle coffee table tomes.

The Mohn family, owns and controls (directly and indirectly) Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA, which, in turn, owns PRH plus a large collection of of other stuff, including stupendous bank accounts. PG doesn’t remember reading anything written about the adult Mohns of the twentieth and twenty-first century that doesn’t describe them as a collection of billionaires.

PG has never met an actual German billionaire, but he suspects they don’t like receiving bad financial news from their underlings. PG also suspects German billionaires loath the idea of truckloads of their money being paid to New York lawyers.

Costs Cut into Profits at Big Publishers

From Publishers Weekly:

Simon & Schuster was the only one of the country’s four largest trade publishers to show an improved profit margin in the first half of 2023 compared to last year. While industry sales were generally flat in the first six months of the year, companies cited higher costs as the major reason profit margins shrank in the first six months of 2023.

In reporting Penguin Random House’s first-half results last week, where sales rose 9.5% but profits were up less than 1%, interim global CEO Nihar Malaviya told employees the small earnings increase “should come as no surprise, as industry inflationary cost pressures and increased costs across our businesses have continued to impact us.”

HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray noted earlier that in addition to higher manufacturing, freight, and distribution costs, the industry has faced macroeconomic headwinds that he hasn’t seen since the Great Recession of 2008. Those challenges, as well as the unique conditions tied to the pandemic—including overprinting by publishers and over-ordering by most accounts to meet the early surge in book buying—created a bubble that began to fizzle last year, and it took time for all industry players to recover, Murray said. That resulted in earnings falling 32.4% at HC in the first half of the year on a 6.5% decline in sales.

Profits fell 19.7% at Lagardère Publishing despite a 2.5% increase in six-month sales. In addition to inflationary pressures, Lagardère cited increased costs incurred on “transformation projects in France” as the reason for the earnings decline. Some of those costs were partly offset by higher selling prices and the impacts of operational efficiency plans, particularly in the United States, the company said.

Among the cost-cutting measures employed by all three companies were workforce reductions, with HarperCollins’s and PRH’s efforts garnering the most attention. HC was under a corporate mandate to reduce its North American workforce by 5%, while PRH cut staff through layoffs and an early retirement program for employees over 60 who were with the company for at least 15 years (voluntary separation offer). HBG also had its own early retirement initiative (voluntary resignation benefits program).

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Women Writers Face an Imbalance of Power

From Publishers Weekly:

Mary Abigail Dodge (1833–1896), known by the pen name Gail Hamilton, was hailed in a national newspaper after her death as “the most brilliant woman of her generation.” Author of numerous essays and more than 25 books on religion, politics, travel, rural life, and the rights of women, Hamilton also played a key role in the evolution of publishing when she sued her publisher, James T. Fields (of the house Ticknor & Fields), for underpaying her. With the issue of how writers are valued and paid still raging today, the legal battle waged by this writer is a reminder of how little things have changed.

At 23, Hamilton had an essay run in National Era, an abolitionist magazine edited by Gamaliel Bailey, best known as the editor of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She began to write regularly for him, and he invited her to move to Washington, D.C., to be governess for his children. While this arrangement would be considered inappropriate today, it afforded Hamilton opportunities to rub elbows with politicians and thought leaders that fed her writing. (Later in her career, however, she was a vocal critic of paternalist publishers.)

In her essays and books, Hamilton urged women not to conform to societal expectations and instead become what she called “androgynous,” by which she meant they should develop the side of themselves she felt most resembled men, giving up any tendency to remain ignorant of, or above, worldly, commercial dealings. She felt that women’s spiritual and artistic tendencies should be tamped down in favor of male decisiveness and firmer attitudes. She especially advised this for women writers, saying, “a certain prejudice against female writers ‘still lives.’ It is fine, subtle, impalpable, but real.”

