Saturday, January 31, 2009

Today I'm a Cockeyed Optimist

Writing in Publishers Weekly on January 5th, Peter Olson, the former CEO of Random House, painted a bleak picture for book publishing in 2009 and beyond, citing the economy (still referred to as a “deepening recession” in the media—who seem skittish about calling it “the early stages of the second Great Depression”), with closing bookstores and publishers cutting back on staff and content. The New York Times on January 28 had a headline on their front page echoing Olson’s article, pointing out that “Almost all of the New York publishing houses are laying off editors and pinching pennies,” trimming their lists and relying “on blockbuster best sellers,” while the only people in the industry making a profit are self-publishing companies [IUniverse being cited] who charge authors for things like cover design and printing costs.”

The realization that big corporate publishers and chain bookstores would fall on hard times shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In fact, one can draw an analogy between large corporate publishers and chain stores with the large commercial banks that need bail outs. And in this nose diving economy and negative balance sheets, these houses of cards are collapsing and, unlike failing banks, there are no book bailouts.

How, then, to account for my optimism today? Actually it’s been going on since Barack Obama’s inauguration. Starting then I realized that by downgrading serious fiction, the conglomerate publishers have opened the door ever wider for a small press like ours. Never looking for best-sellers, but just having a passion for discovering 12 manuscripts that excite both Judy and me (from among the 6,000 submission we get every year), and then wanting to share these novels with others who also enjoy discovering quality fiction by gifted newcomers and relative unknowns who, as my musician friends say, “have the chops” for it, has become much easier. At about the same time, the response to my last blog posting, SAVING QUALITY FICTION, has increased our awareness of the tens of thousands of people served by some exceptional online bloggers and internet reviewers who share our aesthetics. What this means is that there is an alternative route to “getting-the-word-out” for quality fiction that need not rely exclusively on traditional newspaper and magazine coverage.

Then, today, there was an even bigger boost to optimism when, at the time of this posting, I discovered that Efrem Sigel’s The Disappearance (a novel about a couple whose lives are shaken when their 14 year old son disappears one day) -- which will not be delivered from our printer until February 2 -- has skyrocketed in ranking to #715 at by virtue of advance orders. This is a milestone that we’ve never experienced before. My publishing partner at Blackstone Audiobooks, Haila Williams, tells me this is an incredible number and that we should start reprinting immediately.

I believe I will remain a cockeyed optimist at least until my next blog posting in mid-February.


  1. Hi Martin. The appearance of The Disappearance in Amazon's top thousand is a fine accomplishment. Here's another reason to be optimistic -- if other serious readers are like me, and I think they are: I pay less and less attention these days to big-publisher hype, both in print via ads and at the mega bookstores, and much more attention to word-of-mouth via friends and book blogs. A couple of my friends and I give each other, at Christmas, our three favorite reads of the year, a fine tradition that we all love. Who better to suggest what I should read than those who know me well?

  2. You've made my day, Marty! I've been as discouraged as the next person by the squeeze in publishing and bookselling, yet you're so right that this downsizing by "big" publishers and box stores could open the door to genuinely fine writing being published by smaller independents. I agree with Anastasia that word of mouth (via the internet) is the trend. I confess, although I still read the NYT Book Review and other print reviews, I actually gain my recommendations for excellent books from my writer and reader friends.

    The difficulty is, I fear that smaller, independent publishers will be hit very, very hard by this Depression. Permanent Press is thriving, but is this true of other small presses? or university presses?

  3. I'm a long-time publishing veteran: 30 years in NYC trade, in nonprofit, and in university presses. Myopic marketing is what's doing the most damage. Review outlets like the WaPo Book World and the rest are disappearing and/or downsizing because publishers didn't support them with advertising. How can anyone sell a book (beyond the bestseller), if no one knows about it? Is a masterpiece still a masterpiece if it's hung face forward in a locked closet where no one can see it?

    There are small, independent review outlets--ones that even focus on the small, independent, university, nonprofit press--but publishers, in an effort to cut costs, cut off their noses to spite their faces, by FIRST THING: cutting the marketing budget. No advertising for the new, first-time, or up-and-coming author. Instead, they even make it worse by killing off the independent bookstores by putting their marketing money into purchasing promotional space in the big chains! Some small/independent/university presses are even talking about cutting down on the number of review copies they're sending out.

    Geez, if they want to REALLY save money, just don't publish the book at all! Think how much money that would save. People can't buy books they don't know anything about. An old, anonymous advertising saying is "The person who stops advertising to save money is like the person who stops the clock to save time." and the marketing guru Leo Burnett said, "A good ad which is not run never produces sales."

    Publishers need to take a big picture approach--there is no audience for a book if you don't speak to the audience.

    /rant off.

  4. Hi Martin:

    In the first instance of reading your Blog it was interesting to note that the small quality publisher is not at a disadvantage at all. You bring quality to the market place and at the same time are limiting by quantifying that the book you market is good.

    Book reviewers of some note tend to try and run a lot of reviews each week. Taking your example, I try to follow the reasoning that we shall only do one review per week, read 2 to 3 books during that week and decide which is best.

    Giving away the story, or reviewing a bad book, or lauding a book which has no redeeming value is what can easily maim an ever shrinking market.

    Literature is either in your blood or it is not. The other day I was amazed by a statement made by a 61 year old person. He cannot read or write! I asked him why and he said that he found it more fun to be the class clown and play at entertaining the girls. Here is the best part, he worked for many years at the LA Times in the maintenance department!

    Thank you for coming into my life, I like what you do and feel that your choices of books is what makes books lasting. May we never have a time when they burn the books again!

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