Where will we find the next generation of book bestsellers? In 2015, readers and booksellers were delighted by discoveries of half-century old manuscripts that yielded Go Set A Watchman, a novel from the reclusive Harper Lee, and What Pet Should I Get?, by the beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss. The bestseller lists for 2015 also included Grey, a retelling of the bawdy smash 50 Shades of Grey.
Yet audiences – not to mention publishers – will need to discover new tales and new talent if the book business is to thrive.
One good place to start is the annual Miami Book Fair International, held recently on the streets surrounding Miami Dade County College. The largest public book fair in the nation, the MBFI hosts hundreds of authors, from National Book Award finalists in poetry to self-published first-time novelists and journalists.
Beyond the Book regular Andrew Albanese, Publishers Weekly senior writer, joined Oren Teicher, CEO, American Booksellers Association to discuss the importance, and the challenge, posed by the search for the source of the next generation of “classics.” CCC’s Chris Kenneally moderated the program.
For podcast release Monday, November 30, 2015
KENNEALLY: Before we seek answers to the question where will the next bestsellers come from, it may help to know a little about the bestseller lists and the psychology of them.
Authors want to be bestselling authors, and their publishers would like nothing better too. Booksellers crave bestsellers, obviously, for they attract customers and prop up sales. And the book-dependent media, from The Daily Show to National Public Radio, compete to book – as in schedule – the bestsellers as well. A web search on the topic bestsellers uncovers a long list of links to consultants and services that claim to know how an author can influence the calculations themselves. Of course they make it sound easy. Yet the advice quickly boils down to, one hit the lottery – in other words, dumb luck – and, two, write a book that is irresistible for readers. So you either have to be E. L. James or Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The odds are staggering. According to Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers in San Francisco, the number of new books published each year in the United States has exploded by more than 400,000 since 2007 to approximately 700,000 titles annually. Further, he writes, a book has far less than 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.
In the digital age, though, physical book sales still count for a lot. Sales of printed books have recently gotten a second wind in the race with e-books, whose share of overall sales has fallen, impacting the bottom line at several top publishing houses. How the New York Times calculates its own bestseller list is considered a trade secret. Book review staff editor Gregory Cowles says the factors in the calculation are a secret both to protect our product and to make sure people can’t try to rig the system.
This doesn’t mean, though that the Times is immune either to criticism or charges that the list can be gamed. Last summer, Ted Cruz’s book, A Time for Truth, was barred from the New York Times bestseller list because the “overwhelming preponderance of evidence was that sales of Cruz’s books were limited to strategic bulk purchases.”
Now, the campaign denied this. They said the decision to blackball Ted Cruz’s book suggests that the Times very much does not want people to read the book. According to the campaign, Cruz spent a week on a nationwide book tour signing copies at multiple locations. Booksellers at each event, they said, had long lines – sometimes over 400 people per event.
Now, to get a sense, though, of whether or not this was real sales or otherwise, A Time for Truth was published on June 30th, 2015 and sold 11,854 copies in the first week, according to Nielsen BookScan’s hardcover sales. That’s more than 18 of the 20 titles that appeared on the list for July 4th, including Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, which was number two on the list, and Ann Coulter’s Adios, America, which was number 11.
Now typically, in order to make the New York Times bestseller list, a title must sell an estimated 5,000 copies in its first week of publication. So if the numbers hold out, Ted Cruz was doing twice that number.
Clearly, though, authors and publishers face a number of daunting challenges in the quest for bestseller status. Readers like yourselves are likewise overwhelmed with choices. In 2015, readers and booksellers got off easily, though. They were delighted by discoveries of half-century old manuscripts that yielded Go Set a Watchman, a novel from the reclusive Harper Lee, and What Pet Should I Get? By the beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss. The bestseller list for 2015 has also included Grey, a retelling of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Indeed, Harper Collins says – Harper Collins, the publishers for Go Set a Watchman – has reported that the novel sold more than 1.1 million copies in its first week of sale, a record, and that it has now sold more than three million – 3.3 million copies in print.
Yet audiences, not to mention publishers, need to discover new tales and new talent if the book business is to thrive. My guests today are engaged in the search for the source of the next generation of classics as if their professional lives depend on it – and their professional lives do depend on it. And I want to introduce them to you.
At the very far end to my left is Andrew Albanese, a senior writer for Publishers Weekly. Welcome, Andrew.