Her assessment that women writers weren’t treated as equal to men was confirmed when she discovered that her publisher, whether by accident or design, had cheated her out of her royalties. Fields published Hamilton’s first book in 1862 and subsequently published seven more. Theirs was a friendly relationship until 1867, when Hamilton learned that most beginning authors received a 10% royalty, while she received only 6% and 7%. For her subsequent books, Fields had convinced her to accept 15¢ per copy. When they sold for $1.50 each, the arrangement was fair, but as the price of her books rose, her earnings didn’t.

Hamilton and Fields had no written contract, merely a congenial relationship that benefitted the publisher more than the author. When she approached him about the discrepancy, instead of acknowledging the error, he dismissed her complaint, calling her “aggressive” and “unwomanly.”

Hamilton pursued legal arbitration, gathering a sizable amount of data from other publishers and authors in an attempt to prove that the entire royalty system was arbitrary and capricious. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s widow shared that at the start of her husband’s career, he had received 15% from Fields but was later knocked down to 10%. Other authors received 20%, while Harriet Beecher Stowe received a full 50% of the profits from her highly successful books. It galled Hamilton that writers seemed grateful to accept whatever rates publishers chose for them.

Though she worked with a lawyer, Hamilton presented her own case in the hearing and petitioned for the 10% she had never received, plus an additional 7%, and legal expenses of $3,000. In their ruling, the arbitrators determined that neither party had intended to defraud the other—a decision that treated the two parties as equals, when clearly they were not.

Hamilton was awarded only $1,250, not even half of her legal costs. Though defeated in court, she continued to publish with other houses, and in 1870, she self-published a novel that contained a thinly veiled account of her legal fight titled A Battle of the Books. It received mixed reviews, including some scathing ones, and although it sold moderately well, she still lost money on it.

But the literary community took notice, and the veneer of gentlemen publishers was forever tarnished. 

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG isn’t familiar with the facts of this particular case, but it appears to be one more chapter in a very long book filled with stories of traditional publishers cheating authors due to an inherent imbalance of power.

PG would be interested in stories about publishers overpaying royalties to authors.

The title, “Women Writers Face an Imbalance of Power” also applies to male authors in traditional publishing.

Booksellers Want Justice Department to Investigate Amazon

From BookRiot:

As the Federal Trade Commission moves towards what looks like a lawsuit against Amazon, several authors, booksellers, and anti-trust activists want Amazon’s bookselling to also be investigated.

The Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Association, and antitrust think tank Open Markets Institute sent a letter Wednesday to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission requesting that they disrupt the monopoly on the book market that Amazon has.

The retail giant’s influence on the book world can’t be overstated — 40% of physical books sold in the U.S. are sold by Amazon, as are 80% of e-books sold. Amazon’s 2008 purchase of Audible has also helped it dominate the realm of audiobooks. The reason this is an issue for the world of publishing is that, for one, it has resulted in fewer books sold by physical bookstores across the country. And Amazon has a tendency to highlight well-known authors, making it even harder for other, lesser-known authors to get attention on their books.

The letter cites the importance of free-flowing ideas within a democracy as the reason why Amazon’s role as a bookseller should be looked into by the government, “The open access to the free flow of ideas is essential to a well-functioning democracy. The government has the responsibility to ensure that actors with oversized power cannot control or interfere with the open exchange of ideas.”

Link to the rest at BookRiot

PG suggests that it’s difficult to make a case that Amazon is harming consumers with its low prices and the huge variety of books on offer — far, far more than any physical bookstore can stock.

As far as ebooks are concerned, how many ebooks do the members of the American Booksellers Association sell each year and what is the price of those ebooks?

Does anyone know of any evidence that Amazon interferes with “access to the free flow of ideas” with its huge collection of print books, old and new, and ebooks, offered at lower prices than anyone else provides? As PG has mentioned before, being a large and successful business organization is not a violation of antitrust laws.

He further suggests that selling printed and ebooks from a stock far larger than any physical bookstore has for sale at significantly lower prices than the members of the American Booksellers Association routinely charge doesn’t hurt readers or other consumers in any measurable way.

US – print book sales continue to decline. So where is the #BookTok boom the industry loves to get so excited about?

