The bears and bulls of publishing: An insider steps up

EBook buyers read more books. They’re the future! We’re in the midst of a fantastic transition.

Words from another outsider advocating the overthrow of legacy publishing?

Nope. Not this time.

Instead, these bullish sentiments come from a consummate insider, John Glusman, editor-in-chief of W.W. Norton, a mainstream highly regarded traditional house that publishes bestselling authors like Michael Lewis, Rita Dove, Sebastian Junger, Jared Diamond and Paul Krugman.

A new age

“We’re at the beginning of an age where we’ll be able to reach a book reading audience exponentially bigger than it was before,” Glusman told an audience of writers last month at the venerable Squaw Valley Community of Writers summer conference in a session on eBook publishing.

As one of the faculty, I sat in on the revealing and occasionally contentious discussion with other panelists from traditional publishing expressing profound misgivings about eBooks and what they felt was the dangerous success of digital publishing overall.

Bears don’t read eBooks

One literary agent announced he would never ever read an eBook, period. Another warned that digital publishing would be the death of literacy and the end of qualified professional curators and gatekeepers such as himself.

“Who needs agents and publishers if authors can post their own work online so easily and reach readers directly? It’s going to put me out of business.”

These particular panelists believed eBooks represented a threat to literary art and the sanctity of the traditional publishing business model. To them, the experience of reading an eBook was actually repellent and discomforting. Lower prices per eBook title cut into their margin of profit, and worst of all, they feared that the opportunities for self-publishing could eliminate their existence altogether. They were certain eBooks spelled the death of the book business, the oft-evaded Armageddon finally overwhelming us, the end of literature and reading as we know it.

A woman sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, “If these big-time agents are right about eBooks and self-publishing destroying literature, I’m going to give up and shoot myself!”

A brighter vision

Then John Glusman stood up to these dire prophecies of gloom and doom with refreshing clarity and optimism. He threw back his shoulders, thrust out his chin, and seemed disturbed by the negative and recalcitrant remarks of his colleagues.

“Let’s be careful not to give the authors here any misinformation.” He went on to present a completely different and hopeful vision based on a whole-hearted open-mindedness to a vigorous future for writing and publishing.

I was impressed. So after the conference at Squaw Valley ended, I followed up by asking him a few questions.

AR: What do you think is the impact of the digital revolution in the book business?

JG: There’s no doubt that we’re in a period of extraordinary change in terms of how we read, where we get our reading material from, and what platforms we use to access that material. The mere fact that there are so many devices on which one can read is tremendously encouraging, since distribution has always been the Achilles heel of book publishing.

EBook readers buy more books than those who buy traditional books. Children are reading hardcover and paperback books. Baby boomers have both the resources and the time to buy books in whatever format they find most desirable.

So our goal as publishers is to reach as many readers as possible across all formats.

AR: What are you doing differently now in light of this transformation in reading and publishing?

JG: We’re trying to think creatively in terms of eBook publishing, social media, where and how we market our books, and how we can use one format to help another. We have a very busy and social media team. Norton has the most followers of any trade book publisher on Tumblr, and one of the largest followings on Twitter. Additionally, we communicate with readers through Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, and GoodReads.

We’re using new ways to attract attention for our books online; it could be a blog contest, a competition for advance reading copies, advertising over a broad spectrum of specialized outlets.

AR: What role do you expect an author to play in marketing the book?

JG: Authors are key to marketing. We continue to send our high profile authors on more traditional publicity tours so long as those venues are capable of selling books, and we will continue to advertise in print media. But these days we expect all of our authors to have interesting, lively, up-to-date websites, and to be active in social media. It’s essential that they be our partners in publicity and promotion and make the most of their contacts and expertise.

We want authors to consider self-marketing very seriously since the traditional opportunities for promoting books with in print review media and readings in independent book stores can no longer produce the kind of results they once did.

So our marketing people work closely with authors to discuss blogging, tweeting, making videos for their websites or to post on You Tube. Every author has a unique comfort zone for self-marketing. Some enjoy blogging, others making videos, but some kind of online social networking is definitely an important part of our collaborative effort.

AR: Where do you see self-published books in this new era?

