Publishers as Curators: Not a Fundamentally Broken Idea

Back on October 22, Matt Yglesias at wrote an article with a provocative title: Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers. Among book professionals of all kinds, it garnered the kind of attention and sparked the sort of conversation an article with a provocative title is meant to do. Over the intervening five days, debate and analysis have raged across the Twitter feeds, blogs, and forums of virtually everybody in the book loop, as we take to our keyboards to yea or nay the points Yglesias made, as if a lot of people yelling on the internet will change anything about reality. But that’s the internet for you.

It probably won’t come as a shock to anybody that I largely agree with Matt Yglesias’s points. I only agree with them, however, if you add two very important words before every occurrence of the word publisher: New York.

They're really not all the same.

Everybody’s been discussing the relevance of publishers as if all publishers are the same. Perhaps they’re conditioned to think that way because the Big Five, the monstrous New York corporations owned by even more monstrous global corporations, lack competition, and this makes them functionally the same, from contract terms to advances to outmoded, flailing marketing strategies to price-fixing collusion.

At the moment, the only thing that seems to set any one of them apart from the others is Hachette’s disturbing willingness to harm its authors’ livelihoods by stubbornly refusing to negotiate with Amazon for distribution terms. Otherwise, if you sell a book to one of them you may as well sell a book to any of them. You’ll receive the same egregious terms, the same shrunken advance, and the same b.s. timescale for producing and selling your book.

I saw what you did there, Matt. Also, let me state as a former zoo keeper that there's no way I'd get that close to an unrestrained pelican. Do you KNOW what their bills are like?!

It surprises me how many authors, agents, and other opinionated people have failed to acknowledge, over the course of the Yglesias-fueled discussion, that not all publishers are the same. It only feels like they are, thanks to the five-way mirror of New York publishing. But it’s important to remember that other publishers exist, because just as the ebook revolution has cleared the way for self-publishing to offer a viable career to countless authors, it has also cleared the way for the re-emergence of the small press. But only if those presses are smart and agile and don’t try to do things the way New York has done them for the past several decades.

That’s the crucial thing about my book deal. It’s not with a New York publisher. If a New York publisher had offered on Tidewater, I wouldn’t have taken the deal, no matter how high the advance. Not only do I loathe the idea of working with companies that have engaged in collusion in order to suppress the best thing that’s ever happened to readers and writers (ebooks), but I fail to see any value a New York publisher might bring to my business, despite their vociferous protestations that they are still relevant and super-awesome for both authors and readers.

My deal is with Lake Union, an imprint of Amazon Publishing. Obviously I have no problem working with Amazon. I haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid like many other authors who declare that Amazon is evil. (I’m always amused by how many authors and publishers claim Amazon is a force that must be stopped, but don’t put their money where their mouths are by pulling their books off Amazon… but that’s a blog post for another day.)

The Curator Debate

In the debate after Yglesias’s article came out, many bloggers have responded. This recent post by blogger Dr. Syntax, a former publisher, picks the Vox article apart point by point and counters with basically the same counter-arguments we’ve all heard a million times before from the red-faced, fist-shaking New York faction. I don’t mean any disrespect to Dr. Syntax; it’s just that everybody has heard these same points before already, repeatedly, in great detail. We’re ready for somebody who’s batting for New York to make some different arguments, some different defenses of business practices which haven’t changed significantly since the 1980s.

However, I do think one popular talking point the New York defenders always use deserves some consideration, because it actually is a means for publishers to add value and remain relevant, yet New York does it all wrong. Their failure to get it right means that smart, agile, non-New York publishers have a big opportunity.

Exhibit A in Dr. Syntax’s critique of the Vox article is curation. He argues that one of the biggest and most important functions New York provides is the careful sorting and selection of books, so that in a sea of crap readers might find the few books worth reading.

There are so many things ridiculously wrong with this assumption that it’s almost not worth going into, but I’ll go into them anyway because I enjoy telling people that they are wrong on the internet.

