Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Two New Articles on Publishing; or Bad News, Good News

From Salon.com

Read it and weep

The economic news couldn't be worse for the book industry. Now insiders are asking how literature will survive.

By Jason Boog

Dec. 23, 2008 | The end of days is here for the publishing industry -- or it sure seems like it. On Dec. 3, now known as "Black Wednesday," several major American publishers were dramatically downsized, leaving many celebrated editors and their colleagues jobless. The bad news stretches from the unemployment line to bookstores to literature itself.

"It's going to be very hard for the next few years across the board in literary fiction," says veteran agent Ira Silverberg. "A lot of good writers will be losing their editors, and loyalty is very important in this field."

One of the most visible victims was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of Philip Roth, Margaret Drabble, Richard Dawkins and J.R.R. Tolkien, among many others. Just before Thanksgiving, the publisher (actually two venerable houses, Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt, which were bought and merged by an Irish company over the past two years) had announced an unprecedented buying freeze on new manuscripts. On Dec. 3, they laid off what former executive editor Ann Patty described as "a lot" of employees (the industry trade publication Publishers Weekly confirmed at least eight), among them the distinguished editor Drenka Willen, whose list of authors included Günter Grass, Octavio Paz and José Saramago.

On the same day, Simon & Schuster laid off 35 employees, and a companywide memo from Random House's CEO announced the dissolution of Doubleday (publisher of "The Da Vinci Code" and Jonathan Lethem) and Bantam Dell (Danielle Steel, John Grisham), distributing the pieces among the conglomerate's three remaining publishing groups, which ultimately resulted in lost jobs. The large Christian publishing company Thomas Nelson also announced 54 layoffs.

The bad news kept rolling in. Within weeks, Macmillan had laid off 64 employees, spreading the damage across the entire company, which includes such literary stalwarts as Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; Henry Holt; Picador and St. Martin's Press. Not only were some of the industry's most respected figures out of a job, but a tremendous number of writers had lost their editors and publicists.

Publishing has endured plenty of rough patches, but this time, matters seemed truly dire. "There is a tendency in the industry to think that it is always under siege. There's a certain amount of Sturm und Drang that is part of book publishing," says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. "I think it feels worse because it's everywhere now. It feels like the world is coming to an end -- and book publishing is just one part of that."

Thanks to conglomeration and corporate distribution models, some of publishing's biggest houses were laid very low by the current stock market collapse. And scary holiday book sales figures compounded the industry's woes, with recent news of a 20 percent drop in sales in October from last year's book market. Even worse, Nielsen Book Scan reported a 6.6 percent drop in unit sales during early December. Not even the holiday season could bolster book sales.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was particularly vulnerable to the Wall Street crash. Since the turn of the 21st century, investors have struggled to spin gold out of the different companies that now make up the conglomerate. In 2001, Vivendi Universal bought Houghton Mifflin (which has been publishing literary and educational books since the late 1800s), but then sold it to private equity firms a year later. In 2006, an Irish firm bought Houghton Mifflin; within a year, they had merged with one of Houghton Mifflin's largest rivals, Harcourt. The publisher's parent company is now saddled with billions in debt.

"There were hedge fund guys with no background in publishing buying up publishing houses," says André Schiffrin, founder of the New Press and author of "The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read." He explains that corporate owners of major publishing houses expected impossible 15 to 20 percent profit margins in an industry with traditional margins of 3 to 4 percent. "They were part of that whole feeling that you could make money by buying and selling companies, rather than by selling books. At some point it comes to a dead end."

At the same time, shifting distribution models created another sort of dilemma. One expert blamed new kinds of stores for disrupting the system. "I think bookselling is the big problem," says Nelson from Publishers Weekly. "With the rise of the Barnes & Noble superstore and the advent of Amazon, the little stores are going by the wayside. Distribution is national, rather than individual. On the wholesale level, decisions are made by two or three groups of people. Used to be you could make a book with a bunch of small buyers. There are fewer small buyers, and they have less leverage."

Finally, experts suggest that publishers missed crucial opportunities to cope with digital books, Internet innovations and economic pressures. "The big houses proved incapable of looking at the future. I've always been struck at how relatively un-nimble the big houses are," says Tom Engelhardt, a consulting editor at Metropolitan books and the author of the prophetic novel "The Last Days of Publishing." He recently wrote an essay about the crisis at his Web site, TomDispatch.com, and says he predicted the crash for years -- but no one would listen.

All these factors have produced an industry slowdown that will affect all writers for years to come.

As the corporate monoliths limp into 2009, a number of smaller, more independent houses could thrive during this recession. A few of those presses have structured themselves to avoid long-standing problems that got big publishing into this mess: high advances, long author lists and spiraling costs.

