For Publishers, The Long Term Is the Only Race Worth Winning

In Guest Contributors by Chad W. Post

The following is Chad Post’s keynote speech delivered in absentia to the 29th International Publishers Association Congress ending today in Cape Town, South Africa.

By Chad W. Post, publisher, Open Letter Books

I want to start by apologizing for not being there in person. As Alistair [Burtenshaw, director of the London Book Fair] probably explained, I ran into visa difficulties in the Atlanta airport and was sent back to Rochester, NY…Which is pretty much like South Africa minus the sun. Or something.

Before getting into the bulk of my speech, I want to give you a brief overview of my background. I haven’t worked in publishing all that long—I started at Dalkey Archive Press in 2000 after working in independent U.S. bookstores for a couple of years, and now head up Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester in upstate/western New York.

Open Letter Books started in 2007 with the express mission of publishing and promoting all literature in translation. Our core activity is publishing ten works a year (primarily fiction) from all over the world. We’ve done books from Iceland, Croatia, China, Norway, Argentina, Russia, and Catalonia to name a few places. Most of these works are from the latter half of the 20th century, but some — like Ilf & Petrov’s The Golden Calf — are more “classic” in nature. When I’m asked to definite our aesthetic, I say that we’re after books that are unique, that bring something to the English reader that is fresh and new and exciting. It may be in the form or wordplay, or overall structure, or in terms of content. But we believe books are most interesting when they embody the power to change and open minds—and that this is worth valuing over sales potential.

But publishing is just part of it. We are probably more well known for the work we do in promoting international literature to English readers, mainly through our fairly popular website, Three Percent. (Which is named after the commonly cited statistic that 3% of all books published in America are in translation. That stat is probably false. The number is much closer to 1%. Or maybe even 0.3%.)

Chad W. Post

Three Percent is multifaceted: it’s a daily blog about international literature and publishing, a review site, home to the Best Translated Book Awards and the Translation Database, and a place for rabble rousing about anything related to book culture. Most importantly, it’s one of the main places where we facilitate a connection between creators (authors and translators and publishers) and readers. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

Just for the sake of completeness, Open Letter also runs the Reading the World Series at the University of Rochester, bringing together translators and their authors to talk about the art and craft of translation, and we are involved with the University’s translation programs for grads and undergrads.

Paradoxes in Contemporary Publishing

As you all know, the book world is a really interesting and strange place. In teaching my “Intro to Literary Publishing” class, I’m constantly bumping up against tensions in the book world that expose very paradoxical interests — most of which are related to the omnipresent tension between viewing books as cultural products versus normal economic goods.

This art vs. commerce tension has been present in almost all facets of the book world for basically ever. I don’t want to turn this into some sort of remedial publishing history session, but it’s worth noting a few choice anecdotal “paradoxes” that shape our industry:

  • We rely on readers, but we want to keep them at arm’s length. Traditionally, publishers in the U.S. would do anything possible to not deal with individual customers. Ideally, we could sell to 1,000s of bookstores in one meeting with a Barnes & Noble representative and then talk to one reviewer at the New York Times and all our books would find their audience. Clean, simple, efficient. As a result, we don’t do market research, or really even know who our readers are.
  • We champion small independent stores, although our business model favors Amazon. This is the topic for another speech, but publishers these days need to sell as many books in as many formats to as many people as possible. This is what Amazon has done for us, making our products available to millions of people who live in areas devoid of decent (or even not-so-decent) bookstores. This helps us to generate word-of-mouth, buzz, readership, etc., especially as we become more digital. Indie stores play an extremely valuable role in book culture, but I think a lot of people talk them up not because they really believe in the value of an indie, but because the publisher-indie economic set-up greatly favors the publisher, which brings us to the next point . . .
  • We hate Amazon because it’s so successful it broke our power structure. There’s a lot of talk these days about how Amazon is dismantling book culture. There is some validity to this, but put in context of the books major publishers are publishing and ways in which they’re screwing culture themselves, it’s clear to me that the real problem isn’t Amazon selling too many books to too many people at too low a price, but that we publishers are no longer capable of dictating the terms that allow us to continue to exist with the expenses and profit margins we desire.
  • We also hate Amazon because they’re good at the thing we turned our back on: relating to readers. Unless they’ve worked at a bookstore or are really socially engaged, most everyone loves buying books from Amazon. They cater to a reader’s desires—recommendations and low prices — and invite the reader to participate directly with book culture via reviews and self-publishing. These are things at which traditional publishers typically fail.

