Publishing Has A New York Problem

From SFWA:

Like so many others connected to this [small-yet-all-consuming] publishing industry, books were my first love. Legend has it that a tiny version of me set eyes on my first library and yelped “oh, Mommy, all these books are for me?!”, convinced that somehow the universe had conspired to erect a house of stories on my behalf. Over time, my relationship with books went from assuming they were all made for me, to hoping I could play a role in making them all. But lovely as books are, the publishing machine is flawed, as all things are (as this op-ed likely is). Evidence of this creeps up in the corners of the internet from sources brave enough to give voice to their frustrations, in the private DMs and group chats where authors, publishing professionals, and readers alike sound off to avoid the disaster of blasting their grievances on front street. Not that feeling any of this is a betrayal. It’s entirely possible to love a thing and still criticize it. And as writers of speculative fiction, it sometimes falls to us to imagine better futures before people with the tools can make them realities.

Publishing has received a rather steady stream of criticism regarding its exclusivity. While my experience has been filtered through the lens of race, I’m not simply referring to what seems like gatekeeping for racial or ethnic diversity. This exclusivity extends to anyone that doesn’t fit into the box labelled “I-can-miraculously-afford-living-in-this-wallet-draining-city,” lumping everyone else into an unruly rejection pile. The centralization of publishing in one of the most expensive cities in the world shuts out anyone not privileged enough to be able to live here comfortably, despite their relevant experience or talent. The effect is that potentially great candidates are either never considered for inclusion or end up leaving the industry and its paltry entry-level paychecks altogether. Here’s the one-two punch that keeps so many of the voices we need on the fringes, screaming from the shores while the lucky ones sail off into the fortunate sunset. And while publishing might not be ready to admit it (or who knows, perhaps internally it has), this act of leaving behind certain voices does everyone a massive disservice. Recently, that’s never been more clear.

. . . .

[T]here is a path forward for an inclusive publishing industry. One that values and retains voices, and one that, despite my unshakeable love for the city, doesn’t have to be centered in New York.

. . . .

The industry has already made significant changes to its operation in response to the challenges presented by the coronavirus. Beginning with the shifting of publication dates at the start of the crisis, professionals attested to adjustments made in collaboration with multiple departments, the author, and the author’s agent. Instead of hanging their hats on delayed release schedules, many publishing houses changed tack. They introduced virtual methods to get the job done as employees transitioned to working from home for their safety. The same way we can read a book from the comfort of our own home, we can (mostly) publish one from there, too. And the adjusted operations to manage the effects of the coronavirus provide the framework. 

Firstly, several departments can operate remotely rather easily. It’s been widely accepted that agents don’t have to operate from New York to sign and sell stellar books. Several agents work remotely, and some agencies are established in other cities around the country, such as Los Angeles Denver, and Washington D.C. The same logic applies to several other publishing departments, such as editorial, scouting, contracts, and subsidiary rights. The introduction of meetings applications like Zoom and Google Meet into our everyday lives puts virtual meetings and maintaining connections at the tips of our fingers.

. . . .

Virtual connectivity aside, those who work from their home in these departments can do their jobs effectively. Editors and scouts are often inundated by reading, which can be done everywhere.

. . . .

And when it comes down to it, contracts and subsidiary rights are words on a page no matter where they are interpreted and are honestly best consumed with sides of solitude and silence in which the legalese can wash over and drown you. 

Secondly, while marketing, publicity, and sales are not as simple, there have been great examples of COVID-related functions already that can easily transition over to post-COVID times. In combination with the usual virtual practices of curating social media platforms, hosting online giveaways, and distributing both mailed and digital advance copies to readers and reviewers, publishing houses are finding ways to generate content that promotes books in socially-distanced ways.

. . . .

In a recent article in Forbes, Brett Cohen, President and Publisher of Quirk Books, outlined what his team is doing to counteract the change in promotion. Among other things, Cohen discussed how Quirk Books, which publishes unconventional books out of Philadelphia, instituted a weekly theme where authors discuss their books and offered resources to entice purchases, including reading guides and downloadable kits. The publisher released the greatly anticipated The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix at the height of the virus in April. Due to these promotional efforts, and likely the author’s platform, the book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and sold television rights to Amazon. Cohen stated in Forbes that he hopes short-term changes can transition into long-term ones.

