Category Archives: publishing in a recession

How to Publish in a Recession: Godine’s David R. Godine

Brief introductory note: This is the last interview in this series. However, I'm pleased to note that in  March we'll be having some interesting stuff. This includes:

  • Two more interviews with publishing folk who are doing some interesting things
  • A joint-reading/blogging project that I'm pretty excited about: I've managed to pull in two very sharp readers, and we'll be reading the same book and discussing
    it here. This is a very large, very important novel, and I think it will be one of my best reads of the year. More next week.
  • Don't forget that the Spring issue of The Quarterly Conversation publishes next Monday. I'm quite pleased to report that this is our largest issue yet.

Now on to the interview.

(This is Part 6 (Part 5, Part 4, Part 3, Part 2, Part 1)
in an ongoing series of interviews with publishers on what the
recession means for their business. I'm interested in getting past the
newspaper reports of trouble at the giant New York publishers and
seeing what smaller and/or independent publishers have to say.)

David R. Godine is the publisher at Godine.

Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?

David R. Godine: Looking around at the scene in Boston, and especially at what seems to be happening at Houghton/Harcourt, I would say the scene is gloomy. But I suspect much f the problem there derives from the pressures coming from the Irish owners, and not from the sales of books per se. I very much doubt that with a backlist as strong as Houghton's and Harcourt's', not to mention the excellence of their respective children's divisions, that some formula could not be worked out for their survival.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like–better, worse, or about the same? What do you attribute this to?

DRG: For us, business has been about the same, maybe even up a hair. But I attribute this to a) the seasonal influx of orders we get in December as a result of our direct mail campaign and b) Le Clezio winning the Nobel Prize. Without these two factors, I think the last two months would have been fairly grim. I am waiting to see how this year develops.

SE: What in particular are you planning to do in 2009 to react to economic changes? What's your outlook for this year?

DRG: We are being very careful in what we decide to actually publish and what we decide to reprint. Not just the titles but also the quantities. It is not going to be a very ambitious list, but there are enough titles on both the Spring and fall list with a fairly sure potential t sell well that I would say I am cautiously optimistic. Which is, of course, the only philosophically tenable position for a publisher to maintain in any market.

SE: Do you think there's something about your business model (i.e. that of a smaller, more independent press) that will allow you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

DRG: Sure. First, we are privately held and cash flow is far more important than profitability. We are not answerable to stock holders for ever improving scores on the bottom line or the balance sheet. We own our own warehouse and ship our own books, so we can print for three or four years, and not just for a season. We are not expected to offer huge advances or munificent royalties, so people aren't disappointed when we live up to our, or their, expectations. Finally, we provide a fairly identifiable "quality" product and we have a fairly loyal and predictable customer base- both consumers and bookstores. When times are tough, people inevitably move to quality. They may buy less, but they buy better.


SE: In your opinion, how well do books hold up in a recession?

DRG: I tend to agree with the conventional wisdom on this; books are the last to be hit in a recession and they are often the last to recover. But I was surprised that our direct mail drop did as well as it did–both in terms of percentage of returns and the average $/order.

SE: In a recent article in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin advanced the idea that an important group of British writers came on the scene during the UK's recessionary '80s. He speculated that the economic turmoil was somehow linked to the emergence of these writers–perhaps the recession helped open the field to emerging writers and allowed more innovative publishers to put out the work of talented writers who hadn't broken into the mainstream. Some of the authors he named were Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis. What do you think of this idea? Would you say that in times of a recession you would be more likely to publish an unknown but largely talented author?

DRG: This is a tough question. I think we would be a lot more cautious about taking on an "unknown" writer in a climate such as this- mostly because the review coverage is also going to shrink, and the library budgets are being cut, and discretionary spending for any kind of book, but most especially for books with authors of unknown weight, is becoming more discretionary. It takes an enormous amount of effort, and luck to "break out" a new writer in this climate, although I think that talent will always tell.


SE: Another effect of the recession is that a lot of bookstores are going out of business, and large chains are cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy. Are these closings and cutbacks affecting you in any noticeable way?

DRG: No; we only sell to Barnes and Noble and they have been very realistic, cooperative, and effective. I will miss, and I do miss, the larger independents who have had to close. The closing of a store like Dutton's or Cody's does have a major effect on our ability to get our books into major markets.


SE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a press–e.g. costs of paper, costs of printing, staffing, etc.–what kinds of changes are you experiencing?

DRG: We are looking very seriously at the color of the headbands we select. Enough questions already.

How to Publish in a Recession: Coffee House Press’s Allan Kornblum

(This is Part 5 (Part 4, Part 3, Part 2, Part 1)
in an ongoing series of interviews with publishers on what the
recession means for their business. I’m interested in getting past the
newspaper reports of trouble at the giant New York publishers and
seeing what smaller and/or independent publishers have to say.)

Allan Kornblum is the publisher at Coffee House Books.

Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?

Allan Kornblum: Publishing is in a huge state of flux right now, but then again, it has continually changed since the days of the oral tradition. While the distant past may not be germane, we do have to go back to the middle years of the twentieth century. At that time, publishing was certainly a business, as it is today, but it was a business that had accepted a low rate of return on investment, in exchange for the thrill (and it is a thrill) of being part of the cultural life of the country, and indeed, the world. But in the 1980s and 1990s, bigger publishers began gobbling up smaller publishers, and then multinational corporations swallowed up the bigger publishers. Suddenly these houses needed to service the debt involved in buyouts, on top of the relatively modest six-to-eight percent return on investment that Bennett Cerf and Alfred Knopf had once been happy to receive.
When you throw the internet, DVDs, and other forms of entertainment into the mix, major publishers were having difficulty sustaining their business model even before the recession hit. Now with Borders on the brink, and former readers becoming would-be writers and self-publishing books instead of reading books, a major shake-up was inevitable. Where it’s going to end is anybody’s guess. But publishing isn’t going to return 20% or even 15% on the dollar—it never has in the past, and I don’t think it will in the future. I think all these changes that are making things difficult for the major houses provide an opening for smaller publishers. It remains to be seen how it will all play out, however.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like–better, worse, or about the same? What do you attribute this to?

AK: For Coffee House Press, 2008 went very well. We had some books with regional appeal that found their market, and books with national appeal that received a nice boost from reviewers and we had a National Book Award finalist. Our break-out titles were The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir by Kao Kalia Yang, and Blood Dazzler, poems by Patricia Smith, our National Book Award finalist. Other titles that helped make the year a success include Jealous Witness, poems by Andrei Codrescu; Open Line, a novel by Ellen Hawley; and Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, a novel by David Mura.

