Sunday, February 27, 2011

Who Can Alienate Readers Better?

I'm an author who's old enough to remember when the people who ran "Big Publishing" were book people—people who had some fairly decent intuition about books and the people who read them (in other words, their products and their customers). My first book was published by McGraw-Hill They were the biggest of the big, but they treated me with respect. For example, when I spotted trouble on my royalty statement, the situation was handled personally by the company president (one of the McGraws).

Four McGraw-Hill books later, the company was having some trouble over a bogus Howard Hughes biography, and turned down every new project for a year—including my latest manuscript, The Psychology of Computer Programming. I was naive enough to be shocked that a publisher might turn down a good book, so thought I must have done something wrong. After moping for a year of self-doubt, I recovered sufficiently to circulate the book to four publishers and was offered a contract by each of them. I chose Van Nostrand.

A year later, when the printed book was delivered, I went down to NYC to receive my first copy from the hand of my editor (a ritual I had practiced with McGraw-Hill). When I suggested we go to my editor's office to sit down and talk, he told me he didn't have an office—because he had just been fired.

Turns out he'd been fired by the corporate executives for publishing my book. In the interval since contract signing, Van Nostrand had been purchased by Litton Industries, along with (as I recall) four other publishers. The idea was to convert publishing to a "proper" business model—and this was the first such acquisition/consolidation, the one that began this new era in the publishing industry.

This new model included taking editorial responsibility out of the hands of the editors (real book people) and putting it into the hands of the executives (real business people).

Apparently their business intuition told them the book wouldn't sell, but apparently that intuition didn't work. In spite of fantastic order fulfillment screw-ups (another byproduct of the acquisition/consolidation, but that's another story), The Psychology of Computer Programming outsold all other similar books in Van Nostrand's inventory. It's still selling (I got the rights back—another stupid business decision by the executives—and the book is still selling steadily after almost 40 years—over 250,000 copies in a dozen languages. (It will be out soon as an eBook.)

And, after 40 years, these business executive are still clueless about that "book business," as opposed to their "book business." If you don't believe that, watch them screwing up the eBook business in just about every imaginable way. (Nobody said they weren't creative.) For instance, here’s what MacMillan CEO John Sargent recently had to say about libraries and ebooks:

    "That is a very thorny problem”, said Sargent. In the past, getting a book from libraries has had a tremendous amount of friction. You have to go to the library, maybe the book has been checked out and you have to come back another time. If it’s a popular book, maybe it gets lent ten times, there’s a lot of wear and tear, and the library will then put in a reorder. With ebooks, you sit on your couch in your living room and go to the library website, see if the library has it, maybe you check libraries in three other states. You get the book, read it, return it and get another, all without paying a thing. “It’s like Netflix, but you don’t pay for it. How is that a good model for us?"

    "If there’s a model where the publisher gets a piece of the action every time the book is borrowed, that’s an interesting model." - from

If you don't understand what's wrong with this statement, take a look at the article and comments, "Friday Alert: HarperCollins in cagematch with Macmillan to see who can alienate readers better." <>

Or, if that's not helping, take a look at past history—for example, the reaction of the Western Union executives when the technology for voice-over-wire (telephone) became available. Or, study the music industry executives' bungling of the digital music scene.
Whichever example you choose, it's always the same pattern of response to new science or new technology: The people on top of the existing industry always try to stifle the new in order to preserve the old. They bungle, and that opens the door for all sorts of brash newcomers. Brash, that is, until they become the fat cats and play the same bungling role when the next innovation comes along—as it always does.

The only question is "Who will be the brash newcomers this time around?"

Find my eBook novels and nonfiction listed at these stores

• Barnes and Noble bookstore:

• Amazon Store:

• Apple Store:

• Smashwords Store:

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