Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Less Is More

I realize, as I finish writing this post, I've basically created a manifesto about book publishing here, and I really would like to hear everyone's feedback on many points. Sorry this post turned out so long; keep reading if you aren't bored to tears by it.

I had the opportunity today to sneak into a lecture given by Jonathan Karp, the publisher/editor of the Hachette imprint Twelve. Most of the themes I'm going to write about here are basically stolen from his lecture, but I feel ok about doing this because I've thought about all this a lot before and agree with him on almost every point.

(Brief aside re: why I was at this lecture: For those of you in the early stages of your publishing career, you should check out YPG, or "Young to Publishing Group," which coordinates monthly lectures as well as parties and sometimes free promotional materials like galleys that magically arrive on your desk. It's also a great way to get invited to events like this, or to make connections with other people who will, hopefully, be making their way up in the industry alongside you.)

Jonathan Karp has become a bit of a celebrity in and out of the industry, first for the books he got famous editing over his 16 years at Random House (some titles you might know include SEABISCUIT, THE ORCHID THIEF, SHADOW DIVERS, and THE DANTE CLUB), but more recently for the creation of Twelve, which functions on a simple principle: less is more.

Twelve publishes only twelve books a year. That means a given catalog has only four books in it, tops. This means more focus on quality, where only one book is getting an editor's complete attention at a time. It also means the slashing of arbitrary initiatives (many publishing companies incentivize their departments and employees by the number of acquisitions and books published, which makes sense in a quantitative way but in a qualitative way inadvertently encourages editors to acquire books they don't care about in order to scrape their margins together).

I was very interested to hear him speak, because (as anyone who reads this blog knows) I have some strong opinions about the future of publishing and the survival of books in a world where shelf space is being slashed, fewer people are buying books, books are becoming more expensive to make while prices are not rising equitably, and most people get most of their entertainment and information online.

I, for one, believe wholeheartedly in the theory behind Twelve (which, by the way, is absurdly successful--7 of their first 10 books have been NYT bestsellers). I wish I had the luxury of devoting all my energy to one book at a time. Instead, I have to multitask, and often I find the editorial work I wish I could be doing on one book that I love is cut into by the time I need to spend on another book that needs more of an overhaul. I always, always am left wondering--if I had had two, ten, or twenty more hours with that manuscript, would it have been two, ten, or twenty percent better? Would it have appealed to two, ten, or twenty percent more reviewers and consumers? Would it have been two, ten, or twenty percent more likely to make a bestseller list? Of course, there's absolutely no way to ever know this, and, as anyone who has ever worked on a book or any kind of art in their entire life knows, there is infinite room for improvement at all times. I will never be content that I've done everything I could for a book. But I hope that's what makes me a conscientious editor.

Besides my personal editorial attention, the time and attention of the publicist(s) is of immeasurable importance to the success of a book. As with editorial work, there are infinite publicity leads that could be followed up on...if only you had the time and energy. Jonathan has a team of two publicists who work full time on his one book each month. I have a team of two publicists at my company who work on X times as many titles a month. I won't quote the number here, but suffice it to say it is much higher. And most publishing companies function on metrics much closer to my end of the spectrum, not Jonathan's.

In his words, "You just can't go to the wall for every title." This is so very true. Besides, the more you pile on, the greater the gap that is going to occur between the titles you love and the titles you took on that you less than love. And yes, while every author wants to believe every editor loves their book best, it's not physically possible. Publishing fewer titles, in Jon's words, makes publishing a book more about an author--which is where it should be anyway. The author is the creator, the artist. Their book (hopefully) is unique, and therefore shouldn't get stuck getting cast as one of many.

There are many factors about the modern world that are tacitly pushing us toward his kind of publishing (that is, if we want to survive). Here are a few of them, with my highly interpretive annotations:

-Reduced shelf space in stores. Nb the recent corporate restructuring of Borders, which is moving toward a face-out book display technique. This means fewer titles, with more copies per title. In other words, reinforcement of the bestsellers, less room for anything else. Many books on this scheme will cease to be stocked in brick-and-mortars at all.

-Reduced print venues for publicity purposes. Fewer book reviews in printed papers and magazines, and fewer people reading them. Sure, there's online marketing, but as no one knows better than you and I, the internet is a whole other animal.

-Increased availability of stand-in entertainment and information online. Jon made the point about the decrease in number of biographies published--unless a writer is really fantastic, why not just read about their subject in Wikipedia?

All these factors are contributing to reduced book sales. Meanwhile--and this is something we on my end are keenly aware of, but which I don't think non-publishing peeps have to think about as much--the physical act of making a book becomes less and less profitable each year, because book prices do not rise in relation to inflation (compare a book that pubbed in 1990 to a book that pubbed this month and do some quick math--you'll see).

