Archives for category: Book publishing

Well Amazon’s plan to build a second headquarters in New York City (and in Crystal City, VA) was never of course a book story. The fact that they claimed there would be 25,000 jobs paying on average $150,000 a  year proves that. I wonder if there are that many people in the whole of book publishing making such money. I posted three months ago welcoming the decision to come to New York.

There was a lot of adverse reaction in New York to the fact that the deal had been negotiated in secret (as if negotiations like this can be conducted in public) and that a company as rich as Amazon should be given such large tax breaks. But no special deals were cut: all the tax incentives granted are laid out in state law, and are available to any company which wants to try for them and has an argument to support their case. It’s no doubt true that Amazon doesn’t really need the money, but the fact of the matter is that all cities and states play this game and if we hadn’t done it we would not even have been considered. Sure NYC’s a great place: but Amazon was trolling for tax breaks, and in order to play you needed to pay. I trust the calculations made by our governor and mayor were correct and that we’d have made much more back from taxes and spending over the years than it’d cost.

Amazon have now suddenly cancelled the deal overnight: the mayor of NYC, Bill de Blasio, tells us on the radio this morning that just the day before the cancellation he was on the phone negotiating with a senior Amazon person the details of infrastructure spending the company was committed to making. Now of course a big company (a small company too) has an absolute right to change their corporate mind, but surely at the end of a year-long, publicly self-promoted campaign to provoke cities around the country to knock themselves out attracting the great and good Amazon, the company owed everyone a bit of notice and debate before just walking away from the deal. They can’t really have been surprised at the sort of objections that the original announcement provoked. People in Long Island City were bound to be worried that their rents would go up, and to suspect that they’d not be getting too many of those $100,000+ jobs. Their elected representatives could be relied on to voice these concerns, and while none of us has the inside story, the hassle cannot possibly have seemed too injurious to a company notoriously customer-oriented, and relentless in the pursuit of its objectives.

Is it possibly the case that Amazon’s anti-union position was a major factor? The unions were in negotiation with them and seemed to think they were making progress just a day before the pull-out.

I think Amazon’s sudden withdrawal from their New York deal teaches us two things. Firstly I think it suggests that Amazon probably doesn’t really need a second headquarters. They have said that they won’t be looking to replace the Long Island City establishment in any of the other cities that submitted bids. So it looks like they may have decided they didn’t really need to spend the money building up a new large establishment: they can just cope with things by beefing up staffing in this or that of their current offices around the country.

The second thing we learn relates to the complacency of politicians. They tend to assume that what looks to them to be self-evidently a good thing, will therefore look to be a good thing to the entire population. But the benefits of any deal need to be spelled out. Just because you, who spend your life immersed in politics, know this is the right thing to do, you cannot assume that all the people find it equally obvious. We saw this problem potentially take down a whole country when Britain’s elites blithely assumed that the economic and historical benefits of membership in the EU, which may indeed be obvious to anyone who has thought about the issue (and who remembers World War II) were obvious to people who’d never really thought about it because all their time is spent making a living and getting by, or watching television, responding to their friends’ posts on Instagram, or even God knows reading books. Just because you’re a politician doesn’t mean everyone is. Politicians surely know that emotion plays a larger role in people’s decision-making than reason. Yet Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio spent more time celebrating a big win, than in explaining the reasons why such a win was important.

Oh well, we’ll get by without an Amazon HQ.


Publishers Weekly recently brought together a group of young people in publishing to try to find out where publishing thinks it’s going.

It’s nice of PW to buy these guys a lunch. As one of them says “There’s not enough money and there’s not enough time.” But if the magazine’s editors expected any dramatic news about transformation they must have been disappointed. Unsurprisingly, what these young publishers say is remarkably similar to what any group of young publishers might have said when I was a member of The Society of Young Publishers in London back in the sixties: principally, let’s take advantage of new technologies. True they did place an emphasis on diversity in publishing which would probably not have come up fifty years ago, and this of course reflects a change of emphasis in society in general. By and large everything everyone said was reassuringly familiar. As it should be. Anyone being paid by a book publishing company should be focussed on the needs of that publishing company, not on tearing it apart and replacing it with something different. These people are still learning what it is to be in publishing. Once they figure it out, maybe one or two of them will come up with an idea for some changes. People who want something different right off the bat would no doubt have gotten a job in a different industry.

