< Book It


Friday, November 27, 2009

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Bob Garfield is out this week, a week that we are devoting to the business, the future, the very definition of books. Two years ago, we did the same thing, and the business landscape has changed. But one thing that hasn't is fear and loathing. Then, as now, the most common complaint is that there are too many books.

NARRATOR: “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Too many books” is one old complaint. Historian Adrien Baillet wrote that in 1685. Plummeting book prices is another. Next week, we'll see the first anniversary of what the publishing world calls “Black Wednesday.” On that day, Colin Robinson was a relatively recently-hired senior editor at Scribner.

COLIN ROBINSON: That morning I was called in to my boss’ office, the corner office, and there were two of them were in there, and they said would I close the door.


COLIN ROBINSON: That’s always a bad sign. And they offered me the comfortable chair.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] And at that point I thought, oh, this is it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And similar bloodbaths were occurring at Random House, Houghton-Mifflin, HarperCollins.

COLIN ROBINSON: There were a lot of layoffs that day. Why they all decided to do it on one day I don't know.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Colin Robinson has recently started a publishing venture with a friend, John Oakes, called OR Books, named for their initials, and to suggest an alternative way of doing business, because they say people still love books but in our excruciatingly cluttered media environment, people and books have a much harder time finding each other.

COLIN ROBINSON: First of all, there is a huge overproduction of titles. Writing books is incredibly easy, much, much easier than it used to be. You can get it edited electronically, you can typeset it yourself, you can easily get short-run printers to distribute it or you can distribute it electronically. And so, I think it’s a really great time for writers, and not such a good time for readers.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it because the tastemakers, the gatekeepers, have been swept away in the electronic tide? There are no more, or very few, freestanding book reviews anymore. Amazon and reader reviews have taken the place of established book reviewers in most people’s lives. Is that what you’re saying because, you know, some might say that’s a little elitist?

COLIN ROBINSON: Well, I don't think it is elitist. I think if you give people a choice between a hundred things, that’s a real choice. If you give them a choice between half a million things, it’s no choice at all.

MICHAEL CADER: I think that’s a self-serving proclamation. What they mean is there’s too many of everyone else’s books.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Cader is the founder of Publishers Marketplace, which provides information for the book business. He says if they think the market is crowded now, with more than half a million new books in the U.S. each year, then just wait.

MICHAEL CADER: What looks big now will be mind-bogglingly small soon, right, because E-books and print-on-demand and scanning of old books and putting them back into the system have made it possible, with little or no cost, to produce books in bulk. Case in point, the University of Michigan library is using some of the scans that were developed in conjunction with Google to make available 400,000 books, old books, public domain books that had gone out of print. That’s equivalent to almost a current year’s output of new titles. So, yes, that number is going to go up in ways that people can barely conceive of.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that’s got to mean the publishing business is going to tank, right?

MICHAEL CADER: The absolute numbers about the state of the business are sort of what they always were. Flat is good, up a little is better, down a little is kind of the norm too, and that’s sort of where we are. I mean, given that the country itself has gone through one of the biggest recessions we've seen in years, if not for a century, in a way it’s a daily miracle that as many books get sold as still pass through the cash registers, particularly in a time when attention spans are supposed to be shorter, right? The long-form narrative is supposed to be challenged by the Internet and radio and TV and all those other things that we have to do with our time, but there’s no clear indication that anything dire has happened there. For a reader, it’s boom times. There are more options. There’s price competition, there’s format competition. There’s new ways to read. You can get things delivered faster. They're accessible online. There’s more voices, there’s more communities to serve you. So for readers, it’s terrific.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow, I'll have what you’re having. [LAUGHS] But I thought people were buying fewer books.

MICHAEL CADER: Not really, no. And, in fact, I think there’s an important contrast to make between books and other media. And the market for DVDs has dropped considerably in the last year or two. The circulation of major newspapers and magazines has dropped precipitously. And there is an easy inclination to say, oh, book publishing has layoffs and they have pain, it must be analogous. It isn't analogous. The numerical declines we're seeing traditional book publishing are far, far smaller.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Really, because, I mean, we can't really follow those numbers very well. In fact, we can't follow any numbers in the book industry. There seems to be no transparency.

MICHAEL CADER: We do have some statistical data. It is not complete and it doesn't line up easily. There’s a service called Nielsen BookScan that tracks book sales at cash registers, so the data they gather is excellent. The insufficiency is they don't gather data from everywhere books are sold, in part because the book market is so complex, right? You can buy it at the airport, you can buy it in a grocery store, all those other discrete venues where books are sold that have not engaged with Nielsen BookScan yet. By their estimate, their figures cover about 70 percent of the market. So you look at their numbers, you can see for this year the market is down between two and three percent compared to last year, but probably more or less even with the year before.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then talk about E-book sales. Are they killing the business? Are they the future of the business?