From The New Publishing Standard:

“The summer is turning out to be a tough one for book sales.” So says Publishers Weekly‘s Jim Milliott.

Milliott explains: “Unit sales of print books once again fell last week, dropping 7.6% compared to the week ended August 13, 2022 at outlets that report to Circana BookScan. And once again, the once sturdy adult fiction segment had a down week compared to a year ago. And also once again, the reason for the decline in adult fiction is not hard to find—the lack of titles that can match the sales velocity that books by Colleen Hoover and other BookTok-fueled authors achieved last year.”

As always, Jim Milliott has details of the titles that are topping the charts, with sales numbers, but what’s not explored in Jim’s piece, once we set aside the three “once again” reminders that this is not some statistical anomaly, are the implications of his last line as quoted:

“The reason for the decline in adult fiction is not hard to find—the lack of titles that can match the sales velocity that books by Colleen Hoover and other BookTok-fueled authors achieved last year.”

Leaving the big question, what has happened to the BookTok magic wand? And are publishers – and the wider industry – prepared for BookTok’s self-evidently waning influence?

BookTok of course rode the Pandemic bonanza of unexpected extra reading time, and publishers reaped the rewards, but with the Pandemic (for now) in the rear-view mirror, not only is reading time reduced, but screen time to spend on BookTok is reduced, meaning those undeniably fantastical figures the industry experts love to throw about, that show how BookTok can save the industry amid the economic downturn, are little more than history. If it was ever for real.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

PRH Rolls Out Banned Books Resources: ‘Let Kids Read’

From Publishing Perspectives:

On Monday (August 14), Andrew Paul at Popular Science wrote, “Iowa educators are turning to ChatGPT to help decide which titles should be removed from their school library shelves in order to legally comply with recent Republican-backed state legislation.”

Today (August 15), Penguin Random House has released its new “banned books resource site”—titled Let Kids Read.

The two events’ timing is coincidental. What’s intentional is a rising willingness among major book-business players to speak forthrightly to such politically inflamed issues.

PRH’s worldwide CEO, Nihar Malaviya, says on today’s release of its new campaign, “We believe in the power of books and their ability to make us better—as individuals and as a society.

“Books give us perspective; their stories allow us to feel seen and provide us with the opportunity to learn from each other’s lived experiences.

“The acceleration of book bannings, challenges, and related legislation sweeping across the country is a direct threat to democracy and our constitutional rights. Diverse stories deserve to be told, and readers deserve the autonomy to choose what books they read.”

To that end, the special site set is up as a consumer-facing presentation, ending in a selection of banned books grouped by category and intended to be rotated at regular intervals.

There’s a series of “What We’re Doing” sections first, and Publishing Perspectives readers will be familiar with many of the listed legal challenges in which PRH has been a party, often under the aegis of the Association of American Publishers. This is followed by a listing of relevant organizations the company works with; a section on the company’s support for its authors; and another section on teacher and librarian support.

Technically, that portion of the “banned book resource site” is a corporate-responsibility piece, albeit clearly one that displays some of the good works and associations made and maintained by the company in the service of resisting a censorious era’s darkest dynamics.

Where the piece shows its depth is in the next section, which offers Malaviya’s introductory commentary on the problem. Look for the section called “Resources for Everyone.”

Here you’ll find him linking to reputable (American Library Association) survey results indicating that 70 percent of American parents asked say that they’re opposed to book banning.

Even more enlightening is his use of Hannah Natanson’s May 23 report for the Washington Post in which investigative journalism found that LGBTQ content is the most frequent trigger in book-banning incidents and that the core challenges to the freedom to read in school-setting book challenges were filed, in the Post‘s analysis, by just 11 people in the 2021-2022 school year cycle. Each of these people created 10 or more challenges in their school districts—one lodging 92 challenges in a year.

Natanson’s article calls these the “serial filers” who launch those blizzards of complaints that send school boards reeling and books vanishing from shelves, with librarians and teachers caught in the crossfire.

In Malaviya’s article, he pledges, “We will always stand by those fighting for intellectual freedom.”