I do think that the modest remuneration on offer in the book publishing business acts as a filter on entry. Young graduates juggling career choices will not gravitate towards publishing if money is high on their priority list. People who get a job in book publishing have to be pretty much committed to the idea of book publishing as it is, or more generally to books as they are. As time goes by they may see options. But on the evidence at hand tomorrow’s book publishing business will be rather similar to today’s. This is as it ought to be: book publishing is a service industry, existing to help authors bring their writings to the public. Innovation is not our business: when authors want something different, we will, one hopes, be ready to respond.

I admit that I haven’t really been aware of book publishing as a major theme or setting for Hollywood movies. But it seems I’m just guilty of ignorance. The New York Times twits the movie industry on its treatment of the book publishing business. The author of the piece, Sloane Crosley, writes “my boss told me that the blessing and curse of our industry is that ‘everyone thinks they can do what we do, even though no one has a clue what we do.’” Something I’ve also often whispered is that nothing that we do is particularly difficult: to publish a book you just have to do a few straightforward common-sensical things, do them right, and do them in the right order. It really isn’t rocket science — but it isn’t magic either. And, you’d have thought, it isn’t very rich in the sort of dramatic interest a movie producer might be seeking.

About thirty years ago we saw a play on Broadway which turned on this little publishing company’s Hail-Mary acquisition of a multi-volume encyclopedia. The actors told us how this would save Itsy-Bitsy Publishing and would make them all fabulously rich. We (who had a fair amount of experience in encyclopedia publishing) knew that the developmental costs (and time it’d all take) would submerge the little guys in debt and bankrupt them within a year or so. And furthermore that if they did make it through they’d be hard pressed to sell more than 1,000 or so copies of such a project. And how many book publishing companies were there within a stone’s throw of that theater? Any one of them could have steered them right. Maybe the playwright lived on a mountain top.

I have to admit that some of the characters in that play did hold out for signing up a bestselling novel instead. The trouble is that publishing just doesn’t work like that. You can’t save your company by going out and signing a bestseller. Bestsellers aren’t acquired: they happen. (Obviously a book by say James Patterson can be expected to sell well, but a little company can’t just call James Patterson and get his next manuscript. Household names tend already to have houses.) Publishers have to throw lots and lots of spaghetti at the walls in the hope that eventually one strand will stick. Even if they’re aware that this book is published by Publisher X or Publisher Y the book-buying public doesn’t care: they will buy books because they want to, for random and unpredictable reasons — and until they do so nobody knows which individual strand of the publisher’s pasta package is going to take a trick. All too often all fail to adhere. This is inherently undramatic — you put book after book out there and wait to see what works.

Surely it’s easy enough to check this sort of thing: maybe Hollywood insiders cut all their ex-colleagues when they desert NYC for LA by moving from Editorial Assistant to Book Scout. That westward move seems to involve expunging from your memory bank what it was that really went on at that publishing company you worked for eons ago. Maybe the reality is too dull to be recalled accurately. Don’t we all know that New York book publishing is all just one hectic rush of launch parties, three-martini lunches with good-looking authors, witty and urbane conversation, and a few discrete tweaks to a brilliantly-written manuscript so that the work of genius within is revealed to an astonished world — which turns around and makes a movie about you?

Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian asylum-seeker held on Manus Island, Australia’s holding-pen for immigrants it wants to slow-track, has just won the Victorian Premier’s prize for non-fiction and their top award for literature with his book about life on Manus, No Friend but the Mountains. The Guardian reports on the prize award. This morning the BBC carried a report in its World Service Newshour broadcast. Mr Boochani appears to be a cultural phenom: articles, poetry, songs and a movie have all been created. The BBC reported on the film in October. Yes, he has his own Wikipedia page.