ALBANESE: Thank you.
KENNEALLY: Andrew, apart from being the author himself of an e-book title called The Battle of 999, which is all about the Apple e-books price-fixing case, is my regular guest on a podcast that Copyright Clearance Center produces – and you’re welcome to subscribe to – which is called beyondthebook.com.
And then to Andrew’s right is Oren Teicher. He’s the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. Welcome, Oren. And in fact these two gentlemen are frequent guests for me here at the Miami Book Fair, and I always enjoy chatting with them.
And, you know, I suppose the place that I would start in this discussion then – and I do want to be sure that we get a chance to include the audience in this as well, because this is about readers and what readers will find next under their holiday tree or wherever they find their books and how those books will be found for them by their loved ones or friends.
And we heard the number, Oren, that Go Set a Watchman has set records this year – 1.1 million copies in its first week, three million copies or more since then. Should we be celebrating that figure or should we be lamenting it – particularly from the perspective of your members, who are the independent bookstore owners?
TEICHER: Yeah. Well, thanks, Chris. I think we should absolutely be celebrating it. You know, there are some people who said nobody was reading in America anymore. Well, if you sell 3.3 million copies of a book, maybe some people just wanted to put that book on their shelf, but I think a few people read it.
And the fact is – is that those readers came to libraries, they came to bookstores, and they purchased other books or they borrowed other books. So I think any of these mega-hits that help further demonstrate the enormous power of the printed word is great for the book business.
Obviously there are a lot of other titles. Those numbers, Chris, that you threw out are kind of staggering. If you think of 400,000 titles, that’s a lot of books to get through. So it’s obviously impossible for anybody to get through that volume of content. But I do think that the mega-hits have helped create readers. There’s certainly a lot of evidence that the Harry Potter books, for example, created a whole generation of younger readers, readers who have continued to read.
So we need to support books at all levels, but certainly the big books help drive the market, help introduce reading, and we think that’s great.
KENNEALLY: Right. But bookstores like your members will survive if there’s more than just the single bestseller title on the shelf. We couldn’t stock a store with just Go Set a Watchman. We need far more than that.
TEICHER: Absolutely. But that’s exactly – those folks who came into the store looking for Harper Lee’s book often walked out with something else. And that is what helps make our business so exciting, because you can discover all kinds of different things. So there are, in that massive number that you pointed out of new titles being published – you know, the world is separated – book world – into the mega-hits and everything else.
But there are a substantial number of books that are published in the United States every year that certainly don’t sell 3.3 million copies but sell 10,000 copies, 20,000 copies, 30,000 copies. Those books have audiences too. And, of course, a lot of those authors who start with a book that sells 10,000 or 20,000 – perhaps their next book sells more.
So it is a process, sometimes for authors a little painfully slow, but the fact that there is this incredible volume of content – I was on a program yesterday with some independent presses here at the Miami Book Fair. And to a one, they all thought that this is probably the best time in a long number of years for American literature. The amount of really quality books that are being written and published in the United States has grown, and there’s a lot of good stuff out there. So when they come buy Watchman, they’re going to buy some of that other stuff too.
KENNEALLY: Yeah. Andrew Albanese, so is this the best of times and the worst of times when it comes to books and publishing?
ALBANESE: Yes. (laughter) It is. And I do think we should be celebrating that Harper Lee sold three million books. And I know there’s a strain of literary snobbery that wouldn’t say the same about E. L. James, but I’m not among them. I think that’s awesome too. She has certainly found a story and a genre that was waiting to explode – also good stuff.
But I would highlight one thing that concerns me, and that’s how major publishers today – there’s five of them – has really become a hits-driven business, like you really have to sell big numbers to play in that league. And it used to be that a major publisher – when there were more of them – would let you sell, 5,000, 10,000 copies a year – would sign you up, would help you build an audience a little more.
But I think the bar has now been raised for the, quote-unquote, mid-list author. You don’t have that much time anymore to build an audience with a major publisher. You have to sell a certain number of copies right out of the gate or you don’t get a chance to do it again. More and more publishers’ years – their financial results for the years – are absolutely built on having a bestseller. And I do wonder about what that shift in resources means for authors.
KENNEALLY: Right. And I think it’s important that, in the instance of Go Set a Watchman, that book essentially came from an attic. And I would rather live in a world where new books come from new authors, personally speaking. And so that’s the concern that drove this question and sort of organized this panel, which is can the industry survive? I mean it’s probably an obvious answer – it cannot survive simply rummaging around in the attic for more books by famous authors.