“Resources for Authors and Creators” will give you the Penguin Random House author Jacob Tobia, who makes an appeal to authors to avoid self-censorship, writing, “As authors, we must resist not only their efforts to ban our books, but also their efforts to make us afraid.

“Now is not the time to cower. Now is not the time to stop writing. It is the time to double down on our creative joy, on the power that comes with expressing the ideas and stories shimmering in our hearts.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG says that Manhattan sensibilities differ substantially from those held by about 90% of the remainder of the US population. The idea of a group of business executives deciding what children can read is going to strike more than a few parents outside of the canyons of New York as both presumptious in the extreme.

Just because some corporate drone is familiar with what books sell doesn’t make them an expert on what children should be reading. It does, however, represent virtue signaling to other members of the NYC hive mind.

What the sale of a major American book publisher means for authors, the industry — and you

From The Los Angeles Times:

It seemed to many in book publishing like good news last October when the Department of Justice successfully sued to block Penguin Random House (PRH) from acquiring Simon & Schuster. PRH is the largest publisher in the United States and S & S is third. Together they might have controlled more than half the industry. Only three other publishers — HarperCollins, Hachette and Macmillan — control the bulk of the rest. Such consolidation has long worried literary types who fear it leads to the privileging of profit over culture. But the alternative in this case might prove worse. On Monday, Paramount sold Simon & Schuster to KKR, a private equity firm.

Simon & Schuster’s role in the book world

Simon & Schuster is a 99-year-old house. Founded by two Jewish bookmen, Richard Simon and Max Schuster, it was among a wave of new firms established in the first half of the 20th century by Jewish bookmen, including Knopf, Random House and Viking. But whereas these other houses were literary ventures, S & S was more commercial from the start. While Random House profited from the scandal of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” S & S grew on the back of crossword puzzle books.

Paramount acquired Simon & Schuster in 1975, leading to vast growth through acquisitions, with a focus on educational and professional publishing. By the 21st century, Simon & Schuster had become a behemoth, one of the Big Five, inevitably containing multitudes. Today its imprints include commercial lines such as Atria (Vince Flynn, Colleen Hoover, Jodi Picoult, Brad Thor) and the venerable Scribner (Stephen King, Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward) whose backlist features F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

What is KKR?

Kohlberg Kravis Roberts is an investment company founded in 1976. Henry Kravis and George R. Roberts continue to hold positions as executive co-chairmen. They pioneered leveraged buyouts in the 1980s, culminating in one of the largest in history when they bought out RJR Nabisco in 1989. As first documented in the investigative blockbuster “Barbarians at the Gate,” the firm established an early record of buying companies, loading them up with debt, then squeezing them for profit — maybe most famously with the slow death of Toys R Us. More recently, KKR acquired hundreds of facilities for people with disabilities, which, under the new ownership, led to conditions in which residents were “consigned to live in squalor, denied basic medical care, or all but abandoned,” according to Polk-winning reportage from Buzzfeed.

Its reputation has grown more complicated over time, even as it’s made some incursions into publishing. KKR is enormous, with more than $500 billion in assets. Simon & Schuster, purchased for $1.62 billion, will account for less than one half of 1%. Still, KKR co-CEO Scott Nuttall told the the Wall Street Journal that “the firm puts new growth opportunities through a screen. ‘Can we do it in a way that is special? Can we get to the top three in the world?’”

KKR has some publishing connections. Co-CEO Joseph Bae is married to the respected novelist Janice Y.K. Lee — though she publishes with PRH. More notably, Richard Sarnoff, chair of KKR’s media group, worked in publishing from the 1980s until 2011. He helped the German conglomerate Bertelsmann acquire Random House in 1998, after which he became an increasingly influential figure in the industry, an early advocate of audio and new media who also pushed publishing toward increasing financialization through further acquisitions and investments in venture capital.

