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So What Do You Do, Jamie Raab, Publisher of Grand Central Publishing?

The seasoned vet shares how publishers should hustle to stay ahead of the digital curve

By Jeff Rivera - February 1, 2012
While other Big 6 publishers were reporting losses and massive layoffs, she propelled Grand Central to the #1 spot for trade paperback bestsellers. From discovering Nicholas Sparks to scoring titles from Stephen Colbert, the late Ted Kennedy, Lady Gaga and The Family Corleone, the forthcoming posthumous novel from Mario Puzo, Jamie Raab's tenure as publisher at GCP reads like a Who's Who of newsmakers.

Yet, the business of books is changing (or crumbling, depending on who you ask), and this seasoned publisher isn't oblivious to the effect that the digital revolution is having on her bottom line.

Name: Jamie Raab
Position: Publisher, Grand Central Publishing; SVP, Hachette Book Group
Resume: After receiving a degree in city planning, got an entry-level position in the publicity department of Ballantine Books. Took a detour into editing for Family Circle, then became senior editor at Warner Books (now Grand Central Publishing). Rose up ranks before being named publisher in 1997.
Birthday: August 6, 1953
Hometown: Elkins Park, Pa.
Education: B.A., University of Pennsylvania. Summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa
Marital status: Single (widow)
Media idol: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, "because they are smart AND entertaining"
Favorite TV show: Downton Abbey
Guilty pleasure: Spending time in the Hudson Valley, movies, yoga
Last book read: The Marriage Plot
Twitter handle: @GrandCentralPub

Grand Central has done remarkably well in comparison to the other Big 6 publishers. What's the secret to being a great book publisher today?
It's a combination of things. Hachette has poured millions of dollars into upgrading our systems, which sometimes helps us do our jobs better. We're better marketers than many publishers. I think we have some of the best covers; I'm a big believer in the power of a cover. We have a lot of veterans, who understand the unique mentality of this company, and new people in the digital realm. It's a really nice combination of old and new. And the final thing is you've got to pick books really well, because you can hype a book to the ends of the earth, but if people read it and don't love it, that hype's not going to take you too far.

There was much ado about the leaked Hachette memo that explained why publishers are still relevant. Some saw that as a real indication that publishers must feel threatened by the new wave of eBook authors. What is your take on that letter?
I agree with absolutely everything in that memo. We're not just a distribution chain. I do believe curating is important. And I really do believe that we nurture talent by working hard, and we pay advances that offer writers the time and luxury they need to write the book they want to write. The truth is writing and putting a book out into the world is only a small part of it. If, as a writer, you want to spend the time going to the different distribution channels and marketing and doing publicity yourself, that's less time you have to write. Look, we're aware that many authors are choosing to e-publish, that they can make money quickly. We know there's a lot of competition and whenever there's competition, you've got to prove your value.

"The most important thing an author can do is have his or her book in on time."

The standard Grand Central contract for eBooks for most authors is 25 percent. How is that the best rate when authors can hire their own editor and cover designer and do the bulk of the marketing themselves?
I guess I don't buy that at all. I wish that people could come in and see what goes on in a publishing house day by day. Some of the books that you think are so-called small books, I've got to tell you, we spend a lot of our time meeting about the books, big and small, and making people in-house read them. We have big marketing meetings and small. We're not just throwing books out there. That's so far from the truth. Anyone who thinks that, I wish they could be a fly on the wall at least in the house I work for. There is a whole company working for you. We start marketing, in most cases, a year in advance before a book comes out. The most important thing an author can do is have his or her book in on time.

There are a lot of people in this kitchen. We have an infrastructure that we have to support. You still need the editors, production department, marketing resources, and the artist who designs the book. Everyone thinks that there isn't a lot of manpower involved in putting out an eBook. There’s more to it than most people ever consider.

If you want to make money quickly and put a book out there and price it at 99 cents so that it becomes enticing, I understand! You can build an audience. Some authors are climbing the Amazon list but, when a publisher approaches them, more times than not, they choose to go with a publisher.

Do you see that royalty rate increasing any time soon?
That's being discussed all the time. I don't have a crystal ball, but I think that as the business changes, that could be one of the things that change too. Some people say that 70-90 percent of all books will be eBooks. Is it somewhere in between? I don't know. There is certainly going to be enormous growth over the next four to five years, and that's going to affect everything. For now, people forget that 80 percent of books are print books. An author on his own cannot get his book into bookstores and, if he does, can't get the attention to display it. The publisher can.

You are credited with discovering Nicholas Sparks who has since written countless New York Times bestsellers. Tell us about that experience and why you were so convinced of his talent.
I was senior editor almost 17 years ago and a manuscript came to me, called The Notebook from a new agent named Theresa Park. It was a very slim book, and I read it quickly and thought, "This is the most moving story." It was right at the time of Frankfurt [Book Fair], and when my boss came back I said, "You have to read this." And she loved it too. We pre-empted it for a lot of money. This very new green agent turned out to be a master negotiator. I was a little terrified because of how much we paid for it, but we were just dead set on getting the word out, and we did very successfully. The rest is history.

"Some authors are climbing the Amazon list but, more times than not, they choose to go with a publisher."

Nicholas Sparks is known to be very loyal, but are you concerned that big authors such as him will opt to keep their eBook rights and publish on their own?
I think about that a lot because I know it's on authors' minds. And I think it's incumbent on every publisher to do a better job than they've ever done before -- more creative on marketing and eBooks, working in partnership more closely with their authors, keeping them in the loop, publishing more strategically. We have to work harder than ever to prove there's a lot of value in an editor and publisher and their relationship with an entire publishing house. You can't underestimate the importance of editing. I have seen books go from mediocre to good and from good to great because of the relationship between the editor and author. Nothing annoys me more than when I hear them say, "Oh, editors don't edit anymore." That has never been my experience with the editors on my team. We owe it to the authors to make the books as good as they can be.

You started your career in publicity. What changes have you seen in the number of outlets that are available for reviews?
In many ways, it's harder than ever. Used to be, you just get someone on a major TV show, and voila! You'd have a hit! It's more complicated than that now. Social media is becoming really important. It's a combination of doing everything. There's so much happening that, to stand out, you just have to try everything. You just have to get the book in front of people in as many ways as you can, because there is a lot of noise out there, and you just have to do everything possible to get noticed. We have digital publicists now who are focused on bloggers, and they're working very closely with our authors. We're also sending galleys out through NetGalley and coming up with interesting online promotions. We still advertise, whereas some publishers don't. It's always been my theory to have all your ducks in a row.

There are a lot of changes in publishing happening right now, and I can't say for sure how this will affect the structure of publishing houses in terms of sales departments or publicity and where more resources are going to. I know that we're doing everything we can to stay ahead of the curve.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do, Nicholas Sparks, Bestselling Romance Novelist?

Jeff Rivera is the author of Forever My Lady (Grand Central) and a GalleyCat contributor.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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