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Are We Living In The Golden Age Of Book Publishing?

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January 22, 2015 1:24 p.m.


Chip McGregor, president of MacGregor Literary Inc., an agency in Oregon. He represents authors including Mark Schultz, whose book "Foxcatcher" inspired the motion picture now in theaters.

Raymond Wong, a San Diego author of the memoir "I'm Not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence." He'll be speaking at the writers' conference.

Related Story: Are We Living In The Golden Age Of Book Publishing?


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Maureen Cavanaugh: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Everything you’ve got a great idea for a book that if you could just find the time to sit down and write, you could possibly crank out the next best seller. Well it turns out it’s a little more complicated than that. The world of publishing has been undergoing a transformation that may be good news for writers who want to get their work seen by the public, but bad news for writers who want to make a living. Truth is it’s never been easy to become a published and successful writer. So writers usually need all the help they can get. They may find some at the 31st Annual SDSU Writers’ Conference being held this weekend. The keynote address focuses on the changing world of publishing. The conference’s keynote speaker is Chip MacGregor, he is President of MacGregor Literary Incorporated he represents authors including Mark Schultz who’s book Foxcatcher inspired the motion picture now in theaters. And Chip, welcome to the program.

Chip MacGregor: Thanks Maureen, it’s nice to be here.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Raymond Wong is also here. He is a San Diego author of the memoir, I'm Not Chinese: The Journey from Resentment to Reverence and he will be speaking at the book conference. Raymond welcome to the program.

Raymond Wong: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Now, Chip, tomorrow at SDSU a group of hopeful writers will assemble for this conference. What do you have for them as keynote speaker, good news or bad news?

Chip MacGregor: Well I have very good news. I have been in publishing for 35 years, I have seen it changed, but I always say to writers look this is the golden age of publishing. There’s never been a better time to be a writer; there have never been more opportunities. We will publish and sell more books this year than ever before in the history of the world. Not only that Maureen, there’s more readers around the world than ever before in the history of the world. The web has opened up so many opportunities for people. You drive any street in San Diego look to the left or right, every one of those businesses, every one of those organizations they got a website and need contents and they need writers. So frankly even though it’s a changing time and it’s tough to make a living, it frankly is a great time to be a writer.

Maureen Cavanaugh: What have been the major factors in changing that landscape for writers, is that e-books?

Chip MacGregor: Yeah absolutely. When Amazon came out with the Kindle it totally– that was the one thing that really totally reshaped the way we think about books. It reshaped our buying patterns. It reshaped book stores. Leading into that the technology reshaped the way books were edited. I was a publisher at Time Warner when we made the transition from editors sitting in a backroom with a red pencil and a big stack of dead trees to suddenly editing on screen. And so everybody’s role is different. You know writers for example, you know Raymond can speak to this. You know it’s almost as though these days writers who used to be considered artists in many areas now are expected to be mini corporations with the marketing department and a sales department and creative staff. And so the fact is everything has been reshaped. We are really not in a state of evolution right now in publishing, we are really in a state of revolution.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Well, let me go to Raymond Wong. You have quite a story when it comes to getting your book published. It’s a memoir it’s called I am not Chinese and the topic at the conference that you will be speaking on is called Passion and Persistence. How much passion and persistence did it take to get your book published?

Raymond Wong: Well, it took a lot of passion and a lot of persistence because as a writer you have to have a love of words, you have to have a love of story, you have to have a love of narrative, you have to want to get your story out there into the world because that’s what’s going to keep you going because it can be a very long journey. For me when I started writing my book it was 1996 after a trip to Hong Kong. And my book was published in October 2014. So it took me 18 years from the beginning of writing it to the point where the book actually came out. So that’s a long process.

Maureen Cavanaugh: It sure is. But you had some false starts along the way. There were some people who were interested in publishing and then the publishing house just dissolved, is that right?

Raymond Wong: Well I had a publisher a literary press that was in Florida that wanted my memoir to be published with them and they gave me a contract and I was stoked, I was absolutely excited you know and so I was telling my family, my friends, my writing buddies I’ve got a contract you know for this book. And maybe about nine months after that I got an email saying that they were planning on closing their press at the end of the year and this was in 2012 and my memoir was slated for 2013. So at that point I was beyond devastated. I was just crushed at that point, but you know you have to keep going.

Maureen Cavanaugh: And who wound up publishing I am not Chinese?

Raymond Wong: I submitted it to a university press in Baltimore, they are called Apprentice House. They operated out of Loyola University. And what they do is they have a department where they teach people how to go into book publishing. And as part of that process they have their own university press, they actually acquire and produce their own books. It’s a small press they maybe take 10-12 books a year but they liked my work and I am very thrilled to be working with them.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Chip, that sounds like a rather bumpy golden age, doesn’t it?

