Interviewed by J.T. Ellison
Last year, Murderati welcomed a legend in the publishing community. Neil Nyren is the Senior VP, Publisher and Editor in Chief of Putnam, edits just about every important bestselling author out there, and is an incredibly talented and generous editor who has been very kind to this particular newbie.
He's kind of like E.F. Hutton - when Neil talks, people listen. His panel at last year's Thrillerfest on the Snare of the Hunter was a resounding favorite. Neil Nyren, No Longer a Man of Mystery still ranks among our highest rated posts. (I encourage you to take a look and refresh your memories.) If that's not enough, last November, when Putnam had eight books on the hardcover fiction and non-fiction lists in one week, four of them were edited by Mr. Nyren. Let me repeat that. He had four books on the NYT bestseller lists at once. A hearty Murderati round of applause, if you will. That's an unbelievable record.
There have been a number of changes, rumors and concerns about the industry of late, and I thought it would be a good idea to see what Mr. Nyren thought about these issues. I hope that this can become a yearly gig -- our own version of the State of the Industry.
So sit back, have a good cup of coffee to hand, and learn from the master.
Which memoir would you rather buy this week – Eliot Spitzer or Ashley Alexandra Dupré?
Neither. I’m very cautious when dealing with certain kinds of current events books, because with today’s 24/7 news cycles, we tend to get inundated with so much detail that our curiosity is satisfied just by what we get in the media. We think: I’ve heard as much about this story as I need to. And by the time a book comes out many months later, our interest has already moved on to the next scandal or topic du jour. To be potentially successful, a book has to provide something deeper, broader, more significant than we can get in the daily media. That said, of all the players in this particular drama -- Silda is the one most people would like to hear from, I think.
What is the next hot genre?
If I knew what the next hot genre was going to be, I wouldn’t be working for a publishing house, I’d own a publishing house! It’s pretty rare that we’re that smart. My colleagues at Berkley spotted early that paranormal suspense/romance was working for them, and so they jumped in with both feet and that’s why they’re the leader in that genre now. Usually, what happens is somebody publishes a novel that is hugely successful, and all the publishers, trailblazers that we are, look at it and say: Huh, I should do one of those! Turow is a hit, followed by Grisham, and suddenly we’re inundating the stores with legal thrillers. Clancy writes The Hunt for Red October, and technothrillers are everywhere. Eventually, the market gets saturated, sales die off, and only the very best in their respective genres still stand head and shoulders above the crowd. And we all sit around and ask each other: So, what’s next?
There is a perception that if an author doesn’t find instant success, they will/are bypassed for another contract. Is this true, and how do new and midlist authors combat that? And a question from the outside – “Do you feel the publishing industry as a whole has stopped looking at developing long-term careers for authors in favor of already established authors or the flavor du jour?”
First, I think we have to define what we mean by “success.” If I spend $30,000 for a book and it sells 20,000 copies in hardcover, I am very happy. Sure, it’s on nobody’s bestseller list, but it’s found a market, it’s made a bit of money, it’s established the author for his next book. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a success! If I spend $30,000 for a book and it sells 2,000 copies in hardcover, however – then we have to look at why it sold so few, whether a different strategy is needed, if there’s a way we can bump that up next time. If it turns out that there is no bump next time, then we have to figure out where we go from there.
And sometimes where we go is to do more books with the author anyway. Maybe the author’s gotten the kind of reviews or made the kind of friends or just written such damn good books that we say, “You know, there’s got to be more here, we’ve just got to find it.” Because, in fiction at least, we’re always buying the author, not a particular book. We’re trying to establish a career. Which is why it is absolutely not true that we’ve stopped planning for the long-term. The long-term is what we plan for most. All you have to do is look at the bestseller lists and see which authors made it on their fifth, sixth, tenth book or more. We all know the tales of the authors who made it on their first or second try, but it’s much, much more common that it’s an incremental process, one book selling more than the last, until the author has acquired the kind of critical mass that makes him or her ripe for that final push over the top. My favorite personal example is Randy Wayne White. He’d already had three novels that had sold modestly when we bought him, but we kept pushing him book by book until finally he broke through – on his seventh book for us and his tenth book overall. This is the norm, not the exception, and all publishers know it. No “already established” author was born established, and the “flavor du jour” expires with the next jour. It’s just plain, hard work.
Is it true that the market is tightening dramatically?
