Publishing is Personal

I admire Macmillan CEO John Sargent.

He had the courage to pre-emptively send an email (read it here) to hundreds of industry insiders this past Wednesday. In that email, Sargent did something that gives me great hope about the future of publishing.

He used the word “I.”

Macmillan CEO John Sargent

“I am Macmillan’s CEO and I made the decision to move Macmillan to the agency model. After days of thought and worry, I made the decision on January 22nd, 2010 a little after 4:00 AM, on an exercise bike in my basement. It remains the loneliest decision I have ever made, and I see no reason to go back on it now.”

We live in an era when the big publishers choose to refer to themselves with the sterile and unspecific “we.” We regret to inform you… After careful consideration, we came to the conclusion… That kind of thing.

But book publishing has been the bastion of a High School-esque collective of dysfunctional, often weird—but always passionate—book nerds from time immemorial. They work crazy hours for something other than overtime or stock options. Some have accidentally made a very good living, but no one enters traditional book publishing to get rich.

At their core, publishing people care about words. They live to facilitate the magical communion between writers and readers. Is there anything nobler?

But over the years, corporate overseers have reengineered publishing’s idiosyncratic DNA. Books are now acquired by committees. There are a lot of meetings. Like a crazy number of meetings. And finding books that every department can get behind are the order of the day. There is now a very long process to get a book from acquisition through publication. It’s a gauntlet that only a master of business administration could love—form filings lead to PowerPoint presentations which lead to catalogs and sales calls with more PowerPoint…

Publishing has been a business-to-business concern for decades now. But passion is rarely found in a purchase order.

Rest assured, book nerds are still in-house. They just get shot down trying to acquire the odd books that the category buyers at the retail chains “wouldn’t get.” So those strange book phenomena like the Fifty Shade of Grey trilogy are only published by the Bigs after they’ve emerged from the primordial self-publishing soup.

Like other corporations, big publishing today announces its decisions in well-vetted press releases written by anonymous publicity department professionals. Rather than any one person willing to be the face of a company and saying something meaningful, we get headlines like this: Hachette Admits No Liability, and Asks Government to Ensure “We don’t return to the days of monopoly”; Harper “Made A Business Decision.” Without a human to come out from behind the curtain, it’s hard to click through that kind of link. That’s probably why they make statements anonymously. Less clicking, less caring. But when no living person comments, we forget that there are real live people who work at those companies. Remind us and we will care.

In the context of this murk, Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s decision to put himself forward is all the more heartening. We’ve all been on that bike in the basement sweating out a tough decision at least one time in our lives—if we’re really in the heat of our work we’ve been there multiple times. We have to choose whether to do what everyone else is doing, or to fight for what we think is right.

John Sargent chose to fight in 2010. Not only that, he put the decision squarely on his own shoulders. He publicly battled Amazon in a throw down public confrontation. And his insistence on the agency model not only helped Macmillan, it brought considerable financial stability to the supply side of the business—publishers. It seemingly made the old school model viable again. And the book business went back to normal. He’s choosing to fight now too.

But the Justice Department thinks that this stability came at the expense of the demand side of the business—book buyers. This is the crux of the contretemps.

Are you still awake? Is it hard to really care about the fall of the agency model? It is for me and I love this kind of stuff.

I don’t know John Sargent well. We’ve met a handful of times close to a decade ago when my small publishing company, Rugged Land Books, was distributed by the Macmillan sales force. This was back in 2002 when he was new to the job. I was at sales conference and I expected to be ushered into a corner of a ballroom and introduced to the new CEO. He’d be in a suit holding court, nodding a lot…looking implacable.

Instead Sargent could have been the sales rep from (ironically) the Pacific Northwest. He was wearing khakis and a flannel shirt and we bumped into each other in the salad bar line. I didn’t know he was the CEO until he went on stage to give the company’s state of the union address.

I got the feeling that he purposefully didn’t wear the CEO costume because he didn’t think the company was all about him. He was there to do his best for Macmillan’s books just as everyone else was. So the fact that he has put himself forward in the way that he has now speaks to his commitment to his tribe. After all, character is revealed by action. While others hid behind “we,” Sargent went with “I.”

