Under/Cover is constantly probing for insights that will help readers (and writers) understand how to gauge demand, and how to know if that story they have burning inside of them, is actually a book. We recently spoke with Bruce Nichols, Senior Vice President & Publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s (HMH) adult and reference group. Nichols oversees adult fiction, nonfiction, cookbooks, field guides, and reference titles. Under/Cover debriefed him on everything from the publishing industry to how to predict the next best seller.
Under/Cover: Tell me a little bit about how you see the state of the publishing industry today. How is it different than it was maybe five or 10 years ago?
Nichols: Overall, the industry is healthy. It’s been mature and growing at a very modest pace for a long time but we’ve faced in the past, what we thought could be existential crises, or certainly seen changes like the rise of ebooks and the closing of a lot of brick and mortar stores, and the gathering power of market share of Amazon in the retail world, and I think we’ve had moments in the past of thinking, “Oh, this could really, really change what we do,” and then we’ve come through them, and in fact the total number of books being purchased has been pretty stable. More recently, audio books have been exploding. The sales are increasing, depending upon who you ask, 30% or even more year over year for the last several years. And that doesn’t seem to be cannibalizing print or ebook sales, so that’s all good news. People now plug in when they’re in the kitchen, or in the car, or at the gym, where they wouldn’t have been reading a book anyway. That’s been a happy story without any existential fears, but certainly the sorts of non-fiction books that sell can shift quickly and the publicity world is noisier than ever, so for some kinds of books, it’s harder to publish than ever, and for others it’s in some ways, easier. But the but the overall health of the industry is pretty good.
Under/Cover: Book agents have told us that non-fiction books are now selling better than fiction books. When you look at what’s happening in Washington today, it feels like there could be a rise in the number of non-fiction books about people’s different experiences, particularly those who have or have had jobs within the administration. What do you think about fiction versus non-fiction today?
Nichols: I think whoever said that to you is right. Fiction sales have been decreasing. Not at a massive rate, it’s sort of a single-digit percentage rate, but non-fiction has been more than making up the difference. The fact that our political culture is so polarized and so passionate has been great for sales of certain books. But there are so many of them that, as with any genre, it’s easy to focus on those few that rise to the top – whether it’s James Comey, or Michael Wolff, or Bob Woodward or the other ones that hit the best seller lists – and miss all kinds of books that are in the same general space. The other thing about those political books, which I grapple with all the time, is that when they hit, they hit very quickly and they don’t last very long, and they certainly don’t sell in paperback, or a year later, or down the road. You have to make a gamble on exactly how hot it will be in the first month or so. And even when you succeed, it doesn’t necessarily leave you with another book to do by the same person, so a lot of them are sort of one-shot deals. That’s a high-risk world, and you also have to publish very quickly, and you’re held somewhat of a hostage to the headlines.
Under/Cover: You’ve had some fairly prominent people come to you with their own stories that they wanted to tell. How do you decide whether it’s a book that’s going to be hot enough, even if it’s not going to have a shelf life, no pun intended? If it’s going to be hot enough to be worth the investment as a publisher?
Nichols: I don’t think I can give you a simple, clear formula. I do think that if someone from the administration has had a long and important career that predates the administration, that lends a certain amount of weight. For example, it’s been publicly reported that H.R. McMaster is writing a book, and he’s had a very interesting career, and he’s written a book before and he’s a very smart guy, and you can be pretty sure there’s an audience who’s going to want to read what he has to say, regardless of exactly what he says, about his Trump experiences. You start with that and you know that somebody who has had a long career in an area that is of interest to a readership, that there’s a certain floor there. Sometimes you gather things from a meeting with an author that that author might not even put in a proposal, that also gives you some hints as to what will be the most controversial or newsworthy.
I remember years ago, I published Richard Clarke’s book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror at Simon and Schuster. A lot of people write proposals that give you the general outline, but they don’t give you a whole lot of specifics, and in our meeting, he gave us some terrific specifics on exactly what President Bush said to him in the wake of 9/11, and asking whether Iraq was involved and that gave us the confidence that it would be a significant book. We still were not betting on it being as successful as it was. It proved to be the benefit of all kinds of great timing, including the fact that his testimony on the 9/11 Commission was public and televised and the book came out right before that. We paid a significant amount of money for it but still, it was a bargain at the end of the day. There’s just always risk involved, and so a lot of auctions for high-level administration people get very expensive. I mean, I will say in the last two years, I’ve yet to acquire any of those. I’ve only sort of seriously entertained a few of them precisely because of the risk equation and the money. It’s hard to add up.
