June 3, 2005

In Coldest Type: Crack Addiction in American Publishing

"There are two things cowboys know nothing about. Cows and horses."

IN 1982 THE FIRST BOOK I EVER EDITED AND PUBLISHED during my career as a book editor at Houghton Mifflin Company was publishing consultant Leonard Shatzkin's In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis.   I loved working on this book and working with Shatzkin, but others around me were growing colder to the project as it progressed.

As more and more members of Houghton Mifflin read the manuscript on its way to publication, the clearer it became that Shatzkin was ruthlessly eviscerating the Trade Book industry of which Houghton Mifflin was a founding member. Shatzkin had had decades of experience with the ways in which books were sold and was not pleased by the enduring insanity and stupidity that marked the process from acquisition to pulping. It was an industry centered then as now more on personal preening than profits.

As the editing went on, I was approached on more than one occasion by the publisher and the editor in chief of the house to ask Shatzkin if he could, maybe, perhaps, just tone down his criticisms a wee tad here and there. Not to compromise his integrity, to be sure, but just to make it 'more polite.' "A spoonful of sugar" and all that. I'd nod, tug the forelock, and agree to pass these "suggestions" on to Shatzkin when we next met. I would. He'd laugh and then we'd go to lunch at Loch Ober in Boston and have two martinis instead of one, charge it all to the expense account, and thus fortified,
come back and make sure we emphasized the passages that most upset our masters.

In the end, the book was a scathing indictment of the American Way of Bookselling and was published in 1982 with a meek first printing of 5,000 copies and no promotional budget at all. It was so abhorred by Houghton at that point that its budget for the cover art was set at $200 and the house art director instructed to pretty much ignore it. I overcame that by creating the cover shown above myself at two old Boston type houses for $225, paying the extra out of my own pocket. I liked creating a cover for a book called In Cold Type out of hot type. I also like the title, which was my idea, and remains one of my better ones. The book remains in print today, but its down to 5 copies at Amazon so click now.

I went on to edit and publish well over 150 books during my years at Houghton Mifflin and ended by being their Director of Trade Paperback publishing, which was about a $30,000,000 per year business at that time. I edited a wide variety of fiction, non-fiction, and reference titles in those years, but I never had more fun or liked a project more than my first. It was, in many ways, all down hill from In Cold Type since it formed both my debut and my education into the insanity of trade book publishing.

In Cold Type as published was so scathing that Houghton Mifflin, fearing God knows what, felt compelled to actually print, over my objections, a formal disclaimer at the front of the book. In effect, Houghton's disclaimer stated that the publisher didn't really believe what the book said but it was publishing it anyway. In a way, it was a rather refreshing admission for a publisher to make since most books published, then and now, are neither believed nor believed in by their publisher. As I said, the book was an education, but at least Shatzkin and I believed that read by the right people it just might make a difference, and save a few publishing houses and make some extra money for a few authors.

Among the 420 pages of Shatzkin's detailed evisceration of trade publishing, he notes: "For every copy of a hardcover book sold at its normal retail price, one book is sold as a remainder-- a book that goes from the publisher to the remainder dealer for less than the cost of producing it and with zero income to the author. No other industry can make this claim."

Twenty-three years later, the Wall Street Journal this morning presents readers with an article entitled "Quest for Best Seller Creates a Pileup Of Returned Books" in which we read, "In 2003, 34% of adult hardcover books were returned to publishers, compared with 28% in 1993, says Albert N. Greco, a professor at the Fordham Graduate School of Business and a leading industry statistician.... The reverse tidal flood of books hurts every aspect of the business, one already struggling with weak sales. Authors don't get royalties on unsold books. Publishers sell returned copies at distressed prices after paying to truck them thousands of miles around the country. Books that can't be sold at any price are pulped for a total loss."

Of course, comparing remainder sales to books returned is a bit like comparing Pippins to Granny Smiths, but the overall impression that nothing much has changed down at the root of book publishing in the last quarter century is correct.

