Two New Histories of Publishing

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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.

21 thoughts on “Two New Histories of Publishing”

  1. Seems the publishers aren’t cooperating with the narrative that says they are doomed. The same thing has been playing for the last dozen years. It’s similar to the other narrative that says independent authors who don’t go wide are similarly doomed.

    • Doomed? Not for awhile, anyway–there’s a lot of ruin in a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and there will always be demand for hardcopy books. But it is fair to say that if publishers don’t adapt they’re going to be more and more marginalized as time goes on.

      • I’ll note that Zon prints in trade paperback and hardcover as well. The only place where big publishing is free from Amazon as competitor is inside a physical bookstore (although I remember doing price checks and even ordering books from Zon while examing the same book in a bookstore. I stopped that particular practice after a handful of in-store Zon purchases because I decided it was bad form.)

        • I’m afraid there’s one other place: Casebound books with color illustrations (and especially color illustrations that are more than decorative). The ‘zon really doesn’t do those in-house on paper.

          Now, admittedly, the market for, say, Alberts et al., Molecular Biology of the Cell (6th ed.) — or, more to the point, its indie-pub equivalent — isn’t going to support a NYT bestseller list any time soon. But it does point to the place that “publishers” can still be truly value-added… sort of, as the actual price-versus-cost of textbooks makes them astoundingly profitable.

      • Could be. But it was also fair to say that twelve years ago. Where’s the beef? What happened to the notion that more profitable eBooks would sweep the paper off the map, and the stupidity of the publishers compared to independent authors guaranteed their imminent destruction?

        • In the real world, what has happened is that indie publishing has largely, though not entirely, taken over commercial genre fiction, while making barely a dent in the rest of publishing. Discussions from the indie side routinely come across as if the writer is unaware that there even exists any sort of book other than commercial genre fiction. It is hard to believe that this is literally true, but sometimes I wonder.

          For the two books from the OP, one might ponder who is the intended market, and how these intended readers’ purchasing decisions differ from the commercial genre fiction market.

          • East is east and west is west and rarely do the twain meet.

            Indies have a specific market and it is centered on avid readers–the 50+ books a year club. They don’t need to throw stuff on the wall to see what sticks. And they don’t waste time trying to appeal to the casual 2 books a year grazer of trying to build up a bandwagon. The ROI isn’t there. The ROI is in the repeat business, true fans instead of bandwagon lemmings who might no even finish the “acclaimed” book.

            Very little tradpub business proceses apply in the indie world or vice versa.

            Likewise, the economics of the cottage industry are distinct from the glass tower corporate publishers. At their core the divide can be summed thus: Indies look for readers while corporate looks for volume.

            And it is that volume that is under threat from the economy of the 2020’s. Indies trive at volumes well beneath corporate’s minimum.

            Room for both, for now.

    • Give it time.
      The lifetime copyright deals willkeep them aflost long past the point they stop doing new releases. Dinosaurs stay afoot long after their brain is dead.

  2. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: publishers’ hatred of Amazon and ebooks is actually entirely rational, because that combination broke their near-total control over access to the means of production and distribution of books, which was what allowed them to get away with all of their shenanigans regarding author contracts and whatnot.

    Now would-be authors have other options, and this is where the irrational part comes in–instead of adapting to the new environment and taking advantage of the favorable parts of the new conditions, publishers (with a few notable exceptions) insist on behaving like they’re still the only game in town, and while there are some people who believe them, most don’t.

    • Instead of fake-it-till-you-make-it, tradpub has adopted the strategy of fake-it-till-you-break-it. The same goes for a great many other institutions these days. Western civilization’s competency crisis worsens daily.

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

    I also picture the inhabitants as pre-computer clerks with eyeshades and sleeve retainers, judging by their inability to make intelligent (and profitable) use of backlist, reissues, product repackaging, genre marketing, digital editions appropriately priced, etc., etc., etc.

    • How about bundles?
      A long time back you could buy entire a series paperback bundle entite (short) or chunks of a longer one, with a cover art sleeve.
      Haven’t seen that very often.

      Meanwhile, BAEN regularly bundles their newcomers with their top sellers at an enticing ebook price. How’s that for discovery?

