The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?  

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Episode I: "That's fine! People like them!"


Published 2/11/15
In the inaugural installment, I speak with New York magazine senior editor Christopher Bonanos. Topics include the magazine's editorial process, how it approaches the digital/print divide, The Strand, reading digital news in 2020, Club Monaco, local bookstores and Arthur Fellig.

(Andrew Lipstein) I’m here with Christopher Bonanos, senior editor over at New York magazine. We’re currently 1,000 miles away. To bridge the digital divide, would you kindly describe your environs?

(Christopher Bonanos) I'm in the New York magazine offices, which are on Canal Street in Soho. It's freezing cold outside and a mix of sleet, snow, and rain is coming down, so the streets are covered in six inches of dirty slush. I just refilled my coffee, because it's pretty necessary today. And I still wouldn't live anywhere else!

Coffee is both necessary when it's disgusting out, as well as when it's beautiful. Briefly, what do you do as senior editor for New York magazine?

I'm principally the editor of Intelligencer, the front-of-the-book section of the magazine. I also work on some culture coverage--mostly the highbrow stuff, like theater and architecture--and I write now and then, too, usually about urban affairs.

I also work on the digital side of the operation, more and more, lending a hand on Daily Intelligencer and Vulture, our news and culture blogs. Most of the print editors have at least a slice of Web work in their job descriptions now.

I want to touch on that new digital side in a bit. You’ve written on a huge swath of topics, which makes sense, given the magazine’s breadth of coverage. I often find it hard to describe to the uninitiated what the magazine is. Could you do me that favor, abstaining from the word culture, or any derivative?

Sure--and that is a question that requires some answering.

That's what you're here for.

People slightly misapprehend what New York magazine is, I think, mostly because of its name. It covers New York City, yes, but not the actual physical five boroughs of New York. Instead, it covers a certain IDEA of New York, which is both smaller and much bigger than that.

That sounds a little airy, but let me clarify. For example: New York is where the American financial and creative and media businesses are mostly headquartered. So we cover those industries closely, even when they're not here. Hollywood is certainly in our orbit; so is a certain kind of Las Vegas story; so is Harvard or Princeton, or a Japanese business like Uniqlo.

But we also have always had a hand in service journalism, which New Yorkers appreciate, and that keeps one foot, or at least a couple of toes, in our local coverage. And then we continue to cover (for example) Mike Bloomberg, and Bill de Blasio, and Shelly Silver.

That's fair. I find the magazine's relevance to my life in Florida virtually equivalent to my life in New York (except for food & de Blasio).

The publication, to me, has been a standout for its balanced execution. And by balanced I don’t mean politically or that it doesn’t take risks, but in its 1) tone & tenor and 2) medium. First, tone. The voice is conversational when it needs to be and objective when it needs to be, it feels young but wise or aged but hyper-informed. What’s the process that makes this happen? Can I assume a strict style guide is involved?

Not exactly--the sensibility is baked in long before any style guide gets applied.

How's that?

The tone descends from the ideas themselves. Every Tuesday, the editors convene for a pitch meeting, and we're expected to bring two or three feature ideas. And many times, Adam Moss (who is our editor-in-chief, and very possibly the best one going) will say "bring the headline and the dek"--the dek is the subhead.

Now, it would seem difficult to write the headline for a story that has neither been seen nor reported yet. But it has a way of giving the pitch a shape, and establishing why someone might want to read the story. It can clarify your editorial thinking, and sometimes will show you why a story isn't going to work out.

And then the next step is who writes it, and that's like casting a movie. What kind of story do you want? Do you want a writer who's a great yarn-spinner, or someone who's great at amassing documentation and deep research, or someone who can wait on a subject's doorstep for two days to get an someone elusive to talk, or someone who has deep background knowledge of a particular cultural niche (theater, say, if it's a theater story)?

You can't have all those things in one person, so you choose. And the story you get often reflects who you chose.

The actual editing of the story--as in going through the prose and fixing it up--can be a tenth of the process.

Not what I expected. New York does exceedingly (and increasingly) well in both of its mediums: its native website, and its print publication, which you see all over the city—on the subway in all types of hands, in doctors’ offices, at your barber, left over on diner countertops. Many magazines as old as New York haven’t handled the switch over to digital nearly as well—they’ve either neglected digital (to the delight of editors and the dismay of investors) or suffered the opposite fate (a la The New Republic). How would you describe New York’s print vs. digital strategy? How do you keep stories fresh for print when they’re so often available for free online?

It's because we have begun to think the opposite way. Virtually everything is assigned for digital now, not for print. I've heard the statistic that we publish twenty online pieces for every one in the magazine itself, and that was a couple of years ago--the proportion may be even higher now.

The long features are (mostly) an exception, and we often ask ourselves, when they are coming together, "will this stay fresh for two weeks?" That has become a particular concern since the print edition went biweekly.

We also think a lot about how we present things digitally. Like the big feature we published recently on Chris Rock--it was studded with footnotes, which were fun in print but added far more animation and pop, and were easier to read, online.

We also have an iPad edition that does those things one better. Basic things that seem obvious but somehow often aren't--like, for instance, including a song with a music review, or a couple of pages of book excerpt with a book review.

It's funny you mention those footnotes. I've seen them popping up on a lot of similar-demo'ed sites. They just work. The internet isn't new now, by any means, and yet publishers are still very much in the process of innovating the medium. Could you humor me and play Nostradamus—what do you foresee being a big divide between how I read an article on today and how I'll read one in 2020?

