It feels incredibly awesome to welcome Laura Hazard Owen to the Book-Jobs, Not by the Book “interview room.” Back in early 2011, when Publishing Trendsetter was just a crazy idea, Laura (then Managing Editor at Publishing Trends) assured me it was a good idea and not even that crazy. If Trendsetter had gotten off the ground at all without her cheerleading, it would have taken a whole lot longer.
She’s gone on to report for paidContent and become a [publishing]house-hold name when it comes to knowing and sharing what’s what in the industry with her signature no-nonsense style. A huge thanks to her for everything, not least of which the time it took to complete this interview with such care and enthusiasm.
What was your first job in the book business and what were the most important things you gained from it?
I started out as an unpaid intern — and then an editorial assistant and assistant editor — at Skyhorse Publishing in New York. The company had just launched when I started there in 2006 so I got to do a lot of things that I would not have gotten to do at a larger house: Editing and acquiring books, laying books out in Adobe InDesign, writing marketing and publicity materials, etc. I also got a basic overview of publishing and the more senior people were really generous with their time and expertise.
How do you explain your job to people?
I say I am a book publishing reporter writing primarily about digital book publishing, ebooks, startups and Amazon.
What is the biggest challenge in your current job? In what ways did your previous jobs prepare you for what you do here?
The biggest challenge is the fast pace. I usually write at least two stories a day and it is challenging to make sure they are well-written, authoritative and interesting. (And sometimes they aren’t those things! But I try.) My previous jobs prepared me for what I do here by teaching me about how book publishing works. Then when I was the editor of Publishing Trends I obviously wrote about publishing. The pace there was not as constant but I got practice interviewing people, finding topics and explaining things clearly.
The other challenge is email and information overload. I get hundreds of emails a day now and it is time-consuming and stressful to weed out the stupid press releases and pitches while not accidentally missing something big. But at Publishing Trends I learned a lot about discerning what is and isn’t a good or interesting story and helped me get a little better at filtering and being like, hmm, is this worth my time or should I just pass on it.
Finally, a good reporter should be comfortable reading court documents and SEC filings and earnings reports. I’m getting better at that but I’m not totally comfortable with it by any means. But in all of my previous jobs I’ve had to pay a lot of attention to detail and be able to do close reading and that practice certainly helps when I’m analyzing these types of documents.
What value has this job brought to the way you think about book business as a whole and your own relationship to books?
Doing this job has given me a more objective view of the book publishing industry as a whole. I am not employed by either a book publisher or by a publisher competitor, i.e., I don’t have any “obligation” other than to be thoughtful/honest/objective and productive. My job is to write about how the entire environment is changing. I don’t feel pressure to be a cheerleader for the book publishing industry but I also don’t feel pressure to write “Amazon is killing publishing” or “Print publishers are dead” stories (even though stories like that tend to get a lot of traffic). I have the space to kind of observe and write from a neutral standpoint, which is what a journalist is supposed to do. That said, I am also a blogger and my personal opinions totally enter my stories. For example, I support agency pricing and I have written about why. But I’ve also written about things that Amazon does that I think are cool.
How is journalism/industry coverage integral to book business as it is now and as it will continue to develop?
A lot of issues in book publishing have a major impact on consumers. The outcome of the Department of Justice lawsuit against Apple and big publishers, for example, is going to affect consumers buying books — what they pay, where they buy, the kinds of choices they have, etc. Everyday people feel very passionate about books. Ideally, an average person who isn’t in the business but just really loves books could read my stuff and get a better understanding of the industry and how the changes going on will affect them. Also, there’s the whole books-are-a-hugely-important-part-of-culture thing so covering the ways the book industry is changing is important, but duh.
It’s also up to journalists to call the bullshit and not let big companies get away with stuff. It’s not always fun to write stories that are critical of a company or that reveal things they would rather not have revealed, but it’s crucial to do that if you want to be respected as a writer and actually have an impact on the conversation. I mean, it’s not as if I’m out there uncovering companies that are dumping oil into the ocean or secretly funding prostitution rings or something. On the other hand, you never know what you’re going to find or how it could turn out to be important.
Laura Hazard Owen is the book publishing reporter at paidContent. She was previously the editor of Publishing Trends. Before that, she was an assistant editor at Skyhorse Publishing. She graduated from Harvard in 2006. Follow her on Twitter @laurahazardowen.