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Publishers Versus Authors?

Why Book Publishers Hate Authors by Michael Levin

Michael-Levin11

It seems so…  unliterary.   But publishing houses despise authors and are doing everything they can to make their lives miserable.   Here’s why.

Authors are admittedly a strange lot.   There’s something antisocial about retreating from life for months or years at a time, to perform the solitary act of writing a book.

On top of that, authors are flaky.   They promise to deliver a manuscript in April and it doesn’t come in until October.   Or the following April.   Or the April after that.   This leaves publishers with several options, all of them bad:  revise publishing schedules at the last-minute; demand that authors turn in projects on time, regardless of quality; cancel books altogether; or sue the authors (as Penguin has begun to do) for undelivered or poor quality work.

Authors are also prickly about their work.   There are few jobs on the planet in which people are utterly free to ignore the guidance, or even mandates, from their bosses.   Yet book authors are notoriously dismissive of their editors’ advice.   When I was writing novels for Simon & Schuster back in the late 1980s, my editor, Bob Asahina, used to tell me, “You’re the only writer who ever lets me do my job.”

Also, annoyingly, writers expect to be paid.   Maybe not much, but something.   The Authors Guild produced a survey in the 1970s indicating that writers earned only slightly more, on an hourly basis, than did the fry cooks at McDonald’s.   Publishers were still responsible for paying advances to authors, hoping that the authors would turn in a publishable manuscript – which doesn’t happen all of the time.

So it’s understandable that publishers might feel churlish and uncharitable toward authors, on whom their entire publishing model depends.   But since the 2008 economic meltdown hit Publishers’ Row, the enmity has turned into outright warfare.

The three R’s of the publishing industry, the strategy for survival, quickly became, “Reduce royalties and returns.”   Returns are books that come back unsold from bookstores.   Printing fewer copies typically ensures fewer returns.   Reducing advances and royalties – money publishers pay writers – was the other main cost that publishers sought to slash.

And slash they did.   More and more publishers moved to a minimal or even zero advance business model.   They said to authors, “We’ll give you more of a back-end on the book, and we’ll promote the heck out of your book.   We’ll be partners.”   Some partners.   Zero advance combined with zero marketing to produce…  that’s right.   Zero sales.

And then who caught the blame for the book’s failure?   Not the publisher.   The author.

Today, any time an agent or acquisitions editor considers a manuscript or book proposal from an author, the first place they go is BookScan.com to get sales figures.   These numbers used to be proprietary to the house that had published the book; now they’re out in the open for all to see.   And if an author’s sales numbers are poor, no one thinks to blame the house for failing to market the book.   The author’s career is essentially over.   One and done.   Next contestant, please.

It’s completely unfair, but destroying the options of a writer actually has some benefits for publishers.   Which leads me to think that publishers are actually happy when authors fail.

As authors gain traction in the marketplace, their fees go up.   They can charge a publisher more money for their next book.   The problem is that there’s no guarantee that the next book will sell well enough to justify the higher advance the publisher had to pay the author.   So if publishers can turn writing into a fungible commodity, they no longer have to worry about paying more, or potentially over-paying for a book.

If publishers can commodotize writing, they’re no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable, and unpredictable writers.   They can lower the costs, they can guarantee that their schedules will be adhered to, and they can keep the trains running on time.   The problem is that they destroy the uniqueness and creativity that readers expect when they buy a book.   As the quality of books diminishes, book buyers are less likely to turn to books the next time they need to get information about a given topic.   They’ll go to Wikipedia, they’ll do a Google search, they’ll phone a friend.   But they won’t buy another book.

Publishers have begun to hate authors.   But seeking to squeeze out the individuality and admittedly the eccentricity of authors is just one more reason why book publishing as we know it is going over the cliff.

Book publishing process chart

New York Times best selling author and Shark Tank survivor Michael Levin runs www.BusinessGhost.com, and is a nationally acknowledged thought leader on the future of book publishing.

This opinion piece reflects the views of its author.   It does not represent the opinions or views of Joseph’s Reviews, and is presented in the spirit of fostering public discussion on key, important issues.

For more on this topic see the article, “Ten Ways to Save the Publishing Industry,” by Colin Robinson:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/12/ten-ways-to-save-publishing-industry

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Publishers, Weakly

What the Penguin/Random House Merger Really Means by Michael Levin

When I saw the word “synergies” applied to the proposed merger of publishing giants Penguin and Random House, I laughed out loud.   “Synergies” is Wall Street-speak for “Let’s merge two failing companies, fire half the employees, run the resulting business more cheaply, suck out all the money we can as quickly as we can, and then leave the wounded, gasping beast that is the resulting company to die a miserable, public death.”

Which is exactly why “synergies” best describes the merger of two of the biggest names in the publishing industry, which is wringing its hands over the immediate consequences of this deal, which really represents one more death rattle of the once thriving book publishing trade.

Here’s what happens now:  lots of editorial, marketing, and other jobs will vanish.   Agents will have fewer places to sell books.   Fewer books will be published.   Authors will get even less money (if that’s possible, since some publishers are paying zero advances whenever they can get away with it).   And the pontificators will pontificate on what it all means to society (not much, since most of society has already given up on reading books).

Here’s what happens next:  the remaining major publishers will find it harder to compete, because the resulting publisher (Penguin House?) will be able to produce books more cheaply.   So they’ll fire people, merge, fire more people, and eventually roll over and die.