“Whether it’s a shift in what content people want or how we promote books in this new environment or where people shop for books or how we engage with readers, retailers and partners, we are doing valuable and creative work now to meet consumers where they are and it’s laying the groundwork for what future consumer engagement might look like.”

Link to the rest at SFWA

PG wonders what all these remote publisher people do, exactly, to justify their taking the large majority of the revenue earned by the book the author created?

They get you into physical bookstores?

Oh.

Physical bookstores.

How’s that working out these days?

James Daunt, the hoped-for savior of Barnes & Noble is reported to have been closing Waterstones retail locations in Britain over the last several weeks and complaining about British taxes on retailers.

PG did find a relatively recent Daunt quote, however:

Mr. Daunt is working to improve Barnes & Noble’s online store, but his main focus is on physical stores. “It’s in stores that you retain your customers,” he says. “If you get your stores right, your online sales will follow. If your stores are crap, so will your online.

PG doesn’t recall any successful online merchant who sells anything mentioning that getting a physical retail site operating properly provided any meaningful benefit to a related online store.

Especially if the online store was trying to compete with Amazon.

PG just checked Barnes & Noble’s online store and found a prominent display of six “Now Trending” books.

Only one title out of the six had any reviews. For that single book (publication date: 05/11/2021) there were two reviews. One of the reviews just said, “BUY IT NOW!” and the second review began, “i still have yet to read it but from the previews” – both were five-star reviews. (PG didn’t notice if either review ended with, “Love, Your Mom”)

Speaking of the physical side of Barnes & Noble, while searching to see if there were any signs of intelligent life at Barnes & Noble HQ (he couldn’t find any), PG found the following account from Fargo, North Dakota:

“I was at Barnes and Noble today and noticed a man staying near my girls and I. We went and had a treat at their cafe and he continued to stick close by. On our way to the check out, I noticed two other men with their phones out, occasionally looking at me. All of them were wandering the store and seemed to not be looking at any specific books, etc… two of them left the store. One was standing by the door and the other by some vehicles. The third guy was still wandering the store and saw me at the check out. I informed management and had someone walk me to my vehicle. The two gentlemen who were outside saw that I had someone with me. They met up outside the store and went back in. I followed up with management afterwards and she said she confronted them and asked them to leave. 5 gentlemen and a women left together and all got in to one van. I may have been paranoid but I’d rather be safe than sorry… Please pay attention to your surroundings. This has put me into a bit of a tizzy today. Pay attention when you are out and about.”

A Reminder: Chairman Daunt says, “If you get your stores right, your online sales will follow.”

14 thoughts on “Publishing Has A New York Problem”

  1. “I followed up with management afterwards and she said she confronted them and asked them to leave. 5 gentlemen and a women left together and all got in to one van.”

    What?

    I think that’s the real story of this piece!

    We need to know more about this gang of book store customer kidnappers!

  2. So basically “there are systemic problems with exclusivity in publishing, which I believe are caused by the fact that the publishers all live in this one city which is full of people who want to squash voices that aren’t like them.” We are back to “publishers are racist because reasons.”

    I’m not interested in publishing equity. Indie has already decentralized publishing. Stop crawling back to the ex who doesn’t want you.

  3. That is a concerning story.
    I had to look twice to verify the location: Fargo?!
    I have friends that lived several years in Fargo not too long ago. That does not sound like the city they lived in.

    (I wonder if the B&N staff thought to do something about the stalkers.)

  4. You can get the publishing employee out of New York City. That trick has been doable for quite a few years, actually.

    What appears to be more difficult, and certainly not tackled by any of the Big 5…4…3, whatever – is getting New York City out of the publishing employee.

  5. One can get the publishing employee out of NYC.

    One can sometimes get NYC out of the publishing employee.

    One cannot, however, get publishing consultants and agents and so-called journalism out of NYC. And that’s the problem: The echobox is treated as both reality and the entire scope of publishing. I find that just… sad, considering that the biggest publishing copyright case of the last two years was just decided in California, for reasons that any copyright litigator who was paying attention to “not in Manhattan” would have found predictably probable.