The fact is, I don't believe we are ever going to eradicate book readers. I believe in the brick-and-mortar, in the smell of fresh-cut pages, and in the pleasing sensation of running one's fingers over the ripple of neatly aligned spines on a bookshelf. And I think that despite all the doom-and-gloom about decreased reading rates and illiterate teenagers, the fact of people like me--and a heck of a lot of you reading this--will never let the Book go away completely. People have been bibliophiles for thousands of years at this point; nothing, not even the internet, is going to destroy that kind of addiction.

However, there is a lot being published every year for the wrong reasons, and there is a lot that is published when it is not quite ripe yet (again, for the wrong reasons). Don't blame publishers for this--it's not that we're stupid or lacking foresight--not that we can be completely excused from either of those sins--but we fight daily against forces and institutions that have been in place for a long time and that dictate a lot about how we function. There are a lot of jobs at stake, a lot of formalities and how we tie into corporate America, a lot of stock holders who aren't willing to take the risk, and a lot of pressure from agents to pay more, get it out faster, cut back on editorial changes, rush out an option project. In little ways, the fact of everyone doing their job perpetuates a system that is floundering.

What does this mean for you and me? Well, I'm still tied to my product incentives, unfortunately, so all I can do is write too-long e-essays on what I think you should do. But you are writers, and you are the ones who are going to change the world (and publishing) with the work you're doing. So here are some thing I hope you'll think about.

First, Jon calls himself a strong believer in the gestational process. He points out that most mistakes that cause a book to fail come from deadline pressure. He also says that the few authors he chooses (or "gets") to work with he likes to acquire years in advance, and collaborate with on many slow edits.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, quality. Second, trickle-down. If you work on editing a book for two years, by the time your sales team goes to sell it in, they may have actually read it! (Book salespeople are really wonderful and usually thoroughly read people--this is no slight on them, simply observation that with the volume of titles they are expected to sell during a season, there is no way they have read all their own books. And the more books we publish, the lesser the chances are that they've read any given book on the list.)

So don't rush out your masterpiece. I know it's tempting to want to get the ball rolling, and I don't mean to encourage cold feet. I do mean to encourage care and attention on your end. The reason for this is you never know, in the current climate, how much attention your book will get on the other end (I discovered during a phone conference with an author yesterday that his agent--who has been giving me a lot of editorial advice about how he thought the author saw the book--has never actually read the manuscript. I was a LITTLE disappointed, but I don't think cut corners like this are all as rare as we would wish.).

So join a crit group. Shop your project. Push yourself, and make sure what goes out is something you wouldn't mind everyone in America reading and associating with you. Don't let the publishing HR crisis become your artistic crisis, too. And make sure to push your editor.

Which brings me to point #2. Know your editor. Make sure you're not a last-minute acquisition for an editor who is so swamped that they are only going to have a week in the year to devote to your book. As we've discussed before, not all books get edited by their editors. Make sure your book isn't one of these (although, of course, you've taken the necessary precautions by making sure it's as clean as it can be before your agent submits it).

How can you make sure your editor is a good egg? We're all good eggs, so that's easy. We might not all be right to work on your book, though. So if you can, make sure you meet your editor, either face-to-face or during a telephone conversation, before you accept an offer from him or her. A simple conversation will hopefully help you (and your agent) pinpoint the editor's reason for acquisition--is it rapturous passion for the book? (That's ideal.) Is it because s/he sees commercial potential? (Less ideal--this sounds suspiciously like something that is going to be thrown to the wall to see if it sticks or not, but with no hearts broken if it doesn't make it.) Both? (Ok, that's a good answer.)

What you do not want is an editor who is buying your book to fill a quota, or--another thing that really happens--because your agent pressured him/her (there is good pressure and bad pressure, and some agents have it down perfectly while other agents are all about the sale). Do what you can to ascertain the potential editor's positive enthusiasm. Ask clever questions like, "What exactly in my book appealed to you the most?" or "Did you find any of the characters particularly relatable? Why?" (or less scripted questions you might think of that apply to your situation).

Also--here's a biggie--discuss the editing future of the manuscript with your editor. Make sure s/he has a plan TO edit. During a casual meet/call before book acquisition, an editor may be hesitant to confess all of their ideas (after all, if they don't end up with the book, they don't want to taint the editorial course you'll end up on with someone else. Nor do they want to give up their hard work for free.). Although you're an ideal author (I can just about vouch for you), you should still be suspect if an editor (or agent, for that matter) leads you to believe your book is perfect as is. Anyone who has ever worked on book development knows the value of more than one set of eyes.

