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“And in this corner”–The Big 6 v Digital Cage Match November 13, 2011

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, Odd Words, publishing, Toulouse Street.
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Another Odd Words Special entry in this weekend’s Dispatches from the Back from the annual Words & Music Festival in New Orleans.

Will Murphy, executive editor at Random House was the nominal moderator until the fist chair flew. It was billed as “New Designs in Publishing in the Digital Age, just another equanimous panel discussion at the staid Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s annual Words & Music Festival, until e-publisher John Oakes came off ropes like a glory-hungry luchador going for the title belt.

Oakes, a graduate of the Bix Six before he started alternative e-publisher OR Books, started softly. “I don’t think [e-publishing} is going to be the only way, but it’s going to be one way.” His tag team partner Julie Smith, Edgar-winning mystery novelist turned e-publisher of BooksBnimble, started out equally calm. “I was published by Big Six publishers for a long time but it became something very different for fiction writers.”

Things continued calmly for almost 20 minutes with Oakes and Smith talking about their decision to enter the e-publishing field, and a long lecture by Chris Ruen, author of a forthcoming book on the digital music area titled Freeloading, on the lessons of the perils and opportunities of e-publishing he took from his study of the music industry.

That’s when Murphy, as politely as possible, inadvertently opened a can of whoop ass. “I’m afraid the two esteemed panelists to my right are going to have to answer for what they said. I’d like both of you to say what’s wrong with traditional publishing and why are you the solution and what’s in it for writers.”

“First of all, let me correct what I said,” Oakes answer prompting scattered nervous laughter in the audience. “I don’t think traditional publishing is breaking down. I think it’s broken and has been for a number of years, in tatters and a smoking ruin.”

Oakes outlined the traditional process of agent, editor, editorial board and sales force proceeded to outline outlined the current publishing paradigm he described as “guesswork on top of guesswork on top of guesswork. “Let’s say everything’s gone well, you have have some great blurbs. You didn’t plagiarize the the book. People are really excited about it. You have good advance orders. The stores pack it all across the country, they pack stacks of the book in. Such a tiny percentage actually sell through. A reasonable return rate for a front list book is 40 to 60 percent. So these books come streaming back. The stores hurt because all this shelf space has been taken up by a book that didn’t sell. The environment, which I think is worth mentioning, [is hurt] because all these books were printed and have to be transported back to warehouse. The publisher has to pay for all these books. Its a disastrous, antiquated system that does not benefit [anyone].”

Smith challenged Murphy in return. “One of the things that always bothered me, the reason I named my company Books Be Nimble, is I don’t feel that big pub is very nimble. Say you brought that you bring a 40 page meditation book [published as an e-book by Books Be Nimble] to a publisher in New York, they might very well say: you know what, there’s no way you can sell this book. My answer is, why don’t you figure it out. You know it was always just book stores and not to much willingness to go outside that to find other ways to make that work.

“There’s a lot more to the question, Will, but I’d like to give you a chance to defend big pub,” Smith

“I’m the last person you want defending big publishing. Traditionally the alternative to big publishing is self publishing,” he answered, starting the real battle royal. “I think there is a pretty heinous process in getting a book to market traditionally. There are a lot of steps, but I don’t know they’re the wrong steps.”

“But we’re not self publishers,” Smith quickly retorted. “Yeah,” Oakes chimed in before she finished her sentence

“The question for you guys is what differentiates you from self publishers,” Murphy offered, trying to get back on a civil track.

“I can’t say I don’t publish my own books because I intend to publish my own back list. I’d be crazy not to. And I publish people who are not me, for openers. Here is how I operate. We don’t offer an advance. I offer a 50% royalty and what I do for the50% royalty I do what Random House does, and I hope as well : I edit the book, I have the cover designed, I market the book.”

The temperature rose another notch when Oakes suggested that the major publishers are charging authors to promote their books by encouraging them to hire independent publicists. “If you are a new author at a major house you can confirm this. The publisher and editor say: how are we going to market this book. In my opinion its the publisher’s job to market the book, but I don’t expect an author to hire a publisher so I could make very good case that major publishers are indirectly charging authors because {suggesting an author hire their own publicist] is a standard way to work with people–unless your name is Steven King–and I’ve always understood and I have heard this from friends who have contracts with major publishers, that you are expected to hire your own publicist.

