Don’t Be a Publishing Stereotype

Marian SchembariBy Marian Schembari, Contributing Editor, Digital Book World

My experiences with books are almost identical to those of most book lovers who dare to pursue a job in publishing: Helping my dad turn the pages of whichever picture book was that evening’s must-read-five-hundred-times-or-else-I-couldn’t-possibly-fall-asleep-Daddy…

Curling up with my favorite Roald Dahl… Counting down the days until the next Harry Potter and then waiting in line at midnight so I’d be the first of my friends to read it… My relationships with books have always stemmed not just from the story itself, but from what the physical book represented during a point in my life. Books are powerful and we all know and recognize and love that.

Except I’d kill for a Kindle.

The longer I’m in publishing, the more I realize there are two sides to this so-called digital revolution. First, there are the innovative techies with an eye for digital marketing. These are the cold-hearted hotshots who don’t swoon at the smell of books, hate libraries and get their kicks by drowning puppies. Then there are the editors who have been in the business for decades – those who are resistant to change and have an eerie resemblance to that dusty book they so passionately defend. They also smell like your grandmother’s house.

Except the thing is, I have yet to meet anyone who actually resembles either of these stereotypes. No one gets into publishing unless they love the smell of books and unless they, too, are defined by what they read as a child. You couldn’t possibly succeed in this business without an almost unhealthy love of the written word. But the time has officially arrived where you can’t succeed unless you’re also an innovative hotshot. It’s these people, the in-betweeners, who are going to figure out a new publishing model, not content with maintaining the currently precarious balance between robot and dinosaur.

Ami Greko said it best: “Instead of wondering how we can adapt an older model to suit new technology, maybe we should think about what getting a book signed represents to a consumer, and see if there’s a way an ereader could make it better.”

Honestly. I really couldn’t say it better.

As for who I am and why the hell you should care, I essentially forced myself into this industry. Because – of course – nobody is hiring, my dream of working in publishing kind of fell flat on its ass. And since I usually don’t take no for an answer, I used social media, tools that are already playing a critical part in every industry, to get hired. Three months of traditional book PR later and now I’m a freelance “specialist” in social media for authors, publishers and newspapers; aka someone who knows how to work a computer. Kind of like Superwoman trying to save the world.

Except here it’s an industry. One I absolutely refuse to believe is dying.

Marian Schembari digs social media and books. Usually at the same time.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Be a Publishing Stereotype

  1. Andrew Malkin

    Good opening post. I like the A Greko comment and it made me think of how the CEO of Bayer Healthcare attacks problems with an eye to the consumer and brings in talent from other industries–” I ask a lot of basic questions, always keeping in mind, what does the customer need and how do I need to think about those needs from a marketing and business standpoint? Then I supplement my team from the outside. I don’t hire experts from the industry, but rather look for people who have functional skill sets and leadership and management skills that translate to the industry. I then figure out how to put a team together and have them work in a very collaborative way.” Digital content, consumers want convenience (ubiquity/interoperability), functionality (good navigation so its intuitive UI/optimized for a screen size/ability to get lost in the book), and MIGHT pay more for added value/utility/design (enhancements etc) and of course, a good price.
    I have to challenge you on the lack of stereotypes. There are some smart digital “thought leaders” if you will that consult and opine but haven’t been working inside a house of late to actually execute or navigate the politics/bureaucracy. They know the devices, formats, but it is an insular crowd. The good thing is that the editorially-oriented people are excited and rapidly learning more about digital so we will have more of a population that knows the content and enough about the technology and platforms. Agents are in that lot too.
    I know this is an unwelcome, minority view but I really believe the book business needs people with marketing and production acumen honed from other businesses to apply and adapt to digital initiatives. Yes, our industry can be considered idiosyncratic, small (in revenue and budgets) so it isn’t a good fit for many coming in from other fields (I’ve seen former consultants leave in frustration but others are now CEOs for major houses). I know I sound grumpy here but I also have been surprised how the collaboration and communication revolving around digital moves at a publishing house (larger in particular) seem siloed. Publishers have the content and the P&L but may not know all of the strategic options and the digital gurus inside lack broad decision-making abilities.

  2. gabriela

    I´m lucky enough to be as much into actual paper books as into technology in all its forms… and I´m also lucky enough to be working with both things at the moment! Definitely not a stereotype 🙂

  3. Debra Scacciaferro

    Dear Marian,

    There is not two sides to this issue. There are three — the writer, the one who actually provides the content, is often ridiculously left out of this equation.

