Harvard Biz Prof: Publishing Can’t Change

By Neal Comment

anita-elberse-headshot.jpgOver the long New Year’s holiday weekend, Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse (right) had an article in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that publishers should keep shelling out millions of dollars on books that might never make back their advances—in fact, Elberse argued, “the blockbuster strategy remains the most sensible approach to lasting success” in the book publishing world. Her logic? “When a publisher spends an inordinate amount on an acquisition,” she writes, “it will do everything in its power to make that project a market success.” (Elberse’s enthusiasm for big hits is nothing new; last summer, she attacked the “Long Tail” theory in a much-discussed Harvard Business Review article.)

Elberse might be right, but we’re not convinced it’s the reasons she lays out to WSJ readers make her case for her. She proposes that any publisher who tried to escape the “blockbuster trap” by refusing to spend the kind of money it takes to land a celebrity like Tina Fey, or even a much ballyhooed novelist like Andrew Davidson (The Gargoyle, remember?), would be setting themselves up for ruin. “Agents would stop sending such a publisher their most promising book proposals,” she claims. Let’s consider that for a moment. We’ll concede that it’s entirely possible that agents such as Richard Abate and Eric Simonoff (Fey and Davidson’s agents, respectively) might, if they became aware that a publishing house was no longer in the market for books that came with a particular price tag, stop sending proposals for such books to editors at that house. We will even stipulate that other agents, believing themselves to represent books with similar potential, might behave similarly if they became aware of such a situation.

But—and this is a big but—there are a lot of agents out there, and they don’t act in anything remotely resembling unison. There are plenty of agents who, upon learning that editors at a certain publishing house had some time on their hands because Richard Abate wasn’t bothering to pitch them anymore, would be on the phone scheduling an appointment for the very next morning. (Nothing personal, Mr. Abate; we’re just using you as an example here because Elberse invoked Fey.) But it might not ever get to that, because even if Abate knew he wasn’t going to be able to sell an editor the next Tina Fey, he doesn’t deal exclusively in Tina Feys—and he knows, just as every other smart agent knows, that editors don’t always stay in one place. So he would, in fact, maintain his relationships with the editors at that publishing company, continuing to send them appropriate proposals, and should those editors wind up moving to a different publisher, one where they could buy the next Tina Fey, he’d be ready to make the necessary calls.

(There’s also a distinction to be made between spending millions of dollars to acquire a book by Tina Fey believing she might sell lots of books because she’s famous, and spending millions of dollars to acquire a book by, say, Tom Wolfe or Donna Tartt because you know they’ve sold lots of books in the past and you’re pretty sure you can sell more; a publisher who chose to stop doing the former might well choose to continue doing the latter; there are, after all, levels of risk in book publishing.)

(Which is certainly not to imply that we know anything about what Little, Brown might or might not do in 2009; again, we’re just running with the examples handed to us by the existing literature.)

Anyway, that’s the first major objection we had to Elberse’s article. What do you think she got wrong? Or do you agree with her? Either way, here’s a chance to make your best case…