Hello and welcome to Kill Your Darlings!
My aim here is to celebrate the work of writers, media colleagues, and soldiers in the army of trade publishing. Writers because writing is hard work and deserves celebration; media colleagues because I need them to return my phone calls; and army pals because trade publishing risks being bludgeoned into conglomerate dullness (all this work used to be fun!)
For those of you who don’t know me or are new to my work, I recently stepped down from my role as Deputy Publisher and EVP of Publicity at Alfred Knopf. I had a long, wonderful run (thirty-two years), but, as the saying goes, this cake was baked. The work, once joyful, felt different – akin to factory work (I worked as a line cook for several years, and it was starting to feel like that – pressure-filled, exhausting, and, at the end of a shift, always in desperate need of a drink).
I’m not alone in this assessment. I know a lot of industry colleagues feel burnt out and under the gun. Many also feel marginalized in terms of growth (see recent book Twitter). The leisurely pace of trade publishing is a thing of the long past. Ours is now a profession of attendant stresses and pressures, like most other professions. How did this happen? Why has it happened? What does it portend? Well, the companies we work for got bigger (see references to “the big five”) and bigger companies have to place more bets and with those bets come outsized expectations and that’s how pressure manifests for employees up and down the publishing chain:
“I need this book to work.” Editor to friend over drinks.
“We need this book to work.” Publisher to Editor over drinks.
“You have to make this book work.” Editor and Publisher to the marketer and publicist in an early zoom meeting about “making this book work because if we don’t everyone will die.”
Here is the thing: they don’t all work. And that’s OK because the commercial fate of any book (ie, position on the New York Times bestseller list) is only one metric for success. This emphasis on listing, however, is considerable in conglomerate publishing. And there are costs associated with this approach (it is an emotionally debilitating stratagem for publishers and writers). Steve Almond, writing in the latest issue of Poets & Writers, observes that “for too long I assumed the commercial fate of my novels was the only measure of their worth. This is the prevalent tendency in the world of publishing. When one author enjoys success, the rest of us get to watch them ascending through the fog of obscurity. Social media has made these triumphs that much easier to broadcast. We are exhorted to build our platforms, burnish our brands. The net result is a zeitgeist that simultaneously compels us to silence any mention of our failures while amplifying the shame we feel about them.” There is no shame or failure in having written a book that does not achieve a measure of commercial success. The worth is in the work, in the exercise of writing, in having found a publisher, in the finished book itself. And yet, inside publishing houses and among writers, the shame is real. Employees experience enormous levels of anxiety trying to make a book work. They later feel pangs of guilt when their work comes up short. Books list, and just as quickly, fall off. One week and out. In the wake of these disappointments, fingers are pointed and autopsy meetings convened.
“What else can we do here?” Exec to publishing team.
Long quiet from the zoom room.
“I might remind everyone that we paid a lot of money for this book.”
In the background, phones begin pinging with texts zipping from colleague to colleague.
This, my friends, is not a healthy approach to publishing. Writing, and the work of authors, deserves celebration beyond the hard calculus of EBITDA. The atomic unit of trade publishing is the book. Not a book. Or a select few books. The book (s). The lists publishers put together. The tribe of authors who comprise it. But when the preponderant emphasis shifts away from tribe and list to a handful of titles deemed worthy of investment (commercial prospects good) tribe and list (and staff) suffer.
The bestseller gaze has always been a part of our industry. I will report on moving beyond that gaze in a later post. Question: What are your metrics for success? What don’t we pay enough attention to? Write to me here: firstname.lastname@example.org. All responses kept confidential.
PS: I am working with a company that offers a gaze beyond the bestseller list. More about them (that) in the weeks to come.
Everything is so fucking big now (and investments made accordingly) because size matters (please note that I am running a three-person shop at BPR which means we will be out of business before the year is out). The financial drivers of scale in trade publishing are compelling – more bets placed, more possible wins, teams of analysts aggregating data, a bevy of resources available to authors and booksellers – and yet, as a small business owner peripherally connected to the industry, I have come to realize that a lot of authors feel underrepresented (employees, too, feel that way).
Publisher margins have never been better. Two years of record growth. And yet, as rosy as things look from the outside, employees keep grousing about how shitty things are on the inside. It’s easy to chalk this up to the pandemic woes and supply chain stress and “I haven’t been to a good book party in, like, forever” but these issues were around before the pandemic and supply chain collapse. There’s a disconnect somewhere for sure. Publishers, on paper, are administratively excellent places to work (nice offices, great health benefits, generous leave policies, matching 401ks, tuition reimbursement, free coffee, Zumba and Yoga classes, etc.) Indeed, I worked in trade publishing my entire career and was afraid to step away because the benefits were/are so good (for me, the tough conversation was “Should I give up Zumba?”) But benefits are only one component of what makes a company a great place to work. The other component is largely atmospheric: what’s it like to work here?
