Everything Old Is New Again: Reinventing the Publishing Model

M.J. Rose

The New Publishing Model
A new publishing model is emerging. Companies like Context Books, MacAdam/Cage, and McSweeney's Books are breaking with what has become standard publishing practice, and authors, agents, and the media are taking notice. Some of the changes are not that radical. Carl Lennertz, publishing program director of Book Sense (a national marketing program for independent booksellers that promotes selected titles), said some of the newer houses do what publishers have always done—look for books, then edit and sell them—but in a more focused way, as they have fewer books to market. Other strategies, however, such as dispensing with an advance against royalties and putting that money toward marketing and promoting a title instead, are beginning to make a contrarian sense, especially to writers who have experienced the midlist short shrift at major publishing houses.

"When you deal with the conglomerate publishers, you eventually come to realize that they're not on your side, they're on their side," says Daniel Quinn, author of the best-selling Ishmael (Bantam, 1991) and After Dachau (Context, 2001). "Not quite enemies, but definitely people you have to be on guard with. At Context, there are no two sides— [the author and the publisher are] on the same side, knocking ourselves out to make every book as successful as it can be."

Context's founder, Beau Friedlander, isn't in a position to play the conglomerates' numbers game of putting out hundreds of titles knowing that some will do well, some will break even, and some will just disappear. To make ends meet, Friedlander has to personally get behind each title and convey his enthusiasm to bookstore owners and sales reps. Few conglomerate publishers are hand-selling each of their titles.

"I am very hands-on," Friedlander says. "We try to be creative, given the utter poverty that is our natural state. I think we succeed by virtue of a subtle balancing act: fifty percent relentlessness, fifty percent heart."

David Pointdexter, who in 1998 founded the upstart MacAdam/Cage Publishing, based in San Francisco, also thinks of publishing fiction as a creatively driven, entrepreneurial endeavor.

"Over the years, publishing houses have gone through consolidation after consolidation, until today, when the vast majority of fiction is produced by divisions of giant media corporations. The number one goal of any large corporation is to maximize profits. In order to maximize profits, they strive to minimize risk."

This dynamic, Pointdexter believes, has set in motion a trend in which publishers back away from fiction, which is generally high-risk, and instead put their resources more and more into nonfiction, which presents less risk. Until the consolidation stops, Pointdexter doesn't see this trend reversing, at least anytime soon. Because of that, he says, "Independent entrepreneurial publishers will play an increasingly important role in bringing out new and notable works of fiction."

MacAdam/Cage works to re-create the culture that thrived in publishing houses during the early part of the last century, back when "publishing houses acquired authors and not just books," says Pointdexter. MacAdam/Cage does not make editorial decisions based on the opinions of its sales or marketing departments. Instead it chooses each title carefully and produces only as many books as it believes it can fully support from an editorial and sales perspective. So far this has been no more than a dozen books a year. It doesn't pay advances to authors, but rather puts that money into marketing, tours, and publicity. Both Pointdexter and the editorial director of MacAdam/Cage, Pat Walsh, say their model is to do fewer books but to do them right.

Hensley agrees with this strategy wholeheartedly. She says that houses like MacAdam/Cage and Context are getting serious attention among book buyers because they are operating as if their success rides on each title. And it does. "They are accountable for every single book that they publish. And it shows," says the woman Book magazine called one of the 10 most important people in publishing in 2001, who buys about 7 million total copies of 2,500 titles a year. (This number includes trade paper reprints, but not mass-market books.)

Hensley thinks the industry would fare better and do authors a service if the large houses cut their lists by at least 30 percent and paid more attention to the remaining titles. "There are just too many books out there, without any viable way to expose them to the readers. No matter how hard we try to merchandise the titles and make potential readers aware of them, thirty-five hundred novels a year are too many."

But what if a publisher took the profit margin out of the publishing equation and let the authors run the show? Would those titles stand out among the glut? Certainly some of McSweeney's Books have been singled out by the media. Even more significant, the publisher assuredly has the most satisfied authors in town. Dave Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and founder of McSweeney's Books, lets his authors set the prices for their own work and, once costs are covered, bank all the profits.

Price isn't the only thing controlled by McSweeney's authors. They can, if they want, be involved with marketing plans, tours, interviews, book design, and cover. "The main impetus behind giving authors more control over things is our own interest, and my own interest, in process. I like every aspect of publishing. I like choosing the type, the page size, the cover materials, the artwork, all that, and we've found that most writers do too. So we let everyone in on as much of it as they want," Eggers says.

Not all authors like having a say in every aspect of publishing their books. "But," Eggers says, "most appreciate at least having the chance to take it or leave it. It makes the process more agreeable for all, actually, because it removes the guesswork and whatever miscommunication [that is] likely to happen when the author is alienated from different aspects of the publishing process."

Before he started his book division, Eggers began publishing McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a literary journal that now, at times, showcases authors before or after their book comes out from the press. Both the journal and McSweeney's books can be purchased in bookstores or direct from the publisher, either at its Brooklyn bookstore or through its Web site.

Another new house, Soft Skull, has taken a page from the venerable publisher Scribner, which, before being purchased by Barnes & Noble in 1989, also sold directly to the reading public through its elegant bookstore on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Soft Skull's bookstore is a bit farther downtown. In addition to selling a wide selection of other publishers' work and its own books, Soft Skull's store sells CDs of the bands that play in the nearby nightclub TONIC. "That brings in people who don't always think to browse around a bookstore," says publisher Richard Eoin Nash.

Soft Skull explicitly seeks material ignored, rejected, or dropped by major presses. Recent titles that have emerged from the slush pile include Scorch (A.D. Nauman), which was a 2001 Book Sense selection, and Why Things Burn (Daphne Gottlieb), which received a 2001 Lambda nomination. Part of Soft Skull's approach is to use nontraditional channels to get its titles out, which include hand-selling at concerts and political protests.

Edgework Books is an author's cooperative of a dozen published authors who were fed up with corporate publishing. Not only do the authors who make up this collective all act as publisher, they are also the company's editors and investors. "We have a revolving three-person editorial board. Decisions are made by a simple majority, but we listen closely to the objections of the one dissent- ing party," says cofounder Kim Chernin. "Sometimes we edit en masse, six, seven, or eight of our members reading a manuscript, meeting with the author, and commenting. The author is, of course, free to accept or reject the comments."

Edgework established itself last year and to date has published nine titles, all of which fit within the cooperative's mission: "Our goal is to publish in all genres new, arresting and politically relevant work of the highest literary quality by women of all races, ethnic backgrounds and ages." Many of the goals of these new houses are the same as those of their larger counterparts. But their size, commitment, and lack of towering overhead enable them come up with creative ways to get good books to a deserving reading public. As Lennertz (also included in Book's most-important list) points out, they have "no magic secret; just focus, passion, and faster market response."