The Book Publisher’s Elephant

November 14, 2009

Roadshow stop: University of Texas Press
Roadshow mentor: Casey Kittrell, Acquisitions Editor

When I worked at Whitecap Books, my favourite days were the ones a new shipment of books arrived from the printers. The Marketing and Sales Manager would circulate the office dropping off a copy for everyone–the spine still uncracked, the dust jacket smudge and fingerprint free. I would stick my faces between the pages, take deep breaths of the new book, and rub the smooth pages against my cheeks. For each new title, I would spend a few minutes like this with my nose pressed into it.

Indicative of a glue-huffing addiction? Perhaps. Mildly perverted? Probably.

But I’m guessing this sensory experience won’t creep out other book enthusiasts–especially ones who have worked in the industry. I think they’ll understand the compulsion to take in every detail of the book, not just the words in between the covers. Because book lovers really do love books. They frequent blogs like this one, dedicated to the design of cover art. Or this one that gives the origins of a book’s title. (Did you know it was originally supposed to be called Catch-18?) Book lovers aren’t just avid readers. They’re a breed apart.

When I was visiting my sister in Austin, Texas, I was invited to spend a day at the University of Texas Press, shadowing an Acquisitions Editor. And although I have already worked in publishing, I jumped at the chance for two reasons:

1. If I said no, I would be breaking Roadshow Rule Number One.

2. I clearly have a thing for books.

University Press
A University Press operates a bit different than a private publishing house–obviously, they publish a large list of academic books, including books for college courses. More important, profit is not explicit in the press’s mission. While they publish many books that are widely read and reviewed, others are so specialized their audience is not large enough for even modest commercial success. So UT Press uses its nonprofit status and connection to the university, to fundraise for their most specialized scholarly books–a credit line not typically found in the ledgers of corporate houses (Surprisingly, a title like De-colonizing the Sodomite: Queer Tropes of Sexuality in Colonial Andean Culture is not often a contender for the bestseller’s list and may require a little funding from the alumni).

For my afternoon at UT Press, I sat in on two meetings–the Big EC and the Little EC. (Editorial Council). The first meeting was a check-in with all the departments needed to bring a book from concept to creation–editorial, production, design, accounting, rights & permissions. As with most industries, the creative and the financial departments had the occasional head butt, and there were a few murmurs and suppressed smiles when discussing the ‘marketing plan’ for a book with a proposed print run of 500 copies and a title like The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, HD, and Yeats. But overall, it was a mostly civilized conversation about books.

The Little EC was comprised of the editors and the director. In a round table discussion, each editor pitched projects that they had recently unearthed. The group would discuss the book concept’s potential and then decide whether to pursue it, research it more, shelve it, or bury it. It was another conversation about books with people who loved them as much as I did. And who understood the magic and thrill of how a book proposal or idea could take so many shapes before it became a bound, finished product.

Smart people and Books: Two things I love that face potential extinction

After hanging out at UT Press, part of me wanted to jump off the Roadshow and throw myself back onto the publishing bandwagon. To surround myself with smart people and books. Sure the job has its drawbacks–the pay is lousy, and authors can occasionally get all diva on you. (My personal favourite at Whitecap was a D-list celebrity chef/cookbook author who reamed me out for 45 minutes before I could get a word in to tell him he had dialed the wrong extension.) Overall, however, it’s a pleasant environment to work in.

But part of me is reluctant to re-enter the publishing realm and not just because it’s tough to get into. But because there’s an elephant sitting in the office of every North American publisher—people simply aren’t buying books like they used to, in volume and in format.

There are a lot reasons for the grim state of the book business, some well-documented and some still theoretical. According to my mentor at UT, Casey Kittrell, part of it can be attributed to online access to cheap, used books.

“The Internet revolutionized used book sales,” Casey says. “To the extent that most brick-and-mortar stores now function more as offices for online sales rather than browsing spaces. And it IS wonderful that if the old hippie bookseller down the street doesn’t have a $2 paperback of Noam Chomsky you can have one 24 hours later via an old hippie in the next county, state, country. Ah, Noam doesn’t need the royalties anyway.”

But online used sales are just the trunk of the elephant. There’s also a decline in the number of people reading—people have shifted their attention to other forms of entertainment, such as film, TV, video games, and the web. The analog book is suffering a popularity slump compared to its digital competition.

Digital publishing is another piece of this literary Dumbo. Google announced last month its upcoming launch of Google Editions, which will allow readers to buy books that can be read on their laptop or smart phone. And serial literature is making a comeback on blogs, and in Japan, on cellphones. (Keitai Shosetsu) To what extent these new trends and technologies will affect traditional book publishing in North America remains to be seen.

Some publishers are embracing digital publishing so much that they are redefining not only how books will be read but how they are created. Book Riff, created by Douglas and MacIntyre and Nitobi Software Inc., melds book publishing with user-generated content. Users can pick and choose content from existing publications, combine it with their own, and have a book bound and shipped within 48 hours. But Book Riff is well ahead of the game. Because the majority of publishers don’t seem to be engaging digital publishing with this kind of innovation or zeal. Many are sticking to business as usual.

But information and how readers consume it, is undergoing a continuous transformation. And, as much as I don’t want to admit it, the book can’t continue to hide between its covers–eventually readers will demand (for some genres at least) that books, and book publishers, catch up to the digital revolution.

So although I loved my day with smart people and books, I’m not sure I’m ready to jump back into book publishing. But I am intrigued by what direction digital publishing and other upcoming technologies will do to the book. Perhaps this impending and inevitable publishing ‘revolution’ will present a new industry and a new opportunity worth exploring. Although, I’m not sure if pressing my nose against the screen of an e-book reader and taking a deep whiff of glass and plastic will hold for me the same level of sensory satisfaction.

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3 Responses to “The Book Publisher’s Elephant”


  1. I wonder if the same tremours are being felt in the U.K.? Here in London at least, we have these huge bookstores that are still filled with shoppers, and you only need to take a commuter train to see how popular books still are with the general public. The impression on a purely superficial level is that the publishing industry is OK – perhaps not great, but still moving forward. I personally try to buy directly from shops instead of online, but I do end up borrowing loads from my local library too.

    Ollie

    • Helen Stortini Says:

      Ollie…I think we’re still a ways off from digital publishing and digital books usurping the analog book–especially since the book is the ideal portable device. No batteries required. But the industry is taking a hit. And I would also be curious to know if the U.K. is in a similar situation. Perhaps a British Publishing Co would want to fly me to London so I can do a comparison!


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