The short answer for many: it’s physically and emotionally draining. It’s draining because most managers are terrible when it comes to listening to their reports about working conditions.
“How is everyone feeling today?”
Long quiet from the zoom room. In the background, phones begin pinging with texts zipping from colleague to colleague.
“are you kidding me?”
“is this guy aware of the work we are doing?”
“dead inside. that’s how.”
“great! haven’t been promoted in three years! sharing a flat with seven roommates!”
People enter this business because they believe in the work. And the work is glorious on many levels (I still encourage people to enter the industry though when I do I give them the good, the bad, and the ugly). I mean, we get paid to read and publish books (the good) and work alongside enormously talented colleagues. And the work we do is in support of writers, most of whom are normal (we all have stories, however, and I’m being generous with the term “normal” here) ←The potentially ugly. Where in this equation does it begin to go south? Volume is where (the bad). Projects moving on and off your plate with distressing speed. “Earner” books getting the majority share of staff bandwidth and financial resources while titles that don’t have the prospect of sales become fiscally marooned and/or mind-share orphaned. No one in the industry, however, is comfortable admitting they are running an orphanage.
Too many books to work on, not enough staff to support the volume. This problem is endemic to conglomerate publishing. Also: The costs of connected goods and services are rising (back to the supply chain). Yes, profits were great last year, and the year before that, and the year before that too, but this year “container ships are killing us.” Among other pressing issues:
“There is no packing cardboard.”
“People are charging a fortune for boxes.”
“Why are millennials so unhappy with us?”
“We found a printer in Greenland.”
“Yes. I think it’s a part of Canada.”
“They do have a lot of trees in Canada.”
“How will we get the books here?”
“Yes. There are no cod left in the ocean and so most of the boats are idle.”
These are among the concerns being surfaced publicly by industry executives. It’s a public service salvo to warn employees that the rosy profits of recent years are threatened. “Do more with less” has become the industry standard (and possibly expect less from us because profits this year are going to take a hit).
Just as our gaze could benefit from looking away from bestseller lists and instead at other indicators of success, this emphasis on profits – “did we hit our target this week, month, quarter?” – could perhaps be toned down a bit. I mean, how much money do companies need to make? When you are reporting record profits and staff are struggling with workload and cost of living expenses and raises that are not in step with inflation, why is it surprising that employees are pissed off? Maybe find a new compensation structure. Individuals who contribute to the success of the publishing enterprise should participate more broadly in it. Maybe go back to a profit-sharing model. My kids work for companies where they were awarded stakes in the companies from the day they were hired. They have beer gardens and free food (free, not subsidized). One of them allows you to set your hours and gives you unlimited vacation time. Another gives you a FULLY PAID SABBATICAL WITH YOUR PARTNER AFTER FIVE YEARS (and then every five years after that). In our business, many benefits are earned over time. You have to do hard labor before reaping any significant awards. My sense: companies can do better here.
What benefits would you like to see in your company? What would make your company a more compelling place to work? Write to me here: email@example.com. I will report back on your suggestions in a later post.
My daughter works for a company that offers this benefit (verbatim language from her benefits letter):
FREE BOOK POLICY: If you are better off for having read it, we’ll reimburse for it. If you learn from it, even if fiction, it’s covered.
How beautiful is that? NOTE: There’s a special sales opportunity here for all publishers.
What, then, is there to be hopeful about? Well, just as publishers are finally addressing industry diversity, equity, and inclusion in ways beyond their comments to the press – on their lists, with their staffing, and via education - there is now a conversation taking place about work/life balance. Publishers, of late, seem to be on a hiring spree (according to comments from execs to Publishers Lunch). In the past, there hasn’t been a lot of balance. It’s been all work with both employer and employee as enablers. I know many industry execs are focused on making work/life wellness something of a priority. But I think the hobble here is corporations say they are prioritizing work/life balance and then fail in the execution via management (managers are notorious for setting bad examples). Indeed, there are some executives in our industry who are famous for being clock-watchers and whose work rhythms are meant to be an example for the companies they helm. Who benefits here? No one.
Are people in the industry happier than they were in years past? I don’t think they are. Will anyone go on the record and say so (we’ll get to that question later).
