The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Something for the Weekend, March 6th, 2009


Abecediary — Steven Heller on alphabet books (Die Flucht Nach ABECEDERIA by the French comic artist Blexbolex pictured above).

Imprints in the 21st Century — Admittedly HarperCollins new Imprint It Books is an easy target (NB use of “tap into the zeitgeist” in a sentence = fail), but Mike Shatzkin does a good job of explaining why their strategy is past its sell by date (and beginning to smell):

General trade publishers need to see, and apparently don’t,  that their legacy brands are B2B [business-to-business]. They should be exploited that way. They need brands that can work B2C [business-to-consumer], but it will require discipline, focus, and an audience-first picture of what to publish to accomplish that.

Writing for a Living — Luminaries such as Will Self, Joyce Carol Oates, and AL Kennedy (quoted below) discuss whether writing is a joy or a chore in The Guardian:

“The joy of writing for a living is that you get to do it all the time. The misery is that you have to, whether you’re in the mood or not.”

Hugh at BookOven is angry this week.  He wants to know why publishers are not selling directly to customers from their website and why they make e-books so complicated. I think Hugh underestimates the time/money/skill-deficit obstacles publishers face in regard to both problems. I suspect Hugh thinks I’m an apologist and will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.

Book Design Made Easy — cartoonist Tom Gauld is making his genius cartoons from The Guardian available on Flickr (via Drawn!, source of so many life-improving things).

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  1. Not angry so much as frustrated … If publishers were to say: “we don’t have the time/money/skill to do this,” I would answer: “so what is your plan to get the time/money/skill to do it?”

    But that’s not even what they say. Instead, they say things like this: “consumers don’t want to buy from publishers, they want to buy from retailers” or “consumers don’t care about the brand of a publisher, and they don’t want to have to come to our websites.” Which is preposterous.

    Can we agree that the web will increase in importance as the place where people will find out about things, and then buy them? Amazon has overtaken b&n as the largest seller of books in the US. That trend – buying books online – will continue apace. With newspapers closing down their review pages, online is where people will be talking about, writing about and reading about books.

    So as someone whose job it is to sell things, if you don’t have a handle on the web, or a plan for it, then you are ignoring the most important place where people’s eyes are, and where they spend their time looking for the things that interest them, things they might buy.

    I am sympathetic to small publishers and their budget constraints. But here is an idea for a summer intern ad that every small press ought to send out to craigslist:

    “Small publisher seeking a intern who is passionate about books, reading, fiction, and skilled on the web. Must know their way around installing, tweaking, and managing a wordpress site, and have some basic design chops. Tasks will include helping us design a wordpress website, putting our catalog online as wordpress pages (with links to Wikipedia pages, and RSS feeds from Google alerts, Technorati, and delicious to scour the web for any mention of our books or authors, as well as links to any online stores that sell our books: Amazon, Indigo etc.) Finally, must help us explore the possibility of: setting up our own online shop (using to sell ebooks, and also to show us how to convert a Word file to .epub using Stanza or other similar tools. Ability to upload a file to a server will be richly rewarded with nice coffee as well. Twitter and Facebook knowledge are taken for granted.”

    I might consider responding to such an ad myself.

    As for Penguin, HarperCollins, Randomhouse and the rest: they are owned by the biggest media companies in the world and their inability to have their sites rank in the top 10 or 20 google results for their books or authors is inexcusable and frankly dumbfounding.

    Having said all that, I think you are more likely to be cooperative with the new regime, so when the revolution comes, you may well be tapped as translator-in-chief ;-)

  2. In response to Hugh’s comment:

    I used to work in publishing and I think problem really stems from the source of money or rather where publishers feel the money is coming from — in contrast to the costs of time and labour. The money for publishing books in Canada is usually associated with two items: government grants and/or private contract books. A third exists on occasion when you may have one or two slightly bigger sellers. The money exists or rather comes in when you publish more books — not necessarily when you sell more.

    The problem with most Canadian publishers are that they are much too focused on pumping out books rather than publishing and promoting good books. A lot of money is still being poured into traditional marketing because the resource of time that is required for online marketing continues to be regarded as too high of a price to pay in comparison to a print ad here and there or a review in this or that newspaper.

    You’ll also find that publishers are also concerned about their relationships with booksellers despite the low volume of sales and thus do not push sales off their websites as much as some would prefer.

    In my opinion — a web-savvy intern is really not something that will help the system — sure it may be a nice band aid solution — but it is not the right long-term answer. In fact, in my opinion — the utilization of interns in the publishing industry is itself turning into a vicious cycle where the industry is heavily dependent on a government subsidized post-secondary education system that churns out graduates/interns eager to get into publishing who don’t end up with steady footing — let alone a stable position with decent pay. Why are we doing this to ourselves and to potential future professionals? A bunch of people I know would say because we love books — sorry, come again? I don’t see how making these sacrifices helps anyone in the end. We should be pushing raising the bar of operating standards in publishing, not lowering them.