My Experiences in the Small Press World

I’m sure most all of you know those things already, and more than half of you are itching to insert all the arguments and details that muddy the waters of all those paradoxes. My point in bringing that up though is this: when deciding to start a publishing house in America—in particular one that’s dedicated to promoting international literature — I was able to survey the problems plaguing traditional publishers and try and find a way to set up Open Letter to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish, which is finding readers for books that challenge the status quo, often just by having been written in another language.

One important note: Open Letter is a nonprofit. I knew in setting this up that I didn’t want to try and become a millionaire off of selling books (is that even a possible thing?), but that I wanted to share literature I think is important with other people who would also find it important. So we set forth a number of principles that have guided Open Letter over the first five years of our existence, and which are detailed below.

Before getting into that though, it’s worth dwelling on the “paradoxical” crux of our situation. As one of the only publishers of international literature in America, we are overwhelmed with excellent editorial possibilities from all over the globe. Unlike presses focusing on English literature, we don’t ever really enter into bidding wars over hot new books, and we’re never at a loss when trying to find high quality titles. But there’s a flipside: For all our quality, we have an incredibly difficult set of obstacles to bringing these books to readers. We’re small, therefore ignorable by everyone from the New York Times to the local bookstore in Omaha, Nebraska, and we publish books by authors with “unpronounceable” names, which are supposedly a huge turnoff to American readers.

We can publish the best books in the world, but getting them into the hands of readers—at least through traditional means—is a massive challenge.

Today’s Opportunities

Here are the main things we thought about in setting up Open Letter:

  • Involve the reader as much as possible. We want to foster a connection between translators, writers, and readers. (None of which just fall into one category: translators are readers and authors, authors are translators and readers, etc.) As a result, Three Percent does not simply promote Open Letter books, but brings attention to all great works of translated literature from any number of publishers. We invite interactions with our readers, not just through the comments section and on Facebook and Twitter, but also in real life, since we decided long ago not to hide our employees behind the company name, instead letting readers get to know us and our tastes personally.
  • Nonprofits benefit themselves by benefitting the world. Some nonprofit presses focus on doing whatever they can for themselves. Hoarding grant money instead of using it to promote the works they supposedly “love,” not participating with the rest of the field in hopes of maintaining some sort of illusory competitive edge, taking advantage of young authors and translators in order to get something for nothing, etc. The most important indie/nonprofit presses in America—Archipelago Books, New Directions, Graywolf — are ones that tend to help each other and the field as a whole. It’s somewhat of a “tide that rises all boats” situation. It’s also more than that though. This is a small world we publish in, with a finite number of dedicated readers. When we work together, these readers get turned on by all the various presses, then turn on their friends, etc. The book world is a sort of ecosystem — one that works best when all players are trying to work together.
  • The most important thing is to get our books into the hands of the right reader at the right time. This is very different from the general capitalist goal of making as much money as possible at the lowest possible expense. If we could make it work, we would give our books away. We’re more interested in the social and aesthetic impact these works can have than on making a few extra bucks by selling to a smaller audience at a much higher price. (This is why all our ebooks are priced at $9.99 or less. It’s better for us to reach more readers at that price level than to charge $14.95 and shrink the audience.)

The Right Book at the Right Time

As was stated in a Wired interview about Netflix a few years back, if the 20th century was all about solving distribution issues, the 21st will be about sorting demand. What I mean by this is that in today’s day and age, any reader can get whatever book they want, wherever they are. (This is true both for print AND e-books.) It’s crazy to think of how recently this situation has come about. The chains may have stocked what seemed like an infinite amount of books when they rose in the early 90s, but that’s nothing compared to Amazon’s limitless database. Not to mention, my home town still doesn’t have a physical bookstore.

So what does this mean? We’re used to being guided in our cultural decisions through reviews, displays, book club fanaticism, etc. The human brain is pretty decent at deciding what it wants when there are 8-12 options available. Which makes “Bookseller Recommendation” displays that much more effective. The brain doesn’t deal well when there are too many options, instead seeking out something tried and tested and true. And now that you have an infinite amount of books to choose from and an infinite number of minor cultural tastemakers, what guides your choices?

My girlfriend was joking with me the other day about a statement I made about how I was “reading a book I shouldn’t be reading at this moment.” And she’s right, that statement does sound dramatic…or does it? I could be reading anything, so why not find the book that is the perfect book for me at this moment?

Obviously, it’s almost impossible to determine what this book would be, which hasn’t stopped people on both sides of the equation—publishers and readers — from trying to figure out how to “sort” this. There’s GoodReads, which blends its social aspect with an algorithm to make recommendations. There’s BookLamp, which breaks books down into themes and makes recommendations. Small Demons, which focuses on the proper nouns and cultural touchstones found in books. There’s Amazon’s “who bought what” algorithm.

