The Myth of a Golden Age of Books

Amazing fact of the day: in 1931 there were just 500 or so real bookstores in America, and two-thirds of the country had no bookstores at all.

“In the entire country [in 1931], there were only some four thousand places where a book could be purchased, and most of these were gift shops and stationary stores that carried only a few popular novels.… In reality, there were but five hundred or so legitimate bookstores that warranted regular visits from publishers’ salesmen (and in 1931 they were all men). Of these five hundred, most were refined, old-fashioned ‘carriage trade’ stores catering to an elite clientele in the nation’s twelve largest cities.”

Furthermore, two-thirds of American counties — 66 percent! — had exactly zero bookstores. It was a relatively tiny business centered in the urban areas of the country. Did some great books come out back then? Of course! But they were aimed only at the tiny percentage of the country that was visible to publishers of the time: sophisticated urban elites. It wasn’t that people couldn’t read; by 1940, UNESCO estimated that 95 percent of adults in America were literate. No, it’s just that the vast majority of adults were not considered to be part of the cultural enterprise of book publishing. People read stuff (the paper, the Bible, comic books), just not what the publishers were putting out.

— Alexis Madrigal

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Happy reading

Penguin Classics ad

This new ad campaign for Penguin Classics is lovely. (More here.)

Inside Random House

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The original death of publishing


The New Yorker

The New Yorker

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Support your indie bookstore!

“There are lots of reasons to support local businesses, whether it’s mom-and-pop hardware stores or neighborhood farmers’ markets. But when you buy from an independent bookseller, you’re doing something more. You’re helping to keep alive an important force in making our national literary culture more diverse, interesting and delightful. Your shelves are full of books that wouldn’t be there if not for indie booksellers you’ve never met, struggling to get by in shops you’ve never heard of. That’s why it’s so important to support the one next door.”

Laura Miller


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The Death of Print

See if you can discern the subtle pattern in these numbers. (Via.)

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Making books is fun!

“This man is an author. He writes stories. He has just finished writing a story. He thinks many people will like to read it. So he must have the story made into a book. Let’s see how the book is made.”

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Steichen at war

Getting Set for the Big Strike on Kwajalein, 1943

Preparing for the strike on Kwajelein
Photo by Edward J. Steichen aboard the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16), November 1943

via melisaki

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The end of the shy author?

What usually gets lost in the perpetual refrain about authors becoming their own marketers is that there’s no particular connection between writing talent and a gift for self-promotion.

— Laura Miller, “Writer, Sell Thyself”

In a world where authors are expected to self-promote — and someday, perhaps, self-publish — would Salinger or Harper Lee or Thomas Pynchon, reclusive introverts all, have found an audience? Are we about to lose the writer, however brilliant, whose only gift is writing? Read the article.

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Seth Godin: Ten Bestsellers

Screen Shot 2013-03-07 at 2.40.57 PM

This video is not new. It is Seth Godin’s presentation at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in February 2008. But I loved it at the time and still do. It is one of the few discussions of the digital publishing revolution that get me excited about the future rather than just scaring the hell out of me. Godin is a great speaker, self-promoter, and motivator, but there’s plenty of ideas here for ordinary mortals, too.

I recommended the video to a writer-friend today who is gearing up to promote his book, then I had trouble tracking it down on the web, mostly because I could not remember the name of it. So here it is, John: “10 Bestsellers: Using New Media, New Marketing, and New Thinking to Create 10 Bestselling Books.” Enjoy.

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Neil Gaiman: Web piracy is good publicity

I have always wondered why people become so agitated about pirated music or movies but have no problem with lending books. Why is it “stealing” to listen to a song or watch a movie without paying but perfectly okay to borrow my books and read them without paying? We even use tax dollars — my tax dollars! — to support this scandalous book-lending via public libraries.

I understand the technical argument. Borrowing a book does not involve making an unlicensed copy of that book, the thing that copyright specifically forbids. But in the case of books, that is a distinction without a difference. One does not need to own a copy of a book to enjoy the full benefit of it; one only has to borrow it. That is because books most often are read only once then never again, at least not for several years. So possessing the book for a few days or weeks is as good as owning your own copy, unlike a song, which you will likely want to listen to over and over if you like it. Of course, this excludes the value of books as display objects — “books as furniture.” But then, the current frenzy about internet piracy is about illicit digital copies only, and you can’t very well display an MP3 file either.

I am not advocating for piracy and certainly not for closing the public libraries, only for keeping things in perspective. There has never been — and should never be — an ironclad rule of copyright that demands a payment for every single use of an artwork. It violates society’s interest in the free flow of ideas, yes, but, as Neil Gaiman points out, it is also not in the artist’s interest to have his every creation locked up out of sight behind a pay wall.