ALBANESE: Says you, (inaudible)?
KENNEALLY: Probably survive for a while. I mean if the music business found an undiscovered Beatles album, everybody would buy it. That’d be great for the Beatles. But it wouldn’t save the music industry.
ALBANESE: Yeah. I think that’s probably true – though the music industry is rebounding – changing a little bit. Adapting. And I think that’s true of the publishing industry also.
What I would say is the good news is that, for those authors who are no longer getting major publisher deals because they’re not selling a certain number of copies, that there is – I would say that we’re in a golden age for independent publishing right now.
When we talk about technology, it’s not just e-books and it’s not just digital readers. There has been efficiency that’s been brought to the entire publishing chain, and a reader can get a book in front of a – or, excuse me – an author can get a book in front of a reader today more easily than ever in the past.
And I personally know a number of my friends who have started their own independent publishing houses that have done quite well. They’re not international conglomerate material at any stage at this point, but they publish some great books. And they’ve given voice to a number of authors, who at some point will very likely wind up with a major and wind up selling a million copies.
KENNEALLY: So in a sense that mid-list author has migrated from the Manhattan-based publishing houses to independent publishers around the country.
And the discovery process was one that Oren was speaking about earlier. At Publishers Weekly, you’re part of that process. You get books through the mail every day. And they still come in the mail – real copies of books – so the Publishers Weekly staff has to sort through all of those books. What are you doing to make sense of that flood of titles?
ALBANESE: We’re assigning and reading and reviewing a lot of books. At Publishers Weekly, we review, between online and in print – mostly online these days – over 9.000 books a year. We also review self-published books now, and we’ve also come up with a couple of different products that cater to the self-publishing crowd as well.
But discovery is an issue. It’s something that we talk about a lot. I think that it’s with so much now available for the reader, how do you stand out? How are you discovered? What does it mean to be a bestseller?
You know, I was having lunch with a publisher last week who told me that – I mean, I’m not personally finding it – I don’t have any trouble at all finding something great to read. There’s so much good stuff out there that I’m usually satisfied with what I end up picking.
But this publisher told me that the discovery is now the book’s problem, not the reader’s problem. In other words, how, as an author, do you manage to get into the reader’s hands? And I think that’s probably true.
KENNEALLY: Well, I have to say too it’s reassuring to hear that publishers are still having lunch. They have the resources for lunch. (laughter) Oren Teicher –
TEICHER: Can I just say one thing about something that Andrew said? You know, I think it is true that independent presses are succeeding in a way that perhaps a decade ago they didn’t. But I’d also say that, if you look at the big five houses, they’re also publishing a lot of literary fiction, a lot of nonfiction.
You know, there have been books that nobody ever heard of. Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner – All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, published by Scribner – by Simon & Schuster – there was an author that had done two or three books before that probably, you know, 50 people read. And his new book slowly – not, you know – became an American phenomenon, and of course then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a remarkable book published by a major house.
Just before this session, I heard Lauren Groff, who is the author of the new book Fates and Furies – there’s another piece of literary fiction. This is her – I think her third book, published by Riverhead, by Penguin.
So I do think that the major houses certainly have raised the bar in terms of what kind of volume they need to do. Butt there’s a lot of really good publishing going on, not just at independent houses but a lot of the major houses as well.
KENNEALLY: Well, you know, it is an important point that I want to discuss with both of you about the leisure time activity of reading now faces its own challenges.
I mean, the industry itself is confronted with a variety of business challenges, but those individuals in this room and listening to the podcast – they’re readers. And they are under time pressure at work. The work sort of seeps into the rest of our lives.
And because we are now carrying around smartphones and tablets, if we have any leisure time, the competition for it isn’t simply, well, which book are we going to read but whether we’re going to read a book or play a game or watch a video. And that’s important.
Do your members at the ABA, Oren, talk about that? And do they feel that pressure?
TEICHER: Absolutely. I mean, I think – and you and I have talked about this before, Chris – I really think that the most significant challenge to the book industry – not just independent bookstores but to everybody in the book business – is exactly that. And that is the competition for leisure time.
