The Proprietary Pinch

Just How Big Is The ‘Off-The-Books’ Book Business?

Sashay into any Barnes & Noble superstore, and there they are. Past the Barnes & Noble Café–branded 3-piece tea sets (“Great Curves. Excellent Style.”), past the Barnes & Noble–branded laser stationery, the velvet CD wallets, and the handy personal cash boxes, are, of course, the Barnes & Noble–branded books: whole shelf-fuls of Italian cookbooks, racks of Bread Machine Baking and The Complete Illustrated Guide to Shiatsu, not to mention barrels stuffed with cut-rate B&N Modern Classics (“Buy 2, Get One Free!”). The retailer sells as much as $140 million of these profitable titles every year, accounting for perhaps 4% of its book business. And as any book packager will tell you — preferably off the record — that’s just the tip of an industry-wide iceberg.

When Alan Kahn was installed at the helm of B&N’s publishing group last month, a brash new chapter flopped open in the annals of proprietary publishing — that is, as we’ve defined it here, books produced chiefly for wholesalers or retailers that bypass conventional publishing houses. Call it the off-the-books book biz. “We’re going to grow this business to as much as 10% of our revenue within five or six years,” Kahn told the Wall Street Journal last month. “We’ve always sold books from all publishers, and this doesn’t preclude us from that. But there is a lot of opportunity here.” Indeed, Len Riggio’s made no secret about his contempt for publishers’ high list prices, nor is anyone unaware of his crusade to beef up profit margins by publishing books under the B&N brand. “While the prices of these [proprietary] books represent significant value to the customers,” the company boasts to its shareholders, “they also generate substantially higher gross profit margins than those realized on sales of non-proprietary books.”

Riggio’s damn-the-torpedoes routine has a familiar ring to it. Eight years ago John Kelly, who was at the time Publisher of B&N Books, told the press he was ramping the proprietary program up to 10% of corporate sales “within four or five years.” At that point proprietary sales were at $40 million and growing with the addition of 200 new titles per year. Since many of these books are bargain-priced volumes with relatively low margins anyway, publishers have tended to shrug off such rhetoric. But with increasingly visible titles coming down the pike — such as Kim Cattrall’s Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm, packaged by B&N’s Friedman/Fairfax for Warner, which sold 10,000 copies at B&N last week — and a number of other wholesalers and retailers aggressively eyeing the proprietary marketplace, it seems publishers are feeling the pinch from their business partners-turned-rivals. As one promotional publisher marvels, “Our largest customer is now our biggest competitor.”

Boosting the Bottom Line

Mum’s the word from book packagers when they’re put on the spot about proprietary dealings with booksellers, making the total size of this market difficult to estimate. Of the dozen packagers queried for this article, few were willing to go on record about the size or nature of their proprietary sales. But some of the largest retail and wholesale players — B&N and Advanced Marketing Services, for example — have been far from coy about the bottom-line boost that these sales are giving to their financial statements. B&N buys upwards of 400 packaged books each year and is now publishing 3,000 titles, spanning an array of proprietary strategies: licensing titles directly from domestic and international publishers as well as from literary agents; commissioning books directly from authors; reprinting classic titles in the public domain; and creating compilations using in-house editors. These projects are in part handled by the B&N-owned Michael Friedman Publishing Group, which publishes under the Friedman/Fairfax and Metrobooks lines (distributed by Sterling to other retailers). And let’s not forget other proprietary forays, such as SparkNotes, an online competitor to CliffsNotes that B&N acquired for $3.6 million last March. The first 50 SparkNotes titles have just been rolled out in print format, available — where else? — at your local B&N.

Meanwhile, wholesaler AMS, which was deemed “one of the most influential companies in the book industry” upon its purchase of Publishers Group West in January for $38 million, sold about $50 million worth of proprietary titles in fiscal 2001 — or 7% of AMS’s overall business — according to the company’s annual report. The Advantage Publishing Group, the publishing arm of AMS, services this market via four imprints: Laurel Glen (adult trade); Silver Dolphin (juvenile); Thunder Bay Press (gift and promotional); and Portable Press (“info-tainment” books) — the latter home to the bestselling Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series, which AMS bought in 2000 for $2.5 million and is now rolling out in the Australian and UK markets. Company officials say they are “aggressively growing our higher-margin businesses — which include both publishing and an exciting new distribution division.” (Not to mention possibilities for bolstered trade distribution for their original titles via PGW. Currently, though, sales to Costco and Sam’s Club account for 75% of AMS’s revenue.) Most of these titles are created in conjunction with publishers, refining or reformatting material that has already been created. Mexico and the United Kingdom are also brought into the loop on certain titles, and these nations also develop their own products. In Canada, AMS has a 25% stake in distributor Raincoast, which happens to be the sole publisher of Harry Potter in Canada and originates its own proprietary books. In early 2000, Raincoast bumped up its publishing activity through the purchase of Polestar Press. (And speaking of Canada, two years ago the Chapters retail chain extended its proprietary business with Prospero Books, a bargain-book imprint that had hundreds of titles in print and hundreds more on the way, making the retailer “one of the more prolific publishers in Canada.”)

Of course, no proprietary publisher wants to be painted as an opportunist. As AMS gingerly explained to shareholders, for example, “it is a fact of the industry that occasions arise when a certain type of book is not available at a certain time of the year for one or more of our customers. The AMS answer in this situation is to create the book.” Nonetheless, company filings assert, these titles “have been so compelling that much of what is sold by AMS today is to retailers who do not necessarily use any of AMS’s other wholesaling, distribution, or direct-to-consumer services. A large measure of the growth of publishing in the United States has come from increased sales to this market segment.” To be fair, we’re told the AMS program involves a good deal of repackaging and bargain-pricing of publishers’ slow-moving or out-of-print backlist titles — which may not be worthwhile for publishers to reissue as a trade reprint — a service AMS argues is valuable for their publisher clients. On the other hand, AMS’s own imprints are obviously a highly lucrative segment. The company’s gross profit last year was up 26%.

Then there’s Borders, another question mark when it comes to the proprietary game. “Borders Group does very little proprietary publishing,” says spokesperson Anne Roman. “The little we do is focused on filling niches such as hardcover classics at value prices. Currently, our strategy is to focus on improving the customer experience in our superstores through initiatives such as category management.” A packager with knowledge of the proprietary industry, however, suggests that Borders easily does $50 million in packaged editions. Though these titles may include reprints licensed from publishers rather than exclusively packaged content, the latter segment is said to make up by far the larger share of the company’s proprietary business.

‘Quite a Big Business’

Indeed, there are many fine lines to be negotiated when charting this quietly booming part of the book business, where packaging, co-editions, promotional, and reprint publishing all combine to create a roster of possible deal structures. “It’s quite a big business,” says an observer. “People like Hugh Levin will co-publish a title with AMS, then AMS will have it and the packager will get the rights back a year later. That’s been very successful.” Others add that much of the modern proprietary business was born when retailers began reprinting promotional editions that they licensed from publishers, taking the publisher’s film and dumping reprints on the racks for half the list price. “It’s virtually impossible to separate promotional or reprint figures from the true original publishing,” says Mel Shapiro of Book Sales, the remainder and promotional house owned by Laurence Orbach at Quarto. B&N’s $100 million-plus figure likely includes reprints licensed from publishers, he reckons. Incidentally, the influx of titles from British packagers such as Quarto’s International Co-Edition Publishing division is said to account for a sizable chunk of the proprietary pipeline. And all of this isn’t even taking into account other proprietary juggernauts such as the Reader’s Digest unit Books Are Fun, which purchases in quantities as high as 300,000 per title and sells directly to consumers at display marketing events. While many titles are “off-the-shelf” products available elsewhere, BAF president Joel Feigenbaum has told publishers he’s also looking for proprietary books “created by BAF in conjunction with the publisher or packager.” The pinch, it’s clear, is only going to keep smarting.

