Why Books Matter for the Long Run

Book publishing is a business and increasingly a technical one, but at its heart it is an art, writes Peter J. Dougherty in this opinion piece. He is the editor-at-large at Princeton University Press, for which he was the director from 2005 until his retirement in 2017, and currently sits as the Fox Family Pavilion Scholar and distinguished senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

Why have Eric Schmidt, Meg Whitman, Reid Hoffman, John Doerr and other leading technologists resorted to the venerable (some would say backward) practice of book-writing to communicate their visions? Why did Mark Zuckerberg introduce a quaint book-of-the-month feature onto the runaway train of Facebook? Why does Bill Gates regularly pen long, thoughtful book reviews in a whirlwind communications culture fueled by texts and tweets?

How have books survived the information tsunami, and what will authors and publishers have to do to leverage the success of books for the long run?

The answer resides in a seemingly incongruous combination of traits: First, in the time-honored authority of influence books hold among readers; and second, in the ways in which disruptive technological change can strengthen rather than weaken that influence.

The Long Goodbye

The internet, having upset the culture and economics of books aplenty, has, in a stroke of Schumpeterian “creative destruction,” spawned a new and multi-dimensional market for them. This new market includes ebooks, books in digital library aggregations and indices, audio books, combined audio and digital editions, international editions, translations into growing language markets such as Chinese and Korean, all supported by online excerpts, Book TV, curated merchant sites such as Amazon, podcast services and a lively digital worldwide book discussion culture.  The book review in your local newspaper may have disappeared, but it’s been reborn online and lights up like a digital pinball machine when a book gets attention.

Moreover, much as the internet belches oceans of dubious information, the best books now pay a social dividend by constituting a kind of intellectual reserve currency to challenge all that is fake, fraudulent and fractious. For example, in the free-for-all of presidential political commentary, the publication of Bob Woodward’s perennial books predictably punctuates this raucous conversation with facts and informed judgment. Books, trading on an ancient lineage, but thriving on the very technology bibliophiles feared, now buttress a public conversation beset by havoc and uncertainty.

“The internet, having upset the culture and economics of books aplenty, has, in a stroke of Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction,’ spawned a new and multi-dimensional market for them.”

If understanding the durability of books means recognizing the authority of their influence, charting their future in the ever-shifting information undertow means knowing how this influence renews itself. The first lesson for prospective authors is that books establish their influence within their core readerships. While books intended as all things to all people usually end up appealing to none, those that imaginatively pinpoint and engage knowledgeable communities of readers have the chance of achieving success, because it is within these core communities that influence takes root and spreads.

Authors of serious nonfiction and scholarly books interested in seeing their writing succeed need to realize that the goal of connecting to core readers remains supreme, but the means of reaching them change constantly. To the extent that authors get this message and work with their publishers to maximize it, they will promote the vitality of books for the long run. Doing so requires an appreciation for what changes in the book market, what persists and how these forces interact.

Influence Spells Success

Most authors are justly preoccupied with book sales, but sales result from influence almost as if a physical law. Creating influence among core readers is the first step towards healthy sales, as demonstrated throughout history.

John Maynard Keynes knew this in 1936 when, in his now-classic work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, he captured the idea of influence in the following famous quote:

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Books, because of the power they possess to exert “intellectual influence,” more so than any other form of serious communication, change the way readers — and even leaders — see the world and set the stage for them to change it.

This is a force that has held sway since the 18th century in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, David Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature and other books, coming up through Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It formed the foundations of modern thought and social structure. These books reverberate until today. And this powerful current has carried on to the present in large ways and small.

Just in the past generation, think of the way Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy changed leaders’ approach to business planning; or how Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s Nudge shifted the thinking of policymakers in structuring public programs; or how Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class shaped the direction of cities; or the way Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation altered the discussion of power within companies; or how Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century galvanized the discussion of inequality among leading thinkers in America and around the world.

No other form of communication commands the understanding, respect, attention and enduring engagement that books do in guiding the course of political, cultural and economic decisions and practices. Nor does any other form of expression rival books in their capacity to integrate often disparate communities of scholars and leaders, humanists, scientists, professionals in law, business, medicine, education and public policy. Books elevate ideas above the hyper-specialized pockets of inquiry and build bridges across communities of interest. This public discussion is reflected in the review media, where books serve as the platform of debate and opinion from The Wall Street Journal to the New Yorker to the Financial Times to The Guardian and beyond.

