The 4th Annual State of the Industry Interview

Please join me and the rest of the Murderati crew in a warm welcome back to our favorite editor, the Legendary Honorary (Honorary Legendary?) Neil Nyren! Neil is the Senior Vice-President, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of Penguin Putnam, and edits some of my all-time favorite authors, including John Sandford and Daniel Silva. 

Neil has been kind enough to drop by and share his wealth of knowledge and expertise with us every Spring for the past few years, and I’m so excited to have him back again today for our 4th Annual State of the Industry interview.

If you’ve missed any of our previous interviews, feel free to indulge in their excellence here (2007), here (2008) and here (2009).

Without further ado – here we go!

This is our fourth sit-down in as many years, and I’m always struck by how much the industry changes from year to year. But from our chat last year to now, the changes have been exponential – at least on the surface.

Let me ask the question that’s on everyone’s minds – will eReaders kill physical books?

No, e-readers will not kill physical books. I know that some digerati like to think so, but that’s their own particular ax to grind. Right now, ebooks are still a very tiny part of our business – but obviously that percentage is going to grow. That’s why you saw so many new devices being introduced at the Consumer Electronics show in January, some of them multi-use, some of them dedicated e-readers, and that was even before the iPad. (Of course, only some of those devices will survive – I guarantee you some of them won’t be around in a couple of years). It’d gotten to the point where the electronics people could finally see enough of a future profit to make it worthwhile to put some r&d money into it. Now what’s going to happen is that the whole market will shake down, the major players will emerge – and ebooks will come into their own, side by side with the other formats. Some people will prefer them, just as some people prefer to listen to audio books. The more formats that exist, the more ways that books become available, the more books people will buy. So, really, I’m pretty happy about it.

Do you think that eventually there will be two separate publishing models – the traditional hard/soft or mass-market original releases, and separate authors doing exclusive ebooks?

I certainly think there’ll be more authors trying out ebooks on their own, and why not? It’s a new format, a new market, a new opportunity. As to how big or important a model it will turn out to be, I can answer that in three words: No. Body. Knows. Everybody’s figuring it out as we go along, and we’ll have a much better idea in a year or two. I think most authors are still likely to prefer the benefits of the traditional publishing program, but there’ll be others who still make some very good money from ebook originals, and of course others who’ll do a bit of both. It’ll be exciting to watch, that’s for sure!

Has the new technology changed the way you do your job? For example, have you moved to Kindle to review manuscripts?

If you’re talking about ebook technology, then it hasn’t changed things much for me personally. However, a lot of our editors and assistants do use e-readers to read submissions – it’s just much easier than toting home briefcases full of manuscripts. And all of our sales reps have them as well – instead of sending them manuscripts and sell sheets, we post them all on a server and they can download whatever they want. It’s a great deal more efficient, and they actually get a lot more read, which makes them even better at their job (and they’re pretty damn good already!).

The recession has hurt everyone – from huge publishing houses to new authors looking for their first deal. It feels like things are coming back. New authors are being offered contracts, established mid-list writers are re-upping. Are you buying?

Are we buying? We’ve always been buying! Recession or no recession, you’ve gotta have books to publish. Were we careful about what we bought, did we look hard at a book’s prospects, did we give a lot of thought to what we thought it was worth in today’s market? Of course! And we did that five years ago, and we’ll do it five years from now.

Have you seen a shift in editorial perspective over the past year? Are publishers looking for a different kind of book – blockbusters, niche, non-fiction – to break out and maintain (read: fund) the remainder of the list? Freeing you up to buy smaller books that will satisfy your taste and allows the authors to build over time?

The same answer applies to the question of what we’re looking for. Each publisher has different requirements, a different mix of titles and specialties and interests – and that really hasn’t changed, recession or no recession. We’re all basically just looking for good books, and books we think we can do something with – at whatever level that turns out to be. It doesn’t mean it has to be a blockbuster. I work for a commercial publisher, and obviously I try for the big books, too, because…I’m not stupid. But I spend much of my time working on less than blockbuster books, because that’s where the bread and butter of the industry lies, that’s where a lot of the good writers are, and that’s where – one hopes – some of the prize-winners and bestsellers of tomorrow will come from.

