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special interview -- publishing industry blogger John McAlester

Posted by Matt Posner on June 30, 2014 at 3:20 PM

This time we have a change of pace here at School of the Ages as I interview not a book author but a book blogger -- John McAlester, the driving force behind PigeonLab.net, which looks at the cutting edge of the publishing industry. (This is part of an interview exchange -- I will be appearing on John’s blog in July.) For this interview, we’re going to take a look at the publishing world’s big picture and see if we can sort through some of the complexities that we are now facing.


John, you’re currently in San Francisco, which still remains an aspirational destination for me. What do you recommend for first-time visitors who want to get a real feeling for that city?


I think if I had just one day to spend in San Francisco I would head to the Ferry Building at the end of Market Street for breakfast and then take the cable car to North Beach for lunch in Washington Square Park. After that I would do the Alcatraz tour which is a total tourist cliche but you get great views of the bay. If you do the Alcatraz tour I would highly recommend also doing the audio tour, it really adds to the experience.


San Francisco has recently been destroyed by the X-Men and then Godzilla (and a giant octopus in the 1950s). How did you survive the recent destruction? More seriously, why do you think your home city has been in the crosshairs so often in recent films?


San Francisco is a beautiful city with large man made structures. I think people like to see those structures get trashed by monsters. I plan on avoiding the zombie apocalypse by hiding in the library. Zombies hate books.


Talk about how you got interested in the publishing industry and how you acquired the background you use so well to cover it.


I started working in publishing as an assistant to a book packager, like a producer for books, and I sort of talked myself into being the website manager for the company. I've seen publishing go through it's struggle with change from print to digital. I know how the print publishing industry worked and I'm also familiar with digital publishing. Understanding both sides gives me a unique perspective I think.


In addition to your blog, what else have you written that we should look out for?


I write fiction pretty regularly on an application called Hi (https://hi.co/people/johnmcalester) which I think is fantastic. Other than that I am working on a novella which should be finished this summer and I will be sure to market that all over the internet when it's published independently ;-)


Now let’s get down to talking about the industry. There is a lot of back-and-forth debate about the ongoing conflict between Amazon, the leader of the eBook market, and traditional publishers (now the Big Five). With all the finger-pointing on both sides, it’s hard to know where to stand. Can you recommend a strategy for straining the truth out of the rhetoric?


Sure. As I see it the conflict is all about business. The "Bottom Line" is what is motivating the players on both sides. The difference between them is that Amazon is at least up front about the fact that it's a business and although it has created some pretty amazing tools which allow authors to sell their work, Amazon openly states that it has done that because it is a mutually beneficial business relationship between them and authors. The big publishers on the other hand are operating as these faux benefactors to authors and I think that's disingenuous. The big five publishers have to answer to their corporate owners and the decisions that they make are decisions which have to increase profit. In the past authors had to deal with these publishers because the cost of producing a book was beyond most individuals. That's no longer the case.


So, if you want to understand what is really happening you have to view both sides of the conflict as for profit companies and understand that the financial success of the company is the underlying motive of all of there decisions.


Talk about the concept of the “gatekeeper” in traditional publishing. Then talk about how the role of gatekeeper has shifted in the 21st century.


The "gatekeeper" is someone who feels pressure from both sides. On one side you have the authors who are trying to become published and on the other side you have publishers who are trying to run a profitable company. So the gatekeeper has to make decisions about which pieces of writing get elevated to the "published" status based on those pressures. The agent's job is to find the manuscripts that will sell the most copies.


Because of marketplaces like Amazon, Apple, B&N Nook, and Kobo it's now possible for authors to get their work published without the downward pressure of publisher profit. So the role of "gatekeeper" as the decision maker can now be sidestepped. However, "gatekeepers" in traditional publishing played another, more subtle, role and that was as curators of quality writing. That role is even more vital today than it was before.


I would argue that the recent New Yorker article about Amazon’s actions in the publishing industry depicts Jeff Bezos as a combination of a people pleaser and a shark (depending upon who is sitting across the table from him). He is from a whole generation of technology-oriented business leaders who use data aggregation to make decisions, very different really from the personality-driven deal-makers of earlier generations. Do these statements fit your picture of the man and his methods? Set me straight.


I haven't read all that much about Bezos so I am not sure I can talk much about his specific data driven methods. I would say though that I don't think being data driven is really very different from being personality driven in your business decisions. At the end of the day it's all about the balance sheet. How you keep your company profitable. I think the piece in The New Yorker paints the picture of a very good business man who has a whole new set of tools at his disposal. I don't believe that Jeff Bezos is any more or less benevolent to authors than say Michael Pietsch, the CEO of Hachette. At least Bezos is up front about the fact that the reason they built KDP and the Kindle is because it's great for Amazon. It also happens to be great for authors.


Tell me about some people in the publishing industry (from any generation) whom you admire, and why. Then tell me about some people in the publishing industry whose influence you perhaps regret, and again, why.