Who will survive publishing's Ice Age?

At the Frankfurt Book Fair this year, Open Letter Books, a small press based at the University of Rochester, illustrated how a more nimble firm can benefit from the freeze. The publisher bid on the English translation of Mathias Enard's novel, "Zone" -- a single sentence that stretches for 500 pages. An influential translator had called the work the "book of the decade," and Open Letter director Chad Post expected tight competition for the rights. But no one topped his offer, and he hopes to publish the translation in 2010.

"There's not much to cut at smaller presses, so they are going to stay the same -- they will have an identity coming into the recession, and they will be the same when they come out," Post says. "It will open up opportunities for the smaller, more stable presses. The bigger houses like Knopf and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt are going through an identity shift. It will become very murky what kinds of books they produce."

The independent press McSweeney's Books led the move away from the corporate publishing model of big advances and blockbuster books. Ever since Dave Eggers' company started publishing books in 2001, the publisher has split profits 50-50 with writers, giving a small advance at the outset. The house marshals its resources by putting out a fraction of the titles produced by a major publisher, with a backlist of more than 35 titles.

"What a lot of the small publishers cling to is not huge, particular business insight, but rather a thing beyond business. We pick midlist books" -- meaning that class of serious literary books that don't rake in big sales -- "because we are excited about those books, not just because of the kind of money they will bring in," says Eli Horowitz, McSweeney's managing editor and publisher.

One of the big houses is now experimenting with such small-press techniques. Earlier this year, HarperCollins opened HarperStudio, an imprint that follows McSweeney's lead. The brand-new imprint also pays relatively small advances, splitting 50 percent of the profits with its authors. Earlier this year, Bob Miller left a 17-year-long stint at Disney's adult publishing imprint, Hyperion, to helm this new house.

"The book industry had a steady increase of costs without an increase in sales," says Miller, analyzing how conglomeration caused publishing giants to scrabble for the same blockbusters, driving advances higher. "We had passionate competition for what was perceived to be the next big thing."

HarperStudio has another strategy: "Our hope is to publish midlist books without betting our company on it. The midlist, in most companies, are the books that have the fewest resources. We're trying to grapple with that, spending $100,000 or less on a book," Miller says. Nevertheless, many of the imprint's first signings aren't exactly big risks, hitched as they are to celebrity names: a book by hip-hop artist 50 Cent, a Toni Morrison-edited anthology, and a 10-book contract for TV personality and chef Emeril Lagasse.

Who will survive publishing's Ice Age? Undoubtedly, the companies that can command developments in the impending digital book revolution. Early next year, Amazon will release the second generation of the popular Kindle, and the Sony e-Reader currently has more than 300,000 users. But the biggest shift might happen on cellphones. Lexcycle has created an e-reader platform for the iPhone and iPod Touch called Stanza. Since the application debuted in July, it has built up 600,000 users. So far, Lexcycle has partnered with big publishers like Random House, Pan Macmillan and Harlequin, as well as self-publishing companies like Smashwords.

Neelan Choksi, Lexcycle's chief operating officer, agrees that the midlist will suffer in coming years. "There's going to be less support for smaller writers in the traditional publishing model, in the big buildings in Manhattan," he explained. "But self-publishing and digital books haven't been considered. This upheaval will cause many authors to look at the alternatives more seriously." The Stanza reader, for instance, stocks thousands of e-books at varying prices, from free public domain books to self-published titles to 40,000 titles from Fictionwise, one of the leading digital book vendors. That list includes a variety of bestsellers like David Wroblewski's "Story of Edgar Sawtelle," Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series and the nonfiction hit "Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. "

Rumors of publishing's demise are probably overstated, but the future of publishing may depend on what those laid-off editors, publicists and industry leaders do next. The morning after Black Wednesday, a publishing blogger and e-book aficionado named Mike Cane stirred up his readers with a bite-size manifesto on Twitter: "If the FIRED NY pubstaff are such hot fucking shit, let them coalesce and form an EBOOK-ONLY IMPRINT to crush their fmr employers." However callous this Twitter-versy seemed at the time, it posed an interesting challenge: Can the publishing world channel all of this collective anger, bewilderment and fear into industry-altering strategies?

