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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Why Traditional Publishing Is Really In A 'Golden Age'

Feb 5, 2013
Originally published on February 5, 2013 6:36 pm

How healthy is the traditional publishing industry? Not very, says Mark Coker, founder of the self-published book distributor Smashwords. On Monday, Coker told NPR's Audie Cornish that "over the next few years, traditional publishers are going to become more and more irrelevant."

But Michael Pietsch, soon-to-be CEO of the traditional publisher Hachette Book Group, disagrees. "I think we're in a golden age for books — reading, writing and publishing," he tells Cornish. "And the ways that publishers can work to connect readers with writers now are the kinds of things that publishers have dreamt of doing since Gutenberg first put down a line of type."

Pietsch joins Cornish to discuss how marketing sets a publishing deal apart from the self-publishing model.


Interview Highlights

On why writers pick publishers over self-publishing

"For marketing. They want someone who can help them take what they've created and get it everywhere. And the business of publishing has become much more complex. You're not just selling books to local bookstores. You're selling them to independent bookstores; you're selling them to bookstore chains like Books-A-Million and Barnes and Noble; you're selling to Costco, to Target, to Wal-Mart, to Urban Outfitters, to this huge, complicated physical book network, and at the same time on all the digital retail platforms that are out there. You want your book ... in these places in prominent ways and displayed at the time the publicity is happening, and that's what the publisher orchestrates. A publisher, when it's going well, gets that book in the front of the store, on the home page of the website at the moment that that writer is sitting down with Audie Cornish on All Things Considered to talk about her book."

On what has changed in the traditional publishing industry

"What has changed in a really exciting way is the ways you can get people's attention. It used to be one book review at a time, a daily review, maybe you get into Time magazine. Now there's, with the Internet, this giant echo chamber. Anything good that happens, any genuine excitement that a book elicits can be amplified and repeated and streamed and forwarded and linked in a way that excitement spreads more quickly and universally than ever before. And what I'm seeing is that really wonderful books — the books that people get genuinely excited about because they change their lives, they give them new ideas — those books can travel faster, go further, sell more copies sooner than ever before. It's just energized the whole business in a thrilling way."

On his upcoming transition from editor and publisher at Little, Brown and Company to CEO of Hachette

"The best advice I've had is from our CEO in France, Arnaud Nourry, who [is] the chairman of Hachette Livre, who said, 'Don't try to be your predecessor. You have this job because of who you are and the skills you have. You're a publisher, you're an editor, use those skills in this position. Don't try to pretend you have 35 years of experience in supply chain management.'

"... I've been an editor, editor-in-chief, publisher, and in every step I've learned more about the finances in the business and where you can make money and where you can save money and where a business grows. At the same time, this is a moment when the questions ... — can writers publish themselves, should they publish themselves, are publishers necessary — are in the air constantly, and it is important for Hachette to have the person running the company be someone who answers that question immediately."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

And how healthy is the traditional book publishing industry? On yesterday's program, we heard from Mark Coker who says the big New York publishing houses had better watch out.

MARK COKER: When we look out at the evolution of the publishing industry over the next few years, traditional publishers are going to become more and more irrelevant.

CORNISH: Mark Coker is in self-publishing. His company, Smashwords, distributes thousands of self-published books. And today, he and other self-publishing evangelists are pointing to a new feature on the Apple iBook store, it's called Breakout Books, and it highlights self-published titles that have already gotten high ratings from readers.

So what do big publishers have to say about all the growth in self-publishing? We asked Michael Pietsch to talk with us about that. He's a prominent editor who worked with an impressive range of famous writers, from the late David Foster Wallace to the bestseller James Patterson. In April, Pietsch takes on a new challenge, CEO of Hachette Publishing Group.

He told us companies like Smashwords are a great addition to the world of books, but they don't replace traditional publishing.

MICHAEL PIETSCH: I love that variety. I love that opportunity. And I love the diversity of publication that is possible now. But I object strenuously to the notion that publishers are irrelevant, because publishers are doing things now that are extraordinarily complex, exciting. I think we're in a golden age for books - reading, writing and publishing - and that the ways that publishers can work to connect readers with writers now are the kinds of things that publishers have dreamt of doing, since Gutenberg first put down a line of type.

CORNISH: So give me some examples. What are you doing that's so different from what I assume publishers do, which is find good books and get them out there into the market.

PIETSCH: That hasn't changed. That's always been the way publishers have made money is by selecting books in which there is an interest, and then getting people's attention for those books.

What has changed in a really exciting way is the ways you can get people's attention. It used to be one book review at the time, a daily review, you know, maybe you get into Time magazine.