Of Cows and Copyright

“Is copyright a cow in the swamps?” Such was the boffo opening gambit from a Ugandan publisher as the 5th International Publishers Association Copyright Conference kicked off in Accra, Ghana, on February 20. A Ugandan tale, it turns out, tells of two families who hope to enter the dairy industry but squabble over the business plan; meanwhile, the cow ambles off into the swamps of Uganda and is never seen again, prompting some to wonder whether the beast ever existed.

Indeed, for the remainder of this three-day conference, about 150 publishers from around the world and 100 African publishing and copyright officials waded into the swamps with the quixotic object of leading this wayward bovine back to the farm. Their task was not an easy one. Marybeth Peters, Register of Copyrights at the US Copyright Office, observed that though American courts have consistently upheld copyright principles as they apply to the Internet, the public is obviously in no rush to forego its guilty, Napster-like pleasures. Battling rampant copyright disregard isn’t cheap, either, according to Ian Taylor of the UK Publishers Association, who lamented the exorbitant cost of bringing legal proceedings against pirates and called for stronger funding to combat piracy. And Brian Wafawarowa of South Africa pointed out that publishing in developing countries is often hampered by flimsy or unenforced copyright laws, which are justified by the “educational needs” of those countries. Wafawarowa warned that the failure to recognize publishing as a bona fide commercial sector in these nations may ultimately wreak havoc on their economic and cultural foundations.

Seeking solutions to these quandaries were speakers such as Anton Hilscher, Vice President of the Federation of European Publishers, who outlined steps for beefing up digital rights management, while Eric Swanson, head of STM at Wiley, propounded the benefits of CrossRef, a system permitting the linking of articles from participating publishers. Swanson suggested that the Internet’s potential can be exploited through cooperation on technical and legal standards on a worldwide basis — rather than cow-style squabbling. (On that front, let us note that the WIPO agreements go into effect on March 6.) Maurice Long, consultant to the British Medical Publishers Group, presented the Health Internet Project, a public-private initiative between six major STM publishers and the World Health Organization. This project makes biomedical journals available to health professionals in developing countries for a nominal fee or for free. And on another note of hope, the Ghana Ministry of Education announced it would secure $70 million for textbook production and procurement, which will help local publishers boost business and attain international standards for book quality — another step toward cutting down the market for pirated editions and bolstering the stature of publishing in Africa.

In a final twist on our Ugandan cow story, the conference also included a most interesting session on the possibility of protecting expressions of folklore. Victor Nwankwo, a prominent publisher from Nigeria and a tribal chief, explained that folklore, being mostly oral and communal, poses unique challenges to legal protection. However, with globalization running rampant, many are concerned about protecting traditional knowledge from commercial exploitation. Betty Mould-Idrissu, Chief State Attorney from Ghana, pertinently asked why western interests are covered at the drop of a hat — such as protection of semiconductor chips — while protracted discussions simply seem to push folklore protection further into the muck. Publishers are advised to stay tuned to this contentious debate.

We thank IPA Legal Counsel Carlo Scollo Lavizzari for his contribution to this report.

International Fiction Bestsellers

The Waiting Game
Lovelorn Levy in France, Qashu’s Israeli Arabs, And Poland’s Own Bridget Jones

French architect-cum-literary-phenom Marc Levy hits the charts in both France and Italy with his second novel, Will You Be There?, a “treat of simplicity and emotion” that delves into the rendez-vous manqués between lovelorn Americans Philip and Susan, after the latter packs her bags for a humanitarian-aid sojourn in Honduras while Philip toils in New York. Their flame begins to gutter as the sweethearts swap epistles (plus a few furtive assignations in Newark airport), and rush headlong into battle against “the many enemies who push us each day a little more towards loneliness.” The author’s blockbuster first novel, If Only It Were True, was sold in 31 territories, including Germany (Aufbau), the UK (Fourth Estate), and the US (Pocket). That title, about a San Francisco medical student who ends up in a coma and wrangles a date with her boy-toy via astral projections, is up to 900,000 copies in the US, while Dreamworks is at work on the film, having done some astral projection itself in a $2 million deal said to be the highest price ever paid for film rights to a French book. More than 200,000 copies of the new one have been sold in France, with rights sold in Germany (Droemer had the winning bid) and on submission in the UK (as Levy’s editor at Fourth Estate, Arabella Stein, is no longer there). US rights to the new one are open; see agent Susanna Lea.

Plying a similar theme in France is a first novel from Anna Gavalda, I Loved Her, chronicling the affair between a young rejected mother and her retired executive father-in-law. As the French Vogue put it, “These losers in love sound just right.” The book sold 85,000 copies in the first two weeks alone, and rights have been sold in Germany (Hanser), Spain (Seix Barral), and Greece (Astarti), among other nations. Gavalda’s earlier collection of stories, by the way, was called I’d Like Someone to Wait for Me Somewhere and has now sold 510,000 copies in French, with rights sold in 19 languages — though neither title has been sold in the US or the UK. See Lucinda Karter at the French Publishers Agency for US rights, or Claude Tarrène at Dilettante for the UK.

Finally in France, Someone Else by the sharp-witted Tonino Benacquista follows the repartee of two guys who get drunk together in a bar and promise to hook up again in three years to find out if their booze-fueled dreams have come to pass. Out of the fog of the next morning’s headache, each of them embarks on a separate yet parallel journey to become someone else. Benacquista — a novelist who presumably has an advanced degree in tending bar — made a splash with his earlier work Saga, which takes sarcastic aim at the dissolute lives of four TV screenwriters and was published in a number of nations including Germany, Italy, and China. No rights to the new one have as yet been sold. Talk to Anne-Solange Noble at Gallimard.

Of potentially combustible interest in Israel, Sayed Qashu’s first novel Dancing Arabs has hit the list with its “biting and illuminating satire” about the travails of Arab intellectuals living in Israel. This quasi-autobiographical novel — “written by someone who has nothing to lose” — busts open the conceit of “national identity” as it follows an Arab who attends a high school for gifted students in Jerusalem, and “scrolls through the Israeli Arabs’ desire to belong” with scabrous honesty. The 27-year-old author is an Israeli-Arab journalist who writes for a Tel Aviv weekly, and rights have been sold in Holland (Vassallucci), with submissions under way in France, Italy, Germany, and the US. See the Harris/Elon agency for rights. Also in Israel, the New York–born author Michal Shalev’s A Hundred Winters has been gripping readers with its family saga tracing six generations across the tide of 19th- and 20th-century history. The “spellbinding” tableau kicks off with 16-year-old Fanny, a young Jewish woman from a small village near Warsaw, who bucks tradition and bolts for the Polish hinterlands. The author’s second work, Rachel’s Vow, sold 90,000 copies, and the new one has sold more than 70,000 (though it has slipped off the list this month). The author controls foreign rights, and is seeking representation in the US and UK. Email [email protected].