    Here’s the issue the way writers see it. The old system is that publishers give writers an advance, based on a number of factors, including, how llong it takes a writer to actually research and write a book. The publisher takes on the cost and risk of editing, printing, distribution and keeping track of sales. (Some writers also self-published, which represents a small number ) The price of the resulting book was based on a number of factors. Not all books are the same, not all priced should be based the same. A book is not a widget or a mass-produced plate — it is the content of the book, not the size or number of pages, that represents the worth of the book. Books can take between six months to six years to research, write and edit.
    Over the last twenty years, as bookstores were gobbled up and megabookstores gained a monopoly, the bookstores dictated the price of books based on undercutting the price of their competitors — essentially putting small bookstores of out business by the hundreds. Publishers gave large orders ridiculously high discounts, and often the writer’s contracts stipulated that writers would get smaller royalties on discounted books. And that publishers also loose money.

    Then came Amazon. On the positive side, now anybody could get access to millions of books even if they didn’t live near a bookstore. On the negative side, Amazon discounted books further, and sold “used” books side by side with the new, further undercutting the amount of money the publisher and author make. If 2,000 customers would have bought a particular book, but bought each other’s used copies, the publisher and the author make nothing from those used books — and nothing from the 2,000 used copies, in which Amazon or the owner of the copy make all the money. So the publishers have been making the advances to authors smaller and smaller, and many authors are finding it harder to make a living in a field where the average writer makes $60,000 a year (only the top small percentage of authors are getting $100,000 or more per book, despite the hype you see in the media).

    Now comes along the E-book. The misconception is — oh, there’s no cost for paper and ink, so the price should be $9.99 for all the books, or even, as I’ve seen many Amazon readers post — “I’m not paying more than $5 for an e-book, those publishers make enough money.” Amazon compounds that misconception by pretending it’s giving e-book writers a better deal than the writer’s publisher — 35% instead of 10 or 4 % in a standard contract. Except that Amazon is not giving writers an advance so that they can write the book. Why is Amazon giving the writer for the right to “publish” the E-book? They don’t edit, they don’t give advances, they barely format the book. Yes, they have a right to some percentage, since it cost them money to create, maintain and run the website and e-book format. But is Amazon entitled to 65%??? The 35% is for the publisher, which leaves the author with nothing, unless they bypass the publisher.

    The less money for the publishers, the less money for advances — which has already happened. The less money for advances, the less books of quality, because a professional writer will need to do more books to make a living to pay the rent, food and car payments at a time when writers are being asked to pay for everything from web pages, to spend more time on Twitter and Facebook.

    It’s called, strangling the goose that laid the golden egg.

    As a former reporter, I saw what happened to newspapers when they went online. People now don’t understand why they should have to pay for content. “I can get it online for free.” What they forget is that someone has to go out there and collect the news that then everyone from AOL to bloggers pass on for free. Newspapers are laying off staff left and right, cutting back, and soon may be out of business completely. Because it takes money to pay enough reporters to go out there and dig up the news and come back and report it.

    E-books seem to have the same fate in store for the publishing industry, Marian, which is why you can’t get a job. When Amazon customers feel they should pay $5 for every e-book, or worse, get it for free, they will end up with nothing of quality. Each book is an individual piece of art, which is then mass produced to reach as many people as possible while still allowing the author to make a living writing them. When the vast majority of serious writers can’t even make a modest living doing that anymore, there will be still be books, but mostly junk, written quickly or written by an amateur. Among the dross there may be a few nuggets of gold, but I think the quality of books and of American discourse, which is already in the sewer, will not improve.

    I applaud MacMililan for finally taking a stand. I wish more people reporting on this issue would actually ask the Amazon CEO this: What do you bring to the process of writing a book that you deserve the lion’s share of an e-book, instead of the writer and the publisher who is risking advance money to help that book become a reality? Or, a more important question — if you continue to gut the system that supports books getting written, what will you have left to sell?

    Hope this gives you and your colleagues a bit more insight into the true worth of books — and the people who actually create them. Don’t forget the writers.

  4. Nancy Frederich

    I am a small pubisher. I believe in giving a chance to many great writers who would nevet have a chance to be published by a ‘btg house’, and to those who just need to leave a legacy to thier family.



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