One benefit touted by Simon & Schuster as well as KKR on Monday is its habit of offering equity to employees of its companies. Such a program will now be established at S & S. This worked out well for the company’s recent publishing asset, RBMedia, the world’s largest audiobook publisher. Acquired in 2018, RBMedia was sold last month in a deal that, according to KKR’s statements to the New York Times, earned employees payouts of up to two times their annual salaries.

What does the sale mean for the industry?

It is, in one sense, the continuation of an old story. The corporatization of publishing began in the 1960s. Times Mirror acquired the esteemed mass-market paperback house New American Library in 1960 and hired McKinsey consultants to rationalize its operations, leading to increasing control for the business office and an exodus of editorial talent that included luminaries such as E. L. Doctorow and André Schiffrin. Few acquisitions or mergers have been as dramatic since, though all nudged publishing toward prioritizing financial growth. The big difference this week is that for decades media companies have tended to acquire publishing houses: Bertelsmann, CBS, Hachette, Holtzbrinck, News Corp, Paramount. Not so much private equity.

The consequences for the industry have been complex: One could write an entire book just covering fiction. Writers and editors have developed creative strategies for meeting the needs of growth-oriented parent companies while doing good work. The question is whether a private equity firm runs things differently.

Initial commentary from top figures at KKR and Simon & Schuster have focused on growth. “I believe that they are committed to helping us grow and become even greater than we already are,” S & S CEO Jonathan Karp told the L.A. Times in an interview Monday, calling the purchase “very good news for readers and publishers everywhere.” He touted KKR’s track record of audiobook production — one avenue of planned growth — as well its proposal to offer employees equity that could result in “a life-impacting amount of wealth.” In the short term, both sides say business at Simon & Schuster will carry on as usual. Of course, they have motivations for saying so.

What does this mean for books and readers?

What happens next is unpredictable. Will Simon & Schuster end up like Toys R Us or RBMedia? We know that KKR will aggressively pursue growth. It is likely less concerned with accommodating the niceties and vagaries of publishing than the other parent companies of the Big Five. One the one hand, this might mean Simon & Schuster becomes flush with cash, enabling its staff to explore compelling new projects (so long as they facilitate growth). On the other, it could mean radical transitions at the publisher, including layoffs and changing terms for contracts with authors. Colleen Hoover, a mega-bestseller, is probably safer than Kiese Laymon, a beloved critical darling whose books have little impact on S & S’s bottom line.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times

S&S acquired by private equity. What does it mean for the book business? 

From Nathan Bransford:

A big domino in book publishing fell this month as private equity behemoth KKR has acquired Simon & Schuster for $1.62 billion, rather less than the $2.175 billion Penguin Random House agreed to before that deal was quashed by a federal judge, though the blow to Paramount was softened by the $200 million PRH had to pay S&S when the deal failed to close.

This is… possibly good news for Simon & Schuster and the publishing industry writ large? It emerged during discovery for the Penguin Random House trial that S&S CEO Jonathan Karp had emailed a Paramount executive in 2020 that a financial buyer “would be better for the employees of S&S and arguably the larger book publishing ecosystem,” and sure enough, in an email to Publishers Lunch, Karp said “It was the outcome I’d hoped for.”

You can see why there’s some hope. Karp is keeping his job, S&S’s imprints remain free to compete with the other members of the Big 5 publishers (thus maintaining options for agents/authors as well as avoiding antitrust scrutiny), and S&S will likely avoid the waves of redundancy layoffs you’d expect with a merger with, say, HarperCollins. KKR is also supporting the creation of an equity program that would give employees a stake in the company.

However. S&S was already known as a lean operation and KKR is known for slashing and burning costs, so where exactly will additional efficiencies come from?

My personal worry has been that one or more of the major publishers would be acquired by a private equity company who would simply mine the backlist, which is the real cash cow in book publishing, and lay off (nearly) all the editors and support staff and essentially close up shop for new frontlist acquisitions, perhaps excepting a tiny handful of established bestsellers (like say Stephen King and Colleen Hoover). Karp, longtime readers may remember, made a name for himself with a lean imprint devoted to publishing one book a month on the grounds that publishers can only really focus on so many books at a time.

