I really hate the sound of my own voice but I love talking to anyone who will listen about industry issues I’m passionate about, so I was thrilled to return to the Frontmatter podcast for a second conversation. Len Epp is a great host who does his research and listens closely, letting his guests talk freely and then pulling out key points to dig into further along the way. I had a great time talking to him back in early 2020, right before the pandemic changed everything, and was flattered to be invited back and catch up on a range of topics.
This time around, we skipped the origin story and jumped right into things. Epp let me rattle on about Comics Plus (aka the day job), Panorama Project and libraries, DOJ vs. PRH, and Twitter — and then cleaned it all up so I sound reasonably coherent. It’s also on video this time, which caught me by surprise as you may be able to tell from the hat I’m wearing — I was a couple of weeks overdue for a haircut!
NOTE: Right after we recorded this conversation, I listened to an earlier episode featuring my former Digital Book World colleague, Mike Shatzkin, and he made two excellent points about the relatively short history and fading importance of bookstores, and why S&S’ backlist is what PRH is really (mostly) after. The whole episode is worth a listen, even just for his insightful take on the history of the industry.
So what happened – the publishers didn’t think about it this way. But they were making a little money on just about everything. And a lot of it went to the backlist. And then, the world changed, and now you can’t make money publishing new titles anymore. Because it used to be – you could sell a few thousand of everything. Now, even a big publisher can put a new book out and sell 76. Because there’s just nobody out there – there aren’t all these stores, they don’t have them anymore.
Okay. So the first problem – that’s a problem, but the backlist sells. So what Random House is doing, is acquiring thousands of titles that Simon & Schuster has. That they would have to do hundreds of thousands of titles to get that many titles that would work from new books, right? So that is the first thing.
But the second thing is, all the publishers whose bookstores have died, have discovered new ways to sell books.
As for my latest appearance — recorded on October 5, 2022, before a couple of topics had fully played out, and addressed via a preface in the audio version — you can find the full transcript and podcast at the Frontmatter website, and below the video here, I pulled out some key quotes I really liked.
Special Guest: Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, Chief Content Officer at LibraryPass
On Comics Plus
“So we put a lot of work into developing these age-appropriate guidelines. Putting in a process to ensure that, both the content we were bringing on met those guidelines, but also reevaluating content that we’d inherited, and ensuring that they met those guidelines as well. And we were about six, nine months into that process, and things were going well. And then suddenly, Gender Queer became public enemy number one. And that was an interesting title. Because we had it in the collection. And we have the ability, as a customer, you have the ability to basically weed out any content you don’t want.”
“It’s an unlimited-style, simultaneous subscription model. So you subscribe to a collection of content based on age tiers. So public libraries tend to take the full collection, and then make them available to patrons in different levels. Schools want what’s appropriate for the schools. But what you’re buying into is a large catalogue that you, as a librarian, have not individually evaluated every title. So you’re trusting our process to some degree. But we know that – I’m here in New Jersey. We’ve got customers in Texas, in Florida, in California, in Maine. The definition of age appropriateness is going to differ. Not just in every one of those states, but in every city, in every one of those states.”
“So we recognize that. Here’s our guidelines. They’re publicly available. You can understand how and why we made our decisions. But as a customer, if you decide that book is too strong for your audience, you can just disable it from your collection. Your collection is yours to control. What you can’t do is tell us, ‘Oh, you’re wrong, that book should be young adult, and shouldn’t be available to anybody at this age level.’ Like, that’s not your decision to make for us and the rest of our customers. That’s a decision you get to make for your collection.”
On Panorama Project & Libraries
“And that was one of my big complaints about the very existence of Panorama Project. In my mind, it was like, this – if this was important to publishers, AAP could have figured this out. BISG could definitely be the central hub for collaboration. Because they are an industry group, not just a publisher-specific group like AAP. So what I found during my time at Panorama, and then what I was able to observe more freely once I wasn’t at Panorama, is the logistics of aggregating and sharing that data in a way that publishers would be comfortable. Absolute serious legitimate obstacle.”
“Libraries have a lot of data that they can’t share, and don’t have the infrastructure to share, even if they were willing. To my annoyance, the one exception to that, is, it was libraries who pushed Overdrive to support Kindle back in the day. Because so many patrons had a Kindle and wanted to read their ebooks on a Kindle. And this is my personal frustration with libraries. It’s like, they take, ‘The customer’s always right.’ to the worst extreme. So, yes, your patrons have a Kindle, but privacy is a number one tenet in why you exist. And so you are choosing convenience and circulation numbers, over maintaining privacy.”
“The best-circulating books in libraries are always the bestsellers. They’re meeting demand. And then, the midlist, where publishers rely on libraries, particularly on the print side, to have decent print runs. Because those library orders are the ones that ensure a midlist book, at least, gets a 5,000, 10,000-copy print run. Because a lot of libraries will buy it. Where your average indie bookstore isn’t stocking it. It’s buried in the algorithm on Amazon. So libraries are a key factor in getting midlist any sort of attention and sales, that then, hopefully from the publishers’ perspective, gets picked up elsewhere.”
On DOJ vs. PRH
“You could come away from that, and be like, ‘Wow, this industry is run by a bunch of morons.’ Or, you come away from it, and, what I unfortunately think is the truer take on it is – it’s an industry that has evolved into, it’s built structures that support its own myth-making.”
“But pretending that PRH doesn’t have built-in systemic advantages to offset some of that randomness, that was the part that was like, wow, I get you’re under oath, and so you’re trying to thread an awkward needle. ‘I can’t look completely stupid, because investors and our authors and our staff are all listening to what I’m saying. So I’ve got to be able to go back to the office, and still run this company, and have some modicum of respect. But I can’t look too savvy, because then it’s easier to prove that this merger’s a bad idea.'”
“And there was – this was the only way, I think they could attempt to make this case. Because if they had made the case around other areas, layoffs, midlist publishers, nobody cares. Because that’s capitalism doing what, ‘Oh yeah, merge two companies, 500 people will lose jobs, that’s what happens. Sorry, just give them a decent severance, and you’re doing your due diligence.’ So I don’t think there was another way for the Department of Justice to really attack this case.”
“But the things he’s said publicly, my expectation is, Twitter gets worse, before it gets better, under his ownership. I’m not looking forward to it. The way it was going, up until yesterday, I was, I had forgotten. It was like, alright, that’s going to fall apart, and Twitter will continuing being the weird little platform that could, but couldn’t. And then the news popped up yesterday or the day before, that, oh, it’s back on, he’s going to buy it, possibly as soon as Friday.”
I don’t know? I’m just, disclosure, not a fan of his on any metric. Not as a person, not as an innovator, not as a businessman. I think he’s very much what you get when somebody has money and a strong personality, and maybe one good idea in their past. And that let’s the – I mean, the gap between him and Donald Trump, is, in my mind, very narrow. They’re cut from the same cloth.”