The cold realism of a former publisher

Daniel Menaker, former Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House and fiction editor of The New Yorker writes in the Barnes & Noble Review about the realities of publishing, including the dynamic and paradoxical pressures of choosing books that will produce a market success. A must read for BooksAhead readers, as it strips away the mythos of publishing to reveal the true business. For example:

4. Financial success in front-list publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not. Yes, you may be able to count on a new novel by Surething Jones becoming a big bestseller. But the bestseller lists paint nothing even remotely like the full financial picture of any publication. Because that painting’s most important commerce color is the size of the advance. The second-most important color is the general level of book-buying. The volume of sales of the No. 6 book on the New York Times fiction bestseller list in 2009 is significantly lower than the volume of the No. 6 bestseller five years ago. Four and three and two years ago, too, almost certainly.

Highly recommended. Read it, think. Menaker describes a rapid tectonic shift to e-reading, over the next decade, which will catch a lot of attention in the e-book blogs, but this is not a column about e-books. It’s about the current limits on editorial investment and their potential to change.

UPDATE: Mike Shatzkin has a typically penetrating and thoughtful piece about Menaker’s article.

The myth of the perfect copy and the future of publishing

There’s a powerful myth in publishing: A copy of a book can be perfect every time. The transition from scribal reproduction to printed books, for example, is supposed to mark a break in the history of knowledge, when “perfect copies” became ensured each time a book went to print. However, it turns out that print compositors, the people (both men and women were active as compositors even in the 16th century) who laid out type, made mistakes or “corrections” to the author’s text quite frequently—at approximately the same rate scribes introduced changes into their texts. Not only from edition to edition, but within editions, because proofing went on while printing continued. The same “book” from one copy to the next, might have different versions of the text because error-correction got out of synch with printing and pagination.

In that context, the ongoing discussion of poorly edited copy and lousy, lazy layouts in e-books takes on a new, but familiar, cast: One of the ways publishers will eventually find a reliable business is by solving the problem of “authority,” the standard on which printed book publishing emerged from the “pyratical practices” of the early print era, when pages were badly copied or simply stolen from the printers by employees and assembled into cheap and usually corrupted editions.

By authority, I do not mean what most of the amateur vs. professional journalism debaters mean: The power or right to declare reality is as they see it. Rather, I mean it in the sense of “speaking with authority,” building a reputation for reliability and accuracy, for service to the reader and authors, in order to make the product you sell—a book—the desirable first choice by a potential buyer. In the 1500s, publishers did this by adding their “mark,” the most famous of which is Aldus Manutius’ anchor-and-dolphin mark, to the frontispiece of their editions.

Unfortunately, marks were easy to copy and discerning buyers had to learn to recognize the quality of a work based on everything from the quality of the paper and binding to the choices in typeface and design that they had come to expect. Those more nuanced details of a book were hard to counterfeit. Ultimately, a combination of guild-enforced “self-regulation” (the true meaning of “self-regulation” that free marketers mean when speaking of the virtues of industries that police themselves—they ensure business conditions are nominal) and persistent dedication to improving the quality of printed works yielded a recognizable set of expectations among readers. We’re now living through a renegotiation of the same magnitude.

Books have always been products judged by quality, consistency, binding, informativeness and the enjoyment provided. Any book manipulated by someone to hide, obscure or falsify its provenance is a less-than-perfect copy, even in digital publishing.

Unfortunately, badly converted texts have become the standard in e-books, because the only variable any talks about today is price. I agree with Joe Wikert, writing at TeleRead, that as long as readers view e-books as only cheap copies of printed books, the problem will continue.

The answer? Better editing is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for publishing success. The simple answer: Invest in something that makes the book more useful than the print edition. Pagination mapping, for example, so that e-books could be used for academic and scholarly citations, would be a good first step. Shoot for making the book a conduit for communication, not just a channel for distribution.

Authority will reassert itself when it has been earned. As long as just putting a different version (one of more than 70 currently) of Pride and Prejudice up on Amazon is considered “publishing an e-book,” readers are doomed to download some really bad copies.

Circa 1994: Making Book On PDAs

Another historical perspective on e-books, this from the August 8, 1994 edition of Digital Media: A Seybold Report. I’d published my first interactive book, in Voyager’s Expanded Book format, about a year earlier.