All because publishers never figured out how to deal with the Internet and how to sell books in a wired world.   All because publishers considered themselves “special” and thought they could get away with selling products they didn’t market.   All because publishers are English majors wearing Daddy’s work clothes and pretending to be business people, running their businesses on whim and gut feeling instead of figuring out what people want and giving it to them, the way smart businesses work.

I have no pity for the fallen publishers.   In Wall Street terms, there isn’t enough lipstick in the world to make these pigs kissable.   They had the responsibility to shape society by providing it with books worth reading, to create a cultural legacy for our generation and generations to come.   And instead, what did they give us?

Ann Coulter, Navy SEALs, and Fifty Shades of Gray.

The publishers will blame everyone in sight for their predicament, but this is a self-inflicted wound; what the Brits would call an “own goal.”

You can’t run a successful business passively waiting for people (in this case, literary agents) to tell you what you should produce.   You can’t run a successful business by throwing 10,000 strands of spaghetti (or 10,000 books a year, in Random House’s case) against the wall of public opinion and seeing what sticks.   You can’t run a successful business selling information in the form of printed books by putting them on trucks to distant cities, hoping that booksellers (anyone who can fog a mirror, run a cash register and repeat the phrase, “We don’t have it but we could order it for you.”) will actively sell your stuff to people.

Bottom line:  You can’t run a successful business when you are essentially competing with yourself.   If Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell a Simon & Schuster book within three weeks, it sends the book back to Simon & Schuster, at Simon & Schuster’s expense, only to have that same space on the shelf filled with…  wait for it…  a different Simon & Schuster book.   That’s not marketing.   That’s masochism.

A New York editor who worked at Penguin once told me that his boss called all the employees into a meeting and said, “If there’s any merger talk, you’ll hear about it from me and not from The New York Times.”   A few days later, he was reading The New York Times on the subway on the way to work, and read that Penguin was merging with another publisher.   Here we go again.

If it weren’t for Fifty Shades of Gray, Random House (and Barnes & Noble, for that matter) would have been on life support.   There would have been nothing left to merge.   Penguin’s owner, Pearson LLC, is the smartest guy in the room, dumping off Penguin’s trade publishing on Bertelsmann, a German conglomerate which somehow still thinks it can make money selling books.   And now a few thousand more publishing employees are going to leave the world of books and hit the bricks.

So let the hand wringing begin.   The collapse of a once proud industry has taken a giant step backward.   And there ain’t no synergies in that.

Michael Levin is a New York Times bestselling author and Shark Tank survivor.   He runs the Business Ghost website, and is a nationally acknowledged expert on the future of book publishing.

Note:  This opinion piece represents the views of its author.   It does not represent the opinions or views of Joseph’s Reviews, and is presented in the spirit of fostering public discussion on key, important issues.

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The Heart of the Matter

I used to work with a program that trained local prosecutors (deputy district attorneys) and public defenders.   One aspect often covered at these trainings was the importance of opening and closing arguments in a criminal trial, and the point was usually made that these arguments needed to be “tight” rather than rambling and lengthy.   I often see a parallel with book reviews…

To me, book reviews are both opening and closing arguments.   They are an opening argument when it comes to introducing a reader to a book that he/she is considering purchasing.   The review says, “Here is what this book is about, and why it may be of interest to you.”   But it should also warn, “I don’t know about your own tastes, so I’m going to provide you with my perspective on this novel/nonfiction book.”

The same review is a closing argument when it attempts to convince the prospective reader that this is either something worth reading or passing by.   “I think this novel is great because…”   or “I really tried to read this survey book about _____ but I just couldn’t grab on to it…”   The key, though, is that the closing argument is not about TRUTH in capital letters – a review is an opinion piece, and the opinion is only as good as the structure of the argument it holds.

What I love about reading book reviews is not the bottom line – did this reader/reviewer love or hate the book – but the validity of the argument that takes us to the buy/don’t buy recommendation.   Is it logical, is it well structured, is it internally consistent (not a review that praises the author’s writing style at one point while attacking it somewhere else), is it honest?   If I write a review indicating that I love a book, I’m just as interested in other reviews that praise or condemn the book.   Why?   Because I’m not looking to win an argument, I’m looking to see how each and every reviewer made their arguments.

Is there a difference between positive and negative reviews?   Yes, I think so.   It’s much easier to convince the average reader that you, the reviewer, love a book because (as has been said so many times before) everyone loves good news.   If I pick up an interesting-looking new novel at Borders and then use my BlackBerry to find reviews, I’m quite pleased to see 4-and 5-star reviews and flat-out recommendations.   I’m much less pleased to do a digital search only to read that this book is a disaster.   But, wait, maybe it isn’t – maybe I need to see how good a case is made by those who are criticizing it.

Decades ago, I used to read music reviews in every major publication of the time.   There were a number of reviewers that I really admired, including one in particular who never liked the same things I did.   But that reviewer always made a great case for his position, an enlightened and entertaining case.   He wrote a brilliant negative review of one classic album in a single sentence!

So, yes, it’s not the length of the argument that counts.   It’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the amount of fight in the dog.   And the next time you read a book review, you may want to ask yourself, “Did this reviewer deliver both an opening and closing argument this time around?”   Don’t forget that you are the juror in the court of public opinion, and it’s your vote that counts each and every time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:   The Good Daughters: A Novel by Joyce Maynard.

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