By the Book: A New Approach to Teaching the Art of Book Publishing

This article examines the thinking behind the establishment of the year-old, New York City-based CUNY Publishing Institute (, the latest entry to the field of book publishing courses. CPI purports to offer an alternative approach to studying the industry, and to do so in an energetic, intensive and hands-on manner.To paraphrase a recent online comment on a post lamenting the collapse of contemporary book publishing—we don’t need another essay lamenting the collapse of contemporary publishing. Similarly, we don’t need another “publishing school” appended to a grad school’s extant courses in English or journalism. Or do we?The Tow-Knight School of Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism is home to the nascent CUNY Publishing Institute (CPI), which had its first classes in June 2013. From the start, CPI had as its reason for being three crucial motivators: 1. existing schools of book publishing purport to offer much more than they do or even can; 2. the essentials of book publishing can be elucidated in an intensive, focused and effective manner; and 3. the field has grown in ways no one foresaw: there are different formats, different ways to reach readers, and at least a sampling of these should be explored. The goal was to do it all in one packed work week, Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 5:30, and to do so in the CUNY tradition of much bang for less buck.As someone who has spent twenty-five years in book publishing as an editor and publisher, and who has appeared as a faculty member or panelist at a number of publishing courses, writing conferences, and industry convocations in the United States and abroad, I am convinced that an effective introduction to the profession involves a multifarious approach. In the twenty-first century, there is no one road to either success or disaster in book publishing. It follows that a rigid study based on traditional models rather than innovative, entrepreneurial ones is not only quickly outdated but provides a narrow, inaccurate assessment of what is happening. And that seemed to me precisely what existing schools of book publishing were doing, at least for the most part: these courses focus on the traditional aspects, admittedly the most easily graspable aspects, of an essentially fluid industry. The turf of publishing is still dominated by venerable companies and imprints founded well before the Second World War (Alfred A. Knopf, 1915; Simon & Schuster, 1924; Random House, 1927; Penguin Books, 1935; etc.) whose approach to selling and marketing, production and distribution, has changed little in the intervening decades: while a student of publishing must consider these models, they may also need to be discarded or at least severely critiqued. The big publishers are bigger than ever—the titan known as Penguin Random House alone employs more than 10,000 people, and publishes more than 15,000 titles a year—but with by one estimate more than fifteen million new titles published a year, what is the impact on the rest of the industry? Where do these other books come from, and how are they to be sold? And even excluding the categories of self-publishers or alternative publishers, how to account for steady unit sales of books alongside dropping revenues? The traditional, lengthy, tortuous process from concept to finished book is of course very much with us: taking as a starting point a completed manuscript, at least a year can elapse before publication. Along the way many levels of hierarchy are involved, including agents, editors, publishers, editorial boards, design directors and marketing and publicity directors; copyeditors and proofreaders; sales reps and sales conferences; wholesalers and retailers; printers and warehouses; trucking companies and lost, late, and damaged shipments; and endless returns (a phrase familiar to those in the industry: “book returns—the gift that keeps on giving”). It therefore doesn’t take a radical visionary to label the trail that goes from a beautiful idea (or a commercial one) to a printed work convoluted and ineffective: in a word, outdated. Add to that the painfully slow adoption of “new” technology—fundamental to the industry’s continued existence—and the question arises why existing publishing courses not only examine the outdated practices of the most visible corporations but encourage students to emulate same. As a student project, one of the programs even has its participants design their imprint at a major publishing company: a fantasy project if ever there was one. How many editors get their own imprints? About as many as win the Irish Sweepstakes: precious few, and most of us in publishing can name them.And yet, these days just about anyone can start a publishing company that produces “real” books. All you need is a manuscript, access to a computer, a bit of effort, and a few dollars. It’s a thrilling time to be in the business: of course, with genuinely open access have come attendant challenges. Why not explore some of those challenges in detail? How do you market a product (either print or electronic), when everyone seems to be selling something vaguely similar—after all, every book in a sense is competing with every other book for its readers. Why not have an open discussion about staggeringly high return rates, about the rapid turnover amongst editors at the big houses, about the sheer waste that seems endemic to the industry? And most importantly, why not explore alternative paths?A breakfast encounter with innovator Jeff Jarvis, founder of BuzzMachine and director of the Tow-Knight School for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, provided me with the opportunity to start an alternative school of publishing. We intended from the outset to cram a lot into one forty-hour week, supplemented by breakfast and occasional breaks. Our typical student would be someone who wanted to plunge in, to be the electronic age-equivalent of an ink-stained wretch (tendonitis doesn’t evoke the same romantic imagery), but was committed to books, whether downloadable or printed. She might already be working for an established company, she might not even be in publishing—she might be an author who simply wanted to learn more about how the system works, or doesn’t work—but at heart she’d have an entrepreneurial spirit. While we wouldn’t wield swords, our ideal CPI participant would come to embrace the ideals of Bushido, as expressed in the samurai Miyamoto Musashi’s 17th century Book of Five Rings: flowing like water rather than stolid and suffering as stone.Happily, the students who enroll are indeed transdisciplinary, including professors, entrepreneurs, authors and recent graduates. Peer learning is the order of the day; I find myself easily as engaged as my students, learning right alongside them. My goal is to mix it up, to approach publishing as a work in progress, to leaven the discussion of long-established principles with startling insights. For sure, in this environment some of the concepts we tackle may not be in fashion or applicable in a year or even a few months, but we want to convey the sense of an ocean of possibilities, (pace, Carl Sagan) that those “billions and billions of stars” are within reach: and in CPI’s first year of existence, we had discussions with Evan Ratliff of the Atavist but also Keith Goldsmith, director of academic marketing at Knopf (and also an editor there). We had Larry Kirshbaum, then-director of Amazon’s publishing program—who somewhat charmingly enjoined students not to record or tweet anything he said (which of course was an unintended invitation to anyone with a cell phone to record and tweet everything that was said)—but also Johnny Temple, former bassist for the post-punk band “Girls Against Boys”, and publisher of Akashic Books, famous for the recent bestseller Go the Fuck to Sleep:Emily Gould, the former editor of Gawker and current proprietor of Emily Books, spoke, as did Rachel Fershleiser of Tumblr, Jane Friedman of Open Road Media, and many others. There were workshops, but the emphasis was on presentation and marketing, not on editorial selection. That is something teachable only by reminding students of consequences: it’s fine to want to publish a book of Icelandic poetry, but then how do we reach its fans? Conversely, it’s fine to put forth a book by a celebrity—but bearing in mind the notorious flops that characterize expensive acquisitions such as the memoirs of Whoopi Goldberg or Rudy Giuliani, what guarantee does a publisher have that a book will earn out? How do we mitigate risk? Are there inexpensive and effective ways of reaching potential consumers? What of the ancillary platforms connected to a book—the blogs, speaking engagements, the foreign editions?At week’s end of our inaugural session, I and most importantly our thirty-five students knew we’d accomplished our goals. The very fact of refusing to advocate a set path to book publishing opened up all sort of possibilities, and challenges. We could be certain of little other than that all of us in the business must be receptive to new approaches—and we had to become familiar with these new approaches, even if we were to discard them in a few months. In class I cited the “Red Queen Theory of Evolution,” the evolutionary theory first put forth in the 1970s by the biologist Leigh Van Valen. It was named after the bloody-minded chess piece in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In the relevant passage, the Red Queen says to Alice, “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” Van Valen applied this metaphor to evolution, suggesting that species are in a constant race for survival, and continually must evolve new ways of defending themselves throughout time. It seems to me this metaphor is exactly what we need to keep at the forefront of our minds when considering book publishing today.