“We need to find a happy employee.” Comms exec.
“There’s conversation on social.”
PAUSE. Prexy frowns, twirls pencil. “What kind of conversation?”
“Not good, sir.” BEAT. “People are accusing us of neglect and not offering opportunities for advancement.
“Is this really a thing?”
“Beyond millennial angst?”
“It is, sir. There have been stories in the media.”
“I’m tired of these millennials and their fucking feelings. You gotta put the time in. I put years in.”
“You are white with an Ivy League education, sir.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You represent the man.”
“I am the fucking man!”
“If I may, sir.”
“The man is the enemy. The man is stasis.”
Does employee dissatisfaction/unhappiness have something to do with how big the big five have become, or is it simply a matter of working too hard for too long and not being heard or adequately compensated? These are questions that make publishers uncomfortable. (“We’re not that big! Look at Google! Look at Apple! Look at Meta! We keep raising salary bands! Millennials will never be happy!”) These are logical, if somewhat implausible, defenses. Past growth has been historically defensible for publishers but it is fair to ask (and people are asking) “Is this planned future growth good for everyone connected to the industry?” A Federal court, it seems, is going to answer that question.
Publishers, today, behave like multi-national corporations (back to EBITDA) because they are multi-national corporations. We all look at Amazon and sigh – but if we’re being honest with ourselves, the big five are starting to look like Amazon (at least by historical publishing standards). And then there is this question: where would publishers be without Amazon? Fucked is the answer.
Another reason I left: friends had died (Sonny, Russell, Johnny) and I kept seeing their ghosts, having conversations with them in absentia. In many of these conversations Sonny had morphed into Logan Roy:
“They’re killing me,” I would say to him, “They keep adding meetings to my schedule when there is nothing left to talk about.”
“Tell them to ‘fuck off.’”
Actually, that’s pretty much what Sonny always said (he was Logan Roy before Logan Roy).
I miss Johnny most of all. Johnny had a nickname for everyone (he called me “long ball” and Sonny “the chief”). He was an old soul, always full of shit in meetings, and utterly irresistible. His rhapsodic enthusiasm for a book during sales conference was the penultimate lube job for editors.
“That Adams is something,” they would say.
“Such a generous reader.”
“Plus he’s got Penny in his pocket.”
“I bet he’ll get a few pallets into Costco.”
And he would. But it was only in drinking with him after a round of golf when the real story was presented. He would belly up to the clubhouse bar and say “I’ll have one of them Chinese beers,” pointing to a Yuengling (which I know is frowned upon in this era but that was Johnny being Johnny) and then he’d come back to the table with four beers, sit down and say, “Man I didn’t know what that fucking book was about.”
That was pretty much true for everyone at the table.
And finally, Russell. He was a sprite, a bad elf, trouble with a capital “T.” But there was no one more fun to hang out with, no one more committed to writers, including and perhaps most especially E L James, whom he loved fiercely (and she loved him back) despite grousing from a subset of employees who felt we were slumming (rom porn?) until everyone got a bonus and then somehow things were OK (rom porn!) and now he is gone too.
Those bonuses kept employees happy for a year. Rewards are good. This seems obvious, and yet…
Sonny’s absence was particularly keening for me. I was closer to him than I should have been. Father figure thing. Therapy sessions. Blah blah blah. When he died, I knew it was game over for corporate life (Sonny was never a corporate player but instead a guy who played the corporation). And he hated all the fucking meetings (and never went to most of them).
Now look at us! We are living through an orgy of meetings. Meetings to summarize the work you are doing, meetings to review the work you have done, meetings to discuss the format of meetings, meetings to discuss how people feel about the meetings. Mostly, colleagues are texting each other during meetings, asking “what the fuck happened to our lives?” That’s how people feel about the meetings (texts threads being the subreddits of virtual meetings). Work is devolving into more meetings and longer days when it should be evolving into fewer meetings and shorter days.
A recent article in The Atlantic aptly titled “This Is What Happens When There Are Too Many Meetings” noted the disturbing growth of meeting culture. “In the first months of the pandemic,” writes Derek Thompson, “Microsoft saw online meetings soar as offices shut down. By the end of 2020, the number of meetings had doubled. In 2021, it just kept growing. This year it’s hit an all-time high. ‘People have 250 percent more meetings every day than they did before the pandemic,’ says Mary Czerwinski, the research manager of the Human Understanding and Empathy group at Microsoft. That means everything else…is being pushed later.’ Workday creep and meeting creep aren’t two separate trends; they’re the same trend.”
