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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

BU panel: Peter Osnos seeks distribution possibilities

[We had two folks attending Boston University's one-day conference on non-fiction book publishing yesterday. Below, the afternoon session from Zach Seward. —Ed.]

At BU, a bunch of well known journalists spent the morning doing what journalists do best these days: bemoaning the state of our industry. As they insisted that print was essentially dead, a voice piped up in the back of the room, claiming to bear good news. It was Peter Osnos, the founder of PublicAffairs Books and vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review. He pointed to the settlement announced on Tuesday between Google and a group of book authors and publishers. The upshot of that agreement, Osnos said, will be wider distribution of more books and increased revenue for the book industry. (Google will pay royalties to publishers so it can sell online access to books still in copyright.) Osnos suggested that the settlement could serve as a model for newspapers as well.

Whether Osnos is right, several Nieman fellows in attendance said his words were greeted as though a doctor had walked into a funeral, opened up the casket, and found a pulse in the deceased. I saw him speak in the afternoon, when he joined a panel with others in the book industry and continued to be the most forward-thinking person in the room, despite also being one of the oldest. He said the greatest challenge facing book publishing is “inventory management, putting the books in the right place at the right time.” But Osnos was not despairing. He said “technology, on that score, is our friend…We are going to take every book and make it available in every way that technology permits: ebooks, audio books, large print, by chapters. There’s nothing that stops us technologically from making books available in every way that is now possible.”

Of course, the book industry’s notoriously lethargic publication schedule doesn’t exactly match the pace of the Internet. When that topic came up, Osnos got into a spirited exchange — well, spirited in the way “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” is spirited — with Wendy Strothman, a literary agent and former head of the trade division at Houghton Mifflin, and Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press. Asked by Nieman’s Connie Hale about popular misconceptions of the book industry among journalists, Strothman said: “I would say one thing to keep in mind is that book publishing is really slow, even if we do end up going into a certain ebook market. Publishers think about seasonal lists. When people came to me last spring wanting to do books that would come out before the election, you’d have to say, you’re crazy. That can’t happen.” This followed:

OSNOS: That’s not true. It’s changing. It really is.

STROTHMAN: It is, but it’s still part, mostly true.

OSNOS: We can’t let it be true.

ATWAN: But it is because if, you know, for example, you go to the Houghton Harcourt sales conference and you tell them, I want to put four crash books on the list, they’ll say, no, pick one. We’ll crash one book. We’re not going to crash four. So, you know, you’re still stuck in that. [...]

OSNOS: There are different ways to measure time…We worked with Scott McClellan…The book was finished — the last bits of editing and work on it were finished, and the book was in bookstores six weeks later.

ATWAN But, Peter, you know that that’s highly, highly unusual. Most books come out nine months to a year after they’ve been delivered to the publisher.

OSNOS: Maybe some places. I don’t accept that as a model because if you have subjects that are topical, you need to be able to move quickly.…We had an author come to us in the summer of 2007, Charles Morris, a banker, lawyer, writer, and he explained to us what was going to happen over the course of the next year in the financial system. And to say that we completely understood it would be to exaggerate, but he made a persuasive case of what the template was. And he went away and came back with that book three months later, and we published it in February 2008. It’s called Trillion Dollar Meltdown. It came out as the process of unraveling began in earnest. It became a very significant national bestseller. And if we hadn’t been willing to break the rules of conventions, we wouldn’t have had the book in the timeframe that we did….It was all done in six months.

Osnos also called for a stronger relationship between publishers and authors, an argument that has parallels with the divide between the newsroom and business side of most publications. He specifically called out the journalists in the morning panel, including Fox Butterfield, Steven Greenhouse, Dick Lehr, Charlie Savage, and Ron Suskind. Here’s what Osnos said:

The partnership between author and publisher is really important. And one of the things that struck me today [at the morning panel] was that, with the exception of Linda Robinson, who saw me sitting in back, none of the authors mentioned their publishers. That’s quite striking. Now, that could have been coincidental, or it could, in fact, reflect the view that most of them have that the publisher was a conduit, a vehicle for getting the book out there. And I actually think that’s too bad. If you’re going to choose a publisher and write a book, make sure that you make a partnership with that publisher. And how you do it is not by starting with a grievance but by starting somehow with a shared belief that there is an audience, or why else would you be publishing the book? And make it part of the process of writing the book figuring out who is going to read it.

That seemed similar to the idea, promoted by many, that reporters who have long maintained a noble ignorance of the business side of their industry have to start thinking more commercially about how to sell their journalism. If you like the way Osnos thinks, check out the columns he’s been writing for the Century Foundation, which are new to me but worth a read.

Unrelated to all of this, but very funny, was an anecdote shared by Strothman, the literary agent, about the Galbraith family, Amazon, and the triumph of history:

I have to break in with a story. It’s about a book that Marty [Beiser, senior editor at Free Press, has] done, by James Galbraith, called The Predator State, which is also about the economy. James Galbraith’s father was John Kenneth Gailbraith, and his brother is Peter Galbraith, who has a new book out now on diplomacy. And they’re very competitive in this family. Ken Galbraith is no longer alive. And last weekend, they were together in Cambridge, and they were checking their Amazon numbers hourly. I was getting emails in the middle of the night from Jamie about his Amazon numbers. But what happened was that they were both outsold by John Kenneth Galbraith’s book about the great crash of 1929.

                                   
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