From the Self-Help Authors' Tandem:
As members of "the caring profession," we have had enough of the constant defamation of our collective character by the media, starting with the charge that our raison d'etre is making "Infomercials" and hawking "product"! Indeed, we feel that our membership has proved, time and again, that we're no less deserving of being painted with the brush of the "delicate flower" than are the so-called "literary" types of the sort that your contributor (who identifies herself as "Laura") seems to represent. "Laura's" insinuation that we are somehow coarse self-promoters, or that we went to college "to learn how to become marketing gurus," is patently false, and represents a cruel bias against our membership. In fact, our affinity for the frailty of the human condition (which is what makes us self-help authorities in the first place) requires that we be able to tap into our own sensitivity/vulnerability all day long. By contrast, you literary types are only "exposed" for only as long as you're at your computers--which, rumor has it, is often just an hour or two a day. How hard can that be?
P.S. The "beasties" remark seems especially uncalled for.
From the Trade Organization Of Break-Able Devices:
To the writer who complained about wearing out 4 computer keyboards per year: in para. 5 (A) of your warranty, you'll see that neither anger management nor snow removal are listed as acceptable, reimbursable applications for our word processing products.
From the Publishers Legal Office--Printing:
Frankly we are shocked--SHOCKED!--at the insinuation by one of your contributors that we would EVER expect an author to "kick in for printing and binding." However, this might be a good time to ask: were you thinking you might want a cover for that book?
The first half of that conversation ran Tuesday, Dec. 14 ("Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal"), and generated some heated response from other writers. Some agreed with the Entrepreneur about the value, potentially, of investing extra $$$ (or €€€, as the case may be) in the marketing of one’s own book; others were appalled that anyone w/in publishing (namely, me) might advise such a course of action (one contributor felt doing so blurred “the distinction between Vantage and Vintage”); while still others took issue with the Entrepreneur’s definition of “investment” (or “risk”), which seemed to exclude the vast array of costs associated with becoming a writer—not just material costs (“four toner drums a year…two-four computer keyboards a year” etc) but also opportunity costs, the money one might have earned via a steady paying gig—all of which are sunk by the time the writer finally boxes up her manuscript, mails it off to a literary agent, and is at least potentially in a position to recoup some actual income from her labors.
Now, about those alarm bells…
PART II: An Editorial Response
Let's start with another excerpt from the same anonymous posting. [To read The Entrepreneur’s original post in its entirety, click on the following link and then scroll down to the comment that begins, "The biggest downer about this blog, to me, isn't the anonymity. It's the debate over anonymity. So let's get back to some of that famous dialog."]
“I'm an unpublished writer and a business man. I've written my first manuscript and for the last year I've been researching the publishing industry, preparing my business plan, marketing plan, etc. My hope is to switch careers one day… I truly view my career change as a business decision and, to that end, I want to invest in my future. I hope to find an agent and a publisher that will understand my desire to invest my own capital, money out of my own pocket that is budgeted to marketing & promotion activities. My goal is to remove some of the financial risk from the publisher and create awareness for my name and my book. Rather than make any money from an advance, I plan to invest all of the advance plus $10k of my own money.
As you know, I found compelling the parallels you drew between a writer’s investing in his own marketing and a student taking out loans to get a college education, or an entrepreneur investing capital in a new business venture. Simultaneously, however, there was something about your comments that gave me pause. You talked at great length about your research and your careful preparation for aspects relating to the marketing of your book. What was missing was any discussion whatsoever about the work itself. The book, I mean; the writing—
—and so we enter now into a discussion of what perhaps makes books different from other products, publishing different from other industries. Because despite my admiration for your views on self-promotion, an alarm goes off for me the instant I hear someone purporting to be a writer who gives the phrase “business plan” top billing over the book itself.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is experience: the dumpster outside my window is filled with some of the shittiest writing of all time; and while not every item in that dumpster came with a business plan, virtually every proposal/sample/manuscript I’ve ever read that was accompanied by a business plan wound up there. In the dumpster, I mean.
OK: first let me apologize for the cheap shot. I haven’t read your manuscript, and have no basis whatsoever for judging whether or not you’ve got a writer’s chops, a writer’s heart, a writer’s stamina. [Writing is a goddamn hard job! Why anyone would consciously choose to become a writer is beyond me…] But part of the reason I structured this two-part reply as I have—“Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal” and “Part II: An Editorial Response”—is to convey (among other things) an aspect of how an editor thinks, what an editor does (and doesn’t) respond to, the extent to which editors, sometimes, aren’t squarely “rational” in their decision-making process. After all, the only cliché (‘and the reason they’re clichés is that they’re true,’ right?) about editors more popular than “editors don’t edit anymore” is that “editors know jack-shit about business.”
