by J.T. Ellison
year, Murderati welcomed a legend in the publishing community. Neil Nyren is
the Senior VP, Publisher and Editor in Chief of Putnam, edits just about every
important bestselling author out there, and is an incredibly talented and
generous editor who has been very kind to this particular newbie.
He’s kind of
like E.F. Hutton – when Neil talks, people listen. His panel at last year’s
Thrillerfest on the Snare of the Hunter was a resounding favorite. Neil Nyren, No Longer a Man of Mystery still
ranks among our highest rated posts. (I encourage you to take a look and
refresh your memories.) If that’s not enough,
last November, when Putnam had
eight books on the hardcover fiction and non-fiction lists in one week, four of
them were edited by Mr. Nyren. Let me repeat that. He had four books on the NYT
bestseller lists at once. A hearty Murderati round of applause, if you will.
That’s an unbelievable record.
have been a number of changes, rumors and concerns about the industry of late,
and I thought it would be a good idea to see what Mr. Nyren thought about these
issues. I hope that this can become a yearly gig — our own version of the
State of the Industry.
back, have a good cup of coffee to hand, and learn from the master.
memoir would you rather buy this week – Eliot Spitzer or Ashley Alexandra Dupré?
Neither. I’m very
cautious when dealing with certain kinds of current events books, because with
today’s 24/7 news cycles, we tend to get inundated with so much detail that our
curiosity is satisfied just by what we get in the media. We think: I’ve heard
as much about this story as I need to. And by the time a book comes out many
months later, our interest has already moved on to the next scandal or topic du
jour. To be potentially successful, a book has to provide something deeper,
broader, more significant than we can get in the daily media. That said, of all
the players in this particular drama — Silda is the one most people would like
to hear from, I think.
What is the next hot genre?
If I knew what the
next hot genre was going to be, I wouldn’t be working for a publishing house,
I’d own a publishing house! It’s pretty rare that we’re that smart. My
colleagues at Berkley spotted early that paranormal suspense/romance was
working for them, and so they jumped in with both feet and that’s why they’re
the leader in that genre now. Usually, what happens is somebody publishes a
novel that is hugely successful, and all the publishers, trailblazers that we
are, look at it and say: Huh, I should do one of those! Turow is a hit,
followed by Grisham, and suddenly we’re inundating the stores with legal thrillers.
Clancy writes The Hunt for Red October, and technothrillers are
everywhere. Eventually, the market gets saturated, sales die off, and only the
very best in their respective genres still stand head and shoulders above the
crowd. And we all sit around and ask each other: So, what’s next?
There is a perception that
if an author doesn’t find instant success, they will/are bypassed for another
contract. Is this true, and how do new and midlist authors combat that? And a
question from the outside – “Do you feel the publishing industry as a whole has
stopped looking at developing long-term careers for authors in favor of already
established authors or the flavor du jour?”
First, I think we
have to define what we mean by “success.” If I spend $30,000 for a book and it
sells 20,000 copies in hardcover, I am very happy. Sure, it’s on nobody’s
bestseller list, but it’s found a market, it’s made a bit of money, it’s
established the author for his next book. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a
success! If I spend $30,000 for a book and it sells 2,000 copies in hardcover,
however – then we have to look at why it sold so few, whether a different
strategy is needed, if there’s a way we can bump that up next time. If it turns
out that there is no bump next time, then we have to figure out where we go
And sometimes where
we go is to do more books with the author anyway. Maybe the author’s gotten the
kind of reviews or made the kind of friends or just written such damn good
books that we say, “You know, there’s got to be more here, we’ve just got to
find it.” Because, in fiction at least, we’re always buying the author, not a
particular book. We’re trying to establish a career. Which is why it is
absolutely not true that we’ve stopped planning for the long-term. The
long-term is what we plan for most. All you have to do is look at the
bestseller lists and see which authors made it on their fifth, sixth, tenth
book or more. We all know the tales of the authors who made it on their first
or second try, but it’s much, much more common that it’s an incremental
process, one book selling more than the last, until the author has acquired the
kind of critical mass that makes him or her ripe for that final push over the
top. My favorite personal example is Randy Wayne White. He’d already had three
novels that had sold modestly when we bought him, but we kept pushing him book
by book until finally he broke through – on his seventh book for us and his
tenth book overall. This is the norm, not the exception, and all publishers
know it. No “already established” author was born established, and the “flavor du
jour” expires with the next jour. It’s just plain, hard work.
