Ten More Commandments, Publishing Edition

The following post is a collaboration with my friend Joe Esposito, the CEO of GiantChair. The post was Joe’s idea, but I contributed enough to its completion to justify a claim of shared authorship. Joe has kindly agreed to allow this received wisdom to be delivered to the world through The Shatzkin Files.

As thunder roared above the mountaintop, God sat on a throne of light. She stroked her braid and contemplated her new shoes.

“Who goes there?” God shouted.

“It is but a poor publisher,” the tiny figure said.  “I have come for guidance in the treacherous ways of publishing in the digital age.  I have oodles of Googles, but no money in my pocket.  What dost thou command?”

“A poor publisher, eh?” God snorted, shaking the trees around them.  “That’s what the angels call a redundancy.”

“Oh, please, Lord.  Help me navigate the shoals of the noble Barnes and the forest where dwell the Amazons.  Take me beyond my borders to a realm of growth and economic success.  My very soul depends on my making buckets of money.”

God looked at the puny publisher and took pity on him.

“Do as I say,” God thundered, “and you will save your heavenly soul and a place for yourself in the value chain.”  She thus proceeded to lay down these precepts–but as God is timeless, they came in no particular order.

1. Thou shalt regard thy former competitor as thy future collaborator.

2. Thou shalt let no intermediary stop you from knowing your customer, nor stop your customer from knowing you.

3. Thou shalt publish no book intended for an audience outside your spheres of direct influence.

4. Thou shalt read Dr. Faustus in all its editions–Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Google–and know that Mephistopheles always appears first as a helpmate.

5. Thou shalt not forsake thine own brand.

6. Thou shalt create new brands and master the power and importance of brands.

7. Thou shalt respect and value thy communities with the same devotion thou hath always given to copyrights.

8. Thou shalt recognize that metadata is everywhere and associating it meaningfully is thy job.

9. Thou shalt not fail to test a new marketing channel in order to protect an old one.

10. Thou shalt deliver thy content in every imaginable form that thy customers request or might require.


Malcolm Gladwell, please meet John Wooden

The sui generis Malcolm Gladwell wrote a provocative piece in the May 11 New Yorker, “How David Beats Goliath”, that demonstrates that the underdog can often win by adopting an unconventional strategy. The examples were numerous, and included Lawrence of Arabia, but the central point-maker was a girls basketball team. Their coach, an Iranian national who was not terribly familiar with basketball, couldn’t understand why basketball teams were routinely coached to simply allow the offense to bring the ball into the forecourt, essentially not defending about 70 feet of the court’s 94 foot length.

Gladwell explained the near-irrefutability of the coach’s logic which was underscored by the team’s success against much more skillful opponents. (They made it to the finals of the state championships before they lost and, according to this article, the referees working on their opponents’ home court were largely responsible for that.) And he did a bit of research, relying heavily on an interview with longtime pro and college coach Rick Pitino to get some historical perspective and to understand how the fullcourt press strategy worked at higher levels of the game.

Pitino had been a scrub guard on the University of Massachetts basketball team that had Julius Erving, the immortal “Doctor J”, as its star player. UMass had been defeated by a scrappy but presumably inferior Fordham team in 1971 because Fordham used a fullcourt press and disrupted the better team’s offensive flow. That Fordham team had a star forward named Charlie Yelverton who was about 6-foot-3, nowhere near tall enough to play that position on most successful college teams. But the press mitigated the height disadvantage.

A few years later, Pitino was a young coach at Boston University and used the press to get the team into the NCAA tournament, an unusual event for them. Pitino has made a career of using the press successfully at Providence, the University of Kentucky, and Louisville. But, oddly enough, as Gladwell notes, nobody else has.

All of this demonstrated, to me, that research is great, but you can’t beat a long memory unless you do all the research. And my long memory beats Gladwell’s research with Pitino.

The first coach to use a tip-off to final buzzer full court press as a staple tactic was John Wooden, undoubtedly the most successful college basketball coach of all time. Wooden had been the coach at UCLA for 15 years when he put the press in for his UCLA teams, which also lacked height, for the 1963-64 and 1964-65 seasons. These were the first two UCLA championship teams. And they beat presumably superior teams from Michigan and Duke to win those championships.

It’s too bad Gladwell didn’t know this, because the Wooden history confirmed and validated his “David and Goliath” paradigm. Those first two UCLA champions were, indeed, “David”s. They lacked height and conventional basketball star power. They needed to change the tactics, as Gladwell says Davids do, and the press worked perfectly for them. They made use of the unique talents of 6-foot-5 Keith Erickson (who was a star volleyball player in the basketball off-season), making him the roving backstop for their press. Erickson’s quickness and jumping ability frustrated opponents who tried to beat the press with a long pass.