Today, John Sargent believes that nothing less than the entire book publishing business is at risk of being overrun by a sinister force. He’s not alone. With the agency model gone, the thinking is that Amazon will go back to slashing eBook prices and the now inevitable race to the eBook price bottom will resume. With its deep pockets and rapidly expanding global distribution, Amazon will slowly lure the big bestselling writers from the big publishing companies over to its side.

Revenue at the big houses will continue to fall—only now exponentially—forcing the Big Six to downsize and/or merge. If someone doesn’t do something, Amazon will become a book publishing monopoly and once it does, intellectual content and discourse will be dominated by a single uber-company. Not good.

John Sargent has the guts to do something about this doomsday scenario. It means that much to him. He will stand up for, and with his colleagues, prove that the agency model was not the result of collusion. In fact, it was the best practice to ensure competition.

Book publishing needs an army of men and women like John Sargent—passionate about what they believe and willing to withstand the slings and arrows of powers much greater than they are. His is a very compelling story. Much better than “Harper Made a Business Decision.”

The only problem is that John Sargent chose the wrong fight. He’s on the eastern front when he should be shoring up the western.

He’s going to defend his company against the oxymoronic Justice Department? To what end? An apology? Less onerous terms for Macmillan’s ultimate settlement?

I love impossible odds. I started an independent publishing company in 2001. But geez, even a black Irishman like me can see the endgame here.

The fact is that the agency model is dead. And the reality is that it was only a stop gap anyway.

I think John Sargent should swallow his anger and good old-fashioned American stubbornness about this footnote in publishing history and redirect his passion. He and his fellow publishers—separately of course—should focus their energies and resources on innovation. Not strategies to manipulate “terms of sale,” but real innovation.

Let’s face it; the future of book publishing is B2C—business directly to the consumer. If you can talk to the consumer and the consumer trusts you, you’ll survive. If you rely on other people to talk to customers for you, you’re in deep trouble.

So make publishing personal again.

Come up with business models that allow the strange creatures within your citadels that dedicate their lives to books shine. You know who they are—editors, artists, sales people, publicists, marketers. Introduce these people to readers. Let them be weird. Let the conversations begin…and make sure to have your own store. Sell direct.

Rather than “stopping Amazon!” from taking over book publishing, I think John Sargent and all of the incredible people who work at Macmillan should focus on “out Amazoning, Amazon.”

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  1. Ulla Lauridsen on April 13, 2012 at 8:02 am

    Brilliant. Yes. Do or die. I don’t think the paper book is dead or likely to die. I like the book as a physical objekt, but traditional publishing should definitely get used to the idea of e-books with all that entails.

  2. Tricia on April 13, 2012 at 10:12 am


    If indeed JOhn Sargent doesn’t wear the “CEO costume persona” in all aspects of his business life, then I’m quite certain he’d be open to your impassioned views.

    Why not respond in kind directly (and make it personal)?

    • Shawn Coyne on April 13, 2012 at 10:55 am

      Hi Tricia,
      It’s taken me twenty years to figure out that I do my most satisfying work outside the city gates. And I’m sure my take is one John Sargent has heard many times before.

      It’s one thing to identify problems, another to actively try and solve them. It’s better to show than tell.
      All the best,

      • Tricia on April 13, 2012 at 2:04 pm

        I guess I don’t understand, why, if they (publishers) know the various options for moving forward, they don’t do so?! But perhaps it is more about resistance to change? And perhaps I am showing my naïveté to think they would do otherwise.

  3. Tom Riordan on April 13, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Yes. Your prescription – the personal touch – to cure the Big Six is spoton.

    Interestingly, the agency model gambit that the DOJ busted may well have been a success in its ultimate goal: ending Amazon’s monopoly of the e-book market. According to the front page story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, publishers made 33% less per book sold under the agency model than under the wholesale model. (Roughly $12 versus $8.) Amazon was selling books at a loss to artifically deflate the price in exchange for market share. Before the agecny model gambit, Amazon controlled 90% of the e-book market. Two years later, Amazon now controls 60%, and two major competitor’s to Amazon were able to survive and grow – B&N (25%) and Apple (30%). Yes, there may well be another artifical deflation of e-book prices due to the agency model’s demise, but it is unlikely that Amazon will be able to sustain the losses necessary to regain it ability to unilaterally set the price of e-books in light of its now healthy competition. In the long run, that competition will be good for writers.

