In the Handbasket: Mark Tavani, Senior Editor, Random House

Last week’s publishing news continues to reverberate in the most dramatic of ways. A NY Observer article describes the folks at 1745 Broadway–the home of Random House Publishers–as being in “complete emotional lockdown” (via). But my fearless editor Mark Tavani is always one to keep a cool head, and he’s stopped by to offer some perspective.

Welcome, Mark.

Books, Going Forward
by Mark Tavani

The publishing industry’s largest house has announced a major and fundamental reorgnization of its imprints, the shaking out of which will probably weeks or months. Other houses have announced layoffs and various changes of direction. And, perhaps most surprising of all, another house publicly stated that they would be acquiring no more books for the foreseeable future. I would be handing you a nicely cut gem of understatement if I were to say that things are not good in the world of publishing.

I would be outright lying if I told you that these changes—massive and unsettling as they are—come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention over the last few years. Having been an editor for nine years now with Ballantine Books (where I very proudly publish the work of this blog’s host), I have some perspective on the industry’s recent ills, and how long they’ve actually been coming. Obviously, the industry’s recent troubles did not begin with the faltering economy, or the credit crisis, or whatever catchphrase of economic desperation CNN is tossing around this week. In fact, I think the changes that have left the industry in its current condition began to take shape a number of years back, when large media corporations began acquiring publishing houses. Of course much good came of the presence of these corporations—and no author who ever took a big advance can tell you otherwise. There was more money to be spent on books, and there were more books being published. At the same time, the distribution side of the industry was changing, with the superstores of Barnes & Noble and Borders taking the lead in keeping readers happy. All of which—the changes on both the publishing side and the distribution side—greatly expanded the industry’s infrastructure.

Then, as it is wont to do, technology changed things. Ask yourself a question: How much actual reading does the average office worker do today as compared to what the average office worker did twenty years ago? Twenty years ago, there was the newspaper, letters, faxes…and that covers most of it. Today, who among us doesn’t spend at least a third of the day staring at a computer screen, pushing our eyeballs to the limits—not to mention the other reading we do, like the good old newspaper, and good old letters, and good old faxes. I can certainly understand that the idea of coming home at the end of a work day and reading seems less fun than it used to. But technology got in the way not only by exhausting our retinas but also by more directly distracting us from reading. T.V. has been around a long time (though Reality T.V. is a more recent sign of the coming Apocalypse), but get on a plane these days and compare the ratio of people reading books to people listening to iPods or watching movies on tiny screens. In my experience, the ratio is not favorable, and it’s getting worse every day. And that’s not to mention blogs, MySpace, Friendster, blah, blah, or blah.

One thought above all keeps me sane just now: books are a mere format. Yes, they can be beautiful and wonderful to hold in your hands, and yes, there are some books I plan to keep in my home until the day I die simply for their sentimental value. So I understand what is magical about books. But the most magical thing about them is the information they convey: the story they contain. The word “book” and the word “story” are not synonymous, just as eight tracks and music are not the same thing. Stories pre-date books by milleniums; and though books might someday go away, story will last as long as our civilization does.

In a more mundane way, my anchoring thoughts are these: Yes, perhaps the industry will contract. As I said before, I feel that the book industry got big with corporate backing and it’s only normal for it to take a step back, especially in the face of so much competition for people’s time and attention, not to mention tough economic times. A few months back I read about how Starbucks was shutting down a few thousand locations. I can say I didn’t notice anyone freaking out and running around, screaming about how coffee was going out of fashion. That’s because coffee’s fine, as we all know. People love coffee, and coffee will almost certainly be around for a long time. But the industry had outgrown itself…plus, they were charging something like twelve frickin’ dollars for a grande whatchamahoozit…. But I digress. Anyway, maybe we contract. Maybe fewer books get published. Maybe some publishing folks have to look elsewhere for a paycheck. I don’t say those things lightly, because I love those books, and I’m one of those publishing folks, and I have a lot of friends in the industry. But on the bright side, maybe fewer books will mean better books. Maybe, over time, books will regain an elite status that I sense they once had. Maybe, in the end, books won’t qualify precisely as mass entertainment, but entertainment for a sizable if select audience.

At any rate, I think that’s a story I could stand to hear told.

–Mark Tavani


29 thoughts on “In the Handbasket: Mark Tavani, Senior Editor, Random House”

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. CJ Lyons says:

    Love your calm analysis! As a ER doc, I’m not prone to panic–and I don’t see it as a useful mechanism to promoting change.

    From disaster comes opportunity. People bold and brave and wise enough to explore new avenues of reaching customers, to find the “diamonds in the rough” (ie. the bestsellers of tomorrow) and polish them, to take a proactive stance rather than a reactive one, are the people who will succeed and thrive.

    Silly thing for someone whose second book is coming out in January to say, isn’t it? But all I can control is my writing and my attitude.

    Great to see that someone in your position has such a clear-thinking, positive attitude!