Now before we make too much of the split between the creative impulse and the professional impulse, it’s worth remembering that two of the great poets of the 20th century—William Carlos Williams (physician) and Wallace Stevens (insurance)—were also accomplished in other arenas. The two universes you inhabit—the professional and the writerly—aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive; nor is it impossible for one to be equally adept at a spread-sheet and a word-processor.
But I caution you against believing you’ve got all the angles covered, because what you can’t count on—the constant variable in this confounded equation—is the peculiarities of taste and passion. Publishing is itself a profoundly contradictory industry. On one hand it increasingly demands a higher and higher rate of return, thus suggesting that it has become (as many have insisted it is already) something like an efficient engine of commerce. On the other hand, the products it produces are to a significant degree selected not according to objective studies of “market potentiality” but according to something infinitely more subjective: individual taste.
Regardless of what the industry’s critics contend, very few acquisitions decisions of books not wholly driven by publicity (e.g. celebrity bios) or certain niches (e.g. business books, cookbooks, self-help…) are determined by some mean-spirited marketing-department council. It’s true, of course, that editors sometimes fail to get sufficient in-house “support” for books they might have liked to acquire; in my experience, however, such books (one respondent called them "unwanted-by-the-marketing-department books”) are, in fact, books that the editor himself was either insufficiently passionate about, or for which the editor failed, finally, to demonstrate—above all, to himself—that he had a vision for how to publish it effectively.
[The “marketing department” excuse, by the way—I’ve used it too—is a conveniently amorphous non-entity that one uses in rejection letters because, well, one sometimes gets tired of saying the simple truth: it’s quite good, I liked it quite a lot, there’s no reason someone shouldn’t publish it, but it’s not going to be me because, in the end, I just didn’t feel strongly enough.]
Does this mean that editors always get to buy what their personal tastes/instincts dictate? No. Does this preclude the possibility that editors have a built-in marketing “radar” that, whether they’re conscious of it or not, immunizes them from “falling in love” with material they don’t believe they can sell? Absolutely not. (Contrary to prevailing wisdom, editors by and large have excellent marketing instincts.) So is there such a thing as an editor making a truly “marketing-free” judgment of a manuscript’s qualities? Probably not.
Nonetheless, I repeat: in the vast majority of cases, editors buy books principally because, to some degree or other, they fall in love with them. With something about them. Which is why [and now, at long last, I circle back to our Entrepreneur, whose fist is no doubt poised in much-longed-for retribution for my aforementioned cheap shot] the business-plan approach never—rarely—wins the day. I say this despite the fact that this very forum (if you’ll forgive my pretentious synonym for “blog”) was launched in the first place because of my own desire to figure out how the hell to market my own books more effectively. So the business plan model should appeal to me; a strong sense that the author knows his market should enhance a book’s appeal. And it does—
—but first I’ve got to fall in love. And I’m an editor—so I don’t fall in love with business plans. I fall in love with words, with strings of words that make elegant sentences and create vivid (beautiful, terrifying, crisp, tender, unforgettable) images in my mind, with sentences linked together in such a way as to tell me a story I can’t stop reading. Marketing moxie is added value; an author with an innate (or learned) sense of how to reach more readers is always a good thing; and I spend a fair portion of my professional life trying to school my authors in these instincts, if they don’t have them already.
But these things are not—for me, not ever—the first thing. The first thing, above all other things, is the writing itself. And that’s one variable that cannot be accounted for in a business plan.
So write the very best book you can. Leave the business plan in the drawer.
[To read the entirety of his original post, click on the following link and then scroll down to the comment that begins, "The biggest downer about this blog, to me, isn't the anonymity. It's the debate over anonymity. So let's get back to some of that famous dialog." ]
Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal
Let's start with an excerpt from an anonymous posting.
"I'm an unpublished writer and a business man. I've written my first manuscript and for the last year I've been researching the publishing industry, preparing my business plan, marketing plan, etc. My hope is to switch careers one day. I hear many discussions about how authors can no longer remain solely in the creative mode, that they must promote their book. I find this amazing. Authors should not only promote their book, but they should also take on some of the financial risk. I truly view my career change as a business decision and, to that end, I want to invest in my future.
