Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Norman Spinrad Trashes Knopf, Sonny Mehta, Chip Kidd and American Publishing

NORMAN Last night, the long-time scifi writer Norman Spinrad (who earlier this year was diagnosed with stomach cancer) published the second of a three-part series on "THE PUBLISHING DEATH SPIRAL." It's amazing! In it, he trashes his relationship with Knopf, who sank one of his books, trashes book designer Chip Kidd (for having more power than the editors) and trashes his Knopf editor for being useless, spineless and not so bright. It's a great read; I don't agree with all of it but it's illuminating. One thing that really stands out is the way the U.S. book publishing system is an entirely different animal than that of other countries. In the U.S., publishers will buy books and then, shortly thereafter, not care about them in the slightest, and on some level, Spinrad can't quite accept that this is a systematic thing. He's looking for a reason from Knopf honcho Sonny Mehta of why books like his get thrown on the pyre, and actually, there is no reason, and Sonny Mehta doesn't care about your book! It's expediency, it's capitalism, it's people who don't have time, it's because there's no incentive in American publishing to care. Last week, actually, Spinrad did a pretty good job of explaining the diminishing returns of orders and expectations for writers.

Let's say that some chain has ordered 10,000 copies of a novel, sold 8000 copies, and returned 2000, a really excellent sell-through of 80%. So they order to net on the author's next novel, meaning 8000 copies. And let's even say they still have an 80% sell-through of 6400 books, so they order 6400 copies of the next book, and sell 5120….

You see where this mathematical regression is going, don't you? Sooner or later right down the willy-hole to an unpublishablity that has nothing at all to do with the literary quality of a writer's work, or the loyalty of a reasonable body of would-be readers, or even the passionate support of an editor below the very top of the corporate pyramid.

And there's a further wrinkle to it because what significant independent bookstores that still survive and the non-speciality outlets like WalMart subscribe to BookScan and have access to the Death Spiral numbers too and act accordingly. If there's a book to order at all, because in many cases if the chains' order to net equation zeros out and they don't order at all, the book in question doesn't get published. Back in the day, I knew of novels that were commissioned, accepted, and paid for but never published because the chains didn't order. Today BookScan prevents such expensive mistakes from happening by aborting them at the acquisition stage.

And how does that play out for the author? As he wrote last night:

Without BookScan, order to net, near monopolies on the retailing end, and a conglomeritized industry where the great idioyncratic independents like Scribners, Random House, and yes Knopf, have become mere brand names owned by a scant handful of multinational corporations, a Sonny Mehta, running on whatever motivation, would still be able to assassinate a single novel by publishing it badly, but not the author's ongoing career.

Or not for sure, anyway. Back in the day, you could write your way out of it if you were good enough by writing a novel great enough to be recognized as a great novel by a single editor with the passion and the leeway to ignore the previous strike-out at bat and swing for the fences. Back in the day, there were many more editors like that because there were many more independent major publishers, hence much more real competition on the acquisition end, hence as much reliance on analog editorial judgement as digital Nielsen numbers.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

KarenUhOh (#19)

There are going to be plenty of great novels. There just aren't going to be many great readers.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

There are going to be plenty of great publicists. There just aren't going to be many great book review sections.

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

I literally know of few to none authors who don't publish a book because (1) they are doing so in hopes of landing a movie/TV deal or (2) their movie/TV deal tanked and thus they are publishing a book instead.

It seems to me modern mass-market publishing is focused on being a conduit connected to other media and not much else. Sad. At least small presses still exist.

buzzorhowl (#992)

Spinrad is an awesome writer, by the way guys. Y'all should be reading his stuff.

Dan Kois (#646)

This is totally fascinating, but I would like to point out that the cover he spends so much time complaining about is actually quite awesome:

slow education (#3,659)

I also went and looked it up. Strongly agree!

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

The simple fact that he said it didn't have enough "pop" was a dead giveaway. People who don't know jack shit about design always complain that a great design doesn't have enough "pop."

LondonLee (#922)

How dare he trash Chip Kidd!

forrealz (#1,530)

yes! and where did he get the idea that CK is all un-checked ego with no editorial chops? sounds like he didn't meet him.

LondonLee (#922)

Chip friended me on Facebook and I have no idea why. I mean, what's the etiquette? I've never met him, do you respond "why are you asking me to be a friend?"

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

He probably explained it to you, but presented it in away that didn't have enough "pop" for you to notice.

Abe Sauer (#148)

This. Is. Excellent.

