Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Saving Publishing -- the Jonathan Karp Way

I have mixed feelings about Jonathan Karp's recent article for Publishers Weekly, in which he laid out his "12 Steps to Better Book Publishing." On the one hand, I imagine they would make publishing more consistently successful and profitable. On the other, the only way they'd do that would be through unfeasible collusion in restraint of trade, losses of the jobs of at least half of the people currently working in book publishing, and publication schedules that resemble Karp's own Twelve imprint (one guaranteed big-seller a month and nothing else). Since I enjoy both reading books outside that narrow framework and a publishing ecosystem with jobs for myself and my friends, it's not a model I can entirely agree with.

And so I'll rephrase Karp's rules in terms that the rest of us -- the ones who don't run our own imprints and have PW fawning over how visionary we are -- can understand.

Prologue: Don't publish books that Karp doesn't like, particularly if they are "arcane." Any book that won't sell a hundred thousand copies is just not worth it! Books by ex-Presidents are a bad idea; likewise books about food, sex and religion. (What do people do to keep themselves occupied in Karp's world, if they're uninterested in politics, sex, food, and religion?)

Also, don't ever publish a book if anyone else has published a book on the same or a similar topic. Unless that topic is the Titanic, of course! The only possible future for publishing is to "invest time and resources into major works and to market them with overwhelming force."

End Kabuki Publishing: Never be enthusiastic about the books you publish. The only sales reps you need to care about are the "key" ones. Only big things count!

Also, Karp thinks big mainstream publishing is made up almost entirely of phonies, and he's going to go feed the ducks instead of playing along.

Prioritize and Specialize: Ignore most of your list. Only care about things with huge potential. Karp urges specialization...but he also urges only concentrating on things with huge potential, which means everyone should have the same specialty. So try not to specialize in anything that might qualify as an actual specialty or genre.

Tell the Truth: It's time to stop being nice to authors and say directly to them the things you mutter to your colleagues. As a bonus, this may also help achieve the massive job losses mentioned above.

Screw relationships! Screw good sense! Tell that big bestselling jerk on your list precisely what you think of the turd that just landed on your desk!

Also, ebooks and POD are to be used as dumping grounds for bad acquisition decisions. A very smart contracts manager will be required to get that language past agents. And talented accountants will be required to deal with the flood of red ink.

Stop the copycat books: That topic was Karp's idea first! So you can't publish a book on it. Never, ever publish a book on any subject remotely similar to earlier books, like a biography of Lincoln, or a Tuesdays With Lots of Morries, or yet another book about politics by an insider. No, no, no.

More editorial quality control: You get to tell Dan Brown what goes in or out of his book, because your imprint is on the spine. More generally, you can publish only great big books and still hope to be more important and powerful than the real authors of those books. You are also the King of Ruritania!

Imprints for everyone: Oddly enough, this is the one I have absolutely no problem with; my current employer operates under a system almost exactly like Karp describes, and I find that works very well. But we don't do a tiny number of great big books, either. We do a lot of very targeted niche books, and have a lot of people in aggregate working on those books, most of which Karp would probably deem not worth publishing. So I don't believe this plan actually fits in with the rest of Karp's suggestions as closely as he believes it does.

One bidder per company: Most of you acquisition editors? Hit the pavement. Or get demoted to development editors. Only your boss's boss's boss will be allowed to negotiate for the company -- you know, the one you always struggle to make understand what your program is and why it's important?

This is the kind of idea that sounds wonderful when you're already the head of a major imprint.

Pay authors to market their work: No snark here, though my experience is that the bulk of authors -- across categories and genres -- aren't any good at this or (to be kinder) know what to do. Though, if we're drastically slashing the number of books published, we can get rid of all the authors who don't already market themselves effectively. That'll increase the average quality of author marketing immediately.

Be loyal to the book, not the ego: Very nice words. When the Marcus Dohles and Brian Murrays of this world repeat them, and back editors/publicists/sales reps rather than bigfoot authors when push comes to shove, people might actually believe them.

(And when books by John Grisham/James Patterson/Nora Roberts/Laurell Hamilton stop selling at massive levels year in and year out, showing that readers are immeasurably more loyal to the author than to the publisher.)

