Publishing and the Economy
I was asked to speak at the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference on the topic of publishing and the economy. To do it, I had to interview over fifty editors, agents, and industry professionals.
The newswire reports: (WASHINGTON 11/25/08) The economy took a tumble in the summer that was worse than first thought as American consumers throttled back their spending by the most in 28 years, further proof the country is almost certainly in the throes of a painful recession.
The industry just wasn’t talking about it much, but the place they were talking about it was at the Frankfort Book Fair. Yet those who were there also said they were doing a reasonable amount of business. Summed up: “If you weren’t prepared to buy, then you simply didn’t come.” Business as usual.
Bob Sacks addressed the condition of the economy in Publishing Executive magazine, primarily addressing the magazine segment of the industry. His comments were pertinent, “This is bigger than anything we have had to face as an industry or personally as family members and providers, but the country, the world, and our industry have gone through this before. Did you know that the first issue of Fortune magazine was published in February of 1930, four months after the stock market crash of 1929?”
In his blog, Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson said, “Today, was a very difficult day at Thomas Nelson. We informed fifty-four of our friends and co-workers (about 10% of our workforce) that we have eliminated their jobs, effective this Friday. This will affect nearly every department in our company.”
Josef Blumenfeld, VP of communications for HMH, confirmed that the publisher has “temporarily stopped acquiring manuscripts.” He also maintained that the decision is less about taking drastic measures than conducting good business.
One of my most detailed responses came from Ken Peterson at Random House’s Multnomah/Waterbrook imprints:
1. For publishers in general, the larger concern predated the current economic crisis—that is, the declining health of retail book publishing. People are not buying or reading books as fervently as they used to, and this is not economic per se, but more about the competition of other forms of media for people’s time.
2. Consequently, long before this crisis, many houses have been cutting back on their new acquisitions and trying to focus their strategies on fewer titles they hope will sell better.
3. The economic crisis is likely to cause publishers to reduce staff before end of year. Some of this will be in editorial, but much more will be in publishing services and marketing.
4. Fortunately, at Waterbook Multnomah, we are not cutting titles drastically, but all year we have been more careful and more focused in what we acquire. It doesn't seem like we will be cutting staff, but all year we have been shifting a few people from a bookstore focus into Internet and church development channels.
5. I can’t stress enough the importance of writers being smart about writing what might sell. The wise writer needs to address the potential market of the idea first, before writing it.
6. Anything that was marginal before—poetry, children’s books, etc.—is even more marginal now.
7. A writer does not need to write a best-seller but should think about bigger, broader subjects, and avoid writing on subjects that are niche ideas or well-worn categories.
8. It’s also more critical now than ever before that writers develop their own promotional opportunities. They need to be proactive online, in blogging, Facebook, etc. They need to think about establishing an e-mail newsletter, building a list of fans. They need to think about speaking and media ops. Publishers more than ever are looking for authors with self-promotion built in.
Dan Bensen writes: NavPress is being proactive rather than just hanging on and hoping. As a self-sustaining, not-for-profit ministry, we have become more selective in the types and quantity of products we publish as well as the number and amounts of advances we offer authors.
Dan Penwell at AMG comments: We are cutting back some on titles and moving certain spring 2009 books to the summer or fall/winter. The slow economy and buying from the Internet (rather than from retail stores) have made things tough.
Paul Franklyn, Executive Director at Abingdon writes: We are cutting travel and other expenses. However, fiction is our seed corn at Abingdon, and we anticipate no cuts in our fiction launch plans for mid 2009. We don’t eat our seed corn.
Another house says: “The key thing I want writers to know is that they need to be realistic about their advances. Publishers are focused on making sure that every book earns out within the first year. The days of progressively larger advances with each new contract are over—unless the authors’ sales can be proven to have increased. Sales and Marketing are definitely looking at past performance as they sell today’s new book.”
Bethany says: We are not cutting our list as other houses have. We are always looking for strong stories and the economy won’t end that. That said, the performance of your first book is more crucial than ever. Folks with poor sales track records are having books cancelled and are having a difficult time finding new publishers. We’re leery of taking on cancelled contracts. You need to make sure your first book gets a strong launch.
Andy McGuire at Moody writes: We do seem to be getting more conservative with our sales projections on various projects as the economy struggles. With that, we end up lowering the advances offered. I would advise authors to think about sharing the risk with the publishers a bit more. If the author really believes in his or her work, they can help the publisher reach the market.
Nancy Lohr at BJU Press reports they are working to improve internal efficiencies, also warning that advances would go down. She went on to say: “But as my pastor reminded us yesterday, no matter what happens to our 401K plans, we still have a 419P plan: “my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”
Dennis Hillman at Kregel writes:
Everyone wants to cut cost. Less room for a marginal book.
I found only a couple of agents talking on the subject. Chip MacGreagor was asked, “Would you suggest writers with a ready book proposal to hold off a bit—perhaps submit later? Should they do anything differently in light of the economy?”
No way. I’m with one of the commenters who noted that publisher and bookseller stocks are down because the overall market is down. There’s a mad rush to sell, and that’s artificially driving down stock prices. But Amazon is a well-run company that makes good money. Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Books-a-Million may be facing a squeeze, but they’re still the three largest bookstore chains in America. And all those publishers are still in the business of creating and selling books. Things may slow down in terms of acquisitions while everyone gets their bearings, but eventually the publishers will still need to acquire new titles, since selling books is the way they remain in business. The one thing I’d say is that in a weak economy, the core truths of book publishing become even more pronounced: have a big idea, express it through great writing, and support it with a strong platform. If an author walks in with a small idea, or a book that’s only 80 percent done, he or she is going to find a very tough time getting a book published.
That’s a sampling of industry pros. What does it mean? I was doing deals right up to the Thanksgiving-Christmas break, but of course the industry goes dead then anyway as committee meetings become almost impossible to schedule.
I think it says we’re going to see a more cautious approach to acquisitions over the next months and see it taking longer to get decisions. That gives us time to make that submission as good as possible, because the competition is going to be stronger than ever. Books that are simply “finished” won’t get it done, because the market is looking for books that are excellent. Should we quit writing and quit submitting? Of course not! Just keep doing business as usual . . . but with a little more patience.
Because things are continually changing in the world of publishing, the latest information can be found on my website. I maintain it regularly.
Here is a link.
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