February 13, 2015
There are no home runs left: What Jon Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show may mean for the publishing industry
by Alex Shephard
For most of the last decade, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report were the two most important television shows in book publishing—and indeed, The Daily Show, which predates Colbert by over half-a-decade, has been the most important since at least George W. Bush’s inauguration. Stephen Colbert’s decision to end The Colbert Report in December of last year was a blow; Jon Stewart’s departure from The Daily Show, which he announced on Tuesday, is potentially devastating.
When Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999, The Book Review, when it survived at all, was becoming a pamphlet; book reviews themselves seemed like they should be listed on the endangered species list. Meaningful television coverage for books, let alone late-night coverage, was more or less non-existent. When The Colbert Report launched in 2005, things were pretty much the same.
While book reviews didn’t—thankfully!—disappear, it’s undeniably the case that Stewart and Colbert acted as a bulwark for the publishing industry. They made time for books in an era when people were making less time for books than ever before and, more importantly, when it was becoming abundantly clear that most media organizations did not see book coverage—or arts coverage in general—as a priority.
Which is not to say, of course, that Comedy Central began to make time for Blake Butler or Lars Iyer or Amelia Gray, or that they regularly took chances on debut authors—or even that they were particularly good friends to fiction—but they made time nonetheless. Stewart and Colbert could have easily limited their format to the typical late-night guests (celebrities hawking a new film) or traditional news magazine guests (journalists covering an important story of the day) but they didn’t. They broadened the possibilities of their format.
Of the two, Stewart had the more conventional taste. For the most part, the authors he had as guests were either promoting topical nonfiction work or were middle of the road authors with media experience, who could be said to fall into the “public intellectual” category. The Daily Show (and Colbert, though somewhat less so) was not necessarily a place where you would find the kind of nonfiction published by Oxford University Press, Verso or, for that matter, Melville House.
But while The Daily Show moved away from fiction (and even substantive nonfiction) halfway through the Bush era, it didn’t abandon it entirely. Stewart talked to Marilynne Robinson in 2010; Salman Rushdie, Stephen King, and Tom Wolfe also made appearances, alongside a slate of nonfiction authors. (And in a way, The Daily Show resists generalization–after all, David Mitchell was a guest just last year). Nonfiction authors—particularly middle-of-the-road nonfiction writers like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Fareed Zakaria thrived throughout the show’s run. Most importantly, Stewart was famous for actually reading the books—a rarity for most hosts.
Perhaps by virtue of his later time-slot or his persona, which didn’t require earnest conversation, Colbert was more interesting. George Saunders, a spiritual brother to Colbert if there ever was one, was a regular guest, and appeared in the show’s finale. A cursory search of the word “novel” on the show’s website reveals appearances by Michael Chabon, John Green, Colum McCann, and Nicholson Baker (!).
Of course, nothing spoke to Colbert’s engagement with the book world like his support of Hachette in its battle with Amazon last summer. Colbert, himself a Hachette author, devoted significant time to the controversy and helped, with an assist from Sherman Alexie, transform Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California into a national bestseller. Looking back at the protracted dispute between Amazon and Hachette, Colbert’s segment in July seems like something of a high-water mark—his “I Didn’t Buy It On Amazon” stickers were a brilliant touch, and a rallying cry for publishers, authors, and booksellers. “Stephen Colbert” the character may have been a pro-business blowhard, but Stephen Colbert the man was clearly a book lover—and it showed. (If you think Colbert’s booking was an accident, you should listen to this, in which he goes through his daily routine, including his meeting with his booker.)
How much did authors’ appearances on Colbert and Stewart actually affect sales? It’s hard to say for sure. After all, not every appearance resulted in a profound, status-altering bump. But both shows earned a deserved reputation in the publishing industry as crown jewels—an appearance couldn’t guarantee a book would become a bestseller, but it was about as close to a sure thing as you could get in an incredibly uncertain marketplace.
