An ebook of the first two years of The Shatzkin Files is now available and will be linked for the forseeable future from our left nav bar. This post is the introduction to the ebook, which explains how it came about.
My friend, Joe Esposito, first told me about blogs in the early part of the first decade of the 21st century before just about anybody else I knew had heard of them. I am not sure why it took me many years to start one of my own.
I’ve been training for this gig for a lifetime. My Dad insisted that I learn to touch-type when I started fooling around with a typewriter at the age of 8. (As he said, “either we teach him the right way, or he’ll teach himself the wrong way.”) Three months of twice-weekly lessons got me up to 42 words a minute on a manual typewriter, but trained my fingers to do the right thing so that today on a computer I can do about 3 times that speed. By the time I was 11, I was filing copy on a weekly basis on the Little League games for our local newspaper. I got paid too: 15 cents a column inch. The newspaper job actually continued for the next several years as I moved on to covering high school sports.
In my junior year of college, I started writing a weekly column I called The View from Underneath for the UCLA Daily Bruin. I don’t know how good it was or how many people read it, but it got me a certain amount of notoriety. Because of the column, I networked my way into the Bobby Kennedy presidential campaign and, after his death, a slot as an assistant to Pierre Salinger on the 1968 McGovern effort at the National Democratic Convention. (That was the one in Chicago that featured police against protestors in the streets and which villainized Chicago’s first Mayor Richard Daley to that generation of young liberal activist Americans.)
Between the end of The View from Underneath and the commencement of The Shatzkin Files blog, 40 years passed. I did plenty of writing in the meantime: some books (mostly about baseball), a bunch of articles about publishing in trade publications in many countries, and, starting in the mid-1990s, speeches on publishing and digital change delivered at industry forums and then preserved on my website. The posted speeches were a great boon to my professional career, making it possible to build credibility (and “brand”) among people who never attended these live events.
Others I know had blogged daily, or almost daily. Richard Charkin, now Managing Director of Bloomsbury, wrote every day when he was head of Macmillan. My friend Gwyn Headley, Managing Director of the stock agency fotoLibra, told me that when he started blogging, he did so with a list of 365 topics in hand so he’d always have something to choose from on a day he wasn’t feeling creative. Richard gave up his blog when he changed jobs and I don’t think Gwyn kept up the daily habit very long either.
In my case, I blogged six times the first two or three weeks, then five times the next few weeks, and it diminished from there to what is now a one or twice weekly post. It seems like it usually takes me about 1500 words to get in and out, although some posts run a bit longer. I find that I need to review what I’ve written at least three times a few hours apart after I think I’m done to make sure I’m happy with it. Occasionally, a post gets to that point and gets scrapped.
As I think must be normal with these things, the audience for the blog just grew. As of this writing, The Shatzkin Files has about 1700 subscribers who get the blog delivered as an email to their inbox. A number generally ranging from half that to twice that (and occasionally, quite a bit more) reads the posts on the site. The comment strings keep getting longer.
Fortunately, one of my regular readers is Cameron Drew, who, like me, came into the book business through the most honorable possible path: working for his father. I knew David Drew, one of the great book sales reps of my generation, long before I ever met Cameron. Since Cameron has gone to work for Kobo, the global ebook retailer spawned by Canadian retailer Indigo, he and I have seen each other at conferences and trade shows. He told me from the very beginning that he was a loyal Shatzkin Files reader.
Early in 2011, Cameron told me he often found it useful to refer back to previous posts of The Shatzkin Files but that doing so through the website was clunky and difficult. “Your stuff should be collected into an ebook,” he said. “If we did it at Kobo, would you give us a 30-day exclusive?”
I was extremely flattered. “I’ll happily give you 60 days,” I said.
If you live in the world of trade book publishing — the publishing that has reached its audience primarily through bookstores for about 100 years — you know we are all in a different world than we were in when I began The Shatzkin Files blog in February, 2009. One of the early posts speculated that it might be harder for Amazon to hold onto their stranglehold on ebook sales than their hegemony on online print sales. At the time, Kindle was extending its dominance of the ebook marketplace by enabling the Kindle owners to access their ebook content through the iPhone and other devices. And Amazon’s pricing policy of selling below their cost was beginning to scare publishers.
Then, around the first anniversary of the blog, Apple’s iPad and the iBookstore arrived on the scene, offering publishers the opportunity to implement the so-called “agency model,” under which the discounting of ebooks is effectively stopped. I attribute to that tactic, along with the introduction of the iPad, the Nook, Kobo and Google Editions, the stabilization of ebook distribution in a multi-retailer market with evolving global competition. So, two years later, it looks like that early post was right.
We’re going to see a lot more change in trade publishing in the years to come. I expect the next two years to present even greater challenges and more drastic change than the last two years have. Since The Shatzkin Files began, the extremely challenging times we’ve expected for bookstores have become very evident. Over the next two years, the extremely challenging times it has seemed to me must follow for general trade publishers will probably become equally evident.
One thing worth using this introduction to say is that I take no pleasure in the big publishers’ pain. It is a matter of professional pride to me to not allow my preferences to color my predictions. I love bookstores and libraries and consider the top management of the big trade houses to be intelligent, ethical, and creative people. I consider many of them friends. The fact that the transition from reading and distributing print to largely reading on screens and distributing print online makes much of their skill sets and business models obsolete is not their fault. Nor is the fact that preserving their old business, and the cash flow it still yields, sometimes interferes with inventing the new one.
There are serious initiatives in the big houses to acknowledge the importance of verticalization (mostly in genres), to create direct contact with audiences, and to employ scale in search engine optimization and in locating customer clusters online that it is hoped will enable a new version of the horizontal, big book publisher model to leap the chasm of change. At the same time, the big publishers are figuring out how to step back from the enormous overheads associated with doing business the way they have for the past 100 years. How much change is sufficient, and how fast is fast enough, are questions we’ll only know the answers to with the passage of time.