Tag Archives: Publishing Industry

The Two Worlds of Literature: What Serious Writers Can Learn from Genre Comrades in Arms

When I went into the publishing business after graduating from college, I discovered a literary culture so lastly different from the ones I had studied that I could scarcely find any common ground between them. This world was populated by romance, science fiction and fantasy, and male action-adventure writers, by pulpsters, pornographers, and countless others who earn their living producing genre books.

Since then, I have become a citizen of that world, both as a writer and as a literary agent representing other writers of category fiction. I have come to know and respect, to admire and even love this world and its denizens and have had the privilege of attending the birth of some works that have come to be regarded as masterpieces of their genres. But I have also become increasingly concerned about how little is known about this world by the writers and critics who dominate the world of serious literature. And I’ve concluded that we are all a little poorer for these gaps in awareness, appreciation, and communication.

To read more, click here.

Richard Curtis


So That’s What We’ve Been Doing!

In nature big fish eat little fish, but in business the opposite is often true: the small destroy the large.  Small, nimble, clever, aggressive startups with nothing to lose are able to undermine staid, clumsy behemoths burdened by overhead, bureaucracy and legacies.

Hmm. Are we thinking of any small, nimble industry in particular? Of any staid, clumsy behemoth industry in particular?

Clayton Christensen is a student of the rise and fall of big companies, and he’s coined a wonderful phrase to describe the cycle: Disruptive Innovation. He describes it as “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.”

In the space of a decade we have seen the digital book industry (that is the small industry you were thinking of, isn’t it?) soar from novelty to dominance, absorbing in the process a far larger publishing business like a snake unhinging its jaw to consume a sheep.

But there’s a corollary to the rule of disruptive innovation, for, after battening on its huge prey, the smaller company itself becomes fat and soft and susceptible to the predations of the next generation of hungry young businesses.

A recent New York Times editorial, Remember Microsoft?, exemplifies the concept. “Technology upends companies in different ways,” itl stated. “It allows new firms to deliver better products and services in a more efficient way; it also creates new goods and services for consumers to want. Eastman Kodak, the fifth-biggest company in the S.& P. 500 in 1975, was almost destroyed by digital cameras and is no longer in the index. General Motors, fifth biggest in 1985, was hobbled by rivals that could make more fuel efficient cars. Microsoft still rules the PC desktop. But that will matter less and less as users migrate to tablets and more computing takes place in ‘the cloud.’”

Which brings us back to e-books. It’s hard to imagine that they may simply be a bridge to a far larger media world, but if Christensen’s theory holds up, a day may come when the hegemony of giants like Google, Amazon and Apple becomes vulnerable to a fast-moving aggressor, and the cycle begins all over again. Don’t believe it? Just yesterday we wrote about powerful new programs like ePub3 and HTML5 that will make e-books look positively Gutenbergian.  Let’s hope we’re all around to see the day.  Or maybe some of us would rather not.

Read Disruptive Innovation and watch the video.

Richard Curtis


You Say You Want a Revolution

A tottering, buffoonish, ossified ancien regime ripe for overthrow by a fanatically determined underclass of disaffected intellectuals.

Czarist Russia?

How about the book industry?

The Old Feudal Order Must Go

The Marxist analogy is far from strained. The denunciations of some independent authors evoke the acerbic eloquence of revolutionaries. “I don’t want to waste my time raging against a dinosaur who continues to ignore the fact that the meteor has already hit the earth,” writes Joe Konrath, arguably The Movement’s spiritual father. “I don’t need to have my name appear on a faulty, bullshit bestseller list to feel good about myself or my accomplishments, and I don’t need recognition from a bunch of morons who would rather try to maintain the fading status quo than report the truth.”