[BROOKE LAUGHS] So, the three percent that BookScan is down are in many respects most likely E-books. We don't know. We're only guessing. The best data we have there is reports from individual publishers who know themselves what portion of their revenues are coming from E-books. E-book sales are now, for most of these people, closer to three or four percent in the aggregate. It doesn't take astrophysicist to tell you, gee, maybe that slice that’s missing from the physical book marketplace has actually has moved and is now buying books in electronic form instead of physical form.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the first time in more than 25 years, American adults are reading more literature, according to a study released in January by the National Endowment for the Arts. The biggest increases are among young adults aged 18 to 24. This new growth reverses two decades of downward trends cited in previous reports. It was certainly down two years ago when we did our last hour on books. And nearly 15 percent of all U.S. adults read literature online in 2008, some of them probably on their iPhones.


SINGING/MOXY FRUVOUS: Well, you should see my story readin’ baby. You should hear the things that she says. She says, hon, drop dead, I’d rather go to bed With Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Cuddle up with William S. Burroughs, Leave on the light for Bell Hooks, I’ve been flirtin’ with Pierre Burton ‘Cause he’s so smart in his books.

I like to go out dancing, My baby loves a bunch of authors My heart’s so broke and bleedin’ Baby’s just sitting there doing some readin’.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do the publishers find his baby?

CARY GOLDSTEIN: You know, there’s the old business rule of three, where you see something three times and then it sticks in your head. Well, I think the new business rule is, you know, the rule of nine.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cary Goldstein is the publicist for Twelve, which publishes only 12 books a year and backs each to the hilt. They have an impressive track record for creating bestsellers.

CARY GOLDSTEIN: We have to place things so variously so that people will remember it because the news cycle moves so quickly and it’s difficult to maintain those, those things that you are interested in because they're replaced by something else five minutes later.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rule of nine is a tall order.

CARY GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, but that’s how it is. You know, we have to do much more now to get less.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Colin Robinson, formerly of Scribner, now co-founder of OR Books, is taking Twelve’s path but going further, by selling directly to consumers and not relying on book vendors who demand deep discounts.

COLIN ROBINSON: So we're not going to do very many books. We're going to do one a month, maybe two some months, but we are going to spend 50 to 100,000 dollars promoting each book.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bookselling without bookstores.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: And without Amazon?

COLIN ROBINSON: And without Amazon too. And we can't – in the model we're working on we can't give this discount away because we are using it for promotion.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Robinson is good at this. When he was an editor at Verso Books, he once successfully marketed a smart new edition of The Communist Manifesto as a fashion accessory, almost got it into a Barney’s window display. And now OR has hit a promotional home run its first time at bat. Let's talk about your first book, a collection of essays by many liberal-leaning writers called Going Rouge: Sarah Palin, an American Nightmare. It came out on November 16th. I don't know if you know this, but it turns out Sarah Palin’s biography called Going Rogue: Sarah Palin, an American Life, came out on the 17th. I'm sure that was a wild coincidence.

COLIN ROBINSON: Well, no. Very annoyingly, HarperCollins have picked the same day for the publication of their book as [LAUGHS] we did for ours, and, you know.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: They chose their date first.

COLIN ROBINSON: Well, that’s what you say. I suppose this is a kind of jiu-jitsu approach to publishing, and we are trying to use the strength of our opponent against themselves. In that respect, we have been successful beyond our wildest dreams.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Today, effective promotion requires jiu- jitsu, and also usually the author. Neil Gaiman is the author of blockbuster science fiction, graphic novels, children’s books, a TV series. He has an interactive blog, Twitter feed and a fan base that will follow him anywhere. But it won't if he’s not there.

NEIL GAIMAN: Smart authors may wind up having to revert to the world of Charles Dickens, where Dickens was being extensively pirated in America, so what he did to make money across America was he would do reading tours because he could give them that one thing that they couldn't get from a pirated edition of his books. He could give them Charles Dickens reading, and people would come out for that. So maybe we're heading for a world in 10 or 15 years in which Stephen King may not be making any money from his new book, but he’s going to be packing arenas and reading it to them. It’d be fun.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Book writing, he says, still is and always will be a lonely enterprise, but bookselling – well, increasingly, that’s going to require some serious face time.


SINGING/MOXY FRUVOUS: So we split and went to a party, Some friends my girl said she knew But what a sight, 'cause it’s authors’ night, And the place looks like a who’s who. Now I'm pounding the ouzo with Mario Puzo Who's a funny fella? W.P. Kinsella. Who brought the cat? Would Margaret Atwood? Who needs a shave? He's Robertson Davies! Ondaatje started a food fight, salmon mousse all over the scene, Spilled some dressing on Doris Lessing, These writer types are a scream! I like to go out dancing. My baby loves a bunch of authors. We'll be together for ages, Eatin’ and Sleepin’ and – Eatin’ and Sleepin’ and – Eatin’ und Sleepin’ und – Turnin’ pages. Yeah!

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fundamentally, the publishing business is teetering on the brink of ruin, hurtling toward the precipice, awash and adrift in the sea of books, in other words, more or less the same as it ever was. If you’re interested in hearing a primal scream from booksellers, go to Onthemedia.org. Coming up, the man who loved books too much. This is On the Media from NPR.