In Poland, Katarzyna Grochola’s emphatic second novel Never Again! comes off a streak as “the biggest Polish bestseller of 2001” and follows a 37-year-old heroine who embarks on a new life after being ditched by her hubby. Things turn rosy as she raises a kid and scores a winning career as a journalist — call it Poland’s Bridget Jones. The book, which is the first in a series called Frogs and Angels, has sold 70,000 copies in Poland, with rights sold to Russia (ATS) and Germany (Heyne). A second title in the series is due out imminently. Contact Beata Stasinska at Wydawnictwo.

An update reaches us from Norway, which is abuzz over Lars Saabye Christensen’s novel The Half Brother (see PT 10/01), which was just awarded the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize (they like to call it the “Nordic Nobel Prize”). With all the brouhaha, sales are up to 60,000 copies in hardcover (plus 93,000 in a book club edition). This “formidable, luxuriant work” about two brothers in ’60s Oslo was published in October, with rights now sold to nine countries, including Germany (Bertelsmann) and the UK (Arcadia). Contact Eirin Hagen at Cappelen.

In Greece, Zyranna Zateli returns from a seven-year hiatus with the imposing title Under the Strange Name of Ramanthis Erevous: Death Came Last. The novel takes place in the late 1950s in northern Greece, and traces the history of five siblings who all die prematurely of suspicious causes — fates that are linked to a 13-year-old boy bearing “secret gifts and troubles.” Zateli’s earlier title, By the Light of the Wolf, was published in Germany (Kiepenheuer & Witsch), Italy (Crocetti), and France (Seuil), among other nations, and won Greece’s National Book Prize in 1993. Rights to the new one have been sold thus far to Italy (Crocetti); see Maria Fakinou at Kastaniotis. Finally in Greece, we take note of the tearful Goodbye Drachma, a bestselling sendoff for one of the oldest currencies in the world (and yet another casualty of the euro). Author Othon Tsounakos presents an illustrated history of the drachma and has “touched sensitive reading chords” around the globe. Some 60,000 copies have been sold thus far, and publisher Iliotropio would be tickled to secure representation for this title in the Greek language and elsewhere. See Iliotropio Marketing Manager John Arfanis.

Hallo From Hoobland

There was a certain fin de siècle feeling at the Javits Center during the week of Feb. 11 — it was the 99th annual Toy Fair, after all — as the toy biz hit New York City in suitably world-weary grandeur. Press releases moped that the learning segment of the toy industry was down 6% last year to $464 million, while the sports segment plummeted 29%, to $1.5 billion. (Action figure sales, wouldn’t you know, shot up 36%.) Perhaps in duck-and-cover mode, many distributors followed the old DK by barring their booths to any but retailers. Among the newly exclusive was International Playthings, the high-end toy distributor that sadly exited the book business a few years ago, and Learning Curve, which recently entered it via Friedman/Fairfax’s licensed Lamaze baby books.

The Jim Henson Company, in the midst of its own trials (it may be put on the block again, given parent EM.TV’s financial woes), was plugging major deals for The Hoobs, its joint production with the UK’s Channel 4. The Hoobs, of course, come from Hoobland, “a sunny, colorful, bouncy world,” and travel the universe in their Hoobmobile, reporting their findings back home to an enormous reference database called the Hoobopaedia. The program will air on TV in Ontario shortly, with Canada’s Spin Master Toys snapping up the toy license for that territory. A massive line of Hoob products has proliferated with the show, spanning books (Egmont in Europe), scooters, bedding, stationery, puzzles, toiletry products, and even yogurt. A shameless success overseas (250 episodes were commissioned up front a couple of years ago, and the series recently took home the BAFTA “Best Preschool Live Action Series” award), the enterprise has now signed 14 television licenses and has put toy and publishing efforts in place worldwide — everywhere except the US, that is. Now’s your chance to hoobledoop, as they say.

Empire-building is also on track for the Eloise line of toy and book paraphernalia launched by itsy bitsy following Kay Thompson’s passing (she had opposed expansion of the license). Simon & Schuster has plunged right in with the sequel Eloise Takes a Bawth, which was shelved after four years of development when Thompson forced the withdrawal of the three earlier sequels. In other matters, Klutz appears to have finagled a knockoff of the popular Workman Brain Quest series, under the title Klutz Kwiz and including a computer-like “gizmo” offering multiple-choice answers. The device snaps together with decks of grade-specific questions. Word has it the new ones aren’t selling, which may explain why no one’s filed a trade dress lawsuit.

And while most publishers pushed the playtime aspect of their program, Amy Epstein’s new publishing company The Straight Edge promised to help your child “win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2036.” The books are retellings of classic children’s stories (Goldilocks, The Three Little Pigs) complete with cutouts of the characters and props allowing the child to retell or “creatively change the story.” Let’s just hope the young creators never have to tangle with the Margaret Mitchell estate.

The Presses Perk Up In Israel

The phrase “market volatility” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re publishing books in Israel. As part of PT’s continuing look at the book business overseas, Efrat Lev, Foreign Rights Director of the Harris/Elon Literary Agency in Jerusalem, profiles the Israeli market and parses the nation’s current bestseller list.

Reports from New York indicate that 2001 was not the best year for books, and much the same could be said for publishing in Israel. The political instability in our region has affected all walks of life, and amid the terror attacks and threats of war, we are constantly reminded of how badly our economy is doing — with still more clouds looming on the horizon. But incredibly, perhaps, not all of the news is bad. Israeli publishing has fared better than the battered tourism and entertainment sectors, for example, and many publishers have even reported an increase of 15% to 20% in book sales over the previous year. (These days, it seems, many of us prefer to simply stay at home and read.) Moreover, the usually sleepy Israeli publishing industry has seen a flurry of activity in the last few years, most recently the New York–style merger between Zmora Bitan, a venerable family-owned publishing house, and Kinneret Publishers, a large commercial house. This merger has been the talk of the town for insiders, and may precipitate a joining of forces between Zmora/Kinneret’s existing chain of discount bookstores and another chain of general bookstores — creating stiff competition for Steimatzky’s bookstore empire, which has dominated the market for many years.

By American standards, however, that market is a small one. Though Israel has a population of about 6.5 million, deducting from the count those who read in Russian and those who read in Arabic, as well as non-readers, brings the number of regular book buyers down to about 100,000. Hence the very small (and careful) print runs of about 1,500 to 2,000 copies for an average fiction or non-fiction title — from small or large publishers alike. About 4,000 titles are published annually, distributed to between 200 and 400 bookstores (the counts vary), which are mainly chain bookstores where titles live a relatively short shelf-life. Books are expensive in Israel, ranging from $11 (small format) to $20 (trade size), including 17% tax. The vast majority of books are trade paperback originals.

Given the market size, what makes a bestseller? The number of copies needed to capture a spot on the bestseller list has been steadily dropping. A translated title that sells over 5,000 copies within a year is already considered a winner; a huge seller is one selling from 20,000 to 50,000. For an Israeli work of fiction, sales of 10,000 copies ranks the book as a success, though the really big names can approach 100,000 copies. In nonfiction, on the other hand, anything over 2,000 will satisfy the publisher.

As is clear from the Israeli bestseller list (included in this issue’s bestseller chart on p. 5), successful titles come from a variety of genres. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have been selling very well in conjunction with the release of the movies. Some international bestsellers do well here (Amy Tan, The Girl With a Pearl Earring), yet most bestselling titles are still Hebrew originals. A.B. Yehoshua and Sami Michael are the current big names on the list, with the former’s work The Liberating Bride capturing the fifth spot this month. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s leading literary fictionists whom the New York Times once called “a kind of Israeli Faulkner,” is published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad, and a number of his works are available in English, including A Late Divorce (Harcourt, 1993). Meanwhile, the Baghdad-born Sami Michael is on the list this month with Water Kissing Water. Published by the prestigious house Am Oved, the book tells the story of Joseph, an immigrant from Iraq in the 1950s who makes his assimilation to the new Israel via two complicated love stories. The book has sold almost 50,000 copies, with rights soon to be sold in Holland (Vassallucci) and Germany (Berlin). Before the invasion of the Tolkien books, Yael Hedaya’s novel Accidents and Batya Gur’s mystery Murder on Bethlehem Road also made strong appearances on the lists. And new works by Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev promise fierce competition in the lists of the coming year.

