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The changing face of book publishing

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Book publishing used to be a genteel profession. Those who entered it weren't seeking big salaries and profits, but the opportunity to spend their lives editing and promoting good books, regardless of the size of their projected audiences.

Stephanie Gross

Caldecott Prize Winner David Wisniewski displays one of his illustrations during the "Children and Families Evening" March 22.

(Below) Glassbook Inc. distributed small compact disks free at a book panel. The disk contains software for reading electronic books on a computer.

That's becoming difficult. With most of the major publishing houses having been bought by media conglomerates such as Bertelsmann and ViaCom in recent years, the industry has become increasingly more market-driven.

Two Virginia Festival of the Book panels discussed this climate, and the concentration of the retail market into a few large bookstore chains, and ways to resist it. One featured seasoned editors seeking to publish the kinds of authors they have always championed, despite the growing vociferousness of their marketing departments. The other included advocates of Internet publishing as a way to distribute books the New York publishing industry rejects.

Edwin Barber, vice-chair and senior editor at W.W. Norton and Co., the last major publisher that is independent and employee-owned, said that the media conglomerates that bought publishing houses didn't realize that book publishing is different from most other businesses, given the difficulty in predicting which books will sell and the typically low profit margin.

Because of the pressure to make publishing houses perform like other types of businesses, marketing departments have greater say than formerly in determining whether a book should be acquired.

"Marketing people determine which books are suitable for [the large chains]," said Random House editor Jason Epstein, who has worked in publishing for 50 years. "Marketers don't read. They sell authors, not books. ... They use the word 'brand' to describe a product, which has nothing to do with serious books."

Although it has always been difficult for editors to predict which books will do well, he added, many great books started with small advances and marketing budgets.

"The emphasis on marketing has gotten so excessive, there's a rebellion by readers," said Carol Janeway, editor-in-chief at Knopf, a formerly independent publisher that is now one of 25 imprints at Bertelsmann-owned Random House. "They take pleasure in finding and [popularizing] books that haven't been shoved down their throats."

Besides placing too much emphasis on marketing, she said some of the conglomerates have rearranged publishers so each imprint handles a different type of book. "It's a recipe for disaster. ... They destroy the chemistry of the list" each house publishes, failing to note the importance of a kind of interdisciplinary cross-fertilization editors need to stay vital.

Another "terrible mistake" made by some conglomerates was selling the publishers' college departments, which had generated a reliable income, Barber said. "They're drawing an artificial distinction between trade and college publishing," he said, adding that many trade books are taught in college courses.

The panelists also deplored how the large chain bookstores, which sell 75 percent of books bought in this country, rely on previous sales figures in determining how many books they'll order. An editor might be certain that an author's third novel is a "breakout book," but if the figures for her previous books are too low, he may not be able to convince his company to publish it.

Katherine McNamara, editor and publisher of Archipelago, said she was motivated to create this online journal by her frustration with the way trade publishing in New York had gotten "conglomeratized and market-disoriented.

"I started seeing estimable mid-list authors, the backbone of American good reading, who weren't being published because their sales projections weren't high enough."

She saw the Web as a way to distribute these writers, as well as those published by small, independent presses, expanding their range of readership.

"I feel the industry is on the verge of a radical transformation. The possibilities of electronic publishing mean a whole new world is on the horizon," Epstein said.

Americans have entered that new world in droves since March 14, as they've rushed to buy or download for free a 66-page novella that best-selling author Stephen King made available electronically. Over 500,000 people requested it from online booksellers, and sales of other electronic books have soared.

"This proves there's a market for e-books," said Mary Ellen Heinen, co-founder of Glassbook Inc., which creates software for reading electronic books on a computer.

She foresees a burgeoning market for e-books. "We want to improve on the experience of the paper book. One of our programs has a built-in dictionary, so you can click on any word in the book and its definition will come up, she said. "Someone going on a trip can take 25 books in a [two-and-a-half pound] e-book reader."

Electronic books also offer possibilities for authors initially rejected by the print world to eventually sell their books to it. Novelist M.J. Rose, who was in the audience, described how she published her novel, Lip Service, online in 1998, after New York publishers bypassed it for being "a little too erotic, a little too intelligent, a little too different."

Rose spent months marketing her book online to female-friendly Web sites, and, after four months, it was the best-selling book on's Advantage program, which makes available the works of unpublished authors, filmmakers, musicians and video producers. An editor at Doubleday saw the book online and bought it, publishing it last August.

"Being rejected by the New York publishing community is no longer a big deal," she said. "If you're willing to spend time looking for your audience on the Web, you can sell your book."

Writing local history has its highs and lows

Book groups: add this to your list


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