Aside: we all lament the decline of legacy media but The Atlantic under Jeff Goldberg is a happy example of legacy reinvention and reimagination resulting in substantive growth. It is a publication yielding dividends for our industry, one whose commitment to writers and books is significant (who hires three new staffers to cover books these days? No one). And unlike some other magazines, The Atlantic is happy to provide a generous credit line for books they serialize. The magazine was just awarded two ASMEs, one for General Excellence and one for feature writing (and if you haven’t read that feature piece by Jennifer Senior, you should do so now). My guess is they don’t have a ton of meetings at The Atlantic!
The pandemic has allowed companies to grease their meeting regimen.
“People are lost,” Mgr. “How do we stay connected with them?”
“A meeting just to connect, maybe?”
“Interesting. No set agenda?”
“Nope. Just to take the temperature of the room.”
THE TEMPERATURE OF THE ROOM IS HOT, FRIENDS.
Meetings wreak havoc with your life (what life?) Our companies replaced your three-hour commute with six hours of meetings (to foster connection FFS) and what had been a net gain became a net loss. Ninety percent of meetings are about signaling (look at me!) when the work you are doing (and have done) exists in other spaces and doesn’t need further amplification. The only reason to have a meeting? If it is proven someone will die in the absence of one.
Meetings are simply a way of policing your work and need to be defunded immediately. How many hours a week do you spend in meetings? How many of those hours are wasted? Share your meeting horror stories with me here: firstname.lastname@example.org (all responses kept confidential).
Indeed, you can share all your publishing stories – good and bad – here (really there, see above). Think of me as Lucy with her shingle out. I will report back on your stories in later posts. You can also send me books you are excited about (I’ll report on those too). And remember this: you have the power to rid conglomerate publishing of meeting culture! Also: attendance at all meetings is optional.
When I announced my decision to step down, I read a comment on Twitter from my friend Laurie Muchnick. She asked if this meant we would be hearing more from yours truly on Twitter (possibly) and then, shortly after Laurie’s query, an industry reporter called to bounce a story idea off me. Her working theory: conglomerate publishing has become denuded of big personalities, voices are being silenced (or if not silenced, discouraged from talking), and people are recalibrating their lives outside the big five.
“All the personalities are gone or going,” she said, “Plus every time I call someone for a comment, I get bumped upstairs. No one is willing to talk. I mean, that’s a sea change from the old days.”
“The Wild West.”
“The old days were the wild west. They’re guarding against that.”
“They want to control the narrative.”
“But isn’t that at odds with the whole point of publishing? Ours is supposed to be a bastion of free speech and yet everyone is afraid to talk with me.”
“I take your point.”
“The candor of years past is gone. I can’t get a straight assessment from anyone inside a publishing house. They operate like publicly traded companies.”
“They are publicly traded companies. In disguise. Owned by Germans.”
“Why won’t people talk?”
“They’re afraid of getting shot.”
“OK, not shot. But you know what I mean.”
If a book tanks these days, no one answers the phone or looks at the editor for several months. Sometimes those editors mysteriously disappear only to resurface in the same role at another house. As noted earlier, books tank all the time. Our failures are a fair point of inquiry for reporters. And yet, publishers try and bury this news. If people were more transparent about this shit maybe everyone would stop feeling so miserable.
Aside: Terry McDonell, whom some of you may know from his work as a magazine editor and author, has written a memoir about his mother and the long search for his father who died when he was five months old. I’m not sure readers will fall in love with Terry when reading this book but they sure will fall hard for his mother Irma. I surface Terry here because reading one of his sentences about work-life (and he is a sentence guy for sure), even in a memoir about growing up, is like eating a blistered shishito pepper. In one sentence he is capable of eviscerating an entire profession: “Journalism was about finding out, not already knowing, but when he thought about teaching, it was not the skills and ethics that came to him but the grinding, corporate business of it.” Or this one: “He asked the Human Resources VP what she thought it was about the truth that prevented her from speaking it.” Whoa.
So, yes, we need to have honest conversations about the industry. And yet, when you present an honest representation of the industry to the world (HELLO) publishers get antsy. They want the volume down, not up. I’ve always been a volume-up guy. I like to surface portraits of the industry that might be slight exaggerations but are foundationally true. I’m encouraged that we’ve finally arrived at a moment where others are speaking up, and I hope to use this platform to share their stories, as well as stories about the good work everyone is doing, and the books y’all are reading, and the better work that needs to be done to make this industry fun again.
Until next time.