Just like movie studios, a few big hits can help carry a small publishing house. We’ve also been doing well with the sale of translation rights. We attribute our success to a combination of factors. First, we do all the little things right: our books come out on time; we get out review copies out to reviewers early, and include cover letters with all the information reviewers need; and our books are consistently well-edited, designed, and produced. Of course we definitely had a little bit of luck with some of our titles, but we were ready for that luck with a great staff. We believe in our authors, and in each other.

SE: What in particular are you planning to do in 2009 to react to economic changes?

AK: What we’ve been doing since we ran into financial trouble in the early part of the decade: try to keep our costs down, make our marketing dollars as cost effective as possible, be conservative on print runs, and be ready when opportunities appear.

SE: Chad Post at Open Letter, a nonprofit press, has already noted that some of the grant money he expected for 2009 might not be forthcoming. As someone who works at a nonprofit press, what do you expect the grants and donation landscape to be in 2009 in comparison to previous years?

AK: We are anticipating an immediate 10% – 20% drop in individual donations in 2009, and a subsequent, comparable drop in grants in 2010 and 2011. We believe the economy will start coming back in 2011, and grants and donations will start to improve in 2012.

SE: How sensitive is Coffee House to unexpected changes in grants and donations? For instance, if some of your expected grants got stuck in limbo due to budget cuts and freezes, would this force you to postpone titles?

AK: At one point Coffee House income was 60% donated and 40% earned. During the last two years, those percentages have flipped–not because of a drop in donated (which has been flat) but because of an increase in earned income. I know we’re in a world-wide recession–it’s not just a US problem. But between US sales and translation rights sales, we think we can continue to build on our recent growth in earned income. But whenever I say things like that, I have to remind myself and my listener that you have to have an "optimism gene" somewhere in your emotional make-up to be a publisher. I try to cock my head, get some distance, and coldly evaluate our books and the marketplace, and I think I’ve done that and I still think we can continue to improve our earned income. Time will tell if the idealistic part of my personality has fooled my realistic side.
But to answer your question—for the moment, we believe we will be able to live up to all the commitments we’ve made to authors. If the recession drags on longer than anticipated, we’ll have to reassess our resources and our plans.

SE: Do you think there’s something about your business model (i.e. that of a smaller, more independent press) that will allow you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

AK: Houghton Mifflin’s mission is to make money for shareholders first, and to serve literature second. As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good. Survival is a key part of serving the public good, but we’re not under pressure to make the same kind of margins as a for-profit house must make to serve both of its missions. And expectations are different–our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings. And we don’t get into pissing contests with our peers, bidding up celebrity memoirs so a competitor won’t get it. But all that being said, we’re all at the mercy of the moods of the booksellers. If they’re so worried about being stuck with too much inventory, if they see those images of empty aisles loaded with flat screen tvs going nowhere, if they see the same footage of car lots overflowing with inventory that I see on CNN, they may not order books this spring. And if the books don’t get into the stores, they won’t get into readers’ hands. So we’ll have to see what happens next.


SE: How well do books hold up in a recession?

AK: On the one hand, book sales did not experience a big boom during Christmas, with shoppers switching from $1,000 computers to $25.00 hardcover books, but in a year of disasters in one industry after another, book sales decreased by only 3%, if my memory serves me right. And according to the latest National Endowment for the Arts survey, readership is starting to rebound in all age groups, after years of steady decline. When almost everyone discovered the value of their retirement fund had been cut in half, in a year when literally millions of people lost their jobs, a 3% decline in sales looks pretty good. But again, you have to be a "glass is half full" person to devote your life to publishing.


SE: In a recent article in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin advanced the idea that an important group of British writers came on the scene during the UK’s recessionary ’80s. He speculated that the economic turmoil was somehow linked to the emergence of these writers–perhaps the recession helped open the field to emerging writers and allowed more innovative publishers to put out the work of talented writers who hadn’t broken into the mainstream. Some of the authors he named were Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis. What do you think of this idea? Would you say that in times of a recession you would be more likely to publish an unknown but largely talented author?

AK: That sounds like a think piece by a journalist, not feedback from a working editor. It’s my job not to offend journalists, because someday they may be writing about one of our authors. . . . But to me, that just sounds silly. When a publishing house believes it has discovered a genius, it’s not going to wait for a recession to release the author’s book.


SE: By contrast, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse argued that tough economic times will make the blockbuster publishing model more alluring than ever. She stated that in the past the blockbuster strategy has "worked wonders," and she argued that it made more economic sense to make a few high-stakes bets than spread your money around a number of low-payoff books. In particular, she stated that publishers that spend "an inordinate amount on an acquisition, will do everything in its power to make that project a market success," that large acquisition deals indicate seriousness to chain bookstores, and that publishers that don’t show a willingness to bet bit on manuscripts in recessions will be shut out in the future. Obviously these kinds of blockbuster books don’t pertain to Coffee House, but what do you think of this logic, especially as it pertains to publishing in a recession?

AK: It actually sounds like the strategy Borders has been following during the last few years. Hasn’t worked too well for a bookstore chain, has it. I don’t think it’s going be an effective strategy for publishers either. That doesn’t mean some publishers won’t try it, depending on whether book people are calling the shots, or someone from another industry called in to make a publishing house more profitable. But last season’s best sellers are next season’s overflow in the remainder racks. Meanwhile some of those midlist titles will wind up on teaching lists and keep selling for another ten years, long after cartons of those best sellers have been recycled into cartons.


SE: As a follow-up, would you say that in times of recession emphasis shifts away from publishing’s center?

AK: The recession isn’t the only factor driving changes in writing and publishing. Writers on the one hand, and book and magazine publishers on the other, are both trying to figure out what the changes in information technology will mean. Will books get shorter, so they can be read on a cell phone? Will nonfiction migrate to ebooks, while literature stays on the printed page? Will backlist titles become downloadable PDFs? Will future desktop printers include binding equipment? Newspaper and magazine ad revenue has been shrinking, and no one has figured out how to turn electronic publishing into a business model that works. Keep in mind that clay tablets lasted 3,000 years, papyrus scrolls lasted two thousand years, the handwritten rectangular book we recognize today continued for about a thousand years, and letterpress printing lasted 500 years. All of a sudden we’ve had desktop book design, the internet, and the ebook, all in the last twenty-five years. Writers, publishers, and readers have had to swallow these major changes as if we were all at a fast food restaurant, so it’s not surprising that we’re all suffering a bit of indigestion.
I’m not saying that the recession isn’t going to have an effect on publishing, but it’s not the only part of the ever-changing landscape we’re all trying to negotiate.