We live in a world where everybody’s walking around with one of these that has access to every conceivable form of entertainment imaginable. It used to be, you know, if you wanted to go listen to music, well, you had to go – you had to get a record or you had to turn on the radio. You had to do something. Well, you wanted to read a newspaper or magazine or play a game, you had to do something. Well, today we all have instant, permanent, 24-seven access to everything.
So I absolutely think you’re right. I think the challenge to everybody in this business is how do we make reading compelling? How do we make reading interesting? How do we make it fun? And how do we do that, because we live in a world in which people’s attention span is continually getting shorter and that longer form entertainment, like books, requires time. And we’re all time challenged. So I think it is absolutely an issue.
KENNEALLY: Right. Well, we get that. And Andrew, I wonder how well the book publishers you talk to get that idea. And let me add to it – I was in Los Angeles for a similar conference last month, and what I learned was the movie business, of course, is also under tremendous pressure. And the demographic – the young moviegoer that they were always targeting is not showing up at the theaters in the ways that it had done in the past. And they’ve begun to think that it’s because they can’t tear themselves away from the phone, that they don’t want to be incommunicado for two year – ah, for two years – for (laughter) – it probably feels like two years, but it’s two hours. Right?
Does the book business get that? Do they worry about that – that the young reader today just doesn’t want to take the time to read a book?
ALBANESE: I think they do. I think they absolutely do get that. But that said, I think for them to address it – there’s not much they can really do about it at this point, except try to make their products – try to make books as available as possible on that screen that is in front of those teenagers.
But – we were also talking about this before – I mean anecdotally speaking, younger readers are still turning to print books. They see their phones and their tablets as the domain of Snapchat or whatever they’re doing at the time. They don’t particularly enjoy – e-books are not taking off among young readers.
KENNEALLY: And a point about that, which is important – you had said it. You’ve got young children. They’re not quite old enough yet to be doing this, but the sort of preteens and teens like to have a physical book. They like to have the latest John Green novel because they can read it and pass it along to a friend. They can’t do that with something on the screen.
ALBANESE: No, that’s absolutely right. And it’s also important, I think, with a print book, that a young reader has a chance to just interact with it alone for a while – that they turn off their other programs and that they’re not being interrupted by e-mail going off or something – e-mail – like they use e-mail (laughter) – like a Snapchat going off. I’m showing my age there.
But I would add one other component to this that publishers, I think, are beginning to wrestle with. At that same lunch – I only had one lunch this month –
KENNEALLY: I hope it was good. Hope you ordered something good.
ALBANESE: This publisher and I talked for a long time about television. And we both come – we’re roughly the same age – we both come from the era – we remember when television just really sucked. And it still – you know, reality shows, etc. – but there’s so much good television being made these days. They’re from miniseries that are being made on Amazon, to HBO, to all of these new places where just really great stuff is being made.
It makes us – the other part of this is the competition for creators. It’s not just about young people reading. It’s about young people turning to writing, because they’re writing code as early as they’re writing sentences these days.
KENNEALLY: I think that’s important. I wonder if you had a chance to ask that publisher how he feels – whether the book business still thinks of itself as being at the center of that cultural world, because the competition for creative minds is important as well. At a certain point, people wanted to be authors. That was the path towards glory, and bestsellerdom was something to be much aspired to. But now, as you say, they probably want to think about getting a quick movie on YouTube and then be able to hop over to a studio in Hollywood.
ALBANESE: I think that is certainly true. I didn’t get a chance to ask him that, but I’ll say that, for me personally – and obviously I work in the publishing industry and I’m a huge reader and writer – I don’t think anybody would question that the Internet is now the center of our cultural universe. Reading is still – in fact I would go this far to say that the product is no longer the book. The product is reading. It doesn’t matter the format. What we really need is for people to continue reading.
I don’t care if it’s an e-book. I don’t care if it’s a print book or what. But we need people to interact with culture that way.
TEICHER: Yeah, and there are, I think, examples where the book industry, perhaps belatedly and slowly, we’re not – nobody’s ever accused us being early adapters – has understood the power of the Internet, has understood the power of YouTube. I mean, Simon & Schuster has published this series of books from these YouTube phenomenons that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
So I think the book business has gotten smarter about figuring out, where are the interrelationships between the printed word and technology? And I think we probably could and should do a better job at that.
I’ve heard a lot of authors the last 24 hours talk about how they’re using social media to promote their work, how they’re using technology to get better known.