It’s no surprise, then, that Stewart’s departure is seen as a huge blow by many in the industry, especially as it comes on the heels of Colbert’s. In an excellent piece collecting the industry’s reaction, Ron Charles wrote that “book publicists were crushed” by Stewart’s announcement: “In an increasingly fractured market,” he continued, “The Daily Show has been a singular platform for authors to promote their books.”
W.W. Norton’s publicity director Elizabeth Riley described Stewart as “the intellectual author’s Oprah,” adding that “being on The Daily Show is the dream interview every serious nonfiction writer mentions during that first strategy meeting.” Scribner publicist Kate Lloyd described a Daily Show-invite as “the Holy Grail.”
Weinstein Books publicity director Kathleen Schmidt went into more detail, telling Charles:
“Heading into what will surely be an interesting election season full of political books, publishers are losing a very important piece to the publicity puzzle. For certain kinds of books, ‘The Daily Show’ has been an invaluable vehicle for promotion. Books about politics, public policy, biographies, that otherwise would be difficult to promote on a network morning show found their audience through Jon Stewart.”
Paul Boogards, Knopf Doubleday vice president, concurred, telling Charles: “Publishers don’t have a lot of substantive broadcast booking options for authors.”
Lloyd, Riley, Boogards, and Schmidt largely fill out the case I had begun to make above. Even coming from a small house, I can say that Lloyd and Riley are right: both programs were something to aspire to, dream bookings for us and for many of our authors.
Schmidt’s comment is, I think, the most astute as it pertains to the loss of Stewart in particular. The Daily Show was the perfect place, especially in an election year, for “books about politics, public policy, biographies” and other black sheep. Bookings for those genres weren’t guaranteed, but as anyone in the industry knows, if you strike out with Stewart and Colbert with a particular kind of nonfiction book, there’s nowhere else on TV to go—there’s nowhere, in fact, with that kind of audience to go.
Lloyd and Boogards also had some interesting comments about the loss of Stewart’s demographic. Lloyd told Charles that Stewart’s audience was as valuable as the host: “His audience is made up of smart, book-buying readers who respond to the thoughtful treatment and authentic passion he customarily expresses for the books he features.” Boogards, on the other hand, was more specific, saying “The value of Jon Stewart welcoming writers on his show, giving them a platform and making them a part of the conversational mix was quantifiable in this sense: He elevated the work of authors, made books relevant to a younger demographic. And that demographic remains challenging for publishers to reach, at least en masse.”
Lloyd, Riley, Boogards, and Schmidt are all highly respected—I admire all four—and they’re also, if you excuse the somewhat icky term, insiders. While the “publishing industry” is far from the monolith many outside the industry see it as, it’s fair to say that these four represent what the Big 5 consensus on Stewart’s impending exit. (I think it’s also fair to say that they also represent the opinion of most small presses, even if most of us did not share in the Stewart/Colbert bounty.) Pamela Paul, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, perhaps summed up this line of thinking best when she tweeted: “This is how many book people see it: First Oprah, then Colbert, now The Daily Show.”
None of this is to say that Oprah, Colbert, and Stewart are equivalent. The loss of Oprah’s Book Club was a genuinely huge blow—the Book Club featured fewer books but was far more dependable. If you published one of the chosen few, you were pretty much guaranteed a bestseller. In some cases, more than one: a rising tide lifts all boats, and an Oprah pick could lift an author’s entire catalog.
Of course, Oprah did restart her book club, now known as “Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.” Though it still drives sales, the sequel pales compared to the original–the sales are weaker, but it also seems less inspired. The greatest strengths of Oprah’s Book Club 1.0 were its diversity, its willingness to test its audience with difficult material, and its refusal to stay in one time or place—the books chosen spanned the globe and several centuries. The most recent pick in the club’s second iteration, Cynthia Bond’s novel Ruby, may very well be deserving of the honor, but it’s worth pointing out the somewhat disconcerting fact that Oprah’s production company also bought the film and television rights to the book: promoting a crossover property is a bit different than promoting a good book for the sake of promoting a good book.
