We are so honored to have legendary editor Neil Nyren back to Murderati for his annual State of the Industry interview. For those of you living under rocks new to the game of publishing, Neil is arguably the preeminent editor in New York: as Senior Vice-President, Publisher, and benevolent Editor in Chief of Putnam, his magnificent list of authors reads like a who’s who of literary dignitaries. He edits several of my favorite authors, too, which led me to seek him out in the first place five years ago to see if he’d be willing to come on Murderati and talk about publishing. He magnanimously agreed, and here we are, all these years later.
An April visit from Neil is a must for all of us in the publishing industry. It is a perfect moment to reflect on the changes we’ve seen in the past year, and look to the future, all in the capable hands of one who knows. If you’ve missed any of our previous interviews, feel free to indulge in their excellence. 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.
So buckle your seatbelts and spread the good word, kids, because this is the best one yet. Without further ado…. I give you Neil Nyren!
Many congratulations on your well deserved win of the 2011 Sluethfest FlaMANgo of the Year award! Do they pass that pretty pink boa on from year to year like the Miss America crown, or do you get to keep it all to yourself?
Thank you, JT, thank you so very much. It was indeed a signal honor, perhaps the capstone of my career, certainly the accomplishment I expect to see in my obit headline. Though – strictly between you and me, now – I have a hunch that the fix was in. One of the people I beat was Dennis Lehane – I mean, come on! And another was Johnny Temple. Have you seen Johnny Temple? Have you seen his hair? No way I beat that dude in a fair fight.
The boa was returned to the tender ministrations of the Sleuthfest boa ladies, for next year.
What’s the biggest misnomer in publishing right now?
“Traditional publishers.” “Legacy publishers.” Ugh. Publishers are publishers.
Is the sky really falling for the traditional New York Publishing Deal? Barry Eisler famously announced his move to self-publishing on the same day news broke that self-pubbed phenom Amanda Hocking was involved in a huge auction for a traditionally pubbed deal. For me, that was a perfect example of how things change, yet stay the same. And the stigma of “self-publishing” seems to have gone the way of the dodo. Is it safe to say we may have two markets forming? To steal from Dr. Suess, are we facing a sneech market – only some have stars on thars?
Ebooks and Eisler and Hocking, oh my!
People have been writing about the publishing sky falling ever since I’ve been in the business. But it ain’t fallen yet, and there’s no reason to think it’ll happen now. I’m going to give a pretty long-winded answer covering a bunch of ebook things, so bear with me.
Look, there’s no question things are changing rapidly, and where they ultimately end up, nobody knows. There are people who claim they know — but they don’t know. They’re just grinding their own axes. At my office – and I’m sure it’s the same for all the other publishers – we keep a constant eye every day on the sales in both print and ebook, and keep adjusting as we go. The main question is not whether ebooks will drive out print books, because nobody with any common sense really believes that, it’s what the ratio will be. Right now, the ebook slice of the market across the industry is about 15%. That’s 15%, not 50%. That differs, of course, from author to author and book to book. Your mileage may vary!
But it’s not going to stay at 15%, we all know that. So we keep recalibrating, on the books for which we’re about to push the button, the books we’ll be publishing six months from now, the books for which we’re drawing up the p&ls to buy for next year and the year after that. We have to figure: How many books do we think we’re going to initial ship, how many should we print, is it less than the writer’s book last year, do we think ebooks will make up the difference? And of course it’s not just ebooks that affect those numbers. We’ve got to take Borders into consideration, too, and the continuing state of the economy.
But some people think we – the so-called “traditional” publishers, the “legacy” publishers — should be feeling somewhat suicidal about ebooks – and that’s just a myth. Yeah, there are changes we have to adapt to, but, you know, that’s always been the case. If you can’t do that, then you don’t belong in this business. The bottom line is: Ebooks are a big part of our future. We like them. We sell them. It’s a different channel, a different format, but it’s the same book. And it’s opening up new markets.
