Publish or Panic
The credibility of books is in a million little pieces. The Web is stealing readers. But publishers are fighting back
Only recently has the Internet, Amazon, and the growth of the used book market online "demonstrated to everyone just how deep that demand is," said Penguin's Makinson. And it's not just a thirst for back-list and out-of-print books. Readers also crave those non-bestsellers known as midlist books. And self-published books, too.
One way to dramatize the bigger-yet-smaller phenomenon is to first visit the gleaming corporate offices of publishing giant HarperCollins in midtown Manhattan, then trek across and under the Manhattan Bridge to the converted warehouse office in Brooklyn that is home to Soft Skull Press, a small independent publisher with a quizzical name.
To begin with, Soft Skull's entire headquarters is about the same size as the reception area at HarperCollins. The hefty HarperCollins catalog is a thick brick of high-gloss paper; Soft Skull's is a thin wisp of newsprint. As for sales, a HarperCollins spokesperson estimates that on average, one of its books sells about 18,000 copies in the first year, while bestsellers like Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life sold over 5 million copies in its various formats last year alone. Soft Skull Publisher Richard Nash is happy to sell 2,000 copies of a book, which ensures that the company breaks even. His advances are generous by small-press standards: $1,000. Meanwhile, after paying an initial advance of $500,000 in 2003, HarperCollins still awaits delivery of the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
For all those differences, however, what turns out to be more surprising is that both publishers share so many of the same concerns: primarily about converting an industry based in 19th-century technology to the ever more wired 21st century and tuning in to an audience hooked less on books than on iPods and Internet blogs.
Stepping into the 11th-floor offices of HarperCollins is itself like having one foot in the present and another in the past. A glass case by the elevator proudly displays original editions of works by such storied Harper authors as Thornton Wilder, Aldous Huxley, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and in the reception lounge a lamp modeled after a 19th-century streetlight casts the aura of another era. But the books displayed in the lounge are decidedly of the moment: current bestsellers The Purpose Driven Life and Freakonomics; Michael Crichton's topical potboiler, State of Fear; the title-grabbing memoir Confessions of a Video Vixen.
CEO Jane Friedman's spacious, light-filled corner office is similarly eclectic, featuring floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a huge poster of Elvis poring over a big black ledgerlike book (which, Friedman speculates, he may be holding upside down), as well as a framed giant-size cover photograph of the award-winning literary novel The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. Fresh orchids adorn her desk; a cozy beige couch is grouped with a glass coffee table on one side of the room, a more formal conference table on the other. The effect--of a down-to-earth, civilized flair--could describe Friedman herself. A marketing-minded more-than-30-year veteran of New York publishing (she is said to have invented the author tour), Friedman winningly introduces herself as an industry "cheerleader without being a Pollyanna." But there's a bit of steel behind her laugh as she makes the point: "We're not still printing books on Gutenberg's press."