SE: Another effect of the recession is that a lot of bookstores are going out of business, and large chains are cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy. Are these closings and cutbacks affecting you in any noticeable way?

AK: Well as noted above, that’s my biggest concern. I believe Yogi Berra once said, "If people don’t want to come to the ballpark, you just can’t stop them." If booksellers don’t order books, we small press publishers can’t stop them. The demise of legendary stores like Cody’s on the West Coast and Robin’s in Philly is heartbreaking. But I still have that damned stupid optimism gene. And that leads me to believe that when the recession is over, new idealists will open new stores, and one in ten will find a way to make it work. And I do believe that booksellers know they need a variety of books to satisfy their customers, not a half dozen best sellers. In any event, we had a pretty good 2008–and I believe in the books we’re publishing, and I believe in the relationships we have, and Consortium’s sales reps have with good booksellers. We’ll see what happens next.

SE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a press–e.g. costs of paper, costs of printing, staffing, etc.–what kinds of changes are you experiencing?

AK: Advances in technology have cut some costs, balancing the increase in the cost of paper. As a result, production costs have been pretty steady over the last decade.
On the other hand, we just had an administrative staff person move on, and I received 110 resumes–four times the number we received the last time we advertised the position. And yeah, that’s the recession, no doubt about it. It’s tough out there. For all the optimism I’ve expressed, I’m holding my breath and, to use a Minnesota image, hoping we can skate over the thin ice and get to the other side of the lake.

How to Publish in a Recession: Chelsea Green’s Margo Baldwin

(This is Part 4 (Part 3, Part 2, Part 1)
in an ongoing series of interviews with publishers on what the
recession means for their business. I’m interested in getting past the
newspaper reports of trouble at the giant New York publishers and
seeing what smaller and/or independent publishers have to say.)

Margo Baldwin is the president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing.

Scott Esposito: Chelsea Green is a little different than the presses that most readers of this blog will be familiar with. To give us an idea of what you do, what are some of your strongest backlist titles and what are your lead titles for 2009?

Margo Baldwin: We’ve had 3 New York Times bestsellers in the last 4 years, Don’t Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff (2004), The End of America by Naomi Wolf (2007), and Obama’s Challenge by Robert Kuttner (2008). Those titles represent the politics part of “The politics and practice of sustainable living.” The practice part includes backlist bestsellers such as The Four Season Harvest and New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman (over 100k copies sold of all editions), The Straw Bale House (over 150k copies sold), The Man Who Planted Trees (300k copies sold), Wind Power, The Passive Solar House, Natural Beekeeping, Wild Fermentations, Gaia’s Garden, Limits to Growth. For 2009, our lead titles will be Eliot Coleman’s new book Winter Harvest Handbook, Tom Greco’s The End of Money and the Future of Civilization, Deirdre Heekin’s Libation, a Bitter Alchemy, and Living above the Store, a sustainable business book about triple bottom line business practices.


SE: In the past couple months we’ve seen reports of a sharp decline in book sales and a sharp increase in literary reading (although not of books in general). And this has taken place against the rise of Amazon/decline of books-and-mortar stores, Jeff Bezos’s championing of the Kindle, and a definite trend toward ebooks on the part of publishers big and small. As someone who has been publishing for quite some time, do you think the industry is at a crossroads?

MB: Indeed I do. It needs to reinvent itself: get rid of returns and huge advances and all the waste inherent in the system. Amazon has perfected the ordering to demand systems and other booksellers need to do the same. It’s no longer feasible to push lots of books out and then take them all back; way too wasteful. E-books and digital content will continue to grow, but will remain relatively small compared to printed books for awhile. Bricks and mortar stores will need to reinvent themselves into community activist centers with a mission in order to keep their customers. Chains will become less important except for the megahits and brand name authors. Backlist will continue to migrate to the internet.

SE: What parts of the publishing industry do you think will look different in a few years?

MB: Everything! Publishers will be more niched and using POD and e-books for penetration into certain markets. Bookstores will be transformed as above. General trade stores will stay afloat by being linked to Amazon and other Internet sites to gain commissions on backlist sales from their customers, while concentrating on frontlist titles. Many general trade publishers will have gone out of business or drastically reduced in size. More content will be published online and by subscription. More user-generated content will be sold. As the industrial culture crashes, how-to survive and thrive self-sufficiently will gain in importance.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like for you–better, worse, or about the same? What do you attribute this to?

MB: We’ve just finished our best year ever and continue to grow. I attribute it to a growing interest in sustainability and green living and figuring out how to be more self-sufficient. When you don’t have a job, growing your own food become more critical. We’ve been ahead of the cultural curve for the past 25 years and now finally the culture is catching up to us.

SE: What’s your outlook for 2009? Have you made any significant changes to your plans for 2009 in response to the shifting economy?

MB: 2009 is going to be brutal, from an economic point of view; I think we’re headed into a depression. We are projecting a 5% decline in sales, but feel cautiously optimistic that we will be in good shape and may exceed projections. We will be extremely careful on the collections front, as we are most vulnerable to a big supplier going out of business. We will concentrate on publishing into our core backlist areas, with fewer political and general trade titles. We’re considering shifting to nonreturnable terms for all retail accounts.

SE: The preceding publishers I’ve interviewed for this series have published almost exclusively literary titles. Chelsea Green has a much different focus, as it primarily publishes nonfiction focused on sustainable living issues. How does your business model differ from a literary press?

MB: We can count on our backlist to provide the engine for our growth and profitability year after year, which is different from literary publishers. They have a much harder time. We know who are market is and how to get to them. In hard times, our content is much more essential and is relatively price resistant.

SE: Do you think there’s something about your business model (i.e. that of a more independent press) that allows you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

MB: Yes, just because we have less overhead, less sunk into huge advances, less waste, more ability to move quickly and adjust and we’re more niched and relevant to the times.

SE: You co-founded Chelsea Green in 1984, and thus have survived two previous declared recessions, as well as a variety of economic environments. How well have your books help up in previous recessions/economies?

MB: Our books do very well in recessionary times. If you want to eat, you learn how to grow your own food. If you want a house, you can learn how to build it yourself. If you want to reduce your energy use, you can figure out how to harvest your own power. Survival is a wake up call and we have the books to educate people on that front.

SE: Is there anything about this current environment that you think distinguishes it from previous economic contractions?