Chip MacGregor: Well it is. You know any time you are in a state of revolution I think that everything sort of gets toast into the air. It’s one of those you know what we used to call a fruit basket upset and that’s what’s going on right now. People who used to make living are struggling to make a living and it keeps happening. For example, I mean we really have two universes in publishing now. It’s taken us a while to figure that out but once Amazon started allowing people to just come on and self-publish anything we had this huge boost in the number of titles. I think in the first 10 years Amazon was in business they were selling somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three million titles total. Within two years of allowing everybody to self-publish that number had quadrupled. Now they are approaching 20 million titles. So what happened is suddenly you know consumers, readers have so much to wade through and again just as we think we got it set up we are just kind of a legacy publishing, our traditional publishing houses have one universe and then there’s this self-publishing other universe and the two sides looking at each other sort of wearily then suddenly something comes along and changes it. Last year Amazon stated their Kindle Unlimited program where you have a Kindle you pay monthly subscription fee and you can download all the books you want. And you know what that has to of course is they are not paying a standard royalty on every book that people download. So for example I represent two authors who are doing very, very well with e-books. Now the earning is down about 75%.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Wow. So that makes the role of marketing Chip much more important for authors, I mean there was a day and you’ve been in this business long enough to know that publishing houses would you know… even for mid-level authors you know arrange book tours and a whole marketing scheme and now basically authors have to do that themselves.

Chip MacGregor: Yeah that’s correct. As a matter of fact Maureen you know when I first started agenting I am just starting my 17th year of full-time delivery agent. When I first started agenting you know most of my time was really spent on what was called talent acquisition you know finding people who are really good and signing them up and there are so many people who want to write but there’s not that many people who are really gifted. Now I am totally serious when I say this. If I wanted to I could spend a 100 % of my time just talking marketing with people because marketing has become you know building platform and getting notice and being on social media, marketing has become the engine that everybody wants to drive the publishing business which is fad. I am sure Raymond probably sees the problem. It’s like you know most of the authors who I worked with they didn’t sign on so that they could be publishers. They signed on because they were artists, they were writers, and they had something to say.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Let me ask Raymond, what about the marketing aspect of being an author now. Are you taking to that or is that something that’s coming naturally to you?

Raymond Wong: I won’t say it comes naturally to me. It’s something that I have to do and I forced myself into that role. As a writer I am much more comfortable you know polishing my craft, I am much more comfortable putting words together, I am much more comfortable revising making sure that my story is the best that it can be but I also know that if I am going to be read, if I am going to be published I have to go out there and I have to market my work because otherwise no one is going to know about it. So I have to go out there and contact libraries. I have to go out there and contact Chinese Historical Museum, you know, I have to contact book fairs and I have to be willing to speak. I have to talk to people and I have to be willing to present it and I have to come up with a message that represents me. So those things you have to do. As an author you have to do it whether you liked it or not. I think it’s necessary.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Chip, you know books used to go through a lot of editing and so forth. And I think some people look at self-published books like well you know may be there are going to be a lot of typos and this or it’s not going to be really well-written. Can a self-published book be just as good as the one that has been guided through the process?

Chip MacGregor: It can, understand that, the big criticism of self-publish or indie-publish books is a term mostly used now. The big criticism has been of course that there weren’t professionals involved and I would say there’s no question early on in the early days of the e-book universe, you know if you were the big bang of e-books there are terrible covers and terrible editing. Now there’s no excuse for an author to release a terrible book anymore. There are so many freelance editing services available. There are so many cover designers that are available that somebody who wants to indie-publish can put out a quality product. Hugh Howey author of Wool of course has done you know a study on just how many books are selling and there’s – it’s hard to get the numbers in but the fact is just in terms of volume it looks like indie-published people are selling just as many books as traditionally published people. Unfortunately the money they are making isn’t the same and that’s of course because so many people who indie-publish when they are selling their book they are trying to sell it for 99 cents or a $1.99. You know there’s nothing from nothing leads to nothing. There’s just not that much money left over when you are selling a book for 99 cents.

Maureen Cavanaugh: So what are you telling writers about how to make a living?

Chip MacGregor: I am saying – this is funny because it gets into one of the things we are going to talk at the conference at San Diego state in the next couple of days. People want to know about what their roles are, what’s the role of editors, what’s the role of an agent my job. And there are certainly plenty of people who are announcing you don’t need an agent anymore you can just take your book, post it on Amazon and the money fairy will apparently sprinkle golden coins over your product which is not really how it works because the fact is what I do with an author of course with the authors that I represent, we are trying to put together some kind of plan so that it includes traditional publishing, it includes self-publishing, it includes some indie-publishing that is working with some royalty only houses, some of the smaller houses that have cropped up trying to service the new e-book market. They are trying to take a new approach.

Maureen Cavanaugh: Okay I want to stop you there because I know that you are going to be speaking at the writers’ conference, so I do not want you to give it all away. I do want to go to Raymond for just one last quick word. It’s still a thrill though isn’t it to get published?

Raymond Wong: Absolutely.

Maureen Cavanaugh: So your book there.

Raymond Wong: Absolutely. It’s one of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had in my life was when I found out that my book was going to be published and it happened twice for me.

Maureen Cavanaugh: I have been speaking with Raymond Wong, he is the San Diego author of the memoir I am not Chinese; The Journey from Resentment to Reverence. And Chip MacGregor, President of MacGregor Literary incorporated the 31st Annual SDSU Writers’ Conference takes place this weekend on the campus of San Diego State University. Gentlemen thank you very much.

Raymond Wong: Thank you.

Chip MacGregor: Thanks very much Maureen.