A market in hand for electronic publishers?

With so many industries focused on getting the interactivity into televisions and PCs, there’s not much interest anymore in delivering digitized information to handheld computers. Excitement has shifted from John Sculley’s prognostications about a $3 trillion market portended by the introduction of Newton to the similarly warm, fuzzy fantasies of the information superhighway. Nevertheless, there’s a world’s history worth of data that could find a very lucrative marketing on handheld devices—at bargain prices compared to the cost of interactive television programming.

Sooner or later, the bad feelings engendered by the poor reception for handheld computers, especially in the press, will pass. As handheld devices take off, someone’s going to cash in on the publishing opportunity in carry-along digital data. It’s tough to take a digital book along on the commuter train or into the park. A desktop PC or Mac’s got about five feet of leeway before it loses its connection to a power outlet, and portables don’t make good company during a quiet moment, or even a noisy one when a single bit of information is needed.

Unfulfilled promise

From the start, personal digital assistants (PDAs) have delivered more promise than palpable benefits. But the potential locked up in the Newton, General Magic’s Magic Cap and Microsoft’s upcoming WinPad operating system is immense. They tear off a large part of the functionality in a computer and fold it into the pocket. If used intelligently by publishers, handheld formats can enhance the experience of information.

Everyone’s familiar with the trail of tears traveled during the past two years by Apple’s Newton, AT&T’s foster child, the EO Personal Communicator, and the Tandy/Casio Zoomer. PDAs were pummeled by Time, Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, with negative adjectives piling up faster than sales receipts.

Sales of Newton, which started out briskly, have slowed in recent months. Despite that, the average consumer electronics company would jump for joy over Newton’s numbers. About 100,000 units have sold through dealers. Tens of thousands more Newtons have been shipped direct from Apple to corporate buyers. EO took the big dirt nap after wracking up sales of only 9,000 units in a year. The Zoomer, which runs the GeoWorks operating system that will be shipped in several new handhelds in coming months, has earned about 40,000 users, according to the most optimistic reports.

Developing titles for this market is an unattractive prospect in almost anyone’s book. It’s tiny and fragmented. All told, there’s less than 2000,000 handheld devices out there using four incompatible operating systems. But that is today.

We expect a small but significant explosion in handheld sales Continue reading

Circa 1994: Electronic Books—Eight Years and Going Strong?

This is a sidebar I published in Digital Media: A Seybold Report in August 1994 about where the electronic publishing market had come in its short life and where it might be going. You’ll see we’ve come a long way and, in many ways, hardly progressed at all since the mid-Nineties. — M.R.

More than six million “copies” of Franklin Electronic Publishers Inc.’s electronic books have move through the consumer channels. Franklin issued its first title, a dictionary, as an embedded document in a small inexpensive handheld  device in 1986. Franklin’s books have never come in the prettiest covers, they are made to fit a niche at the lowest possible price.

“If you look at what has transpired ofer the last three years,” same Michael Strange, executive vice president of Franklin, “we were the only company that focused on the content, not the technology.” Indeed, Franklin has positioned itself as a publisher rather than a computer company. Despite the fact that it has introduced several significant storage capabilities to the mass market, Franklin has found it’s better to talk about what in its high-capacity memory modules—from Bibles to extensive dictionaries of foreign phrases—than the modules themselves.

The company’s handhelds have followed a pedestrian design philosophy that combines a keyboard with a low-resolution one-, three- and 10-line LCD screen that displays only text. In the past couple of years, Franklin has added audio and communications capabilities to its devices. For example, it’s now possible to download data from a PC to a Franklin electronic book device or make a Franklin dictionary speak in Stephen Hawking’s digital voice.

More than 50 Franklin titles are available today. The company’s content includes several versions of The Bible, the Concise Columbia Dictionary, a series of “Language Master” translators, and, a complete statistical record of Major League Baseball pitching and hitting. Prices range from about $40 for spelling assistants to $350 for translators with speech synthesis features.

A hit title generates sales of 100,000 to several hundred thousand units, according to Strange. “We are truly following more of a paradigm of a publisher with a back list and a main list,” he said. This allows Franklin to sustain less popular titles, which sell between 40,000 and 60,000 copies.

By and large, Franklin’s success was built on two markets: Business and Continue reading