sadi14oct2007Editors note: This is the first part of a two part article by our long-time contributor Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti. The second part of the article will be published here on Wednesday. PB

Years I have worked in publishing – in fact, my whole career. I have worked in every capacity you can think of in the field and I wear that as a badge of pride because it is fully clear to me that in order to ever become an Editorial Director and run a successful house or imprint, as I did with Lumen Editions (an imprint I founded to publish works in translation as well as the work of new, up and coming authors – first time authors), you truly need to know every aspect of publishing from stuffing jiffy bags to hardcore line-editing to street-pounding publicity. It’s a tough road to hoe, but the rewards can be great.

Lumen was, I was told, a “risky venture”. I was also told that it would never work. That our books (which I published in matte-laminate softcover with a notch-binding with photo images by Ralph Gibson) would never be reviewed because, “Only hardcover books are taken seriously.” This, of course, was, as I had always known, not the case.

I can tell you with absolute honesty that every single Lumen Editions book received a review in the New York Times. Sometimes a full-page, sometimes a half, sometimes a smaller space, but regardless, not once did we miss. We never published e-books then, but e-books were not an option in publishing at that time, not in the popular community, and we would not have benefited in any way. In fact, e-book sales would have hurt our print book sales.

Of course, many factors played into Lumen’s success. The fact that I published only books that I firmly believed in – books that I (some would say) naively believed made a difference. This was the very thing that made all the difference. Believe in a thing and you can push for it. You can never guarantee a “good” review: the reviewer either likes the book or does not. This much is subjective and recall, with any book, you are competing with quite literally thousands of other books, likewise clambering for attention.

Trust me on this. I spent many visits to the New York Times Book Review and can tell you that there are books in piles on the floor, against the walls, and a room that was just chock full of books that seemed in no particular order. No doubt, many pink-lip-glossed publicists with neatly-knotted Hermes scarves came and went with boilerplate, template, and press releases. No doubt, they had felt, and technically were right, that they had done their job. They sent the book with a release. Maybe followed up with a phone call. Amen. But for the most part, it was the book and a release and that’s it.

The simple fact is, it takes more than a pretty press release and a form letter to get a book review, unless you happen to have a big name author. It takes a great deal of effort and a nonstop push to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling. It takes time, effort, and yes, money, and more, endless patience and author-handholding. I am friend, editor, psychiatrist, you name it – as publicist and editor, the relationship you have with your author(s) morphs constantly and is one of constant-handholding (and I am not exception to this rule a an author myself: I too need to be coddled. I too suffer from “Authoritis”. Hi, my name is Sadi, and I am an author.

The book review process is a tough one. It’s akin to an exhausting game of tennis in which you are constantly volleying back and forth with a seasoned editor and diving for just the right shot, the right hook. In short, in tennis terms, you want to “smash” that ball over the net so it hits and it cannot be volleyed back. You want to win. You want your ball to hit, your book, where others simply bounce off the grace or turf, etc.

It’s all timing and yes, grace – something that is vastly underrated in this business. Too many want to go in like a bulldog, but grace… grace carries more weight. How you handle yourself as a publicist is equally important to how you handle yourself as an editor. I once heard that publicity and public relations were like “sales” – I believe the words that the person used were “just a sad step above” as if publicity were somehow dirty and undignified. I was insulted because that’s the last thing I am. It made me think.

Is publicity really undignified? I have thought about this for many years and have come down on both sides. As with any field or profession, it depends on the publicist. There are publicists who are going to give you the slippery sales pitch that is slick and shiny on the surface, a sort of lacquered pitch, and then there are publicists who actually studied hard, read the book, and perhaps studied something like philosophy as well as journalism and elevate publicity to what can truly be an art: the art/science of publicity, much like the art/science of editing or true writing.

The art of spin takes timing, skill, grace, diplomacy, and more. It requires that you be likable and wow, ethical. This is key. You need to be ethical because in this business, it is your name and your word that count for everything. If you endorse a book, that is your name on the line. Endorse a bad book, then the next time you approach “x” magazine, they will not take you seriously.

A good publicist will consider and know that they themselves are the brand. Further, they will know that brand integrity is everything. If I put my seal of approval on a book, it doesn’t mean that everyone will like it, but it does carry some weight because the books I have endorsed so far have all been good books (and that’s not just my subjective opinion; good reviews have backed this up). Each book has been different – sometimes vastly different – but the aim was always to publish good books.

