Publishing: Past and Present, Part 5 of 6

("A Look at Publishing", remarks made by Godfrey Harris)

Publishing books with a look at publishing and publishers

"Harris Axiom Number 1


What does that mean? Books that have no likely market should be written and produced in a limited number to be given to friends, libraries, and family members. Point of fact: Artie Shaw was working on the first of a three-volume novel when he died a few months ago. Never found a publisher. Maybe his unfinished manuscript of 1900 pages covering his hero's life from the age of seven to sixteen was a bit much.

That brings us to a discussion of what deserves to be written and published, a discussion of where publishing is going and where small and independent publishers should be taking the industry. I think it is obvious by looking at the changes occurring all across the field:

  • For one thing, publishing isn't going electronic anytime soon despite all the hype for E-Books and all the conversation about the newest medium for books. Why? I believe most people cherish the Internet for its speed and convenience. Think about what you like to read in a conventional sense and how you read material on the net.

Books written for paper and ink do not automatically translate to a screen. When the first writer creates a book that integrates color and illustrations into brief narrative segments, then you will give E-Books a chance to rival printed works. But just as TV had to learn it wasn't radio with pictures, and just as TV has to understand that it isn't a movie in real time, so publishers have to understand that the Internet demands a TOTALLY DISTINCT PRODUCT than what is now produced in traditional book form.

  • Here is a better idea for the Internet. Why aren't we selling segments of our books, rather than whole books, on the Internet . . . selling the information that people need rather than the all or nothing of printed tomes?

Is it a major problem to divide your book into segments, then offer a table of contents, index, and introduction for free, charging for only the pages a person needs? Not really, but you know how many people we could interest in our website program? Damn few! Why? Because people whined about the work and asked who else was involved? The sheep were in the pasture.

How many people pass buying a book because they need only a little bit of information? Wouldn't it be better to capture lots of one dollars instead of waiting for the one person who is willing to spend $20? These aren't Nobel prize ideas, folks, just common sense.

  • In the past 12 months, we went from a condition where political books were impossible to sell to a situation where the public couldn't get enough of them-from Bill Clinton's My Life, to The 9/11 Commission Report.

While these books did NOT make a whit of difference in the 2004 campaign, they allowed the public to realize that books were a source of reliable information that could explore a topic in as much depth as needed, unlike TV news programs that fed ideas or facts in tiny bites.

  • Beware of fads. The Washington Post says that book publishers are buying into the growing popularity of a gritty African American genre called Street Lit, said to consist of "foul language, flying bullets, fast cars, a flood of drugs, and lots of crime and punishment".

As one wag put it: "Street lit venerates grams over grammar, sin over syntax, and excess over success."

Funny that I haven't seen one example of this at a book show, at a book shop, or in a book review. Could it be that what makes a good newspaper story doesn't necessarily make a good business idea. What about SEX? It sells certainly, but it is subject to the same changes in taste and appeal as everything else. Today it is celebrity sex that counts rather than exotic, erotic, homosexual, and all the other forms of yore.

The book business is as dynamic as fashion, in that none of us has any idea what will be popular reading tomorrow and, if any of us did, he or she would be the only publisher out there. But there are thousands of us for a reason. No one has a clue, none of us has found the holy grail. Your ideas are as good as mine and both are as good as any of the biggies who huddle in New York or take lunch in LA.

  • I celebrate the small publisher, primarily because he has the flexibility to do something quickly, differently, and to be original and creative. We ourselves have been. There are some 30,000 diet books on the shelves; nevertheless, we saw a chance to offer yet one more: The Definitive Southern California Diet.

We had two points to make: We wanted to show that color would enhance understanding and we wanted to talk about a strategy of eating—it's not what you eat, it's how you eat that matters. For us the first question we ask is who wants this book? We think about doctors who will give it to their patients. That means we are adopting the "Rennie Gabriel approach to publishing": CO-AUTHORSHIPS WITH SPONSORED PRINT-RUNS FOR IMAGE DEVELOPMENT.

As one famous Nobel laureate once said: “If you can't explain your science to your grandmother, you probably don't understand it yourself.” No different with a book. If you can't get my attention and interest about your book in 30 seconds, it probably isn't worth the three hours I would spend to read it. Remember, everybody is not a definable marketing target. Everybody is the planet and not even Bertlesmann has the resources to reach them.

  • Are the changes in the way books are sold-through national chains like Borders, warehouse stores like Costco, and online outlets like Amazon-making a difference?

You bet! Book clubs and small independent book stores are dead. Dan Poynter has told you for years to forget about the big chains and book clubs; sell where the interest is. You haven't and you won't. Too difficult; too out there. You think there is prestige in having your book accepted by a book club that no longer can sell didley or languishing on the shelves of Barnes & Noble rather than making money elsewhere.

In the old days, books could find an audience because booksellers knew what was on their shelves and knew their customers; today books by big-named authors are like bananas . . . they start green, turn yellow slowly, then begin to spot. Just as the supermarket dumps the browning bananas, so the bookstores treat most books that are more than three months old as wall paper: to decorate the shelves and as background to what's new.

Not only has the consumer pool for books diminished, but the pace at which the nation is losing readers is quickening and the downward trend involves all demographic groups.

Even readership in Germany is down, but the cause there is clearly economic rather than cultural. More and more books are going to market softbound in Germany to keep the price of each title down. As the dollar sinks to the pound and the euro, American books are more attractive. All of this can be summed up by another Harris axiom: SELL WHAT THE MARKET NEEDS, NOT WANT YOU WANT TO SELL TO THE MARKET.

You may go on to Part 6: "A Look at Publishing", remarks made by Godfrey Harris, or the complete Index.