MB: Yes, I think this is more of a permanent contraction. We are at the intersection of peak oil and climate change as well as deeply mired in the collapse of the bubble economic system. Basically it doesn’t work anymore and it’s not coming back because it’s not connected to the real economy of essential goods and services. One of our newest and strongest books is The Transition Handbook about how communities can prepare themselves for the coming decline and “power down” off their use of fossil fuels. It’s rapidly growing movement that started in the UK and is now spreading across the US.

SE: And lastly, what about bookstores? With lots of them going out of business, and with large chains cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy, what kinds of effects are you noticing as a publisher?

MB: We have our own in-house sales team that has been growing our non bookstore retail base so we are more diversified. We are moving towards going nonreturnable with our retail accounts, which may mean doing a lot less business with the national chains. Our Green Partnership program with independent bookstores, started in mid-2007, has been a huge success, with net sales up over 100%, based on a nonreturnable sales model and deeper discounts. Internet sales have been growing by double digits and so that will continue, we think. We have redone our website to make it into a sustainable living news and blog site and our traffic is up over 50% using all the social media tools we can employ. We are no longer doing print galleys and will move to digital galleys this year. Much of our marketing efforts will be Internet based.

How to Publish in a Recession: Soft Skull/Counterpoint’s Richard Nash

(This is Part 3 (Part 2, Part 1)
in an ongoing series of interviews with publishers on what the
recession means for their business. I’m interested in getting past the
newspaper reports of trouble at the giant New York publishers and
seeing what smaller and/or independent publishers have to say.)

Richard Nash is the editorial director of Soft Skull Press and the executive editor of Counterpoint.

Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?

Richard Nash: There are several distinct things going on at once. The first is the macro-economic problem which is indeed giving cause for gloom as it has caused a serious drop on aggregate adult trade book sales, greater than any recession heretofore.

The second is the shift on what media consumers purchase, and how they consume it, occurring for books, music, television and film—because it is the smallest of those industries, and because its technology—the printed book—was the most robust and fine-tuned of the analog technologies, it is only know we’re starting to see the impact. And the impact is currently less on the industry itself; it’s more that the cumulative effect of the changes from other industries, chiefly the amount of content consumed online, is drawing people away from the printed book format. The shift can be cause for gloom if you’re of the handwringing temperament, but it is far more an opportunity to rid the publishing business of a lot of cant and laziness and arrogance.

The third is the effect of all the other, non-consumer-facing change sin technology, especially that of supply chain management, in combination with the above two trends. Basically, retailers and wholesalers have been rapidly shifting risk from themselves back onto the publisher. Retailers order fewer and fewer copies of each book, believing that if the book is a failure, they’ll be stuck with less slow-moving inventory, and if it is a success the publisher can just reprint and ship them more. Retailers and wholesalers share less of the burden of printing books on spec., the publisher ever more. This has been especially hard on independent publishers, without the capital/cash flow to be doing extra lower profit margin printings of the book, and getting stuck with higher initial units costs because they’re printing 2500 copies rather than 3500 copies of an average title. The macroeconomic situation has made this worse, and the collapse in music sales (pace the second observation) has hurt retailers like Tower, Virgin, Borders, putting more pressure on the books to perform . . . This phenomenon is cause for gloom, though it has been going on for years and won’t stop really until there’s been a significant shift to digital download of books, and to subscriptions for direct-to–consumer physical books.

SE: What has business been like since early 2008, when the recession more or less started?

RN: Systemically speaking, the third item has been ongoing, and accelerated in early 2008. This was in part endemic, and in part probably in anticipation of a slowdown in consumer spending. But it didn’t hit retail til the fourth quarter, especially October and November.

In terms of us, for any given independent publisher the effect of the success (or failure) of just a couple books will far outweigh macroeconomic effects. Our sales can seesaw pretty dramatically. Up 100% one year, down 40% the next, up 30% the following. All other things being equal, we did less well in 2008 than we would have otherwise, but all other things are so not equal. So, in fact, ironically, we had a great year. Best ever. A hair short of a million net, and that’s with us having moved Lydia Millet into the Counterpoint imprint. It’s just that we’d have done a little bit better still were the economy in better shape.

SE: What do you attribute your high sales to?

RN: Old-fashioned publishing is what got us . . . the book’s selling well. Knowing the audience, working really hard to connect to the audience as intimately and personally as possible, especially in the case of Martin Millar and Tim Wise. Immensely hard work by the authors themselves, especially in the case of Jonathan Evison and All About Lulu. Faith in great writing irrespective of previously sucky sales track as in the case of Shannon Burke’s Black Flies. Luck (front page NYTBR) as in the case of Black Flies also.

SE: Have you noticed any recent developments in your business that you can attribute directly to the recession, particularly in terms of sales?

RN: It is harder and harder to get good sell-in, meaning orders by bookstores and wholesalers. More and more you have to prove to the retailer your book will sell. But frankly, Soft Skull has almost ALWAYS had to do that. Our books, either because they seem to be very nichy, or very literary, or very alternative, or very hybrid, have always faced significant challenges when sales reps present them to bookstores. So in a sense these challenges that we’ve faced for our entire existence likely have us better prepared for the current challenges . . . we can’t take anything for granted, and the proof of your faith in your editorial judgment lies solely in the willingness of the reader to embrace it.

SE: What’s your outlook for 2009? Have you made any significant changes to your plans for 2009 in response to the shifting economy?

RN: Not really. There isn’t much we can do, other than maybe force ourselves to project slightly more conservatively.

SE: Do you think there’s something about your business model (i.e. that of a smaller, more independent press) that will allow you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

RN: Hmm. In some respects it is harder, because of not having capital, and not having a big deep backlist. But with HMH they don’t own their capital, so the owners of capital, be they shareholders or bondholders, look to be really nervous and are looking for short-term solutions. I suspect, though, that unless the corporate publishers massively restructure, the current layoffs will continue annually for another 5-7 years, until their payroll is down to half of 2007 levels . . .

SE: In a recent article in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin advanced the idea that an important group of British writers come on the scene during the UK’s recessionary ’80s. He speculated that the economic turmoil was somehow linked to the emergence of these writers–perhaps the recession helped open the field to emerging writers and allowed more innovative publishers to put out the work of talented writers who hadn’t broken into the mainstream. Some of the authors he named were Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis. What do you think of this idea? Would you say that in times of a recession you would be more likely to publish an unknown but largely talented author?