Hmmm. I would guess that you will see more multimedia, but only for stories that benefit by it--we don't do tech for tech's sake, both because it's silly and because it eats up time that we don't have.

You will also see stories more told visually. Photos look a lot better on the Web than they did even a couple of years ago. That is even more true in the print magazine, where a double-page spread (11 by 17 inches, more or less) is still nearly the biggest photo you encounter on a regular basis, and it's printed on glossy stock. That is a powerful way of conveying an image, more so than in a three-inch window on your screen, and we take advantage of it as much as we can.

More than that, though, I would say--and I can't say this is a strategy here; I'm just guessing--you may see new forms of stories that evolve over time. I've really liked, for example, Gabe Sherman's coverage of Fox and Murdoch in the past few years, and every time there's a turn in that opera, he publishes online about it. Then there are longer stories when the news merits it. That, in the aggregate, is a form that I think we'll go back to more and more. (Again, just a guess.)

Oh, and you'll be likely to read it on a tablet or a phone, and have clicked through from Twitter or Facebook.

Or whatever social media outlet will have taken the world by storm then.

I don't see anyone busting that up by 2020, but who knows? It's happened before. 

Changing gears: I originally asked you to talk because of a particular article you wrote, on the past and future of one of New York’s most beloved bookstores, The Strand. You said: “Whereas you can leave a Barnes & Noble feeling numbed, particularly if a clerk directs you to Gardening when you ask for Leaves of Grass, the Strand is simply a warmer place for readers.” Even more numbing than B&N’s hotel lobby interior is the world of the internet. Do you think it’s possible for an online bookstore to bring that sort of warmth (in any manifestation)?

It's trickier, to be sure, but I hardly think it's impossible. Plenty of online forums feel intimate and human; certainly an online bookstore can be.

The biggest thing--again, obvious, but then again maybe not so obvious--is conveying that someone is choosing the books based on what they contain, rather than marketing decisions. The front table at B&N is always this mix of really good books and really shlocky ones, and you know perfectly well why: B&N charges for the space. Whereas you go into Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, or McNally-Jackson in SoHo, and what you immediately sense is that a READER chose the stuff that's up front.

Yes, there are totally commercial things up there selling--that's fine! people like them!--but the difference is obvious.

Couldn't agree more. That is the big difference between your big box bookstore and your local one—the charging for space. The take home lesson of the article, I think, was something everyone knows but is still shocking to hear: everything follows the dollar, in one way or another. At the end of the day, in the realm of publishing, is this thought as frightening as it sounds? Are local bookstores 'holding on' or is there a future landscape in which they will, once again, thrive?

It all depends on what happens to B&N. That company is not looking so healthy now, and if it goes under as Borders did, there will be NO bookstores in a lot of the country. There is still demand for books, and for books that Costco and the like don't carry, and won't. The answer to that void could be the indies, which can be responsive to the market and build community and all that jazz.

That said, it's hard to imagine them returning to New York in great numbers, because the rent is so damn high.

Books are a low-margin business--the cover price is fixed, and so is the wholesale price, pretty much, so you take in eight bucks on a sale, or whatever it comes out to--and what they're competing with is a jewelry store that makes ten times that on the smallest transaction.

So, maybe market equilibrium has books something that just ought to be purchased online? (At least in urban areas.)

Tough to say. Of course, urban areas are the ones where (to overgeneralize) you have higher concentrations of educated people, and thus more demand for books. So I do think the numbers may work out well in cities that don't have the rent pressure of New York/Boston/San Francisco. But again, that depends on whether the chains continue to own the turf.

There's also a model I've seen here and there: the nonprofit bookstore. Like Ann Patchett's, in Nashville.

Interesting. On the opposite side of the spectrum, in your article, you mentioned a satellite Strand being built into a Club Monaco near Fifth Avenue.

It was pretty nice, too.

That's ostensibly a 'for-profit' ploy, but it also feels like marketing, and establishing brand (for Club Monaco). As in, their bottom line in that move isn't to increase profit through book sales.

It was clever: Club Monaco contributes its margins, and its lease, to the deal, and the Strand contributes some cachet and brand equity as well as its ability to buy books at a decent wholesale price. In other words, the Strand pays some of its rent in things other than money.

I wonder who started that conversation. I'm guessing Monaco.

Probably. In the other direction, it would seem a little random.

Finally, in the not-so-soon but not-so-distant future, we’ll be seeing a new title by you in bookstores, both digital and physical (and maybe even Club Monaco). It’s a biography of Arthur Fellig, the tabloid news photographer. Could you tell me a bit about that?

Oh, be careful of what you wish for--ask a writer about a book he's working on, and you get a firehose blast.

Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, was the best-known tabloid news photographer of the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, your mental picture of a press photographer of that era--cigar, mashed-down fedora, rumpled suit, big Speed Graphic camera--comes from him. He is a huge character: funny, crass, talented, sometimes tasteless, completely self-taught.

If he were around today, would he have a Twitter?

Oh, are you kidding? He was a fantastic self-promoter. He'd have a reality show, where he roamed the city at night trying to beat the other papers.

In fact, he kind of did. His first book of photographs, published in 1945, is called NAKED CITY, and it became a faux-documentary film and then TV series. You know, "there are eight million stories," etc.

Can't wait to read it. 2017?

Probably 2017, from Henry Holt. I'm spending a bunch of this summer in the archives.

Well, good luck with that Chris. That's all I've got for you now. Thanks for playing.

This was fun! Thanks for having me in.