Writing has a lot of facets, and one of them is the brand you build as you look to find an audience for your work. The publishing landscape is shifting, and can be confusing. I’m glad to be able to share an interview with one of the best and brightest names in publishing: John Pitts.
How did you first begin your career in publishing?
They used to call publishing the “accidental profession” and there’s some truth to that in my case. I joined the Peace Corps right out of college and taught high school level EFL in Niger. When that ended after two years, I moved to Boston with half an eye to getting a job at one of the publishers there. It took nearly two years but I got my foot in the door at Houghton Mifflin as a publicist and then moved to Doubleday two years later, eventually making the switch to marketing. It’s a very rewarding career that I highly recommend to anyone who likes the company of books.
What is the biggest challenge facing the publishing industry today?
I would say eBooks are challenging in a number of ways. The downward pressure on price threatens the profitability of publishing for both traditional houses and for authors. Just as journalism as a career is being threatened by the expectation that news and similar content be basically free, so are author/publishers threatened by the expectation that eBooks be very inexpensive. Also, for obvious reasons, self-publishing an eBook, or publishing directly with a retailer such as Amazon, is a much more viable option for writers these days. I still firmly believe that publishing houses offer a tremendous amount to authors in the form of editorial, sales, marketing and publicity value. A lot of resources and “man hours” go into the successful publication of a book in a very competitive market. All that said, we are selling a lot of eBooks.
What attributes are most helpful and least helpful in an author when you are working with them to market a book?
These days, authors have to do more than just write the book and turn it in. It helps tremendously if they understand and embrace social media, if they have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, GoodReads, etc. Plenty of the older authors don’t have any interest in playing this game, and that’s fine, they’re established. But up and coming writers can really benefit from being a player. It really enhances the marketing process if we feel that the author is our partner in the effort, working with us to solve the problem of reaching the right audience. Least helpful? Some writers come with the pre-conceived notion that publishers don’t know what they’re doing and I can sense that right off. Not at all helpful.
How do major publishing houses look to capitalize on eBooks?
We publish eBooks right alongside print books and we’re selling a growing number. One of the great things from the author/publisher perspective is that readers of eBooks read more books, in part because they’re less expensive but also because they’re so easy to acquire. So we welcome the challenge, and it appears that, at least for the moment, we have risen to it.
How has the decline of the brick and mortar bookstore affected publishing and marketing trends?
The #1 problem is “discoverability.” The common assumption is that as much as 1/3 of book sales have traditionally come from people browsing through a bookstore and making unplanned-for purchases. So as the number of physical stores declines (for example, Borders went bankrupt a few years ago and, poof, 500+ stores disappeared, and nearly 20,000 people lost their jobs) the opportunities for serendipitous purchases also declines. We spend much less these days on point of sale material, for obvious reasons. Additionally, much of marketing and publicity takes place in the digital space because that’s where the audience is. We still take out ads in newspapers and magazines, run TV spots and send authors on book tours, though less and less.
How has the popularity of young adult titles with mainstream audiences affected the book industry?
I don’t handle young adult titles, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but I have seen anecdotal evidence of this sort of cross over. For example, I market John Grisham’s adult titles, but not his Theodore Boone books, which are aimed at the YA audience. Many of his adult fans also enjoy the YA novels and they’re quite vocal about it on Facebook. I’m so impressed by the quality of YA literature these days and my assumption is that it nurtures good readers who will continue the habit as adults.
Any advice to writers looking to publish their book?
Persevere. Believe in yourself. Write every day. Work on your craft. Get an agent.
John Pitts is Vice President, Director of Marketing for Doubleday, a division of Random House. Inc. He has being plying his trade for more than 25 years, marketing the works of John Grisham, Walter Mosley, Gore Vidal, Chuck Palahniuk, Thomas Cahill, and Margaret Atwood, among many others. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and daughter.