I’ve had the joy of publishing first fiction, of publishing Beat poetry, of publishing the last work by Marguerite Duras (“Ecrire”), of publishing travel writing that was well off the beaten path, of publishing cult classic writers, of publishing experimental Oulipo writings with books like the book “S” and so forth. The books I published have truly been across the board.

The fine silver thread between all of these books, what they had in common, was that I firmly and ardently even, believed in every single one of them. I still do. I still recommend those books and even re-read them from time to time. I have trusted my instinct and I have asked other people to trust my instinct. They either will or they will not, but so far, I have every reason to say, “Please do”. I’ve had authors who want to write their own letter to the editor and it’s thrown a wrench into the works. As an author, I understand the desire to want to promote your own book and I’m all for it – but to a point. Let me do my job, and you do your job. You write: I pitch. The author’s input is invaluable, but the author is too close to his or her own work to know how to pitch it to different editors.

My pitch may not be what the author would say, but my pitch may well be what the editor or reviewer needs to hear to “get” the book and that’s key. You can wax on and on about what a terrific book you have, but there are many terrific books and yes, like it or not, even in your genre. Here’s the news: the book does not “transcend the genre” to use a worn-out phrase. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but as Jason Epstein astutely pointed out, “Books today have the shelf-life of yogurt.” He is right. Try getting a review. Even harder.

A colleague asked me about simultaneously publishing an e-book version that coincides with a print book edition of a book. “No,” I told her. “Why?” This is a good question, but I can tell you in traditional book publishing, that for all of the new-found electronic publishing and e-books that are coming out from places like Harper and etc. (which is heart-warming), there is still a prejudice against e-books. An e-book, like a Web article, is not taken as seriously – at least not in the current publishing climate.

My own literary agent, who knows my work and that is well-known on the Internet, has told me that this particular writing “doesn’t count” when it comes to presenting my work to a publisher (that said, one wonders if this theory has been tested). I’m told that publishers today simply do not take electronic publishing seriously. Never mind that my writings are widely known or published on the best sites around or that I’m known as a Bob Dylan critic or Lewis Carroll critic with major breakthroughs and so forth – I am told unequivocally this doesn’t matter.

It does matter to a lot of people, just not the same people. I get hired to write precisely because of that very writing that “doesn’t count”. I have worked on some of the biggest sites around, review music and write a popular music column and so forth but again – like e-books, it doesn’t count. Therefore, e-books don’t count.

It’s an easy equation. Electronic publishing is not now, and perhaps never will be, taken as seriously as print book publishing because of the obstacles involved in publishing print books – but more importantly, the money that the publishers puts behind the book. Money talks.

Release a p-book and an e-book at the same time and you’re sending the wrong message. You may be broadening your market for people who prefer to read e-books, but in terms of reviews, you’re dealing in a whole different market. Yes, e-books may be news and they may be the new curiosity to traditional publishers, but e-books are never going to replace print books. Never.

Make any argument you want and I can tell you right now, it’s not going to happen. When was the last time you saw an electronic book – and I mean a book that was FIRST published electronically – reviewed in the Sunday New York Times book review? If you’ve seen it – and again, I mean the e-book version, then let me know and I stand corrected. Maybe the tide will turn, but I’m not even sure I want it to. Call me a luddite, but I still like p-books. I like the feeling of a book in my hands. I also am a big e-book fan and read e-books and have a palm device and carry books around with me this way, but do I want a “library” in my house of e-books? Sure, intact on several palm devices, but visit my house and it’s truly like walking into the New York Public Library. There are books everywhere, wall-to-wall. They sustain: they hold up the walls.

Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti’s website is:


  1. >>When was the last time you saw an electronic book – and I mean a book that was FIRST published electronically – reviewed in the Sunday New York Times book review?

    Cory Doctorow’s “Little Brother”, a couple of weeks ago.

    I think he attempts to publish the electronic and the dead tree books simultaneously, but in effect that means that a real person can get the electronic version first.

  2. It is perfectly ok for publishers to treat ebooks like paperbacks, just so long as the ebook comes out eventually (and at the paperback price).

    I don’t suppose book reviewers are any closer to the 21st century than publishers, but one reason for reviewing from an ebook is convenience. Not so long ago scientific papers were reviewed from hardcopies express mailed to the reviewers, but now it is all done electronically.

  3. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has made every conference or journal article published in their name available through their digital library. For $200 per year (membership and library access), I can do a full-text search of every piece of computing research ever published by the ACM. For students, the total cost is $50 per year, and many schools purchase blanket access for everyone, reducing the cost to $0 for the individual. And everything I download is DRM-free and mine to keep.

