Nieman Reports editor Melissa Ludtke talked by phone with Peter Osnos, the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books. In “The Platform,” a weekly column he writes for The Century Foundation, Osnos often focuses on book publishing. The two decades he was at The Washington Post—as Indochina bureau chief, Moscow-based correspondent, foreign editor, national editor, and London bureau chief—as well as his years at PublicAffairs publishing books written by journalists give him a valuable perspective on the topic of reporters and editors who decide to become authors and the publishing industry in the era of e-books. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:
“Sooner Sounds Better”
– Philip MeyerMelissa Ludtke: In April you wrote: “Publishing is now undergoing the most significant transformation in the way books are distributed and read since development of high-speed printing presses and the transcontinental rail and highway systems.” If we think of the digital highway as the road that books are traveling on with greater frequency, how do you think this affects those who are writing them?
Peter Osnos: It’s too soon to say with certainty. It’s all happening so fast. As recently as 2007—before the Kindle—digital publishing was really marginal. Now we know it’s very substantial. As far as I can tell, writers are still writing in the traditional way with an awareness that a substantialnumber of their readers will be reading on digital devices. The content is consistent. What’s changing—and changing quickly—is the means of distribution.
Ludtke: You recalled in another article that almost a decade ago writer and futurist Esther Dyson indicated that we no longer live in the information age but in the attention age. You wrote about how writers were becoming marketers of their work. In the news industry’s transformation, journalists have had to learn how to brand themselves by communicating in ways that go beyond just doing their work. So when it comes to books, do these skills put them in the driver’s seat?
Osnos: It certainly helps to be well-known. And how do you get to be well known? Well, if you’re a journalist, it’s because of where you work. Traditionally it was the major news organizations. Now a lot of journalists are well-known for their multiple platforms—they appear on television, write a blog, may contribute to magazines, and are on the radio. An author gets to be known by communicating in every one of the ways in which people now access information. It used to be that you hoped your book would make it on its merits, with perhaps a boost from a review or two.
Today that’s different. It’s essential that journalists recognize that to truly reach their audience, it is necessary to devote as much attention, time and effort to the promotion of the book and its contents as to its writing. It used to be that all you had to do was get the story, and it was someone else’s job to sell it. That is no longer the case and it makes some authors uncomfortable because they don’t understand the importance of their role in this process.
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned social media. That, too, is important. Social media is today’s word of mouth. If enough people hear about something and tell other people who are in their network, and they tell others, it spreads that way. Authors can make a significant impact through what amounts to digital word of mouth.
Ludtke: At the other end of things, though, there has to be this exercise of judgment in choosing which books actually deserve to be written or supported, as you point out in one of your pieces, because now anyone can write a book and publish it. It’s a question of whether they’re going to get support from a publisher to do it. Do you have ideas to offer journalists about what separates their daily stories from what works well as a book?
Osnos: That’s a central question. Journalists are familiar with writing in the same way that musicians are familiar with music. But that doesn’t automatically translate music into a symphony or a piece of writing into a book. An enduring challenge for journalists is to take their experiences, background and skills as a writer and turn them into a fully developed narrative. I often find myself saying to would-be authors, “Remember, if you write this for a magazine or a major newspaper or even the significant online news outlets, you’re going to probably reach a bigger audience than you would if you write a nonfiction book. Only write a book if you need that kind of length and are truly compelled.”
How a book is defined, particularly a digital one, is evolving. Increasingly, we have what are coming to be known as singles—essentially essays written in book form. When a big news story breaks, many major news organizations take what they already have, put it together, call it a book, and post it through Amazon or on some other digital channels. Book publishers start from the premise that we are not basically the extension of a magazine. Our goal is to find the writers and subjects that justify the range and depth and length that a book should have and that distinguishes it from either short, medium or even, in some instances, magazine-length journalism.
How that content is delivered is what is changing. But the process of producing a coherent, well-argued book is not. Experienced editors still help even the most gifted authors articulate their message, and even though digital publishing is pushing 20 percent of the net sales of books, the overwhelming percentage of books are still being published in the traditional way. That number will go down and the digital number will go up, but when you sit down to read on an e-reading device, in most cases you’re doing exactly what you would have done had you been holding the book in your hand. You turn electronic pages, stop when you want to, and pick up again where you left off.
The most important thing about the digital reading experience is that it addresses what for a very long time was the major challenge for publishers: How do we give consumers what they want, where they want it, and when they want it? My aphorism for the way publishing operates these days is “Good books. Any way you want them. Now.” I think that is the essence of where we are in publishing. It’s up to us to choose the books and to enable authors to write the best book they can and then make it available in every way that a consumer could possibly want to read it.
Ludtke: Some of the e-books published by news organizations appear to be driven more by there being a market than by their content so they are a vehicle to repurpose content and increase a revenue stream.
Osnos: Increasing revenue is a completely legitimate objective. All of us know that in order to function we have to constantly be looking for new forms of revenue and new ways to reach consumers. There was a question as to whether people would read long-form journalism or narrative on devices. For the most part, we’ve found that the traditional laptop or desktop wasn’t a particularly good way to attract people to read at length. Even now lots of people, if they get to a long article that they really want to read, they print it out. I would do that. Maybe it’s generational.
After the e-reading devices appeared I accommodated very quickly and read with considerable pleasure. The best of these devices make reading a completely convenient experience. There’s another aphorism appropriate to this age and that is that the two things that people look for are convenience and quality. Now people know they can get the book they want when they want it. That is a formidable asset in how people feel about books; if you hear about a book, see a review, hear an interview, know an author, you don’t have to go through the prolonged process of figuring out where to find it.
