Publish or Panic
The credibility of books is in a million little pieces. The Web is stealing readers. But publishers are fighting back
Does the book publishing biz have a good read for you! The story begins with a real-life drama peppered with deceit, humiliation, and redemption; plays out against the big-bucks backdrop of global conglomerates; crosses into sci-fi as newfangled techno-gizmo gadgets battle for a piece of the electronic future; gives grass-roots hope to would-be authors everywhere with the massive growth of microsize independent presses; veers into legal thriller territory with a brewing fight over copyrights; and ultimately settles into an old-fashioned mystery as pundits wonder, what happened to America's disappearing book readers?
Book publishing became big news in January, of course, when Oprah Winfrey devoted a full segment of her TV show to rebuking James Frey, the truth-challenged author of A Million Little Pieces. His supposed memoir of jail time, drug addiction, and rehabilitation had shot to bestsellerdom after Oprah selected it for her book club a few months before--and continued to sell well even after the website thesmokinggun.com exposed a laundry list of Frey's embellishments and fabrications. Feeling betrayed, Oprah made a further point of scolding Frey's high-profile publisher, Doubleday Senior Vice President Nan Talese, for not fact-checking the veracity of her author. (A request to interview Talese for this story was declined, although the simple answer to Oprah's rebuke is that fact-checking is not part of the memoir publishing process--it would cost too much.)
Whoops, sorry! In the aftermath, Doubleday and Frey issued apologies. But questions about editorial scrutiny remained center stage when embarrassing revelations emerged about other highly touted writers and their work: It seemed that edgy novelist JT Leroy was not the HIV-positive teenage male street hustler that readers had been led to believe--but 40-year-old mother Laura Albert. The acclaimed Indian writer known as Nasdijj was not of Navajo descent, as he had claimed, but Timothy Patrick Barrus, an author of gay erotica.
At a time when "truthiness" issues in so many areas of public discourse have pitted trust against cynicism, the convergence of all three scandals at once had the feel of a Triple Crown of hoaxery, with the grand losers being accuracy, truth, and literature itself.
Was it mere coincidence or was something seriously amiss?
To be sure, literary fabrications have a centuries-long history, and yarn-spinning memoirists can point to no less a predecessor than Ernest Hemingway. But--and it's an important but--"Papa" Hemingway did preface A Moveable Feast, his account of life in Paris in the 1920s as recorded more than 30 years later, with the warning, "If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact."
And the fact is that the Frey scandal doesn't really throw much light on the changes and challenges that are reshaping the book industry today.
Long before the National Endowment for the Arts released its 2004 report "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," book publishers had become keenly aware of growing competition from the expanding universe of Internet, computer, and video-based leisure enthrallments. But the survey sounded a public alarm: Fewer than half of all American adults now read "literature" (loosely defined as fiction or poetry). The numbers showed a 10 percent decline in literary readers for all age groups from 1982 to 2002 and a whopping 28 percent decrease in young adults ages 18 to 24. In total, the study calculated, 20 million potential readers had been lost. "Never in my career have I seen a report where there is no good news," NEA Chairman Dana Gioia declared at the time.
Exodus. "Where Have All the Readers Gone?" is therefore an apt title for the Association of American Publishers conference to be held later this month. One answer is that readers have switched to nonfiction, says AAP President Patricia Schroeder. "It's a serious time" and people want more in-depth information about what's going on in the world. Nonetheless, she admits, "the NEA is right that we have lost readers in literature, which is tragic."
Another answer is that readers have gone screen-happy and wireless: "People are reading more than ever--screen-based reading, on mobile phone, BlackBerrys, computer screens, reading blogs, and gathering information on the Web," asserts Keith Titan, vice president for new media at Random House. "As a publishing industry we need to provide products that meet the needs of this digital, Internet-savvy generation."
Products that may--or may not--meet those needs include portable digital reading devices that feature long-life batteries and an easy-to-read "electronic ink" display. Darren Bischoff, senior marketing manager of E Ink Corp., says his company's high-resolution paper-and-ink-like display reduces eye strain because, unlike a computer screen, E Ink uses ambient light and does not flicker. Those factors also minimize glare and make the screen easily readable in sunlight.
First to the American market using this technology will be the Sony Reader, scheduled to launch this spring at a price between $300 and $400. Weighing a tad less than 9 ounces, the pocket-book-size reader can store up to 80 E-books; files will be downloadable from a Sony online store featuring thousands of digital titles. A plus for boomers: a button that increases text size.