    It’s similar to “all film/TV journalism originates in LA with an occasional nod to NYC,” which sort of neglects the yuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge production centers in Vancouver, Toronto, and Atlanta that nonetheless funnel their “releases” through corporate offices in LA and NYC. And the less said about how Nashville is the “center of music in the US,” the better!

    Meanwhile, the writers (text and music especially) have been spread across the US for well over a century. Even the film producers have decamped from SoCal and NYC except when they’re stuck doing soundstage work or taking meetings.

  6. I had a hard time reading the actual article. I had that familiar gut wrenching, slightly queasy, response to reading “double speak”? That’s not the right phrase.

    – Essentially, did anyone else notice that she used a lot of words to actually say nothing of value.

    I boiled the whole piece down to that she is whining about how she is not making enough money to live in New York, with all of its wonders, while doing her make-work with the publisher.

    Long ago, when I worked at the Highway Department, my section head pointed out something interesting, and also unintentionally poignant from his part.

    – Take the typical management pyramid, and flip it upside down, and anyone not directly connected with real productive work would fall off, leaving the layer of actual workers doing the job.

    It was “unintentionally poignant from his part” because I think he knew that he would fall off when the pyramid was flipped over.

    In a typical management pyramid, you can keep stacking unessential people on top of the actual workers until they can’t support the weight from above anymore, and the workers are squeezed out.

    In 1984 when I started with the Department, there were twenty Design Squads, each with five to six people. The amount of work that they achieved over the decades before was so astonishing. When I retired at the end of 2007, there were only twenty people left doing one or two projects a year. All the work was being done outside by over-priced consultants, rather than in-house by people who had a fiduciary responsibility to the driving public. When I retired, an entire bureau dissolved away because I was no longer there to carry those 26 people on my back. But I digress.

    Essentially, if you flipped over her management pyramid, there is no one left because the few authors left working with Trad publishing can no longer support the weight of people they carry on their back.

    • So your read is “Corporate publishing has an overhead problem.”
      Which is true.
      They too have outsourced most of the productivity out of their processes.
      Most of what remains is the pointy hired manager types. And they are neither cheap nor particularly productive.

  7. Wait, nobody started laughing over this part?

    And when it comes down to it, contracts and subsidiary rights are words on a page no matter where they are interpreted and are honestly best consumed with sides of solitude and silence in which the legalese can wash over and drown you.

    Yes, I always let the legalese wash over me in silence and solitude, instead of consulting an attorney.

    That said, pretty sure that story about the people following the woman and her girls is an urban legend. I’ve seen it all over FB and my BS detector always pings. It isn’t that things like that don’t ever happen. It’s that this particular instance is probably untrue.

    • Placing it in Fargo *is* suspect.
      But the report with the link is from a Fargo TV station.

      The rest?
      Well, after Grafton’s “Let the universe take care of you” those kinds of comments are more headshakingly sad than funny. After all you’d think Vanity Publishers would have withered by now but they seem to be prospering by rebranding as “hybrid” publishers.

      Not passing the terms by an attorney is probably how Lois Smith got robbed of VAMPIRE DIARIES, where she ended doing “fanfic” of her own creation because she thought she was signing an “industry standard” tradpub contract and it was a disguised(?) work-for-hire job.

      • Wait, does that mean that my impulse to “introduce” certain agencies and conglomerate-media managers and in-house counsel to the woodchipper is somehow inappropriate?

        All seriousness aside, Fargo would probably be an improvement: I strongly suspect that there are fewer trust-fund kids running things in Fargo than in NYC-based publishing operations/agencies/”journalism sources”.

        • I “vaguely” suspect you’re right about middlemen.
          The old adage about too many cooks and all that…

  8. Many authors keep hoping there is a future for traditional fiction publishing. There isn’t. It doesn’t matter if they are in New York or Bismark, ND. Doesn’t matter if they are black, white, male, female, or undecided.

    To keep the hope alive, they tinker around the edges. The edges don’t matter. At the core, the economic value the fiction publishers provided is no longer price competitive. Many of the transaction costs involved in traditional publishing are now unnecessary.

    Traditional fiction publishing will survive, but the market share won’t. Time to let it go. It had a great run, and showered us with great books. There is a Rolex out there somewhere. It will be interesting to see who it is.

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