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>J.K. Rowling wishes they paid by the word.

>Agent Amanda Urban on the economics of book publishing:

“Books can only support a certain retail price,” she said. “It’s not like you have books that can be Manolo Blahniks and books that can be Cole Haan. Books are books. A book by James Patterson costs the same as a book by some poet.”

Which one is the Blahniks?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Elizabeth says:

    >Roger, you missed the best quote in the article, where the author refers to publishing as a “cushy schmooze fest.” Really? Who got those perks? I was happy just to make it to a banquet hall and out of the hideous humidity of Orlando or Atlanta in July.

  2. Andy Laties says:

    >A publisher like Taschen would be surprised to hear about this necessary "top" to book prices. They specialize in unusual sizes and dramatic presentations.

    And — Penguin just released a signed & numbered 40th anniversary, limited-edition, boxed large-format "Very Hungry Caterpillar" which is priced at $250.

    For that matter, "Hugo Cabret" is quite a pricey product for its market niche. (It INVENTED its own market niche actually.)

    I think that it's entirely a lack of creativity and an addiction to large print-runs and mass merchandising techniques that keeps book prices at low-profitability levels. Because when publishers want to choose to publish a "special" book, they can do it just the way any high-fashion industry can. Make the physical book unusual, heighten its visceral appeal. Make it seem rare. Build the buzz.

    I don't like the whining of the big publishers. They have been eaten up by mega-media-conglomerates which are demanding much too high returns on capital. Publishing needn't be a game in which big money players control our cultural lives. I hope the Von Holzbrinckts and Murdochs and Bertelsmans and Hachettes conclude that American publishing is not a profitable business, and go away, and leave it to us literary folk to run our own shows.

  3. Lois Lowry says:

    >”some poet”??? And who might that be, acting as counterweight to James Patterson? Shakespeare? Billy Collins? Jack Prelutsky?

  4. Andy Laties says:

    >Maybe she meant “Some Pig.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    >Andy, are the foreigners (furriners?) really any worse at this than the home team? I had the impression that von Holtzbrinck, for instance, was pretty hands off/benevolent toward, say, Roaring Brook, for instance.

  6. Andy Laties says:

    >Touch-ay. Xenophobia isn’t helpful. Major U.S. publishers ended up in foreign hands in many cases because there were no domestic buyers when these fabled houses went onto the auction block. It was said, when those acquisitions occurred, that “those Germans are more patient and will accept lower returns than the Greed-Is-Good Americans” — or, some such.

    Well, I think the theory has been disproven. Bertelsman is swinging its ax at Random House, Holtzbrinckt is doing the same with Farrar. Benign intent is evidently only an introductory offer.

    My stated solution of letting Big American Capital underwrite Big American Publishing is no solution at all. So who should we look to? The Chinese?? The Saudis?? INDIA!

    I’m afraid I favor decentralization, which is what happens when former employees of leading publishers reappear as scions of their own innovative houses. Exemplar would be….the youthful Roaring Brook…(the cycle begins again)

  7. working illustrator says:

    >A couple of weeks ago, Jed Perl wrote in The New Republic about the current gallery scene in a way I think is apposite to this discussion as well:

    Experience has taught me that every decade or so the art market gets weak in the knees, and when it roars back a few years later the picture palaces specializing in Warhol and other assorted idiocies do better than ever before. It is my unshakaeable conviction that artists who are truly engaged in their craft will pursue it no matter what.

    However the current publishing situation sorts itself out, supply chain in the book business has only a loose relationship with supply. Writers are going to find a way to keep writing and readers – bless their hearts – will find a way to keep reading. As Perl suggests, the biggest money will always be in the commercially digestable; but as he also suggests, the center of the money is not likely to coincide with the center of creative excitement. Any new configuration of the business landscape will have to include both centers and for most authors, illustrators and readers the particulars of staffing in publishing’s office towers just won’t matter that much. They’ll keep doing what they’re doing, either literary or commercial… whatever transitional pains there may be in the short term.

    Personally, I think a larger number of smaller publishers was always the more natural model than what we’ve had over the last decade or so. Like all the arts, the core of the book business is taste-driven: “I like this and I want to share/own/display-my-superiority-of-soul-by-promulgating it.” That connection of taste and object happens more easily in small organizations where there are fewer obstacles to getting the enthusiasm out the door.