Not that there hasn't been "change" in this small but significant industry. There has been immense change. Smaller houses have gone out of business or been absorbed into larger houses. Ownership of these larger houses has been taken over by multinational conglomerates. Barnes and Noble and Borders have swelled and proliferated at the same time that independent bookstores have dwindled away and distribution companies have shrunken and disappeared one into the other. You've got ebooks and you've got print-on-demand. You've got integrated ordering systems and computerized inventory tracking. You've got it all and its all dysfunctional down to the last bit and byte. Don't even get me started on how books are actually acquired at the front end of the sausage machine. And then there's Godzilla, Amazon, waltzing together with Mothra, the online used book market, in the vast muck of this muddled marketplace.

And, after all this, you still have, at the bottom, the Depression era business practice of sale-or-return bookselling. And, like a seventy year crack addiction, there is nothing, but nothing the book business seems to be able to do to kick it. For to kick it, the book business thinks, means to die. It's pretty much the same mind set of all addicts, isn't it? "You know, this thing could kill us one of these days, but today doesn't seem to be the day so pass the pipe and the lighter, okay?"

Of course, the practice of sale or return has killed a number of publishers over the years, but by the time it did the patient in question was presenting so many other symptoms that the actual cause of death was masked. In the meantime, the practice will continue on into the future unabated, as it has for the last 23 years since I published In Cold Type. In the WSJ article, Steve Riggio, the once and future king of Barnes & Noble says, "We'd like to see this practice discontinued. Any rational business person looking at this practice would think the industry has gone mad."

Thinkings got nothing to do with it, Steve. The industry is stark raving mad and sucking harder on the crack pipe every year and there is nothing, short of death, that can or will be done about it. Publishing bottomed decades back, broke through, and just kept going down.

In 1982, over drinks at Loch Ober, I asked Shatzkin (who passed away in 2002) why he wrote this book that gave away, for a small price -- his advance was about $3,000--, everything he knew about what was wrong with trade publishing and how to fix it. Didn't it cut into his business as a consultant to trade book publishers?

"Ah, my boy, you still don't understand. These publishers and editors will buy some of the few copies Houghton is going to print, but the vast majority of them won't read it. They'll plop it on their desks for a few months to show they're 'concerned about returns' to others in the house. Then they'll move it onto a shelf in back of them with the other books they display but never read. And then, when they have a problem -- and they always will have a problem -- they'll pick up the phone to call and hire me.

"I will, in the meantime, have quadrupled my trade publishing consulting rate. And they will pay it without a second thought. Why? Because its not their money and because I wrote a book on the subject. Trust me, boychick, this book is worth millions to me over the years. Millions. But only because they will never learn what I have to teach them. Not in this century. Not in the next."

As I said, working on In Cold Type was very educational.

[HT: Peter Bloch]

UPDATE: Shatzkin's son, Michael, informs me that " Len believed in returns and that excessive returns were created by stupid selling practices. He kept that belief to the very end."

Even now, Shatzkin continues to educate me.

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Posted by Vanderleun at June 3, 2005 8:17 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

As someone who is writing a novel and trying to procure a publisher, I find this post both very timely and very depressing.

Thanks for your insights. Hopefully the publishing industry will change some of these practices, but it doesn't sound likely.

Posted by: Jon Connor at June 3, 2005 1:03 PM

Luckily, by the time I get around to getting a novel finished -- or compiling enough of my shorter stuff to make up a book -- "text" will be temporarily projected onto the "readers" retina by way of a some nano device, or else it will be downloaded and then inscribed directly onto the cerebral cortex using an Apple iBrain.

Posted by: Jeff G at June 3, 2005 3:02 PM

Oh my stars and garters! I just caught you in a typo which would not be noteworthy except for the topic of this post:

"but its down to 5 copies at Amazon so click now."

I LOVE pointing this stuff out, but only because I'm a jerk.

As far as the post itself goes, I can only say that's it's probably a good thing I'm too damn lazy to write all those novels I want to write.

Your blog still rocks the Casbah.

Posted by: ccwbass at June 3, 2005 4:47 PM

Thank you for the introduction of the book. It's a book I will definitely purchase.

I appreciate the fact that you've worked on it.

Had any chocolate chip cookies to go with a drink (like milk or silk if you're not tolerant of milk) and a good book lately? :-D

Posted by: Ashley at June 4, 2005 8:21 AM

I appreciate the fact that you've worked on it.

Posted by: bob at June 24, 2005 3:43 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated to combat spam and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

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