Monday, August 1, 2011

Anna Leahy: Report from Sewanee--Agent Gail Hochman on Publishing

My friend poet/non-fiction writer Anna Leahy was awarded a fellowship to the Sewanee Writers Conference this year (lucky duck!) and she posted on Facebook this report from the agent talk at the conference.  I’m reprinting it here with her permission.  (Be sure to check out Anna’s wonderful blog Lofty Ambitions about “aviation, science and writing as a couple.”)

 And maybe I need to disclose that Gail Hochman is my agent--?

Here’s Anna:

I saw literary agent Gail Hochman talk at Sewanee Writers' Conference on Saturday. She talked about the publishing climate and rejection. In part, she was letting talented, emerging writers know not to take rejection too hard because it's an especially tough time in publishing. Yeah, yeah, she and her agent friends have been saying that for years. But it's even worse now, in large part because BORDERS HAS GONE OUT OF BUSINESS.

I knew that was a bad thing. I liked Borders a lot and have especially fond memories of the ones in Rockville, Maryland, and Columbus, Ohio. Now, it's out of business. You might think, as I did, Well, that's too bad. Books and publishing are struggling in a bad economy. Electronic publishing is changing the landscape and made it especially tough for Borders to succeed. But so what? That's what Gail Hochman asked a publisher recently, and his response makes her worry, at least for the near term.

Of all the books sold, 90-95% have been sold by Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Borders, Amazon, and Target. Now, that list of big sellers is down to four. Borders leaves a gaping hole in sales. The other big four are not going to just pick up Borders' orders. In fact, copies of books already in the pipeline may end up being remaindered, or scrapped, without ever finding a shelf, and print runs for new books will have to take this hole in orders into account. Nobody knows exactly what the fallout will be, but publishers expect a significant drop in sales and worry especially about geographic areas that were served by Borders.

Also, I'm wondering whether Barnes & Noble really served the same demographic. Had I the choice, I would have gone to a local Borders instead of the local Barnes & Noble. Borders had stores on State Street and on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Barnes & Noble anchors strip malls in the suburbs. I imagine that some books sold better through one chain than the other, and I wonder whether that's especially true for good books that aren't bestsellers.

For mid-list books (those literary novels and memoirs), Barnes & Noble and Amazon will now sell 80-90% of books. Mid-list books don't even make it to the shelves of Target or Walmart. Barnes & Noble, however, has reduced initial orders of individual books (say, 8 copies instead of 14) and B&N doesn't restock. If B&N orders ten copies and sells ten copies, they do not order more. They are happy to log 100% sales for that title and move on. Of course, they'll order individual and book club copies upon request, but they don't keep books on the shelves even if they are selling. Without Borders and with Barnes & Noble's policy against restocking, books (authors) face a significant loss of discoverability.

Discoverability in a physical sense may be more important than I'd considered. I admit that I have, on occasion, gone to a physical bookstore to look at new books, perhaps read the first few pages. If I'm captivated by a particular book there, of course, I'll buy it. But I always come away with a short list to add to my Amazon cart. I do not, as Gail Hochman notes about others, order a book on Amazon while standing in front of it in Barnes & Noble. And most of the titles I put in my Amazon cart end up on the list I send to my liaison librarian for her to order. But the point is that removing the physical bookstore narrows the range of discoverability for a new book or author. Even if a person didn't buy a book at Borders, that reader may well have discovered that book on the shelf there.

The rise of BookScan makes all these bookstore sales more important. BookScan is the Nielsen tracking system for book sales nationwide. You can check it daily to see whether your novel has sold a dozen copies in Maine or a hundred copies at independent bookstores. Everyone in the business is watching it, and these numbers and trends for a first book will affect the way an agent and editor look at a second book. On the bright side, I suppose, if you have sold a bunch of books in Maine, you'll know to take your summer vacation there to do a reading tour.

One of the most disturbing tidbits in this story is the amount that Borders still owes to publishers. According to Gail Hochman, Borders owes Penguin/Putnam $41 million and HarperCollins $25 million and so on. That means that publishing houses haven't been paid for what they've already sold. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the total owed to publishers may be as high as $182 million and that publishers will be be lucky to receive 25 cents on every dollar they're owed. That hole in money they expected to be coming in puts even more pressure on publishers to sell the next big book.

What can we do? Buy books from independent bookstores and from Barnes & Noble. Gail Hochman called Amazon "a scourge." The publishing world and the ways we read are changing, of course, and it may not be terrible in the long run. But right now, publishers are scrambling to develop new formulas and models. Five years from now, everything could be rosy. At this moment, though, the new formulas and models aren't yet in place. It's more business as usual in unusual circumstances. Luckily, everyone knows that the business must adapt.

But I didn't come away completely disheartened as a writer. Though the publishing system is going through a particularly difficult time, individual agents and editors are still plugging away and doing everything they can to help books succeed during this transition time. They really ARE reading manuscripts. They really do hope to get excited about the next manuscript that comes in. And they really want the book and the author to do well. The people in the process want to get good writing into the hands of readers. The system needs work, but the people care about the work.

I suppose I would have been more discouraged if I weren't sitting in a room with lots of authors who've published novels. Michelle Hoover recently published The Quickening, Rebecca Makkai's The Borrower came out about a month ago, and I just heard Anna North read from America Pacifica. Belle Boggs published a story collection with Graywolf last year. First books. Good publishing houses. On they go.

Here are my take-aways from Gail Hochman about how to improve the chances that your book will find readers:

1) Something big must be at stake in the novel. A well-written story is not enough. At the moment, publishers are especially leery of quiet, domestic novels or memoirs.

2) The publisher must know how to sell your book. Think about this question: If you had a box of twenty books you could give away for free to readers, to whom would you give those copies? Who exactly MUST read your book?

3) Never say, "I have enough stories for a collection."

4) An editor is usually looking to buy five books each year but receives 15 manuscripts per week. Do you think your novel can be one of the five? Why?

5) Editors sometimes make decisions based on factors that have nothing to do with your manuscript. Maybe that editor had a book in that category that didn't do well last year, or maybe the editor just bought a book in that category and can't field two similar books.

6) If your book comes out and you have a rich uncle, have him buy a thousand copies and give them away as holiday gifts.

7) All writers know it's tough, especially right now. Keep writing!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.