What common mistakes do you see authors make over and over again?

I guess the mistake that often bothers me the most is when authors get consumed by irrelevancies: this guy’s sales, that guy’s advance, why another writer gets more review space, why one reviewer never seems to like you, why another writer got higher on the bestseller list than you did, and so on. It’s your life, your career – not his. Let everybody else pay attention to themselves – you just do what’s right for you. See also some of my comments on the next question.

The dreaded BSP – Blatant Self-Promotion – has become a daily part of almost every author’s marketing plan – we are expected to maintain a website, participate on Facebook and Twitter, do blog tours, attend conferences on our own dime. Carolyn Haines wrote an article last week in the LA Times wondering if it was “smart” for a new author to drop her social networking in favor of working on her book. How do you feel about authors having to shoulder so much of the load?

Ah, yes, BSP. Painful (for some), but necessary. There’s no question that one of the essential ingredients in selling books is word of mouth. Good reviews, the recommendation of a friend/colleague/family member, hearing about a book through traditional print/electronic media or on the web – as M.J. Rose always says, if people don’t hear about a book, they ain’t going to buy it. And the author is an essential part of that process. The publisher will do whatever the publisher’s going to do, and sometimes that’ll be a whole lot and sometimes it won’t. But the plain truth of it is, no matter how much the publisher loves the book…nobody’s going to love it as much as the author. It’s your baby. As a writer, you are the CEO of your own business. You should make it a point to learn that business and to do whatever is necessary to make that business succeed.

That said – you still need to find the right balance. Because a big part of that success rests in writing damn good books, and it’s tough to do that if you’re spending all of your time on promotion. Not to mention that some authors are better suited for some kinds of promotion than for others. Not everybody is born to Twitter. Find out what works for you – it’s going to be different for everybody – and learn as you go along. Observe, experiment, be flexible, don’t get hung up on trivia. And remember: The book comes first.

Vampires. Zombies. What’s the next big thing?

The next big thing, huh? If I knew that, do you think I’d be working for a publishing house? I’d own a publishing house. But, yeah, I think vampires still have some life in them (oh, give me a break, I had to make that joke!). Zombies, I never thought they had much staying power. Vampires are just sexy – zombies, with all that rotting flesh, ugh, not so much. I have heard that angels might be a coming thing, as heralded by the success of Angelology. But, kids, that doesn’t mean you should all go out and start writing angel books. By the time you’ve written it, and it’s been submitted, and somebody’s bought it, and it’s been published, it may all be over (if it ever began, of course). They may be fallen angels. Paradise Lost: if it can happen to them, it can happen to you.

In my experience, many readers (ones who don’t write books) don’t understand the vital role editors play in a novel, hence the self-published industry growth. Two parter – what does an editor do? And will that need ever be supplanted?

Oh, man, an editor does everything. His first job, of course, is to find the book, and then make it the best book it can be. That means finding out what the book wants to be, and helping it get there – and that could mean anything from reshaping the whole text to just line-editing to, in rare cases, nothing at all. The editor is the crucial professional outside eye. Everybody needs one of those, no matter what you’ve written or in what format you’re publishing it.

But after the book is done – polished and perfect and glowing like a little gem – that’s when his job really begins. Because the book has to be published successfully, and every editor has to be a mini-publisher.  He has to be aware of every aspect of its publication and what every department in the house needs to know and needs to do to make that book successful – and that’s true no matter what level of sales you’re aiming at. The editor is the liaison between all the departments in the house – publicity, sub rights, production, everything. He always has to be thinking: what does the publicity department need to do something with this book? Is there a particular hook, is there something that can get the author media, does the author have contacts to draw upon to give us quotes, write an article, set up an autographing, buy quantities – anything to help things along? What’s the author’s track record? Sales has go to know. Has he published in magazines or newspapers? Sub rights has got to know. Is there any particular look for the jacket that might help? The art department has got to know. The editor has to think about all this, in conjunction with the other departments, and act as the conduit between those departments and the author.