  3. Great post, Mark. I also agree what what you said about the continuing relevance of stories. Hopefully the new e-readers such as the Kindle will help bridge the gap. I know that whenever I take mine on a plane, people quiz me about it. And I think it’s a critical tool for reaching younger readers who have become acclimated to reading everything on screens.

  4. Basil Sands says:

    Very interesting analysis. I think these market fluctuations will simply bring about a new way to look at things and eventually a return to the treasured status of good books. In the meantime, for those of us new authors trying to break into the fiction market it also means a bit more work at getting our work known, and the need for a lot better product if we hope to get printed in paper for real money and not just electrons for download stats.

    Stories as they exist will not go away ever, people need them. It’s just the manner of delivery that will change.

    I think we sit on the edge of a precipice watching what’s coming and soon will learn whether we like this new weather pattern or not.

    BTW – CJ, just read Lifelines…good job.

  5. CJ Lyons says:

    Thanks, Basil!!! I’m thrilled that you enjoyed LIFELINES!

  6. Thanks, Laura, for hosting your editor. And thanks, Mark, for sharing your perspective. It’s healthy to hear from all sides of the industry.


    Jessica Keener

  7. I saw the notice about this blog post on the SINC loop and flipped over to read it, which is illustrative of the point Mark Tavani was making. We are beseiged by reading material every day.

    However, there’s nothing like a great story to make the woes of the world recede. I think we will always have stories. The how, when, and where seem to be in a bit of a flux right now.

    But, (Cliche time, sorry) necessity IS the mother of invention. The book market will reinvent itself and charge forth once again!

    Maggie Toussaint


    Writer Wednesday with Maggie at The Book Spa

    Christmas is coming to the Spa! Dec 15-19

  8. Joe Moore says:

    “But on the bright side, maybe fewer books will mean better books.”

    Nice overview, Mark. Restructuring in reality is a thinning of the herd. The strongest survive. And in this case, fewer but higher quality writing makes it into the stores.

  9. Jessa Slade says:

    Thank you for distinguishing between books and stories. Whatever with the medium of transmission; I’m a storyteller. If I have to sit around a flickering fire, with my harp upon my knee, and tell my tales for my Starbucks… Well, that’s how they did it in the ol’ days. Sort of 🙂

  10. Karen Dionne says:

    After the slew of scary publishing news over the past couple of weeks, it’s nice to hear from an insider with a level head. Thanks for posting your thoughtful comments, Mark, and many thanks to Laura for sharing you with us!

  11. Dana says:

    Thanks for posting, Mark, and most especially for speaking calmly and rationally. And thanks for hosting him, Laura.

    I’ll repeat here what I’ve said elsewhere: With chaos comes opportunity. Looking at the publishing industry as a whole, it was way past due for a shakeup. The whole returns thing alone has to change. I worked for BP in Prudhoe Bay for six years, and I gotta say, not once while I was there did we ever produce 100 barrels of oil in the expectation of selling only 50.

    Anent previous comments about fewer books of more quality, comrades! Publishing’s relentless pursuit of the blockbuster bestseller also has to change. It began with the acquisition of the publishing houses by megacorporations driven by inflated expectations of ever-increasing profits, and precipitated the downgrading of books from quality product to just product (my royalty statement doesn’t call them books, it calls them units). There is sound fiscal sense in nurturing the careers and growing the fan bases of a stable of good writers whose works are purchased for a reasonable advance that keeps them eating and the bottom line at their house black. There is no fiscal sense at all in betting the entire house on a $1.5 million advance for a book which then sells only 32,000 copies.

    Recent events were grim and necessary, and given the human cost I very much hope they won’t be wasted. A stripped-down industry read for positive and progressive action is the best possible result.

  12. Helen Ginger says:

    Great post, Mark. And I have to say, you had me laughing in a couple of places. These are some crazy times we’re in today and a lot of industries are having to rethink and restructure themselves. Publishing will do that as well. It won’t be fun and it won’t be easy, but it has to be done.

  13. Basil Sands says:

    I like what Jessa said: “I’m a storyteller”.

    I started writing seriously about three years ago. Unable to sell my stuff I decided to podcast the audio version of my stories (military action thrillers) and give them away free to see if anyone really liked what I had to say to begin with.

    So far, they have. 10,000 people downloaded them (unmarketed, unadvertised, just floating in cyber space). That made me realize that while I still would truly, honestly, and with all my heart love to earn a huge-o-mongous advance and multi-book deal, I am having a blast telling the stories and the donations to my website are enough to pay for the site and a couple bottles of good wine.

    I am sure, at some point, a model like mine will become capable of making big bucks.

    Somewhere along the way I’ll make it through the weeding out stack into the ever thinning marketplace stream of high quality fiction and someone will take notice.

    In the mean time…I’m going to tell the story.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Why do publishers pay advances? Seems like poor business sense – I mean why not just pay out royalties?

    Devices like Kindle are nonsense; why have ANOTHER electronic device? Put eBooks on iTunes and let people use their iPhones and laptops, devices which are multipurpose and evolve with new technology quick smart.