Let’s just look at where we were last year at this time. The iPad had only just been announced, the Nook had only been shipping for a few months, there was no Google books or iBookstore, many of the bookselling apps didn’t exist. One of the bellwethers of electronics is the Consumer Electronics Show in January every year. Last year, the big news was that 8 or 9 different kinds of ereaders were introduced, because the manufacturers finally saw enough upside to make it worth pouring R&D money into them. This year in January, the big news was tablets – nearly 100 different kinds of tablets were introduced. They had all kinds of functions and affiliations and specialties, and many of them will probably never actually see the light of day, but the one thing that most of them – maybe all of them – have in common is: apps. And among them will be bookselling apps and reading apps. And the more ways you have to buy a book, the more ways you have to read a book, the more formats and platforms you have…the more books you’re going to sell. That’s the bottom line. We’re going to sell more books – and so are you.
Now, as to Barry Eisler and Amanda Hocking and the whole ebook self-publishing thing, it was obviously really interesting to everybody to see those two pieces of news on the very same day – just another sign, to all sides in the question, that no matter what your viewpoint, no matter what you think you know… you don’t know.
Barry thinks he can make more money publishing just in ebooks, and maybe he can. We don’t know. We do know that in giving up print books, he’s giving up that huge chunk of the market that is still print. Whether he can make that up, even with the larger share of the royalties he gets, that’s a lot of ground. I know he’s got a lot of stats and calculations up on his blog and elsewhere, but it’s still a lot of ground. In his favor is that he’s going back to the John Rain series. The last two non-Rain books never caught on, so I think people will be very glad to have the series back, and I expect that they’ll be ebook bestsellers. But they might also have been print bestsellers. His last Rain book was very high up on the Times extended list – it would only have taken another book or two at most to break through on that series. So his ebooks are going to do well – but he could have done well in both formats. So I think he’s giving up a lot. But we’ll all see together!
And Amanda Hocking — nobody’s done better than she has with self-published ebooks, she’s amazing, but as I’m sure you’ve all read, the reason she sold that YA paranormal series to St Martin’s was twofold: She was bothered by the fact that nobody could buy her books in bookstores, and she was a little fed up with spending 40 hours a week answering emails, formatting books, designing jackets, hiring editors, and all the rest of it. She just wanted to concentrate on writing. Does anyone here think she’s not going to sell a ton of that series in print? In addition to the ebooks? She could be the new Stephanie Meyer. But, again, we’ll see. I’m not claiming I know, because: See previous statement. Nobody knows.
Now, I think if anyone reading this is considering ebook self-publishing, here’s the thing that’s most important. There are advantages and disadvantages, and you have to decide what’s right for you — for your situation, not anybody else’s, not Eisler or Hocking or anybody.
The disadvantages are that: a) you are giving up that print market completely except for whatever you might get using print on demand, and b) it’s all on you. Not only the editing and the formatting and the covers, but promotion. You think it’s crazy now getting attention to your book? Mix it in with the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of ebooks pouring out, then see how hard it is. The odds of becoming Amanda Hocking or John Locke or any of the other names you hear are pretty slim.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t make some money at it. That’s the biggest advantage. If you’ve got some OP books, or a book that’s a departure from what you usually do, or some short stories – you don’t have to sell huge amounts. If you just make your rent every month, that’s money you didn’t have.
There are just two things I’d ask. First, think about consulting with your publisher, if you already have one. He’s already put time and money into you, don’t forget — and he might be interesting in working with you. On April 26th, for instance, we’ll be publishing a short story by CJ Box as an eSpecial. All the etailers will have it. His new book, Cold Wind, came out on March 22nd – and here a short detour: This was the 11th book in the series…and the first to go on the New York Times bestseller list. I can’t tell you how happy that made us all. It’s a tribute to the old-fashioned way of making a bestseller: book by book till you break through! Anyway –detour over — the short story features his main series characters, Joe Pickett and Nate Romanowski, and we’ll be publishing the story shortly after he gets off tour. It’s designed to give both him and his book an extra promotional bump once the first waves of promotion and reviews are over – and to make some extra money all by itself.
That’s the first thing. The second is: If you’re thinking of self-publishing an ebook, please—don’t make it a manuscript dump. Most ms never see the light of day for an excellent reason – they’re not very good. Before you put your book up there, make sure you really think it’s ready. Respect your readers. Because there’s enough crap published already, in all formats. And really if, through all the noise, you do get people to read your self-published book, and they don’t think it’s good – you’ve lost them as customers. And that’s simply bad business. You are in a business, you know.