So will the need for all that ever be supplanted? For the editorial, never. For the other parts, we all know examples of self-published authors who have been such dynamos that their books have gone on to significant and well-earned success. That’ll continue to be the case, whether we’re talking about paper books or ebooks. But being that dynamo requires a lot more time, energy and talent than most people have, which is why (among other reasons) most self-published books don’t have that kind of success. And that’ll continue to be the case, too. Allison Brennan had an interesting post partly on this very subject last Sunday on Murderati, so check it out here.

We’ve talked before about the book that got away – your white whale. Have you ever wanted to write your own? Fiction or non-fiction?

Have I ever wanted to write my own book? Well, the thought has crossed my mind, and knowing my own propensities, I’m sure it would be crime or suspense of some kind. But I know where my talents lie. I’m very good at helping other people achieve the best from their writing. If I wrote my own, I suspect it would turn out to be…downright adequate. But you never know. One day, when all the meetings and phone calls are behind me….

On to the impossible questions:

Your favorite book last year was?

I liked too many books last year to pick a favorite. I think the one that impressed me the most, however, was Dan Chaon’s AWAIT YOUR REPLY. (Everyone reading Murderati today, be warned: it’s very dark – but breathtaking.) I also had a blast with Charlie Huston’s THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH. And Sophie Littlefield’s A BAD DAY FOR SORRY had me at its title.

Your favorite movie last year was?

For movies, the same caveat. But I was knocked out by THE HURT LOCKER – I thought it deserved all the awards it got. AN EDUCATION was a complete delight all around. And any year that Hiyao Miyazaki releases a new animated film is a banner year – last year’s PONYO wasn’t his best, but wondrous all the same.

Who’s going to win the World Series?

When it comes to baseball, let’s put it this way: Last year, when I celebrated my 25th anniversary at Putnam, my author Randy Wayne White sent me a present. It was a custom-made Red Sox jersey with my name and the number “25” on the back. I have Red Sox memorabilia strewn around my office, and a Red Sox symbol on my office door. So I think you can guess where I’m coming from here.

And finally, what did you do with the pink feather boa you earned at Sluethfest?

For the uninitiated among the readers, every year the women at Sleuthfest vote for the winner of the Flamango Award. This year, the five finalists included Barry Eisler, David Morrell and me. Eisler won, of course – really, it wasn’t a fair contest (and I still say there was something wrong with the returns from Palm Beach….). But all five of us were draped with boas. Alas, we didn’t get to keep them – they were on loan only and will bedeck next year’s honorees. I must say Eisler, Morrell and I looked quite fetching – not everybody can carry off that look, you know. And if people search really, really hard, they might just find some video online.

As always, Neil, it was a true pleasure having you here. Thank you!!!

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.

40 thoughts on “The 4th Annual State of the Industry Interview

  1. Lisa

    Thanks for this post! I really enjoyed hearing an insider’s POV about what is really going on in the industry rather than some opinions from the outside. Appreciated it.

    Reply
  2. Louise Ure

    Nice to see you here again, Neil. And I have a feeling that if you did ever choose to write that book of your own it would be a great deal more than simply "adequate."

    Reply
  3. Neil Nyren

    Many thanks to all you caffeinated early readers.

    Lisa — You’re absolutely right. It’s amazing sometimes — though it shouldn’t be — how much misinformation goes ricocheting around, especially on the net. Publishing is a hard enough game as it is. The more you know about what’s actually going on, the better you can figure out what’s right for you.

    Zoe — I appreciate the sentiment. I think what pushed Eisler over the top was all that floppy hair, something which I have been sadly lacking for quite some time now. This brings me to a question that I realize I should have asked at the end of the interview:

    Tell me, ‘Rati fans, what was the silliest "honor" you ever received?

    Reply
  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Brilliant interview, Neil! And JT – your questions were perfect.
    Just fascinating stuff. You make me want to kiss my editor.

    Reply
  5. JT Ellison

    Neil, thank you so much for being here today!!! So many questions, too little time. You’re a great sport!

    Silliest honor? Biggest Flirt at day camp, 5th grade. How does a 5th grader know how to flirt?