"If the last five or 10 years have shown us anything, it's this: content will get out," Lexcycle's Choksi says. "With social networking and blogs, if you have something to say, it will get heard. It just might not look like the traditional publishing model you are used to."
Rumors of publishing's demise are probably overstated, but the future of publishing may depend on what those laid-off editors, publicists and industry leaders do next. The morning after Black Wednesday, a publishing blogger and e-book aficionado named Mike Cane stirred up his readers with a bite-size manifesto on Twitter: "If the FIRED NY pubstaff are such hot fucking shit, let them coalesce and form an EBOOK-ONLY IMPRINT to crush their fmr employers." However callous this Twitter-versy seemed at the time, it posed an interesting challenge: Can the publishing world channel all of this collective anger, bewilderment and fear into industry-altering strategies?

"If the last five or 10 years have shown us anything, it's this: content will get out," Lexcycle's Choksi says. "With social networking and blogs, if you have something to say, it will get heard. It just might not look like the traditional publishing model you are used to."
More Readers Picking Up Electronic Books

And from The New York Times

More Readers are Picking Up Ebooks

Published: December 23, 2008

Sony has a campaign at Grand Central Station to promote the Sony Reader, it's digital book.

For a decade, consumers mostly ignored electronic book devices, which were often hard to use and offered few popular items to read. But this year, in part because of the popularity of Amazon.com’s wireless Kindle device, the e-book has started to take hold.

The $359 Kindle, which is slim, white and about the size of a trade paperback, was introduced a year ago. Although Amazon will not disclose sales figures, the Kindle has at least lived up to its name by creating broad interest in electronic books. Now it is out of stock and unavailable until February. Analysts credit Oprah Winfrey, who praised the Kindle on her talk show in October.

The shortage is providing an opening for Sony, which embarked on an intense publicity campaign for its Reader device during the gift-buying season. The stepped-up competition may represent a coming of age for the entire idea of reading longer texts on a portable digital device.

“The perception is that e-books have been around for 10 years and haven’t done anything,” said Steve Haber, president of Sony’s digital reading division. “But it’s happening now. This is really starting to take off.”

Sony’s efforts have been overshadowed by Amazon’s. But this month it began a promotional blitz in airports, train stations and bookstores, with the ambitious goal of personally demonstrating the Reader to two million people by the end of the year.

The company’s latest model, the Reader 700, is a $400 device with a light and a touch screen that allows users to annotate what they are reading. Mr. Haber said Sony’s sales had tripled this holiday season over last, in part because the device is now available in the Target, Borders and Sam’s Club chains. He said Sony had sold more than 300,000 devices since the debut of the original Reader in 2006.

It is difficult to quantify the success of the Kindle, since Amazon will not disclose how many it has sold and analysts’ estimates vary widely. Peter Hildick-Smith, president of the Codex Group, a book market research company, said he believed Amazon had sold as many as 260,000 units through the beginning of October, before Ms. Winfrey’s endorsement. Others say the number could be as high as a million.

Many Kindle buyers appear to be outside the usual gadget-hound demographic. Almost as many women as men are buying it, Mr. Hildick-Smith said, and the device is most popular among 55- to 64-year-olds.

So far, publishers like HarperCollins, Random House and Simon & Schuster say that sales of e-books for any device — including simple laptop downloads — constitute less than 1 percent of total book sales. But there are signs of momentum. The publishers say sales of e-books have tripled or quadrupled in the last year.

Amazon’s Kindle version of “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle ” by David Wroblewski, a best seller recommended by Ms. Winfrey’s book club, now represents 23 percent of total Amazon sales of the book, according to Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide.

Even authors who were once wary of selling their work in bits and bytes are coming around. After some initial hesitation, authors like Danielle Steel and John Grisham are soon expected to add their titles to the e-book catalog, their agents say.

“E-books will become the go-to-first format for an ever-expanding group of readers who are newly discovering how much they enjoy reading books on a screen,” said Markus Dohle, chief executive of Random House, the world’s largest publisher of e-books.

Nobody knows how much consumer habits will shift. Some of the most committed bibliophiles maintain an almost fetishistic devotion to the physical book. But the technology may have more appeal for particular kinds of people, like those who are the heaviest readers.

At Harlequin Enterprises, the Toronto-based publisher of bodice-ripping romances, Malle Vallik, director for digital content and interactivity, said she expected sales of digital versions of the company’s books someday to match or potentially outstrip sales in print.

Harlequin, which publishes 120 books a month, makes all of its new titles available digitally, and has even started publishing digital-only short stories that it sells for $2.99 each, including an erotica collection called Spice Briefs.

Perhaps the most overlooked boost to e-books this year — and a challenge to some of the standard thinking about them — came from Apple’s do-it-all gadget, the iPhone. Several software programs for reading e-books have been created for the device, and at least two of them, Stanza from LexCycle and the eReader from Fictionwise, have been downloaded more than 600,000 times.