  8. Julie Larios says:

    >I agree with Lois – Not only has no poet ever seen the kind of money James Patterson makes, there’s also that smarmy tone Amanda Urban uses: when she says “some poet” she makes poets sound like something you step in accidentally on the sidewalk.

  9. Roger Sutton says:

    >Yes, ol’ Binky is definitely dissing poets. But is she saying that a Patterson book should sell for more than a book by “some poet”? Andy can probably eplain this better than I, but I think, in a free market, the poetry would cost more because fewer people want it. You can’t sell as many, and making it less expensive than the Patterson won’t make more people buy it.

  10. Anonymous says:

    >Er…Roaring Brook is part of Holtzbrinck. Unless you are being sarcastic and I missed it.

  11. Andy Laties says:

    >Roaring Brook was LAUNCHED by top professionals (Simon Boughton; Neil Porter; also Lauren Wohl) who had separately left major houses, and established their own highly autonomous operation under the corporate umbrella of Millbrook. When Millbrook got into financial trouble a few years later, the folks at Roaring Brook sought another umbrella corporation within which to do their work relatively unmolested, and Holtzbrinckt acquired them at that time. However, Holtzbrinckt didn’t incubate Roaring Brook, and should not get the credit for Roaring Brook’s work (IMHO).

  12. Anonymous says:


    You originally said,

    “Publishing needn’t be a game in which big money players control our cultural lives. I hope the Von Holzbrinckts and Murdochs and Bertelsmans and Hachettes conclude that American publishing is not a profitable business, and go away, and leave it to us literary folk to run our own shows.”

    But now you describe a good press (R.B.) needing money (if not “big money”) and Holtzbrinckt seems to have provided them that and also benign environment in which to do their thing. I think that’s the contradiction in your argument, not this question of incubating.

    Anon. no. 1

  13. Andy Laties says:

    >Good analysis, Anon. No 1. But I think I also said:

    “I’m afraid I favor decentralization, which is what happens when former employees of leading publishers reappear as scions of their own innovative houses. Exemplar would be….the youthful Roaring Brook…(the cycle begins again)”

    What you call a contradiction, I call a cycle.

    Roaring Brook has been part of the recent reorganization at Holtzbrinckt. Simon, Neil and Lauren are all survivors inside the newly constituted Holtzbrinckt children’s division. But what about Melanie Kroupa and Michael Eisenberg? These long-time, highly accomplished children’s book veterans are out. What will they do next? Are they thinking of, separately or together, with others, inside another house or not, launching a brand new operation?

    Susan Hirshman was famously let go at Macmillan in the late 70s. This was what happened to her before she found safe harbor at William Morrow, where she launched the fabulously innovative and successful Greenwillow imprint.

    The process is sometimes talked about as a game of musical chairs. All I’m saying is that the mega-corporations can not be depended on to be anyone’s saviour; it comes down to the talented individuals. Yes, the authors and illustrators, but also the editors and art directors and marketing people et al. The capitalists are recruited, invited, tolerated, cajoled, suffered…but these capitalists should not get the credit for what has been done under their auspices, any more than an 18th century Baron or Duke who acted as patron to a painter or musician should get the credit for the work of that artist.

    If Publishing is the child of Commerce and Art, note that Commerce is polygamous; Art submits to the abusive arrangement hoping to protect the child.


  14. Anonymous says:


    All well laid out and argued. I just think that on those occasions when an owner like Holtzbrink is (again, relatively) benevolent, some credit is due. I mean, yes, give your Michelangelos the lion’s share of it, but without Medicis…. The damn money has to come from somewhere.

    Perhaps I defend Holtzbrink because there are other houses and other imprints that I’m thinking of where the situation seems conspicuously worse, where pressure from above to go Commercial seems to be so intense, to the point that the most talented, creative people are all beating paths to the door. Is that better or worse than being laid off? Don’t know.

  15. Andy Laties says:

    >Anon #1, yes. You have won. Everything is relative. (Plus as a special bonus, We are all relatives.)

    But never forget: “Ars longa, Kapital brevis.”

  16. Christina says:

    >So when all is said and done, answer me this:

    Who is going to be around to give me an editorial assistant job this spring?

  17. Anonymous says:

    >How fast do you type?

  18. Anonymous says:

    >Aren’t we lucky to have a leader who knows what her friends call Amaanda? It makes us feel like real insiders!

  19. Anonymous says:

    >speaking of musical chairs – where is Rick Richter now?

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