    Reply
  6. Judy Wirzberger

    Do I hear Debbie Boone singing "You give me hope to carry on." Thanks, your words and insight send me to the keyboard. You said what a hopeful pre-published writer likes to hear.
    Looking forward to meeting you some day – maybe at your book signing. – And I agree with you about Sophie Littlefield.

    Reply
  7. pari noskin taichert

    Neil,
    Thank you for coming back this year. Every time I read your interviews, I learn something new. I’m also struck by your consistent voice of sanity in a profession that often seems so mercurial.

    I haven’t won silly awards yet, just a silly name: "Minister of Propaganda/Power Queen."
    They gave me a plaque at an independent school I worked at for years.

    Reply
  8. Robert Gregory Browne

    Excellent, interview, thanks. I agree that ebooks will never completely replace paper books — at least I hope not — but it seems to me the music industry was saying pretty much the same thing about CDs a decade ago.

    Does anyone buy CDs anymore? Some, I suppose. But iTunes has changed most music purchasing habits, and isn’t iBooks here already?

    Reply
  9. Carla Buckley

    A great interview. It will be interesting to see what traditional publishing looks like in ten years. Thanks for steering me to Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, which I’ve heard great things about. And a shout out to Sophie Littlefield, up for an Edgar this year!

    Reply
  10. toni mcgee causey

    I’m particularly proud of Sophie, too — love that shout out to her. And Neil, now I must go buy Await Your Reply. Loved the interview. I agree with Louise–I don’t think "adequate" is anywhere near your vocabulary.

    Silliest honor? I won "quietest student" one year in elementary school. (Yeah, I don’t know what they were thinking, either.)

    Great interview, JT.

    Reply
  11. Allison Brennan

    Hi Neil! Great interview–hopeful, visionary and realistic.

    Rob, you know I love you dearly, but there is a completely different mental process for listening to music and reading stories. I don’t think print books are dead, but I do think e-books as a format–one of many options for the same title–will increase. One interesting thing about my own e-book sales–they have tripled since 2006. Meaning, when THE PREY came out, I sold X copies in e-format. By the time SUDDEN DEATH came out (last good numbers I have from a royalty statement) my e-books had TRIPLED in sales. They are still less than 1% of my total sales.

    HOWEVER, and this is the important point, my e-book sales are virtually identical for all 12 of my romantic thrillers. Like they differ by a few copies. Yet, my total print sales have increased from my first trilogy to the last one I published. What do I think this means? That when someone reads e-books and likes whatever title of mine they read, they go and buy my backlist. (I love these people greatly.) The good news is that when older titles are not as easy to find in the bookstore, people can buy the e-book with no trouble.

    Reply
  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    So comforting, this, Neil – I want you to put it on CD so I can listen to your soothing, optimistic (sly) voice whenever I get stressed out.

    This especially –

    >>>>>>ebooks will come into their own, side by side with the other formats. Some people will prefer them, just as some people prefer to listen to audio books. The more formats that exist, the more ways that books become available, the more books people will buy<<<<<

    I just think – "Of course. What was I worried about?"

    Silliest award: Best Tan in 9th grade. Hope I don’t live to regret that one, but hey, we all did it….

    Thanks for being here and being you. Great interview, JT.

    Reply
  13. Jude Hardin

    Great interview. Thanks! As always, Neil, your insights are appreciated and uplifting.

    I can vouch for the importance of a good editor. My thriller Pocket-47 (to be released by Oceanview Publishing May 2011) is a much stronger book now than when I submitted it. I’m really glad I resisted jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon.

    Reply
  14. Allison Brennan

    Jude, all my books are better because of editorial input. I think one thing many writers forget is that a good editor isn’t someone who will force the author to do XYZ, but will offer suggestions to make the story stronger and the writing tighter. If an author doesn’t agree, they don’t have to make changes. But I will listen to my editor over anyone else who has an opinion. I’ve disregarded some of her suggestions, but not many, and always after giving them careful consideration. Congrats on your new release!! How exciting 🙂 I have an essay in the 100 Must Read Thrillers coming out from Oceanview in July.

    Reply
  15. Jude Hardin

    Thanks, Allison. Yes, a good author/editor relationship is more of a dialogue than a dictum. The thing to remember is that both have a common goal–to make the book as strong as it can be.