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Copyright Run Amok

Last week I reviewed the copy-edited manuscript of Defending Jacob, the last step before the manuscript is sent to the production department. Production will lay out the text in proper book format, a stage known as “galleys.” So copy editing is really the last chance to make changes before the book designers take over. It is about cleaning up details: grammar, typos, internal consistency (things like dates and characters’ names), and fact-checking. (Technically, you can still make changes after the book has gone to galleys, but it is more expensive. If the bill gets high enough, the standard Random House contract permits the publisher to ask the author to foot the bill himself.)

Copy editing is also the time when I make sure I have permission to use any copyrighted material that is quoted in my book. It is the author’s responsibility to secure reprint rights — and to pay for them.

In the case of Defending Jacob, there was one such quotation, which was used as an epigraph on a section title page. The quote was from H.G. Wells’s 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, which predicts events from 1933 through the end of the twentieth century. Here was the quote:

In 1900, a visitor from another sphere might reasonably have decided that man, as one met him in Europe or America, was a kindly, merciful and generous creature. In 1940 he might have decided, with an equal show of justice, that this creature was diabolically malignant. And yet it was the same creature, under different conditions of stress.

To use these three sentences, I had to determine, first, whether the book was still protected by copyright. If the copyright had expired, the book would be in the public domain and I could quote from it freely — freely in both senses.

No such luck. It turned out, The Shape of Things to Come was originally due to enter the public domain in the U.S. in 1989, but the copyright was extended for another 20 years in 1976 by the federal Copyright Act, then extended again for another 20 years by the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. So The Shape of Things to Come — a book that has been out of print for years now — will not enter the public domain in the United States until 2028, 95 years after it was first published, 82 years after the author’s death. (A good summary of current copyright rules is here.)

Continue reading →

Great Moments in Publishing

The Girls in Publishing


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Why the novel will survive the disappearance of the book

Media evolution, of course, does claim casualties. But most often, these are means of distribution or storage, especially physical ones that can be transformed into digital bits. Photographic film is supplanted, but people take more pictures than ever. CD’s no longer dominate, as music is more and more distributed online. “Books, magazines and newspapers are next,” predicts Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the M.I.T. Media Lab. “Text is not going away, nor is reading. Paper is going away.”

New York Times, 8.22.10

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Not-So-Random House

Candide colophon

What is that little house in Random House’s logo? The New York Public Library explains (via):

In 1928, Random House commissioned the great American artist Rockwell Kent (1882–1971) to illustrate Voltaire’s Candide as the first book under its imprint. The volume’s colophon page contains the image of a house — intended to be where Candide and his companions lived and where they cultivated the final garden of the tale — which became the company’s logo, still in use today. Kent’s Candide is one of the landmarks of the American illustrated book, with specially made paper from France, a new typeface from Germany, and multiple illustrations, all exquisitely integrated. Random House issued a limited edition of 1,470 copies and another 95, these hand-colored in the artist’s studio.

Now, about that Bantam rooster…

Image: Kent’s colophon page for the 1928 Candide, number 83 of a limited edition of 95 copies hand-colored in Kent’s studio. Approximate value of the rare hand-colored books: $25,000. Image source: Felt & Wire.

Read more on Candide, including the Rockwell Kent edition, at the NYPL’s site for the recently closed exhibit on the book. About Voltaire himself, look here.

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How to design a book advertisement

My old friend John Kenney is a brilliant ad writer. He has created national campaigns that you would instantly recognize and Super Bowl spots, and traveled widely to research and shoot them. After twenty-plus years in advertising, he has a pretty good sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Last weekend John sent me an email that I’ve been thinking about ever since. He pointed out a two-page ad that appeared in last week’s Times Book Review for Henning Mankell’s new thriller, The Man from Beijing. The ad was unusual in that it consisted almost entirely of a long, closely printed excerpt from the opening chapter of the book, framed by an eye-catching red border. John’s comment (which he has oh-so-graciously allowed me to reprint here):

The really smart thing — rule 1 of a good ad — is that it shared the benefit of the product with me. A review doesn’t do that. I was able to read the words, get a feel for it, experience it.

This is the sort of thing that seems obvious once you hear it. Who has ever bought a book because of a cherry-picked snippet from a review? Or because of a blurb? (I once heard Robert Parker say, only half joking, that he would read a book or blurb it, but never both.) Even the graphics in an ad, while they may get you to stop skimming long enough to look at it, do not allow you to experience the book itself. Yet these are the staples of book advertising: reviews, blurbs, and pretty pictures.

Of course, there are budget and thus space constraints with print ads. Not every book will be supported by a two-page spread in the Times Book Review. Still, it is odd that publishers insist on building their ads out of things that mean so little to the target audience when, with a simple cut-and-paste, they could let the reader try out the product in a way that car makers, say, cannot.