RN: I think it’s less about what I would do, and more about what the times produce. I believe that times of social disruption are tremendously fruitful for writers who are basically creating little social laboratories in which society gets to act out the changes. (Too profound a disruption is terrible for writing, tough to write in Somalia right now, but in basically stale bourgeois societies, this kind of crisis is great for novelists . . . )

SE: By contrast, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse argued that tough economic times will make the blockbuster publishing model more alluring than ever. She stated that in the past the blockbuster strategy has "worked wonders," and she argued that it made more economic sense to make a few high-stakes bets than spread your money around a number of low-payoff books. In particular, she stated that publishers that spend "an inordinate amount on an acquisition, will do everything in its power to make that project a market success," that large acquisition deals indicate seriousness to chain bookstores, and that publishers that don’t show a willingness to bet bit on manuscripts in recessions will be shut out in the future. What do you think of these arguments, especially as they pertain to publishing in a recession?

RN: Oh she’s really not done much research—she’s only looked at the corporate model, and developed theories about what works on their system. Which is self-fulfilling, since their system is designed to work that model. It’s really quite dense. Almost hare-brained.

SE: Would you say that in times of recession emphasis shifts away from publishing’s center? For instance would you say manuscripts begin to flow elsewhere as the major houses clamp down? That there’s a general incentive to try new things?

RN: Corporate houses were already shifting to publishing fewer titles, and the recession will accelerate that process. They will continue to follow Elberse’s model, which will cause them to become smaller and smaller companies, since chasing blockbusters has never worked in books except one or two years out of every four or five, when they’re lucky. There will be layoffs in all the down years, which will be the majority, until they’re really just backlists with a sporadic hit factory attached. And an entire universe of self-publishing and micro-publishing will arise, driven by poets, therapists, moguls, dieticians, anyone who feels either entrepreneurial or shut out or both. What they’ll all have in common, is a sense of who the reader is for their book, and the knowledge that the hit factory is designed to produce books that aren’t theirs.

SE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a press–e.g. costs of paper, costs of printing, staffing, etc.–what kinds of changes are you experiencing? Do you attribute any of this to the recession?

RN: Everything shifts constantly—paper goes up, gas prices down, dollar goes up making Canada and Hong Kong cheaper, but pulling in less in foreign rights sales. Its just bloody all over the place. You just have to pay attention to everything. But truth be told, we’ve always had to do that. When a few important books didn’t sell in the past, that was a recession. We’ve always been staring down the barrel of somethign that could be a recession, every month, every year.

How to Publish in a Recession: Unbridled Books’ Fred Ramey

(This is Part 2 (Part I) in an ongoing series of interviews with publishers on what the recession means for their business. I’m interested in getting past the newspaper reports of trouble at the giant New York publishers and seeing what smaller and/or independent publishers have to say.)

Fred Ramey is the co-publisher (with Greg Michalson) at Unbridled Books. To see all interviews in this series, click here.

Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?


Fred Ramey:
I believe that things are unbearably gloomy for conglomerated publishers whose business model is based on bringing significant numbers of readers to those books that have cost the most to acquire and that have been given the lion’s share of the marketing outlay—that is, the books the conglomerates are “banking” on.  Although, as you know, statistics are extraordinarily difficult to come by, it appears to me that there might be a change in behaviors of readers (which may, I think, be masked by the economic downturn). If instead of buying the book they’re told to buy, readers are heading toward books that are hand-sold to them or that their online friends recommend, toward books they find links to on Amazon/Powell’s/etc., then what has previously appeared to conglomerated publishers as the surest thing will become much less so. It’s not hard to see how that would impact the entirety of a too-large list with imbalanced acquisition costs and high corporate overhead. But it would have a different effect on independent publishers.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like–better, worse, or about the same?

FR: Oh, doing business has definitely been more difficult. But this is not, I think, the result of customers wanting fewer books.

SE: What do you attribute this to?

FR: I think the readers are still out there in numbers sufficient to support our business model and our niche. The difficulty we have faced within the realm of independent commercial publishing is in transitioning from a time when books could legitimately be review driven. The rollback in print review inches for a time made it much more difficult for us to get the word out about our new titles—and our two 2008 lists were perhaps the most promising year’s worth of titles we’ve ever had. In addition, keeping up with ebook platforms is difficult for a press without a sizable IT department. But here’s what’s happening now: We’ve gotten a handle on ebook delivery and our coming lists will be more widely available on several platforms, with the backlist soon to follow. And as I—and the company as a whole—have become more involved in social media, we have been invigorated to find connections to a reading community that we always knew existed but that had previously been put out of our reach by the stranglehold that the MSM has too-long had on book discussions and publicity. Quite simply, our books are genuinely good; and, I think, it is actually becoming easier to connect with readers who want exactly that.

SE: Have you noticed any recent developments in your business that you can attribute directly to the recession, particularly in terms of sales?

FR: The current realities are a lessened attention span at the chains, the weakened sales impact of mainstream media reviews, and the pressure to shift gears more quickly. . . all that is difficult for all publishers.

In addition, over the past several months, there has definitely been a circling of wagons around the publishing model that has long dominated (the same model that now may well be failing). So many folks are asserting that the sure thing is now even more sure. But that’s whistling past the graveyard, I think. And as a correlative result, what chains remain are hoping the whistling will work. Again, we’re shifting to an online approach to the community of readers we need while simultaneously pushing our dedication to the independent bookselling community even further. I’m hopeful that the ABA will bring the independents back to the recognition that they can actually make books (in many ways and in more than just hardcopy formats). Let the chains follow the whistling corporate publishers; let the independents each be an integral and exciting part of the community as they traditionally have been. Book sales fell for the final quarter in independent bookselling—but they fell LESS than they fell for the chains. (This phenomenon apparently isn’t limited to the book segment of retail sales.)

SE: What’s your outlook for 2009? Have you made any significant changes to your plans for 2009 in response to the shifting economy?

FR: We will be working hard to control costs while maintaining our mission and our values. Our marketing/publicity outlays will be more energetically online and less print-oriented. I think we can expect smaller initial print runs and so quicker moves to reprint. We’ve already done joint hardcover/pb runs. I imagine we will lighten our presence at the trade shows. But on the whole, we remain hopeful for what will come—perhaps not in 2009, but more realistically in the years after, when the shifts in delivery systems (including the evolution of ebook delivery) have moved farther along. Actually, I believe that the changes in corporate publishing and the migration of the book-discussion world will eventually grant independent presses a larger market share.

SE:
How well do books hold up in a recession? Is publishing more recession-proof than other industries? Before Christmas there was some speculation that there would be renewed interest in books as an economical gift-choice, but that seems not to have panned out
.