Let's be honest: if one of Twelve's forthcoming books came in from the author, and it was lousy, do you really think it would be suddenly downgraded to POD?

And, once again, Karp is demanding the all-big-books-all-the-time model of publishing: only hit home runs.

Announce all deals: Another nice thing, but making it happen would be an applied exercise in game theory -- the first mover would be heavily penalized, and the last holdout would have the most power. It's very unlikely to happen, unless agents do it -- they have more incentive to do so to begin with.

Downsize: And Karp will go first -- he's resigning to spend more time raising rutabagas. His comments about mid-list authors are laughable; under his plans many writers who are currently at the top of lists would find themselves in the middle of much smaller lists. And anyone not at the top of a list would be gone entirely. But there's always "digital distribution" for all those lousy books he'd rather not see published!

Advertise: Again, only books that you can spend lots and lots of money on deserve to be published. Publishing is about big men spending big money to put out big books!

Feh! If this is the way to save publishing, I'd rather it stay on life-support.

Edit, a day later: Since this post is getting an unusual amount of traffic, I should point out that there are a number of things in Karp's essay that I didn't disagree with. I mentioned a couple of them above, but left the others unstated because that wasn't the focus of the piece.

My disagreements are more important than my points of agreement, because of the overarching aim of Karp's essay. He's trying to force all of trade publishing into a narrowly focused blockbuster-all-the-time model, which is unsustainable. The real problem with trade publishing today is that model, not the fact that smaller books manage to be published along the way.


Kathy Temean said...

Here! Here! Thanks for the follow up.


Mark Chadbourn said...

Excellent rebuttal to elements that resembled a publishing horror story.

ed said...

I was working on a rebuttal to Karp's article too. But you've said much of what I had planned to say. Nice job.

none said...

No snark for "Pay the author to market their work?" Even though that actually translates as "Force the author to spend some of their advance money on marketing, whether or not they know what they're doing, instead of using it to pay bills, clear off debts they ran up while writing the book, buy food, take the kids on holiday...."

That isn't paying the author; if Karp were paying them, it would be on top of the advance, not out of it!

Andrew Wheeler said...

BuffySquirrel: Nope. It's the author's job to market her book, period. (It can be also be other people's jobs to market that same book -- I've got about a hundred I'm responsible for this year, personally -- but it's a major, major part of the author's job.)

And, given that Karp is writing about the kind of publishing where "mid-list" means a low six-figure advance, it's reasonable to expect those authors to pony up with the money they already have.

A good rule of thumb is that 10% of the advance should be spent by the author on efforts to promote the book. (And what those efforts are depends on the writer, the field, and the book -- it can be speaking at professional conferences, building a website, making school visits, or many other things.)

KatG said...

This reminds me of Michael Korda's story about how expert consultants were foisted upon Simon & Schuster, and after careful study of the publishing operations, the consultants' advice to the publisher was that they should publish only best-sellers. As if they had been willfully refusing to do this, and simply needed to be steered on the right track. It's a lazy idea, sell only best-sellers. It's lip service on something publishers can't necessarily deliver.

David Nowlin said...

The thing I found most intriguing in Karp's article was this concept that, "[i]n the digital age there should be fewer books, with more marketing for the ones that remain[.]" That seems, to my untrained eye anyway, to be way off. I think I understand that he means fewer books published on paper, rather than fewer books written or fewer books in the market place, but even so...

The hallmark of the digital era is more choice, not less. People want and expect a bigger selection because now they can have it. You want to kill publishing? The best way to do it would be to say, "we're only going to publish 200 books this year. Industrywide." I have a feeling that at that point we wouldn't have to wonder if the Kindle was going to end up as first string in the big (publishing) game.

Variety is what keeps me going to bookstores. Variety is what separates me (as a reader) from my money. If I can't get it at Barnes and Noble anymore, I'll go to Amazon. Just like I started going to Netflix when I couldn't find what I wanted at Blockbuster anymore. The calculus, to me, seems pretty simple.

If the problem is that most books lose money because they don't sell through, I just don't think that the answer is fewer books. It might be fewer copies of more books, or something else. I don't know. I'm not a publisher. But I chafe at the Karp article as both a writer and a reader.


Rina Weisman said...

Impossible! I myself am the King of Ruritania!! ;)

Excellent job as always, Andy!

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