So the short themes of this rather long essay (sorry):

-Yes, publishing is changing.
-No, books aren't going to disappear forever.
-Yes, too much is being published, and as a result a lot of it is crappy.
-Yes, when the bubble bursts, jobs will disappear and things will have to change. But.
-We, as industry professionals in our various roles, need to start paying closer attention to content--both its integrity and its quality. We have an incentive to return art and meaning to what we do and to rise above the bad trends that have come to dominate the industry. We need to focus on projects that we can go to the wall for, again and again and again.

I hope to hear your thoughts.


moonrat said...

If less were really more, you'd think I might have written a shorter post.

However, I would like to offer up my own deadline-meeting rush and lack of insight from another editor as the reason for my failure in quality on this post ;)

Bernita said...

Thank you, MoonDear. You've given me a rationalization for my retardation.

Colorado Writer said...

I blogged about my disappointment in the new big box store in my neighborhood. There were 3 shelves of Twilight in the YA section, which left little room for anything else. I have nothing against Twilight, but, I was highly disappointed in the lack of selection in YA and middle grade, in particular. Many copies of new books simply weren't there. And "old books," like My Darling, My Hamburger, etc. can't be found in the big box stores at all.

Not one person commented on my post. And I worried that I was being offensive.

So, thank you for this post.

I am a pre-published children's writer, but I am also a reader. I love buying books in the store, but if I drive all the way there, and the books I want aren't available, then what to do? I have no choice but to shop on Amazon for the books I really want. Damn that one-click shopping.

Precie said...

Thank you, moonie! I should just ditto bernita...but I'm looking at it more optimistically...not as retardation but as gestation. Yeah, my non-writing for the past month has been a gestation period. sure. :) But you make excellent points about all aspects of publishing!

writtenwyrdd said...

Quality trumps quantity in the long run. This is a delightfully informative post, but too dense for a close perusal right now. It sounds right on to me that publishing will likely be changing for the better when the bubble bursts. It will hurt the industry in the short term.

cindy said...

thank you, moonie.

this is an excellent post--
i learned so much.

we are lucky moonie readers! =D

Rachel said...

As someone who's trying to beat the odds to get published in the first place, I can't lie and say that your wonderful post about how editors should be buying fewer books of higher quality made me dance with joy. I mean, I'm already trying my best, and if I can't make it in this glutted market for one spot out of a hundred, how can I make it for one spot of out 12?

Still, once I get over the "whaa-mah-novel-hurts" stage, the reader in me (who's the one responsible for all this writing nonsense in the first place) is thrilled by the idea of better books. I'm all about more choice, but I've been sorely disappointed by several books where the idea was SO GOOD, but then the execution feel flat. How many of those books could have been AMAZING if given the time to grow into their promise? How good could my own novels become if I'm forced to stretch high enough to land that one in twelve spot rather than one in a hundred?

Very very informative post (and in no way too long, I love it when you expound)! Thank you!

Sherri said...

You just gave me the advice I needed, and that is to slow down. Well, actually, I'm already going pretty slowly, but I was really beating myself up about it. Ever since I got an agent I've put a lot of pressure on myself to finish a book in record time, which only serves to freeze me up.

That advice wasn't the point of the post, I guess, but it's what I needed, so thanks. :)

And yeah, books are here to stay.

moonrat said...


Thanks for making your point, and I didn't mean this post to be depressing to the many aspiring writers who read this blog.

I hope this can be a challenge for us (writers, editors, and everyone else) because I do believe that the economy and the backlist will end up favoring the writers who deserve to be favored.

Frankly, I would rather see it take you a long time to get published but see you published well than see you potted out in some quick one-off format without the attention you deserve (from yourself, your editor, your house, reviewers, etc). What would be great is if your first book is one you can build a career off of.

Thanks for making that point, and reminding me to say that!

Colorado Writer said...

What he said.

Quality trumps quantity in the long run.

This is true, but don't you think it is also a little about luck?

And the Tipping Point?

Charles Gramlich said...

I definitely think a lot of problems can be traced to writers writing too fast, although I know from several writers who are publishing that they really feel as if they are being pressured by the publishers through their contracts.

I know that I consider myself a slow writer and that's possible one (small) reason why I'm still published with the small press rather than a larger one. Good or not, I spend a LOT of time editing my own work before I let anyone see it.

The Trouble With Roy said...

Writing, and reading, will never disappear. If people are reading Wikipedia (and I really hope they are not) then they're still reading, just not in a form we're used to.

I used to think that CDs were not going to catch on and that cassette tapes would remain the standard for music, because CDs, despite their higher quality, were not easily malleable like cassette tapes. Cassettes were more durable and, more importantly, did not skip when used and could be made into mixtapes.