"People invest in their future when they go to college. They do it again when they start a business. Why do writers somehow feel they should be immune from financial risk when publishing their first book?
"I'm an unpublished writer. Am I extremely naive? I have the impression that first-time novelists, even the ones with the financial means to take on some of that risk, feel they should be immune to financial risk...that their creativity should be all that is required. I just don't think that's reasonable in today's business climate."
Dear Entrepreneur: I want to applaud your progressive views regarding writers investing in their own careers. Especially for those who plan to write multiple books within a single category--for example, business books, self-help books, mysteries, thrillers, romance novels--the sooner you establish an identity in that field, the better the chance of your career taking off. The textbook example of an author investing significant personal capital toward establishing a "brand identity" is thriller writer James Patterson, whose first several novels hadn't found much more than a niche market. That changed with the first Alex Cross novel (ALONG CAME A SPIDER, 1993), in part because Patterson took matters into his own hands, investing huge sums of his own money into national television advertising--a medium that, presumably, he understood extraordinarily well, given his long and high-profile career at J. Walter Thompson.
So Patterson's the model for someone like yourself--a successful professional who, at mid-career, made a decision of the sort you've described (though his contribution to his own marketing efforts ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars). He had the means to do this, apparently, and put his previous professional expertise to great advantage in his second career. The result, needless to say, is that Patterson is one of the most dependable "brands" in book publishing.
The first issue, then, is means: many writers simply aren't in the financial position to apply your model, much less Patterson's. But my private advice to my own authors, especially those whose advances A) extend into six figures and/or B) are not the sole source of income for their families, is that they consider making precisely the sort of investment you describe. Many writers, and many agents on their clients' behalf, might feel that such a suggestion constitutes an act of bad-faith--perhaps because they fear that this lets the publisher off the hook in terms of its responsibility for marketing and promotion. My experience suggests the opposite, however: such willingness to contribute in some fashion tends (if presented strategically) to motivate the publisher to raise its game in kind, to devote more resources than might otherwise be the case.
There are those who'll debate such a scheme on principle, speaking in indignant tones about how it's the writer's job to write the book and it's the publisher's job to publish it. Perhaps that's how things ought to be. But the potential cost of such a perspective, especially if something misfires in the publication of those first couple of books, is almost always going to be far greater to the author than to the publisher; publishers are infinitely better equipped to weather the failure (say) of an individual title than is the writer; and when booksellers check their computers for sales histories on prior books, it's not the publisher whose name they're searching for.
Week after week, year after year, we read in Publishers Lunch, Publishers Weekly and elsewhere about writers getting staggering six-figure advances in hotly-contested auctions for their first novels. What we don't read about are the huge proportion of those writers whose careers barely survive that first pay-day, because the first book failed to perform anywhere close to the level of expectation. And so the level of expectation drops (and with it, the level of the advance) for the next book; and often this spiral continues to devastating effect. One can only guess how many of those writers, if they had it to do all over again, would have invested a substantial portion of their large advance into supplemental marketing.
This is such an important point. Those of you able to dig into your pocket to contribute to the marketing of your books--at any point, but especially early in your career--should do so aggressively. In the end, righteous bitching about the various ways your publisher may have failed you offers no solace whatsoever--the damage is already done. If you have the means to invest in your own publications, do it. Plan ahead. Talk to your agent, your editor, other authors. Find out what your publisher intends to do to promote your book, then figure out what ways you can supplement those efforts.
I feel duty-bound to say that no such investment will guarantee a more satisfactory outcome; nor is a writer who isn't able to follow such a plan relegated to failure. I've had plenty of experiences of books for which I paid a relatively low sum that, having won early in-house enthusiasm, have gone on to enjoy robust publications, supported beyond the level that might have been expected given the size of the advance. But in these days of instantly-accessible sales figures on one's previous books, there are no do-overs; so the earlier in your career you're able to make this sort of investment, the greater the potential benefit.
Next: PART II: AN EDITORIAL RESPONSE
And yet, somehow, nobody inside the publishing biz seems to notice. It's been six—no, almost eight weeks now: when the hell you people gonna give me my props? I mean, how long's a fella gotta wait before he gets his (pseudo) name in PAGE SIX bold-print? For Stephen King and Amy Tan and Ridley Pearson to name me an honorary member of the Rock Bottom Remainders? For somebody to say, with genuine curiosity, "Who Is That Masked Man?!" I hate to bring this up myself—but hasn't anyone considered me for 'Man of the Year'?