  • This viewpoint assumes that readers aren’t smart enough to discern good from bad.

  • This viewpoint also assumes that the opinions of a few people sitting at desks in pricey New York offices are somehow superior to the opinions of millions of other people; that the anointed few are qualified to discern quality while the rest of us are too dumb to trust our own tastes. In this respect, the “curation” argument is absolutely, 100%, undeniably elitist, and therefore eyeroll-inducing.

  • 1) Snooki got a book deal. 2) Kim Kardashian got a book deal that consists of nothing but selfies. 3) OJ Simpson got a book deal (later redacted due to public outrage) that was basically a gloat over how he got away with murder. 4) In the past 18 months, dozens of lifestyle, fashion, and mommy bloggers have leveraged their rapidly dying blogs into book deals which, under New York’s glacially slow timescale, will come off the presses only to be sent directly to remainder bins because by the time those books hit shelves, in the parlance of the internet: no1curr. But the bloggers won’t give a rip, because they got their advances, so nyaah. 5) I have it on good authority that for the past several years the best-selling item at a certain local independent bookstore has been The History of Farting. Now, one might argue that the fact that a New York publisher released The History of Farting only proves how great New York is at picking winners. I would counter that readers will buy what is available to them. If what’s available consists of Kardashian selfies and novelty books about farts, that’s what’ll sell. But is this the best New York’s vaunted curating can do? Is this quality? Am I truly not qualified to choose a better book than these? If this is the stuff New York has deemed worth reading, I am frankly terrified by that sea of crap they’re saving us all from.

  • It’s just not that hard to find good books on Amazon. It’s not. The Tsunami of Swill we’ve been warned about hasn’t posed nearly as much of a discovery problem as everybody feared. Get over it already, bloggers, agents, and publishers.

What all the world is saying about blogger books.

Now that those statements are out of the way, let me say that I don’t actually find the idea of publisher-as-curator a distasteful one. In spite of the fact that it’s really NOT hard to find a good book on Amazon among millions of others, I do think curation can be useful to readers, if it’s done properly and well. Not only that, but curation – real curation, not fart books and Kim Kardashian selfies – was a crucial feature of the publishing industry in decades long past.

And I think it’s an idea whose time has come again.

A Brief History of Libbie, and of Book Buying

I was born in 1980. I’m 34 years old. People from my generation grew up just as New York was starting its voracious feast of small presses, gobbling up independent publishers at rates that shock and terrify. If you’re as old as I or younger, you’ve never really known any bookbuying experience that wasn’t controlled by conglomerated and homogenized New York presses.

But my friends who are older recall fondly the days when they’d walk into a bookstore and look not for titles or authors’ names, but for imprints and brands.

Back in those days, before Penguin was half of a huge, overweening corporation that is just like four other huge, overweening corporations, it was an independent press. It published books of a certain type – a certain atmosphere, with common themes and similar prose styles. The books were visually branded, too, so that my friends who grew up prior to the 80s wouldn’t even search by genre, but would search for a particular design – the Penguin brand.

They knew, because Penguin curated its books with great care, striving to create a cohesive brand, that they were likely to enjoy a Penguin book regardless of who wrote it. Think I’m lying about that branding power, or about the way people shopped by imprint back in the good old days before New York publishing became a giant, shambling, groaning monster with bolts coming out of its neck and a pathological fear of fire? Take a look at these classic Penguin paperbacks. This is what my friends saw when they went looking for a new book.

Okay, they would have been in much better shape in the bookstores of yore. Image credit: Spitalfields Life,

Okay, they would have been in much better shape in the bookstores of yore. Image credit: Spitalfields Life,

These old Penguin paperbacks were so hugely popular that now certain PRH titles are being re-released with the old, branded covers. Look below; see what I mean. PRH is re-releasing classic, highly branded covers for many of its titles, trying to hearken back to the days when their branding was unambiguous – when branding signified something real: useful, reader-oriented curation.

