Monday, June 23, 2008
The Columbia Publishing Course launches
The first day of lectures at the Columbia Publishing Course 2008 was today. We heard from David Young, the Chairman & CEO of Hachette Book Group; then three literary agents, Leigh Feldman of Darhansoff, Verrill & Feldman, Jay Mandel of the William Morris Agency, and Scott Moyers of the Wylie Agency; finally, a lecture from Sara Nelson, the Editor-In-Chief of Publishers Weekly.
Some highlights: David Young said he'd learned that authors can be raised from the dead, citing Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Agatha Christie. He reviewed a great deal about the publishing market; Hachette is 5th in the American market, with 642 titles and dominating 10% of the adult market. In his patient voice and British accent, he shared advice about how to handle authors during the copy editing process and their publishing dates, stressing communication (his wife is an author, and he said he'd learned this watching her). He passed out three books: Stephenie Meyer's latest, Twilight, which is supposed to be the next Harry Potter (I'm skeptical, but they're popular), Kate Braestrup's Here If You Need Me, and David Gilmour's The Film Club, brought to us by Jonathan Karp of Twelve (an imprint that does one book a month and is featured in a great little piece by NPR).
Young was enthusiastic about the digital future of the publishing industry - he owns both a Kindle and a Sony Reader, which he believes are "designed" for the publishing community and will make people read a wider selection of books - but he says, "The book is perfectly evolved," and closing a physical book makes people "content." He thinks on-demand printing is a fabulous prospect because the "woeful inefficiencies" of the current industry can be corrected.
He mentioned a site being launched next month called Goodparentsgivegreatbooks.com that supports literacy for young children. He also let us know that 400,000 new ISBNs were published last year - Hachette has focused in recent years on supporting fewer new titles, but giving these more attention.
The afternoon Agents' Panel supported three entirely different backgrounds - one editor from major publishing corporations who had just switched to working as an agent, Scott Moyers, an alum of the course who had switched from a boutique agency to a large agency, Jay Mandel, and finally moderator and boutique publisher Leigh Feldman. Feldman said she feels the biggest role of the literary agent is "managing authors' expectations," which may often feel like one is "a lightning rod for rejection."
The major advantages of working a boutique agency include "total transparency," "great access," and the luxury of taking on clients more easily than one could as an editorial assistant. Agents are responsible these days for more editorial work than they used to be, and they often do a lot of negotiating between authors and editors. They also manage the authors' budgets and are paid by commission. I had the impression that this is, more often than not, a thankless job that requires a tremendous amount of patience, but that provides the opportunity to fight for authors one really believes in and support literary fiction as often as one can. The questions each member of the panel echoed was, "When can you push? How can you push?"
Perhaps the most entertaining part of our day was provided by Sara Nelson of Publishers Weekly.
She described starting out at a fitness magazine where the editor smoked three packs a day and the food editor was anorexic. Good start, right? I tried to take notes on her advice and ended up writing down her life stories.
When she worked as an assistant, her boss finally said to her one day that she was smart and talented and everyone thought she was going to be a great writer, "but you haven't done the job we hired you to do and I need you to sharpen my pencils. Take ownership of the pencils!" And so Nelson took ownership of the pencils, she says, but that was it - her innocence was gone.
When she finally left her job for one she really loved, losing 40% of her pay and turning into a nervous wreck, she said her mother told her to do what her gut told her, "which was great, but I didn't know what my gut said because it was so full of cigarettes and scotch."
She's now gone on to give Publishers Weekly a facelift, including little sidebars like in Lucky magazine.
PW receives 200 books a week and, impressively, reviews 100 of them. They receive these books three or more months in advance. Nelson says she believes magazines are more destined for digital forms because of their financial dependence on advertising. Online advertising is certainly cheaper.
They also made the decision to license their reviews to Amazon, which is what you've probably read if you've ever read a book on Amazon, ever.
Oh! FYI: Borders has just launched their own online bookstore that could compete with Amazon. I'm hoping, anyway. I've always had a soft spot for Borders. Their design is always good - they hire architects to make the best use of each individual space they acquire - and I usually like the people in their stores. Stay alive, little Borders! We're cheering for you!