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MBToolbox Q&A: Jeffrey Trachtenberg

Industry insights from The Wall Street Journal's book publishing beat reporter

By Claire Zulkey - February 15, 2006

Jeffrey Trachtenberg is a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he works in the media and marketing group. He covers book publishing and occasionally contributes book reviews. Earlier in his career, he worked on the other side of the beat, authoring the books Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique and The Rain on Macy's Parade: How Greed, Ambition and Folly Ruined America's Greatest Store.

Mediabistro: Based on what you've observed, is there (or will there be) a real phenomenon of people buying books by 'famous' bloggers, or does it seem that site hits do not translate to book sales?

Jeffrey Trachtenberg: Too early to tell. What is clear is that some bloggers who may have had a difficult time landing a book contract succeeded because agents or publishers were able to read their work on a regular basis and liked what they saw. This underscores a much broader trend in publishing these days. It is a significant advantage for authors to have what the industry calls a "platform," be it a show on radio or TV, a newspaper column, or, increasingly, a popular blog. Book publicists can only do so much. Having a "platform" where a writer can get out the message that there is a new book in the stores is considered crucial.

MB: Are there any genres that you see becoming more en vogue while others are receding a bit, i.e. people are buying more fantasy, less chick lit?

JT: It's true that genres go in and out of favor, but all it takes is one book to explode, and then a genre is back in fashion. One intriguing trend is that mainstream publishers are launching in-house lines of erotica. Most recently, HarperCollins Publishers, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., launched Avon Red. The imprint is described as a line of "erotic romance." These books have X-rated, graphic sexual scenes, and apparently there is a market for them.

MB: Why do you think book publishing has been lagging behind technology so much more than other artistic fields?

JT: What's new here is that many publishers are embracing technology. Many have launched reader-friendly websites, complete with contests and book giveaways and early email announcements of books by favorite authors. They're also pushing on the marketing front. CBS Inc.'s Scribner imprint, for example, launched a Stephen King website for his new novel The Cell that encouraged readers to pay for downloadable ring tones. This transformed a promotional website into an opportunity to generate income. Elsewhere, a publisher posted a book online for free, and sold advertising around the text.

MB: Do you think the James Frey scandal is going to affect how publishers handle new memoirs coming out by putting the authors under the microscope?

JT: Chances are that the next publisher who decides to issue a memoir by a self-confessed former junkie/drunk will do a bit of diligence. But it's hard to gauge what the long-term impact of the Frey fiasco will be. My guess is that publishers will be ultra cautious for the next 12 months, but then their fears will dull as memories fade. Meanwhile, the Frey books continue to sell well. Some publishers may be willing to push the limits if that's what it takes to sell millions of copies, while covering themselves with a short author's note at the book's end.

MB:What was the path that took you from school to your current position?

JT: I worked at several small New York trade publications and then joined Women's Wear Daily. I initially wrote about Seventh Avenue before moving to Los Angeles and covering the Hollywood beat. Several years later I joined Forbes magazine in New York. While there I wrote a biography of Ralph Lauren, and as it was being published, The Wall Street Journal offered me a job. I've since covered retailing, new media, the music industry, and consumer electronics. I also helped launch the paper's real estate section, and spent some years editing here as well, in addition to writing a book about Macy's. I began to cover books on a full-time basis a couple of years ago.

Claire Zulkey is a freelance writer and the editor of MBToolbox.

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