For prospective authors, appreciating the power of influence is the first step in understanding success.

Let’s Get Small

Authors are naturally given to extravagant descriptions of the market for their books (“anyone who lives in the suburbs will be interested in my book”) when in fact the real market usually is anything but extravagant (“mainly those who study the suburbs”). A dose of market realism is actually helpful for sales because if we succeed at specifying and capturing the “core” market in which a book is likely to become well-known, its reputation can radiate beyond the core, and it can thereby become more broadly established for years to come. Also, a realistic understanding of the market enables more productive, substantive conversations between author and publisher. So, it’s important to be realistic about the nature and size of the market, and strategic about how to reach it.

“In an era when authors can, and do, publish their own books, the demand to be published by excellent publishers is as strong as ever.”

This trait is well-exemplified in the market for economics books. Economics has experienced a golden age in book-publishing in the past generation, marked as it is by best-selling titles by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz (Globalization and its Discontents), Paul Krugman (The Conscience of a Liberal), Robert Shiller (Irrational Exuberance), Paul Collier (The Bottom Billion) and others. What’s ironic is that economics is thought of as anything but popular — a dismal science coded in byzantine jargon.

So how do these otherwise dismal missives become best-sellers? Because the core community of economist commentators — economics columnists, bloggers, editorialists and publicly engaged economists themselves — draw attention to them. Economists and economics journalists can and do elevate the visibility of the work of their colleagues by reviewing or discussing their books, as Paul Krugman did a few years ago when he reviewed Robert Gordon’s book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, in The New York Times Book Review, or as Tyler Cowen did Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms in his blog, Marginal Revolution.

What is true for economics applies as well to books in other fields: Core readerships incubate successful publication and often set the stage for broader exposure.

How this happens changes with the times and the technology. From the days of newspaper book reviews, through the rise of the blogosphere, through the emergence of social media, the Republic of Letters reinvents itself. Authors and publishers need to focus on this question: How it will change in the coming generation?

An appreciation for what a book editor does provides the crucial clue.

Editors as Idea Engineers

The stereotype of a book editor is something just this side of a modern monk, tilted over the manuscript, pencil in hand, glasses perched on the bridge of the nose, eyes pointed downward. In fact, it is a much more outward and active role than most authors realize. The editor is every author’s first tactical connection in engaging the core readership.

Acquisitions editors spend their working lives (and then some) studying the market, talking with all manner of colleagues, book reviewers, writers of all kinds, publicists, designers, booksellers and sales people in order to develop the best possible grasp of how to look for great projects and how to connect them to the core readership. Therein influence — and a book’s success — is born. In addition to engaging new authors and projects, good editors generate book ideas and imagine how to populate the world of ideas with books of powerful effect. But it is in firing their authors’ ideas into the core conversation that editors serve their most productive role.

The late Erwin Glikes, esteemed and successful president of The Free Press, once noted that the editor has the job of selling the book in its first market — its first core readership, if you will — within the publishing house itself, and then organizing and marshaling all the necessary support from colleagues in production, design, marketing, publicity, sales and international rights in building the publication strategy for launching the book towards its core market.

To do this, the editor must work with his or her eyes up, not down, constantly observing the outside world and finding ways to connect the book with core readers. This means collaborating with the author to develop the clearest and most compelling argument, framing it with a strong title and subtitle, punctuating it with great cover design and copy, and imagining how it will play out in all of the book’s prospective markets, especially among reviewers who will provide the book with its launching pad into the core conversation. In the pre-Google past, this meant mainly thinking about the domestic market and imagining how a book would play out in journal and newspaper review sections read by core readers.

While these publications still matter, since the internet revolution, editors have had the opportunity to simultaneously think much more universally about targeting core readers in all manner of media and all over the world. Even for books with seemingly very small markets — let’s say, a scholarly work about the history of 19th century railroads — the internet provides editors and their publishing colleagues the opportunity to pinpoint core readers — railroad historians — worldwide, through the large and complex network of media venues — online journals, blogs, podcasts, etc. — that reach the core readers and stimulate interest among them.

“Economics has experienced a golden age in book-publishing in the past generation.”

Today’s book editor thus should be thought of not as a monk, but as a 21st century idea engineer, orchestrating exposure for his or her book through a carefully cultivated network of contacts in the core market, at home and abroad. Done effectively, this kind of publishing surgically delivers the book into the core, incubating interest and opening up the opportunity for the review coverage and discussion that will ultimately result in print and ebook sales, excerpts, translation, library aggregation sales, and if the book really connects, long-term sales in courses.

