PublicAffairs (one word cap "A") is Twenty Five!
What Next? Plan Ahead and Be Flexible.
On May 29, 1997, The New York Times reported the launch of a new publishing company to focus on books about public affairs. The imprint was to be called PublicAffairs (one word, cap A) in recognition of the emerging importance of search engine optimization, i.e., finding the fledgling enterprise on Yahoo, later Google et al.
I was the founder and publisher of the imprint, in partnership with Perseus Capital, a private equity firm in Washington that was bringing together what I called “cast-offs and start-ups” from across the publishing industry to share central services, sales, distribution, and accounting while maintaining editorial independence.
In 2007, the Perseus Books Group was named Publishers Weekly’s Publisher of the Year, in recognition of its success, and in 2016 the Perseus imprints, along with PublicAffairs, were acquired by Hachette Book Group.
That in brief is the history of the company. In 2005, Susan Weinberg succeeded me as publisher and when she was promoted to oversee the whole Perseus Books Group, Clive Priddle, the editor-in-chief, who had joined in 2003, became the publisher. Jaime Leifer, the associate Publisher and publicity director, has been at PublicAffairs for nearly nineteen years. Others on the small team have been with the imprint for a decade or more.
That stability, I unashamedly contend, is a measure of strength and speaks to a culture that has maintained a commitment to what we called “values, standards, and flair,” as the surrounding universe of publishing has been transformed by upheavals in technology and the ways by which readers now discover and consume books among the hundreds of thousands published each year.
At our fifth anniversary, I took out an ad in PW that declared, “No Longer a Start-Up . . . Not Yet an Anti-Trust Case.” At a quarter-century, both assertions are still the case. But with more books that I can reasonably count, PublicAffairs has a backlist, a reputation for quality, and a business strategy of balancing revenues with costs – or putting it another way, having enough cash around to satisfy the authors, staff, and proprietors.
Lest that be misunderstood, meeting that objective is always a challenge.
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So, what now?
At the end of 2020, my last consulting connection with PublicAffairs drew to an end. I now watch the company with interest and admiration from a distance. I have been thinking about how publishing might evolve in the next twenty-five years, having undergone the digital transformation and upheavals in how books are sold in stores and particularly online.
Perhaps the most important reality is that books in the classic hardcover and paperback print editions have endured as the dominant way people read. Ebooks and audio have a significant place also, about 20 percent for digital books and 10 percent for audio, the fastest-growing segment of the market. Overall, the ability to decide which format you want is a major asset in connecting the would-be reader with a choice.
My shorthand for this development is “Good books. Any way you want them. Now.”
Books now and forever start with the vision, energy, and skill of an author. Robots can’t do the job (although doubtless someone will try to devise one that can). What has changed and will continue to evolve are the techniques and strategies of production, distribution, marketing, sales, and publicity – the process for bringing readers to books known as “discovery.”
Now that there are multiple formats for books, it would make sense to sell them as a “bundle.” You buy the print book for your shelf and for a small additional price add an ebook or audiobook with a barcode, link, or password for travel. These are optional. The benefits of portable reading have been established. The more that books can suit the habits of readers, the more likely that they will be read.
For bundling to be adopted, publishers and retailers need to do what they have done – with some bumps along the way – in setting prices of ebooks and downloadable audio: decide to do it and then figure out the means of keeping track and maintain fair competition. The technology for this innovation, I am persuaded, exists.
Next, what used to be called publicity is now more broadly described as “buzz.” This includes everything that in today’s world raises awareness and interest in a book. Reviews, radio and television appearances, and bookstore visits, preferably in person, are now joined by the plethora of social media outlets – digital word-of-mouth. I have no personal experience with TikTok books, but store managers tell me they sell in droves. Expensive print advertising has largely disappeared. Digital ad campaigns, when targeted properly, can have impact, but the marketing budgets of publishers, always constrained, are much less cost effective than social media campaigns.
A relatively new factor is the importance of “pre-orders” for books – which has become a gauge of how much advance interest is there is and how many copies booksellers should order at the outset. To facilitate pre-orders, publishers and authors now talk up a book months before it will be ready for sale. Spreading the word – to family, friends, and fans via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and all their ilk – is crucial. Advance promotion has been the standard in the movie business for years – Coming Soon to a Theater Near You! – and books will benefit from a more accurate estimate on what will sell than was the case in the past. Booksellers traditionally placed their orders on a guess of interest, which led too often to large returns of unsold copies, to everyone’s frustration.
The means of manufacturing and shipping books have long been established and will always be dependent on supplies, warehousing, and transport. Getting the word out early is now the key. Any book with a celebrity, tell-all, or controversial angle will be “leaked” in advance. This has always been common, but making books visible before they are available is now all but required.
To some extent, this remains the responsibility of the publisher – rarely satisfactory to ambitious authors. It is the writers who need to work harder than many are used to. Being self-effacing, inaccessible, or mysterious only goes so far in getting noticed. The more committed you are to being read, the more likely you will be.
There is no single way to gain traction. Energy, personality, and a willingness to endure controversy or eccentricity are all aspects. If a writer wants the safety and privacy of an ivory tower, he or she must be ready to accept the frustrations of modest sales.
Finally, a few words about what is called “self-publishing,” which goes far beyond the mission of PublicAffairs. If you have written a book and want to see it published in one format or another, there are many ways to handle it yourself or through one of the self-publishing platforms, at various price points for services rendered. What was once called “vanity” publishing is now widely accepted. In a world in which literally anyone can be a writer, anyone can now see the work to publication, if read only by your nearest and dearest.
There are far fewer letters being written these days. Preserving records of the past are essential to our collective memory. Email is not really a substitute. But books have been around forever – and based on the last twenty-five years, they will continue to be.
So, here’s a toast to the people at PublicAffairs -- past, present, and those with the luck and talent to work there in the future.