Some old Penguin classics, and some new titles with the classic Penguin treatment. Image credit:

Some old Penguin classics, and some new titles with the classic Penguin treatment. Image credit:

Of course, Penguin wasn’t the only publisher who practiced clear and useful branding. Most publishers did it, and their covers and spines, with their unambiguous branding, signified something important to readers: “This book is just like the last book you read and loved. You’ll love this book, too.”

But such a branding message only works if the publisher is performing real curation: publishing books that have something in common, books that are like everything else in their catalog in some significant way – giving readers a clear message, by the reassurance of their imprint, that “this book is just like the last book you read and loved. You’ll love this book, too.”

This is not curating.

The way New York publishing has functioned for the past few decades can’t be called "curating" by any sensible definition of the word. Even agents and editors admit on their blogs, and have done for years, that publishers take big chances on new acquisitions. They don’t know what is likely to sell and what isn’t.

Most of the books they buy don’t earn out their advances (WHY?! Most of those advances are miniscule; a midlister indie author could earn out some of these advances in two months!) Many of the authors they lift out of the sea of crap prove to be just as crappy as most of the authors who are left behind. A few big hits per year subsidize all the rest – all those books that don’t turn a profit.

New York doesn’t know how to pick consistent winners anymore because New York doesn’t know how to curate. New York doesn’t know how to brand. New York, crucially, doesn’t know why readers buy their books, and what their target readers want each time they step into a book store or open their Amazon app.

Here, my friends, is where the advantage lies. Here is where small presses may find their traction and profit. Here is where publishers can compete with the allure of self-publishing – through true, actual, real curation – through cohesive branding – through understanding what readers want and then, by god, delivering it every time.

If New York ever understood how to curate, there’s no way they can do it now. They are too large. They are too convinced that the book industry can’t exist without them; they think their mere existence should be curation enough. They have forgotten that readers even exist – their end customer (or so they believe) is the book-buyer for a brick-and-mortar store, not the individual reader.

Hybrid authors have confirmed this. Commentary from their New York publishers suggests strongly that New York is shocked and amazed when an author can tell them precisely what demographic buys their books, exactly what that demographic is looking for, and how they respond to certain types of marketing. The fact that reader behavior and preference can be known at all astounds them. Readers are totally invisible to New York, and so New York publishing is fundamentally incapable of effective curation.

Enter the Small Dog

Fortunately, New York isn’t the only dog in the race. It’s just the biggest. Fast and agile small and independent presses can scoop up good authors, brand effectively, target readers flawlessly, and run off with all the sales before New York even knows what the hell just hit them.

Let me introduce you to an independent press I believe is going to make it, and become a major player within its niche – and become the coveted imprint for authors who are writing to that niche.

I first met Mark Bailey, the editor at Torrey House Press, when I submitted Baptism for the Dead to THP for consideration. He didn’t buy the book, but we struck up a bit of an internet friendship all the same. Maybe “friendship” isn’t the right term – perhaps “mildly antagonistic acquaintance with plenty of mutual respect” is better.

Mark tends to be anti-Amazon. He’s a publisher, and so he’s bought into much of the press that spins Amazon as the great slayer of all other publishers, and of bookstores. I’m not criticizing him for that, just stating the facts. The truth is, I know far more people who’ve bought into New York’s attempts to position Amazon as the ultimate baddie than people who see who the real poop-stirrer is in this issue (New York.)

Mark doesn’t like Amazon, and I do, because without Amazon I never would have had my successful self-publishing career – and now thanks to Amazon I will also be a traditionally published/hybrid author, too. I think it’s nice that two book professionals from such opposite ends of the Amazon/New York spectrum can genuinely enjoy discussing the issue, can offer one another varied viewpoints on their respective businesses, and can challenge each other’s assumptions about the industry. Mark and I have certainly had our share of lively debates about the publishing world, and have done much to challenge one another’s perspectives – or have tried to challenge each other, at any rate. I like and respect Mark tremendously as a person.