I know, I know—Karl Rove is 'Man of the Year'—besides, how do you know I'm not Rove himself? Or maybe that’s where these "trust issues" come from--is that it? (...would certainly explain why you’ve been deleting my emails, unopened…) And all these anonymous testimonials—that’s right up ol’ Karl’s alley too, huh?
To put the Karl Rove rumor to rest once and for all, I refer you now to PublishersLunch Deluxe, December 8, 2004, in which Michael Cader, the proprietor of Publishers Marketplace, wrote,
OK, so it’s not God’s work, exactly, but “help change things for the better”—not a bad aim, right? And who among us doesn’t think that things could be better, that the industry could use some fresh juice? Yet generally when I reach out to y’all, it’s like, HEY, MISTER—HANDS OFF THE COAT! For instance: a week or so ago I sent out a questionnaire to about 65 marketing folk; I got 1 (one) substantial response. Couple days later I sent a one-sentence query to a bunch of literary agents—45 or so—and got 1 (one) reply. I’m burning the midnight oil, hoping to distill—or evoke—the occasional blogsize morsel that might prove useful, all for the greater good…and what do I get in return? I get bupkiss! (Bubkiss? Bubpkis?) Nothing. Nada.
"Last month we noted the arrival of blogger "Mad Max Perkins." Max has been trying, through a variety of questionnaires and posted challenges, to coax industry insiders to share true-life experiences (anonymously, like Max himself) and join in an online exploration of how to sell more books and re-inject vigor and hope into the publishing process.
"Lunch knows the man behind the "Max," and we can vouch that he is indeed as advertised: a highly-respected, longtime big six publishing veteran trying to help change things for the better—and serious about wanting to hear from (and protect the identity of) others in the publishing world."
Here’s another commentary--from a VP/Editor In Chief--that may allay your fears.
"For ye of little faith, I can hereby testify that Mad Max is a highly respected senior level publishing person, who possesses the best possible intentions, and can be trusted to protect your anonymity. And while it's possible he wrote this testimonial himself, he never would, because he's also a highly modest individual."
--Anonymous, VP/Editor in Chief of a division of a large New York publishing house
“Possesses the best possible intentions”? Hmmmmmmm. The time is now, my Brothers and Sisters of the P&L! In this mentorless age, in this time when the half-life of the average book-editor is shorter than ever before, let us help each other by putting aside our differences and sharing our hearts and minds (if not the proprietary databases we're each secretly collecting) for the great good.
Besides: you're not going to have good ol' Mad Max Perkins to kick around forever... Next thing you know there'll be a memorial service in my honor (after my "untimely demise"), at which dozens of the Great Men and Women of the Industry will elbow each other aside for the chance to talk about my contribution to the world of letters. People known principally by their first names—Sonny, Binky, Gary, Phyllis, Star, Sloan, Suzanne, Jane, Esther, Nicole, Andrew, Marty, Morgan, Mort... Never mind that they didn't know me while I was alive. Now I’ll be remembered as the (plodding) "relentless," (desk-bound) "dedicated," (unremarkable) "enigmatic," (pain-in-the-ass) "always-scraping-for-his-authors" editor who went by the moniker “Mad Max.” The straw that stirred the drink, the pot that brewed the coffee, the pipe that smoked the pot—a selfless visionary who (according to legend) overcame humble roots to re-energize a staggering industry, to re-empower midlist authors, to put the nobility back in Barnes & Noble...
Ahh, but now he's gone, and what a tragedy--if only we'd appreciated him when he was.... sob...
OK, so I admit it: I AIN'T NO SUPERMAN! [I do, however, own a very smart red cape.] I ain't Max Perkins, or Cork Smith, Allen Peacock, Roger Straus; ain't nobody gonna confuse me with Jonathan Galassi, Dan Menaker, Katherine Court, Gerry Howard—though I confess it's a thrill to string these names together in conjunction with mine, even if "ain't" is the, errr, conjunction.
Point is, I’m trying. Now—what great things will we accomplish if you trust me and add your experiences/ideas (anonymously) to the greater data pool? Yeah, I know: probably bupkiss. There are institutional issues that we don't have much hope of addressing, of course. Then there’s the fact that I seem to have mislaid my Mensa membership card, and I’m not know widely known as a man of great vision, except as pertains to my own self-interests, and (to the best of my knowledge) I’ve never been short-listed for a Nobel Prize in economics.
