Backlist to the Future

The afflicted book industry has waited sixteen long months for former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman to announce her next move—to send out the Press Release That Will Change Publishing. But when it came last week, publishing types were surprised that her new venture—Open Road Integrated Media—was trumpeting e-book releases for William Styron, Pat Conroy, Joseph Heller, and Iris Murdoch. Friedman will be, largely, in the business of reissues.

For years HarperCollins and other book conglomerates increasingly relied on a revolving door of best sellers, rather than the steady income of older “backlist” books. But at Open Road—at least for now—backlist is the whole game. “I’ve said the only constant in publishing is change, but publishing is built on great works that have flourished over hundreds of years,” says Friedman.

Open Road will market new e-books, but the bulk of its 750 to 1,000 titles are old books that haven’t yet been brought to the electronic market. Most of them were published before 1991, before electronic rights became common in book contracts, so the authors still have the rights.

Oddly, Open Road’s approach dovetails with that of a very different company, Google—currently in the midst of some sticky issues involving a settlement over the millions of out-of-print books logged into Google Books. When Google co-founder Sergey Brin cast himself, on the Times op-ed page, as protector of “the world’s collective knowledge and cultural heritage,” he invoked the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria.

But while Google purports to be equalizing access to all information, particularly the out-of-print kind, Friedman is trying to move product. “I see an area of opportunity” for the books not being marketed electronically. “It’s not because trade publishers are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.” She’ll take a selection of in-print, fairly well-known books and hype them in a new format—complete with documentary clips and trailers. What the Criterion Collection has done for film, she wants to do for publishing.

E-books are approaching critical mass. This week, Barnes & Noble will release its own e-reader to do battle with the Kindle. Open Road (like Tina Brown’s new imprint, which will make e-books and paperbacks out of Daily Beast content) plans to farm out the publishing of actual books, keeping its overhead very low. For new books, Friedman intends to outsource the editing, since “there are an awful lot of very good people out of work right now.” The potential to run a company without the costs of in-house editing or printing is a capitalist’s dream.

But for now, it’s still a dream. Big-time writers—or those who hope to be—still want, and need, all that bulky infrastructure. If a book really does break out, Friedman will have to scramble to find a publishing partner who can move books by the truckload. E-publishing and print-on-demand won’t cut it. That’s why you hear all these innovators harping on the glory of decades-old literature. The old publishers may not be making so much money off the new stuff anymore, but neither will the new publishers, at least for now. “I think it hasn’t reached the tipping point,” says Friedman of the e-book. She’s hoping to give it a big-enough shove.

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Backlist to the Future