In this multimedia era, where literally millions of artists are seeking contracts and recognition (sculptors, painters, novelists, playwrights, singers, dancers, actors...the list could go on and on), how do we define success? In other words, when do we, as publishers, feel that we have succeeded?
I suspect that different publishers define success differently. Of course, the easiest criterion by which to judge success is money/financial rewards. A healthy bottom line (as much blank ink as possible) means that we have not only acquired the right titles, we've also managed our costs correctly and sold a lot of books. At the risk of seeming venal, I admit that monetary success is important to me. I want to earn a decent living and pay people fairly, and I want to share in that success with writers. I can't do that without a steady and increasing stream of dollars. Does this mean that I have sometimes acquired books that I didn't particularly love, but that I thought would sell? The answer is yes; when I worked for a larger house, on several occasions I published manuscripts by series writers that I would have tossed in the trash heap if it had come in from an agent. But those writers had established followings, and the money could be counted on. Lest anyone forget, novels are a consumer purchase, and we need to give people what they want. I do so, with very few qualms. Part of this comes from being a pragmatist, and a person who likes money; the other part is actually more idealistic, in that I don't believe in a snobbish approach to publishing. The 87th biography of Diana, Princess of Wales, holds no personal appeal for me, but it does to the reading public--and who am I to tell the reading public what it should, or should not, read?
I also like to think of success as emanating from a quality list, with books by authors who've taken a chance or tried to do something different, while still telling a great story. Occasionally I'll look at my list for a particular season and mentally pat myself on the back. I think, "I feel lucky to have found these books and that I can bring them to readers' attention." There is something very rewarding about publishing first-time writers/novelists and (in some cases) watching them develop as writers and/or achieve commercial success. It comes down to that feeling that you've spotted and nurtured talent, a sense that you're not a fraud in your job--that you really do know what you're doing, despite the intensely subjective nature of fiction publishing.
I also measure success by listening to readers. I lurk on a few listservs here and there, and I always check reviews of my books on Barnes And Noble.com and Amazon.com. I love to see what the everyday reader thinks about the books I've published, and seeing that they've excited readers from across the country (and sometimes internationally) is quite a rush.
I think I also measure success by the physical printed product. Every book is unique, with its own content, themes, story, and cover. (This is both the joy and tragedy of our industry. If we could have a simple formula, like Coke, and market it throughout the world, our costs would be neglibible -- like Coke's -- and we could focus all our energies on selling that formula. However, every book is unique, every author different, and we spend so much time on crafting the product that there's little time left for sales, which falls to the publicity people, and sometimes the distributor's sales force. But they never feel as passionately about our books as we do.) I do love the feel of a nicely printed and bound, tight little book, especially one with a great cover.
The publicist with whom I work most closely told me just yesterday (as I brainstormed this blog entry with him) that he feels the most success when he's able to get a book reviewed in the New York Times and get a starred review in Publisher's Weekly. Interesting, neither of us thinks the Times' reviews are particularly good; nor do we understand in the least how the Times editors go about choosing books for review. (I suspect the process is as elitist as the process of choosing which wedding and engagement announcements to feature; and there have been articles on exactly this topic.) But getting a review in the NYT is quite a coup for any publicist; and a starred review in PW is often the first step in getting really lovely sales numbers, which make everyone happy.
I asked my assistant what makes her feel that she's had a successful day, and she put it quite simply: She feels that she's succeeded whenever someone says YES. So many people say no -- reviewers, bookstores, newspapers, magazines, even writers -- that each YES feels like a victory. I asked her if I am one of the people who doesn't say YES often enough, and she took the Fifth.
So what depresses me--what makes me feel as though I have not succeeded? Maybe that's the topic of another post, but in a nutshell:
1-It depresses me when I see writers talking about the publishers as if they are some sort of evil entity who hasn't made them wealthy.
2-It bothers me to see how our society has so devalued the book to the point where it's becoming almost impossible to turn decent profits. (Did anyone see the spate of articles suggesting that booksellers expected to make no money on the final installment of the Harry Potter series?)
3-It really bothers me to see how every institution in this country -- including the major review journals -- seem set up to help the major houses succeed and the smaller houses struggle. From reviewers and magazines through distributors and salespeople, smaller publishers face an ongoing battle to be taken seriously. Comparisons of the major houses to huge corporate entities like WalMart are by no means inappropriate. Not that Random House exercises the sort of market power that WalMart does; rather, the big houses engulf almost the entire playing field and leave the rest of us struggling to be noticed.