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The Perils of Advertising

Rummaging through my computer recently, I came across this ad for The Strangler. It ran in the New York Times and the Boston Globe on February 6, 2007, and in the weekly Boston Phoenix at the same time. There was a radio spot airing that week, as well, which was very fun to hear while riding in the car. Some other advertising, too.

An ad like this is every writer’s dream, of course, and I’d be a fool not to appreciate it. But there is a catch-22: you cannot sell books without publicizing them; but the more you spend on publicity, the more copies you have to sell to turn a profit for your publisher. When you go to sell your next book, the publisher will be looking with a gimlet eye at a balance sheet showing not just how many books you sold but whether you actually made any money. Obviously, advertising expenses count. From an accountant’s perspective, it is better to profit on 25,000 copies sold than to lose on 250,000.

Obviously this sort of old-school dead-tree advertising is going to become quite rare in the grim new low-margin world of publishing. No doubt it already has. It just does not make sense to pay top dollar to broadcast your message to millions of readers in the Times when only a tiny fraction of that audience is your actual target. In theory, at least, the web promises pinpoint accuracy in aiming your ad, and costs far less. The shotgun approach makes sense for mass consumer products like soap and beer. For books, you’re probably better off with a rifle. Or, budgets being what they are, a pea shooter. Most readers, I suspect, are more influenced by word-of-mouth from a trusted friend than by ads like this one, anyway.

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The View from Below: A midlist author watches the ebook wars

This week, the battle over Amazon’s bid to corner the market on ebook sales — to establish itself as the iTunes of digital books — seemed to turn a corner. On one side, Amazon announced Steven Covey will abandon S&S to grant ebook rights to Amazon. On the other side, a consensus began to emerge in the publishing community that Amazon’s deep discounts on ebooks amount to predatory, possibly illegal monopoly-building — an effort to starve out its competitors. (You can read the gory details here, here, here, and here.)

In the end, I don’t think Amazon will succeed in becoming the iTunes of ebooks, not because Amazon is well-intentioned (it is not), but because it does not have the leverage. Apple was able to dominate digital music because of the iPod, which so clearly leapfrogged its competitors in terms of design, ease of use, and wide acceptance that it put Apple in position to dictate terms to its suppliers. It was hardware that won Apple its monopoly. Amazon has no such advantage. The Kindle is no iPod. To me, the Kindle seems primitive, clumsy, and ugly. It does some things well, but inevitably something better will come along, and soon, from a company with a better knack for design and technology. Smart phones may already be a better platform for reading ebooks. If nothing else, smart phones have the advantage of ubiquity: millions of people already have one in their pocket.

So I understand the publishing community’s hysteria over Amazon’s monopoly bid, but I don’t quite share it — not yet, anyway.

What I do not understand is the blithe, almost gleeful fatalism that tech geeks seem to feel about the struggles of traditional publishers to cope with the leap to digital.

Among the propeller heads, the prevailing view seems to be that Big Publishing is a horse-and-buggy business. Sudden technological change has rendered it irrelevant. All those editors and publicists in gaudy Manhattan offices — no longer needed. Ebook is to Big Publishing as asteroid was to dinosaur. Pity, but that’s the way it goes. End of story.

Certainly that’s the way it goes with web businesses. Amazon poleaxed the brick-and-mortar bookstores because it found a more efficient way to sell books. So if Amazon (or whoever) succeeds in cornering the ebook space, too, why sweat it? To the fastest, leanest, nimblest competitor go the spoils — and Lord knows, Big Publishing is none of those things.

To techies, it is all about maximizing efficiency. They wonder, What exactly do traditional publishing houses add to a writer’s work except cost — the added cost built into the price of every book to support this bloated, doomed, lumbering, inefficient, lazy, parasitic, contemptible industry? To them, Big Pub is precisely the sort of pathetic dinosaur the web specializes in obliterating.

Except that it’s not. Because publishers are not in the business people think they are, at least they are not only in that business. When people are asked what exactly it is that publishers do, the answers that usually come back are “gatekeeping” (filtering the publishable manuscripts from the dreck) and the various sub-tasks involved in manufacturing books (editing, book design, publicity, etc.). Those things are valuable, but if that was all traditional publishers did, I would say, Bring on the asteroid. There is probably more to be gained in the super-efficiencies of running the book business according to the ordinary Darwinian rules of the web. But those are not the most important things publishers do. Not even close.

What Big Publishing is, collectively, is a marketplace for new writing. Not a retail market like the one Amazon has created for ebooks, but an investment market, a futures market. Think of it as Silicon Valley for books, with every publisher a venture capitalist searching for the Next Big Thing.

VC’s invest in a portfolio of start-ups and nurture them through lean, money-losing years. The hope is that all will someday turn a profit and somewhere in that portfolio will be a breakout hit or two that justifies the whole risky endeavor. That is exactly how publishing houses invest in young writers. And like any good VC, Random House (or whoever) hedges its risk by investing in as many promising start-ups as it can find, betting that somewhere in its portfolio of young, talented, promising writers are a few that will break out and become hits.