Under/Cover: A lot of it must be gut feeling, too, or instinct. Explain to us what an auction is. How does it work?
Nichols: A literary agent will submit a proposal to a number of publishers, and because of the size of some publishers, they might have many, many imprints that can compete with one another. That agent could submit it to several different editors within the same company, and then typically, they take meetings with people who are especially interested, and then they can set different rules for an auction. They might say, “Okay, the auction is tomorrow, and everyone has to give me a bid by 10:00 in the morning“. The most common version is when the Agent calls the lowest bidder and says, “The high bid is X. You have to increase above that,” and you just keep doing that. And publishers drop out as they reach their ceilings until somebody’s left. But you can do it different ways. You can do it as a sort of one-shot best bid, or one-shot for the initial round, and then the top three bidders get to keep going. There are various things you can do, depending on how many houses are interested.
Under/Cover: What advice do you have for aspiring authors, maybe people who have come out of the CIA world, and have fascinating stories based on their own experiences overseas, but they don’t really know whether their story will translate into a book. Do you have a few questions they should be asking themselves before moving forward with that, that will help them assess whether it’s a book?
Nichols: I think a couple of questions. First off is, depending upon exactly what area, where they served, or what they know firsthand, is that something that there’s already an established readership for? It’s one thing to have been working with, the CIA station in Moscow. It’s another to have been somewhere in Africa. But then there’s also the classification review question. Everything has to go through that, if it’s non-fiction, and possibly even if it’s fiction. Are the things that they think are the most interesting actually the things that they won’t be able to describe in enough detail to pique a reader’s interest?
The government is a big and unwieldy place, and sometimes, it’s just the weird rules of bureaucracies that take over, and one review sails through and then the next review doesn’t sail through at all, and I can’t tell the difference between the two cases, but that’s a factor of course. Some people who have seen espionage up close think, “Oh, this could be material for a great thriller,” and fictionalize it, and often it’s true that they know some of the trade craft that would make parts of a thriller really interesting. And yet, there’s another whole set of skills that are required to be able to do that, and not too many of those people have succeeded unless they’ve teamed up with someone who really does most of the plotting and making the character.
Under/Cover: The way you describe it, makes it sound rather challenging for a non-professional writer to tackle alone.
Nichols: There’s an art to writing thrillers, and just because somebody knows some of the details doesn’t mean they have any ability with that art. But there have been collaborations that have worked very well.
Under/Cover: What are some of your favorite books that you’ve published over your career and why are they your favorites?
Nichols: That’s a hard question. When somebody has been doing it as long as I have, it’s like asking you to choose among your children. I would say Richard Clarke’s book. It was in 2004, but it did have a major impact on the debate in Washington on the Iraq War and the War on Terror. It came out during the reelection year for President Bush, so there was a lot of political heat around, “Are people gonna vote for him or not?” But there was also a sense that you couldn’t criticize the Iraq war, and there were some critics of it all the way from congressional resolution forward, but for the most part people are patriotic, and once we go to war they rally, and so I do feel like that book began a very public process of debating whether that war was a good idea or not, and so I was proud of that.
Under/Cover: Fifteen years later, are you sensing war fatigue when it comes to books about those experiences, either in Afghanistan or Iraq, or is there still interest in that?
Nichols: There’s a natural life cycle to public interest in topics, and there’s a broad principle we sometimes talk about in publishing that there’s a sort of black hole between current affairs and history, and figuring out when current affairs are suddenly falling off into that black hole and how long the hole is going to last is part of what we have to do. But certainly, when a war is fresh, people are hungry for all kinds of accounts. It could be an individual veteran. It could be a reporter embedded with a unit. It could be someone tracking a broader picture both back in Washington as well as on the front. Then, over time, the accounts of actual fighting in Iraq naturally pile up, so people naturally start getting tired of them, and I haven’t seen any major popular books about, for example, fighting against ISIS. I think there’s a lot of fatigue there and in Afghanistan, it’s the same principle. I do think that really, really masterful reporters at the level of a Steve Coll could probably do a big book on something even though there have been many, many, many books on it, and still succeed. But that’s setting the bar pretty high.
Under/Cover: Given what you know about UnderCover’s readership, what else is important for people to know when they’re thinking about approaching the publishing industry in some way?
