Tough love

I don’t have any direct experience with dominatrices (is that the right plural?) but I take vicarious pleasure in their wardrobes — all that black leather and rubber, although the stilettos would probably kill me. (I’m more of a Doc Martens type myself.)

Nevertheless, as a mild-mannered textbook editor, I’ve been thinking a lot about discipline, boundaries and tough love recently.

I’ve written about creative constraints, but not much about how editors have to restrain their own impulses and hold the line on many aspects of book writing. Do we want to let our authors wax on for three pages about their favorite sub-topic? Of course we do (we’re geeky enough to find that particular subtopic fascinating.) But that overemphasis won’t help the book when it’s scrutinized by competitors’ sales reps. Would we prefer to skip that last round of revision? Naturally we would (we suffer from revision fatigue, too) — but we know that final pass through the manuscript will improve our chances of success in the market. Would we like to allow our authors to include their favorite but marginally-relevant picture in the book? Of course we would (we like happy authors as much as the next guy) — but the page space and permissions budget it eats up means we have to pull another image that might have earned us more adoptions. One of our toughest tough-love assignments is finding material to eliminate in a revised edition: reviewers and users are generous with suggestions of what to add, but less forthcoming about where to cut in order to keep the length under control.

The truth is, editors are not really Grinches. We’re more like the Tooth Fairy: we stealthily reward sacrifice with a more-than-equivalent gain. And in the end, everybody’s happy.

Instead of a picture of a dominatrix in uniform, I’m including photos of Prince. Man did that guy know how to dress! No restraint here!



Textbook P&Ls

Last week I wrote about the slow pace of a college textbook sales curve, with a post-pub selling season that lasts months, and a bookstore ordering period that doesn’t occur until 6 to 12 months after publication — then continues in seasonal bursts for two to four years — or longer — after publication, until a new edition comes out.

This long-tail sales curve has implications for how a textbook P&L is structured. With life-of-edition sales that extend four or five years after the pub date, a successful textbook is reprinted at least once before a new edition supersedes it. An accurate P&L accounts for the full sales cycle, taking the reprint into account. Assuming inventory is managed strategically (avoiding short reprints), a longer sales cycle translates to higher gross profit as plant costs are amortized over more units, causing the unit cost to diminish.

Trade and scholarly publishers, unused to the years-long sales arc of textbooks, can assume a 1- or 2-year P&L tells the whole story. In this tradition, the first printing encompasses the full life of the book, and a P&L’s 1- or 2-year sales projection is the equivalent of the book’s print quantity. (This explains why first-time authors are taught to ask, at contract stage, how many copies we’ll print, thinking this is an indication of how many copies we expect to sell — a flawed assumption in the realm of textbook publishing.) This approach would shortchange a textbook, which may need the full life of the edition (and occasionally the first year or two of the second edition) to justify the investment needed to make it successful. With just two years to sell out — the first six to twelve months of which are taken up with selling and waiting for bookstore orders to come in — a 2-year P&L would come up short.

Instead, a 3-, 4- or 5-year P&L allows for an accurate allocation of plant investment over more units, and more accurately accounts for the cost of a reprint. By projecting annual sales rather than lumping life of edition sales into a single print quantity, publishers can more manage inventory more precisely, calculating the optimal number of copies for the first printing that will also allow for a reasonable reprint quantity. Balancing the unit cost of the first printing against the unit cost of the second and/or final printing is especially important for four-color books with high makeready costs.

And now for something completely different (courtesy of Spouse):







Textbook sales curves

In the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to work in close proximity to publishers of other kinds of books, and I’ve learned a bit about their business through observation.

One difference between textbooks and other types of books is the expectation for how sales come in. Textbooks follow a different selling pattern than trade, reference or scholarly books. Trade books are presold in advance of publication, with promotional campaigns that include press releases and media coverage, causing a sales spike as soon as the books hit the warehouse. Scholarly and reference books sell to libraries, which make purchases year-round, albeit influenced by fiscal (academic) year budgets.

A textbook sales curve has a longer arc. Although a marketing campaign may stir up a little pre-publication buzz for a textbook, the sales campaign doesn’t really begin until after publication, when textbooks land in the hands of potential adopters. Even once the decision to adopt is made — a process that itself may take months — most orders don’t come in until the summer months, when bookstores begin stocking shelves for the fall semester.

This slow process is unsettling for people unfamiliar with the seasonal peaks of pre-semester rush of orders and valleys of returns after classes have begun. They’ve been  programmed to assume the fate of a book is already sealed with sales (or lack thereof) in its first two months. For textbooks, a more telling measure is the number of exam copies that have been sent out, and the number of adoptions pending.

Once established, a good textbook with a receptive market will sell for several years. What’s more, a successful book will be revised again and again — producing the vaunted ‘long tail’ of revenue that every publisher wants. It just takes time — and a little patience.