Translations of fiction tend to stay near the upper end of the genre, and such works of literature are well received. Consequently, the percentage of translated titles on a publisher’s list can be anywhere between 40% and 60%, depending on the publisher. José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, is an annual visitor to the list (Blindness spent most of 2001 on the charts), and Ian McEwan, Paul Auster, and J.M. Coetzee also do consistently well here. Yet hardly any translated thriller or mystery can sell as well as the local titles. Tom Clancy’s The Bear & The Dragon, for example, only made the list for one week in November.

‘Morrie’, Zen in Hot Demand

As for recent nonfiction, while the rest of the publishing world rushed out titles bearing any connection to September 11, Israelis saw very little in the way of tomes on terror and Islam. This is quite possibly because terror is such a part of our daily reality. Books serve more for escape rather than information. Hence bestselling current affairs titles will deal most likely with local politics, society, or a recent Israeli historical event. (Although surprising bestsellers have been Stalingrad and Fermat’s Last Theorem.) Other topics that appeal to our readers are alternative health, spirituality (Eastern religions and practices rather than Jewish spirituality), inspiration and self-help (Who Moved My Cheese? was a big hit, while Morrie in His Own Words is still on the list), and plenty of cookbooks by local chefs (including one from our agency’s director, Beth Elon’s Mediterranean Farm Cooking). Children’s bestsellers (other than HP, that is) include regular stars, mainly Spot and Felix. Olivia has also visited the list recently, as has William Steig’s lovable ogre Shrek, briefly.

It could be assumed that this multitude of translations has improved the professional standards of work in translation, but unfortunately this is not the case. Much has been written here about bad translations which are not edited properly. Leading literary publishers continue to uphold the quality of their translated books, but the more commercial houses seem to prefer cheap labor and shorter production processes, with appalling results. Publishers and agents abroad are well advised to take notice as they sell rights to Israeli publishers. It is a shame to see so much fine literature lost in translation.

International Fiction Bestsellers

The Darnedest Things
Swedish Kid-Savants, Greece’s Sippable Fiction, And Pilch Toasts All of Holland

A wave of mourning sweeps over Sweden this month with the passing of Astrid Lindgren, mother of Pippi Longstocking, though her spirit lives on in the mischievous Swedish bestseller of the moment, Old Ladies Don’t Lay Eggs. This zinger of a title is a frolicsome compendium of quotes from schoolchildren who were asked to opine on the inscrutable adult world. Among the book’s other useful revelations: “Women have curves, men have cases.” And the fashion-impaired can rest assured: “It’s not your appearance that counts. It’s your mouth.” Written by Mark Levengood, a well-known Swedish TV personality, with co-author Unni Lindell, a star crime fiction writer from Norway, the book has hugged the top of the bestseller list for three months running and has sold 180,000 copies in Sweden alone — a grand slam for a nation of just 9 million. Interview subjects ranged from ages 4 to 11, and some of the zaniest nuggets of wisdom highlight the kids’ wordplay: “When you wash your head,” explains one youngster, “it’s called brain wash.” As a reviewer for the nation’s Library Journal confessed, “I almost laughed myself to death.” Rights have been sold to Finland (Schildts), Denmark (Borgens), and Germany (Eichborn), and we’re told both US and UK rights are available. See agent Bengt Nordin in Stockholm.

Elsewhere, that “great hope for Greek fiction,” the divine Ioanna Karystiani, splashes down in the Aegean with Suit on the Ground, said to be a dark tale of “old blood” warmed by plenty of smoldering resentment. The hero Kyriakos left Greece for America when he was 15, but 30 years later — after a successful career at the National Institute of Health — he decamps for his home village to search for a cousin who murdered his father. A sordid and tangled family feud promptly ensues. Karystiani’s earlier novel Little England won the Greek National Fiction Award in 1998, with one critic enthusing, “You want to sip it word by word.” That title, about the lonely plight of women in early 20th century Greece, was sold to Italy (Crocetti), Germany (Insel), Bulgaria (Biblioteka 48), and France (Seuil), with deals said to be simmering in the UK, Holland, and Spain. The new one has thus far been sold to Germany (Suhrkamp) and Italy (Crocetti). Talk to Maria Fakinou at Kastaniotis.

Also in Greece, the bestselling orthopedic surgeon–turned–historian Alexandros Zaoussis has wowed the crowds with his fifth historical opus, Alexander and Aspasia, set in Greece during World War I. The story kicks off as young Prince Alexander assumes the Greek throne in 1917, soon falling in love with the lovely Aspasia Manos and embarking upon a scandalous secret marriage that puts all of Athens in a twitter. Some 25,000 copies have been sold to date, and Louisa Zaoussi at Oceanida handles rights.

A few notes from Spain, where Matilde Asensi has plundered the world’s archives for The Last Cato, described as a “historical thriller” that ransacks the past for the book’s many twists and turns. Doctor Ottavia Salinas heads the laboratory for Restoration and Paleography at the Vatican’s secret archives, when she gets an urgent call to decipher odd tattoos on the body of a man charged with crimes against the church. Surprise references to Dante’s Divine Comedy and the death of Christ take this case into positively Borgesian territory. Rights to Asensi’s two earlier novels, Jacob (more than 80,000 copies sold) and The Amber Hall, have been sold to Germany (DTV) and Greece (Periplous), respectively. About 70,000 copies of the new one have been sold since the book’s publication last September, with a sixth printing just out. See agent Antonia Kerrigan at the Kerrigan Agency in Barcelona. Also in Spain, a housekeeper with a double life is the furtive star of Dorothea’s Song, winner of last year’s Planeta Prize and the latest novel from Rosa Regás. When a Madrid university professor seeks a caretaker for her ailing father, the pertly efficient Adelita seems perfect for the job. A precious ring soon goes missing, however, and the household is dumped into a “spiral of attraction and repulsion” that bottoms out in a roiling mystery of “passions and ambiguities.” The multitasking author Regás has founded a publishing house and directed the Ateneo Americano at the Casa de América in Madrid, a center for Iberian-American dialogue. In her spare time, she won the Nadal prize in 1994 with the novel Blue. The new book was released last November, with a first print run of 210,000 copies. See agent Carmen Balcells for rights. And on a final Spanish note, Chilean writer Marcela Serrano hits the list in both Spain and Argentina with her sixth novel What’s In My Heart, the story of a young woman who finds renewed passion in revolutionary Chiapas following the death of her son. The book has sold 105,000 copies in Spain, plus another 45,000 in Latin America, and rights have been sold to Italy and Portugal. See Mónica Herrero at the Guillermo Schavelzon agency in Buenos Aires.

