Lantern Books Exec ‘Cynically Optimistic’ About the Future
Martin Rowe labels his view of the book business “cynically optimistic.” The director of publishing for Lantern Books, a relatively small, independent publisher of spiritual, social, environmental and animal advocacy titles, Rowe draws upon a diverse career that has led to his well-rounded view of the business of book publishing. And this view, he says, is changing as rapidly as the industry itself.
Prior to co-founding New York-based Lantern Books with the company’s CEO and president, Gene Gollogly, Rowe held positions in distribution, research and promotions, as an author, and in a handful of other roles that even included a job in a bookstore. Today, Rowe directs his eight-year-old company—which has published approximately 140 titles—in a number of functions, not the least of which is its marketing and promotion initiatives. In this month’s “Marketing Interview,” he lends his perspective as an independent publisher on marketing in today’s rapidly changing publishing climate.
Can you take us through your diverse background in book publishing prior to co-founding Lantern Books?
Martin Rowe: I’d been working all around in the book business. … I [became familiar with the work of] my current colleague and co-owner of Lantern, Gene Gollogly, who worked at Continuum Publishing. I wrote him a letter … and said anyone who publishes books like [the ones he was publishing], I’d like to work for. He found a job for me as a promotion manager. …
I decided to set up my own company in 1999 publishing work that I was interested in, which was vegetarianism, animal advocacy, spirituality, social issues, nonviolence issues, etc. And Gene came with me. So we have a company that publishes books and one that produces Web sites, Lantern Media, and we have been making a go of it ever since.
What is the most significant change you’ve witnessed in book marketing over the years?
Rowe: In my life in publishing I’ve seen the shift that editors have had to [endure]. … They’ve moved from being people who sit behind desks all day with their doors closed reading manuscripts to being people who have to make budgets, have to understand the markets for their books, and have to realize that they are part of a business.
What are the most significant changes to the industry as a whole that you’ve seen throughout your career?
Rowe: The whole industry has changed and is changing in such a way that nobody really knows the direction it’s heading in. When I started Lantern, the big thing was e-books. I’d go to BEA [Book Expo America] or ABA [American Booksellers Association], and see these huge stands for e-books and everybody telling you that the printed word would be dead within two years. And we’re still waiting for that. I don’t think that the printed word is going to disappear anytime soon ….
The challenge of promotion is to use the technology and the infinite number of … chat groups, blogs, Web sites, online organizations, etc., and reach them with your product to make sure they talk about it. [Using] the conventional ways of trying to get a book into the general market via book reviews, book signings in bookstores, trying to get authors on radio and TV shows … you’re just not going to be able to compete unless you have the big names or you have big money. And if you don’t have either of those—which a small publisher like us doesn’t—then you have to be much more creative.
Lantern has a MySpace profile. When did you create it, and what is the strategy behind it?
Rowe: We created it about six months ago, and the reason is that the majority of our customers link to us from MySpace. It’s actually surpassed Google in terms of search for us. And, of course, the challenge with this is that if everybody jumps on MySpace, it becomes just as unvarying as all the other methods of marketing.
As a publisher who has sold books online since the company’s founding, what advice would you offer to others selling their books online for the first time?
Rowe: … You have to ask yourself the question, “What is my relationship with the trade?” … From the outset, we decided to sell online. We initiated 20-percent discounts about 18 months ago as a way of offsetting at least some of the sales that we were “losing” to Amazon. That offers a certain incentive, but it’s not something we’re wedded to. We’re not going to nickle and dime Amazon. …
We have not lost any trade business, we feel, by selling online. In the end, a book is sold no matter where it’s sold. How much we get from the sale of a book is obviously a case in point, but many of our more academic titles are … discounted anyway. … I think that publishing executives need to look at the costs and see how much [revenue] they [bring in] through the trade and how much they [bring in] through online sales, whether it’s BN.com or Amazon.com … and make their decision.
What are your thoughts on the effect Google’s Book Search is having on the industry?
Rowe: We signed up for Google’s search program very early, actually. We feel that there is no danger to our company in having more content available online. The more, the better. And if Google Search can provide the kind of technological insight that we don’t necessarily have the [ability] to perform, that’s great. … We understand the reasons why some publishers are concerned about copyright. We obviously feel that there’s an issue in terms of very, very popular books that are being [made available by Google].
… I would say that the bigger threat to publishers is from retailers publishing their own books, like when you have someone like Barnes & Noble putting out the classics at much cheaper prices [than traditional publishers], then providing free rental space in their own bookstores. I think that’s more of a threat to the bread-and-butter titles that publishers thrive on in their backlists.
Are you more or less optimistic about the book publishing industry today than you were five years ago?
Rowe: Well, I think publishers are preternaturally incapable of being enthusiastic. The reason being that every book that we produce, we hope and we pray, and we have great aspirations for thinking that this book will be the one that breaks out, the one that will do gangbuster business … and we’re always amazed at the ones that do well and the ones that don’t do well. We’re all searching for that magical formula that will somehow guarantee that the book does very well. As a result, I think we’re a cynical bunch.
On the other hand, I don’t think that we’d be in this business unless we believed passionately in writing and books and communication … and it’s a passion for us. So I would say that we are “cynically optimistic.”
But I will say … I think everyone is very anxious, because we just don’t know where we will end up. It might be the case that in 10 years’ time you can go into any bookstore, photocopying center or any mailing company, and be able to go to a booth, order a book online, get it printed out then and there, and walk away with it. And you can do that anywhere in the world. That will still be a book that’s printed, the copyright will still be protected, and the publishing company that’s produced the book … will still get some money. But it will dramatically change the nature of the industry, and I don’t know what effect it will have.
If I were a shipper of books, I’d be worried. But as an environmentalist, I’m thrilled. Why are we shipping vast amounts of books all over the world when they can be done electronically?
As a result, I think there’s just a sense of concern within the industry, and I share that concern. BB