Publish or Panic
The credibility of books is in a million little pieces. The Web is stealing readers. But publishers are fighting back
Instead, she is keen to "reinvent" publishing for the 21st century, "cojoining" the traditional, the digital, and the virtual worlds in one. Rather than engaging in bidding wars over famous authors whose books may or may not pan out, Friedman now believes "chasing bestsellers is a fool's game." The long tail of the back list and the marketing potential of the Internet are more attractive.
In that regard, HarperCollins is generating market research (a first in an industry long notorious for not even considering it) to target on-line ads and potential customers. "Publishers had never looked at who the consumer is," Friedman says. "I would say our consumer is men and women, birth to death, educated to uneducated!" Now they're identifying potential readers through a series of E-newsletters, keeping them interested with newly interactive websites, and analyzing how readers hear and go about finding particular books.
They're also experimenting on the Web. HarperCollins has just published an entire book online--free. Click on the ad-supported website, brucejudson.com,and you can read all or part of Bruce Judson's 2004 book, Go It Alone! The Secret to Building a Successful Business on Your Own. "If it's successful," says Friedman, "this could be a fourth format, after paper, audio, and E-reader."
Across the river and under the bridge in Brooklyn, a tour of Soft Skull's offices takes less than a minute. Its single room is about the size of a freight car, with five well-worn desks interspersed with overflowing plastic bookshelves and enough boxes to make a visitor sitting on the blue plastic folding chair think this really is a warehouse. Publisher Nash--the 35-year-old Irish-born, Harvard-educated onetime director/playwright--is the only full-time employee; three colleagues work part time and there are volunteers.
Self-starter. Soft Skull's books aren't likely to crack the bestseller list: They range from well-reviewed literary novels like Branwell: A Novel of the Bronte Brother to Drugs Are Nice: A Post-Punk Memoir to The Neighborhood Story Project, a five-volume documentary-style history of New Orleans before Katrina, written and photographed by local teenagers. But Nash searches for readers on a smaller scale: The New Orleans book, for example, sold very well in the Big Easy. Oprah isn't the only way to get readers; he relies on word of mouth (in person or online), pinning hopes on the long tail of the Internet, with interlinked blogs, online literary magazines, and reader- and writer-friendly chat rooms and E-communities. And the chief person he relies on to start the chain reaction is the author.
Like all publishers, small or big, Nash also looks for authors who have a "platform"--the term du jour of the publishing biz to describe the method, marketing plan, or venue to be used to publicize the book--from which to market their work. Even the rich and famous need a platform to seal a book deal. Actor Alec Baldwin recently sold his book about his divorce from Kim Basinger to St. Martin's for a high-six-figure advance, in part predicated on his promise to run parenting-and-divorce seminars across the country. On a smaller (as in small press) scale, Laurel Snyder, 32, of Atlanta and the author of three forthcoming small-press books, writes a blog, contributes to a variety of Web magazines, does podcasts, and keeps up literary friendships through literary chat rooms. The Internet, she says, "is like one big cocktail party."