Two other devices are being readied for U.S. markets for 2007: The Readius, from the Netherlands-based Philips Polymer Vision, features a 5-inch diagonal screen that unfurls from a much smaller, cellphone-size container. "It's the first time the screen will be larger than the device," says Edward van Overbeek, the company's director of business development. By contrast, the iLiad from iRex Technologies, also in the Netherlands, is about the size of a magazine and is accompanied by a stylus that allows you to "write" in the margins or zoom in to, say, one headline among many on a newspaper page. The new E-book devices, says Penguin Group Chairman John Makinson, won't replace books but could provide "an attractive alternative" for reference, travel, technical, or other areas where the ability to search, receive Internet updates, and tap into hot links would prove valuable.
Tech turmoil. E-books, however, represent just the start of the technology discussion in publishing circles. The ability to transform books into digital files and put them online is raising countless and often contentious questions about author copyrights, publisher royalties, and what constitutes fair use, as opposed to piracy, in a Web-connected world.
It's great to preview a page or two on-line, for instance. But who owns those pages and therefore has the right to potential profit from posting longer selections or even the complete book--the site proposing to post the digital file (Google, Amazon, Yahoo! or Microsoft, among others) or the author and publisher? The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers have filed a copyright-infringement suit against Google for its plan to scan and make entire libraries searchable online.
Another alternative presented by technology would retain the traditional book format but change the way books are produced and delivered. Print on demand--which makes it financially feasible to print small batches of books inexpensively--is already a boon for the self-published author (box, Page 49) as well as for traditionally published authors seeking to reprint their out-of-print books. Now Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House, is preparing to test a more sophisticated, even less expensive all-in-one book-making machine capable of producing up to 20 quality paperbacks an hour. The World Bank Bookstore in Washington, D.C., is installing the Espresso Book Machine, as Epstein calls it, later this month. Using digital files, the machine will be able to immediately print any book in the World Bank catalog. The chief benefit of the machine, says Epstein, is that a requested book would never be out of stock or out of print. Such a machine could make books less expensive, Epstein believes, because it would eliminate the need to warehouse and ship books; instead of guessing how many books to print--a game that leaves bookstores stuck with piles of unsold flops and readers unable to find out-of-stock surprise hits--the supply will always be just right. Will the Espresso brew satisfy? Technology--and copyright--updates on all these developments are sure to follow.
Still, for all the technology rumblings and despite shudders caused by the NEA survey, book sales in 2005 increased. Nielsen BookScan recorded 709.8 million sales--a healthy 9.3 percent uptick from 2004. But for the most part, it seemed a winner-take all victory, with the top 200 bestsellers accounting for about 10 percent of the whole. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by itself generated 7.02 million sales--1 percent. Would-be writers are advised to do the math before quitting their day jobs.
But it's an odd paradox of book publishing today that even as it has grown larger, it has gotten smaller. Years of mergers and acquisitions have consolidated New York's major publishing houses into a mere six megasize companies. But "under the radar," as a 2005 survey by the Book Industry Study Group put it, some 63,000 small presses thrive. There are also more than a few midsize publishers.
Little houses. Improved technology (like print on demand) is one reason. Whereas in the past it was too costly to print a small number of copies, with new technology, small-run, niche books can now make money. And that means that in addition to viewing the book market with a more global perspective (with the recent sale of the Time Warner book group to France's Lagardere, five of America's six major book companies are now owned by corporations based outside the United States), publishers are also going local.
Their goal is to wag "the long tail"--a concept popularized in a widely read article by Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired.
When publishing executives invoke the long tail--and almost everyone interviewed for this article did--what they mean is that if you tote up enough small sales (especially via a low-cost, direct-to-consumer sales tool like the Internet), you can add up a big profit over time. So for the first time in many years, publishers are once more interested in smaller--not just bigger--sellers. That's good news--until you wonder how they lost track of all the smaller and classic back-list sellers to begin with. In his 2001 book, Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future, Epstein noted that, in recent decades, publishing houses have concentrated on bestsellers to stay profitable but have tended to neglect the potentially larger assets they could derive from the long-term revenues of their back lists.
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."
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."
The comparison crystallizes the fact that the basic principles of reaching out to readers really haven't changed since Judith Appelbaum wrote the original edition of her author's marketing manual, How to Get Happily Published, in 1978. They remain the same, Appelbaum says: "Figure out who the book is for. Figure out how to get in touch with those readers. Figure out what to tell them about it so they know that they want it; and then make it easy for them to get it." The Internet may make that part simpler.
But first, you've still got to write the book.
And if you're torn between whether to label it fiction or memoir, here's the industry's latest hot tip: Honesty carries its own long tail. Riverhead Books, the publisher with whom James Frey had signed for two new books, has dropped the deal.
This story appears in the March 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.