Please note that there are no indications that this is S&S’s plan, and I hope this remains mere nightmare fuel that does not come to pass.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG says the “S&S’s plan” doesn’t make any difference now that the publisher is owned by an organization that is not run by English majors.

While PG is not privy to any of S&S’s numbers, cutting way back on S&S salary costs and office rent and mining the backlist likely makes more sense than continuing to try to make the traditional business of publishing reasonably profitable (by the standards of financially-savvy KKR execs) while spending lots of money on advances that are unlikely to earn out and paying New York City rents and low (by NYC standards) salaries for a very small return on equity.

Print Book Sales Fell 6% Again Last Week

From Publishers Weekly:

The spring sales trend of weekly declines of about 6% continued last week with unit sales of print books dropping 6.4% compared to the week ended May 22, 2021. The sales decline through May 21, 2022, also came in at 6.4%, compared to last year at outlets that report to NPD BookScan.

Adult nonfiction continued to struggle, with sales falling 11% despite a host of new titles hitting high up on the category list. The Office BFFs by Jenna Fischer was #1 in the category, selling more than 26,000 copies in its first week on sale. Last year at this time John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed was #1, selling over 57,000 copies. Other new nonfiction books that had solid debuts were Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Mulitverse, which sold nearly 24,000 copies, and Endure by Cameron Hanes, which sold almost 18,000 copies, putting the titles in second and fourth place on the category chart, respectively.

The adult fiction category was the only segment to post a sales increase over last year. Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us was #1, selling over 34,000 copies, and Hoover had three other titles on the category top 10 list. The highest-ranking new release was Jack Carr’s In the Blood, which sold over 22,000 copies.

Juvenile fiction sales dropped 8% from 2021. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss was #1 on the category list both last week and a year ago, selling about 60,000 copies in each week. Bloom of the Flower Dragon by Tracey West sold over 16,000 copies in its first week on sale, making it the top-selling new release in the category.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The Big Deal about Big Publishers

From Publishing Perspectives:

Every July, I head down to the French countryside for a much-needed change from urban cool Hackney in East London. The upsides are the weather, the air and water quality, the wine, the produce, the markets, and being visited by hordes of friends and family. The downsides are rather slow Internet connections, no public transport, the occasional overheating canicule, and spasmodic infestations of hornets or mosquitoes.

In the photo above taken from my garden, you can just make out in the distance the hills of the Grésigne Forest where I frequently walk and test my fitness for coping with steep up-slopes and slippery down-slopes. These plusses and minuses got me thinking about the benefits and drawbacks of large and small publishers. So here goes.

Large publishers, by definition, have scale.

The greater their revenue, the more scale they have. But what does scale really mean? How is it measured? I guess the simplest measure is revenue. The greater the revenue, the more clout they theoretically have with retailers, with printers, with distributors. High revenue allows higher and more cost-effective investment in systems. But does it work?

One argument for the proposed and ultimately failed takeover of Simon & Schuster by Penguin Random House was that it gave them more power when negotiating with that very large Internet retailer with whom we all have a love-hate relationship.

Might it have worked? I doubt it. A publisher even of the size of a PRH/S&S size is a minnow compared with You Know Who in Seattle. It would inevitably be an unfair struggle. Indeed, any retailer is more concerned with the trading terms achieved with the big publishers than the smaller ones. I can’t prove this, and trying to find out would probably be in breach of competition laws in most jurisdictions, but I’d lay money that small publishers are getting a better deal with retailers than the big guns. They might not be able to buy as much exposure but sales they make will be at higher margins. The benefits of scale might just be a little illusory.

An ability to hire the best staff is clearly one of the perceived advantages of being big.

People are keen to join bigger companies, as there should be more opportunities for promotion. And human resources departments are better funded and supported. In particular, larger firms can focus attention on trying to improve the diversity—age, gender, sexuality, race, etc.—of their workforce.

