The Future of Publishing 2020: Risk (DBW Interview with Carolyn Reidy)

This video caught my eye over the past week when I was putting together my article The Future of Publishing 2020: Control. Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy was in conversation with Digital Book World’s Rich Fahle, a co-founder of Astral Road Brand Media. Reidy was at pains to point out that big publishers today are not risk-averse as may be perceived by those looking in on the world of big publishing.


I do take Reidy’s point that publishers have now honed their marketing skills when it comes to pushing a new acquisition out to booksellers, but I remain unconvinced that a ‘non risk-averse’ strategy exists when it comes to the job of acquiring new titles. I thought it a little ironic Reidy choose Frank McCourt‘s debut book, Angela’s Ashes (1996), as an example of a publisher being risky. Sure, McCourt’s book is a hard and gritty memoir of a childhood in the tenement slums of Limerick City, and acquired at a time when there was no boom in the memoir genre, but I don’t believe it is indicative of the book’s big publishing houses are putting out now. More to the point, Reidy’s example of risk-taking is sixteen years ago and I’m not convinced the same book would see the light of day from a big publisher. It should also be noted McCourt won the American Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1997) and National Book Critics‘ Circle Award (1996) soon after it the book’s publication.

“The truth is large to medium sized book publishers have been refusing to invest in any kind of real risk strategy for the past twenty years, and that philosphy has stretched—in part—from the desk of commissing editors right to the very infastructure and development of the industry.”

The Future of Publishing 2020: Control or (Jeff Bezos stole all my books and ate all the hamsters!)

Reidy is right to point out that big publishers can and have greatly expanded markets for certain genres—the memoir is a clear case—but her comments on the net results should also be noted as to emerging ‘book auction’ of the past twenty years.

“Angela’s Ashes is a perfect example. The publisher and editorial director who wanted to buy that book were passionate about it. At that time there was a kind of belief in the industry—Irish books don’t sell, it’s a memoir, it’s about a poor kid; you know, like please, it’s beautifully written—but they were passionate and it was that passion that enabled them at every single step of that publishing process to make sure they were gonna get that book noticed and read. Obviously the book itself was what ended up creating the phenomenal sales it had but they ploughed that field to make it possible. So publishing is really based on passion. I’m in an awful lot of auctions and I don’t see any risk-aversion going on. People have shrunk their lists a bit because the marketing of books is more difficult today. There’s much more competition in the media. A lot of the old media we used—book reviews, television shows—there’s a lot less attention placed on books, as books, not as an industry than there was before.”

Simon & Schuster CEO, Carolyn Reidy speaking to Digital Book World at Book Expo America, 2012.
I’d hazard that sales from Angela’s Ashes flowed as a direct result of the awards the book won soon after publication and the demand from booksellers to stock the book rather than ‘passionate marketing’ from the publisher. The real passionate marketing which directly led to the success of the book occurred when McCourt’s agent convinced multiple publishers that this was a book worth having on their lists and paying for. I do think large publishers have ‘book champions’ within their ranks and Reidy made a compelling case in her example above to still believe it’s still the case. I just wonder how powerful those voices can still be in publishing.
I’ll go back to some old publishing adages and points I have made in a number of my recent articles:

Readers are the best instrument to sell books (That’s word of mouth. It’s what made Oprah’s Book Club such a powerful medium)

Publishers sell books to booksellers (Not readers! Though there are signs publishers are beginning to grasp this simple concept through their development on social media platforms)

Booksellers buy books if they alone perceive a demand from readers

Primarily, my point is that big publishers are still happy to engage in book auctions and risk six and seven figure sums on ‘sure-shots’ or big-named authors, but more often are unwilling to risk a fraction of acquisition expenditure on midlist or new authors. There are of course a few exceptions to every rule, but right now, big publishers are still in a mindset of less pots – more money, and that’s not a strategy that lends itself easily to leaving enough to invest inwardly and nurture and grow what you already have. Risk in publishing needs to be across the board and not just front-loaded. I applaud any publisher who is passionate and willing go for broke to land the next big talent, but that’s often driven by a ‘we’ll sign ’em before you do’ philosophy. We’ve seen the same approach in the world of sports – leading to teams with astronomical wage bills and no indigenous structure to nurture talent already within the team.
Medium-sized and independent publishers don’t have the financial clout to compete with larger houses and it forces more diversity and smaller ‘multiple-risk and multiple-pot’ acquisition. Their yearly budgets cannot be based on extracting the most profit from the least amount of profit-pots.
I’d like to believe that Carolyn Reidy is speaking about a publishing industry, as it is, but I suspect the passion and championing of books of which she speaks is deeply clouded by the ghost of publishing long gone – more than twenty to thirty years ago. Now, the industry is about selling commodity and quantity, packaged to fit into the most marketable trends. Nevertheless, Reidy does share what publishing should be even if we don’t all believe it does what it says.

“One of our roles as publishers is to introduce new things into the world and new types of books, new subjects, new areas…”

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