So I think technology shouldn’t be thought of by those of us who are interested in the printed word as the enemy, by any means. I think it helps us disseminate our product more extensively, and we ought to be figuring out how to embrace it.
KENNEALLY: Well, it’s a great point, because anyone here can go on to the ABA’s Website at bookweb.org and see your indies bestseller list. You can learn about the Indies First program. You can learn about what’s coming this Saturday – Small Business Saturday – so that’s a pretty easy softball for you to –
KENNEALLY: Tell us about Small Business Saturday, but also urge people to check out – because those booksellers, wherever they are in the country, are reporting in to ABA sharing what’s getting attention in their store.
TEICHER: Yeah. I often say that one of the reasons that indie bookstores are doing as well as we are these days is because of technology and it’s because we’re being smarter at figuring out how to use it.
We can communicate with our customers today through e-mail, through social media – do the same kind of things that are large corporate competitors can do.
And one of the – just the simple facts is, is that a lot of this technology – you know, a decade ago, either it didn’t exist or, if it did exist, it was so expensive that only large multinational corporations could afford it. The cost of technology has come way down. There has been a real democratization of it.
This Saturday – thank you for the softball, Chris – is Small Business Saturday, which has become, for tens of millions – and I’m not exaggerating when I say that – for tens of millions of Americans, an opportunity to show support for local independent businesses, not just in the book business – across the board.
Started a few years ago by American Express as a little bit of an anecdote to Black Friday, and to avoid getting trampled at Walmart or wherever people get trampled at on Black Friday – that that next day ought to be a day in which you can support locally owned businesses.
And the good news, contrary to what some people believe, is that independent business in the United States – bookstores, toy stores, clothing stores, drug stores, bicycle stores, hardware stores, sporting goods stores – are actually enjoying an incredible renaissance.
It’s in part because people care about their towns and their cities and their neighborhoods and they don’t want them all to look the same. They don’t want everybody – every place in America to be malled and every place in America to be nationally chained.
Now, the chains exist and the big malls exist for sure, but the localism movement is real.
And this Saturday, we have close to 1,000 bookstores across the country participating in what we call Indies First, which is our way of participating in Small Business Saturday. But literally tens of millions of consumers are going to go shop in a locally owned independent business next Saturday because it is a locally owned independent business.
It’s huge. It’s made a big difference. And American consumers are responding.
KENNEALLY: Right. And Andrew Albanese, people go in all sorts of directions to find the next good read, whether it’s a bestseller or not. And that can include the bookstore. It can include listening to NPR. It can include going online with a look at the bookweb.org site or a blogger that they follow.
But an important place to you, I know, is the library. And tell us about the role that libraries are playing in all of this.
ALBANESE: Libraries – without libraries, there would be no publishing industry, I think it’s fair to say. Our reading and writing culture in this country – in the world, really – was built on libraries. And it remains very important.
I know libraries are under a lot of pressure – it’s a beat that I cover at Publishers Weekly pretty intensely these days, especially with the shift to digital reading – but yes, libraries are one of the key places where books are discovered.
Libraries buy everything from publishers. They stock it all. They put it on their shelves. They keep it. It’s always there. It’s always there to be discovered. And you’ll never have a better experience – the occasional indie bookseller – than going and talking to a librarian about what to read next.
They’ll initiate something that they call a readers advisory with you, which is a fancy name for figuring out what you like and what they want to give you next.
But libraries remain a vitally important cog. And there is questions about whether or not they’re being well enough supported. Of course, they’re not. They could always use more support.
KENNEALLY: But it’s that wide choice that they offer that’s so important, because it’s there that the reader can roam and make choices for themselves rather than have it made for them by a marketing campaign.
ALBANESE: Absolutely. And it’s all there. And you’ll likely meet a reader who’s into the same things you are at the library too while you’re there. It’s a social place. It’s a place of discovery. It is one of the most important fixtures that will –
TEICHER: Yeah. Well, there is – as Andrew as you, I’m sure, know – there is substantial data that supports the notion that, despite all of this technology that we were talking about and all the way in which people spend time on the Internet, nothing beats a bricks and mortar place – a library or a bookstore – for you to just – for consumers, for readers to discover books they don’t know about. And there is voluminous data that supports that.
