What is happening in US publishing right now? Are things as dire as we hear? The first session I attended was all about this topic - Dennis Loy Johnson (Melville House), Rob Spillman (Tin House) and Heidi Julavits (The Believer/McSweeneys) were discussing it with Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe. At first it all sounded depressing - authors who lost their editors (lay-offs) and books that came out with no back-up from marketing, independent distributors who have gone down the tubes, a broken system.
But the positive side of all of this - from the point of view of these independent publishers - is that now there is a great opportunity to change things and fix what's broken. Big publishers are about making money, small publishers care more about their books. Big publishers throw $$ at books that are already selling well and ignore the rest of their list. Small publishers nurture each book because they have to to stay afloat. None of this is news to anyone who bothers to read the trade newsletters or industry blogs, by the way. I did wonder how many in the audience sat there in shock though!
One comment was about publishers who have been trying to stick to the old ways of doing things, but traditional media (newspapers and radio) virtually ignores books now, that's if they're still afloat themselves. As Dennis said, the people who buy newspapers are the people who read, so why would you cut out your books section? A book tour now no longer relies on traditional media to excite interest. A lot of it is done online, and many writers tour online - but first you have to build a big online community, otherwise it's not going to go far. I had to keep reminding myself that these guys were all from small independents, who can make their own decisions and, as they said, move a lot faster in response to shifts in things like social networking. The bigger the publisher, the more likely they are to be mired in paperwork, and doing things the old way.
Certain people dictate - the famous Cecily at B&N can force a publisher to change a book cover, for example, as can Tescos in the UK. But there was also a spirited discussion about book covers - how bland they have become, and how everyone copies each other, so we've had a run of cover images related to body parts (feet, torsos, hands, eyes). The other side of this is safe covers that offend nobody but say nothing about the book. Heidi talked about cover DNA - that everyone clones each other and very few publishers risk a contentious cover.
Heidi also talked about writers who have previously scorned the teaching jobs in universities and are now being forced to look for that kind of work because suddenly they can no longer support themselves from their book sales (but she wouldn't mention any names!). Some of the benefits of the 'new world' will be writers who can write what they want, instead of what will be safe - one example was being able to create an unlikeable protagonist. I'm afraid that might be OK if you don't mind miniscule sales, but I doubt the new world will look kindly on anyone who doesn't sell at all!!
There was also discussion about how reviewing and publicity has moved away from the traditional forms (the influential reviews in the usual places) to the online community. A NYT review has no more influence now than a respected blogger - and things like FaceBook pages are growing in terms of effects on readers. Everyone mentioned 'word of mouth' - how to get it, and make your sales grow. Again, the word community came up. Rob Spillman says he rarely buys a book now that isn't strongly recommended by someone he knows. (No one asked the question about book trailers - are they worth the money? I tried, but they ran out of time.)
Dennis mentioned one of their authors - Tao Lin - and some of his bizarre publicity and marketing strategies that have worked. My favourite was selling shares in the royalties for his next book, and actually getting 6 people to pay $2000 each for a share. Presumably if he makes more than $12,000 in royalties he gets to keep the extra! Of course, the amount of publicity he got for doing this far outweighed the benefit in royalties, except it would have meant more sales and therefore... more royalties!
I later went to another session on small presses, not realising that the same two guys would be talking. Some of the stuff was the same, but Zoe Dattner from Sleepers Publishing was the chair and the discussion was more about the practicalities of running a small press. They talked about using POD to keep their backlists in print, and hopefully the same quality of POD technology is about to arrive in Australia. Zoe said Lightning Source are about to set up shop here. My favourite quote was from Dennis who said that in small publishing you are only one screw-up away from going under!