New York Times Says Publishers are Terrified

The mind boggles, sometimes, at the unnecessary hyperbole in writings about the publishing industry , especially online.  I’ll do my best to temper the frenzy I see with the facts I know.

Today: wacko omissions from The New York Times and the mind-boggling mixup by the National Book Awards  (who got book titles confused & included the wrong book when announcing their shortlist).  If these guys are messing up, guess it really is up to us in the cloud crowd to weigh in.

There’s just one Moby Dick, & he’s not everyone’s whale

The “objective”  New York Times claimed today that  Amazon is doing really scary things that will end publishing as we know it.  Here’s the quote they chose to make their point:

“Several large publishers declined to speak on the record about Amazon’s efforts. “Publishers are terrified and don’t know what to do,” said Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, who is known for speaking his mind.”

OK, publishers are scrambling; publishers are thinking creatively; publishers are learning and experimenting.  But terrified?  Nobody I know is hiding under his bed. Generally, you will consistently find intelligent and dedicated people in the big  business of publishing worthy books.  Competitors come and go and ebooks and Amazon have posed particularly difficult challenges; but in the industry overall I don’t see anyone running scared.   Folks are excited about new opportunities.   A few years ago, when ebooks were such a great unknown, yes, people were scared.  But this is different–this is a competitor trying to beat publishers at their own game.  That’s a different and more familiar animal, even if it was born in the Amazon rain forest.  (Now, publishers could stand to take a page from Mr. Johnson’s book in terms of forward thinking–I love his savvy site and innovations that use technology in support of print books.  He’s clearly a kindred soul seeking a sweet spot.  It’s not his fault NYT chose to his personal view and run with it.)

A hasty generalization from a reputable source

The NYT also used Riverhead‘s recent book cancellation–a novel by Kiana Davenport–as argument for “a sense of how rattled publishers are by Amazon’s foray into their business.”  Ms. Davenport self-published a once-rejected collection of short stories as an ebook without getting the OK from Riverhead, which I imagine had, as is common, some sort of noncompete or “our book will be your next book published” clause in its contract.  This did not sit well with Riverhead, & they cancelled.  And…so?

As a literary agent and former editor, I know that Riverhead can drive a hard bargain;  however, using this fraught and obviously complex individual dispute as the proverbial “case in point ” is at worst irresponsible.   Few publishers would begrudge an author the right to publish rejected books electronically, but timing of publication can be a factor, as can lack of communication.

An argument for the health of the hybrid industry

Ms. Davenport is not new to publishing; the novel in question is her fourth; Simon & Schuster and Random House continue to publish her in digital editions.  Her own history as one of today’s hybrid authors, with books available across the spectrum of formats and publishers, if anything is an argument for the value  of both traditional and nontraditional publishing paths for any given author and any given book. She may have been wronged; she may not have been  But hers is a matter that, if newsworthy at all–which I dispute–certainly merited more reportorial digging.

A book’s cancellation when a contract may have been breached does not sound the death knell for reputable publishing houses.

Calm down, everyone!  All who support reasoned arguments and quality prose suffer when our most trustworthy resources succumb to the superficial.


  1. See? They’re scrambling & good things are happening for authors. That’s a sweet spot!

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