In Argentina, prolific journalist and historian Laura Restrepo’s Errant Crowd pops up on the bestseller list, probing what critics call “the misery and violence at the heart of Colombian society” as it dramatizes the plight of uprooted families amid a war-torn countryside. The book sifts through the carnage and focuses on the unlikely bonds of love forged in the region’s battered refugee camps. The 52-year-old Restrepo recently won raves for The Dark Fiancée, a work that grew out of her journalistic investigation into the world of prostitutes in a Colombian town. That title is said to be a stirring portrait of the beautiful Sayonara as she services the squalid paradise of oil workers in the Colombian forest. The new book was originally published by Planeta Colombiana, though we’re told Seix Barral has acquired rights for the rest of Latin America. See agent Mercedes Casanovas in Barcelona.

Last but not least, Poland returns to our bestseller lineup this month and features prominent writer Jerzy Pilch’s Under a Mighty Angel. A sort of Polish version of Drinking: A Love Story, the book chronicles “a private apocalypse” in the rural town of Wisla, and delves into the rabid thirsts spawned by the potent admixture of alcoholism and literature. The author is a columnist for the well-known Polish weekly Polityka. The new book won last year’s Nike prize, the most prestigious literary honor in Poland, and has sold 100,000 copies to date, with rights sold to France, Serbia, and Holland. See Joanna Dabrowska at publisher Literackie.

Book View, February 2002


Steve Parr
has been named CEO of Abrams, following the departure of Mark Magowan and Alan Rutsky (along with two dozen others) at the end of the year. He was most recently with Emap. . . . After 14 years at Harcourt, Louise Pelan, VP and Publisher of Children’s Books, is taking early retirement in March. . . . Kimberly Whalen has just been hired at Trident Media Group as MD of Foreign Rights. She was previously at the Rotrosen Agency. . . . Peter Garlid leaves Mondadori, where he has headed up the New York office. The staff, along with Mondadori Printing’s US reps, will now report directly to Italy. Garlid will become an independent rights sales rep, with Mondadori as a client.

Skip Fischer, who had been, briefly, COO of DK, has left. Reporting responsibilities are now shared by Therese Burke, Chuck Lang, and Dorothy Regan. Meanwhile, Audrey Puzzo, most recently of, and previously at Pocket, has been hired to handle sub rights. She reports to Lang. . . . PW reports that Jon Galassi will become president and publisher of FSG and will relinquish his title of Editor-in-Chief to John Glusman. Amy Scheibe, who left Doubleday in December, has been named a Senior Editor at the Free Press. She reports to Dominick Anfuso and begins February 4.

Tracy Howell has left Random House to join the Gernert Agency. Linda Pennell, RH Rights Director, will now assume responsibility for the foreign rights department as well. Meanwhile, Luann Walther has hired Angeli Singh as an editor at Vintage/Anchor, from Mary Anne Thompson Associates. And Harcourt’s publisher, Andre Bernard, has hired Da Capo’s Executive Editor Andrea Schulz as Senior Editor.

Paulist Press has hired Robert Welsch as Director of Sales and Marketing. Welsch had been Editorial Director of Bookspan’s One Spirit Book Club. Ellen Sibley has been promoted to President and Publisher of Barron’s Educational Series. She was EVP. . . . Pam Abrams has joined Scholastic as Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Parent and Family Publishing. Before joining Scholastic, Abrams was Vice President and Editorial Director of Abrams replaces Judsen Culbreth, who has been named Vice President and Editorial Director of Scholastic Family Custom Publishing.

Lucinda Karter, most recently of, has been named director of The French Publishers Agency, replacing Kathryn Nanovic Morlet. . . . Jim Clark has retired as Director of University of California Press. . . . And with the closing of Coliseum Books, Pat Sado can now be reached at (212) 663-4866.


The Licensing Letter reports that worldwide retail sales of licensed products dropped 5% in 2001, to $109 billion. The US, which represents two thirds of that total, dropped 5%, while Japan’s sales dropped 13%, followed by Eastern Europe, with a 10% falloff. Publishing related licensed products dropped 8% in the US and Canada, to $4.7 billion. Meanwhile, respondents to TLL’s Annual Business Survey forecast a 2.4% drop for the licensing business in 2002, though licensors — not surprisingly — were more bullish than other respondents, predicting a 3% increase. More information can be found at

• Marshall Editions, which is in the process of being sold by its current owners, Just Group, parent company of Mediakey, has offers in from Chrysalis Books (the folks who bought Pavilion), Octopus (via Hachette, now on an acquisitions spree), and Andromeda (owned by Media Invest). A deal is expected to be announced shortly.

• Chris Kerr, PT’s tireless correspondent, reports from the ALA winter conference that it was wet and cold in New Orleans, and librarians were in “short supply.” But there was “much chat about projected cut-backs in library funding which will impact acquisitions, hours, and staffing. Publishers were similarly desultory, although this is more attributable to the wreckage of last year’s retail results.” The Blackwell representative claimed that the press leaks about the family wishing to dump the publishing holdings were false, as the charter requires a 3/4 vote to amend before holdings can be proposed for sale, and no “side” has remotely close to half.

Distributor Trafalgar Square’s Paul Feldstein reports that he’s just picked up US distribution for UK publisher Aurum Press, as well as Screenpress Books. Their 40-odd distribution clients include most of the major UK imprints, among them Random House/Transworld, Orion, HarperCollins, and Bloomsbury.


NYU is hosting information sessions for its M.S. in Publishing on Feb. 7, 6-8 pm, and March 13, 6-8 pm. Both will be held at the NYU Midtown Center, 11 West 42nd Street, 4th Floor. Call (212) 998-7200.

• BookTech 2002 is set for Feb. 11-13 at the Hilton.

• Books for a Better Life is scheduled for Feb. 12 at the Millennium Broadway. Call (212) 463-7787, ext. 3043.

The AAP’s annual meeting will take place on Feb. 27-28 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC, as usual.

Before he became the eminent Grove Press publisher that the world knows, Barney Rosset was a photographer. His show “War Photographs: China in Conflict 1944-1945” will be on view at the Janos Gat Gallery, 1100 Madison Avenue (82nd Street). Opening on Feb. 12, 6-9 pm.


On January 16, Sara Nelson held a publication party for her friend Bob Sabbag for his latest (from Little, Brown), Loaded: A Misadventure on the Marijuana Trail. Also present were Grove Atlantic’s Morgan Entriken and Canongate’s Jamie Byng — both of whom are the publishers of Sabbag’s first and now classic Snowblind. Nelson has resigned from Book Publishing Report/Primedia (which had taken over following Steve Brill’s departure) to become Senior Contributing Editor, Books at Glamour. She will also be writing the book she just sold (via IMG’s Reiter) to Penguin Putnam. She’s at [email protected]. Earlier in January’s David Carr was named Media Reporter and Lorne Manly Deputy Media Editor of The NY Times.

• Overlook Press, the Museum of TV & Radio, and Harry Evans co-hosted a publication party for BBC Reports: “On America, Its Allies and Enemies and the Counterattack on Terrorism” at the museum on Feb. 23. Among the luminaries in attendance were Jane Friedman and Lewis Lapham.