    Sadly, my colleagues in French Lit. do not have this powerful tool at their disposal. That is because many people like yourself believe in the power of paper… with content indexed at the back of the book, and accessible only if you have a particular physical artifact at hand. What would the field of history be like if every book, article, and journal of history were available for full-text search? Linguistics? Imagine if a student of history could search across all of the scholarly and popular works surrounding the birth of nuclear energy, and compare their findings with our own popular conceptions today… with the same ease that I can look at 50+ years of publications in computing? It would transform academia, and indeed, transform how we call can learn from the work of those that came before us.

    I love my leather-bound copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide. And I, too, have a house full of books. But I’d trade many of those books for a robust tablet with a long battery life (weeks) that held my complete library. If I could search, full text, every book on my shelf, be brought directly to the page containing that text (or even my own annotations), I would love it. Please. Want.

    If I could decide that I wanted to start reading some Greg Bear (and start with his early works), or perhaps some classic mystery… and download it directly to my ebook reader, at a fraction of the cost of a paper book, it would be amazing. I see no reason to kill trees for pulp works, or specialized academic texts, when we could just as easily distribute them cheaply as zeros and ones. Amazon misses the boat because the reader is too small, it is laden with DRM, and the cost is still too high for an electronic artifact that I don’t “own”. I won’t pay $10 to rent a book from the publisher, period.

    As a teacher, I want to vomit over the price of textbooks. $60 to $80 is the norm, and $150 and more can be found today. It is disgusting and unnecessary, a sign of an industry gone wrong. I agree: editors add value. Indexers add value. A good designer turns my words into a visual treat, choosing typefaces and accents that make the text a work of art. But no number of promoters will offset the value that I can give to the world by making my work available cheaply and electronically. If I have a choice between a free or low-cost ebook for use in my classroom, or a $100 textbook that weighs a ton, I’ll choose the free text for my students, because I have enough expertise (as does any teacher) to evaluate whether the ebook is of quality or not. And I don’t have to beg some publisher to send me a “review copy,” because the content is available/affordable in the first place.

    Stories untold have no value. Stories freely given change lives.

    So you go on thinking that ebooks will never catch on. We’re already aware that electronic documents are more easily found and more often cited by researchers[1,2]. As more authors follow Cory Doctorw’s lead, we’ll find that they’re more likely to succeed (e.g. develop a following) than authors who are only promoted and published through “traditional” means. I’m looking forward to the day that I can do the majority of my reading on an excellent, large-format electronic device that holds my entire library (sans DRM, thank you very much) as well as the current edition of the New Mars Times. It should update me when new content is released by any of several hundred e-publishers that might be of interest. Naturally, these recommendations will be based on the contents of my current library. I’ll select and download a number of these new works, only read one in ten, but they’ll be added to my local store for the next time I want to read up and sound knowledgeable in a 3D holo-forum.

    I also want antigravity boots, solar cells that work at 90% efficiency, and a pony. Fortunately, at the rate publishers are going, I’ll have all of those things before I have affordable access to DRM-free ebooks across the entire spectrum of human stories, factual, fiction, or otherwise.


  4. I’ve seen written elsewhere how irrelevant newspapers are for hearing about books. Litblogs are much more important. That poses special challenges for authors and publicists. Which sites hold more weight? And which sites are amenable to reviewing titles of newer books?

  5. The business of courting reviewers is demeaning and absurd; especially when one bears in mind that the principal agent of any book’s success is word-of-mouth recommendation. A review serves the function of letting people know the book exists — specially useful for an established author — but I suspect that the majority of sensible newspaper readers do not worship the opinions of critics. They know that many critics are little more than contemptible hacks, earning extra money by selling the review copies with which their employers are showered by publishers, and they know that those critics who are also authors are influenced by a desire to puff their friends or wreak revenge on their enemies.

    Newspapers are themselves having to embrace electronic distribution, and many sorts of books — once the technology has matured sufficiently — will go the same way. If critics want to have anything to review, they’d better get used to the idea of e-books! Unfortunately for our penurious British critics, they’ll be unable to sell them on in the Charing Cross Road …

  6. “Make any argument you want and I can tell you right now, it’s not going to happen. When was the last time you saw an electronic book – and I mean a book that was FIRST published electronically – reviewed in the Sunday New York Times book review? If you’ve seen it – and again, I mean the e-book version, then let me know and I stand corrected.”

    Perhaps the author fails to note the irony in the fact that the New York Times has one of the world’s largest online readerships, measuring in the tens of millions, meaning the vast majority of those reading the aforementioned reviews will be doing so from a computer screen.