  15. As long as there are people, there will be a thirst for stories. We seek refuge or escape in other people’s lives. The format will change with technology, but the essence of a good book is not in scrolls, pages or pixels. It’s in the words themselves.

    I think we’re on the cusp of a new age of publishing. The brick and mortar stores are shaking. The walls between publishers, authors and readers are eroding. More books will be self-published, but is that really such a bad thing? The weight of quality and crap will decide what rises to the top.

  16. LitPark says:

    That’s a very practical and comforting thought – how music and 8-tracks are not synonymous. I read several newspapers a day, but none of them are made of paper. That makes the idea of shifting to other publishing models less of a freak-out.

    I don’t think this change is a bad thing. I think the current model for publishing has been broken for a long time, if not from the beginning. Change is good; it’s transition that’s the real bitch.

    Thanks, Mark and Laura, for bringing the discussion here.

  17. Julie Kramer says:

    Interesting and optimistic blog. I guess we simply write on.

  18. Jeff says:

    Great post! …two quick thoughts…

    1. The global economic crisis presents a great opportunity for corporations to restructure without providing a rationale – regardless of industry. It’s just a natural contraction of industry, not necessarily a reflection of print and digital.

    2. Your observation that people are spending so much time viewing pixels actually supports the argument that print books might have a strong future vs e-books (though I think the whole debate on that topic is a red herring):

    Why would anyone who spends all day reading pixels want to come home and read more pixels?

    Everyone wants a change from their workday world, the sensory experience of print books offer that in a better way than digital.

  19. I’m an old dog eager to learn new tricks, and I’ve been looking into distributing my books over the net in the future. Anybody with children, has seen the shift from paper and ink coming. Big companies turn into dinosaurs that become slow to react to changes in the world, and that’s what happened to the music business and to our industry. I’m doing the best I can to figure out how to take advantage of the ways available to make sure my stories find an audience in whatever form it takes.

  20. Pen N. Hand says:

    Thank you for the insightful comments. Overproduction will wreck havoc in any industry. Being a “Polly Anna” I do believe what emerges will be healthy for all concerned, but it may take a few years.
    Again, thank you very much.

  21. amyshojai says:

    Hey Laura,

    Thanks so much for sharing Mr. Tavini’s note. As a multipublished nonfiction author of “prescriptive” type books, I’ve seen the Internet’s free advice (good/bad/indifferent) virtually eliminate much of my market (pun intended). So we’re all about re-inventing ourselves these days.

  22. Vivian Zabel says:

    I hope the downsizing of publishing businesses does mean that quality will win out over quantity. However, I wonder if the large houses will use whatever comes from the well-known person, whether that person knows how to string words together to make a sentence or not, over lesser known or unknown excellent writers.

    Time will tell.

  23. Anonymous says:

    …But on the bright side, maybe fewer books will mean better books. Maybe, over time, books will regain an elite status that I sense they once had. Maybe, in the end, books won’t qualify precisely as mass entertainment, but entertainment for a sizable if select audience…

    This sounds horrible. Fewer books means big names only will get a shot. Celebrities. Paris Hiltons and such. Publishing is and will be about making money. So, good luck unknown first time author. And entertainment for a sizable select audience? Why so damn elite? What is wrong with books being mass entertainment? Shouldn’t everyone be able to find a book to their liking? Fewer books will mean less variety, and this is not a bright outlook for me.

  24. Kenna says:

    Thanks for a very thoughtful, and calm analysis of what’s going on in publishing. I’m a story-teller, but hesitate to call myself an author, since I am unpublished. The publishing business is rather frightening to a newbie, so I’ve been considering other venues for my story-telling.

    Basil’s discussion really has my thoughts churning, as I have been considering a similar venue for story-telling.

    As you said, Mark, stories will always be around, just the format for sharing may change. Personally, I agree that books will never totally go out of style.

    Thanks for sharing with us today!

  25. Anonymous says:

    great post, but the plural of millenium is millenia…

  26. Anonymous says:

    “But on the bright side, maybe fewer books will mean better books. Maybe, over time, books will regain an elite status that I sense they once had. Maybe, in the end, books won’t qualify precisely as mass entertainment, but entertainment for a sizable if select audience.”
    This is the best and most hopeful comment on this subject I’ve read. I continue to write and to publish wherever I can in the hope that one day (make that one year or perhaps decade) I’ll get it right and write something irresistible, some one sentence or paragraph or dialogue that brings a story to life and makes it squirm and itch in its shell and eventually hatch into something people of intellect and habits of quiet reflection will be compelled to read at least twice before they die (or at least once plus some fraction thereof, taking into account partial yet frenzied deathbed readings in lieu of more conventional confessions or similar incipient-funereal rites thereby foregone). Writers write. Publishers publish. These are functional definitions rather than aspirational. Go forth and write To Kill a Mockingbird, or Of Mice and Men, and you will be whole.


    Theo, the theophagous monkey

  27. Fran Friel says:

    Thank you for the level account, Mark. It’s helpful to hear a reasonable voice from inside the industry.

    Happy holidays!

    Best Regards,

  28. Susan says:

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