Librarian-Publisher Dialog: Kate Sheehan Talks to Madeline McIntosh of Random House

By Kate Sheehan

I can’t explain this new series featuring librarians interviewing publishers without telling a story. Back in the fall of 2009, I was starting to wrap my mind around what’s come to be known as “the ebook problem.” Angst-ridden over the overwhelmingly grim voices dominating the debate‚ not to mention the complete lack of communication between librarians and publishers‚ I made a conscious decision to befriend Library Land’s supposed enemies and bond more tightly with its allies.

Fast-forward to the spring of 2011: librarians holding forth on ebooks, readers’ advisory, and accessibility attracted sizable crowds at major publishing conferences like Digital Book World and Tools of Change thanks to the efforts of too people to mention here. To build on that momentum, I present the first of several conversations that aspire to illuminate new opportunities (and, yes, old tensions) between publishers and librarians, maybe even in the reading ecosystem at large. Consider these talks as well the paving stones for LJ‘s Oct. 12, 2011, ebook summit, Ebooks: The New Normal.

Many will complain that this is a pointless exercise; that the library mission clashes with publishers’ mandates to fatten bottom lines. As someone who has had a front row seat to the last decade’s explosion of new literatures, librarian reader advocates, and publishing platforms, however, I’d argue that both parties need each other more than ever. Information without custodians cannot change people’s lives. An unprecedented level of collaboration could mean democratic ideals bolster capitalism and vice versa.

My thanks to Kate Sheehan (the Librarian, pictured below, right), Madeline McIntosh (the Publisher, pictured below, left), and R.E. Liebmann (the Middlewoman, vice president and director of account marketing, Random House) for their honesty, time, and intellect. Next month: Katie Dunneback of the Bettendorf Public Library (IA) talks to Josh Marwell, president of sales, HarperCollins.‚ Heather McCormack, Editor

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KS: My first question is a little tongue-in-cheek, but I’m curious. Every librarian I know is asked regularly (and often with not a little derision) how libraries are going to survive now “everything’s online” and “we’re all using Kindles.” Does that happen to you and your colleagues?

MM: Every day. Just last week, I was going through passport control at the airport, and the immigration official started quizzing me about the impact of digital books on publishers. I did manage to convince him that there’s a lot to be optimistic about. If no one cared about books and reading anymore, then that’s the time to worry. But as long as we stay true to our core contribution to the market‚ selecting great books and helping their authors to connect to as many readers as possible‚ then I truly believe publishers will be OK.

We do, of course, have to adapt to readers’ changing preferences and habits, and at Random House, we’re actively embracing the very positive opportunities that are opened up by digital publishing and distribution. That said, we do have a fervent belief in the ongoing importance of the physical book, and of the places where physical books are found: libraries, bookstores, schools, airports, supermarkets, etc. Without having books embedded in our physical environment, it would be so much harder to help readers connect with new books and authors. Physical books are an intrinsic part of the process of building audiences for our authors.

KS: I think librarians tend to assume that publishers have all kinds of power when it comes to the ebook world. The reasoning seems to be that you’re the for-profit arm of the book industry, so you must be calling all the shots. But it seems like publishers are scrambling to find their footing with ebooks just as much as the rest of us. What do you think the future holds for the book world? Are ebooks going to shut us all down?

MM: No, ebooks aren’t going to shut us down, any more than paperbacks or audiobooks shut us down. Both of those formats increased the appetite and audience for books, just as ebooks are doing now.

As publishers, we have a vital role in maximizing the relationship between each of our two core constituencies: authors and readers. We want to find as many readers as possible for our authors, and at the same time, we want to do what’s best for our authors, over the long term of their writing careers.

Instead of trying to figure out how to exert power or control in the market, I think it’s much more important for us as a publisher to focus continually on our positive impact on the author-reader relationship.

KS: I see both publishers and libraries as caught in a strange position. We both bring a lot to the cultural table, but we are, perhaps, misunderstood and undervalued by much of the reading public. It’s hard to ask people to place a value on good editing or a culturally literate population. It seems like we’re all going to have to give something up in a mostly ebook world. What do you think publishers and libraries are going to have to compromise on in the next few years? What do you think publishers and libraries are going to have to compromise on in the next few years?

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MM: Maybe a better word for compromise is choice‚ everyone does need to make clear choices about how they’re investing time and energy. We have to focus on what we do best and make sure we maintain excellence in those core competencies. I know this is true for publishers, and I think it’s true for librarians and booksellers.

