Neil Nyren on the State of the Industry

Interviewed by J.T. Ellison

For the past two years, we’ve been lucky enough to have publishing guru Neil Nyren join us for an annual glimpse into the inner working of the publishing industry. I was so happy when Neil agreed to come back again, for his third annual State of the Industry interview! Especially now, with publishing in flux, it’s important to get the real skinny on the industry. Links to the past two interviews can be found here (2007) and here (2008). They’re well worth a read.

Neil Nyren is the senior vice president, publisher and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons. He’s been involved in the careers of many of today’s leading authors, including 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. His non-fiction list reads like a who’s who as well: 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. And if that’s not enough of an endorsement, he’s just been nominated as Best Editor by Spinetingler Magazine. (You can vote for Neil here.)

I’m always thrilled when Neil comes for a visit, so without further ado, here we go!

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The state of the industry is in flux, and we’re all looking for answers. What can you tell us to calm the incipient waves?

Not surprisingly, because of the economy, I’ve gotten asked this a lot the last few months, because everybody’s read all the bad news: layoffs, restructurings, pay freezes, wobbly sales, etc. And, yup, that’s bad. But I point out a few things.

First, it’s bad for everybody right now – we’re in a recession. Much as we like to think we’re the center of the world, God has not struck publishing and passed over everybody else (you can see I have the season on my mind). I’ve also been around long enough to see several cycles come and go – the lean years and the fat years, when we all staff up and buy books like mad.

And it isn’t as if we aren’t buying books now, because we are. We’re being careful, sure (mostly, though some of the buys recently – well, I’m not going to comment), but a publisher’s got to have books. That’s our business. And it’s not all the tried-and-true or big celebrities (though the latter is what tends to get the ink). I’ve just taken a quick look and at Putnam we bought four first novels in March. Other first novels from four different publishers, including us – The Help, Beat the Reaper, The Piano Teacher, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet – have made the NYT hardcover list in the first months of this year. That’s pretty encouraging, isn’t it?

All we’re looking for, when it comes to fiction, is a good story. That hasn’t changed, and never will. No matter what happens, the best advice I can give to anybody reading this blog: Just write the best damn book you can.

I know many editors and agents are using Kindles to read submissions. Do you have a Kindle? Outside of the convenience factor, is it the death of the bound book?

Here you start getting into other “in flux” questions, of course. Because we’re not just talking about the Kindle or the Sony Reader, but, all e-reading devices, including smartphones, PDAs, and Dick Tracy’s wrist TV. But I don’t think e-readers are the death of the bound book. It’s still early in the game, and most people aren’t reading e-books yet – Penguin’s income from e-books increased several hundredfold last year from the year before, but that’s still just a teensy-tiny part of our income. However, it is going to keep growing as the apps spread and the physical e-readers improve, and then they’ll simply be one more way to enjoy a book, for those who prefer it (the same way some people like audio books now). But the printed book will always endure. A piece of plastic will never replace the look and feel and smell of paper.

And, no, I don’t have an e-reader, but many of our editors do, not only for books, but, as you say, for submissions. It’s much easier to download a submitted ms and read it that way than to stuff a 500-page ms in your bag. And as I noted on Murderati a while ago, all our sales reps have them, too, so that they’re not afflicted with massive towers of paper teetering around their homes. We have public network folders they can access, and download any ms they want – it gives them a lot more flexibility, and they end up reading more before they sell it than they might have otherwise.

Electronic galleys and catalogs are all the rage – as a cost-saving measure and as an environmental issue. Do you think this is a good trend? Will all publishers move to this model in the near future?

In line with the above, you’ve asked about electronic galleys and catalogues. Harper’s moved to the latter, as have some smaller publishers, and I’m sure there aren’t many publishers who aren’t studying it in some way. I think you’re going to see a lot of it. Printed catalogues are outdated as soon as they roll off the press. Jackets change, publicity and promo details change, plots change, new books are suddenly dropped in – digital catalogues can be constantly refreshed and updated. For me, they just make sense. And they’re short enough so that they’re easy to download for anybody who needs a physical copy.

The future’s a little hazier for electronic galleys, though I think their use will increase. These galleys are meant for reviewers, booksellers, media – a whole host of people – and until all of them have an e-reader, their use is bound to be limited. And even then, a lot of people are likely to want that individual ARC. But – time will tell.

What do you think of the new policy at Thomas Nelson, where they’re making a book, e-book and audio book available for one price? Is this the future of publishing?