On the other hand, the structures of these companies favor specialization—production, sales, marketing, editorial, publicity, finance, IT, etc.—which works against those individuals who need to learn the whole business rather than the parts.

In addition, the HR departments of larger publishers are involved in making difficult decisions and communicating changes internally and externally. One large publisher’s internal memo I’ve read was 30 lines long, and its sole purpose was to announce in linguistic jargon the departure of a long-serving executive without a word of thanks. There are plenty more examples of such unfeeling gobbledygook. Working in a small office may be a better apprenticeship option or even offer a more secure career.

Large publishers can offer higher advances and thus attract the best authors.

Certainly it’s the case that competition between the major publishers and their ability to invest in intellectual property has led to some very significant earnings for top authors, including large numbers of ghost-written celebrity memoirs. But overall it’s unclear whether authors are the real beneficiaries of the consolidation of the industry.

One clear downside is that the large publishers have increased the discounts they grant to retailers, in some cases massively. Authors’ royalties reflect this by percentage royalty rates based on retail price being reduced for sales over certain discount points. What might appear as a 10-percent RRP royalty [recommended retail price] is frequently only 6 percent as a result of publisher-retailer trading terms. By and large, smaller publishers escape these penal discount terms by flying below the radar or simply being more prudent in negotiation and being less important to the retailer in question. Either way, authors stand to benefit even if their initial advances are lower.

There’s little doubt that the large publishers have extremely professional and diligent leadership.

This has improved markedly over the years. The downside is that when someone reaches the top of such a complex and widespread organization, it’s extremely difficult for them to do much more than try to keep the organization out of trouble and financially stable. The result is that senior management has inevitably become distanced from the real action of the business—the acquisition of the best titles and the marketing of them.

Actually publishing books has been replaced for much senior management by the chairing of strategy meetings; the writing of uplifting newsletters for staff; the supervision of audits to portray the business as forward-looking, inclusive, representative, caring, and human; the nurturing of relations with the owners, whether a distant head office in another country or hedge funds or public shareholders; the management of distribution, logistics, HR, IT and finance—all really important but not publishing, as such.

Small company managers have no such issues. They simply have to manage to stay in business and undertake whatever is required; but most of all, they have to focus on the authors whose work they represent.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Judge Finds Revived Amazon E-book Monopoly Suit Should Proceed

From Publishers Weekly:

For a second time in two years, a magistrate judge in New York has recommended that a consumer class action lawsuit accusing the Big Five publishers of colluding with Amazon to fix e-book prices should be dismissed. But while the judge recommended tossing the case against the publishers, the court found that monopolization and attempted monopolization claims against Amazon should proceed.

In a 59-page report, magistrate judge Valerie Figueredo found sufficient facts at the pleading stage to “plausibly allege that Amazon’s conduct has allowed it to charge supracompetitive commission fees, leading to reduced competition in the e-book platforms-transaction market and higher e-book prices for consumers.”

The case was first filed in the Southern District of New York on January 14, 2021, led by Hagens Berman (which was also the firm that sued Apple and five major publishers for colluding to fix e-book prices in 2011). It alleged that the Big Five publishers—Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster—were co-conspirators in a hub-and-spoke scheme with Amazon to suppress retail price competition and keep e-book prices artificially high. In March 2021, a second, associated suit accusing Amazon and the Big Five publishers of a conspiracy to restrain price competition in the retail and online print trade book markets was also filed.

But last year, after a marathon July 27, 2022 hearing, Figueredo recommended that the presiding judge in the case, Gregory Woods, toss both cases for lack of evidence. In two brief September 29, 2022 orders, Woods accepted Figeuredo’s “well-reasoned” and thorough reports, and dismissed the cases without prejudice, giving the plaintiffs a chance to file amended complaints.