JG: Certain kinds of authors and certain categories seem almost readymade for self-publishing. It’s also an interesting way of testing the market. The success of the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy shows how a self-published series that originally came out from the self-publishing imprint Writer’s Coffee Shop in Australia can be converted to a traditional company like Random House/Vintage.

The three books had sold more than 250K copies and reached the bestseller lists even before Random picked it up and got that story on the front page of the New York Times. Then more millions of copies were sold and the three books are still on top of all the bestseller lists.

AR: How do you acquire new titles? Are any of them self-published?

JG: Most of the books I acquire still come in from agents, but there have been several that were self-published or that the agent has developed from online materials. I haven’t signed any up yet but I’m certainly in favor of this kind of far-reaching source of books.

But I think there’s some self-publishing that is tantamount to vanity publishing. Being able to put words down on paper and having them distributed electronically is no more apt to make you a writer, to paraphrase Donald Hall, than scratching a violin is going to turn you into a musician. Which doesn’t mean that the traditional publishing community always recognizes everything of value.

The history of publishing and literary criticism has some fairly egregious examples of authors whose greatest work was underappreciated in their lifetime, such as Melville, who couldn’t sell 3K copies of Moby Dick.

AR: How do you see the role of agents changing as the industry continues to shake out?

JG: Agents are trying to bolster their businesses in several ways. Some are venturing into YA publishing; others are starting up their own ebook publishing operations; and others are selling directly to Amazon. There are some interesting opportunities for backlist publishing that didn’t exist before ePublishing.

AR: Do you think technology changes what readers are buying?

JG: I think we’re all experiencing frequent and constant shifts in our attention throughout the day. Our time is more fragmented as we listen to thirty-second news bites and write short text messages and emails. We’re moving faster and spending less and less time on our daily writing and reading. I don’t know of any studies that show more readers are looking for shorter books that require less of an attention span, but there may very well be one out there.

I for one find it a huge release and a great pleasure to read a long and serious book for an extended period of time — but then I’m over fifty.

AR: Are you concerned that younger people today will read less as a result of all the changes we’ve been discussing?

JG: No, not at all. Children are still reading all kinds of books in the millions. The difference between them and us older folks is they’re not concerned about whether it’s a hardcover or paperback book in their hands, or a digital representation on their cell phone or tablet e-reader.

But I think this fantastic electronic revolution and digital transition has really influenced how children learn. I have two daughters, 19 and 21, and a son who’s 15. They all began using computers in the fourth grade for almost all of their schoolwork and assignments. But they also began reading physical books and still do.

My son, though totally attached to his iPhone, iPad and Mac, never reads a book electronically. He’d rather have a 600-page Stephen King novel in his hands – yes, the real thing!

______________

What about you?

Readers, what do you think of all this?  Do you find it reassuring or troubling to look through the window at traditional publishing and observe how people on the inside deal with the sea change that technology is bringing to the industry?  Feel free to weigh in here. We’re all interested in your views.

17 Responses to The bears and bulls of publishing: An insider steps up

  1. O. Pagan

    Very informative. Thanks! I think that the reality is that ebooks, etc. are here to stay and everybody must make the best of it. That said, I am worried about my own field, science. With very few exceptions, self-published book in this area temd not to have the correct information, which misleads readers. This is even worse with book that give medical advice. In this case, there is the potential of real physical harm….

  2. John Stanton

    “One literary agent announced he would never ever read an eBook, period. Another warned that digital publishing would be the death of literacy and the end of qualified professional curators and gatekeepers such as himself.”

    I can’t believe we are still hearing quotes like this. Five years ago, when industry experts would say something like this, they might have had a point. Now, it sounds like someone complaining that typewriters are being replaced by word processors and threatening the nature of literature.
    So far, none of the dire predictions about the devastating impact of e-publishing on literacy have come to pass. In fact, one could show just the opposite. Authors used to face an all or nothing game where a few published authors took all the marbles and most languished in obscurity. Now, we see the rise of a ‘middle class’ of novelists selling thousands of books to loyal fans who would have never found that author otherwise. The digital revolution may have produced some bad books but it also produced more opportunities for everyone who reads books, writes books, edits books or sells books. The key is to be part of the change instead of fighting it.
    The sad thing about the quote is that somewhere out there is an author represented by this agent.