The members of this underclass have bonded with each other and coalesced into a discrete movement marching under the banner Independents. The most radical among them find almost no redeeming values in the established order and denounce their publishers and agents from the very platforms that those former partners and patrons helped them to attain

Angry Authors

There is more than a core of truth in their fulminations. The traditional trade publishing business rests on that artifact of another era, the printed book. It is an archaic, labor-intensive industry that utilizes energy-devouring vehicles to distribute tangible products to brick and mortar retailers who are entitled to return unsold inventory to the publishers for full credit, an idiotic and appallingly wasteful business model. The perpetually cash-starved business has become more and more blockbuster-driven, disenfranchising talented newcomers and driving them to seek alternatives outside the established system. Those alternatives are many, robust, cheap and exceptionally profitable. Enter independent authors.

Biting the Hand

Such a viewpoint was expressed by Barry Eisler, the movement’s most recent and sensational arrival, in an interview with Jason Pinter. “It might be okay if I thought my publishers were making all the right decisions,” he told Pinter, “but when your publisher is doing something you think is stupid and that’s costing you money—something like, say, saddling your book with a closeup of an olive green garage door, or writing a bio that treats your date and place of birth as a key selling point, or misunderstanding the concepts of automatic resonance and acquired resonance, or otherwise blowing the book’s packaging—it can be pretty maddening (at least it can be for me).” [Eisler subsequently signed a lucrative contract with Amazon.]

A Literary Woodstock

Whether or not you feel their anger is justified, it fuels the storms that are sweeping across the publishing landscape much like the those that swept the musical landscape of the Sixties. The brilliant and exciting artists of this literary counterculture display the same energy, insouciance, fearlessness, joy and creativity as the firebrand troubadours of the Janis Joplin/Jimi Hendrix generation. That uprising culminated in Woodstock. Where will the Indie Author Revolution be celebrated?

We know where it won’t be: New York City, headquarters of the tottering, buffoonish, ossified ancien regime.

The Wealth of the Indies

But something about this revolution makes it far different from all the others: the rebels are making money. Lots of it. In fact many of the self-styled Have Nots are making a better living writing than the Haves. Their blogs are replete with boasts of how much money they are coining – how much money they are minting!

Revolutionaries tend to lose their credibility and their slogans start to sound hollow once they become wealthy. Not many shackles to break except mortgages on fancy condos; no barricades but the speed bumps in their gated communities; no bricks to throw save those of gold. But for now, independent authors are the shining hope for a languishing publishing industry, and we need to listen to them and learn. And what we need to learn from them above all is how to make money in the publishing business. So –  more power to them.

Power to the uploaders!

Richard Curtis


Should Bookstores Be Publishers Too?

The following article was published in June 2009.  In view of Amazon’s announcement of the creation of a New York book publishing initiative, we thought you might find it relevant.


Lev Grossman and Andrea Sachs write in Time magazine about our love-hate relationship with Amazon. Their conclusion? It depends on who’s doing the loving and who’s doing the hating. Defining Amazon is about as easy for us as defining the elephant was for the blind monks of Chinese legend. Time succinctly states the case:

“Amazon has diversified itself so comprehensively over the past five years that it’s hard to say exactly what it is anymore. Amazon has a presence in almost every niche of the book industry. It runs a print-on-demand service (BookSurge) and a self-publishing service (CreateSpace). It sells e-books and an e-device to read them on (the Kindle, a new version of which, the DX, went on sale June 10). In 2008 alone, Amazon acquired Audible.com a leading audiobooks company; AbeBooks, a major online used-book retailer; and Shelfari, a Facebook-like social network for readers. In April of this year, it snapped up Lexcycle, which makes an e-reading app for the iPhone called Stanza.”

As if all that were not enough, Amazon has now become a publisher, too….

To continue click here.

Richard Curtis


Book Editors Wanted. Editorial Skills Optional

Good morning, Earnest Young College Graduate, and thank you for coming in for an interview with our publishing company.  As you noticed on the walls of our waiting room, in our 150 year history we have published many of the world’s most distinguished authors. And behind every one of them was a great editor.  We think you have the potential to be one too. However, we have some questions about your qualifications.