You know, our people may go online to buy a book because they know what book they’re looking for. But that experience of browsing the shelves of a library or a bookstore to discover something you didn’t know about is an extraordinary experience that gets replicated literally hundreds of thousands of times every day. And the data is unmistakable. People are continuing to discover books in physical places. And that’s why bookstores and libraries continue to be as important as they are to the publishing community. Even if we may sell fewer copies, it is in our institutions, in our stores and in our libraries where consumers are finding out about books.
KENNEALLY: So it’s not just the pleasure of reading but the pleasure of looking that’s important.
TEICHER: I think the art of browsing in a bookstore or a library – there are lots of us – you know, as Andrew said earlier – what you said, when there are those 400,000 titles, we’re not going to read them all. We need a few more hours in the day to be able to even think about that.
But the ability to spend a half hour or an hour browsing the shelves to find out about books that you hope maybe some day you’d get to read is an extraordinary experience that lots of people find as satisfying as actually reading the books.
KENNEALLY: Right. Well, it all sounds great. And I guess we’re all really getting pumped to go to a bookstore or a library. But Andrew, there’s a reality out there – that number in the hundreds of thousands of new titles.
But just this past week were the National Book Awards. And three of the four books in the major categories were from a single publisher. And congratulations to the winners. I know you have one you were particularly fond of – Ta-Nehisi Coates – and you’ve been touting that book for some time – and delighted that he won. But if three out of the four titles are published by the same publisher, there might be cause for concern there.
ALBANESE: (laughter) That’s right. Three of the four winners this year were published by Penguin Random House, and they frequently take home that number.
But I think it is something that we should pay attention to in this country – that 90% of the bestseller list is controlled by five publishers. I think it is worth paying attention to that three of the four National Book Award winners were – I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing.
KENNEALLY: A good book is a good book, whoever publishes it.
ALBANESE: A good book is a good book. But the tendency toward consolidation in the industry is of concern.
KENNEALLY: All right. Well, I wonder if we have some questions from the audience here. I’d like to give everybody an opportunity to ask our panel – Oren Teicher from ABA and Andrew Albanese from PW – and hands jumped in the air. That’s great to hear. I’m going to try to get as many as possible. And if you speak up – but I will try to rephrase the questions. So we’ll start there.
F: One of the questions I have is is there any movement to try to go in schools and make more of an effort there? Florida doesn’t have income tax – just a sales tax. So when we don’t have tourists, we don’t have sales, and all the English teachers get fired, but they get laid off.
And then also our schools are pretty bad. They’re still pretty bad, because we have – many reasons. But if there was more of a presence, like if the big companies could invest in the schools at those times when they don’t have money to be teaching kids to read – and that’s your readers for decade to come – if you’re not teaching that first grader right.
KENNEALLY: Right. Well, it’s a great point. And I don’t know if everybody heard it, but essentially it’s what’s being done in the schools to bring up that new generation of readers. And –
F: We need the publishers to commit. Like there’s scouts for the football and the baseball. Why aren’t there talent scouts in the high schools for, hey, we’re looking for people to send to college, we (inaudible) big college, so we can help the future. Great writers, she didn’t like “just before, he writes hilarious language-filled books.
KENNEALLY: Well, I had read as well that Taylor Swift has just partnered with Scholastic to bring books to schools. So there are things going on. It’s just one example that comes to mind. But Oren, do you know of programs that publishers do?
TEICHER: Well, yeah. Look, I – I would –
KENNEALLY: Or do bookstores or booksellers use (inaudible)?
TEICHER: Look, I would tell you that any bookstore – any independent bookstore worth its salt in 2015 – has to be engaged with public schools in their community. And if you’re not, they’re missing not only an opportunity, they’re missing part of the responsibility they have.
So there are lots of variations on the theme. I heard just yesterday of a program here in south Florida that Books & Books has engaged in with the schools here in Miami. But I think it’s absolutely, as you say, indispensable to create ways in which those of us in the book business are interacting with schools. And we need to do a far better job at it.
KENNEALLY: Yes, sir?
M: I can’t help thinking that (inaudible) just to ask whether (inaudible).
KENNEALLY: So I’ll rephrase the question, and I’ll put it this way – Amazon – good or evil? Turn it over to Oren Teicher first. (laughter)
TEICHER: (inaudible) first.
TEICHER: Well, is anybody from Amazon in the room?
KENNEALLY: Here I think we have a difference of opinion actually on this.
ALBANESE: I’ll say what I’m going to say, and then I’ll probably get a sack thrown over my head and be tossed into the back of a van on the way out.