I was right, and I was wrong. CDs were a flash in the pan; but tapes were not forever because mp3s came along and now there was music that sounded great and could be put into any order we wanted: cassette tapes only better.

Although it's apples to oranges, the point is that books may not be forever; when something comes along that's a lot like a book and keeps all the features of books that we like, but is better than a book, books will be gone. I'm thinking of things like the Kindle -- which let you carry your book with you and read it in bed and such, but which can carry every book you ever wanted in them.

Books are changing. Cory Doctorow and blog novels are two examples. But writing and reading will always be around.

One other point: you said books are about the author. I disagree. Art is not for the artist but the art-ee, and writing is no different. Some of my best stories I keep in my head becuase they're just for me. But most of them I share with people because I want those people to experience them and interpret them through their own reactions.

Great entry today.

Natalie said...

This post is comforting and terrifying at the same time. Part of me wants to say, "Great, my hopes to be published are now further out of my reach than ever."

But the other part of me says, "While this industry is going to be going through some huge changes--it is going to be better in the end. I would rather have everyone care about my book than just be a published flop. And I would rather read better books in the end, even if mine it not included."

This all reminds me of the Internet frenzy of the late 90s and it's fallout. The companies that survived were the ones that made the biggest impact--now they are bigger than ever.

STM girl said...

I don't think this necessarily means fewer authors or less hope for new authors: established authors will also be writing fewer books. There will be as much space for new talent as there is now, as long as publishers don't have one set of rules for the old timers and a different set for newcomers.

Conduit said...

Great post. A few rambling points of my own...

My agent did a very smart thing when we hooked up over two months ago. He told me if my revisions weren't the best work I could possibly do, he would walk away. It scared the crap out of me, sure, but you better believe I took my time and gave the next draft everything I had. The result is a book that I really feel is better than I ever hoped it could be. I hope an editor will push me just as hard.

On the market in general...

I think a huge lesson can be learned from the music industry, at least in the UK. For a long, long time record labels were just cloning their most successful acts, churning out manufactuered dross for a quick buck. Pitching to the lowest common denominator is fine so long as the lowest common denomintor keeps buying. But the public got sick of plastic boy bands, and sales started to plummet. The advent of the internet and the MP3 turned it around by cutting a more direct route to the end user, and the end user chose quality. Now the record companies have caught on and started nurturing real talent again. The music industry is healthier, at least in terms of quality, than it has been for decades.

I've blogged before about the lack of good original fiction for male readers, with no middle ground between navel-gazing literary works and brainless techno-thrillers. The argument is, of course, that men don't read as much as women. But here's my question: do men really buy less books because they don't read, or because the publishing industry isn't producing the kind of books they want? You could expand that argument to the whole industry - is a decline in sales a problem with the readers, or is it a problem with the industry not providing the end user with the kind of quality material they want to spend their hard-earned money on?

Daniel W. Powell said...

Senora Rata Luna,

You write really well, MR. This is a great post. My agent and I are huddling over the edits on my current project. We've talked at length about our goals and expectations, and I think that it's pretty important to consider our collective(author/agent/editor/publisher) place in this difficult market.

Considering strategy and addressing the quality of the product should go hand in hand. I think the market conditions you described here indicate that it's no longer a "churn it out" living for working writers. That might have been the case in the '70s and '80s, but it's not the world we live in.

In a kind of roundabout way, the things you mention here have already happened to the video industry. I know it's a stretch, but the post I wrote today speaks to this same principle ( I think the corporate takeover of the rental industry can impart some lessons on the publishing industry.

Twelve (man, what a success rate!) seems to prove that boutique publishing has a place in the market.

So what it boils down to is strategy. And confidence. And Luck. Basically all the things we've already always considered.

But your post goes a solid distance in letting those of us smart enough to follow the business side of things know that it takes some time.

The bottom line: What kind of splash do you want to make?

Wakai Writer said...

Your post pleasantly surprised me, because I've felt for a long time that this is how the publishing industry should operate--or at least that there should be a few imprints that operate this way, maybe one for every genre.

And maybe it's just ambition on my part, but personally I'm not flustered at all by the thought of fewer books being published. Like others have said, I'd rather have work good enough to be in the top twelve submissions a publisher gets in a year than get published and have my book lost in the shuffle.

Sure, there's the inevitable risk in publishing fewer books that some good ones will slip through the cracks, but I'm a big believer in the philosophy that if it's good enough it will get picked up, given enough time.

Tomillo said...

As a commercial/technical writer hoping to eventually transition to more creative pursuits, the changes in the publishing world scare the bejeezus out of me.