It’s certainly true that the market is tight. It’s not the first novelists that are in jeopardy or the stars, but the repeat midlist – but then, it’s been that way for quite a while, hasn’t it? Every account can call up sales figures instantly now. First novelists have no black marks against them, no large returns or tiny sales, so anything is theoretically possible. But if an author has published four books to static or declining results, there’s no way to hide it, and it’s very hard to convince an account not to order accordingly.
How has your marketing model changed in light of the new technologies and delivery methods available?
We spend a lot of time now with websites – ours, our authors’ and others’ – bloggers, podcasts – you name it. Some authors are more suitable for all this than others, of course. For instance, I have a book being published on March 27th called FALLING INTO MANHOLES: The Memoir of a Bad/Good Girl, by Wendy Merrill. It’s the experiences – sometimes very funny, sometimes very not – of a quirky, attractive, in-recovery-from-everything woman in search of love, sex, sanity, and herself, and she’s got just a great voice. Some of our approach is conventional – radio, TV, signings, reviews, etc. – but we’re also using the web a lot. An online magazine called Viv has already run an excerpt; we’ve reached out to a ton of women’s sites and bloggers, including one popular site on MySpace, where Wendy offered free galleys to the first 50 people who replied; she’s run a video on YouTube and her own (excellent) website, created “forward to a friend” e-cards about the book and her signing dates, written a “behind the book” essay that’s posted on the Left Coast Writers website and linked to a variety of other sites, including our own website, where the essay is available for download; and a whole bunch of other stuff like that.
How do you get an author on the bestsellers lists? And is there anything an author can do to help?
It depends on the kind of book we’re talking about. Nonfiction tends to be heavily dependent on media. Fiction tends to be more reliant on reviews and word of mouth, with occasional big media bursts, such as we saw recently with Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children. For series books, as I mentioned above, it’s often a slog – book by book, edition by edition (hardcover followed by paperback followed by hardcover), until the author is ready to break through. For all these books, visibility is very important, and if we’re aiming for the bestseller list, we have to make sure all our coop and bookstore promotion vehicles are in place. That’s the greatest hidden cost of publishing, the one most people don’t appreciate – when a book is on the front table at Borders or on the stepladder at B&N or featured in an email blast from Amazon, it’s not because of some bookseller whim, it’s because the publisher’s paid for it. Depending on the level of the promotion, which is usually related to the level of the bookseller buy, and is always of limited duration, it can be very, very expensive, but there’s nothing like getting the book squarely in front of people. If you read something about a book in the paper or hear the author interviewed on the radio or a friend mentions it to you, and then you go into a bookstore and see it sitting right in front of you as you walk in, you’re simply more likely to pick it up. And if you pick it up, maybe you’ll look at the jacket copy, check out the author photograph, read a few pages….
There are tons of things an author can do to help, but we don’t really have room for that here. The essential thing is for the author always to be aware of what a publisher can use as leverage: media contacts of any kind whatsoever, friendly bookstore owners, organizations that might buy multiple copies, writers willing to give endorsements, lists of names you might have gathered on your website – anything at all that can get the word out in any way. Listen to your publisher, and make sure he listens to you. And this is true no matter where you’re aiming the book – bestseller, good seller, any kind of seller! It’s just basic good business.
What books from 2007 should have made the list, but didn’t?
You mean aside from some of mine? I was surprised Martin Cruz Smith’s STALIN’S GHOST didn’t make the list – it was a brilliant book, as all his Arkady Renko novels are. And I’m a great fan of Julia Spencer-Fleming – I do expect to see her on that list some day.
Do awards really matter in terms of sales?
For mystery awards, not a huge amount, really. They’re great to have, of course, especially if you aren’t particularly known, because it’s a good way to get your name out there to a core readership and build an audience. I know I’ve occasionally bought Edgar books while browsing for something to read and have found some nice things that way (last year’s THE JANISSARY TREE, for instance). By and large, though, I don’t tend to see a substantial bump in sales.
What do you want your authors to do in terms of promotion? Conferences, websites, blogs and book festivals – or stay at home and write the best book you can?
The book always comes first – always. If you don’t have a good book, published at the right time, then none of the rest of it matters. After that, websites are useful if they’re well done, give readers a reason to come back, and act as a vehicle for collecting names – there’s nothing like that email blast to fans shortly before publication to concentrate your sales early. Conferences and book festivals are fine as long as you’re having fun, building contacts, getting your name out there, and not spending so much time at them that you’re neglecting your first job (see above!). Blogs – I probably shouldn’t be saying this to you, JT, but sometimes I wonder if all the time and energy spent on writing a blog might not be better spent on…well, you know what I’m going to say.