Without having read the book, one of the most interesting things one can tell about it about it is the method of composition. Mr Boochani wrote it on his cell phone as a long series of text messages sent via WhatsApp and other messaging services to Omid Tofighian, his translator from the Farsi in which the book was written. The authorities were not ecstatic: his phone was twice confiscated. “The main reason I wrote this book on my phone, and sent it out bit by bit, was really that I didn’t feel safe with the guards and authorities”. But after almost five years of composition the book was completed and was published last July by Pan Macmillan.

Now, of course, the judges for the Victorian Premier’s award are not members of the Australian government, but it does make for an ironical comment that the country’s top literary prize should be given to a writer who the government tried to stifle. Although the detention center on Manus Island has been officially closed it seems Mr Boochani is still there, and was not allowed to attend the prize-giving ceremony.

Well, I worked in publishing for almost fifty years and I never heard anyone claim this: maybe it was whispered and I didn’t hear. Doubt it. However Mr Eco came from Italy, and maybe they say this all the time around the water cooler at Mondadori. I suppose it’s also possible that it may have lost something in translation.

The Passive Voice sends the picture without comment. Not that one’s really necessary if your job is to display the stupidity of publishers.

And who is that beardy guy? He looks  a bit familiar. One wonders why he was selected to lend weight to this silly sentiment. He is certainly suitably quizzical, though one doubts he had too much familiarity with publishers. An Assyrian? A Greek god? A historian of beard styling could no doubt pin this down.

It’s an odd sentiment to have become such a quote-trope, though none of these wallpaper manufacturers seems concerned enough to hint at a source. I suppose it’s the self-publishing community that’s driving this popularity: as we all know there’s a substantial body of resentment against traditional publishers out there. I suppose some publisher once turned down a book proposal from a sensitive author, and now we’ve all got to pay for it. (Let me insist once more that I think the development of self publishing is an entirely beneficial thing for us all, book publishers and readers alike.) Ironically, I think it’s generally accepted that “easy” reading is what self publishing is so good at providing, while anything serious needs the help of a traditional publisher. See Richard Hershberger’s two recent excellent columns on “The State of Book Publishing” at Ordinary Times: (Part 1 and Part 2).

Mr Eco’s quote may have originated in a 2011 Guardian interview where he said “It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things”, though of course it’s possible he may have formulated it differently elsewhere.

These straw men are always an excellent target if you care about winning.

Of course numbers can be over interpreted, and almost always seem to be.

On 19 December this item was carried by Shelf Awareness (I think it was them, though I’m no longer sure as I cannot find the reference in their archive): “24/7 Wall St. reviewed annual employment data from 2008 to 2017 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, to create a list of ‘the fastest dying industries.’ Or less sensationally, businesses that have shed jobs as tracked by the government.

No 24. on their list is ‘Book and periodical merchant wholesalers,’ where they estimate recent employment of 36,184, 38 percent lower than 10 years ago. ‘Bookstores and news dealers’ — not that those are in any way the same thing, but these are government categories — ranked No. 13, as their estimated employment of 81,000 people is down 43 percent; ‘Support activities for printing’ comes in at No. 12. On the bright side, while categories called ‘other publishers,’ ‘newspaper publishers’ and ‘directory and mailing list publishers’ all appear on the list, book publishers are not included in any of those declining segments.”

The list of the “fastest dying industries” can be found at the link above, which takes you to their USA Today source. Are we so desperate that we have to clutch at straws as flimsy as this. I’d feel a bit better if I was certain than “book publishers” were absent from the list because employment was increasing, not, as is probably more likely, that it’s just not one of the categories the government uses. However, our own experience shows us that declining employment numbers don’t tell the whole story. For most of my working life book publishers laid off this category of worker after that category of worker, replacing them with freelancers — ironically often the self-same individuals — while steadily increasing the number of books published. Proofreading, copyediting, design are now mostly done by freelance workers, but they are of course still being done. The fact that part-time workers and freelancers don’t need to be included in medical, vacation, pension and other benefit plans makes dispensing with full-time staff a temptation lurking behind every bump in the road.

Does all this not just confirm the need for caution in the face of statistics? For a government department focussed on employment these numbers may well be fascinating. For the rest of us  — beyond a need to deplore layoffs, zero-hours contracting, and freelancification when they come up — there’s not too much to make of this information.