“Discovery” is a hobbyhorse of mine, but that’s yet another speech for another day—one that could go on for hours. Since there are others to speak, and questions to be asked, let me try and tie all this together.

The Long Term Is the Only Race Worth Winning

We have entered a confusing age in the evolution of books and publishing. After ages of conglomerations conglomerating and other inward mingling trends (e.g., B&N making the same books available everywhere in the country, like McDonalds hamburgers), the world has suddenly fragmented. Certain books are only available on Amazon, there are 10,000 for every sub-genre of a sub-genre, and readers live everywhere, accessing it all in a plethora of ways.

This is daunting to some, exciting to others. For a small press looking to do books that fit a particular niche (a la Open Letter), this is a fantastic situation. Unlike years past when we fought for space in the same five review outlets and tried to convince the same booksellers to handsell our books, we can now go directly to our customers, and can cultivate an audience in ways that never existed before.

So, to sum this all up into one list of tips and anecdotes, here are some thoughts on how authors, translators, agents, and publishers can take advantage of this situation:

  • Agents: Quit screwing around with e-book rights. I know that for some, this is the touchiest of touchy subjects, but when an agent doesn’t sell us the e-book rights to a translation we’re publishing, I want to condemn them to a dark circle of hell. Audiences are diverse, readers like to read in all formats, why would anyone stop the momentum a publisher might have with a book in the hopes you can sell these later to some larger company? This is ridiculous and my experiences with Zone and Children in Reindeer Woods—which sold out quickly and were unavailable while we reprinted and sat around NOT having the e-book rights—point out the stupidity of this agenting policy.
  • Translators: Community is your greatest hope. Most everyone in the book industry is whiny. And underpaid. And underappreciated. Translators more than most. But in a world in which expertise exists outside of the conventional outlets (newspapers, magazines, radio shows), translators can be extremely valuable in cultivating a community of readers interested in a particular book/set of books. Make all the connections you can—books aren’t sold through reviews or advertisements anymore, they’re sold when one reader talks to another reader.
  • Publishers: Grow a personality. This is much more important for small, specialized presses, but if you have a personality, you will have a much easier time developing a readership. Put your editors on panels, have them befriend readers on Facebook. The old system is broken, and instead of trusting blindly in approved mainstream sources, we now base a lot of decisions on how much we trust individual sources. If you like a blogger, you might follow his/her recommendations. Same goes for an editor. Use all the information available to you to promote yourself and your products. Because everyone is talking to everyone nowadays and the people following an editor’s updates on GoodReads all have friends who have friends — this is how word of mouth is built these days. So take advantage of it.
  • Authors: No one reads anymore. Not to end on a downer, but shit, are there a lot of books out there, and not enough time to read them AND watch Breaking Bad. Reading a book is an investment of time that seems totally outscaled in our current age. Why take 10 hours to read a book when you could Tweet approximately a billion times during that same period? Sure, mega-blockbusters will still exist (*cough* Fifty Shades of homegrown pseudo-porn *cough*), but the drop off between those select few and the rest of everything gets steeper and steeper every year. And when you’re competing with 200,000 self-published books (which are usually $.99 or $2.99) coming out every year, the situation is only going to get worse. It’s not that no one is reading—people really ARE—but that everyone’s reading chunks of all sorts of things no one else is reading. So find your niche, your community. If you do it right, your books will sell forever, and that’s the only race you really want to win.
  • Everyone: Fads are fading. Publishing—like sports teams—is all about copying people who are more successful than you are. It may have worked a few years ago to seek out the next Harry Potter or whatever, but as the market continues to shoot off in myriad directions, this will become more and more annoying to everyone. Consumers don’t like this (witness just about every TV show that came after Lost), and can now just go off and find the thing they do want. As a result, fewer people will buy the next vampire-killing-robot-lepers book that’s just like The Da Vinci Code meets Twilight and your margins will blow. So stop trying to ape the last next best thing and instead find books that can cultivate a readership who will actually care enough to talk about this book for years and years. Win in the long term.

DISCUSS: Will the Digital Age Be a Golden Age for Small Publishers? 

About the Author

Chad W. Post

Chad W. Post is the director of Open Letter Books, a press at the University of Rochester dedicated to publishing contemporary literature from around the world. In addition, he is the managing editor of Three Percent, a blog and review site that promotes literature in translation and is home to both the Translation Database and the Best Translated Book Awards. His articles and book reviews have appeared in a range of publications including The Believer, Publishing Perspectives, the Wall Street Journal culture blog, and Quarterly Conversation.