I don’t see on your resume any proficiency in XML programming, statistical analytics, e-book formatting, metadata management, Web design, information architecture and app development. Surely you are aware that these are the skills that editors must bring to the modern publishing process. What’s that you say?  You got straight 4.0’s in English lit?  That’s very interesting. We’ll get back to you. Next candidate, please.

We’d hate to think that that’s what tomorrow’s job interview is going to sound like but if Joseph Walker, writing for FINS, is right, students will have to rethink their curriculum selections if they hope to become tomorrow’s Maxwell Perkins.

Walker reached this conclusion after covering a conference sponsored by the Book Industry Study Group attended by 80 book publishing execs pondering “how to transform their stagnating print empires into thriving businesses by 2020.”

“Their radical solution,” Walker writes. “Invest in digital.”

“Two years ago if we had this conference, these issues wouldn’t have even surfaced, but now they’re front and center,” BISG’s executive director said.

Though representatives from Simon & Schuster, Random House, HarperCollins and other houses tried to be upbeat about the future, others were pessimistic.  Bob Stein, former director of a book-related think tank, suggested that traditional publishers drag too much weight to make the transition to digital. “In all likelihood, the innovation won’t come from one of the big six publishers. It’s likely to come from someone who doesn’t even consider themselves to be a publisher,” Stein said.

One reason he may be right is that publishers just can’t compete for top-notch talent in the technical arena. “According to Payscale.com,” writes Walker, ” the median salary for a software developer at a book or newspaper publisher is $61,100, compared to $69,000 at Internet companies like Google or Facebook. For an IT product manager, the salary gap can be as much as $20,000, with book publishers paying $66,200 compared to $84,900 at an Oracle or Microsoft and $83,200 at a Google.”

Read Apple iPad, Amazon Kindle Boost Job Growth at Publishers, then retrieve your resume, delete the senior thesis on the influence of Chaucer on Dickens and start boning up on XML.

Richard Curtis


Richard Curtis at the Crossroads Where Agent and Publisher Meet

Richard Curtis did not just witness the evolution of the publishing industry from print to digital, he had a significant hand in shaping it.  In a Digital Book World interview conducted by Rich Fahle, the agent and e-book publisher candidly discusses his role. The video may be seen below or on DBW’s website.

From the interview:

“Agents find themselves more and more providing services they never needed to render in the past: cover approval, correcting cover copy, editing, spellchecking authors’ manuscripts, marketing and other tasks that should be the publisher’s, but publishers either can’t or won’t do some of these things. They keep pushing the burden of responsibility back on the author. And if the author can’t do it or is helpless or doesn’t want to, the agent has to do it…



Publishing’s Silent Generation

One afternoon about a year ago one of my staff stuck her head in my door, looking concerned. “Are you all right?”

“Sure.  Why do you ask?”

“I haven’t heard a peep out of you all day long.”

“Actually, I’ve been wheeling and dealing.  Just closed a six figure deal in fact.”

“On the phone?”

“No. Online.”

She shook her head.  “Boy, it’s not like the old days.”

She was right about that.  Aside from all the other ways publishing has changed since the turn of the 21st century, very little business is conducted on the phone any more.  The wheeling and dealing are now performed online.

I accept this new condition but I hate it.

I became aware of the shifting customs a couple of years ago when, in a burst of frustration, I complained to an editor that she’d ignored three phone calls.  “No I haven’t,” she said.  “Read your email.”  And there was a message from her: “If you’re calling about the option clause, we accept your language.

“You couldn’t have said this to me over the phone?”

“Nothing personal. I’m just more comfortable with email, and besides, it leaves a written record”

“What if I hadn’t been calling about the option?  What if I’d been calling to offer you a combination of James Patterson, Dan Brown and Nora Roberts?”

“An email pitch would have been perfectly fine,” she said. “I respond instantly to emails.”