Both of these companies say they are now tailoring their software for other kinds of smartphones, including BlackBerrys. Another company, Scroll Motion, announced this week that it would begin selling e-books for the iPhone from major publishers like Simon & Schuster and Penguin.

Publishers say these iPhone applications are already starting to generate nearly as many digital book sales as the Sony Reader, though they still trail sales of books in the Kindle format.

Meanwhile, the quest to build the perfect e-book reader continues. Amazon and Sony are expected to introduce new versions of their readers in 2009. Adherents expect the new Kindle will have a sleeker design and a better microprocessor, allowing snappier page-turning.

Mr. Haber of Sony said future versions of the Reader will have wireless capability, a feature that has helped make the Kindle so appealing. This means that the device does not have to be plugged into a computer to download books, newspapers and magazines.

Other competitors are on the way. Investors have put more than $200 million into Plastic Logic, a company in Mountain View, Calif., The company says that next year it will begin testing a flexible 8.5-by-11-inch reading device that is thinner and lighter than existing ones. Plastic Logic plans to begin selling it in 2010.

Along the same lines, Polymer Vision, based in the Netherlands, demonstrated a device the size of a BlackBerry that has a five-inch rolled-up screen that can be unfurled for reading. There are also less ambitious but cheaper readers on the market or expected soon, including the eSlick Reader from Foxit Software, arriving next month at an introductory price of $230.

E Ink, the company in Cambridge, Mass., that has developed the screen technology for many of these companies, says it is testing color screens and hopes to introduce them by 2010.

Many book lovers are quite happy with today’s devices. MaryAnne van Hengel, 51, a graphic designer in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., once railed against e-readers at a meeting of her book club. But she embraced the Kindle her husband gave her this fall shortly after Ms. Winfrey endorsed it.

Ms. Van Hengel now has several books on the device, including a Nora Roberts novel and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” She said the Kindle had spurred her to buy more books than she normally would in print.

“I may be shy bringing the Kindle to the book club because so many of the women were so against the technology, and I said I was too,” Ms. Van Hengel said. “And here I am in love with it.”

Friday, December 5, 2008

Forry Ackerman Died

Sci-fi's grand old man, Forrest J Ackerman, dies

Print By JOHN ROGERS, Associated Press Writer John Rogers, Associated Press Writer – Fri Dec 5, 4:02 pm ETLOS ANGELES – Forrest J Ackerman, the sometime actor, literary agent, magazine editor and full-time bon vivant who discovered author Ray Bradbury and was widely credited with coining the term "sci-fi," has died. He was 92.

Ackerman died Thursday of heart failure at his Los Angeles home, said Kevin Burns, head of Prometheus Entertainment and a trustee of Ackerman's estate.

Although only marginally known to readers of mainstream literature, Ackerman was legendary in science-fiction circles as the founding editor of the pulp magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. He was also the owner of a huge private collection of science-fiction movie and literary memorabilia that for years filled every nook and cranny of a hillside mansion overlooking Los Angeles.

"He became the Pied Piper, the spiritual leader, of everything science fiction, fantasy and horror," Burns said Friday.

Every Saturday morning that he was home, Ackerman would open up the house to anyone who wanted to view his treasures. He sold some pieces and gave others away when he moved to a smaller house in 2002, but he continued to let people visit him every Saturday for as long as his health permitted.

"My wife used to say, 'How can you let strangers into our home?' But what's the point of having a collection like this if you can't let people enjoy it?" an exuberant Ackerman told The Associated Press as he conducted a spirited tour of the mansion on his 85th birthday.

His collection once included more than 50,000 books, thousands of science-fiction magazines and such items as Bela Lugosi's cape from the 1931 film "Dracula."

His greatest achievement, however, was likely discovering Bradbury, author of the literary classics "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Martian Chronicles." Ackerman had placed a flyer in a Los Angeles bookstore for a science-fiction club he was founding and a teenage Bradbury showed up.

Later, Ackerman gave Bradbury the money to start his own science-fiction magazine, Futuria Fantasia, and paid the author's way to New York for an authors meeting that Bradbury said helped launch his career.

"I hadn't published yet, and I met a lot of these people who encouraged me and helped me get my career started, and that was all because of Forry Ackerman," the author told the AP in 2005.

Later, as a literary agent, Ackerman represented Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and numerous other science-fiction writers.

He said the term "sci-fi" came to him in 1954 when he was listening to a car radio and heard an announcer mention the word "hi-fi."

"My dear wife said, 'Forget it, Forry, it will never catch on,'" he recalled.

Soon he was using it in Famous Monsters of Filmland, the magazine he helped found in 1958 and edited for 25 years.