Craig Mod is someone who I think is doing fantastic things in publishing. Craig is the founder of Hi, he also writes for Medium. I've heard Craig speak before and he has so many intelligent things to say about publishing and how we can effectively create organizations which are publishing works that readers enjoy. I also have a lot of respect for Glenn Greenwald  and the work that he did with Edward Snowden. Regardless of how you feel about the legality or ethics of what Snowden did, the way that Greenwald, and the rest of the journalists involved, handled the responsibility of reporting the story was admirable I think. I hope the episode is taught to younger journalists as an example of journalistic integrity.


I don't necessarily regret any specific individual's influence in publishing but I do feel that collectively, the New York publishing establishment has done a poor job of shepherding authors into the internet age. It may be an impossibility for entrenched companies of a certain size to adapt to technological and market changes and if that's the case then the changes will continue to wash over the publishing establishment and there is nothing they can do about it. I do think though that if publishing culture were more in love with writing's ability to be a cultural influence and less in love with the aesthetics of Bookish Intelligence then books would be much better positioned to be an important part of our culture in the future.


The digital self-publishing marketplace is really different since Amazon vastly expanded customer interest in e-books in the early 2000s. When we in the industry talk about this, we tend to talk in some mixture of platitudes and sound-bytes. Is the situation too vast and complex to understand until hindsight kicks in?


In some ways yes, I think were are too close to the "ebook revolution" to fully understand what the internet has meant to publishing and to use that understanding to guess what will happen next. It is possible however to see these recent changes as part of the continuum of information democratization. Humans seem to keep creating ways to disperse information more broadly, faster, and with less effort. The internet is a huge, maybe quantum, leap forward in our efforts to do that.


If you want some insight into the value of the current changes in publishing I think you could look at things in that context.


To what degree is digital self-publishing a meritocracy, or to what degree are we seeing the appearance of meritocracy covering an actual interregnum while big business interests reorganize to resume control of the market?


The ability for individuals to instantaneously broadcast their writing globally is not a temporary phenomenon. Whether big publishers get their act together or not the cat is out of the bag as long as our computer networks are open.


I think it may be a misnomer to call what most people are doing "self-publishing" because even if a publishing company isn't involved there are still lots of people who work on a piece to get it ready for sale. Cover designers, developmental editors, web designers, marketing consultants, all these people can work on a project before it is made available for sale so I think "Independent Publishing" may be a better term. The reason I point that out is that I think it's important to understand that books are products. Once you put them in a store then there are lots of people who have a stake in whether those books sell. So whether a book rises in popularity is still very much based on market forces.


As an individual, and admittedly for sour grapes reasons, I am particularly hostile to literary agents, whom I have referred to as feckless and reactionary. My view is not necessarily shared across the industry, with many authors still seeking to do traditional deals through agents, and many authors still believing in their integrity and the importance of their role. What is your assessment of literary agency as a profession, now and going forward?


Book agents are an example of the type of gatekeepers that I was talking about earlier. Agents make money when they sell a manuscript to a publisher and agents have to pay bills just like everyone else. Regardless of how great an agent personally thinks a manuscript is, if they don't think they can find a publisher to buy it then they won't represent that author. Agents are ruled by the same marketplace pressures as acquisition editors. I think we should all just stop pretending like that isn't the case. Authors would understand more clearly that if you want your book to be published by a traditional publisher it must be marketable and if it's not then the author should just publish it themselves and now they can.


As a teacher, I find students on the average to be less interested in reading than I would like. However, I have seen some online reports that kids read more than they used to. I don’t know what the truth is, but is it your impression that reading is on the rise or on the decline in the United States? How do you account for the situation as you perceive it?


I think the death of reading has been greatly exaggerated. I think kids are reading a ton. I know they read and write a lot of texts for example. The real question is *what* are they reading and does what they are reading have any value? Our culture has all kinds of storytelling formats and I don't think some are necessarily better than others. We should be reassessing what literature does well and where it fits in the spectrum of storytelling options that are available to kids right now. Reading campaigns are never going to work if you try to force kids to read, that feels like taking medicine. Maybe literature is viable as a smaller part of our storytelling spectrum and I'm cool with that. I have a feeling that if we were to focus more on positioning literature as easy to access and fun to share then its value, even though more focused, would be recognized and that would be a bright future for kids' reading.


Let’s turn our attention to your blog. Tell us about some of your past features that should be required reading. Then tell us about some upcoming features.


I think my favorite piece so far has been the interview that I did with Nate Kontny who is the creator/lead developer of an application called Draft. Draft is a pretty amazing writing tool and the design of Draft has been infused with Nate's totally wise perspective. I love doing interviews with people who are doing cool things in publishing. We have some great interviews coming up including one with Hugh McGuire who is the founder of PressBooks, another fantastic free tool for authors.


John, what would you like to say to readers to finish this interview?


Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my thoughts. I hope all your readers are able to carve some time out of their busy schedules to do some of the reading and writing that they love. Cheers.

 

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1 Comment

Reply louise
3:15 AM on July 7, 2014 
Interesting interview. I agree with that agents are ruled by the same 'marketplace pressures as acquisition editors'-- have to agree since one took me on and then dropped me when she couldn't place my book.

As you say, it IS a business, and authors need to think like a businessman, only then will they see results.