Stewart and Colbert have never come close to competing with Oprah in terms of scale—their audience and, in turn, their influence on the book-buying public was considerably smaller, though still incredibly significant. Both hosts regularly drew about one million viewers a night, (though there was undoubtedly some overlap), plus a committed online audience, who would watch the show the next day on a laptop, or perhaps just watch an aggregated clip or two. One million viewers isn’t a huge number by television standards, but, as Lloyd indicated, the demographics were just fine for publishers: Stewart and Colbert had an audience of book buyers that no one else could compete with. I’m a bit skeptical that they had the level of influence over milennials that Boogards and Charles seem to think that they did, but to a large extent that’s beside the point. Theirs was a sizable audience that read and bought books: losing a targeted audience of that size is devastating, especially when most books will never reach the five figure mark when it comes to sales (and many will be lucky to reach the four figure mark). No wonder people are a bit panicked.
There is, of course, a touch of absurdity to all of this, especially considering the publishing industry’s penchant for the apocalyptic. Despite their massive importance, the talk shows hosted by Oprah, Colbert, and Stewart were not particularly book-focused. Oprah only highlighted one book a month; Stewart and Colbert had authors on more regularly, but clearly didn’t see it as a duty, let alone something central to their identity. Most importantly, most books never end up on television: presses like this one have thrived and survived despite never having a book hoisted on air by a member of the Holy Trinity.
And yet, this is the end of an era: the era of the home run. Oprah. Colbert. The Daily Show. You only had to land one, and if you did you were as close to set as it gets. Stewart was the last of the golden gooses, and he could be gone as soon as July. The publishing industry seems to be out of home runs—the number of shortcuts to The New York Times bestseller list is dwindling. In fact, there may not be any left.
Devoted, highly targeted audiences, like the ones who watched The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, have always been a rarity, but they’ve become increasingly uncommon over the past decade. Audiences are more fragmented than ever—cultural fragmentation is not a phenomenon unique to the publishing industry—but ironically it’s never been more important to reach large ones.
Interviews, especially interviews with esoteric or unknown subjects have likewise never been more unattractive: they’re still cheap for networks, which counts for something, but they’re predictable, unless something amazing happens. The goal has always been for the interviewee to lift the program, rather than the other way around—networks have no interest selling a few books, especially if ratings are down—but that calculus is tilted now more than it’s ever been.
It’s hard to imagine an industry more poorly adapted to these structures than the publishing industry. At its best, the publishing industry makes long term bets: it nurtures and develops talent over a series of books. Of course, the Big 5 have largely moved away from that in the corporate era—maintaining profit margins has become more important—but they may be grateful for that: it’s noble work, but it’s more difficult now than it’s ever been.
Author interviews, especially with people who aren’t celebrities, take time and resources to do right: someone has to read the book and digest it. That’s a burden—and sometimes a costly one, especially for bottom-line obsessed networks that would rather make a short-term nickel bet than a long-term dollar one. That time commitment also makes a difference when it comes to media: subtlety rarely goes viral; literary criticism never does.
Some literary content does with some regularity, but most what does is only ostensibly book-related: instead, it nurtures an identity as a book lover. Setting out to create viral content for new or forthcoming books is as good idea as trying to move a mountain.
I keep coming back to the question of time. Even if you think books should cost next-to-nothing, they still require an investment. Understanding art takes time, regardless of the medium, but books take longer to digest than any other major form. Samples can help, but literature is rarely immediate.
And there are limits on consumption: you could listen to thousands of songs in a year without much effort, but reading 100 books over the same period is an accomplishment. You can certainly sample a book, but it’s a lot different from sampling an album on Spotify: you only get a glimpse. Spotify is, in many ways, emblematic of cultural life in the digital age: it’s a seemingly limitless library with extremely few restrictions. You can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want. Books don’t just resist that kind of consumption, they make it impossible. You can’t jump between books the way you jump between songs—publishing defies an information economy based on conspicuous consumption. The only way to really know if you like a book is to devote a significant amount of time to it. Buying a book is largely an act of faith: by the time you figure out if you actually like it or not, it’ll probably be too late.