“This is wrong,” Murphy answered heatedly. “We have a fully staffed publicity department. We never encourage this, the hiring of independent publicists…”

“Maybe Random House is the exception,” Oakes offered.

“Because we have people who are paid to do that job,” Murphy continued, “and in every case when an author of mine has gone outside and brought an independent publicist in to the team, that independent publicist has done nothing that we wouldn’t have done ourselves.

“That wasn’t my experience at Random House,” Smith said.

Well, you didn’t work with me,” Murphy said. “It’s certainty not the status quo.”

“I’ve not heard that said about you, Will,” Oakes offered, trying to take the increasingly testy tone down a bit.

“We disagree,” Murphy answered sharply, trying to bring the scuffle to a close.

Ruen jumped in, pointing out that the difference between the self-publishing and the emerging digital publishers are editing and marketing. But on top of that, any publisher, even if its a small digital publisher, is providing a platform for an author. “Editing?” Ruen asked, “if you’re self-publishing, who’s editing the thing?”

Then he brought in Amazon’s move to change its vanity press operation into a larger model of the upstart short run digital and e-pub houses.. “One of the huge things for self publishing, Amazon announced their venture to release their own books and pay small advances.”

“They’re playing with the big boys,” Murphy agreed.

“That puts the burden of proof right on traditional publishers, emerging digital publishers, all of them, because it comes down to the question of what is the value of editing,” Ruen said.

“What I tell people who are thinking of publishing with Amazon is: go for it. And time will tell if traditional publishers know anything. I do know that the environment that I’ve worked in is a cultivating and cultivated one and I’d been surprised if within two years if Amazon were producing prize winners or best sellers.”

“What do you mean by best sellers?” Smith asked. “Amazon is publishing best sellers every day.”

“What do you mean by best sellers?,” Oakes asked.

“I mean on Amazon,” she said

“Amazon is an eco-system. What percentage of your e-sales are on Amazon and are tabulated to Amazon best seller list? Amazon is a very powerful retailers, probably the most powerful one in American today. They want to publish books. What they really want to do is sell. Their focus in the consumer, not the creator. They remain first and foremost a retailer, not a publisher.”

Smith tried to take the discussion off the playground and back into the ballroom “I think Random House is terrific and we haven’t really talked about the parallel universes that exist today. I think that we sound a little adversarial but we all exist together. I really don’t understand the hostility to e-books. I don’t actually see any sign at all that paper books will go away.” Conference organizer Rosemary James of the locally iconic Faulkner House Bookstore and a founder of the society had started out introducing the panel by expressing her abhorrence for e-books.

Oakes disagreed. “Here’s a statistic from the pages of Publisher’s Weekly.”

“Oh, the bible,” Murphy quipped drily.

“It’s a bible…still the industry newsletter. It came out a couple of months ago, but it compared a significant portion of this year 2011 to last year f 2010, and the sale of adult trade paperbacks was down 65%. That’s not a decline. That’s a precipitous drop. Now e-books, and that number I don’t remember, but they are shooting up like this. That said, paperbacks are starting at such a higher level and e-books are just starting. There’s no point to discussing whether e-books are a good thing or a bad thing. They are happening.

“I actually now agree with you both. Yeah, paperback sales have declined because e-books are simultaneously published simultaneous with the hard cover edition,” Murphy pointed out. “They are the low price alternative.”

Having gotten his moderator’s groove back on and brought things back on an even keel, Murphy took a question from the back of the hall, but bringing the audience in just raised the temperature in the room as the audience’s own prejudices on e-books and dire prophecies of the collapse of the traditional publishing model re-ignited the atmosphere.