On the other hand, should we really be deploring freelancification? Aren’t we always being told that automation is going to put us all out of work and force us to bask on the beach every day? Heck, Dan Dare was telling me in the 1950s that by now we’d all have infinite leisure time ‘cos robots would do everything for us. Surely this is a consummation devoutly to be wished. Roll on universal basic income and single-payer health care.

Fact checking is one thing: opinion checking seems much more obviously a publisher’s editor’s duty. Publishers Lunch of 17 January tells us  that “Books & Books in Miami removed the DK Eyewitness Top 10 Miami and the Keys guidebook from their shelves after an employee noticed it referred to part of the Coconut Grove area as ‘the blighted “Black Grove,” an area plagued by high crime rates, drugs and deprivation, where many of the descendants of Bahamian workers have settled.’ Owner Mitchell Kaplan said, ‘We do not want to carry a guide to Miami that so misrepresents one of the communities within Miami.’ DK publishing director of travel Georgina Dee told the Miami Herald, ‘Our text introducing Coconut Grove does not give the full picture and is outdated. We will correct this at the next available opportunity, and we apologize if our content has caused offense.'”

One almost has to assume that this opinion of Coconut Grove was never actually read in DK’s office when the manuscript was going through. This isn’t as unbelievable as you’d like to think. Imagine a situation where the whole book was ready to go to the printer and for some reason some of the copy had to be removed, and a substitute found to keep pagination steady. You really don’t want to get into resizing art and moving pages around at this stage: the author is told to write some words to fill the empty space and do it quick. Bang, bang, and off it goes to the printer, with the error in judgement only exposed when the book hits the bookstores. Obviously I don’t know that that’s what happened — I’m just saying it could happen; in this way or some other which could be imagined.

Poor Georgina Dee tells the Miami Herald that they’ll “correct this at the next available opportunity”, a placeholder explanation. They are no doubt debating whether they have to waste stock and do a new printing right away or whether to wait till a reprint of the book becomes necessary in the normal course of events (which does of course include the possibility of that turning out to be never). The cost of waiting might be less than you’d think: after all, most guidebooks to Miami are probably not bought in Miami, but brought along by tourists in their luggage. Like so many things in publishing the judgement boils down to money.

The Mellon Foundation has just made a grant of $2 million to The American Academy of Poets. Here’s The New York Times story, (via LitHub). “The funds are divided into two grants. The first will help start a new fellowship program to support poets laureate of states, cities, United States territories or tribal nations across the country.” “The second grant will go toward the Poetry Coalition, a national alliance of more than 20 poetry organizations, several of which are nonprofits.”

It is great to see rich dead men supporting the arts. Maybe we can raise our maximum tax rate to 70% (as proposed by AOC) and allow more of the living ones to do the same.

As it happens poetry seems to be doing pretty well on its own. Lots of publishing going on, and lots of books, periodicals, pamphlets being bought. Here’s The Guardian reporting a couple of days ago about the trend in Britain.

Shelf Awareness brings us this report of buoyant book sales as reported by the Association of American Publishers. What are we to make of this comparison of November 2018 book sales with November 2017? What does a “Huge Jump in Trade Sales” really mean?

Table from Shelf Awareness

A 36% jump is certainly “huge” but timing counts. Monthly sales are just monthly sales. Annual sales tell more and with five or ten year sales trends we are beginning to get into the area where we can make projections. We also have to keep in mind the boost given to recent book sales (adult hardcover) by our controversial political situation. Solace for chaos often seems to be sought by buying a book and keeping your head down, reading away. Of course a book sold is a book no longer cluttering up the supply chain, so we rejoice. These big books no doubt attracted big print runs, and we should wait till a bit later to say they were all wild successes: the temptation to order too large a reprint increases as sales numbers go up. But such carping is out of place: next year and the year after there’ll no doubt be some big books, not perhaps about politics, maybe climate change, football payola, Hollywood scandals, supernovas, fruit canning — well, maybe not fruit canning, but with a changing climate who knows. These booming sales numbers are good news. Even if they will be over-interpreted and draw the snideness of indie publishing boosters — no, the numbers do not include sales of self-published books: unsurprisingly the AAP can only report on sales numbers reported to them.