    • Tom Riordan on April 13, 2012 at 10:50 am

      There is an obvious math error in marketshare percetages in my post. The point is that the remaing 40% is now being divvied up by B&N and Apple. Forgive my error. What can you expect for a fiction writer?

  4. Paul C on April 13, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Amazon is in a pitched battle with Walmart and all the bricks and mortar retailers. The more successful retailers are adopting Amazon’s online strategy, offering free WiFi and kiosks, etc to customers shopping their stores. Publishers could sign partnerships with retailers or copy the business model of Starbucks. For example, Krogers has floor space for physical books but no web presence for selling the books. Krogers also has Starbucks cafes in many of the stores. A publisher could promote its ebooks at the Starbucks cafe, with the retailer getting a cut of it.

  5. Jerry Ellis on April 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Outstanding piece today! Thank you, Shawn.

  6. Bill on April 14, 2012 at 4:43 am

    Traditional publishing is dead. John should be fired for his lack of vision and his complete inability to see how things have changed, as a CEO this is an incredible failing.

    The traditional publishers have all the knowledge, writers, connections etc to adapt but instead they insist keeping their head in sand and running these business into the ground.

    Sack John now while there is still time to change and adapt rather than destroying the company value by charging at windmills. Otherwise they will all be sacked in 10 years when they are broke.

    Blaming Amazon or the DOJ is a complete and utter cop out, if publishers are going under it is because they have fundamentally failed to give consumers what they want. Lots of people do want to buy books but paying more for an ebook than a paperback or in some cases a hardcover is clearly a load of horses**t.

    They need to realise they are dead and work on building the future rather than clinging to the past. I have as much sympathy for them and the insipid tripe that lines the shelves of traditional booksellers as I do for kerosene lamp oil companies.

    If a “race to the bottom” means I buy directly from an author who hired their own editor and distributes their own ebook, then hurry up and get there. Consumers get cheaper books, the authors get a greater share of the profits and the mindless bureaucracy of publishers gets a footnote in the history books. I have a kindle and its great! Can you not see how useful it is? Why do you fight this?

  7. Thomas on April 14, 2012 at 4:52 am

    Amazon is not a bookseller or a publisher, although they dabble in both. They are a tech platform for an e-marketplace – a corner of that marketplace is e-book selling. Amazon happen to sell e-readers of their own, so they insist you must use Kindle format if you want to sell your books on their marketplace. Like other e-marketplaces, they take a cut of your sales.

    But you don’t have to sell your books there.

    Other places have appeared – B&N, Apple, etc. That’s why Amazon’s share of the market is going down, not up, and that, BTW, is why it’s kinda funny to say they are becoming a monopoly. Apple is providing e-book creators with a better authoring tool AND a better and more visually pleasing reader – with retina resolution on the iPad 4, e-ink is losing its “monopoly” on being kinder to out eyes.

    Traditional publishing was also a marketplace – with higher bar to entry, but more help if you made it to the inside. All the authors who did not or will not try can now go to the other marketplaces. That’s competition, and that drives prices down. Since an e-book is really just a “proprietarized-format” website with pagination, it suffers from the same reader attitudes as all e-entertainment – the readers/listeners/watchers have gotten used to the right price being zero.

    Which may be the whole point of this – consumers no longer pay for the content, but they will pay (within reason) for ease-of-use, for being spared the trouble of poor-format and virus-infested warez. That is what Amazon and Apple have understood, having set up an easy system for getting and reading “books” instantly, everywhere and effortlessly, and at a very small price. That’s the game any competitor has to beat them at, and springing the book-nerds from their cages in the cellars may very well be trad pub’s only chance to even play that game. Whatever your opinion of Steve Jobs, he seems to me to have proved that the Powerpoint suits are needed to run a business, but they can’ MAKE a business.

  8. Patricia Shavers on April 14, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    If you wait for conventional wisdom to approve, is it even art? Art challenges the status quo.

    Don’t believe me? Let’s see people who could not get published by the “establishment,” or at least until they proved themselves, “profitable.”