  3. Matt Roberts

    Great to hear that someone stood up to wave away the fog of fear. I’m with John above, can’t believe we’re still hearing this! Shows just how slow and scared of change the publishing industry can be

  4. Alan Rinzler

    O. Pagan,

    I agree that there’s definitely a potential for harm with uncurated scientific or medical self-published books, just as there is with any information found online. Reader beware! Authors must be conscientious with peer reviews and fact-checking copy editors prior to self-publication, which we urge as an absolute necessity.

  5. Brian Hoffman

    Thank you for the article and your balanced view. I do find it a bit arrogant of some agents to think that literature will go hell in a hand basket without them. The judges of ebooks are the readers. They vote by buying a book. If the readers like it (Fifty Shades) it goes to the top, if not it sinks like a rock in water.

    I believe the real challenge for publishers (I write fiction) is to be relevant to the ebook process. What can a publishing house offer me? is the question. I’ve written the book, built the platform, done the marketing, spent the time in social media, and built a following. What is there to offer an author like that? Why should I give up all my rights for my lifetime + 70 years? Traditional publishers need a compelling answer to those questions.

  6. Asya Pekurovskaya

    Thanks, Alan, for raising the issue. There is no doubt digital insurgence cannot be denied anymore and for better or for worse it needs to be welcomed. But as a fiction and non-fiction writer, I am alarmed with the change of publishers’ attitude towards their trade. They seem to be trying to force writers to becoming salesmen. And without a strict division of responsibilities writers who want to be published at all costs do turn into such. The second thing I observe in the publishing business which promotes wrong writer is the elaborate protocol of submission. To be savvy in submitting requires, in my view, a different set of skills. Consequently, the books issued by publishers with most respectable names are sometimes no more than skillful imitations. I personally have published 3 non–fiction books with Russian publishers without even leaving in the country. To my knowledge they were all sold out. And as much as I want to see my books published in the US where I live for many years, I don’t dare to submit them to publishers for the lack of those skills. Do you have an answer to my dilemma which might be the dilemma of quite a few other writers?

  7. Alan Rinzler

    Brian

    Publishers would argue that their brands (Knopf, Simon and Schuster, Random, Farrar Strauss and others) are a signal that you’ve made the big leagues. This imprimatur brings with it, they’d say, more orders from retailers (Amazon, B&N, Indies) and reviews in whatever review media remain, either actual venues like the Times Book Review or virtual, such as Salon.com’s book reviews.

    Some of these publishers would say they do have developmental editors, but we know that to be rare. They definitely do supply copyediting and proofreading. They have stables of freelance jacket designers, most of whom you can access yourself. And they have traditional marketing and publicity relationships that individuals don’t.

    It’s every writer’s call to decide whether these answers are compelling or not.

  8. Alan Rinzler

    Asya

    You can’t be a writer these days without extending your creative process in the service of selling your book. This doesn’t mean, however, turning into a salesman. It means rather discussing your work on your own website, or via online book bloggers, or at a reading, in a way that explains and expands what it means to you personally, how you wrote it, whom you think would benefit from or be inspired by its content and style.

    Publishers have, as you say, changed their attitude and expect all of their contracted writers to do this because they know it’s the best way to sell books. What they’ve done in the past doesn’t work any more. The internet has made possible the direct contact between the author and his potential readers, which is the best way to market and publicize the work.

    My feeling is that sincere, authentic, and passionate discussion of an author’s own work is an honorable and long-standing tradition in the world of letters.

    Regarding the protocol of submission, publishers want to hear only from agents, and agents want a query letter as a rule, then take on very few new clients each year. This is not a very efficient or friendly way of operating as a gatekeeper, but that’s how it is.

    I’m not sure I understand your reference to skillful imitations. Any submission proposal should include a comparison of your work to comparable titles. It’s an important and customary aspect of screening and positioning the book.