Photos don’t usually come in long or short, but here’s a long sequence of selfies of Spouse sporting his bike helmet — and not. 



The right prescription

A friend and mentor once told me that a good development editor can diagnose the problem with a manuscript, but a great development editor knows how to fix them. The parallel with medicine goes a little bit further: a firm editorial hand is prescriptive — a kind of Rx for the author’s writing. It’s made me think about the different ways to approach manuscript editing

Copyediting. A thorough copyedit can do more than correct grammar and punctuation, improving the writing style by eliminating run-on sentences, reducing passive voice, and otherwise ameliorating writing flaws. Copyedits are still at the micro-scale, however, working at the sentence and paragraph level.

Spotting problems. A careful reader spots higher-level problems like lack of themes or thesis, poor organization, lack of definition or clarification of terms, and too much or too little detail, creating an unsatisfying reading experience.  Editors short on time can point out these imperfections but may leave it up to the author whether to address them.

Asking questions. An more engaging approach is to go through the manuscript and ask questions of the author: Is that what’s intended? Could you provide more explanation? Can detail be reduced? Has this term been defined previously? Rather than provide specific solutions, the editor leaves the final decision up to the author’s judgment. This is a nice way to train an author you hope to work with on future projects.

Prescribing fixes. A firm editorial hand will provide definite solutions to the writing problems. This is particularly helpful when working with multiple authors, where consistency of style is important. Although a prescription can and should be challenged by authors if it alters the meaning, intent or accuracy of the manuscript, it can make the author’s job easier by not demanding that she consider all the alternatives but instead gives a clear, preferred path forward.

Rewriting. In the most extreme cases — usually after failed attempts to by the author to revise — editors have been known simply to rewrite poorly-written material. Although not the favored approach, we sometimes resort to it as the speediest and least difficult way to produce manuscript on deadline.

Vintage Persian Lamb hat

An atmospheric portrait of me in my vintage Persian lamb hat. Photo by Warren Allen Smith.


Competitive revision cycles and optimal pub dates

I suspect our colleagues in trade publishing don’t know — let alone think about — what a revision cycle is; for that matter (from what I can tell), they don’t think about competing books so much as comparable books when analyzing their market potential. (As I’ve observed elsewhere, a unique aspect of textbook publishing is the idea that in order to succeed, we have to displace a competitor in a series of all-or-nothing campus-by-campus skirmishes.) In markets where one or two top books own a lot of market share, we pay attention not just to what our competitors are doing, but also when — and we time our own pub dates to take the best advantage of theirs.

If you’re the new kid on the block, looking to take market share away from the dominant books, you’ve got a couple of windows of opportunity.

  1. Publish simultaneous with top competitor. When the #1 selling book comes out in a new edition, its adoptions are vulnerable. Adopters who are tired of the book they’re using know have to revise their syllabus to adapt to changes in its new edition. Since they have to do that anyway, they are more willing to consider investing time in a different book. By publishing in the same selling season as your competitor, you can take advantage of that vulnerability. The risk, however, is that your competitor will sweep in and roll their adoptions before anyone knows what’s happening. (This is especially likely to happen with a fall pub date, when bookstore orders for January term are due halfway through the short fall term.) There are stories of instructors walking into a classroom full of students who’ve bought new edition, when the instructor herself hasn’t even seen it yet! Although adopters grouse about this kind of ‘forced roll,’ they typically stay with the new edition once they’ve already gone through the pain of changing their syllabus.
  2. Publish 6 to 12 months in advance of top competitor. This is a longer-term strategy because many adoptions won’t open until a year after your pub date, but it offers two things. First, by coming in on the last year of your competitors’ revision cycle, you are more likely to find adopters who are fatigued and ready for a change. The competing sales rep probably hasn’t been seen in a couple of years — she’s off working adoptions of her front list books — so you have a chance to come in and take away the adoption before she knows what hit her! Second, you can pre-sell your book to the competitors’  adopters of the competitors, so that, when the time comes, your book in the running and perhaps already the top choice!
  3. What not to do: pub just one year after they do. For  all the reasons cited above, it’s tough to break open adoptions that just rolled to a new edition. You’re probably better off delaying a year or two and using that time to do some additional market development.
  4. Once you’ve established your book, or if you’re already the top dog, you may want to play games to confuse your competitors so they can’t take advantage of your predictability. Pub your book six months early, or six months late. Keep a lid on your plans and switch adopters over to a new edition in the last minute.  Publish alternative formats that come out in different years. Obscure your intent.


    This set of vintage jewelry, from Accessocraft, always gets comments. It uses a ribbon and bow motif — but to me it resembles nothing so much as a kind of feminine ninja star.