I’m not going to comment on Nelson. But here’s one thing I do want to say. There’s a chorus out there that claims publishers should charge next to nothing for e-books, because it cost us next to nothing to produce them. But – and I know I’m going to rile them, but too bad – that’s nonsense. The physical manufacturing of a book is only one small part of a publisher’s costs. It makes no difference if a book is printed or formatted for download, most of the costs are apart from that: the advance (and later royalties), the editing, the copyediting, the proofreading, the design, the marketing, the publicity, all the staff involved in each of those stages. The actual ppb – paper, printing and binding – is not a very big piece. And even when discussing the costs of producing an e-book, there are still plenty involved in formatting for all the different platforms out there, warehousing, and the staff involved in all that.

E-books don’t cost much? Please.

The rate of change in technology is becoming quicker every day. In most cases, readers will get to the next new technology before we do. Can we adapt fast enough and what are publishers doing to adapt to the changes?

Unfortunately, tech is not really my area of expertise, and I am eternally grateful that there are phalanxes of people around here whose responsibility it is to think about it every single day. So I can’t answer this in any intelligible way. I’m fascinated, though, by the bits and pieces I do see: the aforementioned apps for any conceivable device, for instance. The experiments in selling – I’ve just read about one test in some stores to get them more involved in e-book selling. They’re selling cards with a book cover on one side and a code on the other – the customer buys the card, has it activated at the register, and downloads the e-book there or at home. Interesting, right?

Then there are the evolving e-book formats – there’s a new one that allows for two-minute videos, and I’ve just read about a thriller on offer containing “two dozen short videos with actors that augment the book’s main mystery.” It’s called a Vook. I know, not exactly mellifluous, but hey.

Everybody’s Twittering – publishers, authors, bookstores. The bookstore use interests me most, because they’re using it to drive people into signings and events. Publishers are doing a lot with e-cards and videos for accounts – I have a new book for which the author created his own video ad, and we’ve made it available for any account who wants it, and we’re also using it as a paid web advertisement on a number of blogs.

And here’s a cool thing that Penguin UK has done – “We Tell Stories,” a site on which six authors wrote six stories over six weeks, with a mysterious “secret” seventh story involved – it recently won a web award from SXSW. (Editor’s Note: SXSW is South by Southwest, an annual music, movie and technology exposition in Austin, Texas.)

In all industries, businesses are looking for the next great market. Are you looking at opportunities in new emerging markets overseas or among new target audiences within existing markets?

Well, I think the next great market might in fact be e-books, once everything’s sorted out – that some of the customers will be people who aren’t regular readers. We’re also always looking for opportunities in non-book venues – for The Friday Night Knitting Club novel, for instance, we held events in yarn stores. We have whole departments dedicated to special sales and gift sales and college adoptions. Overseas, there are offices – even whole divisions – opening in places like China and India, even Dubai!

In every recession, new businesses and firms rise from the ashes. With all of the layoffs in publishing, what type of business would you suggest they start?

I’ve seen a number of people, not surprisingly, become agents and packagers. I think there’ll be a host of digital opportunities, though – just the other week, I saw an item about a former Doubleday editor and a friend who develops mobile phone games teaming up to launch an imprint for new books to be published on mobile platforms. Another editor left on his own accord to start a recipe website from great chefs and cookbooks authors. I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more of that kind of thing (cellphone novels, incidentally, are all the rage in Japan, so much so that traditional publishers are even taking the most successful and putting them into print!).

What do new authors need to know about how to break in to publishing? Has anything changed?

It depends what kind of publishing they want to break into, I suppose. For traditional publishing, very little has changed. Most (though not all) of us still want agented manuscripts, but editors have been reaching out and finding books through blogs, websites, Twitter (and maybe even cellphones!). Some self-published books have done well and then got picked up by mainstream publishers. And as far as really non-traditional publishing goes, well, we’ve been discussing a little bit of that above. I can’t give much advice on that – I’ve no idea! – but, really, who knows?

Finally, for new authors – and for any authors – here’s something I want to say. I was asked at a conference a few months ago what advice I’d give to writers and – boom or recession, print or e-books, fiction or nonfiction – here’s my best shot:

One, if you’re a writer, write. Write every day. Put your butt in that chair. I don’t care how many pages you turn out, just produce something every day. I know one writer who sometimes speaks at writers’ conferences and begins by asking, “How many here are serious about being writers?” Most, of course, raise their hands. “Then what are you doing here? Go back to your rooms, go back to your homes, go write!”