And that’s when I knew the game had indeed changed.

No, I don’t take it personally but as a natural-born shmoozer, delivering messages via my fingertips instead of by mouth is an emotional hardship. What makes it even more upsetting is that this phenomenon is occurring in the most articulate branch of the communications industry. Luckily, authors still like to talk on the phone, so I get plenty of opportunities to exercise my mandibular, glossal and laryngial muscles.

It was some – but not a lot of – comfort to learn that this shift away from phones is not restricted to publishing. Pamela Paul, writing in the New York Times, says “In the last five years, full-fledged adults have seemingly given up the telephone — land line, mobile, voice mail and all. According to Nielsen Media, even on cellphones, voice spending has been trending downward, with text spending expected to surpass it within three years.”

And Paul confirms my own observation that the lapse into silence has even infected industries where everything worth expressing was expressed in talk. “Even in fields where workers of various stripes (publicists, agents, salespeople) traditionally conducted much of their business by phone, hoping to catch a coveted decision-maker off-guard or in a down moment, the phone stays on the hook.”

Well, I suppose that as long as deals and offers continue to roll in via email I shouldn’t complain. But if you want to get an earful, pick up the phone and call me. Please?

Read Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.


No Intelligent Life Forms on This World: Just Publishers

Years ago I wrote a science fiction story called Pulpscape. Here’s the synopsis:

Commander Shmeegl returns to his home planet to tell the king of his expedition to a planet on which he has discovered intelligent life. Unfortunately, the best example of intelligence he found there was a community of life forms known as publishers, and Shmeegl doesn’t think they’re worth a second visit.

I thought of that story when I read J. E. Fishman’s The 10 Craziest Business Practices of the Book World on The Nervous Breakdown.com

Here they are “in no particular order” according to Fishman. We don’t know about numbers 2-9 but we definitely agree that the first one on the list deserves to be #1. Selling returnable –  the all-time craziest practice of the book world.

  1. Selling returnable.
  2. Co-op dollars.
  3. Suggested retail prices.
  4. E-book royalty splits.
  5. Paying big advances to unproven talent.
  6. Making authors write the marketing plan.
  7. Rarely selling direct to consumer.
  8. Not adding value on the highest priced merchandise.
  9. Keeping the New York Times Bestseller Lists so scarce.
  10. Barring advertising from books

To get the full flavor of Fishman’s observations read The 10 Craziest Business Practices of the Book World. Just a word of warning: don’t go into this madhouse without an armed guard.

Richard Curtis


PW to Review Self-Pubbers

Whatever ugly charges critics may level at traditional publishing, it’s hard to deny that when it comes to branding established authors and elevating new ones, the Establishment reigns supreme. You can talk all you want about the viral validation that the Internet bestows on self-published books, the good old book industry is still the place where literary reputations are made,  And that’s because literary agents, reviewers and book critics for high circulation magazines and newspapers, Big Six publishers and big-name editors remain the taste makers of our literary culture. (You can read all about it in Gatekeepers.)

For this reason, self-published authors have been unable to gain respectful attention in the marketplace, get noticed by Big Publishing and catapulted into fame and fortune and distribution in bookstores.  That frustrating circumstance is about to change.  Publishers Weekly has announced a new program called PW Select dedicated to reviewing self-published books and bringing the best ones (“most deserving of a critical assessment”) to the attention of traditional publishers and the public.

PW president George W. Slowik Jr,  who recent acquired the flagging book industry publication, seems determined to brand it, restore its relevance and bring it into the 21st century. PW Select is one such initiative and certainly one that is going to raise some eyebrows because authors and publishers submitting their books for review must pay a registration fee.

Anticipating the obvious question of whether the fee can influence review coverage, Slowik said “We briefly considered charging for reviews, but in the end preferred to maintain our right to review what we deemed worthy. The processing fee that guarantees a listing and the chance to be reviewed accomplishes what we want: to inform the trade of what is happening in self-publishing and to present a PW selection of what has the most merit.”