As a consumer, I am thrilled. As the big box stores have proliferated, I've almost stopped shopping for books in brick and mortar stores. There's just so much crap on the shelves. Of the books I've purchased on impulse in the store in the last five years (almost $1500), more than half have gone unfinished to the Goodwill or the recycle bin, with most of the remainder being given away after I finish with them. I prefer now to shop through book clubs or take recommendations from blogs/online reviews by readers with similar tastes. I have kept almost all of the books I've purchased using such online word-of-mouth methods. Some have fallen apart, I've loved them so much.

As the market shifts to a more quality-oriented model, prices will be able to rise. All the money I've wasted on lousy books can go toward paying for a book I'm more likely to enjoy. I don't like to risk $7.99 in the supermarket for a paperback, but think nothing of spending $25 or $30 for a decent hardcover edition on the recommendation of someone with a solid track record of introducing me to good books. Heck, anybody here NOT pre-order Deathly Hallows?

At the end of the day, these changes are going to benefit readers. A return to quality over quantity will also bring new readers to the ranks, at least in the long run. For those in the industry, make yourselves competitive now. It's going to be a bumpy ride, but the destination is worth it.

Sarahlynn said...

"There will be as much space for new talent as there is now, as long as publishers don't have one set of rules for the old timers and a different set for newcomers."

Ah, but I have a really hard time believing that they won't. The devil you know, the proven quantity, etc. Plus, readers are brand loyal, and I don't mean loyal to the publisher's logo on the spine (sorry) I mean the author's name. Lots of us will buy a new novel by an author we've read before rather than trying something new for $23.95.

The industry changes all sound very positive and exciting, but when I think about fewer titles and a greater focus on bestsellers, it depresses me. Sure, I like the promise of quality over quantity.

But I don't believe it. I think we'll still see a lot of Da Vinci Codes (which probably could have been a MUCH better book with additional revisions and editing but was never going to be beautiful prose) and fewer risks.

It's like the difference between strip malls full of chain and big box stores rather than quaint downtowns full of unique, independently owned shops. There are lots of advantages to the chain stores, but the loss of the smaller stores still leaves the world a little worse off. In my opinion.

jesslovesnyc said...

Great post & insight into the industry. I agree that books are still gonna be around for a long while, the same way magazines are. Nothing beats the physical experience of lying in bed or curled up on a couch and just reading, rather than sitting at a desk going cross-eyed at the computer!

(just a note though - would you consider publishing full posts for your RSS feed? It's difficult to read white on black for me but I really wanna continue reading your blog!)

Lisa said...

"We have an incentive to return art and meaning to what we do and to rise above the bad trends that have come to dominate the industry."

Thank you. This post truly inspires me.

ChrisEldin said...

This is a wonderful post. Not too long at all.

When I worked for a softward development company 15 years ago, I was part of the design team. And since it was a startup company, there was a lot of room for creativity. So I was allowed much room (loved that job).

I led a brainstorming session on the effect of the internet on retail stores (this was before you could buy stuff online). Basically, we all came to the conclusion that if there were such a thing as a virtual store (for example, a clothing store) that people will not stop going to the physical store to buy clothes. People still want to touch the fabrics, hold the sweaters against them and see how the color goes with their hair, etc.
The consensus was that there was room for both.

I think the same model applies to bookstores. I don't think internet sales, the Kindle, etc will replace the physical book, or the physical book store.

I would like to predict that book stores will do as you are saying for a while (ordering fewer books, placing them face out), but we will eventually see a rise in the niche book store. A book store devoted entirely to children's books, for example. Then the face-out issue will no longer be an issue. Demand will actually increase.


JES said...


Not too-long a post at all. Inspiring in the thorny issues it raises -- and how many bloggers get to write a post they can say THAT about, ever?

On other sites I've mentioned a boutique model for publishing's future, and am surprised and delighted to see it creeping into other people's thoughts too -- not necessarily in those words, and not because I came up with it "first." (I'm positive I didn't, but it's such a strange idea that I'm relieved to find the madness shared!) That approach does seem like the only way out of the various traps confronting the industry.

At any point in the book-production chain -- authors, possibly agents, possibly editors :), production facilities, distribution and retailing -- the business remains tied to a broadcasting model. Not That There's Anything Wrong With That: some general reference works, and word-of-mouth must-reads, don't make sense to think of in terms of narrowcasting.

Thanks to the Internet, though, the reading audience is splintering. Readers are being trained to believe (because it's mostly true) that they can find the ONE author/book (or other written work) for which they have a real or perceived need at the moment. And the Internet timeline is like the history of publishing in general, squashed down to a few years. In 2001-02, it was easy (relatively speaking) to get a new blog started and quickly acquire a readership. As the barriers to entry dropped, the blog market -- and later the "social networking" (gag) market -- started to reach saturation point: whimsy can drive readers from site to site nearly as easily as it does from TV channel to TV channel.

