An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with David Ebershoff

Publishing Director, Modern Library, Random House

In the third of a series of interviews with publishers and executive editors, we look at the changing mood of the reading public and how publishers are shifting their strategies to meet market demands. Watch for more interviews.

In addition to his publishing role at Random House, David Ebershoff is the author of The Danish Girl and The Rose City. The Danish Girl won the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and the Lambda Literary Award. His latest work, Pasadena, a novel, will be released by Random House in the summer of 2002. David is a visiting lecturer in fiction writing at Princeton, and lives in New York City.


". . . these shifts in the marketplace–even if they are temporary–remind us once again of the importance of building a strong, wideranging backlist."


AUTHORLINK: Looking beyond the Sept. 11 attack on America, what important strategic editorial changes will your division or imprint make in the near future (i.e., editorial themes or categories, length of acquired works, format changes)?

EBERSHOFF: Our editorial strategy at the Modern Library has not changed.

AUTHORLINK: Are certain categories of books doing better than others since Sept. 11? If so, which categories? For example, has nonfiction taken precedent over fiction in recent months? If so, do you see this as a long-term or a short-term trend? Are you seeing an increase in demand for more stories of hope or heroism?

EBERSHOFF: After September 11, as everyone knows, there was a huge demand for books about Islam, the Middle East, and foreign policy, and to a certain extent military history. Even though the demand for these books has subsequently fallen, it remains much higher than it was before the 11th. At the same time many publishers saw a drop off in demand for big-name commercial fiction last fall. This seems to be righting itself somewhat this winter and spring. For the Modern Library, these shifts in the marketplace–even if they are temporary–remind us once again of the importance of building a strong, wideranging backlist.

AUTHORLINK: What changes have you seen in online book sales or the sale of eBooks. What sort of strategic changes has your company made or will it make with respect to eBooks? And why?

EBERSHOFF: The rapid growth of online booksales that we saw in the late 90s has definitely slowed. But online book sales remain an important and a growing part of our business. Online stores remain significant to the health of a publisher's backlist because they "carry" all our titles.


". . . we started a major expansion of our paperback classics."


AUTHORLINK: What lines or imprints are you expanding and why? Which ones are you limiting?

EBERSHOFF: Two years ago we started a major expansion of our paperback classics program. This expansion continues with full steam.


". . . good books books with compelling, original stories and that are written with verve and authority have the best opportunity to break out."


AUTHORLINK: In today’s tough, competitive market what does it take to break out a new author? Fiction/nonfiction?

EBERSHOFF: I was recently chatting with a good friend of mine who is the publicity director of one of the best publishers in the business. She said that authors always ask her, 'What's the best thing I can do to promote my book?' She said that she always tells them, 'The best thing you can do to promote your book is write the best book you are capable of.'

The point of this is that good books with compelling, original stories and that are written with verve and authority have the best opportunity to break out.


"There is a trend to the shorter work, but that happens to be more in non-fiction than fiction."


AUTHORLINK: Pricing books for a recession-minded public is a key issue these days. Are you looking for books that can be sold at a lower price point? Is your company making any moves to lower or restructure the pricing of its products?

EBERSHOFF: Price is important in marketing a book. For our classics program, we are vigilant about keeping our prices low. For new books, the question is more about the price sensitivity of the market. If a book is aimed at twenty-year-olds, then it is important to keep the price low. If the book is aimed at the upmarket business person, it's less important.

AUTHORLINK: Are shorter works more appealing to readers today? If so, why? Are they more profitable for your company?

EBERSHOFF: There is a trend to the shorter work, but that happens to be more in non-fiction than fiction. We publish a series called Modern Library Chronicles, which are concise, 200 page books on the great topics of world history by some of our foremost historians.

One of our books, ISLAM: A Short History by Karen Armstrong, proved enormously useful to many people after September 11. The book was about a year old, but because it was so well-written and so accessible many readers turned to it for insight about a religion they knew little about. That's what I mean by the importance of a strong backlist.

At the same time, some of the most successful (and interesting) novels in the past year or two have been rather long–THE CORRECTIONS, Atwood's THE BLIND ASSASSIN, BLACK HOUSE by Stephen King and Peter Straub, THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND KLAY, WHITE TEETH. This is evidence that readers want good stories and masterful storytelling.


"The independent bookstores have begun to hold their own against the competition."


AUTHORLINK: Has there been any shift in the popularity of one book format or another, i.e., hardcover versus mass market, versus trade paperback?

EBERSHOFF: No new shifts, just a continuation of long-term shifts.

AUTHORLINK: What is your personal vision of book publishing within the next two, five and ten years?

EBERSHOFF: The independent bookstores have begun to hold their own against the competition.

EBERSHOFF: Many of the best independent bookstores had results in 2001 that were heartening given the climate. I believe many readers have learned the importance of a good independent bookstore both to their community and to their personal reading life. I expect many Independents will come back even stronger over the next few years.

AUTHORLINK: What do you believe to be the most positive development for publishing within the past year or 18 months?

EBERSHOFF: The resurgence of the long novel, as I discussed above.


Watch for more exclusive editor/publisher interviews on Authorlink.