But it’s hard to say whether Amazon is good or bad. Obviously they’re putting a lot of pressure on the publishing industry in a lot of ways that are very uncomfortable. They’re also driving a lot of innovation, and I think that’s to be praised.
What I will simply observe about Amazon is that they have found a way to say yes at every step of the chain, from the time that you decide you want to write a book to whether you are going to be published by a publisher – they sell your books. If you want to self-publish, you can publish through them.
Just last week, they released software – free software – for screenwriters. I mean, it’s incredible how deeply they have worked themselves into the book supply and the retail chain when it comes to literature. They want to go – every step of the way they have a product or a service that can cater to you. There’s something to be said for that.
I’ll say this about the major publishers – is that the number of books they reject every year is staggering. And all of those authors who are rejected by the major publishers can now go publish with Amazon and compete with those publishers.
Until the publishing industry finds away to match that or counterbalance it in some way, it’s going to be a challenge for them. And I think it’s a good thing that those publishers are finding a voice.
KENNEALLY: Right. And Oren Teicher, it’s important to add ABA. You’ve challenged Amazon a number of times, most recently just this past week, taking a look at the opening of their own bookstore in Seattle. We won’t end the debate today whether Amazon is a force for good or for evil. But what’s the ABA’s take on Amazon as a bookseller?
TEICHER: Well, here’s the conundrum that the book industry faces. And I think Andrew is absolutely correct – Amazon does a lot of things extraordinarily well. But they’re selling every product under the sun. They’re using books basically to attract customers to tomorrow sell you a flat-screen television, or sell you a computer, or sell you groceries, or sell you diapers, or sell you shoes. And that’s all fine. I mean, you know, we live in a capitalist society in which there’s a free market any business can use.
But books have become the vehicle – become customer-acquisition for Amazon to convert you to a customer for everything else.
Now, that’s great for consumers buying books. But it presents a real challenge to the book industry, because we’re not selling diapers and flat-screen televisions and groceries, and we’ve got to figure out how to make a living selling books.
And Amazon has figured out how to use us as a loss leader – how to use us to convert consumers into the purchasers of other products. So there’s an enormous challenge that the book industry faces as a result of Amazon’s practices.
I think the fact is, in 2015, the survival of the book industry is in fact questioned by the role that a company as big as Amazon is. Amazon is bigger than all the big publishing companies together. And that represents a real challenge. That’s never existed before in the book industry. And I think it represents a serious problem.
TEICHER: And Amazon is international. It’s all over the world too.
KENNEALLY: Right. I want to go to that woman there.
F: OK. So I’ve heard you talk a lot about not having (inaudible). And what you didn’t mention was Audible (inaudible) Amazon’s name, which I found somewhat remarkable. I just got turned on recently to Audible books (inaudible) (inaudible) more recently (inaudible). So printed (inaudible) these Audible books (inaudible). And he listens to (inaudible) book after book after book, because he has a long drive, so he’s turned me onto it. I don’t have a long drive, but I listen to it while I’m doing stuff at home (inaudible).
So now I finally get to listen to all these great books. So I’m hoping that you guys can do whatever you can to make sure that current books come in Audible form as soon as they’re published, because I rely on that now. I’m tired. I work at computers all day long. My eyes are tired all day. Literally. And (inaudible) is wonderful.
Also I do get stuff from Amazon for that, so yeah, (inaudible). (inaudible) as a mom, my son always saw me buying books and have a friend who buys at Audible (inaudible) all the time, so I started buying more and more from Amazon, but he doesn’t actually like to read. He never (inaudible) at home. But he likes to write, oddly enough. It’s not a passion but it’s a really strong hobby of his.
Well, I wanted you to know that he recently texted me a picture of a beautiful book he bought. OK? Hardcover, fake leather, beautiful cover. H. P. Lovecraft, for God’s sake, the complete fiction. My son, who doesn’t like to read – Lovecraft – sends me this. It’s so important to me – he sent me a picture of it. OK, or it’s so important to him, I mean. He sent me a picture of it. And he says, (inaudible) Barnes and Noble gift card (inaudible) I’m reading it as much of it as I can stand. Maybe I’ll just sit on the competition (inaudible).
And then he said a few more things. He sends me another picture. He says it’s so pretty. Maybe one day, when I have my own place – he’s 21 – (inaudible) – I can have a little collection of classics. This is from a kid who never liked to read. OK? I mean, it’s a beautiful book. And that’s why, it’s – So he says always making beautiful books, (inaudible) audible books please, because eventually they will attract younger readers.