The improvement trap & presidential politics

As editors watch a book project progress, a common pitfall is to focus too much on how much the manuscript has improved over prior drafts, and lose sight of the real goal: to best the competition. We cheer “attagirl!”when our author submits revised chapters that are better the previous drafts — forgetting how far we are from the objective.

In the midst of our presidential primary, a political analogy seems appropriate: John Kasich garnered 2% of the vote in Iowa, then leapt to 16% in New Hampshire — attaboy! —  but he is still a long shot to get the nomination in August. A book that’s almost as good as its competitors will suffer the same ignominious fate as a failed presidential candidate, with little to show for all the investment of time and money.

How to avoid the improvement trap?

  • Stay focused like a laser beam on your top competitors. They’re the market standard. Don’t worry about lower-tier competition: it’s the #1 and #2 books that matter. It won’t help John Kasich to outpoll Chris Christie or Carly Fiorina — he needs to beat Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And, like the presidential primaries, book publishers should look out for a dark horse gaining momentum — a book in its first or second edition that captures market share from bestsellers could indicate the market is shifting. Your laser-beam focus should include:
    • Commissioning reviewers who use the #1 or #2 competitors
    • Doing a careful side-by-side comparison of your book vs. theirs.
    • Meeting and beating the competition by offering all they do, and more.
  • Don’t shy away from asking reviewers the acid test question, “Would you adopt this book?” If the answer isn’t a resounding ‘yes,’ you’ve still got work to do. [A variation on this question is “How likely are you to adopt this book, on a scale of 1 (very likely) to 3 (not at all likely)?”] Avoid qualifying the question with weasel words like “Would you consider adopting …” or “How would you compare this book to your current book in use..,” which obscure the answer. (After all, what has anyone got to lose by considering a book…?)
  • Test the message along with the manuscript. Are the features you predicted resonating as they should be? Are there other aspects of the project you need to develop more carefully? Are market needs changing? Have major competitors been updated in ways that make your message obsolete?
  • Be relentlessly clear-eyed with your author. Yes, we love you and yes, we think you’re doing a good job but no, we are not there yet. In the next draft, we are looking for reviews that enthusiastically endorse your vision and execution, and respond with a clear “yes” to the acid test question.

And now for something completely different ….


You can’t improve on the pastries we get at our local place, Duane Park Patisserie. A special bonus came with our hot cross buns this weekend: a baseball cap with the store’s signature logo: an image of the owner on a tricycle, from a photo taken when she was a child. Go, Madeline!

Go-to reviewers

Reading reviews is both rewarding and frustrating;  constrained by the one-directionality of the reviewing process, editors become the passive recipients of reviewers’ observations. There are often ambiguous and easily misinterpreted comments, and we are sometimes left with as many questions as answers.

There is a remedy for this. It’s both surprisingly simple and surprisingly rarely implemented: just ask. Turn the uni-directional review into a bi-directional relationship. As a young editor, when my boss suggested exactly this, I was worried about asking reviewers for more than their initial reviews. Would they demand a higher honorarium? Take offense that I hadn’t understood their written review? I quickly got over my doubts once I’d given it a try!

Our reviewers and our authors are also teachers, and they love to explicate and clarify when things are a little murky.  They are flattered that we value their opinion so highly that we email a followup question — or better yet, pick up the phone to discuss complex and nuanced issues further. Typical questions might be:

  • What did you mean when you said … ?
  • How does your current book handle that?
  • How is that different from ….?
  • What do you think of the latest ….?
  • Other reviewers commented on this…What do you think?

Having a group of go-to reviewers is an editor’s lifeline. Although we develop familiarity with a subject over time, we aren’t subject matter experts in every area where we publish. Most importantly, we don’t have first-hand experience of what’s happening in the classroom, or what competitors are saying. That’s where our go-to reviewers can help the most. The more we cultivate relationships with these reliable sources, the more valuable they become, as their understanding of our goals and concerns develops. When we need an immediate take on something, a quick one-line email can provide a helpful and trustworthy response.

Why would our go-to reviewers put up with this kind of exploitation? With a grateful and insightful editor, these valued relationships benefit both parties. Publishers provide networking opportunities (introductions, both virtual and personal), professional development (participation in focus groups), recommendations for promotion (I’ve often provided tenure-promotion letters) and advice. Most importantly, we express our gratitude in the form of friendship — dinner and social events at conferences, regular contact in the context of both personal and professional milestones, and a general feeling of goodwill.


Thanks to a bi-directional admiration of great fashion, a friend spotted this full-length Jean-Paul Gaultier coat made of stretch knit Italian wool, and knew it was perfect for me. See details below: The double-breasted cutaway styles with a maxi-length cut makes it feel like a 1960s morning coat. Looks great on the streets of New York!