I like and respect him even more as a publisher. Torrey House Press has the branding-and-curation gig down to an art and a science. Their focus is narrow – that’s smart. They publish fiction and narrative nonfiction that focuses on the land and culture of the Rocky Mountain West, as well as some general, ecology-themed books that aren’t necessarily set in the Rockies.

Torrey House Press has figured out how to identify and zero in on a niche. They have studied their readers – not the book stores they distribute to – and have figured out what those readers want. They provide more of the same, and they’re defensive of their curated brand – they don’t dilute it by throwing in some Kim Kardashian books or OJ pseudo-confessionals, even though those books might sell a lot of copies. They have figured out the ONE thing they’re doing, and they’re committed to doing that ONE thing, and doing it well.

I’m in their demographic. I love the West; I’m passionate about its conservation and its particular magic, and I love a lyrical prose style, which THP provides. I’ve read most of their books and loved nearly all of them. They have successfully identified how to reach their target audience, and have proven that nearly always, they deliver precisely the type of read I, their target reader, want.

I have come to trust their brand. I know that if I pick up a THP book, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it. And when I feel like reading a gorgeously written book about the American West, I don’t go dinking around in a book store hoping I’ll stumble across the right book. I go to Amazon and I type in “Torrey House Press.” Then I one-click anything that’s new from them without even bothering to read the product description, because it’s Torrey House, I know Mark picks winners, and I know I can trust his brand to deliver the reading experience that I want.

THAT is how you do curation right. THAT is the 2014 version of my friends sauntering into their local book store and scanning the shelves for that distinctive color-blocked Penguin paperback spine.

It's Revival Time

Real talk: this book is so good. You should buy it right now. Image credit:

Real talk: this book is so good. You should buy it right now. Image credit:

I, for one, would be glad to see a return to this old way of book-browsing: finding books by well-curated brand. Torrey House has proven that it can still be done well, and that it can provide value to the reader, who is the end customer -- the party that matters most. And while it’s certainly not necessary to sell books by curated brand, if your curated brand is strong enough and trusted enough, it could be a huge visibility booster for an author. For a hybrid writer like me, it could lead to elevated sales of all my books, not just the branded title.

I think authors involved in this debate ought to embrace the idea that curating can be a valuable and useful service, as long as it’s provided by a smart, agile publisher who’s got a clear vision and a real understanding of who reads his books and what those readers want. In other words, not New York publishers. As curators, they’re useless. But that doesn’t mean that curators are useless.

With the rise of self-publishing and the proliferation of good, cheap reads, we’ve seen a return to the previously-dead form of the serial novel – readers have embraced serials enthusiastically, something they haven’t done for nearly 100 years. Short stories, too, are seeing a big come-back, and some authors are able to support themselves from short fiction sales alone – which we haven’t seen since the decline of sci-fi’s golden age.

I see no reason why the curated brand as a discovery tool can’t or shouldn’t make a similar comeback. As long as it’s done intelligently, as long as independent publishers respect their readers enough to get to know them, and to provide content selected just for their tastes, it’s a feature we all ought to embrace in this new era of book-industry revolution.

In these debates about the supposed value New York brings to both authors and readers (as if they even know who their readers are…), self-published authors, and sometimes even traditionally published authors, are quick to point out that NO ONE shops by imprint or publisher. It just isn’t done, they say; readers shop by author or by subject matter. Duh.

While it’s true that shopping by author and subject remain the most popular means of finding new books, Torrey House and I are proof that shopping by imprint is still a valid means of selling books – IF the publisher does their branding and curating well.

It’s a foreign idea to people of my age, and younger. But it’s just the way things were back in the good old days, to people who’ve been around longer and have seen more changes come to the industry. Penguin-Random House knows this is true. Otherwise, why would they bother to re-release books with classic branding?


If you liked this article, or even if you hated it but appreciate my deft reference of Snooki and intestinal gases in the same bullet point, I'd appreciate your support of my business. You can find my books here and here. Or, please share this article with your friends and colleagues to help spread the word about my writing. Cheers!   -Libbie