I think a lot about this subject, largely because it’s my chosen field and I think there’s room for more great reporting, the kind that makes jaws drop and which is clearly the result of a lot of hard work and enterprise. (Most recent example: paidContent’s Laura Owen and her two part series on Amazon’s Kindle Singles Program.) So here are a few things that have helped me get better over the past few years and that may help others who might be considering a walk on the bookish beat:
1. A very high bullshit detector. This is something that increases with experience; even now there are still some stories I place more credence in than I should. But, especially with the interest and influx of tech circles into publishing, a lot of gospel fallacies are perpetuated that are anything but. Find out what they are. Analyze them. And if they fail the smell test, leave them alone or, if it’s worth it, go ahead and debunk them. There is as much importance in what isn’t being commented or reported on as what is reported.
Same when you get a press release or someone imparts information or when a publication has an “exclusive.” Figure out what’s missing and more often than not, reporting that out leads to a better story. Same as when you make an assumption: be wrong, then when you correct yourself, it’s often much better and more interesting.
2. Learn how to read financial documents. I admit: the first few dozen times I went through earnings reports, I hated it. The numbers made no sense. They were poorly written. I was highlighting the wrong things. Over time, I learned how to parse them, even if I still get tripped up sometimes. Earnings reports and SEC filings tell you things, especially if you dive deep into the numbers, that you will never get from anything else, and provide clues as to how publishers and booksellers are really doing. They also leave stuff out that also are worth noting. More often than not, in fact. Related: a few days after the earnings reports are out, go back to the SEC and dig up a company’s 10-Q. They say stuff that might have been “forgotten” in the press release everybody saw.
3. Go through legal filings. I’ve lost count how many story leads I’ve generated from periodical searches of federal and state filings (and Courthouse News) that are hiding in plain sight but which are generally ignored. Or if they aren’t ignored, reported badly because too many people are too lazy to go through the entire complaints/response memos/motions/rulings or can’t figure out what exactly they are reading. Also sometimes the filings are funny! No, really.
4. Befriend a scout or two. They know ALL. Related to that, get familiar with international publishing, even a small/medium size piece of it, because the business gets more global every day and the connections grow more complicated. Related: get to know booksellers and librarians, especially those outside of big urban metropolises. In fact I would argue that the one-day-a-week gig I had selling books at Partners & Crime more than a decade ago did the most to set me on this crazy “career path” of mine.
5. Break open the glamour box. Publishing is not just about editors, agents, publicists or authors, though some publications would like to pretend it is. If there is one thing that Twitter has changed for me as a reporter, it’s direct access to many parts of the publishing chain — sales reps, account managers, contracts people, production editors, designers, marketing managers, and especially assistants (They know all, too. And they will grow up to be the next generation of power people. They are not to be pissed off or condescended to.) All are rendered equal, more or less in 140 characters. So many have fascinating stories or insights into stories being talked about and more importantly, stories *not* being talked about.
6. Love the beat. Or at least, report on it like you mean it. Sounds like a no-brainer, but the publishing industry is in such flux, and is so quirky and relationship-based, that if you’re phoning it in or don’t have the energy to at least understand what the hell is going on or have burned out, it will show. It’s not so much that there are stupid questions, but the really stupid ones are those you never thought to even ask, to completely bastardize the fourth son in the Passover Seder.
7. Read the books. I direct this more to the tech side of the publishing reporter spectrum, but what gets lost in all the chatter about ebooks/agency model/Amazon taking over or not taking over the world/etc. is that publishing is, and always will be, about books. And if you don’t read, or don’t at least talk or hint about what you’re reading in some context, uh, why are you doing this? It would be like a TV reporter who doesn’t watch television or an aviation reporter who never flies.
The TL;DR version: be skeptical but don’t get too jaded. Be curious and read!