At Random, we’re clear that our core competency is content selection and development: our editors know how to pick great prospective books and work with the authors to make the finished books even better. Then there’s a surrounding ring of skills and activities‚ such as marketing, publicity, sales, distribution‚ that we also feel are key to fulfilling our mission to authors and readers. We can’t compromise on any of these, or we stop being effective and useful.

I hope librarians and publishers can help each other continue to focus on what we’re each great at. Libraries are both cultural institutions and businesses, in the best sense of both words. They buy a lot of books. They buy a lot of really wonderful books. And they help bang the drum for those books in their communities. That has tremendous value for us, and for the readers we both share and value.

KS: Social media has allowed everyone very direct contact with readers, something that librarians have had for a long time. It seems like authors often feel a bit burdened by the push to have a strong online presence, and, certainly, libraries have been trying to figure out how to incorporate things like Facebook and Twitter into their work flows. I’m guessing publishers now have increased access directly with readers. How has this changed how you work? Are you finding that readers are interested in contact with publishing houses?

MM: Social media has had an enormous impact on publishing in general and book marketing in particular. For us, it’s not just about recommending our titles and announcing our delightful programs. It’s more about building relationships with readers and engaging in a conversation that spans the globe, 24/7. (If you want to know who in our company has insomnia, just check Twitter.)

Two of our New England field sales reps, Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, are blogging and podcasting from Books on the Nightstand. When they organized a “reader’s retreat” in Vermont a few months ago, people flew in from all over the world. These kinds of connections with readers are incredibly exciting, and we learn a lot from them.

As with every two-way relationship, you have to be willing to hear the stuff you don’t really want to hear. We love our readers because they have so many opinions, and some of those opinions are critical. But we need to hear it and respond and engage. As with most relationships, listening can be difficult, but it is indispensable to getting better at what we can do best.

This is another one of the important things we can do for authors: listen to the marketplace for them. We have some authors who are very active in social media, and some who just prefer not to. We’re listening for all of them.

KS: Libraries are very focused on ownership. It’s been the assumed cornerstone of our collections, and it’s hard to imagine a collectionless library. What are your thoughts on access versus ownership? Would you trust libraries to offer your books electronically without third-party DRM? What if libraries developed their own (likely lighter) DRM?

MM: These are difficult and complicated questions. There are so many bright people in libraries and publishing. If there were an easy answer, someone would have figured it out by now. To get to a breakthrough, we’re going to all have to agree to at least keep the conversation going, all year round, not just at conferences.

An important consideration for us grows out of how we define our value to the author. We have to protect their interests. We represent them in the marketplace, and their books are their livelihood. In expanding their revenues and readership, we want to continue to make their books available to libraries, so it’s imperative that the dialog between publishers and libraries continue.

KS: You’re on Random House’s International Executive Board. Do you think other countries have better or different solutions for all this ebook angst?

MM: Europe has great food and enviable vacation policies, but when it comes to digital business models, our overseas colleagues are hoping that we’ll solve many of the gnarly problems here in the United States first. For better or worse, we’re the guinea pigs.

KS: I find when I talk to friends outside of libraries that they romanticize the codex but, when pressed, say they wouldn’t mind giving up print for a tablet except for children’s books and art books. I usually point out that children’s books look pretty nice on the color nook or the iPad, which makes me think that even visually splendid books will look wonderful on screens soon. Do you think the future of children’s publishing is separate from the future of publishing in general? Is there value in instilling a love of the book as physical object in children?

MM: I think digital will remain incremental for the children’s category. I’m the mother of twin seven-year-old boys, and of course I obsess about their relationships with books. One is a natural book addict; the other would rather be off discovering the world than reading about it. We go together into our local library on weekends, and our librarian is great at connecting with both of them. With the addicted reader, he helps feed the addiction. With the more reluctant reader, he acts as a friend who piques his natural curiosity.

This in-person relationship simply has no digital equivalent. People have to be in a physical space with physical books for some of this magic to happen. There’s a lot of separate and unique digital magic to happen for kids, too, but I do think‚ and hope‚ it’s the icing on the cake.

KS: Are publishers worried about the digital divide? Tablets may be great for people who can afford them, but libraries have offered access to information for everyone, including those who can’t afford technology otherwise and tablets haven’t become ubiquitous just yet. The digital divide has become something of a moving target, and librarians like to debate and discuss it, but I’m wondering how publishers think about these issues.

