(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.