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Richard Laermer

Richard Laermer

Posted: August 24, 2008 10:11 AM

Why Book Publishing Is Dead (Part One)


In Exit Ghost, Philip Roth's alter ego Nathan Zuckerman informs a young writer: "No one reads anyone when you think about it." It's a good line but not true. Jobs was a fool to emote how people have no patience for books. I get 72 letters a month from people taking something from what I write. People would read even more if publishers were even a tiny bit more forward-thinking.

In my book Punk Marketing one particular thought appears incessantly: don't do what you're doing because it's the way it's been done forever. Publishing industry needs that advice in an overt way.

Here's my story:

I'm a writer - outside of my work running RLM PR, the aptly-named 19 year old public relations firm that I'm damn proud of. Anyway, in the new one titled (2011: Trendspotting) there are 77 funny and non-methodical chapters where I pour my heart out about our own outlandish future. To witness the future is to rethink the past and learn something from it. That's what I'm doing.

I am seriously down on the publishing world (even though I do like McGraw-Hill, I'm still down on it).

It's starting to make little sense why I would write something that while widely read could be given out in a "cleverer" format. Doing a book with a major corporation just starts to seem...odd, given the proclivities in which I do everything else now. With that far-reaching statement, and by means of explaining my thought process, here is why publishing, as the kids say, needs to man up and change itself quickly. Here are some questions I hope will make you go, "I see."

1. Who's in charge here? How can a 22-year-old editor bid on a book? What does a post-graduate $32,000-a-year fresh-out know what will hit with the public? Why does this frequently appear to be a case of the nuthouse leaving the inmates to decide! People in publishing (except those that are up top and doing well) are not really supervised, but there are tons a folks who say, "I have to make sure they are in charge of these decisions." Adorable when they were six and playing with the Easy Bake Oven.

2. How do you expect people to pay 25 dollars for a book!? It's ridiculous. Economics of publishing need to be studied. And no, "Do paperbacks" is not the answer because Amazon doesn't feature them as lovingly as the hard options. I watch publishers skimp on what's important--like Web destinations for books--and outsource to India and cheap-labor countries. All in the name of corporate salvation.

3. The editing is done exactly how far in advance? If I write a book that is to come out in say December of 08- they have to have it in February. Why? 'Cause they have a "schedule to follow," but it would seem with digital technology you should be able to write right up to the deadline (like we do online).

4. Marketing is something that happens when? You probably know this but publishers basically print and cross their fingers-unless your name is Grisham, King, or Winfrey. But to market them is the REAL waste of money... their fans will find their books like a stampede. It's obvious that publishers publish way too many books, and have no faith in anything. They just hope something will stick. It's all Teflon!

5a. You give nothing away? Every now and then a maker of books announces "Here's a chapter" gratis, or introduces a limited time free download for online consumption ... The limited part is what makes people go "how old-fashioned." GIVE IT AWAY NOW. And if I were allowed, you'd get free chapters all the time, but alas I'm not contractually able! Thanks to McGraw-Hill caving (ha, ha), you can get my new book for free at FreeBabyFree.com

5b. My advice is to force those boatloads of readers who may not even know they are readers to think, "That's something I got to get." Witness the music business's sudden realization that yeah they can't hold onto content anymore. Labels will try anything to get folks hooked on an artist they're trying to break, but except for some random (House) gimmicks like announcing to the media that last week something was available for free and lookie lookie, we tried something "cool," book people are afraid to let anything digitized get out there and fight the concept tooth plus nail.

6. Bookstore chains are difficult corporations? Let's be real. Borders, Amazon, Barnes & Noble are just as scared about the economy as publishers are. So I say work with the little stores just as hard as you used to with the biggies. Every little venue needs handholding and we authors will help get the word out, but everyone in pub is so afraid to say anything that might be construed as "insulting." At Harper-Collins I wanted to offer free marketing advice to stores who bought, "Punk Marketing." And as a marketer I'm pretty damn expensive. Some consultant there said, "We can't do that--someone will think it's demeaning." What? Grow up. No one cares about being insulted--they care about getting something for free. See 5.