  9. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    What is upsetting to agents is the fact they are losing control of the gates to publishing. They are not as relevant as before. Writers don’t really need them. Their destiny is digital. But the smart writers will do what is necessary to produce a quality product and that is writing which is correct; and by that I mean edited and polished and ready to be published: print or electronic. I recently participated in a focus group at the Poets and Writers offices on Broad Street in Manhattan, and we writers came to the conclusion that the primary function of the writer was to do his/her best work in reaching the primary goal: a publishable piece of writing in every sense of the word and anything less should be unacceptable to the serious writer. But whether the piece gets published or not should not be the primary concern. The exactness of the writing should be the true goal. The rest (i.e. publishing/recognition/success/money), should be secondary. In other words the icing on the cake represents the glory involved with writing, but the cake represents the true inner motivation to write in the first place. Thus, the work effort should come from our hearts, not our vanities.

  10. Industry News-August 12 » RWA-WF

    [...] John Glusman, editor-in-chief of W.W. Norton, is bullish on ebook publishing. “We’re at the beginning of an age where we’ll be able to reach a book reading audience exponentially bigger than it was before.” Developmental editor Alan Rinzler interviews Glusman about his atypical-for-a-traditional-publisher stance. [...]

  11. Patricia La Vigne

    Reading all the above comments made me feel I was sitting on a panel discussion of e-books vs. traditional publishing. A lot of insight in those comments. I’m a comparatively new author appearing on the scene of publication, and like so many others, long felt that e-books were a novelty that would die out. I, too, expressed the need to always hold a hardback book and savor the printed page. My opinion has begun that 180 degree turn and reading the above comments helps to reinforce that e-books are here to stay. As to the marketing process, I recently heard an author who educated herself in all aspects of writing from the ground up, and her final comment regarding marketing was there is nothing like word-of-mouth advertising, and getting to know people. As a teacher, I well understand the excitement the creative process can evoke when I am presented with a challenge, and electronic publishing, to me, is a definite challenge. My first book is soon to be published in the traditional way, and I’m working on marketing strategies. My first e-book? That will happen soon, I hope. Thees are indeed exciting times, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

  12. Tamara

    I actually won’t buy a hard copy book anymore. I take my laptop everywhere I go so I love reading e-books vs carrying a book.

  13. M.J. Rose

    I too find it astonishing that in 2012 this is still a discussion. The real discussion should be how are we going to fix the broken discovery system. In the last two years Amazon has added 1.1 million authors to the kindle store – readers are lost in a sea of messages about books most of which have little or no impact. There are fewer bookshelves then ever for browsing and exemplary browsing mechanisms for ebooks don’t exist. I’m an author but I also I run a marketing company for authors – AuthorBuzz.com – and on a daily basis I see how many wonderful books go out into the world with little or no real marketing and no way for them to be discovered. That’s the issue that everyone should be debating and worrying and trying to solve- not if ebooks are here to stay or not. They asked the same thing about paperbacks fifty years ago -and paperbacks just extended the market not shrunk it. If you want to reach me I’m at AuthorBuzzCo at gmail.com

  14. Ellen

    Alan — Great post and super insights from Mr. Glusman. Something I haven’t seen mentioned in the comments is the growing rise in the popularity of eReaders among baby boomers who RV. A relatively unknown but large number of people choose to live in their recreational vehicles at least six months out of the year. Several hundred thousand (a number I’ve heard tossed about — I don’t know the actual number) are “full-timers” who no longer own a house on a traditional foundation. My husband and I are among these.

    When you have 400 square feet (max by law for an RV) to live in, you don’t have a lot of room for books. When I was planning my recent short story collection, I surveyed RVers and found that — among my respondents — more seemed to be attached to their eReaders than hard-copy books. And this makes sense, given the space issues.

    RVers probably aren’t the only “hidden” population of eBook buyers — publishers and writers alike would be well served to consider the alternative lifestyles that are embracing the technologies that make reading — and keeping — a lot of books in a very tiny space worthwhile.