Now that the NY Times is more representative of how most (not all) books are selling, both eBook and print, does it change its relevance?
An excellent question – I don’t know. It certainly doesn’t change anything yet. You’ll notice that the great majority of the books on the New York Times ebook bestseller lists are the same titles as on the print lists – the promo and readership driving one are the same elements that are driving the other — so I’m not sure if anybody’s really using the ebook lists for anything in particular right now. But they’re very new – let’s see what happens. Meanwhile, it’s interesting to see what kind of new things do manage to peek through.
I applaud the entrepreneurial spirit that is the eBook original author. But sometimes, those authors are foregoing the most important part of finishing a novel – the editor. So many editors were laid off on Black Friday last year – is there an opportunity here?
Black Friday was nothing unique. As long as there’s been publishing, there’ve been editors (and agents and writers) who’ve become freelance editors, for a multitude of reasons, and a book is still a book. Whether you’re planning to publish in print or digitally, you still need a discerning editorial eye to help you get the book in its best possible shape. If you skip that step, you’re just asking for trouble.
What role do independent bookstores play in the new landscape?
Independent bookstores – in fact, all bricks-and-mortar bookstores – are still very, very important players. The things they provide in terms of bringing books to our attention, arranging events, making recommendations, providing services, giving us a place to actually look and feel and browse, are irreplaceable to book buyers. It’s simply not the same online. And the indies will be selling ebooks, too – some of them already are.
Will the agent’s role change and shift with the new market?
First of all, again – most of the business is still print. Ebooks have not taken over the universe. Agents bring a lot of value to the table, and I think that’ll continue to be true. But you know what you should do? Ask an agent to respond to your readers on Murderati. I can guarantee you they’ve all been thinking long and hard about this very subject, and I’ll bet they have some things they’d like to get off their chests!*
So many authors now are crossing genres, writing for multiple houses, and literally working their fingers to the bone. Is it better to focus on a single series, or type of book, or try your hand at whatever story you think will work best? Are authors spreading themselves too thin trying to capture the market trends?
First of all, I’m always worried when authors chase trends, because trends are transitory and can dry up in the blink of an eye. Plus, if you’re chasing trends, your heart’s often not in it, and it’ll show in your work – it won’t have the passion that makes for great reads.
The danger in working in multiple genres is that readers who like one kind of book won’t necessarily care for the others. You want them to keep coming back to you, book after book, and if they don’t know what to expect, you’ve muddied the waters. I always advocate that writers find what they’re best at, and really concentrate on it, so that their audience builds and builds. Of course, sometimes your audience is so strong that it’ll follow you anywhere – just be really sure of it. And if you do have something you want to try, and you’re not sure if they’ll go for it or you actually want to try for a new kind of audience, there’s always that trusty standby, the pseudonym: consumer-tested and effective for centuries!
Is there any good way to gauge outward success anymore? Do reviews in the NYT, huge print runs and co-op matter the way they used to? I saw Jean Auel’s print run of 1,000,000 copies was halved in anticipation of eBook sales. Is that a common trend?
My opening line here is the same as for the agent discussion above: Ebooks have not taken over the universe. Print is still the biggest piece of the business by far. So, yes, these all matter.
Reviews: The biggest selling tool for books – the most valuable, by far — is word of mouth, and good reviews help spark word of mouth. So do recommendations (especially from friends, colleagues, family members), and media (print, electronic, digital, you name it). And this is true no matter what form the book is in.
Coop: So if you’ve heard some word of mouth, and you walk into a store, and it’s right there on a front table staring you in the face – your odds are much better that you’re likely to at least give it a second look, maybe pick it up, right? Or if you get an email from Amazon or bn.com saying that if you buy that book right now, they’ll give you 30% off, you might consider taking advantage of that offer, right? That’s why coop matters.
