Hard truths about publishing
Publishing has become a zombie business, but I'm wondering if it can be brought to life in the post-pandemic era.
This post was first published with the title “Do you have a book in you?” That was unfortunate because it led some people - who obviously hadn’t read it - to send me book proposals, the last thing I was looking for that day. One person even wrote to tell me that he had three books in mind and would I like to hear about them.
We were eating dinner in Beijing one hot summer evening. My son turned to my daughter and said, "What did we ever do to deserve being encyclopedia salesmen?"
Tom was working for Berkshire Publishing then, as our China representative. Rachel had finished college early and was also working in the family business. They didn't stay. He's still in Beijing, but working in healthcare finance, and she's in her last year (in-person, hurrah!) at George Washington Law School in Washington DC.
They love books but they do not love publishing. They call it the zombie business - the walking dead.
And while I love publishing and do not intend to give it up, I have a lot of sympathy with that viewpoint. Every time I deal with one of the big old elephants in the industry, I see zombies walking.
We’re lurching out of the pandemic, and into a world that climate change is changing. It’s a new world, and I hope we’ll make it a brave one. I’ve been talking to colleagues about what Berkshire Publishing should be, and do, and I need to know if you think it’s possible to launch the new business I have in mind. I’m not sure.
My small company has always focused on the library and school market, not on trade books. But Berkshire publishes on subjects of general interest, works with world-renowned experts, and we’d love to reach a wider audience. Why not, then, transition into new areas? We could publish commissioned nonfiction and also children's books. We could certainly attract excellent authors - we know so many already.
But I’d want to build a trade imprint that is different from the zombie businesses authors complain about.
First, publishers are unbelievably slow about getting books out, except for the few frontlist blockbusters. It’s not unusual for a book to come out two years after the delivery of a final manuscript. When you write on current affairs, this is a serious problem. It’s one reason people turn to self-publishing.
Second, editors no longer edit. They don’t have time. They acquire (buy) books and negotiate contracts, but editing is done by freelancers. (Admittedly, there are still a few old hands who edit, but then the books take even longer.) Some of these freelancers are marvelous, but I’ve heard of major firms that send manuscripts to be “edited” at production companies in India, the folks who do much of the world’s composition (formerly known as typesetting). That type of editing is cheap because it’s really just basic proofreading, and it’s deeply frustrating to authors who need another knowledgeable eye on their work. So if you’re like many writers (myself included) who want experienced professional help in making the best possible book, you need to find it elsewhere.
Third, part of the delay in publishing is that book production systems are staggeringly inefficient. This is not because there aren’t better tools (more on that to come), but because no one in the zombie production department wants to change.
Finally, most publishers do a terrible job of promotion for most of their books. A senior publisher at an international firm told me that spending any money at all publicizing the majority of books his company puts out is a complete waste: it simply doesn't pay. So why are these books being published?
As a result, it's become usual for authors to spend part of their advances hiring a publicist. But these publicists seem to be equally out of touch. I get book pitches and review copies because I’m on journalist and blogger mailing lists. The pitches are boilerplate dross and although a lot is done electronically the system is really no different from what it was 30 years ago when I was a young author going on book tour, even though today there are endless ways to refine the message and target the right customers. There is far too much talk about “exposure” instead of working to convince people to buy the book.
But authors are often just as bad when it comes to marketing. I followed a long thread on Facebook in which journalists complained about how awful writing book proposals is, how unreasonable publishers are to demand details about the market, how painful and money-losing it is to write a book, how publishers expect you to do everything. No one wrote about how satisfying it is to complete a book, to have it published and read, or why getting it into readers’ hands is something you might want to be part of.
These professional writers didn’t see why they should have to think about the “market.” That was the publisher's job. I always think of the way Jane Austen’s characters would turn up their noses at anyone who was “in trade.” That’s me now: unashamedly in trade.
Self-published authors take on these tasks, for better or worse.
I started thinking seriously about trade publishing after finding some notes about my first book, published in London in 1989. How mean the publisher was, how no one copy-edited it or proofread it, how I had to pay for illustrations and indexing. They produced the cover and did the printing (3 print runs before the publication date) and sent out review copies.
“You self-published, Mum,” said my daughter. She thought this probably made me more confident about becoming a publisher in the first place.
(For more on this, you might want to read “How does publishing really work? A guide for the unwary.”)
But to come back to my original question about where Berkshire should go next, I realized that expanding into trade publishing would require a new business plan and investors. We have a good foundation, and our focus on sustainability could also be a significant asset to the new company. We have in the past set records for publishing quickly (Challenge to China went from manuscript to beautifully designed print copies in one month - one month! - because I promised Jerry Cohen we could do it). I know we could create a comparable marketing and promotion system that would put considerable responsibility on the author, but also provide them with the tools and support they need. And in spite of Amazon’s dominance, there are promising channels for book sales in different formats.
