(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.)
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.
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.