March 20, 2014 9:40 p.m. ET
It's a brave man who chooses a life in the wine business. Or the book business, for that matter. Carlo DeVito is clearly more courageous than many, as he has actually chosen to pursue both.
The 51-year-old Mr. DeVito recently stepped down as editorial director and vice president at Sterling Publishing in New York to start his own imprint (Warren Street Books) and to work with three others (Cider Mill Press, Quarto USA and Burgess Lee) while overseeing his winery, Hudson-Chatham in Ghent, N.Y. "The commute was killing me," explained Mr. DeVito, who was traveling more than five hours a day between his home in Columbia County and New York.
While the wine business is a relatively recent venture, Mr. DeVito has enjoyed a long and prestigious publishing career. He's worked at top houses like Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Running Press and published a wide variety of titles, though he has a particular affinity for books on wine, spirits, cider and beer.
Mr. DeVito has published many such titles over the years (60 to 70, by his own estimate). Perhaps his most famous—and certainly his most successful by far—title was "Kevin Zraly's Windows on the World Complete Wine Course," which has sold millions of copies over the years. (In an email, Mr. DeVito called it "The Joy of Cooking" for wine.)
"There is Kevin and there is everyone else," said Mr. DeVito over a recent lunch in Midtown Manhattan. Mr. DeVito had nothing but praise for the charismatic Mr. Zraly, who he said managed to make the complex subject of wine approachable and fun in a way that has yet to be fully equaled by anyone. The only books that even "come close" to Mr. Zraly's work, said Mr. DeVito, are "The Wine Bible," by Karen MacNeil, and the "Wine for Dummies" books by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan.
These are three of the most successful wine books for "beginners," according to Mr. DeVito. It's a category that's quite popular among authors and publishers, but that is also incredibly competitive. As Mr. DeVito said: "Very few beginners' books do well."
And yet book stores seem to have more beginners' wine books than anything else. Clearly, publishers keep churning them out. Why so? "I guess you keep thinking you're going to find the next new wine name," said Mr. DeVito with a laugh.
And "doing well" means some pretty modest numbers when it comes to wine books. A successful wine book sells around 20,000 copies, according to Mr. DeVito. "But you'd be surprised how many books fall below that number," he said.
Another even smaller number is the amount of money advanced to the authors—a figure that has only gotten lower over the years, said Mr. DeVito. What sort of an advance could a writer be expected to earn? As little as $15,000 or even $10,000? Or less, replied Mr. DeVito: "But authors tend to earn back their advances—and some of them even earn royalties too."
I asked him how the publishing world had changed since he started out (besides the advent of Amazon, of course). The distribution channels had certainly changed, replied Mr. DeVito. Even the significant book stores had changed. The most important stores 20 years ago—B. Dalton and Walden—are all but forgotten. Barnes & Noble was less important back then.
What is the real impact of Amazon? Is it really the behemoth that everyone believes it to be? Not entirely, said Mr. DeVito. "There are a lot of mom-and-pop stores, gift shops, small book shops. We've had several gift shops that led with some titles—and with wine books, it's the book stores that lead the charge." Publishers need to have penetration in all such "channels."
As for wine books today, Mr. DeVito sees increased interest in "hyper-local" wine books—books on the wines of Virginia for that state's wine drinkers or Texas wines for Lone Star readers. He could even imagine producing a book on Michigan wine. Mr. DeVito cited "Summer in a Glass," a book by Evan Dawson that focused on the wines of the Finger Lakes, as an example of a hyper-local book that did very well.
There is also a demand for wine books that address an "intermediate to expert audience," according to Mr. DeVito. He cited a reference book on Burgundy that sold quite well despite a hefty price tag. "There is a big audience of wine geeks out there," he said.
The younger generation of wine drinkers (and readers) pose a particular challenge: "They're more focused on the Internet than books and magazines," said Mr. DeVito. They also eschew words like "gourmet." (Actually, Mr. DeVito made the point a bit more bluntly, saying: "The word 'gourmet' is dead—just like the magazine.") Young wine drinkers are interested in "farm-to-table" and local wines, he said.
As the co-owner (with his wife Dominique) of a 3,000-case winery whose wines have earned a loyal following and won favorable reviews, Mr. DeVito has a particularly informed perspective on these locavore drinkers—many of whom are visitors to his winery. They're drawn to Columbia County not just by the wine but the food, said Mr. DeVito. The region is rich in artisanal products—including some of the top cheese makers in New York state. It's a wonderful community, if a sometimes arduous life.
Which business is more difficult—wine or books? Mr. DeVito briefly considered the question before stating that it's the book business. That's in part because his winery is so small, he said, but he added that they are two industries that happen to have "some of the heaviest boxes of all."
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