Daniel Menaker was not long ago the Executive Editor-in-Chief at Random House and writes knowledgeably about the state of play and state of mind inside Big Publishing today. His piece Redactor Agonistes is a psychological snapshot of a declining industry, a catalog of the frustrations that are increasingly common in an environment where, as hard as everybody tries, the numbers just keep getting harder and harder to hit.
The first point to make about Menaker’s article is that is published by review, barnesandnoble.com’s online magazine. I knew that B&N was working hard on online content, but (not being much of a book review reader) I hadn’t actually looked at it until this article. Of course, it shows the magic of the web; I was directed to the Menaker piece by a number of online referrals and now I’ve discovered a whole new source of interesting content. This kind of intellectual article is not what I previously would have expected to see in a free publication created by a retailer! And it shows that BN.com is thinking about the value of a community of readers who think about the book business.
Menaker makes the overall point — familiar to anyone in the business — that publishing is about saying “no” far more often than it is about saying “yes.” Most submissions don’t get an offer. Most of the books that are published don’t get much attention. Most of the books that are published don’t earn out their advance (although that is not saying the same thing as “most books don’t make money”, which Menaker comes dangerously close to conflating. And if you use the benchmark of “make money”, you get drawn into a conversation about how charges for overheads are handled, which is a conversation we love having but we’ll save it for another day.)
I have said for years that “publishing a book presents the temptation to make an infinite number of decisions, which must be resisted.” Menaker notes this aspect too when he points that out that editors have to deal with nitpicking about the jacket, the design, the flap copy, all of which can be labored over forever if every thoughtful comment is responded to.
Menaker also notes the disconnect between the editors, who acquire the product, and the sales team that has to turn the investment back into revenue. Despite some years in the business at a reasonably senior level, Menaker admits “you don’t know what sales reps say about [the] book when they make sales calls.” He admits to a suspicion “that salespeople’s and buyer’s biases and preferences play a greater part in a book’s fortunes than most editorial people want to allow themselves to understand”. While I can quantify his benchmark about the editorial people, I can tell him from years of experience with sales that rep and buyer prejudices — which they would call either “tastes” or “instincts” — are, indeed, a significant component of the success of all books below the very top echelon.
Menaker notes that success in frontlist publishing is “very often random.” This is a level of humility and honesty that probably would be very hard for top management to accept from anything but a former executive editor-in-chief.
Of course, all these things — and many other things Menaker says in this piece — not only are true of trade publishing, they have always been true! In fact, with the consolidation of accounts, it is probably easier today for an editor to talk to buyers constituting a significant portion of a book’s potential than it was 20 or 40 years ago. (The sales department would hate the idea, but three or four conversations could cover more than 50% of the potential for most books.) The randomness he notes in frontlist success was probably greater when the account base was more decentralized. Publishers have always turned a lot of books down. Publishers have always done very little for most of the books on their list (besides putting them in a catalog, printing them rightside up, and sending them on their way.)
But I think Menaker is right when he suggests that publishing houses aren’t as happy places to be as they used to be. I just don’t think he has put his finger on the reason why.
He comes closest at the end when he talks about the creative acquirers’ need to feel that they have the “knack” of recognizing raw intellectual property that ends up making a lot of money. That’s really the problem; it is getting so hard to make money.
But that’s not because of the time-honored problems; it is because of the changes in the environment around publishing.
Each new book today is competing with millions of other book choices quite accessible to the consumer; 20 years ago it competed with about 100,000 other books. Forty years ago it competed with fewer than 50,000. Used books are offered right alongside the new ones online — a development of the past 10 years — and will increasingly be in the stores over the next 10 years. The amount of shelf space available for books at retail is shrinking for the first time in our lifetimes, while the number of titles competing for space is mushrooming. Menaker says 150,000 titles are being published annually; counting by the new ISBNs each year, the number is actually two or three times that large. Industry output was about 10,000 titles annually in the 1960s.
And all of that is before we take into account the information you would have gone to a book for 20 years ago that you go to the Internet for today: to choose a hotel in Paris, to figure out how to tend to a sick geranium, to find a great recipe to turn leftover ham hocks into soup.
It’s not just in people’s imagination that the business is getting harder and it is also becoming more depressed. People in books are not as happy as they used to be, because success, as measured by dollars in over dollars out, is not as ubiquitous as it used to be. The change Menaker takes note of is not attributable to the changes in the way we do business; the changes in the way we do business are a response to a changing environment all around us. It is characteristic of an industry that is getting smaller after several hundred years of only getting bigger.