‘It’s not paperback versus e-book. We already know people like their electronica. I fight is quality control versus free for all, and how do they decide that?” a woman in the back asked. “We have sort have glossed over the fact that newspapers and magazines are in decline. That’s a bigger thing than all that stuff you’re talking about. If you care about literary fiction, where do you think we find out what to read? That to me is a bigger problem that what you’re talking about. I read the New York Times Review. The Washington Post has folded their separate publication. What’s going to happen when the newspapers cut their editors. These are the arbiters of taste that we all rely upon.”

“Not all of us,” Oakes interrupted. “I stopped reading the Times Book Review years ago. I think that’s something you have to decide for yourself. Do you have to rely on the Book Review to tell you what to read?”

“Well then tell me how you decide what to read,” the woman interjected over Oakes’ answer.

“I read things like N+1, The Millions, Rumpus. [There are] online literary journals. How books come to me they always have when I ran a traditional press. They come from agents, they come from authors.

“I think you’re talking about, what are the filters,” Murphy offered to

“I don’t know who those people are,” the questioner answered.

“For the point of the Times, I published a great little book, a biography of H.G.Wells. The Times Sunday Book Review does this little square of a little nasty review. I had never heard of the person before. I found the person who wrote this review–and me being semi-crazy because I thought this book was fantastic–I found this person and called him up. The guy was either a sophmore or a junior in college. The arbiters of taste are not so infalible.”

“The bottom line is: somebody has to be out there, with the plethora of books, saying you have to read this book,” the questioner asserted.

Another audience member jumped in, any pretense of going around the room by raised hands lost in the heat of the moment. “We think we have choices in the market and we don’t. We have just a very slim piece of the pie. We have all these small presses that we don’t talk about [at the festival} that are still doing regular books. When you talk about best sellers when you have a rare exception [like the Tinkers”, they’ll never make that mistake again because it created all this hostility.

“We used to have adults in the playground,”another audience member suggested. “We used to have Alfred Kazin and [John W.] Aldritch and they were vilified then because we didn’t like them telling us what to think but at least they were thinkers telling us how to read,” another audience member offered. “There is no culture of criticism anymore. It’s not criticism. Its a lot of mutual back patting” in book criticism. “Without it we might as well all be self-published.”

“If you’re looking for an arbiter, read until you find someone [on the internet] you respect,” Oakes answered.

“We’re gatekeepers, too,” Smith said when asked what was the difference between small e-publishers and self-publishing. “The big difference is editorial,” Murphy chimed in. “And its the publisher’s job to bring the book to market,” Oakes added. “Its the job of your publisher to reach out to your readers and say, we’re interested in good writing and you should read this thing.”

Asked about whether e-publishers would become the logical home of literary fiction, Smith said “I think there’s a lot of room in e-publishing for manuscripts that cannot make it in Big Six publishing. I have a really nice memoir that ought to be published and Random House would not be able to sell it. It would sell six copies for them and I think I can sell it.”

Another audience member expressed a concern about the impact of e-publishing on independent bookstores.

“We made a decision not to deal with stores unless they come to us. And they come to us. Instead of buying ten or twenty copies they buy two or three, then they sell them and buy another two or three and sell it. But it’s true that when we have a front list title, it will not reach all the stores,” Oakes said. “I think this new model is good for authors, for publishers, the environment and readers, frankly I don’t think its good for independent stores. I agree with you: the independent stores is a beautiful thing and I don’t have the answer for that.”

“The giant chain store that banks on having everything is clearly threatened by the internet which has more than everything,” Ruen added.

“So let me tilt your answer toward what I think to be an interesting evolution of this conversation, that the independent side of table is envisioning the demise of the indie book store,” Murphy suggested.

“I’m not,” Ruen said. “One thing that the Internet cannot replace is the physical sense of community and only an independent bookstore can deliver that. And they’re selling books.”

“This has been a fascinating, exciting and fireworks filled panel,” Murphy closed out, ” and this is an artisan profession that is in transition. And great people such as the people to my right are tinkering and prematurely aged people like myself are done in, and that’s an exciting world to have.”

Here’s a complete podcast. I apologize for the variable volume but there was only one microphone for the panel and none for the audience. I also apologize for my occasional loud interjections. It was that kind of a panel discussion: PODCAST

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