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July 19, 2003

The Contempo Trade Book-Publishing Biz, an Intro

Friedrich --

I don't know of a better snapshot of the contempo NYC-centric trade book publishing world than Lynn Hirshberg's NYTimes profile of Bertelsmann honcho Peter Olson. Olson's brilliant and terrifying. He's got three degrees from Harvard, reads a ton of military history, loves stuffed animals, and has probably fired more people than anyone else in publishing.

Sample passage:

''Do I still have a job?'' Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, asked Peter Olson. She was standing at the bar of a restaurant called Campanile, having a glass of wine before the annual Knopf author dinner at Book Expo America. Morrison was dressed in black, her long gray hair braided like an enormous challah. ''I hear you're firing people,'' she said. ''Maybe you're firing me.''

Olson ignored the jab. ''I haven't read 'Love' yet,'' he said, changing the subject by deftly mentioning Morrison's soon-to-be-published book. ''I hear you think this one is really good.''

Morrison nodded. ''It's perfect,'' she said. ''The main character is a bit of a con artist. He's attractive, and he ruins everyone's life. Like all you guys.''

Very curious to hear where your sympathies fall as you read the piece. Mine were all over the place.

The piece can be read here.



posted by Michael at July 19, 2003


Two quotes from the story seem to me to explain the entire dynamic of the book business:

''Books are a flat business,'' Gunter Thielen says. ''The only way you can grow is through acquisitions..."

Citing a figure often bandied about in the industry, [Olsom] went on, ''only 50 percent of adults have read a book since they finished school. And only half of those people buy more than two a year. Our job is to build that number.''

In an industry showing little or no growth, cost control and consolidation are obvious strategies to be pursued. I would offer that the banking business of the late 1980s and early 1990s showed an almost identical dynamic.

It's possible that an entrepreneur with a truly radical different vision of the future (unlike, apparently, Mr. Olson) might adopt a different approach, but the "old fogies" who are bitching about the commercialization of the industry aren't being constructive, just reactionary. The book business of their youth wasn't a success because they were virtuous, they seem to have simply been in the right place and the right time, i.e., in a market that was growing.

It would have actually been far more interesting if the story had revolved around new thinking about building the size of the book buying market. Surely someone has some creative ideas on that topic.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 20, 2003 02:12 PM

Many years ago, when I was a new trade book editor for Houghton Mifflin, the first book I published was one called IN COLD TYPE: Overcoming the Trade Book Crisis. Working on that book was a revelation as was the publishing of it. The book so upset the publisher that he forced the author to accept a disclaimer in the front of the book. A disclaimer. "We're publishing this book but we don't believe what it says' is essentially what a disclaimer communicates. But they had to since the book laid bare the stinking practices that hamstring the industry to this day. Nothing changes except the publishers that have to go to the wall or be assimilated into the borg. Same things obtain. Short term gain vs. long term profit. Too many items in inventory and too slow a turn in the inventory. Items priced way outside of the public's perception of value and so heavily discounted across the board. Large chunks of favoritism and neopotism. Sly little inside deals such as the recent humping and pumping of Issacson's Franklin bio by his buddies at Time. It is often said that publishing once was a 'gentlemen's profession." True enough if you remember that gentlemen are often the biggest scoundrels of all.

There are radical ways of selling books and making publishing companies, but F von Blowhard is right when he says that it won't be likely to come from the cozy club on the East Side.

My own favorite quote from that damning NYT profile is found here:

Posted by: Van der Leun on July 20, 2003 03:47 PM

What can you say about a guy who struts his way through a trade show commenting, "I fired that guy . . . . I fired that guy ...."?

And who makes curiously inane -- disjointed -- comments about Genghis Khan.

In Cold type indeed.

Posted by: rur42 on July 20, 2003 09:03 PM

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