Which they did. In a 125-page Second Consolidated Amended complaint filed last November, Hagens Berman revised and refiled their claims, including arguments that Amazon’s dominance in the e-book market enables it to “coerce” e-book publishers into “entering into contractual provisions that foreclose competition on price or product availability,” which ultimately harms consumers by keeping e-book prices artificially high. “In a but-for competitive market, Amazon could not earn such a supracompetitive profit without price or product availability,” which ultimately harms consumers by keeping e-book prices artificially high. “In a but-for competitive market, Amazon could not earn such a supracompetitive profit without losing sales to a competitor and experiencing reduced profits,” the amended complaint argues. “Yet Amazon has been able to both maintain its market share and extract its supracompetitive transaction fees by exercising its market power to block competition.”

In its defense, Amazon insists that its MFNs and other contract terms are standard and “not inherently anticompetitive,” and that there is no evidence the company’s conduct “had the effect of raising agency commissions to anticompetitive levels.” But that’s not a question to be resolved at the pleading stage, Figueredo noted, concluding that the plaintiffs “have adequately pled anticompetitive conduct to support their monopolization and attempted monopolization claims.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

HarperCollins to Shutter Inkyard Press, Lay Off Staff

From Publishers Weekly:

In a week that has seen Penguin Random House’s workforce winnowed by buyouts and layoffs and the Independent Publishers Group lay off nine staffers, HarperCollins has announced that Inkyard Press, the YA imprint under the publisher’s Harlequin Trade Publishing division, will be shuttered, and its staff laid off on August 1. The move comes less than a month after PRH folded its Razorbill imprint, and during a down year for sales of books for children and young adults.

Inkyard published approximately 2-4 books a month, and those titles, a representative of HarperCollins and Harlequin told PW, “will transition to [HarperCollins Chidlren’s Books] imprints.” When asked by PW how many employees were impacted, the representative provided no comment. Among those laid off were senior publishing director Bess Braswell; editors Meghan Maria McCullough, Claire Stetzer, and Olivia Valcarce; and senior marketing manager Britt Mitchell.

“Harlequin Trade Publishing has made the difficult, strategic decision to close the Inkyard Press imprint and transition the titles to HarperCollins Children’s Books,” the publisher’s statement read. “Current market conditions have posed a variety of challenges for the business, which [have] been acutely felt in the YA/middle grade space, with a shifting retail landscape, reduced distribution, and higher production costs in a price-sensitive segment. Inkyard titles will benefit from the synergies and streamlined processes as part of a larger Children’s division.”

At least one additional layoff at HarperCollins was made yesterday: Stephanie Guerdan, an associate editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books and a shop steward in the HarperCollins Union, which signed a new contract with the company in February after a months-long strike. When asked about the scope and specifics of any layoffs outside of Inkyard, a representative of HarperCollins declined to comment.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

HC Union Files Grievance After Unit Chair Terminated

From Publishers Weekly:

The HarperCollins union has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against the publisher after HC laid off Children’s Books associate editor and union head Stephanie Guerdan last week. In a statement released yesterday, the union alleged that Guerdan was “wrongfully terminated” in a retaliatory measure against her role as the union’s unit chair.

“The company is continuing to spend their resources on union-busting, going so far as to fire our Unit Chair,” said Local 2110 UAW president Olga Brudastova. “Stephanie has had an impeccable career at HarperCollins spanning over six years. They were outspoken about their support for the Union and have been very involved in every action the Union has taken, including serving as a shop steward, being part of the bargaining committee, and most recently acting as Unit Chair. Members of our Union are outraged and will not allow the company to succeed in these scare tactics.”

The HC Union also pointed out that Guerdan’s termination came on the eve of a one-day strike organized by the union last year on July 20, which was then followed by a longer strike that spanned three months.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Of course traditional publishing oppresses the powerless individual. It’s owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

AAP StatShot Shows the US Book Market Flat in May

From Publishing Perspectives:

In its May StatShot report released on July 19 during Publishing Perspectives’ summer publishing break, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) cites flat total revenues overall at US$846.8 million, in comparison to May 2022.

Year-to-date revenues, the AAP reports, were up 0.7 percent at $4.7 billion for the first five months of this year.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes that StatShot only includes traditionally-published books without any data from Amazon on self-published books.