When it comes to American publishing, Frank Sinatra had it right in his song “New York, New York.” For nearly 200 years New York City has been “cream of the crop, at the top of the heap” for publishing houses with names like Scribner’s, Henry Holt, Putnam, Knopf and Simon & Schuster. That is up until about 25 years ago.
Traditionally, publishers printed books and booksellers sold them. Then along came Amazon selling books online, filling up “shopping carts” faster than the blink of an eye. To confuse matters, the electronic book marched onto the scene. Begun as Project Gutenberg in 1971, the e-book took 30 years to develop portability and easy use with availability of digitalized book databases.
The advent of the Internet gave writers a chance to successfully self-publish, thanks to marketing via social media. Through all this, book stores have struggled to stay in business as readers find options beside the printed page.
How has New York accommodated these new ways of doing business? When agent Paul Fedorko, literary agent for Bienstock Talent Agents (representing media newscasters and journalists), was a part of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in June, we took a few minutes to talk about today’s book industry.
Fedorko’s publishing experience goes back to the 1970s when he worked in New York City as a copywriter doing blurbs and copy for sales people. His first boss was local resident Fred Klein, then executive editor of Bantam Books, which ranked No. 1 among paperback publishers.
“Fred was critical in my career,” Fedorko said. “He’d yell down the hall. A noisy guy. At first it scared me. After a while we all knew he was easy and everyone liked him. We’d joke about how cheap he was but knew he was generous and cared.”
Fedorko considers Klein a mentor in a career that was capped as publisher of William Morrow & Co. By 1998, however, he felt he had “hit a wall” in the corporate world so he switched directions to become an agent.
When Fedorko talks, it’s fast. You know his mind races 10 times faster pouring out information and stories.
“The biggest challenge today is the consolidation of publishers,” he said. “Sometimes it’s been an odd change in weird ways. We still have Scribner’s but it’s called Scribner, no longer a top publishing house in New York but one of many imprints (subsidiaries) under Macmillan.”
Fedorko is referring to an example of new directions publishing houses have taken the past several years. The Charles Scribner family started publishing in 1846. Over the next century, Scribner’s and others with big names helped create our American literary history. Scribner’s published and cultivated giants such as Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Annie Proulx and Frank McCourt.
In 1978, Scribner’s expanded by buying Atheneum publishers. Less than 10 years later, both were folded along with several other big publishing names into Macmillan Publishers. Scribner is now owned by Simon & Schuster.
Fedorko named another cause of change: mass marketing of books through outlets like Amazon, Costco and other big-box retailers. The close relationship between publisher and bookseller is being replaced by these businesses buying in astronomical numbers that independents can’t match.
All this leads to the third change Fedorko has witnessed: the kind of author agents and publishers look for today.
“Nowadays the pressure is on agents and publishers to find winners or build on those with proven success,” he explained. “When I got into the business in the ’70s, we looked for authors to cultivate and grow with each book. Today agents and publishers choose with caution. A few are brave enough to take on someone with an unusual manuscript, like Salmon Rushdie, and hope he turns out to be successful, but not many.”
Speaking of success, Fedorko took about five years to get established.
“One of the first books I found was John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man,” he said. “After 39 publishers passed, Berrett-Koehler bought it. The book went on to big success earning millions. It shows you can’t give up.”
Fedorko made a statement at the SBWC that caught my attention: “From the time a manuscript leaves the hands of the author, about 25 people touch it from start to finish.” Among these are editors, design covers, publicity people, distributors, book retailers and more, a lot of people.
As an agent, Fedorko works with about 125 projects at one time. Among his duties are weekly updates on all book deals, getting manuscripts ready for submission, helping other authors who have works-in-progress and looking for new manuscripts.
“I do not read a book like the average reader,” he said. “Instead I’m always thinking, ‘Does it have good story?’ ‘Good characters?’ ‘Workable platform?’ If not, no matter how strong your social media efforts are, they won’t help that much.”
What he loves best is building an entire community of writers among his clients.
“I’m there at the beginning of the publishing road, not coming in at the middle,” he said. “Sometimes those efforts take off; sometimes go nowhere. That’s the life of being an agent.”
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Did you mother ever tell you there are three ways to make a statement? “What you want to say, what you say and what you wish you had said.” In my last column on Santa Barbara’s history of resident authors, I stated Barnaby Conrad’s first book was Matador. I wish I had written The Innocent Villa.
— Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.