But there is one crucial thing holding me back: I am not sure I can find people to fill the necessary roles in the company I envision. I am not certain they exist, and this doubt is evidence to me of what a zombie industry publishing has become.
I am most concerned about two types of employee: experienced senior editors and entry-level assistants. Here's why.
Senior editors handle acquisitions (choosing what to publish), negotiate contracts, and manage book development. These editors need subject knowledge as well as broad general knowledge, and they have to be well-read and up-to-date. I’d also want them to love language and care about creating beautiful, enduring books.
Editors like this exist. But I also need them to be digitally savvy, comfortable with online platforms and new technologies, and keen to use technology to improve and speed up the editing process. Just as authors now need to be active publicists for their own books, editors should be taking an entrepreneurial approach to what they publish. I can’t hire people who refuse to think about what they are contributing to the bottom line.
I have never met senior and experienced people who fit these requirements. Even junior editorial staff have been tech-resistant. (I wrote about this in an article published by the Bookseller: “Should a CEO write code?”)
Then there are the essential entry-level editorial and administrative assistants who typically handle a lot of basic admin and editorial trafficking, manage contacts, keep records, and thereby learn the ropes. These assistants are, or were, highly intelligent and well-read graduates who loved books and language, and often had a passion for certain subjects. Quite a few worked at Berkshire for several years then went to graduate school.
But do top-notch graduates want to work in publishing now? The pay is low (even in New York), and it's not glamorous any more. Aren't the really clever graduates more likely to want to work in film or online media, if not in IT or finance?
What do you think? Is it possible in 2021 to build and cultivate a team of passionate publishing people who are committed to setting new standards and to showing what a small, nimble, adept company can do?
And what would you like to see in a new publishing enterprise? What are your priorities, as a scholar or journalist or librarian or reader? If you have experience with self-publishing, I’d like to hear about that. And I’ll be glad to answer questions. Just click the button below to leave a comment or ask a question.
As soon as this letter goes out, I have to send an email update to our hundreds of contributors to the Encyclopedia of Sustainability. The pandemic has had particular impact on works that are purchased by libraries, so the second edition’s schedule has been utterly disrupted. But this couldn’t be a more timely resource and I’m trying to work out a new approach to making it available.
Great Barrington was unscathed by Hurricane Ida, but the weather events and fires of this year have been a wakeup call. Next week I’ll publish a HomeEcology newsletter about rain barrels. Although the US east coast has been deluged of late, climate change means that adaptations of all kinds are going to be needed, and rain barrels as well as composting make small but economic contributions.
Incidentally, after Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, I wrote about Storms, Zombies, and a Sustainable Future in this essay about visiting Bill McNeill.
Much of my time of late has been devoted to the Train Campaign. I was able to join Senator Ed Markey (above) and spoke at his press conference in Springfield about the infrastructure bill that we hope will soon become law. I’m now on a hunt for battery-powered electric passenger cars to run on the Berkshire Line.
“Do you have a book in you” was a great read and the points of challenge in trade publishing made in your letter very much on-target. Some of these challenges, of course, are inherent—especially the promotion, marketing, and sales of books—but other challenges are still relatively new, such as the digital publishing technologies and the resistance of senior editorial workers regarding this technology. I spent much of my career focused on this latter challenge, having moved from book publishing as an acquisition and developmental editor to editorial positions in trade periodicals focused on digital publishing technologies and business processes. I was especially interested in the editorial interface in digital publishing, but even today, the technology piece of the process is too often handed off to the technologist-as-shaman, with the editorial worker thinking of the technology as a “black box,” and so the potential value contribution of editors is diminished.
On the other hand, these days self-publishing has taken over much of book publishing, at least in terms of sheer numbers; in science fiction, for example, an Amazon search for “science fiction books” modified by “released in the last 30 days” numbers over 10,000 titles. The vast majority of these are self-published. As your letter and some of the comments have pointed out, the editorial services (e.g., line editing, copy-editing, proofreading) from trade publishers have been disappearing, and the situation is even worse for the self-published, and the struggle to promote and market a book has not gotten easier, even as the this falls to the author more these days with traditional publishers and certainly even more so for the self-published. One of the ironies is that the digital form of books should make discoverability easier, but the same technology contributes to such huge numbers of books that finding new titles is made difficult due to the “signal-to-noise” problem of more needles in more haystacks. The meta-data work—the most valuable of which being editorial in nature—should make finding titles more efficient and accurate, but the associative and taxonomy meta-data is left to algorithms and not subject and category experts because that is cheaper.
And then there is the challenge of book publishing being a low-margin business, and editors are considered too much an expense.
Looking for committed, qualified staff at the entry level? Try recruiting retired academics. Most of us have an interest in publishing, some experience with publishers, and time to focus on projects. Perhaps turn publishing into a guild-like enterprise, with teams recruited to bring specific book proposals to fruition from the acquisition stage to flogging the finished project. I know many people who, if approached to work on a project that interested them, would do so for minimal pay.