Great thinker, man of letters? Moi? Imagine instead the Fuller Brush Man. Or—better yet—picture Andy Kauffman's first appearance on Saturday Night Live: Dorky guy standing stiffly (like "Latka," the character he later played on the show "Taxi") beside a 1940s-style phonograph on which turns a scratchy 78-rpm record. Utterly still, except for his eyes, which shift back and forth in stage-fright panic, as the phonograph plays the "Mighty Mouse" theme song. At last he stirs from his rigor to raise his arms in operatic grandeur as he lip-syncs the words "HERE I COME, TO SAVE THE DAY!"—the one line only—after which all animating drops away instantly, arms returnly limply to his side. There he stands, motionless but for the eyes, waiting, desperately, for his line to come around again.
OK, I know what you’re thinking—Jeez, this Max is a study! He feigns modesty but compares himself to a variety of publishing legends AND maybe the most original comedian of this, that, or any other generation.... Hmmm, and to make matters worse, the Kauffman analogy actually fits—not in terms of originality, but in the way that, with Kauffman, you never knew for sure: is this guy for real?
"For all you publishing types out there, who may be too nervous to converse with an anonymous blogger, I can vouch, in my own, anonymous way, for Mad Max Perkins, a trusted colleague, who with all good intentions is trying to get a dialogue going about an industry that is seemingly at a crossroads. For all the excitement of acquiring books, and seeing who bought what, for how much, on Rights Alert, the real crunch comes when it's time to publish. And we all know what we're facing. What we don't know is what to do about it. So let's start here, by talking to one another. Venting is ok, grousing is satisfying, but let's also share ideas, experience and optimism. Talk to Mad Max!"
That one sez it all, it seems to me—touches on some of the best aspects of my job, and some of the worst; and that discrepancy is the bog from which this blog was born. So I hope the next time you see an email with a question from MAD MAX PERKINS in your In Box (and/or recover it from “Spam”), you’ll give some serious thought to responding.
And now I’ll shut up—except to say, to last week’s Anonymous poster who remarked, basically, "Who CARES about this anonymity crap, let's get back to the conversation itself"—I hear you loud and clear. Fresh meat will be forthcoming. But we need data, help, ideas—real tried-that-and-it-did/didn't-work feedback from people inside the industry.
You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.
A couple of days ago I did a "call-out" post to booksellers, asking for some opinions about what the publication of a new "blockbuster" (in this case, the new Michael Crichton novel) meant to them/their store ["In Defense of the Blockbuster"]. I've been impressed by the smart and impassioned commentary that's come as result. [Side-bar #1: I especially want to thank Anonymous Poster #1, who despite my own snippy retort came back again to amplify impressively on the original post.]
Bob Gray was the first to reply to my post--and, so far, he's the only bookseller to do so. [Sidebar #2: this reflects what, to me personally, is a saddening pattern--that for the most part the people inside the business aren't responding to the content of this blog; which suggests, at least to some degree, that I still haven't convinced them of my trustworthiness. More on THAT subject very soon, I promise!] He said he had his own piece coming soon on a related subject, and told me to check back with him on Thursday.
Thursday, as in today. So I went to his site, at dawn this morning, and discovered that sometimes the early-bird really does get the worm... It wasn't the worm I was looking for, though--I was so much the early-bird that I got to Bob's site before he'd posted the essay he'd told me to look for. [Afternoon update: his Crichton piece, dated Dec. 9, is now posted.]
...and thus I got the worm (which, in the context of the early-bird metaphor, of course, means the juiciest, fattest, most satisfying morsel), a post from a couple of days earlier (December 6), an essay called "Booksellers Hate Rejection, Too". In which he explains how the process by which a bookseller falls in love, or doesn't, with a galley a publisher sends him mirrors almost exactly the process by which an editor falls in love, or doesn't, with an author's unpublished manuscript.
It's an ironic circumstance--and frankly one that, at first glance, had me quaking in my boots. Because, in addition to being a bookseller, Robert Gray is also a writer; and though he doesn't describe this in gorey detail, he has clearly--as has any, no, every writer--received his own fair share of rejection letters. I myself have written thousands, not all of them compassionate or encouraging... And all of my sins in this regard bubbled up into my chest as I read the beginning of Bob's essay. Oh boy, I thought: it's payback time.