FR: That’s difficult to predict, but I am of the mind that books seen as consumables suffer from the same pressures as all entertainment units/modules. That, I think, may have fed the holiday downturn. But books that are bought to be owned, pondered, re-read, saved, and given to others just might follow a different trajectory. Who knows; perhaps they did in that same downturn season. The part of the industry that is not so fleeting has a different relationship in a consumer’s mind to the question: “What lasts?”  I don’t want to be an ameliorist here, but I do think that as we analyze and plan we need to think in terms of what I call the Text Entire. More simply, I think that what may be ahead of us is a sales environment in which it matters more what you publish than how you publish. By this I mean: What’s full (textually) is full; what’s not is disposable. Celebrity connections might not be enough any more.

SE: Do you think there’s something about your business model (i.e. that of a smaller, more independent press) that will allow you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

FR: From the most basic reality: Our break-even on a book is far less than that of a large house. In addition, we do not need to support a large list by breaking an individual book or two through to a dreamy sales level. We publish about ten new books each year (plus five or six backlist pb reprints). Each of those books we wholly believe in; none is released quietly into the world with unsupported hope. Each one receives our full dedication to reach that break-even; and each book has a realistic chance of doing so. In addition, the model for Unbridled has always been decentralized. We do not have a central office—indeed, we have only far-flung personal offices. Our employment pool is endless because it is not geographically limited. As a result, we have employees in virtually every region of the country—there to support our efforts for authors with their own local networks. Our simple overhead is, therefore, limited—and I suspect that the percentage of outlay we commit to publicity and marketing is greater than that of a large house. And our size allows us to redefine ourselves at will—to shift the personnel makeup among arenas of effort, to revisit structural and action decisions between seasons, etc. And the rapidly evolving realities of book-delivery make this essential. I think it’s easier for us than for a large organization.

SE: In a recent article in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin advanced the idea that an important group of British writers come on the scene during the UK’s recessionary ’80s. He speculated that the economic turmoil was somehow linked to the emergence of these writers–perhaps the recession helped open the field to emerging writers and allowed more innovative publishers to put out the work of talented writers who hadn’t broken into the mainstream. Some of the authors he named were Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis. What do you think of this idea? Would you say that in times of a recession you would be more likely to publish an unknown but largely talented author?

FR: I’m sure that scenario is a plausible explanation for the arrival of these writers—but it doesn’t explain their prominence. Each of them is wonderfully talented, but many other British writers of the generation likely were as well. Most of these authors are, I think, easily promotable within an MSM context and each for a different reason. What we are likely to see in the coming years of a decentralized readership will, I expect, be more similar to the arrival of alternative voices in the 1950s and early 1960s. And as for whom we would likely publish at Unbridled, essentially ALL that we have ever published are unknown but largely talented authors. We’ve had a few breakthroughs (at a certain level)—most notably Susan Vreeland. But the most important aspect of our program here is our devotion to publishing careers, not just books. This is why we continue to release titles by Susann Cokal, Timothy Schaffert, Masha Hamilton, Frederick Reuss, M. Allen Cunningham, Rick Collignon, Marc Estrin, and on and on: Because they are hugely talented writers. One day, perhaps, they will all be widely known, too . . . .

Seems to me that Timothy Schaffert should already be a household name.

SE: By contrast, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse argued that tough economic times will make the blockbuster publishing model more alluring than ever. She stated that in the past the blockbuster strategy has "worked wonders," and she argued that it made more economic sense to make a few high-stakes bets than spread your money around a number of low-payoff books. In particular, she stated that publishers that spend "an inordinate amount on an acquisition, will do everything in its power to make that project a market success," that large acquisition deals indicate seriousness to chain bookstores, and that publishers that don’t show a willingness to bet bit on manuscripts in recessions will be shut out in the future. What do you think of these arguments, especially as they pertain to publishing in a recession?

FR: To clarify here, what is coming in the book-buying world might very well be the fragmentation of the market. And if book buyers are beginning to browse again (most notably online) then it is precisely the high-stakes bets that are most likely to lose. If you don’t have an absolutely dominant bookstore chain (with a single fiction buyer to be persuaded for a nation’s worth of stores), and if you don’t have a raft of newspaper review editors who are made by their own publishers to cover (primarily) those self-same high-stakes books, and if fewer folks are watching the celebrity-oriented networks learning what they’re supposed to read next, then you can’t control the market. And if you can’t bring the masses to the one designated book per month that you need them to buy (because they are distracted by, among many other things, the connections they can make online), then what happens to your sure thing?

SE: As a follow-up to the previous question, would you say that in times of recession emphasis shifts away from publishing’s center?

FR: Well, despite the rather reactionary re-commitment to the sure thing that Esther Newberg and others have predicted (that is, despite the clamping down), if the mainstream actually does break up as I’m predicting, then certainly even the most conservative of publishing houses left standing will find within them a commitment to new things. That, too, certainly happened in the 1960s when it was discovered that a readerly young generation was buying paperbacks by the millions and wanted their own alternative literary lights who were writing in opposition to the cultural norms. Those writers suddenly had large publishers. In short, I don’t think such a development in the present would be related to the recession—it would, instead, be part of some obvious current of political change. That is, the arrival of new voices would be (or is) brought on more by Terri Shiavo and other failures of the dominant culture than by the stock-market plunge. Except insofar as the economic downturn is perceived as a failure of established ideas.

Celebrity culture was numbing; it seems that people are for the moment more fully awake now . . . so “new things” will come as a matter of course, both with the independents and at the center.

SE: Another effect of the recession is that a lot of bookstores are going out of business, and large chains are cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy. Are these closings and cutbacks affecting you in any noticeable way?

FR: Of course any time that an independent bookstore goes out of business it is bad for all of us in publishing—to say nothing of the damage done to the store’s local community. But the large chains’ cutting back will impact the corporate house midlists—and the authors there—more than the full lists of the independent publishers. When the pressure on the single fiction buyer at a major chain is the sell-through of designated books nationwide (rather than sales to and via a wide local customer base), then what has been a sure thing in the past looks even more attractive to that buyer (who can’t really consider local demographics at any individual store). In the first case (the independents), we want to work harder to support the booksellers who hand-sell and recommend and support books that are outside of ms designation. In the later case (the tightening of the chains), we just shift our marketing and sales efforts to the other book outlets.

SE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a press–e.g. costs of paper, costs of printing, staffing, etc.–what kinds of changes are you experiencing? Do you attribute any of this to the recession?