Nichols: Given who your audience is, the impact of the 2020 election is something everyone has to think about, and I’m sure the bestseller lists throughout that year and even before the end of this year, will be heavily populated by political books and anything that could influence the election, we’ll be insanely interested in. That’s a blessing and a curse because there will be a ton of books, so if that’s the kind of book someone wants to write, there is a lot of competition, but it also means that if you want to publish a serious book on current affairs that’s not exactly either pro or anti Trump, it’ll be hard. With every presidential election, publishers debate, “What do we publish in October when everyone’s so obsessed with the election, and in the spring, during the primaries, when they’re still competitive, that sort of mini-version of October, what do we hold off, versus in the summer when there’s kind of a lull? What makes sense to publish?”
2020 is probably going to be the most passionate version of an election cycle that I can remember, so that problem will be just exaggerated, and all of us have to struggle with it because we all want to publish a lot of different valuable books and we can’t stop publishing and just wait. It’s just going to be one of those events that you can see coming and you can’t always figure out what to do about it.
Under/Cover: On average, how many book proposals do you review in a given week or a month?
Nichols: I’m the publisher here, so I’m overseeing all of our editors, and they are getting far more than I am. I get proposals sent to me that I then pass off, but I would say in terms of serious non-fiction among my team, including myself, we get several a day. There are certain times of year where there are more or there are fewer, but I would say there are quite a few that you can almost immediately realize you’re not interested in, so you’re not spending much time on, but things that we take seriously, and read, and share, and talk about, there are probably 10 to 12 a week in the serious non-fiction category.
And then of those, we might decide to actually pursue and bid on a third to a half, and then we probably only win roughly a third of the ones we bid on, so we end up acquiring about 100 to 110 or so new titles a year in fiction and non-fiction combined. Serious non-fiction is of course just a fraction of that.
Under/Cover: Where do you see the market exploding once the election cycle has passed, or is that a bit too far to look into your crystal ball to decide?
Nichols: More generally when we talk about fiction versus non-fiction, within non-fiction, very broadly defined, lifestyle books have been expanding as a category for several years, and that’s driven a fair amount of our growth. People are hungry for all kinds of self-help, and cookbooks, and diet and fitness, et cetera. And those titles have been a little more protected against the problems we face in current affairs about the headlines shifting every day because it’s a different media ecosystem. Those authors are often stars on social media and they have their own audiences they can reach directly. That’s been a growing category that I don’t see slowing down anytime soon.
One thing that has been hurt slowly over time, and I’ve been sorry to see it hurt, is history, and that’s not because there isn’t a readership for it. There always has been, but in the media ecosystem, it’s hard to book somebody to talk about an historical topic on a lot of shows. If there’s not a present day implication or direct lesson, unless it’s some sort of huge author, like Ron Chernow’s next biography, NPR, where we love to book authors (and they can really help sell books), it’s pretty hard to get a lot of history on NPR. Like everybody else, they react to the headlines, and so why should they talk about World War II? I’ve been sorry to see that happen, and yet we know there’s an audience for it and always will be, and we’re not going to stop publishing it.
Under/Cover: That’s sort of between what you know is driving numbers versus what you know brings real value to the conversation as well. What about the social media impact on the publishing industry? We talked about ebooks and self-publishing. How has social media changed the landscape for publishers?
Nichols: It’s had a huge impact. The first answer to the question is that authors who have a lot of followers, and who are really good at it, whichever channel, whether they’re huge on Twitter, or Instagram, or YouTube or whatever, that’s more valuable than ever. We’ve always cared very much about whether our authors are going to be helpful in promotion and authors who are great in interviews are much more valuable than authors who are terrible at that, but now layer on top of that, do they have their own big following, and are they really engaged in with other people who are influential in whatever social ecosystem they’re in? Especially in fiction. Fiction is a sort of exaggerated version of publishing history. It’s really hard to get a fiction author on NPR. You know, “Why should they stop and do this novel, or that novel?” They do, of course, do interviews with fiction authors, but at nowhere near the same rate as topical non-fiction. If a fiction author is not much of a player in social media, it’s a real strike against them.
Read more Under/Cover interviews and book reviews in The Cipher Brief and visit The Cipher Brief book store for titles from our experts. If you’re interested in becoming a reviewer for Under/Cover, check out our reviewer guidelines.
(Disclaimer: Bruce Nichols was the publisher of Cipher Brief CEO & Publisher Suzanne Kelly’s (then-Simons), Master of War: Blackwater USA’s Erik Prince and the Business of War, Collins 2009)
The interview has been edited for length and clarity and was originally published in April, 2019.