Changing times

At a holiday party in midtown the other night, I stood in a huddle with two publishing veterans looking back on the year.

One spoke of a recrudescence that reminds her of the 1980s, those long-ago pre-superstore, pre-Amazon days. “Publishers are again showing energy, thinking outside the box, experimenting. They’re working with indies, and indies are doing great things!”  The other talked of houses too often “dropping the ball and slipping up”, of inadequate editing, poor marketing for too many titles, sloppy metadata, all at a time when self-publishing’s boom makes it “essential” trade publishers get things right. Both, of course, are correct.

The thousand enthusiastic authors who participated in Indies First on Small Business Saturday, and Publishers Weekly’s decision to name American Booksellers Association’s head Oren Teicher and his board “person of the year”, speak to a renewal of focus within, and on, indies.

Yet although the bleed in numbers has been stanched and indies can still work wonders in hand-selling and word-of-mouth, running a successful store, keeping it in sync with an increasingly technocentric culture while ensuring it is attuned to here-and-now community-building is hard, tiring work—simply too tiring for the many owners who sold up in the past 12 months.

Amazon’s hold on the business is reality, whatever the Department of Justice thinks to the contrary. Seattle has made missteps—this year’s exiting of Larry Kirshbaum was a high-profile admission that he did not deliver.

Attachment

Although the growth in e-book devices and e-book sales has slowed overall, B&N’s struggle with the Nook has made clear—if any clarifying was necessary—that, as c.e.o. of Nook Media Mike Huseby put it, selling devices is still “the best way to get content attachment”. Amazon has sold far more e-reading devices, and has far more “attachment”.

Huseby has said the company “is in the device business to stay”, but what rabbit will founder Len Riggio pull out of the hat to reverse losses? Will the c.e.o. slot—empty since William Lynch was dispensed with—be permanently eliminated, or will someone be elevated or brought in, as Lynch was?  There is only so much added pressure on terms that can be exerted on publishers, so much cost-cutting and real-estate dealing. Everyone in the industry is watching and waiting to see what B&N will do in 2014.   

Meanwhile, most agree that with downward pricing exerted by e-books, this year has seen publishing become ever more hit-driven, making corporate pressures to find the next Fifty Shades, Hunger Games, Twilight; the next crop of Kings, Gladwells, Grishams, that much greater. Agents speak of seeing the hit and big-name business at one end and the rise of self-publishing at the other exerting even more squeeze on established authors in the middle.

The big bets business has come back with a vengeance, epitomised by the bidding frenzy and the near-$2m that Knopf is paying for 34-year-old Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire. The hefty novel also put the spotlight on one other phenomenon: despite mobile and internet use being touted as indicators of shorter attention spans—and ipso facto, the need for shorter books—the past year has produced notable 900-page bestsellers from Donna Tartt and Doris Kearns Goodwin, not to mention 500–600 page “striplings” from Kate Atkinson, Amy Tan, and others.

Experimenting

Publishers are experimenting with social media, listening to metrics, data collecting, etc., but this year more and more authors who are not at the very top of the heap say it has become a given that their work includes paying from their own pockets for consultants who will build or spruce up websites; tutor them in how to connect to online communities; or do the trawling, tweeting, blogging and Facebooking for them. Well-known publicity/PR firms who thrived on publishers’ coffers are now mostly paid by authors. So are more and more editors, whom authors engage to whip drafts into shape before their publishers’ editors ever see them.

The year that was can’t be left without a word—and a question—about Penguin Random House. Thus far, Markus Dohle has gained high marks for going slowly, but that cannot continue forever. Many look at the merger and see RH having an unspoken advantage, but a difficult few years lie ahead for both constituent parts. Random used to have one owner to satisfy. Even though it is widely assumed that Bertelsmann will take over the whole enterprise, the complications of having to satisfy two corporate masters cannot be overestimated. Both want the company to grow, but three years from now, will Pearson and Bertelsmann’s interests be so closely aligned?  Further questions will no doubt arise in 2014.

Gayle Feldman is The Bookseller's US correspondent