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.

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