The tragic humor is that a Random House editor will contact him and make him an offer on his book "The Publishing Death Spiral is My Own" and IT WILL ALL BEGIN AGAIN. Gag.

jfruh (#713)

Is the following scenario totally naive? What if "professional self-publishing" becomes a thing, where writers team up with professional editors and designers in ad hoc constellations, putting out books that have all (or most of) the polish of professionally published stuff but without a big company running the show?

The problem that publishers solve I guess is allowing people to be paid up front for work that wouldn't necessarily be profitable, out of the profits of other books. But it seems like there will be enough out-of-work authors and editors that something like this would at least be tried?

KarenUhOh (#19)

That isn't naive at all, if you can convince enough people to enter their MasterCard #s into a Secure Server.

Not only is it not naive, it's going to happen.

La Cieca (#1,110)

Not until a few important writers can get past the idea that "being an author" means the advance, the blurb, the expense-account lunch with the glamorous editor, the cocktail party, the book tour, the full-age ad in the NYT Book Review, the stack of glossy-covered volumes in the window of Barnes & Noble.

Backslider (#819)

Yes, this is completely naive.

Publishers solve a lot of problems that they don't get credit for solving. One of them is that they pay a pretty large squad of people to do all the work associated with publishing a book that goes beyond writing it. Copy editors need to get paid. Layout designers need to get paid. Even cover designers like Chip Kidd need to get paid. The fact that there are out-of-work authors and editors capable of doing this work doesn't mitigate the fact that you have to pay people if you expect them to do good work. Expecting professionals to work for free or almost nothing is really just awful.

jfruh (#713)

Publishers solve a lot of problems that they don't get credit for solving. One of them is that they pay a pretty large squad of people to do all the work associated with publishing a book that goes beyond writing it. Copy editors need to get paid. Layout designers need to get paid. Even cover designers like Chip Kidd need to get paid. The fact that there are out-of-work authors and editors capable of doing this work doesn't mitigate the fact that you have to pay people if you expect them to do good work. Expecting professionals to work for free or almost nothing is really just awful.

As an out-of-work professional in this field I am well aware of this! I don't believe I said anything about these people not being paid; I am imaging them being paid on a per-job basis, MAYBE with incentives based on how well the book does.

Backslider (#819)

But these assumptions/options are what makes the idea naive. Even with a big publisher behind them, most books don't sell anywhere near enough copies to make any money at all. They're published at a loss. The scenario you've sketched out implicitly requires a collective of people–designers, editors, publicists–to assume all that risk and carry those losses.

Self publishing has been around forever. It's fine. Sometimes, albeit rarely, it leads to literary and financial success. But it will never replace the big publishing houses. Even if book publishing as we know it dies as an industry, self publishing still won't fully replace it.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Naivete: Bug or Feature

Backslider (#819)

The main thing is no one cares. People don't read. They don't argue about books. Even people who profess to love books don't really love them. They love the pretension of books. "Hey, I'm a big reader, so I'm better than you." But Barnes and Nobles isn't on the block because it's such a hugely profitable retail chain. And I'd also note that there are only a handful of comments on this story. Everyone else in the world is off checking in on foursquare or doing whatever it is kids do.

LondonLee (#922)

"Hey, I'm a big reader, so I'm better than you."

That's a rather large projection you're making there.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

> Barnes and Noble isn't on the block

I think there's more to that story than they've put in that story so far.

I also think "People don't read" is a load of crap.

Backslider (#819)

You can think that all you want, but if people did read, then publishing wouldn't be in trouble. I mean, of course people "read." They read Gawker and Perez and Drudge. They read self help books. But the vast majority of people do not read novels, serious history or literary non-fiction. If any book sells 300,000 copies it is considered a huge success. If a novel sells that many copies it's a blockbuster. But there are 300 million people in America. 200 million of those people are adults. Of that group, 300,000 is essentially "no one" from a statistical stand point.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Which is exactly why the "self-publishing collective" is a viable idea, if done with the understanding of its organically-minimal scale.

Point being: despite the institutional muscle pub houses can wield, they either can't, won't, or don't, except behind a sliver of products. Their finances are petering out faster than they can recoup on a few big titles.

That leaves a range of potential authors, editors, etc. out there with an incentive to try to end run around the whole thing and make it on their own. Of course it's a risk they take on themselves. Of course it has elements of pie in the sky. A lot.

But the alternatives aren't much of an alternative at all.

Your point about the quotidian shift of reading habits seems just right, and is further justification. This is becoming every author for herself.

Backslider (#819)

If the goal of the end run you describe is solely to make nice books from time to time, while operating at a financial loss all the time, it's a fine idea.