  7. Dear Sadi:

    I do not doubt your expertise as a paper publisher but you need to research better the transforming power technology has had on many other industries. Paper publishing is next in line to be transformed.

    You write emphatically: “E-books are never going to replace print books. Never.”

    Never is a very long time.

    I have seen how typewriters would “never” be replaced by $20,000 word processors. I have seen how these same word processors would “never” be replaced by personal computers. I have seen how two way radios would “never” be replaced by cellular phones.

    As an executive in each of these industries I heard “experts” entrenched in the traditional thinking of their industry claim that it would “never” happen.

    In each case the early products were incomplete and awkward to use, but they kept improving until they were irresistible.

    Besides the products rapid evolution, what was interesting to watch is how in every industry entirely new companies were created to distribute the new technologies. Faced with agile and ferocious new competitors, the legacy companies already in these markets either disappeared or had to “surrender” and use gobs of cash to buy and integrate the upstarts (like the telcos buying wireless carriers) to survive as viable entities.

    New technologies necessitate new business models. E-books are a new technology looking for the right business model. When the right business model is perfected, whether an e-book has been reviewed by The New York Times will be completely irrelevant because consumers not the elite matter. In any case, I am sure that the New York Times will review e-books because new important books, rejected by traditional publishers, will be discovered on the web.

    Let me share our own experience at creating a business/publishing model built around e-books.

    A friend of ours had seen her book rejected by paper publishers. She asked us to help her get her book published. She wanted to be read. Fame and money were completely secondary. Her book was written as a eulogy for a young boy who had passed away due to a rare illness and she gives all the revenue from this book to a foundation researching this disease.

    As you know paper book publishing is a high risk business where few profitable successes pay for all the unprofitable books. (In the process, an incredible amount of paper/trees/energy are wasted.) Paper publishing our friend’s book was too risky, but web publishing her book was a no risk proposal. Especially since we quickly encountered other frustrated authors looking for an outlet that would accept their creative works. Helping a friend became an accidental business helping authors get published and children get free books.

    So we built a completely different publishing model than the industry you had a successful career in. We are one of many new companies about to disrupt paper publishing as completely and permanently as your telephone “traditions” have been changed. You can see our beta web site at

    At Sharing-Books we remove the barriers your industry has spent years putting up up because of the high risk of paper publishing. Your industry has to review and edit books and spend countless hours agonizing how to pick the winners. Careers are made or broken by good or bad choices.

    At we publish every book that is uploaded if it is judged appropriate by our virtual volunteer librarians. These are qualified volunteers who have their own group web site and who decide if the books submitted are within our contribution guidelines.

    Our upfront cost for our books is nil. We share with the authors 1/3 of the revenue we receive through six different revenue streams (most of which are unavailable to paper publishers). Our review cost is nil. Our editing costs is nil as authors can “upgrade” their books by uploading a new versions. Our cost to “publish” (host) a new book on our site is negligible.

    Once built, the fixed costs of our business are minimal. Our investment has been minuscule compared to building a traditional paper publishing business. We don’t even have office costs as our international development team meets and works virtually. Our model is so automated and efficient that we can afford to be patient with our development and we can give 1/3 of our revenue to Room to Read, an important charity equipping developing nations with literacy resources.

    In addition, our readers will tell us which books are the real winners, not critics. Based on downloads and user ratings, we will know which books are so popular that paper publishing them will be a risk-free business decision. For free we get perfect market research and testing of new books.

    Whether we prefer or not a specific e-book reading device over paper is not relevant. E-readers will only get better and they will become ubiquitous. Books are content – do not confuse them with their paper “container”.

    At Sharing-Books, we focus on children under 11; and what we see in their hands when teachers and parents are not looking are electronic devices not paper books. So we better learn to deliver “book” content to their favorite devices or reading will be a declining activity.

    This is an important responsibility. Rather than resisting inevitable change, I suggest you become an advocate of these new technologies so that the love of books you and I share can be transmitted to our children.

    Pierre Lapointe

  8. I don’t get the New York Times, so I can’t speak to their Sunday Book reviews, however David Weber’s last several books have all been released electronically first, and then in hardcover. They do show up at least on the New York Times bestseller list, but being science fiction they may not be able to escape the genre ghetto for Sundays.

  9. Very music industry of the 90’s sounding. I wonder if Sony, BMG and others are still saying digital music, will never replace physical media? And that was only a decade, ebooks have been brewing for a few years now.

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