KENNEALLY: Two great points. We’ll take them apart. Andrew, what about that – reading and listening as an alternative?
ALBANESE: Well, most publishers do publish audio editions of front-list titles straightaway, and most of the backlist is on there now. And it’s performing very well for them. Especially now that you don’t have to buy a CD or some other form – now that you can just stream it directly, audio’s performed very solidly in recent quarters for publishers. So you’re going to see more of that.
KENNEALLY: Right. And Oren Teicher, what about the book as experience – perhaps not a special edition of H. P. Lovecraft – is the only example of books that are objects that people just enjoy having, whether they’ve read one word.
TEICHER: Well, yeah, there’s actually some studies that have been done that actually talk about the tactile experience of holding up a physical book as opposed to the experience about reading it on a screen. And certainly the more expensive, fancier leather-bound editions – those are nice. But frankly, a trade paperback can be a pretty good tactile experience too. There is something about holding that physical thing in your hand.
Somebody who I’m not usually fond of quoting, Jeff Bezos, said many years ago that the book is the perfect invention. And he was right.
KENNEALLY: Well, it’s very user friendly. It doesn’t require batteries. You can drop it on the concrete floor. It has a search engine, which is the index in the back of the book. It’s got it all. I saw a hand back there – yes?
KENNEALLY: Well, the question is about what makes for a success with an author. And I suppose it depends on the author and his or her definition of success. In the bestseller lists, we’re looking at selling, first week, 5,000 copies of a book. That’s a pretty big dent in a world of so many hundreds of thousands of titles.
But Oren, I mean, success for a bookseller can just be helping that author be able to afford to write the next book. Right? I mean, selling enough for that to happen.
TEICHER: It is absolutely true that there are – if you look at most bestseller lists this day, you’ll find two classes of authors, which used not to be true.
Used to be that most of those authors that were on the bestseller list made a living because they were an author. You look today at the bestseller list, and what you’ll find are people who do other things. They may be journalists. They may have other jobs. So that there’s an increasing number of people who are successful in this business because they’ve got other careers.
So I guess the answer to your question is, when you say what constitutes success, I always would suggest that what constitutes success – if you can make a living at it. If you can be an author and you can make a living at it, that would be successful.
And it is true, as Andrew pointed out, that the mid-list author is struggling. But there still are literally thousands of mid-list authors earning a living, supporting a family by writing books. Is it perhaps a little more challenging today than it once was? Because I think the numbers that you need to sell have grown somewhat. But as Andrew points out, there are more outlets for those books to be sold.
So I think that there continues to be an opportunity for authors to make a living at doing this, and I think agents – to the second part of your question – you know, in a world in which there is so much content, agents are really a critical link in the process. And without them, I think publishers would be in real trouble.
KENNEALLY: Well, and Andrew, we were asking the question and trying to answer – where are the bestsellers going to come from? That’s what literary agents want to know, and they want to find them. And it’s interesting that today they’re going to look for them in the self-published books.
ALBANESE: That’s true. Increasingly, you’ll see a number of bestsellers have been found in the ranks of self-publishing. That is absolutely true. Agents and publishers have found them there.
I would say it’s hard for a publisher – it’s hard to put a number on what makes for a successful book. I think Oren’s right about that.
But I would say this one thing about agents and their importance is that I wish, when it comes to self-publishing, there was an agent who could represent self-published authors, because the contracts that are signed with Amazon and with some other self-publishing service providers are exploitative of writers – extremely so. And you don’t have the opportunity to line things out of a contract with Amazon, for example. You don’t get to negotiate with them. It’s you accept their terms of service and publish or you don’t.
Publishers are not in their world. Publishers have negotiated terms – even though they don’t always feel the terms are quite fair – they have negotiated terms with agents over the years, so agents are only growing in importance. And I wish we could extend that influence into the self-publishing realm somehow.
KENNEALLY: Well, with that, I think we’re going to round out today’s program. I want to thank our panelists very much indeed – Andrew Albanese, senior writer at Publishers Weekly and Oren Teicher, who is the CEO of American Booksellers Association – the ABA – at bookweb.org.
I want to thank you for your questions and thank everyone at the Miami Book Fair for organizing this weekend and for inviting us to join you. Thank you.