I don't think reading per se is threatened. (Actually, from a consumer standpoint, the availability of "good enough" reading isn't a bad thing at all.) But I do believe that writers, agents, editors, publishers, and retailers need to get used to a world in which they're no longer motivated by the prospect of mega-best-sellerdom.

Maybe we'll go backwards in a way. I'd much rather NOT focus on making a killing on a product which takes me years to get to readers -- but rather, to have them pay on a subscription basis for a new, short installment every month or so. (Think HBO mini-series.) Maybe agents and editors are headed in the direction of concert impresarios, with authors drifting from one to another depending on genre or subject -- the "venue" they happen to be playing in -- and readers acquiring confidence that a book, ANY book, introduced by Editor X (or Editor MR) will reliably be a book they want to read, a concert they want to attend.

I don't know. Everything seems on the brink of being up-ended, and not at all in a bad way. As an author, I hope I live long enough to see it happen and maybe to take part. As a reader, wow, who WOULDN'T want to see it happen?

[un-delurking -- and MR thought the original post was long...!]

Chompers said...

Can we really look at Twelve as an example of anything other than what it is--a GIANT publisher backing a superstar editor to produce books slowly? Were the majority of the books pubbed really NY Times best sellers? I can't find any references, and I'm not prepared to do the research. Regardless, even if these books are best sellers, I doubt very highly that Twelve is even breaking even for Hachette. It's like the New York is to Conde Nast-- a loss leader that provides some literary cache.

And who is to decide what is quality? I would hate to see a world where Ben Marcus doesn't get published because someone is spending more time with Christopher Hitchens.

What we in publishing really need to do is figure out a way to bring good books to readers inexpensively. I see so many literary fiction mass market-sized books in bookstores, all pubbed in the 60s and 70s. Why not go back to that paradigm? Publishers could take more chances on mass-market originals, and the portable size makes them enticing to young readers. They could even be marketed as having type too small for your parents to read.

Anonymous said...

Not to dismiss any of this, but how do you know if Twelve has actually been successful? Did he show you his P&Ls? Sure, he may have made seven out of ten books bestsellers, but that doesn't mean he's made any money. Obviously the Hitchens book was big, and surely profitable; Mark Penn, too. But I just looked at the Twelve website, and checked on Bookscan, and most of the books have pretty paltry sales figures--11,480 for Jenny 8 Lee; 9,401 for the 9/11 Commission book; 6,208 for ZOOM; 6,576 for the nuclear jihadist book, etc., etc.

Don't get me wrong--I think less is more makes lots of sense, and Karp seems to be doing some really interesting stuff, well. But at Random House he was known for spending lots of money on books, and there's no way he's making any profit on some of those sales. And if he pumped in a lot of promotion money, the red ink is even darker. So calling Twelve a success on the basis of some of its books scraping bestseller lists may not be a good gauge.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for the insightful comments, Moonrat, especially about the importance of speaking with a potential editor before the sale and ascertaining his/her level of passion for the book. But, given the difficulty of getting published in today's market, should one take to heart the "A bad editor (agent) is worse than no editor (agent) at all" advice? If someone receives only one offer and can tell the editor is only marginally enthused about the book, would it be better to walk away from the deal altogether and put the book to rest? Is a poorly edited/supported book worse than no book at all? For authors with books out on submission, the thought is traumatizing...

Anonymous said...

Hey There Moonrat,

Thank you for the thoughtful post. I agree with a lot of what you are saying, and I would be interested in seeing a post that addresses digital publishing with these same editorial perspectives.

You briefly touched on the role of the book in book format, which I agree will never go away. But it is almost inevitable that most people will do at least SOME of their book reading in digital formats in the very near future. Because digital formats have traditionally had less of an editorial filter than print media, do you have any comments on the editorial/publisher's role in digital books?

Warren Adler said...

I am now convinced that the impact of e-books will be revolutionary and create cataclysmic results to the industry as we know it. Of course, it will happen incrementally and the full effect might not be felt for a few years. Old ways go down hard, but when they do go down, and they are, gravity accelerates the destruction. The law of unintended consequences will surely kick in prompting changes that will boggle the mind as more and more authors, meaning creators of content, an appellation I despise, will surely latch on to the e-book premise, crowding the already cluttered information pipeline. But then, everything has a downside. Nevertheless human nature is unchangeable, the thirst for stories and knowledge is never ending and, whatever the doomsayers might attest, reading words created by imaginative and searching minds will never ever go out of style. The delivery of this brain nourishment and entertainment reading material will, in my opinion, accelerate with delivery by electronic means.

moonrat said...