Here in full is his announcement:

We are returning to our earliest roots. PW dates to 1872, when it was first known as Trade Circular Weekly and listed all titles published that week in what was then a nascent industry. We have decided to embrace the self-publishing phenomenon in a similar spirit. Call it what you will—self-publishing, DIY, POD, author-financed, relationship publishing, or vanity fare. They are books and that is what PW cares about. And we aim to inform the trade.

To that end, we are announcing PW Select, a quarterly supplement announcing self-published titles and reviewing those we believe are most deserving of a critical assessment. The first supplement will appear in our year-end issue in December. Each quarterly will include a complete announcement issue of all self-published books submitted during that period. The listings will include author, title, subtitle, price, pagination and format, ISBN, a brief description, and ordering information provided by the authors, who will be required to pay a processing fee for their listing. At least 25 of the submitted titles will be selected for a published review. There will also be an overview of the publishing trends that can be identified from among the titles from that reading period. We will also focus on the opportunities that the self-pub world offers. A resource directory will accompany the section offering names of companies providing services in the DIY space.

The entire PW editorial staff will participate in a review of the titles being considered for review, and we’ll likely invite a few agent friends and distributors to have a look at what we’ve chosen. No promises there, just letting some publishing friends take advantage of the opportunity to see the collection.

The first reading period for self-published books will be from September 1 until the end of October. All submitted titles will be registered online by the publisher at www.publishersweekly.com/diy (which will be active before the start of the reading period); a processing fee of $149 will be charged. Once the registration process is completed, shipping instructions and a confirmation code will be issued. Additional copies of the supplement will be available for distribution.

We briefly considered charging for reviews, but in the end preferred to maintain our right to review what we deemed worthy. The processing fee that guarantees a listing and the chance to be reviewed accomplishes what we want: to inform the trade of what is happening in self-publishing and to present a PW selection of what has the most merit.

Titles submitted for our first supplement must have been published in 2010 and have a valid ISBN. We will not accept manuscripts or e-books (this time). Only final bound galleys or finished books will be accepted. Books cannot be returned; once finished the copies are donated to Housing Works Thrift Shop, a worthy local charity.

Please, please send your book in a bio-sensitive package (i.e., no bubble wrap or plastic envelopes). Also, please use packaging appropriate to the book you are submitting: no boxes full of packing peanuts or paper stuffing. We recommend reusable and recycled paper envelopes. An acknowledgment of the book’s arrival will be issued via e-mail upon receipt.

We look forward to finding the gems worthy of attention, the sleeping indie giants—after all, books are our business.

Richard Curtis


Q1 E-Sales Stats Dwarf ’09’s


One year ago, reporting trade e-book sales statistics for the first quarter of 2009. we wrote “We’re running out of superlatives.” What inspired our hyperbole were $26 million in sales, exceeding 2008’s first quarter by 131%. Having exhausted our purple prose a year ago, what’s left for us to say about the $91,000,000 first quarter sales posted in 2010, 3 1/2 times those of the same period a year ago. How about this: Q1-10 almost matches the total sales for all of 2006 ($20 M), 2007 ($31.2 M) and 2008 ($53.5 M).

And March 2010? $28.5 million, almost three times that of the same month one year ago.

These statistics compliments of the Association of American Publishers in conjunction with the International Digital Publishing Forum, which reminds us that:

* This data represents United States revenues only
* This data represents only trade e-book sales via wholesale channels. Retail numbers may be as much as double the above figures due to industry wholesale discounts.
* This data represents only data submitted from approx. 12 to 15 trade publishers
* This data does not include library, educational or professional electronic sales
* The numbers reflect the wholesale revenues of publishers
* The definition used for reporting electronic book sales is “All books delivered electronically over the Internet or to hand-held reading devices”

Richard Curtis