Ludtke: Former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote about journalists and book writing, and you called his tone cranky. When news organizations, specifically the Times, “indulge our writers,” Keller wrote, “we do so at a cost. Books mean writers who are absent or distracted from daily journalism, writers who have to be replaced when they leave their reporting beats and landed somewhere when they return.” There is, he went on to say, “the tricky relationship between what they unearth for their books and what goes into the paper.” And this happened in a noteworthy way with the book that Times investigative reporter James Risen wrote about the CIA and the Bush administration. “There is the awkwardness of reviewing books by colleagues,” Keller continued. “There is the resentment of those left behind to take up the slack.” Do you think Keller has a valid point?
Osnos: Absolutely. “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” and as the paper’s executive editor he’d see a writer come in and say, “I’ve just been working on this story for the last year for you, and now I want to take time and go off and write a book about it.” That creates problems for him. Whether that means that journalists shouldn’t write books in general, which is what he goes on to argue, that’s another issue. I don’t agree with him on that score at all.
Newspaper and magazine editors need to accept the fact that the people who work for them will have the natural inclination to want to take a story and spin it out. Keller identified all of the major problems that editors have when their reporters go off to tell a story at greater length. This will always be the case. Increasingly, as more journalists feel that their role at the newspaper or magazine or their day job is a platform, they will want other means of reaching an audience and will do that through books. An extraordinary number of good journalists are eager to write books, and whether they will depends on whether they can find a publisher and if they have the energy to move through the process.
Ludtke: In writing about e-books you observed that Amazon’s long-term intention is to condition consumers to the lowest possible price. At a time when paywalls are being put into place at some newspapers, there remains the belief among many that news wants to be free. So there is a question of how reporting will be paid for both in newsrooms and in supporting the journalist in the time needed to report and write meaningful nonfiction books.
Osnos: As I said, this is a dynamic process. It has moved very quickly. In a bit more than a decade we have reinvented the way information is distributed. We’ve been here before. Between the late 1940’s and early ’60’s television went through multiple stages. A curious feature of network television is that it was always advertiser supported. Buy a TV and watch it. Then came the cable system; now you buy a TV, but also pay your cable provider that in turn pays people who create the content. This happened in essentially a generation.
We’re going through that now with books and, to some extent, news. The thing to remember about books is that we never had advertising as a revenue stream so unlike news that’s not an issue for us. Nor did we really have subscribers. For book publishers the issue always was whether we could manage inventory: Can we put books where they need to be when the consumer wants them? It is a considerable virtue that we now can do this—giving the reader options about how they want to read it and at what cost. Inventory management is not exactly a glamorous concept but it is essential in the way that book publishing has evolved.
Ludtke: You sound optimistic about the plethora of platforms at different price points adding up to something that will be able to pay for the kind of reporting time needed to produce serious nonfiction books.
Osnos: Yes. Book publishing, like every other part of the information and entertainment industry, is running as fast as it can to learn how to best accommodate what is essentially a transformation in the way books are read. When we talk with a potential author, we have to take into account the various ways in which that book will be sold. Will the author be available to promote the book? Will there be a natural constituency for it? Will the author be willing to do what amounts to going door to door?
Ludtke: If we were to move four years into the future—to 2015—and take what we know today, do you think that we’ll have book publishers in the sense we do now and that journalists will go to them and get advances to support their reporting?
Osnos: Oh, yes. I don’t think there’s any question about it. Now we have various experiments. The concept of the “Let me take repurposed material and sell it as a book through an online retailer” is an experiment. Will it work? I don’t know. Will people want to have material that they could have had in previous formats just because at the moment it’s particularly interesting? We don’t know. In a few cases short books about something very much in the news worked, such as Jon Krakauer’s “Three Cups of Deceit,” which was initially available as a promotional download but continues to sell on Byliner for $2.99, and Christopher Hitchens’s “The Enemy,” an essay on the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, that sells for $1.99.
In my 27 years or so in publishing, I’ve seen transformations, one after another—from the bookstore model to the online retailer and now virtual distribution. I don’t expect this to stop. But the publisher is obliged to serve the consumer in all the ways that the consumer wants to be served. The good news is that the consumer has more options. We have the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, and there’s more coming. And with each of these innovations, we see the reading public making choices. Most e-books are now available through multiple retailers and on several devices so publishers are doing their best to track the exact number of copies sold. But some books sell significantly more copies in digital versions than they do in a print version because that’s what the consumer wants.
The gatekeeper role of a publisher is still significant, still essential to the publishing process, with the judgment of an experienced editor and the marketing skills of a good publisher. But consumers have much more power in the choice of format and the means of distribution than they did a generation ago.
Ludtke: What if we substitute the word “journalists” for “consumers” in your last statement? It’s true that they also have more choices in producing what they have to say at different lengths. There might have been a choice before between sticking with their daily job and taking the material to a full-length book. Now reporters might have more choice about what they produce.
“Telling Political Stories in Closer to Real-Time Books”
– John F. Harris Osnos: Absolutely. I think you will find that Politico’s joint venture with Random House in publishing e-books is a new model of what Newsweek used to do: they would embed reporters with candidates to collect information. Within days after the election, Newsweek would produce what essentially was a book-length magazine. In the last two election cycles, PublicAffairs took those magazines, which were almost book-length, augmented them however we could in the time frame we had, and published them. That Newsweek no longer exists. The partnership between Politico and Random House is for short e-books to be published during the course of the campaign. The assumption is that in today’s world readers want to know what is going on in real time rather than waiting for post-election analysis. This is a vivid example of how publishing has adapted to demand.