Thanks for all the great comments. I think some of them have to be addressed in separate posts. So just briefly...

Julianne, I know this takes more fleshing out, but yes, I do believe that the wrong editor/agent is worse than none at all. In a very short answer, how your first book is published basically defines the course of your writing career, so it's really important your debut is published well. If you're stuck in this scenario, I suggest you step back, withdraw your project, and re-workshop. After all, if only one person is willing to work on your book and even their passion and commitment is lukewarm, you're probably not quite ready to be broken to a wider audience (especially if your editor's level of help IS going to be that lukewarm). If your book isn't ready, you just shouldn't publish it. Don't let this discourage you as a novelist--most great novels have staggering levels of editorial development (before and after acquisition). And don't let this discourage you as a writer--there are many ways and venues to write.

My fellow industrials who suggest that perhaps Twelve is not a good model--thanks for these excellent points. It's true that Twelve is hardly a perfect test case, since there is huge corporate funding. However, regardless of our personal business situations, I think a lot of Jon's ideas were useful, applicable, and, at the very least, thought-provoking. Most of us aren't in positions to make drastic changes like deciding to only acquire/edit one book a month (or whatever). But I know Twelve is not the only company/imprint/division to shoot for fewer titles with higher contract values. As for me, I'd personally like to do fewer titles per year, so I could have more time and energy to commit to each one. I would.

Colorado Writer--this issue of choice in bookstores (especially chains) is a whole other kettle of fish. I think I might talk about it later.

moonrat said...

sorry, didn't mean to miss out--

re: ebooks: I'm afraid I actually don't have very strongly formed opinions of the ebook or where it's going. I know I like to save paper and that I do as much of my work digitally as possible, and as a result, that means that I would rather read a BOOK at the end of the day. However, anyone who's here right now is already involved in digital publishing. So I'm not completely uninvolved.

I haven't sold any ebook rights except on books that had already been successful (or were expected to be successful) in a traditional trade format. But will things shift? I'm not sure if e-books (as opposed to e-publishing) will ever become a fiscally viable alternative to traditional authorship. I mean, look at what happened to MP3s etc. The difference for the book industry is that authorship is not quite a performance art you can sell the equivalent of concert tickets to.

I do, however, seem to be in a minority here regarding ebooks. And also I must stress that I don't say this about e-publishing in general. After all, today I had more than 600 people (!!!) read this post. Sure, if this blog were a book, it wouldn't have sold enough copies to pay for its own printing (especially considering it didn't cost any of you to visit). But on the other hand, it's at least 595 more readers than I would have had if it were 20 years ago and I'd written a newsletter and Xeroxed it.

Robin S. said...

Just read this- Chris mentioned you'd talked about some things I was mulling over.

Really good food for thought -especially on the gestation period.


Ello said...

Excellent post. I do think that you are completely right but I don't know how quickly we will end up at this model. But I do believe change must occur for publishing to survive. I hope we don't go to a mere 12 book a year situation. That is too little, but something in between 12 and too much crap that we have now would be great.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for responding so thoughtfully to my comment, Moonrat. You've probably helped umpteen authors' careers by emphasizing caution over blind elation at the possibility of getting published.

Not having dealt with editors yet, I wonder how easy it is to gauge the level of their enthusiasm with any accuracy. Does anyone have any tips or stories to share? Good questions to ask? I mean, I think they would try to hide their lack of enthusiasm; even if they just need a book to fill a quota, they do want you to accept the offer.

Colorado Writer said...

Discussing lack of selection, who gets face out, and big box is a slippery slope, no?

But, in my opinion, selection, just as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

CarrieO said...

Just found your post through Publishers Weekly. Thank you for voicing your smart and vocal opinion! I'm an acquisitions editor. My instincts certainly say that editors need enough time in their schedule to pay attention to all aspects of their books, not just the manuscript. Acquisitions editors are the author's ambassadors, bringing in all the good news of their author's platform and marketability. If editors are too busy looking for more, they won't be able to capitalize on what they already have. Pushing quantity over quality is like going clothes shopping when your closet is already full. When you slow down, you realize how many gems are already in your own closet.

Anonymous said...

I agree 1000% with the poster who questioned the validity of the "successful" claim. The reason publishers publish 1500 titles a year is because they never know where that breakout book is going to come from. Will Stephen King sell? Of course, but will he make back his advance? Not if his agent did his job. Same with Hithchens and the rest of Twelve's list. The "Less is More" title of this post is misleading. Add up all the advances given to the Twelve authors and I'll bet you anything it exceeds the budgets of all but the largest publishing houses. Paying out several million dollars in advances hardly qualifies as "less is more."