    Looking forward to reading your essay!

    Reply
  16. BCB

    I had no idea editors were in charge of doing all that stuff. I thought they just, well, edited. That was particularly enlightening, thank you — to JT for asking and Mr. N for the detailed answer. It seems that being assigned to/acquired by (what is the correct term?) a "good" editor is very important to the success of a book. Note to self: Try to find an editor with pink boa wearing panache.

    A huge thank you to Mr. N, as well, for apparently editing some of my favourite authors over the years. What an impressive list. More than a bit envious of the opportunity to be among the first to read Dirk Pitt’s adventures…

    On the subject of ebooks. I suspected I would not be an easy convert. I spend enough time staring at a screen. Plus, I’m pretty well conditioned to editing anything in that format, rather than just enjoying it. But I had to install Kindle for Mac so I could get Alex’s EXCELLENT screenwriting for authors book. That was, I think, two weeks ago. I honestly had no intention of buying any more books in that format. Since then, I’ve bought a dozen more. And read half of them. It just so damn easy. We’ll see how I feel when I get my credit card statement.

    Thanks again for this interview. Always learning something important over here.

    Reply
  17. Fran

    Always a joy to read your posts here, Mr. Nyren, and on behalf of all the indie mystery shops (like the one I work at, Seattle Mystery Bookshop) to whom you send your authors, may I offer a serious and heartfelt "THANK YOU"! That’s part of what helps us survive!

    Reply
  18. Robert Gregory Browne

    Allison, I don’t think it’s about the difference in mindset between readers and music lovers. I’m concerned that the publishing industry may allow themselves to fall into the SAME mindset as the music industry and trip themselves up.

    The music industry treated the mp3 as a bastard child, only to be surprised by its popularity and then had to scramble to try to figure out how to retool a business model that relied on record stores and CDs.

    Even if the product is consumed differently, I can see the same thing happening to the publishing industry if they don’t wake up to the reality that this is the beginning of a digital world and that paper is going to be used less and less as the decades go by.

    Will paper books die? Of course not. Not completely. But I think in the future we’ll see the numbers pretty much reversed from what they are now, and I think the publishing industry should EMBRACE the digital revolution before it mows them down.

    I think one company that has a handle on this idea is Harlequin. They regularly sell digital copies of their books and make them available even BEFORE the paperback is released.

    All that said, I PREFER paper books and I think a lot of people feel the same. But there’s a new generation of readers out there who does everything on their cells phones and lap tops and rarely picks up a book. Ebooks are our chance to capture these people and give new life to long-form fiction.

    Reply
  19. Jude Hardin

    Rob,

    Harlequin sells new-release ebooks at about the same price as their mass market paperbacks; obviously, hardcover publishers cannot do the same. That’s the major issue, I think. Price. It’s not that publishers aren’t embracing the technology. It’s all about maintaining a perception of value, about coming up with a price point at which publishers can survive and still offer a quality product.

    Reply
  20. Steve Neilson

    I agree i am not going to bash on paper back books i still love reading a good old fashioned book every once and a while i just really enjoy listening to audio books more. I agree reading should be should kept up with technology but it’s just like paper we could type everything and e-mail all of our reports, memos, and letters, but good old fashioned paper is still a good tool even if some consider it a little old school.

    Reply
  21. Robert Gregory Browne

    Jude, it seems to me that ebook versions of hardbacks could easily be sold for ten or so dollars, which is what they’re being sold for now. When the market grows stronger, publishers will make money off of them. If they have lower print runs of the hardbacks, they will save money.

    Will it balance out after admin/editing costs/distribution costs? Not immediately, no. But these things will even out in the end.

    Think about all the costs involved in distributing and shipping CDs. Such costs are bound to be lower now, because so many people are buying their music online. The last time I passed by the CD section in Best Buy, I heard crickets. So, it seems to me, you can cut out the distributor if necessary and save a considerable chunk of profits.

    Any transition period is going to be difficult, and I’m hoping that publishers will figure out price point vs. delivery and embrace the digital revolution.

    Reply
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