7. Why is everyone so afraid to make waves? Isn't that the only way to rise above the noise! Retail seems to be dying--and yet the stores scare publishers in ways that shake my head involuntarily. I've done books with most of the big publishers, and no one ever said to Barnes & Noble: "We want placement, what's it going to take to get it? This book is important!" I know that BN is LOOKING for ballishness. They want publishers to get behind authors. Especially those who can promote themselves with some help. Honestly, those big corporate publishing behemoths have power, but don't use it. Gosh. As my 9th grade teacher once told me: "Prove you are the one who can take the ball and run with it." Publishers need to take live ones - authors with big mouths - and make them stand out as new discoveries BEFORE they are already discovered.

8. You won't publish me even if I'm the next Tolstoy unless I have a platform of my own? Yeah I get it. I'm all about the podcasts, the blogs, the articles, the mini-tours, the loud hawking, what is dubbed "relentless" push for my product.... In 2002 I got myself booked with the then-adorable Katie Couric on Today Show for "trendSpotting" and I told the people at Penguin-Putnam who thought I was kidding ("Well, let's see") --and when I was scheduled they didn't bother to alert sales force, stores, or anyone. So 20 million watched me cavorting with that perky thing, and a dozen books were in stores. Publishers don't know how to sell, that's the fact. They wait. Very Darwinian. If something takes off THEN they start pumping out the marketing.

9. What about the number of books? Publishers will have to "break" artists like the music biz does and don't just publish whatever sounds good ... Save your money and invest in a few key artists. A final thought here: Since so many people (not me, I say with my arms folded) write books so they can buy thousands to give to prospects or customers, let's not allow them into mainstream channels any longer. You guys stick with the professional writers.

10. The agents are working for exactly whom? Lit agents I've met, with few exceptions, though none I can think of as I type, are beyond frightened of pissing off the editors, so they won't fight like Hollywood agents will for the clients. They say things like, "Well yes, it's cheap money, kiddo, but think of it as an annuity." Or, "I wish I could do more but they'll never budge" or this one (breathe deeply, Richard): "You're lucky to get it." The lawyer I use in La Land would teach those fools mottos like: "We'll cut them off at the knees--since gees they act like they deserve less of one."

11. What's with all the corporate titles people are given (instead, I guess, of money)? Who's the editor, who's the president, who's the associate veep, who's the publisher, who's the director ...? And who's the marketing director of strategic planning? The world' most successful businesses don't sit around having meetings all day - Google? - and golly, turf wars are so 90's! Publishing geeks seem so afraid to step on one another's toes. "Let's have a meeting to see how X feels about it." Garrrrrh! All that endless chitchats around oak tables. I say let's fan out, make trouble, be disruptive, start our own religion ... anything. Plan less -- do more. Rise up. Be aggressive. As Fred Trump (Fred, not his floppy-haired son) once said, "No one gets any work done in the office."

12. Small publishers? Nah, don't think so. I found they were just as cheap-headed as their older brother, and only provided support when the author paid his own way. Seems like the small publisher is a misnomer-like indie film. Neither exists except as marketing gimmick. In the long run, small comes knocking with finger-in-air offers like the Midwest publisher who nervily said "Here's five grand" advance for a book about the porn industry's history of influencing business decisions thru history... (Where's Judith Regan when I need her!!!)

13. Finally, and for the good of the readers, shouldn't everything be made available online? We're inundated with material to read online and that takes our attention. Having a book in hand - even on the excellent Kindle, which is really fun--isn't the most efficient way to digest someone's work. Like when I read a book offline and want to share a passage with a friend, I have to type it out, yeah! That's almost as frustrating as not being able to send my DVR moments to pals who absolutely need to see that sucky ad I witnessed.

Whatever comes of publishing--chapters online via micropayments, baby--I can look backwards and remember with glee when my first representation, "Native's Guide to New York." came out 19 years ago and that arrogant publisher from Prima sat me down and said to his staff of onlookers: "Let's hire a PR person and get this wild, nonstop talker into as many outlets as we can get him to do before he's worn out and grumpy!"

Those were the days, my friend. I hoped they'd never end. They did. And I want them back.

...I'm Richard Laermer, author of 2011: Trendspotting. My next book is being self-published. Write me for details at richard@laermer.com. Part two of this essay, "Whither Product!" will be posted in a week.

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