FR: The individual per-title costs are more tightly connected to our necessary decisions about print run size. As the print run shrinks, unit cost rises. On the other hand we think it important not to scrimp on production. We want our books to be obvious and striking on the front of store tables of the independent booksellers. So we want to be careful there. We will probably not be expanding our temporary staffing as readily as we have in the past in support of individual books or specific seasons. And it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll be adding anyone at all over the next year or so. For the most part, though, we are trying to find savings by increasing efficiencies and by controlling costs in the non-personnel aspects of daily operation. Unbridled people are important to us just as are our authors and their books.

Layoffs Hit University Presses

In other news from beyond the sphere of Random House et al., Publisher’s Lunch tells me that some university presses are now experiencing layoffs. Cambridge University Press in the UK:

Cambridge University Press is laying off almost 160 people in the UK. Chief executive Stephen Bourne says: "We know that this is an incredibly difficult time for those staff that are affected and we will be doing all we can to support them through these changes." He added, "This has been a very hard decision to make. There are parts of the business doing very well and a lot of them are overseas but two parts are not and one is simply not viable in the long term." Hardest hit is their Cambridge Printing Services unit, where 133 jobs are being cut (down to a staff of just 37) as printing for books that are sold outside of the UK moves abroad. Their UK education staff is also being cut in half, down to 25 people. In all, the layoffs represent almost 10 percent of the total workforce of 1,700.

And Oxford University Press:

Separately, Oxford University Press is cutting 60 jobs in the US in expectation of state and library budget cuts, according to PW. The press has approximately 700 employees here.

How to Publish in a Recession: New Directions’ Declan Spring

I’ve seen a lot of coverage in newspapers and magazines regarding the economic woes of major New York publishers like Random House and Houghton Mifflin, but I haven’t heard much about what’s happening with our many independent and/or small presses. Are they hurting too? Have they cut staff? Has anyone else taken Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s drastic (and now recanted) step of cutting off new manuscripts?

In order to get some a picture of how publishing beyond New York’s giants is faring, I’m going to be conducting interviews with presses and publishing them here. I’ll be interested to see if they’re feeling the pain every bit as much as the big guys, or if their different publishing models are yielding different results. I’ll also want to see what they’re doing to stay competitive in this market and if they think the recession is going to shake up publishing at large.

First up, Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions. To see all interviews in this series, click here.

Scott Esposito: Since November, newspapers have been full of reports of layoffs and cutbacks at large New York publishers, and the general mood one gets from reading these reports is gloom. Would you agree or disagree that things are gloomy for publishing right now?

Declan Spring: I’d say pretty gloomy, but like many industries, publishing’s only starting to see the results of the economic collapse. What’s nerve-wracking is the uncertainty. I believe book sales have fallen industry-wide 7 to 12% since October.

The big eye-opener for us was the Houghton/Harcourt merger last summer, and their announced buying freeze in November. I’ve been hearing about lay-offs at all the big New York houses, places like FSG and Henry Holt; and it’s not just the publishers. Barnes & Noble reported a big drop in Christmas sales, and everyone knows Borders is in big trouble. The really strong independents, the big ones I mean, that have always managed to show profits saw major losses this fall. The closing of Stacey’s in San Francisco is an indication of bad times for bookstores as well as publishers.

Coupled with the economy is at least MY rising fear of the digitization of text and the popularity of downloading books on computers, ipod,s and digital readers like the Kindle and the Sony Reader. Riding the subway to work, I see less people reading and more listening to their ipods. Fewer of my friends are reading in the evenings, more are emailing friends and surfing the Internet.

SE: The recession was officially declared a couple of months ago, and many economists have backdated its beginning to early 2008. Over this time what has business been like–better, worse, or about the same?

DS: We’ve seen drops in sales throughout 2008, but especially in the spring and early summer. This was due to a number of factors: lower sales, a gap between lead titles, and returns (many of which came in from Borders). Things picked up at the end of the summer and early fall because some big books came out and the college orders were coming in. (New Directions is required reading for so many literature courses.)  We did see much higher than usual returns in October from booksellers. (And I hear publishing sales were down 20% overall in October.) The national accounts (meaning the chains) were returning many books. You could say that our autumn drop was due to bookstores getting nervous more than an actual drop in net sales, at least that was the case with our books.

The biggest factor for us hasn’t been so much big drops in actual sales, but the enormous amounts of returns from booksellers, primarily the chains.

SE: What’s your outlook for 2009? Have you made any significant changes to your plans for 2009 in response to the shifting economy?

DS: Our outlook is “to try and hold steady,” that’s pretty much everyone’s. We’re relieved because it looks like Borders, which we thought might collapse in January, will have a respite, and also books aren’t cars or real estate. You can buy a book for $12 and that’ll keep you pretty busy for a few days, and if it’s great, lend it to a friend. What’s frightening isn’t so much the anticipated drop in the market, it’s the total uncertainty about when the bottom will appear and things will begin to pick up again. We have made significant changes: we are absolutely making sure that on each list we have important backlist reissues that will have a guaranteed sale; while making sure we have plenty of stock of our backlist, we are being careful about excess reprinting; we’re needing to cut back a little on acquisitions and costs so we can pay our basic expenses and royalties; every meeting we’re brainstorming how we can cut costs on every level, from editorial to production, publicity, and marketing.

New Directions is famous for publishing unknown, experimental authors that don’t sell at first but catch on over time. We follow Ezra Pound’s dictum that a book that’s truly new could take twenty years to become recognized. We’ve always taken risks and kept our books in print, even if sales are minimal at the beginning. Now while we’re still true to that, and we’re still publishing new, important groundbreaking authors, we find we do need to be a little careful about many new titles we do take on, and, in addition,  having to rethink what advances we can afford and how lavishly we can produce the books. (Do cloth books make sense in this climate? Would a series of short, very inexpensive books by really great writers fare well in this market?)

We are holding on to our staff, but implementing thrift measures (even little things like not sending so many things via express mail help).

SE: How well do books hold up in a recession? Is publishing more recession-proof than other industries? Before Christmas there was some speculation that there would be renewed interest in books as an economical gift-choice, but that seems not to have panned out.

DS: You can look at BookScan, the computerized system that shows actual sell-through of books to see how they’ve been selling since the beginning of the collapse. The last I heard, there were significant BookScan drops in December compared to December 2007, but I don’t know what they’ve been total since the summer. But that tells you something: not the emotional reaction of booksellers, whether or not they’re scaling back on their purchasing, but how many books are actually selling over the counter. My guess, and this is just personal, is that everyone’s nervous, the overall anxiety about the poor economy just effects everyone’s buying habits. Plenty of people don’t own stocks, but they’re not going out for dinner, or as quick to buy presents, or make that impulse buy at Amazon they would have before. I’m sure there are plenty of people who may have bought two hardcover books for their mom for Christmas, and this year, they only bought one.