    Just off the top of my head, and I’m sure if I “Googled” it I would find many more, let’s see, Virginia Woolf started her own publishing company just to get published. Is this an isolated incident? Just so happens my two favorite poets, at least AD are Emily Dickinson and Blake. Seems she had NOTHING published in her lifetime, and he published his own.

    So how does that seem smart? If you are a writer, a real writer, a writer who wants no more than to tell the truth, the hell with the facts, I’m talking the truth of our humanity, and I dare say humane nature has not changed for at least 6,000 years, proof is that between Homer and Shakespeare there have not been any more “stories” worth telling. It is just a matter of detail. Our common humanity: life, death, loyalty, betrayal, joy, sorrow, with few exceptions, that is about it. So why try? Each generation defines these in context. Chaucer had a different point of view, but the “truth” did not change, just the “facts.” Or Homer, or Dante, or Swift. I think you get my drift. So as it turns out whether Sappho, or Blake or Woolf or Dickinson, they said, metaphorically, the public be damned, the publishing world be damned. I have something to say and by God I am going to say it. Thank all the deities, or more likely some combination of DNA that consists of a combination of cells and atoms and protons and neutrons and electrons and photons and who knows what else. You might like to check out Tyson and Hawking before you start to think of yourself other than star dust. Woolf made the comment in the late eighteen hundreds and the early nineteenth century, if you go back to the classics and the literature that was respected before her time, you unfortunately get no more than one half a view of the world. You will not find any women writers who wrote from their own experience. True, there were lots of stories, “about” women, but few written by women who had first hand experience of being women. Woolf has a wonderful piece called: “A Room of her Own.” Don’t quote me on the details but she says something to effect: a woman needs a room of her own, a room where no one else may enter without her permission and 200 lbs a month. I may not have that exactly but the point is that women need a private space where no one could violate, and enough money to survive. Unless a woman had that, rich old royalty didn’t count since they new nothing of the common woman’s life, the world would never know what half of humanity and their experiences were. Can you comprehend that? Listen one more time. One half of humanity’s story has, more or less, not been told? Amazing if one thinks about it. To the victor goes the spoils. Sometimes I wonder what great literature we might have if the conquered lands, lands who were under the oppression of the powerful from the beginning of time, what truths we would have uncovered? So, what has that to do with publishing? Simple answer. I have things to say, stories to tell, essays to publish, poems to illuminate and there is no way in the world I would let the “professionals” who want nothing but formulaic manuscripts, sure fire money makers, genre literature, writing that can be so easily classified by some label at Barnes and Nobel or some other chain, otherwise, God forbid, you would not know what section would you put it in? Bull shit. If a publisher agreed to publish my work it would be embarrassing, an insult, a proclamation that I had nothing to say, or at least nothing profound to say. Who would take a chance on something that had not been focus grouped. Well, I could go on and on and since not one soul will read this, I am casting my pearls before swine. It matters to me not one whit if I am not recognized as an important writer. But I am. How do you know I believe in myself? I would never, under any circumstances, subject myself to the whims of a publisher, editor, or anyone else. Does it cost me a couple hundred bucks to self publish? Yep. I care not one whit even if I don’t sell enough to get my money back. If you sell your self for thirty pieces of silver, you are either a Judas, or a poorly paid whore. Am I good? Who knows? But I can say this: I say what I mean and I mean what I say. No more, no less. And as my daddy taught me: let the chips fall where they may, no more, no less, because there is not enough money in the world for me to sweat blood and tears to write something I did not believed revealed truth, and by that I mean truth that is not formulaic. I just as well make donuts in a bakery, where each one has a neat whole in the middle.
    Any one can do that. And, truth be told, selling donuts is a site more profitable than writing stories people are not ready to hear. But as we say in the South, screw the bastard and the horse he rode in on. Opps, southern ladies should not speak in such ways. Get used to it.

  9. basilis on April 17, 2012 at 9:31 am

    An other astonishing article with information that make you think -once again- on the subject: Times, they are changing…
    Also the comments are getting more and more interesting!

  10. Daria on April 19, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    What is the agency model about, please? Thx.

  11. tony banks on April 20, 2012 at 4:22 am

    I don’t know much about the publishing business. Can someone please explain what the agency model is? Merci

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