Is it true that the market is
It’s certainly true
that the market is tight. It’s not the first novelists that are in jeopardy or
the stars, but the repeat midlist – but then, it’s been that way for quite a
while, hasn’t it? Every account can call up sales figures instantly now. First
novelists have no black marks against them, no large returns or tiny sales, so
anything is theoretically possible. But if an author has published four books
to static or declining results, there’s no way to hide it, and it’s very hard
to convince an account not to order accordingly.
How has your marketing model
changed in light of the new technologies and delivery methods available?
We spend a lot of
time now with websites – ours, our authors’ and others’ – bloggers, podcasts –
you name it. Some authors are more suitable for all this than others, of
course. For instance, I have a book being published on March 27th
INTO MANHOLES: The Memoir of a Bad/Good Girl, by Wendy Merrill.
It’s the experiences – sometimes very funny, sometimes very not – of a quirky,
attractive, in-recovery-from-everything woman in search of love, sex, sanity,
and herself, and she’s got just a great voice. Some of our approach is
conventional – radio, TV, signings, reviews, etc. – but we’re also using the
web a lot. An online magazine called Viv has already run an excerpt;
we’ve reached out to a ton of women’s sites and bloggers, including one popular
site on MySpace, where Wendy offered free galleys to the first 50 people who
replied; she’s run a video on YouTube and her own (excellent) website, created
“forward to a friend” e-cards about the book and her signing dates, written a “behind the book” essay that’s posted on the Left
Coast Writers website and linked to a variety of other sites,
including our own website, where the essay is available for download; and a
whole bunch of other stuff like that.
How do you get an author on
the bestsellers lists? And is there anything an author can do to help?
It depends on the
kind of book we’re talking about. Nonfiction tends to be heavily dependent on
media. Fiction tends to be more reliant on reviews and word of mouth, with occasional
big media bursts, such as we saw recently with Charles Bock’s Beautiful
Children. For series books, as I mentioned above, it’s often a slog – book
by book, edition by edition (hardcover followed by paperback followed by
hardcover), until the author is ready to break through. For all these books,
visibility is very important, and if we’re aiming for the bestseller list, we
have to make sure all our coop and bookstore promotion vehicles are in place.
That’s the greatest hidden cost of publishing, the one most people don’t
appreciate – when a book is on the front table at Borders or on the stepladder
at B&N or featured in an email blast from Amazon, it’s not because of some
bookseller whim, it’s because the publisher’s paid for it. Depending on the level
of the promotion, which is usually related to the level of the bookseller buy,
and is always of limited duration, it can be very, very expensive, but there’s
nothing like getting the book squarely in front of people. If you read
something about a book in the paper or hear the author interviewed on the radio
or a friend mentions it to you, and then you go into a bookstore and see it
sitting right in front of you as you walk in, you’re simply more likely to pick
it up. And if you pick it up, maybe you’ll look at the jacket copy, check out
the author photograph, read a few pages….
There are tons of
things an author can do to help, but we don’t really have room for that here.
The essential thing is for the author always to be aware of what a publisher
can use as leverage: media contacts of any kind whatsoever, friendly bookstore
owners, organizations that might buy multiple copies, writers willing to give
endorsements, lists of names you might have gathered on your website – anything
at all that can get the word out in any way. Listen to your publisher, and make
sure he listens to you. And this is true no matter where you’re aiming the book
– bestseller, good seller, any kind of seller! It’s just basic good business.
What books from 2007 should have made
the list, but didn’t?
You mean aside from
some of mine? I was surprised Martin Cruz Smith’s STALIN’S GHOST didn’t make
the list – it was a brilliant book, as all his Arkady Renko novels are. And I’m
a great fan of Julia Spencer-Fleming – I do expect to see her on that
list some day.
Do awards really matter in terms of
For mystery awards,
not a huge amount, really. They’re great to have, of course, especially if you
aren’t particularly known, because it’s a good way to get your name out there
to a core readership and build an audience. I know I’ve occasionally bought
Edgar books while browsing for something to read and have found some nice
things that way (last year’s THE JANISSARY TREE, for instance). By and large,
though, I don’t tend to see a substantial bump in sales.
What do you want your authors to do in
terms of promotion? Conferences, websites, blogs and book festivals – or stay
at home and write the best book you can?
The book always comes
first – always. If you don’t have a good book, published at the right time,
then none of the rest of it matters. After that, websites are useful if they’re
well done, give readers a reason to come back, and act as a vehicle for
collecting names – there’s nothing like that email blast to fans shortly before
publication to concentrate your sales early. Conferences and book festivals are
fine as long as you’re having fun, building contacts, getting your name out
there, and not spending so much time at them that you’re neglecting your first
job (see above!). Blogs – I probably shouldn’t be saying this to you, JT, but
sometimes I wonder if all the time and energy spent on writing a blog might not
be better spent on…well, you know what I’m going to say.