But the success of those two UCLA teams led to Wooden being able to recruit far superior talent to UCLA in the future. In 1965, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) arrived on the campus and, from then on, UCLA was Goliath, not David. (By the way, fellow freshman Mike Shatzkin arrived on the campus at the same time, which is how he knows all this stuff so well!) Wooden gave up the press as an all-game tactic and won 7 championships in 8 years by more conventional means.

So it turns out that Gladwell’s entire case could have been proven with one example: John Wooden at UCLA.


Reality changes more slowly than I like to think

I did a panel yesterday at NYU as part of the summer publishing program on “New Visions” for publishing. The group was put together by Leslie Schnur. I shared the stage with four very articulate co-presenters who gave very diverse views of the future. Our audience was a full room of about 50-100 (I wasn’t counting; I didn’t know I’d be writing this piece) very attentive 20-somethings with a serious interest in publishing.

Dan Simon of Seven Stories Press spoke optimistically of a revival of book reading, as in printed ones, and he spoke passionately about the importance of editorial selection and advocacy as part of a social mission publishers have to bring good writing to readers.

Carol Hoenig, a writer and consultant who works with Author Solutions, told about her own experience successfully self-publishing a novel (she thinks selling 1500 copies is successful, and I agree with her) and explaining how Author Solutions helps aspiring writers “get past the gatekeepers.”

Brian O’Leary of Magellan explained the new business models enabled by print-on-demand and how to think about them. Brian pointed out that POD models make sense for books that sell as many as 500 or 1000 copies a year, and that caught Dan’s attention, because, as he put it, “a book that sells 500 or 1000 a year is solid backlist for us.” Dan has been comfortable printing a 3 year supply; Brian’s math suggests reconsidering that formula.

Will Schwalbe, who had a 21-year career as one of New York’s top commercial editors at Morrow and Hyperion, explained his new web business,, which aggregates recipes from more than 300 of the top chefs and cookbook authors in the world. Since, as any reader of this blog knows without my having to report, I used my presentation time to talk about the shift from horizontal to vertical, Will’s presentation had the great virtue of reinforcing the message I had delivered three presentations before.

Will made good use of the audience. He asked, by a show of hands, how many people liked Italian food. Just about everybody. How many cooked? Almost everybody. How many people got recipes on the Internet? A lot. How many baked more than cooked? A good chunk. How many vegans? About none. How many vegetarians? A handful. How many would prefer a recipe with fewer than five ingredients? Quite a few.

He used that device to show how the tagging he invests in on his web site delivers a better user experience for somebody looking for precisely the right great recipe. What it triggered in my mind is “what an interesting way to collect information from an audience.”

After we all presented, there were lots of interested questions. What’s the business model of Cookstr? How does Seven Stories go about finding those great books Dan wants to publish? Does Author Solutions do publicity for books?

As the conversation evolved to a close, I realized I had a precious opportunity. Though I’m considered to be wildly (crazily?) forward-thinking in some circles, expecting print runs of books to nearly disappear in 20 years, for example, I am unabashedly conservative in others. For example, the idea of books as collaborative or social experiences leaves me cold and it really leaves me cold to think of interrupting good narrative reading to explore links and, particularly, to see video. Some people think storytelling will be reinvented to take advantage of things like this, which makes me scratch my head. But maybe it’s generational, I always think. Maybe today’s generation would find it boring not to have a video interlude interrupt unbroken text. Well, with all these very smart Born Digitals in one room, I’d use Schwalbe’s technique and ask!

So, with time running out, I got the indulgence of the organizers to ask the crowd a couple of questions. The first one was: “how many of you read ebooks.”

Two hands went up. Two.

The next question was not worth asking. But I sure got a dose of new information to ponder.


This is a post about nothing; it doesn’t count

This is a post about “no post today”. Or maybe this is a Seinfeld post. Its about nothing.

A particular number of years ago that my friend Lorraine Shanley of Market Partners could tell you and I can’t — but I would say about 15 — she confided that she thought it would be smart for her company to start a newsletter. And I said, “what do you want to do THAT for? A monthly deadline? To go along with all the other deadlines?”

Lorraine was smart enough not to take my advice and she and her partner (and also my friend), Connie Sayre, are still putting out Publishing Trends monthly and it has been a success, financially and otherwise, from about Day One.

So, 15 (or whatever) years later, totally voluntarily — with nobody forcing me, nobody even suggesting it was a good idea! (and the few that were asked actually telling me it was a bad idea) — I gave myself a daily deadline for this self-publishing effort (to go along with all the other deadlines, which rather inconveniently have refused to diminish to make way for the blog.) And I don’t think anybody noticed when I cut back from the six days I posted the first two weeks to the five I have maintained since.