Now there's, with the internet, this giant echo chamber. Anything good that happens, any genuine excitement that a book elicits can be amplified and repeated and streamed and forwarded and linked in a way that excitement spreads more quickly and universally than ever before. And it's just energized the whole business in a thrilling way.

CORNISH: So, here's the thing that I want you to help us understand. What do we make of the fact that big publishers are now plucking self-published writers from bestsellers lists and then giving them contracts? I mean, by then, the artist has already done their work. The word-of-mouth has already happened. And it seems like you guys are kind of swooping in to benefit from that. That same person could get all that press and all that stuff because their work has risen to the top.

PIETSCH: That is a good question. And you have to ask, well, why does each of those writers choose to go with a major publisher throughout history? The press love to pick up the story of the writer who sold a book out of the trunk of their car, out of their garage, and then made it into a mainstream publishing deal. That happened recently with E.L. James, famously and hugely.

CORNISH: And E.L James, of course, the author of "Fifty Shades of Grey."

PIETSCH: Yes.

CORNISH: Five people out there who might not know at this point.

(LAUGHTER)

PIETSCH: But think, why do writers and choose to come to a publisher? For marketing. They want someone who can help them take what they've created and get it everywhere. And the business of publishing has become much more complex. You're not just selling books to local bookstores. You're selling them to Costco, to Target, to Wal-Mart, to Urban Outfitters, to this huge, complicated physical book network. And at the same time, on all the digital retail platforms that are out there.

And that's what the publisher orchestrates. A publisher, when it's going well, gets that book in the front of the store, on the home page of the website, at the moment that that writer is sitting down with Audie Cornish on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED to talk about her book.

CORNISH: Now, publishing houses, in a way, are like all of the other big media gatekeepers out there. You know, news organizations, I think we're being questioned about our judgment; whether it's, you know, record companies are being questioned about whether they can really tell us who's going to be the next big thing.

Do you think that this is just part of the breaking down of that wall? That like you aren't the gatekeeper or the curator anymore, the consumer is - the reader is.

PIETSCH: We are gatekeepers to a certain extent. But the really, really big gates. You know, the number of titles that publishers have brought out have exploded over the past couple of decades. The really interesting change is finding which books you can bring attention to, and how you get people to talk about them, and what can be done to get conversations going through Facebook and Twitter and all these other emerging networks. And out of the thousands, tens of thousands of books out there, find the ones that you can really bring more readers to.

CORNISH: So, in about two months, you're actually going to move into the CEOs office at Hachette. And obviously you're probably doing a lot of preparation for that now. But what's the best advice you've gotten about making that transition, especially for someone like you whose best associated with editing books, you know, rather than running a company?

PIETSCH: The best advice I've had is from our CEO in France, Arnaud Nourry who is the chairman of Hachette Livre, who said: Don't try to be your predecessor. You have this job because of who you are and the skills you have. You're a publisher, you're an editor, don't try to pretend you have 35 years of experience in supply chain management. You don't. That's not why you're here. Your job is to find the best writers in the world and bring them here, and give them the best publishing experience they can have. And to me, that's a great charge.

CORNISH: Not to have you do too much analysis. But do you think that's why you were selected to run Hachette? Because it seems as though they might want someone who could bring them into the brave new world of digital and eReaders and, you know, money.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: And do you think that it says something about where publishers think their role is going to be, going forward?

PIETSCH: I think there are two aspects to that. One is I love the business of publishing. I love - I mean, I've been an editor, an editor-in-chief, and chief publisher. And in every step, I've learned more about the finances in the business, and where you can make money and where you can save money and how a business grows. So I'm not a financial naive.

At the same time, this is a moment when the questions that you started this conversation with - can writers publish themselves, should they publish themselves, are publishers necessary - are in the air constantly. And it is important for Hachette to have the person running the company be someone who answers that question immediately.

CORNISH: Michael, I want to ask you one more question, which I feel like I need to ask anyone who's in the business of reading books at all these days, which is do you read on a digital device?

PIETSCH: I read on every kind of surface that you can imagine. A publisher...

CORNISH: But do you have a preference? When you curl up at home, what are you curling up with? Is it glowing? Or is it crinkling?

PIETSCH: It depends on the night. Sometimes I read on my iPhone because the iPhone glows in the dark and doesn't require that I keep the bedside light on. But last night, I had a big old hardcover book that fell out my hands when I fell asleep.

CORNISH: Well, Michael Pietsch, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PIETSCH: My great pleasure, thank you.

CORNISH: Michael Pietsch currently runs Little, Brown, a division of Hachette Publishing Group. In April, he'll become Hachette's CEO.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.