Do you still read blogs? Which ones?
I do. I don’t read all of these every day, but I like Sarah Weinman (of course), The Rap Sheet, Buzz, Balls & Hype, Murderati, First Offenders, Tess Gerritsen, Joe Konrath, Crime Fiction Dossier, Naked Authors, Mysterious Matters, and Hey Dead Guy. Once a day, I’ll usually check in at Crimespot to see if there are any topics or posts that sound interesting. And I receive the DorothyL digests.
In our last interview, you mentioned that there is a certain fallacy to the “sky is falling” attitude toward the publishing industry. You said, “… The vision is being promoted of a handful of publishers selling a handful of commercial books to a handful of accounts, and that’s the future of publishing. But I don’t buy it. There’s a bunch of reasons why – but that’s a whole other rant. Maybe some other time!”
Would you address that rant now?
There isn’t enough room here. However, I’m scheduled to speak at the Craftfest portion of this year’s Thrillerfest, and though my main subject is something else…I wouldn’t be surprised if a bit of rant sneaks in there!
(Note: Neil will be moderating an all publisher panel at Thrillerfest as well... Let's hope for rants!)
We also talked about what authors could do to get your attention. Any tips for the agents who want to pitch you?
Oh, geez, just give me a good book – that’s all I want. Don’t overhype the manuscript, tell me anything about the author that I might need to know, and then just let me read.
Everyone wants a movie option for their novel. Is there anything the writer can do to help that process along?
Here is the thing I always tell any of my writers who are approached by Hollywood:
Don’t get sucked in. They will drive you crazy if you let them. Just cash the check.
Don’t believe anything until you have a signed contract.
Then, don’t believe anything until they have an approved script.
Then, don’t believe anything until they announce a cast.
Then, don’t believe anything until they announce a start date.
Then, don’t believe anything until they announce a release date.
Then, if against all the odds, there is an actual movie showing in actual theaters, go to see it, buy some popcorn, and pretend it was based on somebody else’s book entirely. Because if even half of what you wrote gets up there on the screen, it will be a minor miracle.
Should authors be spending their own money on promotion outside of the advances paid to them?
If it’s spent wisely. There are lots of ways to throw it away. It’s a subject you want to talk about in detail with your editor and the publicity/promotion staff at your publisher, to see what might be worth doing and what not, and what would dovetail best with your publisher’s efforts.
And just for fun:
What book do you wish you’d written?
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. And that Charlie Huston can write like a bastard – The Shotgun Rule, phew!
Wine – Italy, France, California, Australia or Chile? Would you give us a wine tip?
All of them, depending on what I’m into at the time. Lately, I’ve been drinking a lot of Malbec, Nero D’Avola and Oregon Pinot Noir. And when I’m in the mood for a white, almost nothing beats a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for me – Kim Crawford’s my favorite. That’s my wine tip of the day!
Who was the best Batman: Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale or Val Kilmer?
What, no George Clooney?
What was your favorite movie last year?
Many favorites. For drama, No Country For Old Men, Eastern Promises (so happy to see Viggo get an Oscar nomination) and Michael Clayton (just good old-fashioned moviemaking). For lighter stuff, Juno (of course), Ratatouille (also of course), and Enchanted (Amy Adams, whom I’ve loved since Junebug).
Neil, I can’t begin to thank you for being so generous with your time and expertise here today. You’re the greatest! I highly suggest everyone say thank you to Neil by running out and buying books by all of his authors. You won't be disappointed!
Neil S. Nyren is senior vice president, publisher and editor in chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons. He came to Putnam in 1984 from Atheneum, where he was Executive Editor. Before that he held editorial positions at Random House and Arbor House. Some of his authors include Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Jack Higgins, W.E.B. Griffin, John Sandford, Dave Barry, Daniel Silva, Ken Follett, Alex Berenson, Randy Wayne White, Carol O’Connell, James O. Born, Patricia Cornwell and Frederick Forsyth; nonfiction by Bob Schieffer, Maureen Dowd, John McEnroe, Linda Ellerbee, Jeff Greenfield, Charles Kuralt, Secretary of State James Baker III, Thomas P.M. Barnett, Sara Nelson, and Generals Fred Franks, Chuck Horner, Carl Stiner, Tony Zinni and Wendy Merrill.