Two, learn the business. As a writer, you are the CEO of your own business. Nobody will care as much as you do. You should make it your job to learn that business. Don’t assume your publisher knows everything. Do you know what one of the most common answers in publishing is, no matter who asks the question? “I don’t know.” The other is, “It depends.” How many copies will the book sell? I don’t know. Will there be a paperback edition? It depends. Will the NYT review it? Gee, I don’t know. Will you spell my name right on the jacket? It depends.

Learn the business. Observe, listen, question. Be flexible. And don’t get hung up on the trivia that sidetracks so many people. Which leads to:

Three, be happy (I’m indebted to Joe Konrath, on whose site I first saw this advice, and which I’ve adapted a little). Do you know what I’m talking about here? Look, you all know people who think like this. I’ll be happy…when I finish my book. I’ll be happy…when I land an agent. I’ll be happy…when I sell that book. I’ll be happy…when I sell three books…when I make 100K a book…when I hit the NYT bestseller list…when I hit #1 on the NYT bestseller list…when I hit #1 for 5 weeks on the NYT bestseller list…when the movie from my book, starring George Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep makes $400 million at the box office and wins best picture….

These people are never happy. Be happy now. Of course, set goals for yourself, then set new goals, move yourself forward. You may never be at perfect peace with this business. All you can do is try your best, learn from failures, and celebrate successes no matter how small. Be happy now.

And for the fun stuff:

You must have more books than you know what to do with. How do you arrange your books on your book shelves – alphabetical, format, subject???

Hahahaha. Arrange, you say? Come, meet my friends, “helter” and “skelter.” Where shall we begin? With the overstuffed bookshelves? The piles on the floor? The stacks on my bedroom window sill and night table?

Best movie you’ve seen in the past six months?

Impossible task #1, but here are three: Tell No One, Happy Go Lucky, Slumdog Millionaire.

Best book you’ve read?

Impossible task #2, but here are two: The Lost City of Z by David Grann. This is nonfiction, about the explorations deep into the Amazon over the last century-plus to find a supposed lost advanced civilization in the jungle. Many men went, and a lot of them never came out again. Grann, a very good journalist, became fascinated with all this, and during the course of his researches, decided…to try it himself. Understand, he describes himself as a guy who lives on the second floor of his building in Brooklyn and, when given the choice, always takes the elevator. But off he went into the jungle himself, and his adventures are intertwined with that of the historical explorers. Good stuff.

And the second is Charlie Huston’s latest The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. Very dark and funny as hell. There’s no one writing like him.

Thank you so much for joining us today!

Wine of the Week: Here’s a wine tip in Neil’s honor: Chateau de la Negly Coteaux du Lanuedoc. It’s a mature wine, dark and inky, and very rich. Excellent stuff.

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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. Someof 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, 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.

27 thoughts on “Neil Nyren on the State of the Industry

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Excellent advice there, Mr. Nyren, especially the bit about not letting your happiness be determined by outside events in your career. And I’m glad to know someone else has the same difficulty organizing their books.

    Reply
  2. JT Ellison

    Neil, thank you so much for being here! This is invaluable advice, especially the points about happiness. I see so many people get caught up in the negative, and forget why they became a writer in the first place.

    Reply
  3. David J. Montgomery

    I was recently asked (for the first time) by a publisher if I would be interested in electronic galleys. I declined.

    I think it’s a great step for people who want to take it… But I also think if a publisher decided to unilaterally impose it, the number of reviews they received would plummet. (At least, while there are still reviews to be had…)

    Reply
  4. toni mcgee causey

    Very interesting — thanks for the interview Neil. (Great questions, JT.)

    I was especially interested in your take on the ebooks and their costs. I think for newly released books, a higher cost makes sense, given what you’ve described that goes into the production (before warehousing, shipping or stocking are even issues). That makes sense. I wonder if you think that price should be lowered for backlist (if they’ve done well) when a new release is out–utilizing a cheaper backlist download to lure audiences in for the new book?

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    Hi Neil, nice to see you here again. I was particularly entranced with the idea of "cell phone novels." Hmmm … at the rate I type on my iPhone, that could be a long time coming.

    And then you said "Iโ€™ve seen a number of people, not surprisingly, become agents and packagers." What’s a packager?

    Reply
  6. Pari

    Neil,
    Thank you for your insights and for taking the time to give us this annual update.

    It was fascinating to read your take on e-books and their potential/cost.

    But the three advice items you included were the gems for me; they were well-timed and wise reminders for all of us in this business.

    JT,
    Great questions.