It's easy to see how this would be a satisfying "shoe-on-the-other-foot; how-d0-you-like-it-now-asshole?" topic for a post. You turn down our books, as is your right. But karma has its way of coming full circle; and now it's out turn. And the subject leads, potentially, to a whole lobby of door behind which lie all sorts of legitimate opportunities to bash 21st century publishing.
But like any writer worth his salt, Bob shows you the lobby but then takes you someplace else entirely; goes past the good (and easily-defensible) jabs to arrive at something completely unexpected:
The author encourages the publisher to keep trying. So I don't fall in love with this particular galley, he says. I know you want me to, by I love what I love, and that can't be faked. It's not the end of the world. The fact I don't love this one doesn't mean I won't love the next one.
The bookseller tells the publisher: Don't give up. Keep trying.
I won't try to summarize this any further than I already have--believe me, it's far richer in the original. But I want to convey to Bob Gray, and on his behalf to booksellers the world over, how grateful I am that even one of you might express such a sentiment.
Sometimes I fear that you--booksellers--are so overwhelmed by the volume of books being published, and the numbers of galleys being shipped, and the number of "pitch" letters a you read, etc., that it becomes impossible to see the individual jiffy-bags as containing individual books. Seems a ridiculous thing to say to a bookseller, of course, because you obviously don't go into this business with profit/"product" in mind. You do this, presumably, because you love books. And understand them as individuals; understand that each contains its own world between two covers. The QUALITY of those worlds may differ; or, to use the more generous tone of Bob's essay, the reader's experience--in this case, the bookseller's experience--of those worlds is going to vary, inevitably, because such is the subjective nature of reading. But as an editor who is passionate about the books he publishes, encouragement from a bookseller, despite all the difficulties booksellers face, gives me unspeakable comfort; and reminds me of the extent to which (in principle if not always in execution), you and I--bookseller and editor--are, as ever, partners in this strange marriage of art & industry. Thank you.
As everyone knows [except perhaps for the occasional aesthete, whose eyes (closed), nostrils (flared), and all other senses have been completely engaged these past several weeks in an attempt to gain a fuller appreciation of Proust's madeleine, or some other similarly all-consuming endeavor], today is Michael Crichton Day: the day that STATE OF FEAR, his new bijillion-copy instant-bestseller blockbuster thriller, goes on sale. Everywhere. In bookstores, big and small, chain and indie; in price clubs (Costco, Sam's...), mystery stores, drug stores, airports, news stands and pet shops all across America--perhaps even all around the world.
Popular as it is in blog-dom to bemoan cultural de-madeleinization, and book industry conglomeration, and brand proliferation, and literary marginalization, and animal exploitation for the purposes of a better facial lotion, is there any bookseller--
--is there ANY bookseller who is not glad, in a dollars-and-cents fashion, that today is Michael Crichton Day?
On one hand, there surely is no better example than Crichton of the shift in the industy's priorities--this is precisely the sort of book that gets the big push from today's publishers, inevitably (or so the argument goes) drawing resources away from other deserving titles. On the other hand, the presence of his new book in your store will, all by itself, draw 1 million percent more traffic into your store, today and in the weeks leading up to Christmas, than all the National Book Award nominees combined. And--in theory at least--some of those Crichton fans are going to take something else with them, too, as they wind their way to the cash register.
So, Dear Bookseller, tell us: What does Michael Crichton Day mean to you? Does the increased bookstore traffic on behalf of a blockbuster like STATE OF FEAR actually have a beneficial effect on sales of other not-blockbuster books? Even if your sensibility is categorically literary, aren't you glad, nonetheless? And if you're one of the few out there (or so I imagine) who is not glad to see Crichton's pub date appear on your calendar--not because you're a fan, necessarily, but because of the ka-chung of the cash register--does that mean that you've chosen not to stock the title?
Recently "William" agreed to share with BOOKANGST 101 the details of his successful publication of a work of nonfiction, which he felt made a strong case that, sometimes, ads do sell books. [When Murphy's Law Takes A Holiday, Nov. 22] Because of the degree of specificity William provided, and also because it's important for all of us to be reminded that some books really do find their audience--and that Mitch Albom and THE DA VINCI CODE are not the only models for success in publishing--it was one of my favorite "posts." I was consequently surprised that it didn't get more feedback, and wonder if it's simply that bad news is more energizing than good.
But a few days ago I got a wonderfully astute commentary from someone with experience on both sides of the fence--a senior editor at several top New York publishers who, after two decades, decided to pursue her own interest in writing, while also continuing to keep a hand in as a freelance editor.