Like I said, self publishing has always been with us. I may be mistaken, but I believe Dubliners was originally self published. The incentive you describe is purely artistic and good and just and I applaud anyone who does it. I would probably read the books that come out of a system like that. But it's not a system that can be supported for long. I know lots of people who've tried to establish self publishing collectives. Hell, I've tried it. And when you put the responsibility of running a business that's practically unprofitable by design on top of all the other responsibilities we all have–like day jobs–and put that on top of basic novelistic ambitions, the whole endeavor starts to collapse under its own weight pretty quickly.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

> if people did read, the publishing wouldn't be in trouble

Because there'd be enough demand to take care of everything? Nah. There's plenty of demand. It's down from what it was, sure, and if they keep killing education eventually "people don't read" will be true.

But. Publishing like the music industry like tv like journalism is in trouble because of its unreasonable belief in the permanence of a low- to no-choice mass market. Once you can't hit your seven mentions by buying a few spots on Can't Miss TV (or when there stop being book sections for publishers to buy ads in) it gets a lot harder…

bingobongo (#6,647)

"if people did read, then publishing wouldn't be in trouble"

This is naive statement

Look at the dying music industry. Everyone listens to music and no one is making a dollar

Backslider (#819)

Yeah yeah. Thank you mister literal. You know what I meant. For the purposes of this discussion reading=buying books. As of yet book publishers are not suffering from file sharing issues the same way music publishers are.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Who the hell came up with the bright idea that virtually all content was free?

Backslider (#819)

Al Gore.

Norman Spinrad (#6,651)

I was the fucking author of THE DRUID KING looking for my own book, and I walked past it 3 times! That's not a cover with negative pop? And Chip Kidd's cover had nothing at all to do with anything the novel was about. And I've seen others of his like it. And while I have no dog in that fight, art directors relying on Photoshop like Kidd sure are making life hard for cover artists.

Annie K. (#3,563)

I like Kidd's cover too. I've seen too much "pop," and I'd like something that looks different and interesting and maybe even a little intelligent if that's not too much to ask. I've got a book coming out in a couple weeks whose cover has "pop" and it was over my dead body because I had this gorgeous incredible structure-of-the-universe photo like nothing you've ever seen before but it didn't didn't pop. I'm still pissed and will probably stay that way for the next 20 minutes or so.

Dan Kois (#646)

Hi, Norman Spinrad!

I guess it depends on what you want the cover to do. Demanding "pop" in a cover, to me, suggests that the only job of a cover is to catch someone's eye as they happen to walk past a book. A great example of a cover with pop is the mass-market cover of your own OTHER AMERICAS, a book I really loved:

Bright colors, a surprising image, an actually confrontational design — the image pointing out at the viewer — I have no doubt that this cover pops off a shelf, and gets people's attention.

I'm no designer, but I would argue that there are other things a cover can do that are as important as pop, and that for some kinds of book, those jobs are more important than pop. So Kidd's cover for THE DRUID KING doesn't leap off a shelf at me, but in a year when fewer and fewer books were being bought in bookstores and more and more were being bought online, is that the most important job for cover to do? Maybe not.

That cover does convey certain things to me:

-This is a dark, exciting, complex book.
-This is not sci-fi.
-This is gritty and unlike other things on the shelf.
-This is upmarket. (That is, it's meant for a literary-fiction audience, even if it is not itself traditional literary fiction.)

Are all those true? I dunno — I never read THE DRUID KING, perhaps because Knopf blew it. But if, in 2002, I had been in a bookstore and had seen this book on a table, or had been on Amazon and seen the cover, I would have been intrigued BECAUSE the cover is subtle and interesting, and because the combination of the cover and your name would have made me curious as to what kind of book someone I thought of as a sci-fi writer had come out with.

All this is just a roundabout way of saying that I really did like this cover a lot — and I say this as someone who doesn't always love the Chip Kidd aesthetic.

Annie K. (#3,563)

See, that's what I wanted to say, only Dan said it smarter and thoughtier and kinder.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)


I should say that my objection to your point about the cover was a quibble. I found most of your argument convincing and informative.

I do like the cover, and I felt your objections to it were rooted in a difference of opinion with the designer on what a good cover should be.

As for accusing you of not knowing about design, that was unfair of me – I have no basis for such a claim. I was projecting my own experience with clients who demand "pop" at the expense of good design. It may well have been an unfortunate coincidence of diction.

tdhinaustin (#6,663)

Well I never read the Druid King, don't even know what the cover looked like. But I did buy the latest novel, partially because of the cover. It was an awful read. So I guess he is even on the book cover front.

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