Jack David of ECW Press:
CBT: Recently there has been major restructuring at various publishing houses (for example, HarperCollins, now Harper, changes at Houghton-Mifflen, etc.), and changes as well at periodicals covering publishing (for example, ). In the midst of this recent round of restructuring and lay-offs, it has been common to blame the economic crisis of Sept/Oct. 2008, which led to dismal sales over the 2008 holiday season. Yet one season of poor sales does not usually lead to changes of this severity in an industry. Are there other factors behind recent shake-ups in publishing? If so, how far back do they go? Years? Decades?
JD: I think that a big part of the US large publishers' nervousness and consequent scale-backs have to do with Borders. You've got the second biggest retail chain in the States in trouble. Why? Especially when they used to be the best, in terms of ordering, stocking, and selling. Because they were good and profitable, and because the original owners got very good offers, they were sold--but not to bookstore people but to financial opportunists. And from there re-sold until all the profits were squeezed out and new investment was not made. So the big US publishers think to themselves, what happens if Borders goes under? That's 800 or so stores that disappear. A second factor is that the multiplicity of entertainment options has begun to carve into the book-readership market. Of course, that's been going on for a long time, but the big US publishers have a multitude of genres, including those that are losing out to online games and reference. If you made a lot of money from selling, say, dictionaries, and that market dried up, you'd have to lay off staff--as has OUP in Canada. But have Canadian trade sales declined? To the contrary, they were up last year according to Booknet Canada. In any case, there have always been shake-ups in publishing as publishers grow more optimistic and take on lots of projects, and then scale back. Is it worse now? It's a non-growth industry, and the new catch phrase is flat is the new up.
CBT: In the past few years, articles have appeared criticizing the pricing books. Are books -- particularly literary novels -- too expensive? Has this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the last twenty or so years?
JD: Perhaps. But you could say the same about movie prices which tend to march in lockstep with . $12 for a movie? And movies are booming. In the US, the price of hardcover novels is $24.95 and hasn't moved in many years. Publishers look at the graph of sales vs profit with price the moving factor. Sell 5,000 copies in HC vs 15,000 in trade paper. Where is the most profit? That's the issue. Lots of publishers have tried the original trade paper publishing routine, and that can work. But it depends on the book.
CBT: Staying with the same theme. Literary novels were once publishing in hardcover and then, several months later (and a spot on the best-seller lists willing), they were available as affordable pocket-sized paperbacks. Then, in the 1980s, this practice ceased and literary paperbacks were published in N. America as pricier . Only genre fiction retained the pocket-book form. In retrospect, was this a prudent decision by publishers of literary fiction? Or should the literary pocket-book make a return?
JD: No good answer here. Whatever returns the greatest sales at the greatest margin, while leaving the door open for subsidiary rights. We now publish all our original mysteries in HC, then TP. The reason is that we're trying to sell US rights and if we publish initially in TP, the US mass market publishers believe that we've eaten up some of the market.
CBT: How much potential do you think e-ink and e-book technologies have? Do you see e-books catching on with the public? And do they provide a reasonable business model?
JD: Of course they do. We are publishers of intellectual content, and it doesn't matter to us how that content gets read by the public as long as our margins exist. Take away the cost of printing, and shipping, but not selling, and you have cut out a big chunk of your costs. We typically get about 30-35% of the list price back in our hands, after bookstore discount, distribution and selling costs. For a $20 book, that's $6 or $7. And from that we pay all our other costs, including royalties. If we get $10 from an ebook purchase, we're laughing.
CBT: Agents now have enormous power, effectively controlling which writers get access to acquisition editors at major houses. Furthermore, agents find themselves under enormous pressure, acting as the line of first readers who have to sift through avalanches of submissions. Is this tenable over the long run? Is it good for art? Or should large houses be accepting both agented and unsolicited submissions?
JD: The large houses can do whatever they want, but in our case (and we publish 50 books a year) many of our best books arrive unagented. It doesn't take long to decide whether a submission has some worth. Our philosophy is not to leave the unsoliciteds with an intern, but with the most senior people in the company.
CBT: Literary prizes have also grown in power. They have arguably replaced the glowing review as a marketing tool. But are they as effective as criticism in building a contemporary canon? After all, critics can express nuance, prizes can't. Do book prizes give the message: this book is worth reading and all these others aren't?
JD: Odd question. There are only three prizes in Canada that have a direct effect on sales--Giller, GG fiction, and Canada Reads. All others have virtually no tangible sales result. But think of the number of nominated books--hundreds. In Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba, there must be 200 books nominated every year.
CBT: Publishers often include "non-compete" clauses in the boilerplate contracts they offer to authors. Yet, as agent Kristen Nelson has argued, they can be unfair to authors. It is conceivable a committed writer will produce good work over a period of several years that is repeatedly rejected, leaving him or her with a surplus of manuscripts. If this same writer is to suddenly get two or three offers on two or three different manuscripts, why shouldn't he or she be allowed to publish more than one book with different publishers in a similar time-frame?
JD: The only non-compete clause I'm aware of is that the author is not allowed to compete with his or her own book. That is, if we published a biography of Leonard Cohen, the author wouldn't be allowed to publish a similar book with another publisher. Other than that, the author can do what he/she wants.
CBT. How will the current recession affect publishing? What are some realistic tactics and strategies for publishers to survive?
JD: The argument is that publishing is recession-proof. Whereas you wouldn't pay $20k for a new car or $1k for a new fridge, you would pay $15 for a new book. I guess this theory will be tested. Tactics for survival? Publish good books in niches.
CBT. Will the Internet -- including but not limited to the posting of online books -- become an increasing part of book distribution/audience-building? Or will it always remain an adjunct to the book?
JD: Both, I'd say.
Bio: Jack David is the publisher of ECW Press.