    • Yes. I don’t picture them looking that way, but that’s only because that particular stock image isn’t part of my mental landscape. At least now I know what those sleeve bands are called 🙂

      But I get wistful when, for instance, an author dies or brings out a new book. When I listened to terrestrial radio, I knew a singer had a new CD out because their backlist would get higher rotation on the radio. When an author has a new book out, the backlist is not promoted and put on sale. The same thing happens when a singer dies; the DJs will hold impromptu marathons of their songs on the radio (I discovered a lot of Aretha Franklin’s backlist this way). Dolly Parton made bank off Whitney Houston’s death because stations blasted “I Will Always Love You” everywhere. Song writer royalties for the win!

      When Norm MacDonald died, “Team Coco” put a bunch of videos of his acts on YouTube. Clicks for money for the win! When Chadwick Boseman died, Disney capitalized by airing “Black Panther.” Ratings money for the win! Plus Blu-Ray! The other entertainment industries are not allergic to making money.

      Dead-tree publishing is never so nimble, and of course, they refuse to engage with Amazon where it would be even easier to put something on sale — or bundle. I can’t fact check this at the moment, but I suspect on Tolkien’s eleventy-first birthday his publisher did not think to put a sale on blast. Certain TV channels would do movie marathons for a director or an actor based on less.

      @Felix you mention Baen, but when Jerry Pournelle died I really hoped they would acknowledge it on their website and bundle his books. Didn’t happen. Any other industry would think of doing this (in the newsroom it was quick and easy to fact check reports of Steve Jobs’ death because I only had to go to Apple’s homepage and see his picture with the YOB – YOD underneath it).

      About the only thing publishers will do is put out anniversary editions of high profile books, but that’s about it.

      • BAEN did a Pournelle bundle while he was alive. 🙂
        (Don’t think it’s available as a bundle now.)

        CoDominium Future History Bundle:

        High Justice by Jerry Pournelle
        West of Honor by Jerry Pournelle
        The Mercenary by Jerry Pournelle
        Prince of Mercenaries by Jerry Pournelle
        Go Tell the Spartans by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling
        Prince of Sparta by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling
        King David’s Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle
        The Mote in God’s Eye by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven
        The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

        Nine ebooks, $36.

        They know how to butter their bread. 😉

        • Oh, I missed this (post and bundle). I’m glad they did this while he was alive; my point was that they didn’t seize the moment to draw attention to it when he died. I was so sure that of any publisher, BAEN would think to make a splash, like you’d get with singers or actors or directors when they die.

      • I’m catching up so you might not read this since it’s been 5 days, but “sometimes” they DO promote previous works when a new book is going to come out.

        I’ve bought some discounted books on series from BP that I’m reading, but I’m several books behind, when the next book is coming up, they even promote them in BookBub! You have to be lucky, because sometimes there’s no rhythm no sense on the book, so they promote the same book (not being the first one in series) once an again for each new release. Other times I’ve been lucky and I’ve catched the books on sale one at a time because they promote the previous book to the one releasing, and sometimes, they don’t promote the backlist, but they lower the price of the previous books, going from $10-15 to more sense $7-8 (still ouch, but with a series I like but it’s not a must buy, I might cave in, specially if it’s not a 30 books series)

        • In the old days what they promoted was whatever was taking up space in the warehouse. No need to do a new print run. You might find book three and five alongside eight, the new release. And only if the *bookstore* cared to order the backlist.

          These days they can do POD if they want to do series reissues. More often than not they don’t want to, presumably because they see reissues as competition for the new release. After all, if the new release intrigues somebody new, they might go for the first in the series and wait to read it before buying more. And they really, really care more about launch window numbers than total sales of the series. Sometimes they don’t even advertise that it’s a series book.

          • More often than not they don’t want to, presumably because they see reissues as competition for the new release.

            I forgot about that factor. It would explain why only a select few get reissues, because those are 1) proven IPs and 2) not subject to “wait for the series to finish” factor. So Lord of the Rings is safer than GRRM on that front (probably not the best example, since his books are on HBO).

        • Luck is exactly the factor from a reader standpoint when dealing with tradpub. There’s a romantic suspense author who is long dead (Mary Stewart), but batches of her books periodically go on sale, and the ebooks are also competitively priced even when they’re not on sale. I actually thought she must have had someone managing her estate who is savvy about ebooks (she died in 2014). But it turns out her publisher is a British imprint of Hachette. They seem unusual, with sanely priced ebooks (that I noticed), and even mention earning a commission if you click on the buy buttons for Amazon (and other retailers). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a publisher mention that.

          Otherwise, like you, I rely on BookBub. I’ve got several books wishlisted with them just in case the publishers ever get over their allergy to sales.

  4. 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.

    That’s what public libraries are for. I can’t imagine wanting to read any of the books mentioned in the OP more than once…

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