Print runs: I discussed above the adjustments in print runs that all publishers are doing on a regular basis in response to the growth in ebooks. However, some of that adjustment still comes from the lasting effects of the recession, as well – as soon as the economy got rocky, all the accounts became much more careful about their ordering, and that remains the case today. Instead of ordering several weeks’ worth upfront, they order a short-term amount, and then if there’s movement they quickly come back for reorders. All of that naturally reduces the initial printing. The most important thing for publishers when planning print runs is to be realistic – to assess the market for a particular book, add up the advance orders, add a suitable cushion, and then be prepared to go back to press immediately as circumstances dictate.
This is a touchy one. At Left Coast Crime last week, David Morrell pointed out that only about 1,000 authors are actually earning a living as full-time writers. Assuming that the numbers are correct, and 175,000 books are published in any given year, that means less than 1% of authors make a living as full-time writers. Why? And what can we do to change that?
I couldn’t tell you if David’s figure is correct or not, but the gist of it is nothing new. It’s always been true that most writers don’t support themselves full-time from their writing (in the back of my mind, for instance, I remember a 1979 survey of American authors which showed that the median annual income for them then was less than $5,000!). It’s also just as true for most actors, artists, musicians, etc. “Don’t give up your day job” isn’t just a saying, it’s been a standard piece of advice from veterans to newbies in the creative arts ever since I can remember.
For authors who are feeling the pressure of having to spread themselves to thin, and the peril that lies in not foregoing marketing to work on your actual book, any advice?
I think I may well have said this before in one of my interviews here, but, yes, it’s all about balance. You have to balance the needs of your writing – my mantra here is always: The book comes first – with the needs of your promotion. Both are important – but you can’t do everything. You just can’t. And the amount you can do is different for everybody. You have to look at your own unique situation, see what’s most important, see what needs your effort and for how long (not forgetting that you also have a life that needs tending outside of writing!) and what’s superfluous. Then you adjust according to what’s right for you – and you keep on adjusting, because “what’s right” is going to change as you go along.
Will the traditional book tour be a casualty of the new shift in publishing?
It might be – if print books no longer existed. But they do, don’t they? And how else is a fan going to meet and connect with a favorite author, live and in person?
For all of the next four questions, I make no judgments about “best” or “favorite” – they’re just things that have given me a lot of pleasure!
Best books from April to April?
Last year: Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; Emma Donoghue’s Room; Tana French’s Faithful Place – fabulous books, all.
This year so far: Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog; Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!; Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One Was a Soldier — if you haven’t read ‘em, don’t wait.
Nothing this year so far makes my list, but last year! Winter’s Bone (brilliant). That great Aussie crime movie, Animal Kingdom (put it on your Netflix queue immediately!). That equally great Argentine crime movie, The Secret in Their Eyes (ditto!), the Swedish Girl trilogy (the first one was by far the best, but as a trilogy, an impressive piece of work – I’m looking forward to what David Fincher does with the American versions). The Town (a big shout-out to Ben Affleck for laying it all on the line – directing, writing, starring – and bringing it off beautifully). And last, but certainly not least, Toy Story 3 – seriously, why is it that Pixar is the only Hollywood studio to consistently get the one basic fact: Give people good stories with characters they care about, and they’ll come running. Something we should all think about as we do our books, right?
Your favorite bottle of wine?
Right now on my table: a great Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc and a lovely Greek red called Paros Reserve.
Best restaurant in New York?
There’s no such thing as a best restaurant in New York – there are just too many good ones. But if you’re ever up in my neighborhood, JT, I’ll take you and Randy to my favorite neighborhood restaurant, an Italian wine bar and grill named Cavatappo, for a meal of fried olives, gnocchi, pistachio-crusted salmon, a pear and almond tart to die for, and a splendid Italian red!
* Editor’s Note: As we were preparing this interview – an agent happened to address the role question. Click here to see what Rachelle Gardner from WordServe Literary has to say.
Neil S. 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 the author’s he’s edited are Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Jack Higgins, W.E.B. Griffin, John Sandford, Dave Barry, Daniel Silva, Ken Follett, Alex Berenson, Randy Wayne White, CJ Box, Carol O’Connell, James O. Born, Patricia Cornwell and Frederick Forsyth; and non-fiction 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.