Without this sort of start-up capital, there is no way an unproven writer could keep at it for long. I have never made a nickel for my publisher. Yet Random House continues to invest in me while I improve my writing, painstakingly build my readership, and grow my list of titles. At this point in my career, I need the help. So, like any entrepreneur, I trade off a lot of upside — the bulk of my royalties — in exchange for the money that enables me to build my business.

The question is, who will play the venture capitalist’s role if Amazon (or whoever) wins and books move to the iTunes model?

Consider Steven Covey and his new deal with Amazon. It may seem unfair that part of Covey’s earnings should go to pay for the stable of prospects on Simon & Schuster’s midlist. But it is only unfair in hindsight. S&S took a chance on Covey once by fronting him an advance. For all anyone knew, Covey might have ended up on the midlist himself, and S&S would be out the cash. In this case, it turned out to be a good bet. But Covey does not want to share the downstream profits. That makes perfect sense from Covey’s point of view, but does it make sense from ours, the reading public’s? (Yes, yes, I’m a self-interested member of the reading public. So what?)

Of course, we’ve already seen the iTunes model in action. Emerging young musicians in the brave new world of digital music can’t earn a living by recording anymore. They give away their MP3’s and survive by touring constantly (an option not open to writers: there is no market for our live performances, understandably).

So what? Life is tougher for young musicians. Should the public care? Well, has the quality or quantity of new, emerging musicians declined? I think so. The musicians may be out there, but you won’t find them on iTunes, not easily anyway. There is limited space on the landing page of the iTunes store, so most of those prime pixels go to established acts (today it’s Alicia Keys, Kesha, and an app for the movie “Avatar”). When there is only one record store in town and the store is that big, it’s awfully tough for a new band to get noticed. So, out on tour they go. And we music-buyers wind up listening to the same few bands over and over, often the same ones we’ve been listening to for years, or the ones anointed by Starbucks or American Idol as worthy of our attention. That is not a free or efficient market.

It is not clear how the iTunes model maps to book publishing. If there are fewer advances for emerging writers in an ebook world, will it make a difference? There will always be writers, after all. There always have been. There will always be a determined few willing to pay any price for their art, endure any hardship to keep writing. And a lucky few, an infinitesimal minority, will always be profitable right from the start. But the fact is, most writers need time to develop their talent and find their audience. Some percentage simply won’t be able to stick it out long enough. We can argue about how big that percentage might be, but we’d all be guessing. What we know for sure is that, without Big Publishing to act as patron, a lot of great books will never be written. Everybody okay with that?

Look, I don’t pretend to be objective about this. Obviously I have a stake in the current industry model. I’m one of those midlist guys still playing for time. So far, Random House, my publisher in the U.S., has stuck with me. They take their winnings from guys like Lee Child and bet it on a bunch of guys like me. If the current model breaks and writers have to scrape by as musicians do, who knows? Maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t. I have two kids. If push comes to shove, I’ll do what is in their interests, not mine. If that means doing something else, so be it. Maybe I have a great book in me, maybe I don’t. Maybe I’ll get the chance to find out, maybe I won’t. What matters is that there are a lot of writers like me, writers with potential who haven’t put it all together yet for one reason or another. Someday a few of us us will do it, a lucky few will come up with that Big Book — if we’re still writing.

That’s what’s at stake in Amazon’s big play this week.

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Publishing Agonistes

The major publishers are in a difficult position: they are service companies that function like manufacturing companies — 20th century businesses in a 21st century economy. The control of the book business is gradually slipping out of their hands.

— William Petrocelli, “No One Warned the Dinosaurs. Will Anyone Warn the Publishers?”

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Lukewarm Kindling

Anthony Grafton on the Kindle, which he loves but describes as “reading free of visual delight”:

Open an old-fashioned book — a book published by Zone this year, or, even better, by Alfred A. Knopf thirty or forty years ago, or, better still, one printed by Aldo Manuzio a few hundred years before that — and you enter a Gesamtkunstwerk. Traditionally, the typography and layout and illustrations of properly printed books were chosen by intelligent people to complement the text. A number of publishers still treat design as integral part of a book. Kindle does not. … Kindle cannot replicate, for example, the physical pleasure inspired by the feel of Knopf’s beloved deckle edges and the look of his preferred Granjon type.


I suspect that the Kindle will prove to be the Betamax to some other company’s VHS (perhaps the legendary Apple tablet, with a Kindle reader built in?). Meantime, though, I am pleased to have it — and happy to think the reassuring thought that, endlessly inventive monkeys as we are, we will find ways to make the new media as rich and strange and complex as the old ones.

Read the whole thing here (PDF, subscription required).

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