    Your point about the largest media companies and their inability to rank in the top 10 is valid — however I don’t think it has anything to do with their inabilities. Customers will buy from who they are comfortable with buying from online. Amazon carries a huge trust factor whereas a smaller publisher will likely not. Amazon’s business is the online customer experience — a publisher’s role should be the reader’s experience — and thus I would argue that publishers shouldn’t be focused on their Google ranking but rather ensure that they work with their authors to provide context to the books they publish. IF they AND their authors choose to work together to promote the book online effectively, the Google ranking will ultimately change in their favour.

    Obviously, this has yet to be the case for most books (too many books maybe?). Then again, explaining twitter to publishers has only led to an It Books imprint … so I’m not surprised that you haven’t really seen much progress :)

  3. Pingback: Publishers & the Web (Again): Or: Why I Sound Grouchy

  4. Thanks Hugh, Ehren, for the great comments.

    I can see that adoption of the web and digital is not happening as quickly as some people would like. But are publishers really any worse than any other industry? Speaking as someone who gets v. frustrated trying to buy other stuff online, I’m not sure they are.

    And the pace of change is always going to be too slow for the early-adopters who are – with respect – a vocal minority.

    As I’ve said before, the idea that the big publishers – HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster – are not aware of the web is just bogus. They all have web initiatives, and sell books and e-books directly from their sites.

    Smaller publishers are also moving online, and I think there is general acceptance amongst publishers that the web is important. Most of the smaller presses I work with take the web very seriously and are making more of an effort than they were even a year or so ago. If they don’t already sell directly to customers, they’re trying to figure out how to do so within the constraints they operate under.

    So why is change so slow?

    Time/money/skills are definitely problems – most publishers can only deal with one thing at time and have to prioritize.

    Digital is not the priority because however ailing the current B2B model may be it IS still working (believe it or not!). The fact it isn’t working efficiently only means it needs even more time, money and energy devoted to it! As Richard Nash recently pointed out, publishers like Soft Skull are so busy dealing with daily crises, that their web strategy gets pushed further and further down the to-do list. The fact it is on the to-do list at all is a major step forward.

    And yes, Amazon is becoming a big player especially in the US, but it is, in many ways, just like a traditional bookstore and, ultimately, it doesn’t really require publishers to change what they’ve been doing for years (which is just fine as far as a lot of publishers are concerned).

    With this in mind, Ehren is definitely on to something when he says that publishers are very wary about alienating their existing customers.

    There is recognition that we’re moving from away from a purely B2B model. But going completely B2C would be completely revolutionary, and I don’t think any established publishers want to go that route (although this might be an option for start-ups). The alternative is trying to find a hybrid B2B/B2C model that balances selling to bookstores and selling direct. Currently this means publishers are willing to sell from their own websites, but are reluctant to do the kind of promotion (big discounts, advertising etc) that would boost their own online stores, but alienate retailers.

    And this isn’t just a fear of upsetting the indies (who are – ultimately – small, if loud, players).

    I think the concern is that if publishers start discounting heavily and/or promoting heavily on their own sites, Amazon, B&N, and Indigo – i.e. the bookstores who still sell thousands and thousands of books – will start looking for bigger concessions in order to stay ‘competitive’. I’m sure many publishers simply see this as too bigger risk.

    It is also accepted wisdom that readers are interested in authors not publishers. Hugh, you’re quick to dismiss this idea, but I think this is almost certainly true for most big general trade publishers. They publish on everything – in multiple formats – and so do not, for the most part, have strong brand identities or distinct house-styles.

    Even Penguin who did have a brand, diluted it to such a degree that I doubt anyone buys a book simply because it is a Penguin these days (I will buy books because they are about Penguin, but not because they are published by Penguin). And this is, of course, problematic for an effective web presence and for selling B2C.

    This is where smaller publishers who are ignored by the chain stores, could supposedly benefit. A small, focused press that has a unique identity and can connect to the kind of niche nurtured on the web, could effectively sell B2C.

    But for most, niche publishing is, or at least was, risky. It takes a small niche – people who read books – and caters to an even smaller niche within it. That’s not a lot of book sales!

    The web has changed this equation somewhat (if you’re not dependent on a local population, the niche is bigger and you can reach them more easily), but even so, niches are, by definition, small, and interests change-niche today, gone tomorrow – there’s not a lot the web can do about that.

    As a consequence, many small presses are, in fact, general trade publishers, and will continue that way because they don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket.

    One small press in Toronto that comes to mind publishes poetry and books on mixed-martial-arts. That’s either one very small niche, or two that are very very far apart! OK, that is an extreme example, but many small presses publish kids and adult titles which can also mean trying to appeal to very different audiences.

    None of this prohibits a strong web presence, but it does add a layer of complexity. Maybe we will see fewer general publishers? Maybe niche presses and start-ups will flourish. In any case, I’m rambling…

    In short, Hugh, I think your points are valid, and if I was starting from scratch I would be taking exactly your approach. And now is a great time. It’s uncharted territory. Exciting stuff. But I think you expect too much from established publishers who are trying to address these issues without destroying their existing business model (which is after all keeping the afloat) before a new one is fully there to replace it.

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