The Book Reporter
( surveyed its loyal visitors recently, and found some interesting stats. For one thing, these are serious book lovers: 39% buy one or two books in a typical month, with 28% buying 3-4 books (37% say they read 3-5 books a month). 57% buy one or more books online in a typical month (remember, this is an online poll). 21% get information about books from local newspapers, 15% from The NY Times, and 8.7% from Oprah. While 33% go to Amazon to learn about books (and 18% to and 4.8% to Powells — the only other online retailer mentioned — more than half visit bookstores in a typical month. 55% claim they have visited author websites in the past three months. But 85% have never read an e-book on any device, including Palm and PC. In a separate survey, bookreporter’s looked at the mammoth but shadowy universe of reading groups. Among their respondents, 46% meet at members’ houses, while 12% meet at the library, anywhere from 8-12 times a year. While 47% said the group votes on the books to be read, 30% said that in their group, each member chooses a title. Bestseller fiction, literary fiction and biography/memoirs were the top three categories, and though for 27% paperbacks were the format of choice, 62% said that the format was not important — a response that flies in the face of many publishers’ experience. Where do they get their books? 20.5% go to the chains, 18% borrow them from the library, and the same number — 6.4% — get them either from an independent or an online retailer. But listen up: 30% said they’d be interested in buying books in bulk, if they could get a discount of 30% or more.

NYC or Bust

BookExpo America Returns to Gotham, Pondering Its ‘Donut Problem’

You may as well cue up the ticker tape. Because when BookExpo America lands in New York this May after a decade-long hiatus, the annual book industry trade show “will be celebrating its return to the publishing capital of the world,” in the neon-lit words of its marketing staff. And the pre-buzz press releases are rolling. For starters, Rudy Giuliani will preside over the opening night reception on Thursday, May 2, touting his new business book, Leadership (Talk Miramax). No one will yet confirm or deny, but the hirsute Al Gore has been a rumored marquee speaker. Even the celeb-grunge band Rock Bottom Remainders are back in action for a Saturday-night gig at Webster Hall (proceeds benefit the Get Caught Reading campaign, among other efforts). But behind the advance hype for BEA’s reign at the Javits Center from May 1 to 5 is a highly concerted effort to parlay this New York moment into long-term viability — all at a time of downward pressures on a variety of BEA constituents. “The fact that we’re in New York this year seems to be giving us a huge burst,” BEA Show Manager Greg Topalian says in an interview. “There is a lot of pent-up demand. Early indications from independent booksellers in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the Tri-State area are very favorable. We are expecting a very, very busy show.”

Indeed, for the sake of the book business — and for the coffers of BEA parent Reed Exhibitions — it better be. “Attendee growth is the key to our future,” Topalian declared in a statement last year, vowing to target “up to 20,000 new attendees” and to broaden the show’s buyer base by targeting nontraditional retailers such as grocery, gift, and museum stores, in addition to pumping up rights activity and throwing in a variety of other educational and retail attractions. This dash of convention smelling salts was needed in part because recent growth has been negligible, with attendance rising to 21,898 in Chicago last year (up 1%), with 6,132 buyers (up 3%), and 2,000 exhibiting companies on hand (even with the prior year). But these numbers are a far cry from the boom years of the early ’90s, when reported attendance topped 38,000 and the show sprawled over 355,000 square feet of Chicago’s McCormick Place.

With a glance at today’s show floor, it’s not hard to see why. “We have more publishers at the show, but publishers are taking less space,” says Steve Black, Chief Operating Officer for book distributor CDS. “I think that’s a general industry trend. Look at Random House. Years ago they used to take acres. Now publishers that previously took four booths may be taking two.” On top of that, the bulging technology pavilion of recent years, which Topalian wistfully recalls as “an enormous growth area on the show floor,” has turned bulimic. And no amount of pre-show drum-beating will revive the independent booksellers who have gone to the big remainder table in the sky. “BEA has a very tough challenge,” observes industry veteran Mike Shatzkin, “because its historical roots are to serve the connection between many publishers and many booksellers. But the manys are diminishing on both sides. You’ve got a donut problem. There’s a hole in the middle. It’s a serious weakness in the core proposition.” Shatzkin stresses that these larger industry trends are not Reed’s fault, and that BEA has attempted to address the weakness by expanding into nonbook areas, a broader technology segment, and the rights business. (For the record, Shatzkin’s Idea Logical Company and Publishers Lunch founder Michael Cader are developing an annual rights event called “Publishing in New York: An Editorial and Rights Fair,” now targeted for 2003. They hope to hold discussions with potential partners for the event, including BEA.)

In many ways, BEA has made significant strides. After feverish wooing of a number of no-show publishers, Penguin Putnam remains the only noteworthy absence on the show floor. “We continue to have conversations with them, and we’d like to have them back,” Topalian says. (For their part, Penguin officials could not be reached for comment.) The show’s Spanish Book Pavilion, now in its third year, is “slowly gaining traction,” and will double in size this year. Then there’s the Retail Multi-Media Expo, which will explore crossover retailing opportunities among the book, video, and music segments, and a “dramatically expanded” International Rights Center, including a new rights symposium, which features a half-day educational forum and networking event. The show’s foreign contingent has been on the rise, Topalian says, and he’s anticipating an even bigger jump this year, partly to make up for the slackened pace of the post-Sept. 11 Frankfurt Book Fair. Plus, “the New York venue makes it a slam-dunk for the UK folks,” who can inexpensively hop across the pond. The rights center will double in size this year, too.

That growth, however, has made for some awkward identity issues, Topalian acknowledges. “We’re always a bit of a tricky show compared to Frankfurt or the London Book Fair, because we really have two purposes. We are still the US distribution show for the largest market in the world. But over the last five years we’ve become a very significant rights event.” For some publishers, the amalgam works. “Our international sales department is there and is busy from the minute the hall opens to the minute it closes every single day,” says Alison Lazarus, President of Sales for Holtzbrinck, whose unit St. Martin’s had dropped out of the show, but has been back for the past three years. Lazarus says show productivity has increased since she’s been back, particularly due to close scheduling of appointments, rather than languishing in a booth waiting for walk-ins. Ditto for Ornella Robbiati, Editor-in-Chief of Italian publisher Sonzogno, who schedules appointments every 30 minutes, as in London or Frankfurt, and praises the opportunity BEA affords to see US colleagues in one fell swoop. “Coming in the middle of the year, BEA is the perfect occasion to meet American publishers and agents without waiting until Frankfurt,” she says. “On the other hand, in the last few years, much of the American publishing community has come to the London Book Fair, which is becoming increasingly international.”

Others point out that paradoxically, the New York venue has in the past made the show difficult for New Yorkers, since many will have long commutes at the end of the day — exacerbated by the transportation-challenged Javits Center site — on top of family obligations they wouldn’t have in Chicago or LA. Beacon Press Director Helene Atwan adds that she’ll be exhibiting as usual, despite anticipated problems with publisher attendance and a dearth of promotional materials due to the earlier show date. And then there’s that familiar New York drain on the expense account. On that note, show organizers have negotiated rates of under $150 per night with a number of hotels, and have also scouted cheaper rooms in New Jersey, with shuttles to the Javits. (Incidentally, the Library Hotel is offering a show discount of $50 per night off deluxe rooms, and $30 per night off petite rooms, to friends of Publishing Trends. Email [email protected], and mention Market Partners for the special rate.) And grumbling over this year’s early date should be allayed for the near future, as BEA moves to Los Angeles next year, launching on May 30, then hits Chicago in 2004, kicking off on June 4. Then it’s back to New York on June 3, 2005. “We unquestionably are looking at moving the show year-to-year,” Topalian adds. “It was overwhelming to us that being in one city didn’t draw enough new attendance on a year-in, year-out basis.”