This “no post today” post is the signal that I now consider four a full week. And I might not make a full week every week.

Richard Charkin (also a friend) wrote a daily blog when he was MD at Macmillan in the UK. I told him it blew me away that he could come up with something every day. He saw as his advantage that he could “always talk about a book” they were publishing. Those stories were always there to tell. Charkin stopped blogging when he moved over to Bloomsbury a couple of years ago; I suspect he’s relieved not to have the daily burden any more (even though at Bloomsbury he’s still got plenty of books to talk about.)

The indefatigable Mr. Cader (uh, yeah, we also know each other) was smart enough to build “except when not” into his promise of a daily newsletter when he started Publishers Lunch. My dad (yup, knew him pretty well too) used to get a newsletter called Winners and Sinners that was “published occasionally from the southeast corner of the New York Times newsroom” by a managing editor named Theodore Bernstein (whom I never met).

So, I’m making a very unconventional move when I say that any implied promise of a daily post is now officially withdrawn.

Which isn’t to say I don’t have a list of things I’m working on. It’s just that I am planning ahead to not work on any of them this weekend. (Baseball pool draft all day Saturday and hanging out with friends not in any way connected with publishing — I have some of those too — all day Sunday and I might not be doing any writing…)

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First old publishing story: Brentano’s in 1962

My first real “job” in publishing was working as a sales clerk at Brentano’s flagship bookstore on 5th Avenue in the summer of 1962. I was deployed to the paperback department, which had opened only weeks before.

In those days, almost all real consumer paperbacks were “mass-market”, rack-sized paperbacks. And almost all of what we now call trade paperbacks were academic. My father had really started the concept of consumer-oriented trade paperbacks with the Dolphin line at Doubleday in 1958 and was just then building the Collier Books line for Crowell-Collier (which later acquired and became called Macmillan; all now owned by S&S and not today’s Macmillan via Holtzbrinck.)

In this new department, downstairs in the basement, housed with a tiny foreign language department off in a corner, the trade paperbacks occupied chin-high bookshelves through the middle of the sales floor. Against a wall were the mass-markets, displayed by publisher. That was because the Pocket Books, Bantam, NAL (Signet and Mentor), Ballantine (and other) reps came in and did detail work on their books on a weekly basis. So the store made it easy for them to take inventory and manage their restocking. 

The sales clerks, including me, took the inventory of the trade paperbacks and recorded the data on cards that went “upstairs” to Lillian Friedman and the buyers to make restocking decisions.

So you had to know who published the top authors, like Steinbeck, because that was how you found them.

This was a long time ago, but I remember two incidents as clearly as if they happened yesterday.

Because I am seriously hard of hearing and this was before the digital hearing aids I have had for ten years that now mask that problem, I had to do all sorts of things to compensate. In those days, there were no credit cards. When people wanted to charge something, they just told you their name and you wrote it down on the slip recording what books they were buying, along with their address, and the store sent a bill.

When people told me their names, I almost never could hear them well enough to get it straight, so I routinely would ask them “please spell it.” That was the simplest way to for me to get it right.

The embarrassing moment came when I asked John Dos Passos to “please spell it.” I became mortified on the “capital P-a-s…”

Another time a young man came to the register and said the charge was to “Mrs. Robert F. Wagner.” I heard that. “Address?”, I asked.

He looked at me like I was from another planet and said, as if I should have known, “Gracie Mansion.”

It is a good thing I found other work in book publishing then because I was really not well equipped to be the best bookstore clerk.


Publishing and cash

There are few moments as entertaining at any BEA or Frankfurt than the moments I spend shooting the bull with David Godine. But I just read an interview with David that left me scratching my head.

Early in the piece, David says: “First, we are privately held and cash flow is far more important than profitability. ”

I get that. I have observed for years that owner-managed companies often make smart decisions that larger corporate ones would not, because owner-managed companies are conscious of cash.

But then, about four words later, David says: “We own our own warehouse and ship our own books, so we can print for three or four years, and not just for a season.”

Print for THREE OR FOUR YEARS? When “cash flow is more important than profitability”? I think this policy is almost certainly a blow to both cash flow and profitability. I have always admired David’s ability to survive doing only books that he believes in. I am in even greater awe now, because he’s surviving despite the fact that he’s tying up cash in stock for years at a time and, undoubtedly, sometimes finding at the end of three or four years that he actually has enough stock to last (at then current rates of sale) for 30 or 40 years! I met a university press once that printed for seven years.

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