How engaging the core changes in the era of artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital media and a tighter, more integrated global culture is a thrilling prospect.

What Do Publishers Do?

I once watched an author pitch a book to publishers at an academic meeting I attended in Washington years ago. Accompanied by his spouse, he pushed a supermarket cart filled with copies of his manuscript into the publishers’ exhibit and proceeded to deliver a copy of it to each publisher. Random selection may work in nature, but it’s hardly an optimal strategy in getting published well. Getting to know book publishers, and choosing the right one for your book, means understanding what publishers do and what distinguishes one from another with respect to influencing the right conversation for the right book.

If a book editor can be usefully thought of as an idea engineer dedicated to delivering an author’s argument into the core conversation, the publisher serves as the aircraft carrier for launching the idea, providing the author with the troops and technology necessary for successfully hitting the mark. What gives successful publishers their staying power in today’s do-it-yourself communications culture?  Two things: reputation — that is, established standing within the core readership — and expertise — the ability to access it at the highest level.

As with books themselves, the defining values of a good publisher are both unchanging (reputation) and constantly changing (expertise). The key for authors is to find the right fit: a publisher with a strong reputation within the intended community of core readers, but with dynamic approaches and ideas for successfully cultivating the core.

Reputation

In an era when authors can, and do, publish their own books, the demand to be published by excellent publishers is as strong as ever. Why? Because certain publishers, from commercial conglomerates through university presses, enjoy powerful reputations within the constellation of core readerships, and these reputations serve as market signals. A computer science book published by The MIT Press, or an art book published by Abrams, or a business book published by Wharton Digital Press or the Harvard Business Press, or a history book published by WW Norton, commands a certain respect among the constellation of reviewers, booksellers, producers, journalists and other influencers who collectively showcase what is important to communities of readers. Leveraging this status gives authors fantastic advantage in a market marked by copious supply and fierce competition.

But reputation in publishing is earned and needs to be constantly renewed, which results from the effective practice of the craft.

Expertise

If successful books combine the authority of influence with the adaptability of technology, heads of publishing houses these days spend more time on the technology side, updating and integrating data systems to ensure access to global markets defined by print, digital and audio formats. As with the local newspaper, the corner bookstore may have shrunk in significance, but it has been replaced by a panoply of new and far-flung outlets, print as well as digital, domestic as well as global.

These systems cover every aspect of the business, from organizing the consideration of new book proposals through the comprehensive management of the publishing process, through marketing and promotion, rights management, financial management, and worldwide inventory and distribution.

“Today’s book editor thus should be thought of not as a monk, but as a 21st century idea engineer.”

Publishing executives have thus begun to look more like technology strategists than the pipe-smoking preppies of their caricature, none more so than Markus Dohle, the CEO who has overseen the recent merger and international integration of Random House and Penguin, the two largest trade publishers in the world. But for all the talk of global supply chains and multi-format integration, for the best publishers one thing remains true: the overriding goal of delivering the work of their authors into the core conversations that will enable them to have the influence they seek.

Book publishing is a business and increasingly a technical one, but it remains at heart an art. Keeping the art center stage, while marshaling the science to support and advance it, is the publishing executive’s task and the essence of maintaining reputation.

The Long View for The Long Run

How does an aspiring author find the right publisher? Beyond making connections with editors and agents through previously published colleagues or friends, it is important to take the long view. Forget the shopping cart and cultivate a real appreciation for publishing and the culture of books. Become a fan of the art and a student of the science. Study publishers from the outside in.

Start by reading regularly the major book review publications such as The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and read the publishers’ ads as well as reviews. Read the book reviews in the major publications in your field, say, The Economist, Foreign Policy or The Harvard Business Review, and listen to podcasts and interviews with authors in Knowledge@Wharton. In each instance, notice the publishers. Doing so will enable you to know the best publishers in your field of interest and expose you to the best editors in your field.

Educate yourself in its details. Learn how the best editors exercise their craft. Most of all, take a patient view because if you are serious about books and ideas, you are going to be living with books for a long time, and you’ll want to develop relationships with publishers for the long run, not just with your first book.

The better you understand the publisher’s art and the need to balance the tradition of influence with the imperative of technological change, the better you’ll be served as an author and reader. And not coincidentally, taking the long view conjoins you with the very core readership which you’ll need to engage with your own books.

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