Taking Book Sense to the Bank

In the end, of course, the show is what you make it. “Every year we have a better and better BEA,” says Dominique Raccah, Publisher at Sourcebooks. “I find it incredibly useful. I know I’m one of the only book publishers who feels this way.” Sourcebooks will once again be installed in its house-shaped booth, with various accommodations available for meetings, and publicity staff staking out the back patio. “I don’t think it’s an order-writing show, and it isn’t meant to be,” Raccah continues. “It’s a relationship-cementing show, which to my mind is far more important.” In fact, Sourcebooks’ business with Books-A-Million more than doubled this year after four meetings with the retailer at last year’s BEA. And Raccah makes a point of taking along between 15 and 20 people to the show, many of them editors: “If the editors don’t know what’s going on at the grassroots level, we are going to make a lot of bad decisions.” Raccah also cites the ABA’s Book Sense program as a “phenomenal” driver of show growth. “You may see a revitalization in BookExpo simply because Book Sense is creating the right machinery to support independents.”

Of course, no one could agree more than Carl Lennertz, Book Sense Senior Marketing Consultant and big BEA booster. “For every trend in bookselling today, I can go back and spot a seminar or a panel at BEA where it was first talked about,” Lennertz says. “Computerized inventory. Newsletters. Reading groups. The use of co-op. Everything that’s keeping independent booksellers going now came out of sessions five, ten, or fifteen years ago.” Moreover, Lennertz thinks so much bluster about the relative merits of the show floor misses the point that crucial work is accomplished in other ways, whether at educational sessions or just over drinks at the bar: “Going to BEA will pay for itself — you can’t put a price tag on it. The next generation of bookselling innovations will come out of this show.” So what’s the bottom line, Carl? “You should come to get ideas and make money.”

Literary Agents Take Wing

It can’t have escaped any industry observer’s notice that literary agents are on the move. Bill Contardi’s out of William Morris and Karen Solem’s gone from Writers House, while the Loomis Agency’s Nicole Aragi has just set up her own shop.

What’s up? PT queried those involved in the changes to tell us what they saw from their perspectives and, while there’s no single explanation, some common themes emerged. First, the economy has obviously forced larger agencies to trim their budgets, even as individual agents realized that splitting smaller commissions with the home office was less and less viable. Then too, cheaper and better technology has made it easier for solo agents to manage an office without a staff. Finally, several say quality of life issues come into play: Jody Hotchkiss, who left Sterling Lord Literistic to start his own company (with SLL as a client), says that he reevaluated his own career after the death a Connecticut neighbor who had worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and left behind a wife and young children. Bill Contardi left William Morris as a result of restructuring in the wake of Robert Gottlieb’s departure and Jim Wiatt’s rise in LA, but he plans to continue agenting on his own in both publishing and film, working with independent literary agents for film and TV representation.

Though Linda Chester began to renegotiate her business relationship with her agents on the advice of her accountant, she decided to downsize because she realized that managing staff was not how she wanted to spend her time. She had been paying for Rockefeller Center office expenses and assistants’ salaries, and in some cases, agents’ retainers, but working with authors was getting lost in the day-to-day details. At one point, a total of twenty, including agents Joanna Pulcini, Julie Rubenstein, Paul Fedorko, Fredi Friedman, Judith Ehrlich, and Laurie Fox, were affiliated with the agency. By late August, only one assistant and Laurie Fox were still there, though Fox works in California. Now Chester is subletting her space and taking smaller space in the building. “I wanted to work with creative people and have fun,” she says, rather than managing an office and mentoring new agents. With lower overhead, she hopes to give some of her profits to charity. Julie Rubenstein appreciates Chester’s p.o.v., but says that she’s glad to be on her own and keeping full commissions on books. “Linda was very helpful to me in terms of follow-through after publication,” but the new arrangement that Chester would have offered (with Rubenstein continuing to work at home, but paying expenses and still splitting the commission 50/50) was not financially viable.

Karen Solem also says she found it increasingly difficult to juggle the expense of splitting commissions and a two-and-a-half-hour commute from Columbia County. After “six happy years” with Writers House, she has rented office space in Chatham, and with the help of a part-time assistant, has started her own agency. Referring to her former colleagues, she adds, “No matter how wonderful they are, you pay a steep price.” That’s less and less the case with a solo practice, newly solo film agent Jody Hotchkiss argues. With less overhead and infrastructure required than in the past, he says, an independent agent with a solid client list — who could have once expected to make money in 3 to 5 years — now expects to break even by year one and make money by year two.

Indeed, independence is addictive: Nicole Aragi says she moved because she had had her own business in England and “in the end I succumbed to the urge to do so again.” In between wrestling with Verizon, she closed the Colson Whitehead deal (“a solid six figure” two-book deal with Doubleday/Vintage), is in the process of submitting first-time novelist Monica Ali’s book, and is being “deluged” with submissions.

Marly Rusoff, once an affiliate with Carlisle & Co., succumbed in September, and set up her own shop in Bronxville. Though she remains on good terms with former colleagues, she wanted to do fewer projects and “make the decision where to take my risks.” Having worked in many areas of publishing, she says it’s her “ambition to be available to my authors for the whole publishing process.” She recently signed up Pat Conroy, whose wife, Cassandra King, was already a client. And she has also taken on an associate of her own, Renee Zuckerbrot, who was a colleague at Doubleday. In exchange for helping in the development and selling of a project, Rusoff takes a third of the commission. Rusoff also uses IMG for foreign rights.

There’s a middle way between going it alone and being in a large agency. Having built up a client list at The Robbins Agency over seven years, Bill Clegg joined with ex-LB editor Sarah Burnes to launch their agency in March of 2001. Unlike many agencies, they are an “S corp,” sharing expenses and distributing commission by a formula that has resulted in a profit in year one. Sharing space had brought Henry Dunow, Irene Skolnick, and Martha Kaplan together under one roof originally. Now they’re looking for more space so that they can sublet to other agents. Sally Wofford Girand, who handled foreign rights and was an agent at the Elaine Markson Agency for 14 years, is going into business with four other agents in a co-op venture. She approached everyone after a “9/11 moment,” and is leaving Markson at the end of this month. Meanwhile, David McCormick just exchanged IMG’s large roof for a smaller one with Nina Collins, who is starting a new agency herself. He will be contributing a modest portion of his earnings to cover the company’s overhead.

But Michael Carlisle argues that bigger is better: In business now for four years, he has created a model with some similarities to Linda Chester’s — including the expensive offices — but with a larger on-staff agent base. He also has an affiliate relationship with four other agents, including Paul Bresnick. He said he made a lot of expensive mistakes when he set up: he bought the wrong phone system (too small) and signed up with the wrong Internet service provider (went belly up). The purpose of this set-up is to create a substantial presence in the industry very quickly. This objective increases the odds — as the new kid on the block — that your manuscript submission will be read more rapidly, he says. Those at the Harold Ober Agency would probably agree: Coming off its most successful year ever, the agency just hired agent Alex Smithline from Scovil, Chichak & Galen.

Agents’ contact info: Nicole Aragi: [email protected] Burnes & Clegg: (212) 331-9880 Michael Carlisle: [email protected] Linda Chester: [email protected] Bill Contardi: [email protected] / (212) 599-2910 Jody Hotchkiss: [email protected] Julie Rubenstein: [email protected] Marly Rusoff: [email protected] / (914) 961-7939 Karen Solem: [email protected]

Trendspotting: Waiting to Exhale

“We will never be the same,” ran the popular refrain after 9/11, and as we continue to unpack that sentiment in the various parts of our lives, it seems a fitting enough epigram for the state of book publishing nearly four months into the post-terror twilight. Something has changed, all right. But across the industry no one is quite sure yet how far gone they really are, and faced with massive market uncertainties made more volatile by the southbound economy, this business like many others is effectively holding its breath. “The worst thing anyone can do is to actually think and make decisions,” says one publisher when asked about sales prospects for the near future. Too much thinking, of course, leads to panic, and panic leads to bare bookshelves in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy: publishers cut print runs, afraid that stores won’t reorder, hence books aren’t available where and when they should be, and so on. “It’s best to leave inventory issues up to the computer models that trigger the orders,” this publisher advises, “so that there will at least be some books on the shelves.” Bearing this caveat in mind, PT has culled the following year-end impressions from our conversations with a wide spectrum of industry executives. We hope they offer some welcome food for thought — when you feel it’s safe to think again, that is.