SE: Do you think there’s something about your business model (i.e. that of a smaller, more independent press) that will allow you to get through the recession with less crisis than a place like Houghton Mifflin is experiencing right now?

DS: Definitely. We’re not beholden to stock owners, our overhead is pretty small, and we always count on just a pretty small profit every year anyway. Our staff has worked here for many years, mostly the same folks for twenty years, who are devoting much of their lives to the mission of ND. We see it as a profit-making business, but we are also realistic and dedicated to the cause. That makes it easier in this climate. Most important, while we always expect people to get excited about the new books we publish—many of the most innovative and exciting foreign authors, and some of the foremost avant-garde American poets—we have always had the luxury of being able to count on the steady sale of our luminous backlist. James Laughlin started New Directions in 1936 and since then, ND has built up one of the great literary lists in American publishing. Those books are essential texts in any worthy bookstore and are adopted on a wide scale in college courses across the country. No matter how the economy’s doing, those books are sold and read. And since we’re a small press with a long-time devoted staff, we can be creative and smart about keeping costs down and forging ahead as we’ve always done. One thing our President Peggy Fox reminds us about is that we’ve been through ups and downs before.

SE: In a recent article in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin advanced the idea that an important group of British writers come on the scene during the UK’s recessionary ’80s. He speculated that the economic turmoil was somehow linked to the emergence of these writers–perhaps the recession helped open the field to emerging writers and allowed more innovative publishers to put out the work of talented writers who hadn’t broken into the mainstream. Some of the authors he named were Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, and Martin Amis. What do you think of this idea? Would you say that in times of a recession you would be more likely to publish an unknown but largely talented author?

DS: Well, we’re always hoping to find unknown, hugely talented authors and even now have our eyes open, but to be honest, I’m sorry to say, as a trend, what you’re describing above is probably more unlikely. You hear about these publishing freezes at places like Houghton and while nothing like that happening at ND, we’re scaling back and trying to concentrate on bringing out all those books we’ve already signed. Since many of these are translations, we have a lot of new material in the works. We’d probably be a little less inclined to bring out a worthy book that we’re sure won’t sell I’m sorry to say. A noteworthy French author I considered a few months ago I would have normally really pushed for. Now, I roll more with the consensus of our editorial staff.

However, there is the possibility that great authors, say mid-list authors, might be dropped by the big houses, and ND might very well be the place they could land.

SE: By contrast, in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse argued that tough economic times will make the blockbuster publishing model more alluring than ever. She stated that in the past the blockbuster strategy has "worked wonders," and she argued that it made more economic sense to make a few high-stakes bets than spread your money around a number of low-payoff books. In particular, she stated that publishers that spend "an inordinate amount on an acquisition, will do everything in its power to make that project a market success," that large acquisition deals indicate seriousness to chain bookstores, and that publishers that don’t show a willingness to bet bit on manuscripts in recessions will be shut out in the future. What do you think of these arguments, especially as they pertain to publishing in a recession?

DS: Doesn’t really apply to us. For us, a “large acquisition” is small potatoes for the commercial publishers. We tend to find authors who are unknown in the USA and eager to appear in the English language, and then build them.

SE: As a follow-up to the previous question, would you say that in times of recession emphasis shifts away from publishing’s center? For instance would you say manuscripts begin to flow elsewhere as the major houses clamp down? That there’s a general incentive to try new things?

DS: I guess I sort of answered that question above. I know that there are some very amazing and important books and authors that are being dropped by the publishing center. It’s too early to tell, but perhaps some may come over to ND.

SE: Another effect of the recession is that a lot of bookstores are going out of business, and large chains are cutting back on their retail space and the number of books they buy. Are these closings and cutbacks affecting you in any noticeable way?

DS: Absolutely. Well, the demise of the independents has been a trend for many years, and this hurts a literary press like New Directions. Although the great bookstores that survived in the last two decades are seemingly strong, you still hear of Cody’s or Stacey’s and get a chill, and I’m sure it’s only getting worse. Over the years we’ve built a loyal following from independent booksellers and the kinds of folks who like to purchase their books in these stores. I first became really aware of New Directions books when I started haunting the St. Marks Bookstore (when it was actually on St. Marks Place) and their selection influenced what I read. I’m sure there are lots of people like me, and what’s encouraging for New Directions is that there are lots of young folks who still support the independents, recognize their value, and just eat up our books and revere the history of our press. I don’t think that’s happening quite as much in the Barnes & Nobles. As I said above,  the greatest damage due to the economic downfall this year has been due to the fact that the chains aren’t buying as many books up front, they’re reducing their shelf life (our author Eliot Weinberger says books now have the shelf life of yogurt), and in response to the climate, they’re returning more books. That’s incredibly damaging for a small company like New Directions. It effects not only our sales, but how many we decide to print off the bat.

SE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of running a press–e.g. costs of paper, costs of printing, staffing, etc.–what kinds of changes are you experiencing? Do you attribute any of this to the recession?

DS: I’d say the main way we’re reacting to the climate is really taking advantage of our backlist. There are so many incredible books and authors we’ve published over the years, some of which have fallen off peoples’ radars. Many of these books are loved by other important authors, so for instance, rather than pay an advance for a new author and bring out a new book, we’ve discovered we can find one of these well-known authors to write an introduction for a book we already publish which the famous writer really loves. We’ve had great success repackaging some of our backlist classics, books like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, our Tennessee Williams plays, Celine’s Journey to the End of Night, with great introductions from writers like Jeanette Winterson, Edward Albee, Jose Manuel Prieto, Jeffrey Eugenides, and William T. Vollmann. This fall we’re bringing out one of our classic Henry Miller’s, The Colossus of Maroussi, with a new introduction by Will Self, and William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain with a Rick Moody introduction.

We’re also introducing a new series of economical books that will take advantage of gems from our backlist while introducing new short works by some of the best newer authors like the Argentine Cesar Aira.

The great designer Rodrigo Corrall has become our Creative Art Director at Large and is helping us redesign some of the great New Directions books, retaining the vintage look but giving them a contemporary feel too.

None of us got raises this year. We’re trying to cut costs, and interestingly, we’re finding that the printers are more eager for business. We find we can bunch up more titles and bring down the printing and binding costs this way for titles that sell more steadily. We’ve always run sort of on a shoe-string, so while we’re certainly being careful about keeping expenses down, this is something we’ve always done anyway.

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