“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
A great sentence that could well have been written about 2010 and the world of book publishing. For Debbie Stier, a lifelong member of Publishing’s elite, it would be easy to see the glass as half empty.She was working as an Associate Publisher for HarperStudio, a forward thinking HarperCollins imprint that offered lower advances and more profit sharing with authors. But when Publisher Bob Miller announced he was leaving, HarperCollins pulled the plug on the HarperStudio operation. Stier was left an Editor at Large, somewhat a minister without portfolio, watching the business she loves struggle with gut-wrenching change.
Still, she’s grinning, ear to ear.
“Books aren’t going away,” said Stier. “I read on a iPhone, I read on a Kindle, I have a Sony and I have books. And I recently have made a return to books. And I have decided there are different kinds of reading, and there’s certain kinds of reading that’s ephemeral. There’s always going to be a place for printed books”
“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”
For a seasoned marketer like Stier, finding a title starts with the reader.
“I start with, ‘Who is the audience for this book,’ and then, ‘How am I going to reach that person,'” she said. “And I have worked with many literary authors back in the day, five years ago, and seeing if you can get that author on NPR and maybe the New York Times Book Review. And there still is that. But now it also means teaching that author how to connect with their audience online. And a lot of the literary authors, it’s very hard for them to do. But I try and find that place. I always say, ‘If you had a magazine, what would your magazine be? Make that magazine on WordPress.'”
Stier’s authors are on the cutting edge, and there’s no better example of a cross over author than Gary Vanderchuk, the peripatetic preacher of Wine gospel (see: Wine Library TV) and fast rising business coach.
“I saw him speak at the Web 2.0 conference,” she said. “I had been following him on Twitter. I’d seen Wine Library TV, I knew what a phenomenon he was. I loved him, I thought he was great. But, then when I saw him speak at the Web 2.0 conference two years ago, I said, this guy has a book.”
“It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.”
Stier talks about authors in way that is personal, intimate and with a real sense that she gets them.
“I always knew, to be quite honest with you, that I was going to do a book with [Gary], from the second I saw him up there speaking, and I was like, that’s my guy,” she said. “The book was written here, out-loud, and I have a whole bunch of tape recording devices, and we start with an outline, and Gary just speaks it, and then we put it on paper, and we go from there.
And yet, getting books through the old system of publishing is a slow and painful process.
“It’s like a jar of peanut butter, and somebody says, ‘OK, swim, swim through it.’ There are so many layers of why it’s difficult, you cant even believe,” she said. “So let’s say you have something that’s timely like Sarah Palin. And you can push it to the front of the publishing house, and get that done. Now you’ve got the stores to deal with. They’ve booked up their shelf space, six or eight months in advance. So that’s a layer of complication that you have to get through.”
But today publishers are embracing social media; they’re talking about Twitter, Facebook, blogs and webpages.
“I say that we’re down the rabbit hole,” said Stier, “and it feels to me, everyone gets what I’m talking about, and then I have these moments when I realise that it’s actually same 20 of us that are just bouncing ideas in the echo chamber off one another.”
“It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”
While books are central to Stiers world, she admits that even her habits are changing.
“I hate to even admit this, but I just recently cancelled my subscription to The Times. I had cancelled my print version a year or two ago. And then I was getting it on the Kindle and I realised: I don’t even read it on the Kindle.”
Because she’s getting her information filtered through her social network and looking to bloggers like GothamGal for recommendations rather than The New York Times bestsellers list, she said.
“I followed her because I thought she was cool,” she said. “She would recommend stockings from Etsy and I would buy them for a Christmas gift for my assistant, that sort of thing. I knew she ate at such and such a restaurant, and read such and such a book. So there is this intimacy when you meat someone you have been following online.”
“It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Stier admits she doesn’t finish most books, but doesn’t feel guilty.
“If I’ve gotten to page 50 or 75 and I’m not hooked I’m really pretty much OK with putting it down.”
But some authors she feels she owes more.
“I had read Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. And I loved that book so much and I followed her story of having trouble writing the next book after the phenomenon of that book and so I felt connected to her. And so when I felt disappointed in the next book, I knew that she’d struggled with that. Even though I’ve never met her, because I loved that book so much, I have actually gone back and I’ve read another chapter. And I think I will finish it.”
Publishers are all about bigness, but Stier believes that “big” may not be that important anymore.
“I just think trying this whole scalable thing is very, very hard,” she said. “The more people you try to get to do one thing, you just try to get them to have a meeting together, the less likely it is going to happen. So while everybody’s plotting world domination and the scalability of everything, I’m going to work with one person over there and make one little thing happen, and I feel like thats the way stuff happens.”
In the future, some authors will tweet, blog and make video, but Stier is quick to point out that you can’t make authors into someone they’re not.
“Gary would be the first to tell you, you know, ‘Use what medium is most native and comfortable for you.’ So if you’re not comfortable on video, don’t do video if you’re comfortable with words,” she said.
Publishing past is over. But publishing future is under construction. And it’s pretty clear that there will be a handful of experienced publishers who are experienced enough to lead and open enough to explore and invent.
So, Debbie, what do you hope the future will evolve into?
“My fantasy would be that it would be a million little pieces, as opposed to everyone like come on lets get on to the mother ship,” she said. “Like, let us just spread out a little bit more and move and groove, I guess be more indie like.”
Which raises the big question: is the internet friend or foe? Can connected devices and new platforms make literature better? Or are we walking into the era of disposable literature?
“I do believe that the internet is the ultimate engine behind ‘the cream will rise,’ because, you know, we were talking about word of mouth before. If something’s not great, then it’s not gonna rise. The people will speak.”
You can view the video of this entire interview on CurationNation.org here.
Steve Rosenbaum is founder and CEO of Magnify.net, a NYC-based Web video startup. He has been building and growing consumer-content businesses since 1992. He was the creator and Executive Producer of MTV UNfiltered, a series that was the first commercial application of user-generated video in commercial TV.
Follow Steve on Twitter: @Magnify
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