Am I solvent? Ask me in six months.

Those who are thinking about sales forecasts for the near term say — no surprise here — that the barometer reads “unsettled.” Sales managers tell us they glimpse a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, but editors seem more wary of further downward pressure. One publisher reports frantically shipping titles two weeks before Christmas, as Ingram and others had let inventories slide after 9/11. Meanwhile, most anyone with a backlist is probably kneeling in gratitude before it, especially if it is modelled and orders are kicking in automatically. Conventional wisdom is that all bets are off until six months from now, when final results are in and returns have been accounted for. One bright spot in the gloom, incidentally, may be for book packagers, several of whom report gung-ho forecasts for 2002, as ongoing book contracts have softened the brunt of the general downturn. “I would imagine that our backlist sales and royalties will reflect the weakness in the marketplace this quarter,” says one packager. “But otherwise, I’m cautiously optimistic for 2002. Am I nuts?”

Ad spending and review space: a negative dialectic.

The continuing shrinkage of review space in newspapers and magazines has had what an industry marketing guru calls an “obvious impact on sales.” And it’s a downward cycle, as fewer ads lead to fewer review pages, which lead to fewer ads. Expected cutbacks coming down the pipeline, say publicists, are only going to make matters worse. Advertising spending in all industries is projected to fall by up to 7% this year (it would be the biggest decline since 1938), with a further, though less drastic, drop expected next year. Many in publishing may still hew to the belief that ads don’t sell books, but some marketers point out that come what may, advertising dollars make a vital contribution to the promotional machine: “They support the review pages that do sell books,” says a marketing director, “and that may have to be the new justification for book advertising.”

Picture not so perfect for illustrated books.

“Illustrated book syndrome” is the grim diagnosis one illustrated book publisher offers for this troubled segment, which has been wracked by layoffs of more than 25 from Abrams, the displacement of Abbeville’s entire staff due to the office’s proximity to the World Trade Center (some are still working from home), and the closure of Viking Studio at the end of the year (with all staff including Christopher Sweet headed out the door). Publishers cite heavy production costs, slow earn-out, competition from proprietary publishers, and retail discounting, which was accelerated by the Taschen/ Könemann rivalry (and led to the latter’s financial troubles). Those houses escaping the brunt of the scourge (at least for now) include Clarkson Potter, where sell-through has been healthy across the list, Watson Guptill (despite the recent departure of President and Publisher Glenn Heffernan), and Chronicle. Thames & Hudson, which had its best year ever in 2000, expects to sail on an even keel this year, and is now cheerily shipping titles for the 30% to 40% of its list that’s in the college market. Meanwhile, distributors such as Antique Collectors Club have cut back staff, and DAP reports that sales are down from last year, but are up in niche areas and limited editions, where quantities are slimmer but prices higher. Other distributors are warily monitoring sticker shock, as the segment clings to the $30 mark — the top price that consumers seem willing to pay.

Giacometti catalog, anyone?

In a related segment, museum publications departments are getting particularly hammered by post-terror declines in attendance, and the guillotine has already been hoisted in many a sculpture garden. The MoMA store had already powered down in anticipation of its hiatus next June, but a quick sales reforecast after 9/11 and the stealth actions of what’s been called a “brilliant marketing department” revamped the operation in a week so that attendance numbers were only down 6% — compared to the Met’s publicly announced 40% and the Guggenheim’s 50% drop. MoMA is on track to sell its complete run of the Giacometti exhibition catalogue, but even with that morale boost, sales will still be weak without the usual tourist trade. As museums batten down the hatches, will the German- and US-based house Prestel — and others of its ilk which compete with museum publishing divisions — take home the spoils?

When all else fails, Harry Potter prevails.

Shuffle the numbers any way you like, kids’ books still seem to outpace adult sales. Moreover, Harry and company have staying power, with anticipation hot and heavy for HPV (which is due in next year). Our sources tell us the children’s business is “steady, solid, and somewhat heartening” given the teeth-gnashing and breast-beating from other retail sectors. That said, what seems to be selling are the tried and true (the familiar is obviously a special comfort these days), as well as the fantastic and all things holiday related. And sales are strong for Lord of the Rings, Lemony Snicket, and Olivia, with a number of other children’s properties buoyantly described to us as “just a dream to the bottom line.”

The smaller the store, the better the sales.

As chain retailers continue to drive up their direct purchasing percentage, and cash-strapped independent booksellers resort to just-in-time buying via wholesale, you might think the Goliaths have finally prevailed. But as one sales executive noted, with all their markdowns, chains may be having a tough go of it, provoking an audacious few to put them on credit hold. This predicament has in fact given rise to a tentative new mantra: “It seems like the smaller the store, the better the sales.” The indies are still in the game, despite reports that their share of the business has dropped from 33% in 1993 to 15% today. One large independent operation tells us they checked their Nov. 2000 figures against last year, and found comparable sales for each month. And get this: Saturday, December 15th was this store’s best sales day ever. For its part, Book Sense is said to be modestly moving the needle, and making a more notable difference in establishing smaller books. On the other hand, indies are keeping tabs on reports that online sales are going gangbusters, with Amazon ordering heavily from wholesale. (A Consumer Reports feature on book retailing notes that online stores account for 7% of book sales — and in a survey of 25,000 readers, Amazon was ranked a close second behind independent booksellers in terms of reader satisfaction.) In other retail tips, don’t forget those impulse buys. “Point-of-sale is dramatically up over last year,” says an executive at a major publishing house. “It’s a real bright spot.”

Too pricey? Check that page count.

As the industry rubbed its collective chin over the recent New York Times article on steep retail prices for books, we note a logical response might be a more aggressive approach to pruning today’s monster tomes. (The ever-fattening size of volumes has been chalked up to the advent of the computer.) Despite arguments that printing and binding costs have declined significantly over the last decade, paper costs are still going up for many publishers, and account for a big chunk of any book’s cost. The industry might tamp down prices by trimming page counts, and — who knows? — you might even get buzz over brevity, like Ken Lipper’s and James Atlas’s Penguin Lives series.

Paradigm shift: Linear out, cyclical in.

On the bright side, one agent points out, the industry as a whole appeared to turn a corner after Thanksgiving, when the phones gingerly began to ring again and we collectively exhaled. (Given the pessimism still voiced by the likes of Random’s Peter Olson, however, it remains to be seen how far that next breath of air will take us.) Another upbeat reading of post-September events is that they mark a healthy return to a cyclical view of the business, which had been tossed in the dumpster during those heady boom years, when the damn-the-torpedoes linear business model ruled.

Once more to the steaming altar.

Covering your bases never hurts, either. “We’re looking OK, or damn close,” says an upscale academic publisher, who offered a few comparative thoughts on the mega-hit-driven trade business. “I think this is in part because we’re more diversified than echt Trade houses, so we have something else to fall back on besides the great and insatiable god of bestsellerdom, upon whose steaming altar virgins must regularly be offered up.”