Ebooks don’t look to be doing brilliantly except among the young and spiritual, but the worst news comes from the university press segment. However these numbers in fact include data from a dozen university presses plus a couple of wholesalers. The Association of University Presses has over 140 members, largely but not exclusively in the USA, so these sales numbers have to be looked at in context.

AUP members

What that context amounts to is opaque of course. The main ingredient has to be a recognition that one month is merely one month and with relatively small numbers percentage changes will look more dramatic than a similar change to a larger sales number. The take away ends up being “Don’t over interpret numbers put out by industry bodies”. This I’m sure is not a lesson we will ever manage to learn though.

On the face of it this seems like a good idea: Cambridge University Press is introducing a new format, Cambridge Elements, which will publish material falling in size between the journal article and the full-blown book. STM Publishing News brings us the information.

“Work of between 50-120 pages will be published digitally and through print-on-demand as ‘Cambridge Elements’ – concise, peer-reviewed guides to key and current topics across all fields of study and research. These will be organised into focused series, edited by leading scholars. They will combine the speed, flexibility and versatility of digital with the highest academic standards.”*

The problem publishers have with short books on academic topics isn’t fundamentally a problem of page count: it’s really the pricing of little books that stumps us. All publishers tend to consider the costs of running the business, the overhead, as a lump which has to be divided up between every book we sell, so that, ideally, each single sale we make during the year delivers its little contribution to balancing off the overhead. Recover a bit less: a loss. Recover a bit more: profit. A little book looks like it should have a correspondingly low price: but retail price does not march in lock step with page count, so such a book will always tend to look expensive — unless you can sell so many that your fixed costs can be recovered over thousands and thousands of lower-priced sales.

We tend to earn the money to pay for the ongoing business by applying a standard percentage of our overhead to every copy of every book. So if you plan to price the book at $100 maybe $45 will be what you get from the trade after your discount, and of your receipts maybe 45% ($20.25) will be notionally counted as the overhead contribution. But unless it sells fantastically well a little book will not be able to cover overhead adequately — 45% of a small number being an even smaller number. Now one could, dangerously, mount an argument that CUP’s overhead was covered by all the books and journals they are already publishing and that by adding a series called Elements they are not really adding to the costs of running the business, that any sales will really just be gravy. To conclude that this means that Elements could attract an overhead allocation of say 10% would enable you to publish at a price which people might actually pay, and this would allow Elements to succeed. But few publishers are going to be willing to open this door: just imagine what’d happen if Elements succeeded wildly, beyond all expectations, and you started publishing more and more of them. It’d start representing a large proportion of the shipments made by your warehouse, and would occupy more and more staff time in all other departments. If suddenly 50% of your sales are only earning a 10% allocation toward overheads your costs will rapidly exceed your recovery. Death by success.

Of course it is unlikely that the success of Elements could end up representing 50% of sales, but conservative accounting will militate against ever “fooling” yourself like this. I have while working more than once suggested a dodge of this kind. If you have a Shakespeare series, competing with other series distinguished only by annotation and introductory material, the different texts will end up sharing the market. Drop your retail price $2 and everyone will buy yours: bingo! 100% of the market at $2 is worth so much more than 10% of the market at $15. I have always (correctly) been rebuffed. The book market is relatively conservative and is slow to move. Professors recommend texts and will be slow to take the price paid by students into account. By the time any effect on sales might get started competitors will have responded by dropping their prices too, and nobody wants to get into a race to the bottom.

Our alternative approach to the short book is inflation: I once turned a manuscript of less than 50 pages into a 128 page book. Lots of white space, and very readable type! But we all hope that the book buyer is focussed on heft rather than number of words on a page. The publisher of short books for specialized audiences faces a choice: either the books will look relatively expensive, or they will be allowed to underperform financially, as a sort of service to the academic community. One way university presses occasionally manage to achieve this sort of result is by a grant from an outside body. Who knows: maybe CUP got such a grant.


* Dare one suggest that this sounds a bit like a rather more academic version of the Oxford series Very Short Introductions. That series succeeds by selling surprisingly well. And its prices are not really all that bargain-basement low. Of course I’ve no idea what CUP’s pricing plans are.