A Few Thoughts on Publishing Today: Timing, Books, and the Editor’s Zeitgeist

The continuing exodus of Boomer-era editorial leadership from the nation’s biggest magazine publishers — Conde Nast, Hearst, and Time Inc. — along with the founder-publisher Jann Wenner’s selling off of Rolling Stone, strikes me as kind of poetic.

Among those departing are Graydon Carter, who, as editor of Spy (before his 25 years at Vanity Fair), coined the descriptor “short-fingered vulgarian” for Donald Trump, and sex-drugs-and-rock ‘n’ roll maven Jann Wenner (founder also of Outside and Men’s Journal), who called Sticky Fingers, 2017 Joe Hagan’s biography of him “deeply flawed and tawdry” even though it made a bunch of Top 10 Best Books of 2017 lists.

Wenner, Graydon Carter, and other recent departees were masters of the magazine editor’s job, which in practice means they had great timing. In this case, too, they’ve timed their exits perfectly, avoiding the challenges of turning around their mass-market publications, which, like books and newspapers, must find new ways to reach readers in today’s media universe.

As a former magazine editor stepping into the book world after a stint at a newspaper, I am struck by how book publishing is getting better and better at connecting with readers. This is not only because of innovations such as e-books and targeted indie/self-publishing. It’s also because of timing.

I used to think that magazine editing was the best possible work. My job was to represent our readers, to make sure they got their money’s worth. Good magazine editors learn to access their inner enthusiast and consider: What will I be interested in next month? In three months? Next year?

I think books hold their own with readers today in part because authors, editors, and publishers are finding ways to deliver content in various formats and, importantly, at various frequencies. We can act more quickly than in the past, and yet can spend the time to offer readers substance, thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and production quality.

I’ve spent the past year editing two volumes of a four-volume anthology of writing and photography on Los Angeles. The publisher, Colleen Dunn Bates, and I didn’t want to spend forever on what we conceived of as a “casual anthology,” and yet we didn’t want to hurry the work of finding the lesser-known or nontraditional material we planned to include. Fast. And Slow.

We’ve adhered to a schedule that might seem fast to a traditional anthologist and yet slow to someone working on a “10 Best” books list online. It would not have been a workable timetable for this project 10 years ago, when Colleen started Prospect Park Books.

Fast. And slow. It’s a rhythm that allows for more collaborative work, more intimacy with diverse audiences, and more chances to express the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time, by broadcasting the ideas and voices that make up that spirit.

Years of transformation have led to slow-fast book publishing tactics like these.

 

Indie book publishers nurture regional writers (but not necessarily of their region), while adapting global production practices.

As a writer and editor, I have long worked with and admired independent publishers. (My first book was a collection of plays by women for the iconic Shameless Hussy Press of Berkeley.) Many regional or independent publishers were once, perforce, small publishers, selling books in a limited geographic area or to a niche readership and quickly going out of business. Current indie houses, whether new or venerable, vary in size and are sophisticated in the use of flexible editing, production, and printing options. Their books can be made widely available. It’s a boon to me as I search for material about Los Angeles. In Paperback LA, I’ve included excerpts from books published by Soft Skull Press of Berkeley, Coffee House Press of Minneapolis, and Candlewick Press of New Haven. How do indies survive? Their balance sheets are global. In addition to the City Lights-style combo of bookselling (in stores or online) and publishing, some use local experts for content but control costs by jobbing design and production out to remote freelancers or partners. Others acquire and market their books nationally, design them locally, and upload their final files to printing presses out of town or out of the country.

 

Specialty publishers are looping through our short-attention-span markets with reissues of books from not-so-long ago.

Yes, books go out of print shockingly quickly. But the rise of specialty publishers as disparate as New York Review Books and Mysterious Press are an important resource for me as a reader and an anthologist. They offer works by writers like Eve Babitz and Gary Phillips, whose prose, when available, inspires successive generations of readers. I live for reissues because I don’t hear about everything that interests me the first time it appears. Does anyone?

 

Academic publishers and libraries are contributing to valuable future content through archiving and digitizing.

It isn’t always publishers who are driving this work, but University of California Press, for example, is a Google Books partner, making their reference works available online. Libraries are leading the way on digital archives. University of Southern California Digital Library has digitized some amazing resources on Los Angeles, including historic photos and materials from the California Eagle, El Clamor Publico, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive, and other collections. UCLA Library’s Digital Collections include the Ralph Bunch, Aldous Huxley Collection, and Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) archives. Los Angeles Public Library and County of Los Angeles Library also have digital collections.

 

Publishers are supporting greater visibility for authors and their work through streamlined permissions processes.

This last is an area where publishers need to make some improvements. Tracking down rights in the digital age is a hit or miss proposition. Right now I’m trying to secure rights on a story in a book that is in print, but the original publisher was bought by another publisher who merged it into a group, and the group won’t respond. The group also won’t reveal staff names or contact info on the website or by phone. Transparency, folks, transparency! On the other hand, Penguin Random House has a nifty online permission portal and has managed to track down two author estate reps. The self-styled “perm dude,” a well-established indie permissions service, operates out of Mt. Pocano PA. And a real live human Farrar Straus Giroux permissions and copyright manager, unprotected by a portal, saw separate requests from me, bundled them, kept in touch over several months, and got them processed in the nick. For which I thank her!

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