Ackerman himself appeared in numerous films over the years, usually in bit parts. His credits include "Queen of Blood," "Dracula vs. Frankenstein," "Amazon Women on the Moon," "Vampirella," "Transylvania Twist," "The Howling" and the Michael Jackson "Thriller" video. More recently, he appeared in 2007's "The Dead Undead" and 2006's "The Boneyard Collection."

Ackerman returned briefly to Famous Monsters of Filmland in the 1990s, but he quickly fell out with the publisher over creative differences. He sued and was awarded a judgment of more than $375,000.

Forrest James Ackerman was born in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, 1916. He fell in love with science-fiction, he once said, when he was 9 years old and saw a magazine called Amazing Stories. He would hold onto that publication for the rest of his life.

Ackerman, who had no children, was preceded in death by his wife, Wendayne.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

So What Does This All Mean?

Publishers are basically not buying any new books for the rest of the year (this happened after 9/11 too - they are bought up at least two years in advance), staff cuts will be made across the board, imprints will disappear and one of the two major book sellers may close their doors forever.

OK, so here's what I've been telling my interns and my junior agents and all my publishing pals. There are all sorts of economic trends coming to a head at the moment.

We, as a country, are in a recession and publishing is no exception. I believe we, as an industry, have priced books out of the buyer's everyday market. A paperback should cost $5, a trade paperback $10 and a hardcover no more than $20. Only exceptional illustrated books should cost more than that, and I better get pop-ups and die cuts and music, if you want me to pay more than $25. When books cease to be an impulse/feel good purchase, and are something you have to calculate and budget (I'll get the new King this month, and then I'll get the Hamilton out of the library), something is wrong.

And the profit margins in publishing are way too tight. I still find it amazing that in today's publishing economics, the author and the publisher make less on a book than the bookstore and the distributor.

Publishing is in the same transition as the movie and music industries. The younger generation of movie watchers and music listeners have already grown used to getting their movies and music cheaper and faster with downloads. If books are to compete as a source of entertainment, they have to follow course.

Bookstores will have to change too - and they already are. Last week I was pontificating that bookstores of the future will actually be big electronic information stores. And then someone told me that Barnes & Noble owns GameStop. Today I just got a flyer informing me that Best Buy is now selling books. Soon, you will go to an electronics and information store, where you can buy almost anything you can't wear or eat. And that same "store" will have an online presence, where you can download almost anything they sell.

That's not to say that the book as we know it is dead, but it does mean that for books as entertainment, it's a brave new world. In Japan, half the books sold in the country are downloaded to phones. We can't be far behind.

So, what is happening now is the beginning of the shake out that the music and movie industries experienced 5 years ago. Certain kinds of books (I guess, like certain kinds of TV shows and movies and music) just are no longer working in this age of instant information. So we just don't need to publish quite as many books, but what we do publish has to either entertain or inform.

When the shake-out is over, we'll be leaner, but stronger. Book publishing will have moved into the 21st century and will be more responsive to its readership. It won't take 18 months to go from manuscript to book, and authors will get paid on their actual sales in the same year they are made.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bad News, Good News?

It should be no news to you that today was called "Black Wednesday" in publishing circles. Many jobs were cut at Simon & Schuster and Thomas Nelson, while the publisher of Houghton Mifflin quit and heads rolled at Harcourt. And then Random House re-organized and cut itself in half.

Meanwhile, three veteran publishing insiders have just started an epub and audio company that is buying over 400 books a year and finally pricing them at a cost that the consumer can afford, and giving the writer more than a third of the revenue.

I think the writing's on the wall. Or I hope that I'm reading it right.

So even though this is my agent blog, I realized that I owe it to you to write about just how incredibly amazing it is to be starting an epublishing company, while every print company around me appears to be imploding.

So, please visit, tell your friends, readers, family and enemies.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Advice to a New Author

An author recently wrote to me saying he was recommended by his former agent who had sent his thriller to "less than a dozen publishers."

This was my response.

The truth is that there are only 9 major publishers left (and Harlequin is really only for women's fiction), so your book has been around the block as far as publishers who will pay decent money for it are concerned. And agents make their living off of 15% of your sale, so there are very few agents interested in selling to the small presses.

We're in a major publishing recession right now too, so it's exponentially harder to sell a first novel.

I've been in business over 20 years and have 80 clients, so I am not taking on any new clients right now.

If I were you, I'd pay for a subscription to Publisher's Lunch and make a list of agents who have recently sold books with descriptions like yours. And then I'd email them and say "I saw you recently sold xxx xxx xxx, which is similar to my novel."

But if you get a lot of no's, it's the market right now, and will be for at least the next 6 months.

You might have to write another kick-ass novel and start the whole process over again.