David Rosenthal, former Publisher of Simon & Schuster and Villard, will launch his general trade imprint at Penguin in January.
“You’re starting a new imprint? You mean now?”
I keep getting that question, and I can’t blame my skeptical interrogators. Taken together, 2009 and 2010 were the Years of Great Uncertainty in publishing. All of our crystal balls proved to be about as useful as, well, crystal balls.
But even without knowing which format of e-reader will dominate, say, or whether publishers or authors or renegade extraterrestrials will ultimately control digital backlists or if James Patterson can really produce 23 new titles per season, there are promising realizations. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with pages—and maybe a dynamite jacket.”
Maybe we should think of 2011 as the Year of Optimistic Uncertainty.
As ever, it will always come down to The Book. If we acquire and publish the best manuscripts available, our industry— and our culture—will flourish. I realize this sounds clichéd, and we all are aware that many of our best books, the ones we coddle, cherish and obsess about, are those same books that never break four digits on BookScan—but no real books, no real business. If there was ever a time for publishers and editors to be bold, and place their bets on authors in whom they believe, to trust one’s own good taste rather than just a celebrity Q rating, it is today. How can we find the next Chris Cleave or Kathryn Stockett or Jane Leavy? Re-establishing publishers as the primary nurturers of literary talent, as reliable curators of quality to consumers, is essential to our future strength.
And we must be more than discoverers. This is a time for adventurers too, for creative innovation in placing our books to cash-paying customers. It is what keeps everyone up at night, the nagging realization that if you’ve just shipped an inspirational book about Finding God in Flossing, there has to be a way to reach the estimated 97,340 Americans who find the Divine in their dental interstitials (or that’s what the agent said when she pitched you the book). We all know it ain’t that simple (alas). While connecting the marketing dots strewn throughout the web’s crevices is a good way to start (and most of us have made great strides there), we’re unlikely to hap upon some Holy Grail. But re-focusing attention on making some old-fashioned tropes work again—be they traditional media appearances, cross-promotions, price breaks, fabled word-of-mouth campaigns, and so on—is the renewed challenge, albeit one made more intriguing by the informational tools at our disposal.
My imprint-to-be excites me because I sense there’s a lot of life—and a lot of profit—left in the printed (or digitized) word. As retrenchment occurs all around us, Penguin’s support of this start-up demonstrates the notion that publishing can still grow in whatever directions ingenious writers, and engaged readers take us—if we dare.