MM: As physical bookstores are under stress, the role of the physical library, as a cornerstone of its community, is of paramount importance. The physical library is where everyone has access to information. We want to see healthy, vibrant library spaces, where a broad spectrum of our titles is represented.

KS: It seems like a lot of the traditional boundaries between content, production, and sales have blurred. Authors sell directly through the Kindle store; Amazon sells and publishes content and so forth. Have you adopted that sensibility at Random House? Do you think that blurring is a good thing? Should we all just have a finger in every pie?

MM: Having new competition is always going to produce some uncertainty, but we have to resist the temptation to be distracted. Instead, we publishers have to continue to focus on our core competencies of selection, development, and marketing.

We have to think about “big picture” marketing, i.e., new innovations that might help lift the category as a whole. And we have to focus on book-specific “front burner” marketing, i.e., what can we do, today and every day, for The Night Circus, the first novel we’re very excited to be publishing in September? How can we keep the momentum going for Erik Larson? What can do for Christopher Paolini’s new book that hasn’t been done before?

Whatever your role is in book publishing‚ whether you’re a publisher, a bookseller, a school librarian, in readers’ advisory, wherever‚ the most important questions are: What are we best at, and how do we do more of it?

MM: Libraries have been pretty vocal about their dislike of the self-destructing ebook model. But it seems like the immortal ebook model doesn’t work for publishers. Frankly, it makes me a little nervous that more publishers haven’t objected to it. Maybe you all think libraries are doomed anyway, so you’re OK with the current model (I’m kidding, maybe). Many librarians (myself included) have expressed an interest in a model that allows for a mix of self-destructing ebooks and a permanent copy. What do you think would work?

KS: This goes back to the question of balancing reader and author interests. Whatever the future looks like, we want a model that will ensure continued support for physical books, in physical libraries, in local communities. That’s crucial for us.

And in turn, publishers can support a library’s desire to provide digital content for their patrons. We understand the pressure that librarians are under, and we want to work with you. We also want to be honest about the fact that for us, the heart of what makes a library important is defined by physical books, in a physical space, connected to its community by face-to-face relationships and coming together in person over books. The value of a library to us‚ and our authors‚ is inextricably linked to a library having a physical space, where people can come and discover books.

KS: Sometimes, it can feel like no one is really taking advantage of the digital platform, like we’re just replicating paper books online. Do you find that authors are starting to look for ways to capitalize on the digital platforms? I know there are some children’s books that are more interactive and often cross-platform (paper, website, app, etc.), but do you think that will become more the norm, or will it remain the exception for now?

MM: Lots of authors and publishers are working together‚ primarily in the context of software apps‚ to develop new creative ways to deliver digital content. But, we need to be careful to make sure we stay focused on the question of what do readers really want? With the possible exception of children’s books, and categories like cooking, most readers want to experience narrative from the beginning to the end, without interruption for interactivity.

At the same time, there are natural ways the digital format can add to the reader’s enjoyment of the book without detracting from it. The most basic interactive feature‚ the look-up‚ is so popular and commonsense that no one really even thinks about it. We have an amazing first novel coming in August, The Language of Flowers, and you don’t have to be a programmer to know that readers will want a seamless, integrated way know what the flowers look like as they move through the text.

KS: I know I am guilty of thinking of publishing as a monolith, but I think libraries are going to find that the key to future success may be very different, depending on our communities. Do you think publishing will move as an industry to new practices, or do you see each house making radically different choices?

MM: The web has helped make the business world more transparent, so it’s pretty easy to see what competitors and partners are working on. If there’s a success, the details are quickly public, and everyone can learn from it.

But trade book publishing is far from a monolith. We’re like New York City‚ we might seem big and cohesive from the outside, but once you’re here, you see a collection of highly diverse neighborhoods and highly and healthily divergent opinions.

KS: Finally, what do you wish librarians understood better about publishing?

MM: We’re passionate believers in the future of libraries, and their vital role in communities. We want them to thrive.

That means we have to find new ways of having more dialogue about what our shared future can look like. We have a long history together‚ much has changed, and much will continue to change.

The difference now is the pace of the change: it means we need to accelerate the conversation. We have a lot in common: we both love books, and New Orleans, and shoes that are attractive and comfortable. If we keep the lines of communication open and humming with give and take, we can figure this out together.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter BookSmack! Click here to subscribe.

Interviewer/Interviewee Information
Kate Sheehan is open source implementation coordinator, Bibliomation. She blogs at Madeline McIntosh is president of sales, operations, and digital, Random House.
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