Show me a publisher who pays a $5000 advance for a NY Times bestseller and I'll consider that a success. Paying an author $750,000 for a NYTimes bestseller doesn't impress me. Karp gets authors who are brand names because he can write the checks. Show me a publisher who can get these name brands by convincing them that his/her house will do the best with their book, without a huge advance, and I'll be impressed. Take "A Hachette Company" off of Karp's business card and replace it with "A Karp Company" and see how many of those authors he signs.

Anonymous said...

I would further argue (the post above belongs to me as well ;-) that this business model is a nightmare for book publishing.

What Karp and Twelve have done is taken the name brands from another imprint to their own. The supposed success that his titles have had is perhaps not surprising when you look at the names (and what they paid out to get them) but stop to consider the consequences this business model has on the imprint that just lost these 'successes.' You've basically taken the (as close as you can get to a) 'sure-things' and culled them into a brand-new imprint. The result is that you've taken some of the biggest earners from the list at Hachette that would have normally acquired these titles. What happens when you remove the geese that lay the golden eggs from an imprint that relies on that income to fund lesser known, yet possibly worthy and definitely valuable books? Exactly. Those books stop getting acquired. 90% of books lose money. The reason they get published at all is because A. no one knows where that gem is going to come from, B. the publishers have money to play that lottery only due to the fact that they have mega-sellers from name brands. Take away the money-makers from an imprint and guess what? No more non-name brands get book deals. Is that desired result? Less is not more. In fact less will only lead to MUCH, MUCH less, of all books, using this business model. Karp might have a very successful and healthy company with this business model, but unless he shares his income with the other imprints, the overall company is going to be very sick.

Mary said...

Fabulous post! I always feel I should write faster. But we must remember to love and care for our work every step of the way.

JES said...

MR, if you're still listening to this thread and are still considering a later post on the same or a related subject...

You've probably seen this by now but I just read a very interesting column by Robert Crum, the Observer's lit editor, who has retired, looking back on changes in the industry in the last 10 years. Worth a quick read (regardless of any (dis-)agreements you might have with his P.O.V. -- which in any case is from the UK).

kate hopper said...

Thanks for this great post. I'm new to your blog, but I'll be back.

Cliff Burns said...

Frankly, the notion of an editor "collaborating" with me on a series of slow edits fills me with revulsion. Writing is NOT a collaborative venture, it is a solo act. An editor serves the role of glorified proof reader and that's it. I am NOT interested in an editor's input when it comes to characterization, plot points, structure, etc. That's the role of the artist and if a writer presents an editor with an unpolished, unfinished manuscript that requires that level of intervention, he or she is not serving the cause of art--it is an indication of laziness and stupidity and I have no use for such cretins.

Deborah Blake said...

Hiya Moonrat,
Interesting post. My (acquisitions) editor actually found it and pointed it out to me. [I am published in NF, trying to find an agent for a novel, now.]
As an author, I am discouraged by how little room there seems to be for newcomers; in part because all the agents and editors are already so overwhelmed. No matter how good a book is, the odds of someone having the time to read even the first few pages are fairly slim. Still, people do succeed, so would-be authors can only keep plugging away at it.
As a reader, I will never give up buying or reading "real" books. I have no desire to read a book online or on a hand-held machine [and, incidentally, I agree with the person who complained that the white on black is difficult to read...any chance you might change that? pretty please?]. I want to hold the book in my hands. I either buy them, borrow them or get them out of the library, but my overstuffed bookshelves attest to my support of the publishing industry. (Or possibly to my complete lack of self-control. That could be it, too.)
And I (respectfully) disagree with the author who said that editors have no business, um, editing. I know that I am often too close to my own writing to be able to accurately assess which parts work and which parts don't. Yes, I would do the rewrites myself, and there are certain things I wouldn't change no matter what, but a good editor will tell me what rewrites are necessary and whether or not my "fixes" improve the work or not.
Thanks for the great post. I'll be checking back again, now that I've found you.

thedailyelephant said...

hmph. well, i have some very warm and fuzzy thoughts on this matter: 1. whats with the ghostown? sounds like they need to stop being so stingy and hire a few more people so that when the stork drops my manuscript on their desk, they can actually read it. 2. this was an informative post. and don't worry about the length. less is more when it comes to things like cholesterol and mascara but as for the blog, ramble on.

Mike Lindgren said...

Dear Moonrat,

What a splendid post, and how right you are, I think, about nearly everything. I feel that publishing will never fail completely as long as people like you are involved with it. Keep up the good work! With best regards, Mike