  15. Adrienne LaCava

    One bright spot in this revolution, I think, is the sea of bloggers, researchers, and activists it spawned, who diligently keep us informed and positioned with knowledge. Insider stuff that only a few people knew two years ago. I’m trying to sell my first book and I’m excited about the options I have–but largely because I understand them. I’m thankful for the industry watchers… like during this week’s news about paying for book reviews. (Opportunity always brings out the fraudsters). But it might mean, eventually, a service to readers, and writers, that provides trustworthy vetting. I’m thrilled with Mr. Glusman’s conclusions and admire him for speaking up — after all, pairing readers to writers IS the business.

  16. G. Pescud

    When things are changing in your field of business it is nerve-wracking and I guess that’s where some publishers are at.

    However, like many others, I also find it surprising that publishers still have this attitude to Ebooks. Isn’t the basic idea of business to give the market what it wants? It’s about the market, not the business owner.

    I’m reading about three times as many books as ever because I have an ereader and it’s so much easier to access books online than going to a bookshop. I was a fast and voracious reader already and I’m so happy that I can read more books with much more ease than ever before. Is this not a positive thing from a publisher’s perspective? If fast readers read twice as many books as before, would not they sell more?

    ‘“We’re at the beginning of an age where we’ll be able to reach a book reading audience exponentially bigger than it was before,” Glusman told an audience of writers last month…’

    Abso-wooyay-lutely. I also happen to work for a non-profit in remote West Africa where there are NO bookshops for about 1000 miles and the one decent one in the capital is something like a miniature airport bookshop–I’ve read all the Dan Brown’s. No disrespect, but I wouldn’t read them if I had a choice, which I didn’t until now. I was going insane having to read the same dozen paperback books over and over. A certain Ereader has free international 3G access (cell phone wireless) to its online shop. I wasn’t sure if it would work where we live, although 3G works here normally, so we bought two types of ereaders when we visited home recently. One with 3G and normal wireless, and one with wireless only (no 3G). The 3G one works here! So, in the middle of remote W Africa we can buy any Ebook instantly. It’s an absolute brilliant thing. We can also download books to our PC using our normal internet and transfer it to our Ereader. I’m finally reading all the books I’ve been dying to read for the past 7 years.

    I also learned that a lot of wealthy locals in the capital are buying ereaders when they travel abroad and downloading books here like we do. In a country that has access to a very limited number of traditionally published books, it’s providing a number of the population access to fiction and non-fiction like they’ve never had before. I know this is happening across the wealthier parts of Africa. Given that cell phones are almost universally owned here, and even iPhones and blackberries are becoming normal, I can see the Apps becoming popular and Ereading spreading further still. I know publishers probably couldn’t care less about literacy in Africa, but I do and I’m glad this part of the world will have access to world literature from now on. I expect it’s a similar situation in South America, Asia and other less developed parts of the world. There are massive markets in the throes of development and when they get access…

    On top of that, I travel a lot and my one major challenge has been the weight of books. I’ve paid excess baggage so many times because of my beloved novels I can’t bear to part with. Not anymore. It’s wonderful to be able to fill the space traditionally allocated for books with chocolate or coffee or clothes for the kids we work with.

    Finally, paper. For goodness sake, the world needs as many trees as it can get and eliminating paper is hugely beneficial. What’s more, we need to cut emissions so reducing the transport of physical books is also another great step.

    I desperately want to read certain out-of-print titles but they’re not available as Ebooks. The brilliant thing is that they could be–everything ever published could be. Is that not more sales?

    I do miss having a physical book in my hand and I may wait to buy the few most loved books in paperback form, although only if recycled (I check the cover for that). Otherwise, the of ereading outweigh the negatives as a consumer, personally, and for the greater good, I’d think. Even the business owners should benefit. I’m so grateful to the publishers and authors who have put their books into eBook format.

    And thank you for this discussion and this blog itself. It’s enlightening and motivating as a writer and reader.

  17. Alan Rinzler

    G. Pescud

    I’m glad to hear that ebooks are making it possible for more reading than just a few paperbacks while you’re living in West Africa. The publishing business needs to be more aware of how few books are available in many parts of the world. It also brings to mind how many more translations are needed, both English to local and the reverse, so we can be truly connected better throughout the world.

    I share your desire to buy most beloved books in paperback. But I’m also glad to report that in fact most publishers today are releasing all of their new titles in ebook formats.

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