Do you still read blogs? Which ones?
I do. I don’t read
all of these every day, but I like Sarah Weinman (of course), The Rap Sheet,
Buzz, Balls & Hype, Murderati, First Offenders, Tess Gerritsen, Joe
Konrath, Crime Fiction Dossier, Naked Authors, Mysterious Matters, and Hey Dead
Guy. Once a day, I’ll usually check in at Crimespot to see if there are any
topics or posts that sound interesting. And I receive the DorothyL digests.
In our last interview, you mentioned
that there is a certain fallacy to the “sky is falling” attitude toward the
publishing industry. You said, “… The vision is being promoted of a handful of
publishers selling a handful of commercial books to a handful of accounts, and
that’s the future of publishing. But I don’t buy it. There’s a bunch of reasons
why – but that’s a whole other rant. Maybe some other time!”
Would you address that rant now?
There isn’t enough
room here. However, I’m scheduled to speak at the Craftfest portion of this
year’s Thrillerfest, and though my main subject is something else…I wouldn’t be
surprised if a bit of rant sneaks in there!
(Note: Neil will be moderating an all publisher panel at Thrillerfest as well… Let’s hope for rants!)
We also talked about what authors could
do to get your attention. Any tips for the agents who want to pitch you?
Oh, geez, just give
me a good book – that’s all I want. Don’t overhype the manuscript, tell me
anything about the author that I might need to know, and then just let me read.
Everyone wants a movie option for their
novel. Is there anything the writer can do to help that process along?
Here is the thing I always tell any of
my writers who are approached by Hollywood:
Don’t get sucked in. They will drive
you crazy if you let them. Just cash the check.
Don’t believe anything until you have a
Then, don’t believe anything until they
have an approved script.
Then, don’t believe anything until they
announce a cast.
Then, don’t believe anything until they
announce a start date.
Then, don’t believe anything until they
announce a release date.
Then, if against all the odds, there is
an actual movie showing in actual theaters, go to see it, buy some popcorn, and
pretend it was based on somebody else’s book entirely. Because if even half of
what you wrote gets up there on the screen, it will be a minor miracle.
Should authors be spending their own
money on promotion outside of the advances paid to them?
If it’s spent wisely.
There are lots of ways to throw it away. It’s a subject you want to talk about
in detail with your editor and the publicity/promotion staff at your publisher,
to see what might be worth doing and what not, and what would dovetail best
with your publisher’s efforts.
And just for fun:
What book do you wish you’d written?
Policemen’s Union. And that Charlie
Huston can write like a bastard – The Shotgun Rule, phew!
Wine – Italy, France, California,
Australia or Chile? Would you give us a wine tip?
All of them,
depending on what I’m into at the time. Lately, I’ve been drinking a lot of
Malbec, Nero D’Avola and Oregon Pinot Noir. And when I’m in the mood for a
white, almost nothing beats a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for me – Kim
Crawford’s my favorite. That’s my wine tip of the day!
Who was the best Batman: Adam West,
Michael Keaton, Christian Bale or Val Kilmer?
What, no George
What was your favorite movie last year?
Many favorites. For
drama, No Country For Old Men, Eastern Promises (so happy to see Viggo
get an Oscar nomination) and Michael Clayton (just good old-fashioned
moviemaking). For lighter stuff, Juno (of course), Ratatouille
(also of course), and Enchanted (Amy Adams, whom I’ve loved since Junebug).
Neil, I can’t begin to thank you for being so generous with your time and
expertise here today. You’re the greatest! I highly suggest everyone say thank
you to Neil by running out and buying books by all of his authors. You won’t be
Nyren is senior vice president, publisher and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s
Sons. He came to Putnam in
1984 from Atheneum, where he was Executive Editor. Before that he held
editorial positions at Random House and Arbor House. Some of his authors
include Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Jack Higgins,
W.E.B. Griffin, John Sandford, Dave Barry, Daniel Silva, Ken Follett, Alex
Berenson, Randy Wayne White, Carol O’Connell, James O. Born, Patricia Cornwell
and Frederick Forsyth; nonfiction by Bob Schieffer, Maureen Dowd, John McEnroe,
Linda Ellerbee, Jeff Greenfield, Charles Kuralt, Secretary of State James Baker
III, Thomas P.M. Barnett, Sara Nelson, and Generals Fred Franks, Chuck Horner,
Carl Stiner, Tony Zinni and Wendy Merrill.