This helps explain the publishing industry’s dependence on people like Stewart and Colbert: more than other mediums, books require endorsements, they require someone you trust telling you to take a chance. The Colbert Bump takes ten minutes; word-of-mouth can break out a book, but it can take ten months. Most of the time, you fall short anyway. Best laid plans.
There are no guarantees in publishing. There never have been. There just seem to be fewer now.
It would be ridiculous to argue that the end of the home run is good for publishers. “Publishing,” as Authors United argued in its second open letter, “is venture capital for ideas.” Publishers place bets on books and authors and then do whatever they can to ensure that those bets pay off. Stewart, Colbert, Oprah—these were people that made bets pay off.
And it would be ridiculous to argue that the current landscape is a favorable one for publishers: a growing hunger for virality—or at least viral potential—is not a good sign for publishers who are dependent on publicity.
The end of the home run is a potentially debilitating blow to big publishers, who are as dependent on big books by big names as they’ve ever been, while simultaneously being more risk averse than ever. That’s a bad combination, but it’s an understandable one when you consider the series of mergers that have remade the landscape over the past several decades. These publishers are owned by large corporations and they’re expected to deliver the profit margins expected by large corporations. Corporate publishing demands sure things, which helps explain the glut of cash-in celebrity books that flood the market every year.
These demands have understandably made many publishers too dependent on the home run. The frontlist has assumed an almost colossal importance for some, which has resulted in debilitating short-term thinking. You need bets that pay off immediately, so you take them when you can find them. The best parts of the publishing industry were built by developing and nurturing talent—by believing in talent, often at a loss—for years out of the belief that it would one day reward everyone. Corporate publishing has made the industry move away from that kind of commitment to artistic development—that kind of commitment to art or, for that matter, people. (That said, older publishers I’ve talked to blame agents for this development—I’m sure there’s enough blame to go around.)
But the end of the home run is not the end of the world—far from it. There’s a general aversion in the industry to long-term commitments, either to authors or to individual books, but greater flexibility is not a bad thing. Perhaps more importantly, it may force publishers to better adapt to the world as it is now, not to rely too heavily on the last vestiges of the old order.
The loss of Stewart and Colbert (and Oprah, more or less) are colossal, in large part because they immediately reduce the visibility of books—or at least certain books—in the marketplace. We’ll mourn the loss of these platforms but their loss will hopefully remind us that we need to be playing a long game—to commit more time and attention to building communities and nurturing communities of book lovers and book buyers, to think more creatively about how we sell books, to connect with more individuals, and tell stories that help sell stories. The marketplace is more diverse than it ever has been before—it’s time to take that seriously, to move beyond late night and newspapers, to embrace long-term thinking. To focus on getting on base, to keep my shaky metaphor going, instead of swinging for the fences.
It’s possible for publishers to survive and perhaps even thrive in a world without Jon Stewart and to do so by publishing and supporting books we believe in. Many publishers have been surviving (and sometimes thriving!) without him for 17 years. But mostly, I hope that this is embraced as an opportunity for the industry to get better at selling books. Marketing is relatively new to the publishing industry. For decades we relied on others—booksellers, critics, broadcasters—to do that work for us.
The publishing industry is prone to Chicken Little-thinking. Too many of us have internalized the dominant narratives–we fear digital disruption, and too often, we seem to be convinced that we’re fighting a losing battle. To work in publishing is to develop a tangible sense of one’s own obsolescence. We need to move beyond that.
Books still matter and they won’t stop mattering, even if a funny guy doesn’t talk about them two or three times a month. They matter more than ever in an increasingly fragmented, shortsighted world—or that they’ve stopped mattering. There’s still an audience out there and the only way to lose them is to let them slip away by refusing to adapt or take risks or publish books that you believe in.
How will we do that? Well, I’m trying to figure that out. But I know that no one else is going to do my work—selling books—for me.
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.