    Reply
  7. Chuck

    Super interview! Mr. Nyren has helped nearly all of my favorite authors. Thanks for putting this on for us again. It’s a breath of fresh air.

    Reply
  8. Neil Nyren

    Thanks, eveybody!

    Louise: First of all, congratulations on the review in the 4/26 NYTBR for LIARS. Very nice!

    Packagers assemble more components than most agents typically do. Often, their projects are highly-designed and illustrative, with many different elements and sometimes multiple authors. They’ll pull everything together and often contract with the publisher to provide camera-ready pages. Another kind of packager, often for YA, will think of a concept for a fiction series, hire a bunch of writers to write individual volumes (though usually under the name of one author), and sell the whole package to a publisher.

    Toni: Well, I’ll answer your question with a question. Outside of any special promotions, do you know of any paperback backlist books that have ever lowered their price? Nope.

    JT: Thanks for the interview, and that wine you’re recommending sounds fabulous — you know what a sucker I am for deep reds.

    And finally, everybody, keep your eyes peeled for January 2010, when Putnam proudly presents its first novel with Robert Crais: a Joe Pike novel called THE FIRST RULE. It’s a killer!

    Reply
  9. Stacey Cochran

    Great interview!

    If I could toss my two cents into the publishing pot it would be to say this: 1) Minimize advances for 1st-time authors, but 2) pay the authors a higher percentage royalty on sales, and 3) pay the editors, designers, and publicists working on these debut authors’ books a percentage of royalties on sales.

    It would put more of the motivation on debut authors to make their own books sell. It would cut some of the risk to the publisher regarding books that tank. And it would give even further incentive to folks in-house to work to promote debut authors’ books (not that they don’t already work their asses off; it’s just nice to get a bonus if a book rockets in sales).

    Like I said, my two cents worth.

    Great interview, Neil!

    Reply
  10. David J. Montgomery

    Most advances for first-time authors are already minimized, with a lot of people in this genre only getting ~$10k. Isn’t the average advance for fiction (not just first-timers) only $25k? How low can you go?

    Reply
  11. Zoรซ Sharp

    Great to see you back here and a very thought-provoking interview – great questions, JT.

    It’s not the ‘Be Happy’ that resonated, so much as the ‘Be Happy NOW’. That and getting my butt back in the chair. Yes, sir!

    Reply
  12. Louise Ure

    Neil, how’d you find out about that NY Times review before I did? I just got word about ten minutes ago! (And yes, I’m triple pleased because Ms. Stasio actually mentioned/reivewed all three of my books in the upcoming NY Times mention.)

    Reply
  13. Sarah

    To play devil’s advocate on the ebook pricing front: The physical manufacturing of a CD or a DVD is a tiny sliver of costs, but that hasn’t stopped both of those markets from peaking, crashing and being dwarfed by illegal downloads. On the one hand, pricing should reflect the costs of paying the writer, editorial services, marketing, publicity, etc etc., just like it should for musicians, actors/directors/screenwriters/etc. On the other, if the price is set "too high" for an electronic version and the book in e-format doesn’t sell, it may not matter from a supply/demand standpoint.

    The good news is that while ebooks sales are growing at a phenomenal rate (68.4% in 2008 to $113m according to the AAP) they comprise less than 1% of the market, so publishers can and should be figuring out how to price them so that they make money, but consumers don’t feel like they are being charged too much for a product that can disappear all too easily, as what happened to this guy: http://consumerist.com/5213774/amazon-can-ban-you-from-your-kindle-account-whenever-it-likes

    And let me echo everyone else for a great interview yet again, Neil.

    Reply
  14. David J. Montgomery

    The price of e-books should be set at whatever maximizes profits for the publisher. The key, obviously, is for the companies to figure out what that price point is.

    It seems that point might be slightly lower than it is now, taking into account the demand perspective, but it also seems that it can’t go down much before it drops below cost.

    I think consumers have unrealistic expectations in this regard.

    Reply
  15. Allison Brennan

    Best advice I’ve heard: write, learn the business, be happy. It’s my new motto.

    I have been talking about e-book costs and people really are blind. And they justify stealing e-books because it "doesn’t hurt anyone." Urgh! One of my pet peeves. My ebook sales are teeny as well, and I haven’t seen Kindle sales yet but have heard that they are itemized on royalty statements, and if that’s true, I should see it in a couple months. I’d be interested in seeing what the sales are for Kindle as opposed to Amazon, which is still a small percentage for us PBO authors.

    Great interview. Thanks for your time and wisdom!

    Reply
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