Dear Mad Max Perkins,
For more than 20 years, I was an editor at several imprints of major publishing houses. Several years ago I left to become a full-time freelance writer and editor. I've found it fascinating to see the publishing process from both sides.
I read the account by the "no-name" author whose book went through eight printings, which I found fascinating. I wanted to add my two cents on a couple of points.
*"INSIDER" RE-DEFINED. Max, you described William as
'someone experienced in the world of book publishing but completely unknown to the reading public. No platform. No close personal friendship with Matt Lauer. Never shared a taxi with Oprah. Never went sailing with Walter Cronkite.'
Your readers should realize that this author--who as a publishing insider was first an editor and then a literary agent--was never quite a nobody with no platform. If he's one of the good agents, his publisher already had an extra incentive to do right by him and his book; they want good projects from him in the future. This insider positioning helped him from the start.
*THIS BATTLE WAS WON MONTHS BEFORE THE BOOK PUBBED. That the publisher selected the book for ARC's is a huge signifier for booksellers--only a very few per list get this treatment, since it can cost upwards of $50 for a single ARC (high production costs, low print run). The announcement of a 60,000-copy first printing was another huge boost. Some houses have reputations for honest first-printing announcements; others not so much. (Publishers often announce 25,000-copy first printings when what they really mean is 5,000- or 7500-copy printings.) But the announcement alone signaled booksellers that the house was behind the book.[MMP: I agree that these are crucial pre-pub "signals," but these details alone hardly guarantee that the battle is won. I've had many books dealt a similarly promising opening hand--high announced first printing, ARC's, 2-page spread in the catalog--that, for one reason or another, failed to meet expectations.]
This aggressive positioning ups the initial buy at the chains--from the dreaded "skip" or "1's and 2's"--to a much higher volume, and ensures that the independents will pay attention.
*DISTRIBUTION IS A CRUCIAL COMPONENT. As you noted, 30,000 copies out the door is significant. I'd go further: It's astonishing. Only the teensiest fraction of books go out with these numbers, unless we're talking about the Grishams of the world. (I remember how shocked I was when I looked at the numbers for some novels from a prestigious literary house--the kind that got full-page raves in the NYTBR--and saw that they'd shipped fewer than 2000 copies.) The 30,000 out-the-door matters A LOT, since if you don't have stock in the stores the second the publicity hits, no number of ads will have any effect. Customers just don't come back when the book they want isn't there, and Amazon and other online retailers can't absorb all those losses. I'm sure all the major booksellers got an e-mail blast when the book hit the club trifecta, and another one to remind folks of the wonderful prepub quotes. This publisher did a terrific job in prepping its audience.
*THE MULTIPLIER EFFECT: THE SUCCESS OF PUBLICITY & ADS DEPENDS ON DISTRIBTUION.'William’s publisher kicked off a national advertising campaign with a Friday ad in the Wall Street Journal and ads two days later in the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post Book World [these on the heals of a] BookTV lecture and a single national radio interview, the results were instantly apparent....[Two weeks later] there were more print ads (WSJ and NYTBR) and a series of brief radio spots, plus concerted outreach—online and otherwise—to “related interest” sites and organizations, plus good word of mouth, kept the book in the public eye.'
It's hard to say which had more impact--the national radio spot, or the follow-up ads. I'm sure they were synergistic. However, the crucial part of the equation for me was that the book was already out there in enough numbers to be available for instant sale. I can't tell you how much it's crushed me to work with authors who got major national hits but saw no significant sales because the weak link in the equation--the quantity of stock in the stores--was weak at the very top. One author sold her soul and went on O'Reilly and watched her Amazon numbers soar (it was in the Top Ten), only to discover that it represented fewer than 200 copies for the bump because the book simply wasn't on the shelves to be bought in the bricks-and-mortar stores and Amazon hadn't bought enough copies to cover the publicity burst.
*DO ADS SELL BOOKS? It's hard to defend a blanket statement either way that ads do or don't sell books. It utterly depends. I've seen plenty of ad dollars wasted on a single spot in the NYT daily, bought because the agent clamored for it and the author's vanity demanded it. What strikes me in this example is how smartly the publisher in question managed to follow on targeted national hits. The fact that they went through 8 printings ( a second before pub date) also tells me that they managed the stock really smartly as well; it doesn't sound as if they were playing catch-up in this case--another mistake I've seen made so many times.
*THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS: THE DIFFERENCE A GOOD EDITOR MAKES. It's so great to hear an author praise an editor so highly. For as long as I've been in the business, I've been hearing that "editors don't edit books anymore," and I've never found it to be so among any of my colleagues. It's also gratifying that the author appreciates how hard everyone inside the house worked to support his book--from the folks who doubtless read the early manuscript and "testified" at various launch meetings to the art director who came up with the great package to the sales and marketing folks who decided it would be a "make book"--a well-written book that delivered the goods and that deserved the gamble the publisher was willing to take. It's amazing how often great books fail--[former Random House publisher] Harry Evans once stunned the publishing world by laying out the dollars and cents of this, naming names--so I'm delighted that this agent had such a great experience. I wish that all authors appreciated that that level of effort goes into most books--even the ones that don't work.
If you're an editor, an online marketer, a literary agent, a publicist, chances are that you've recently received an e-mail (maybe several) from an odd but vaguely familiar address--mine. So you open up it up, and start to read:
“You can trust Max!”
– L.A., Marketing Manager for a major New York publisher
"Hi, I'm Mad Max Perkins [NOT my real name], and I'd like you to share with me the hard-won secrets of your professional experience. You don't know me, but I'm a stand-up guy, completely trustworthy--I just can't tell you who I am. Anyway, as I was saying, I have some questions..."...at which point you say, "Wha--? Who the faaa--?" And then you hit the delete button.
It's weird, isn't it? to get these occasional emails from a complete stranger, someone claiming to have certain stellar credentials--a calling card, presumably, to reassure you that it's worthwhile to spend time (time you don't have) talking about the book trade--except he won't actually show you those credentials?
“We can't remember a blog becoming indispensible as quickly as Mad Max Perkins' BOOKANGST 101 has.” –Mark Sarvas, The Elegant variation: A Literary Weblog
Seems...fishy. For all you know, he (I) could be your boss (the one who's always had it out for you anyway), trying to ensnare you into divulging something that could be purposefully represented as a "fireable offense"; or a former assistant exacting revenge for some long-ago humiliation by attaching a nude picture of Karl Rove to your reply, then forwarding it to 400,000 of her (my) closest friends...
Who's to say I've not concocted some sort of viral voodoo designed to insert the "f-word" into every document you produce? that I won't sell your email address to one of those sites that send, on average, 75 pieces of spam a day promising the horniest housewives and/or the best prices for Prozac? Let's face it, there're a lot of scamsters out there. I mean, who can you really trust anymore anyway?
OK, I'm starting to understand why so few of you--publishing insiders, I mean--have been inclined to respond, or have responded so warily, to my e-entreaties. (And--please!--don't give me that "too busy" excuse. This is New York, folks: if you're not too busy, you're obviously not working hard enough...)
"Having worked both in bookselling and in publishing, I can wholeheartedly state that Mad Max Perkins is the real deal: a publishing executive with the heart of a gentle reader and the best advocate for books. Trust him, I do!" -T.A., Marketing Manager
“Max recently offered to paint the front door of a bestselling literary novelist in exchange for an advance reading of my not-yet-published first novel. (Don't ask.) He works the brutal, bloody hours of all editors; that he takes time out of his already pressed schedule to maintain this blog for the benefit of us is a testimony to his passion for the continued vitality of the publishing industry.”--P.K, Novelist
Writers and bloggers have, for the most part, been quick to overcome these "trust" issues. I know what you're thinking-- "Well, sure, what the heck else do they have to do w/ their time?" Besides, maybe they see this as a Publisher's Sweepstakes of sorts, a Literary Lotto designed to give the Industry some front-page coverage in the New York Post:
Writers and bloggers will tell you anything you want to know (and then some)--they can't help it, it's their nature... But YOU, you're an Insider, you know better than to talk to strangers. Some might say you've lived in New Yawk too long, become cynical, jaded (Godless and/or queer, that goes without saying)--but, let's face it, they're mostly Red-Staters anyway, we don't much care what they say. So let's bottom-line it: if you're gonna talk turkey about The Biz, you want to see those credentials, have some material reassurance that I really am the "SENIOR EXECUTIVE WITH A MAJOR NEW YORK PUBLISHER" that I claim to be--is that it?
E-XCITED WRITER WINS $1 MILLION CONTRACT SIMPLY BY REPLYING TO E-MAIL SURVEY!
Well, sorry: no can do. I need this fat paycheck; I can't afford my Jag & my Hummer AND keep my kids enrolled in Trinity if I get the ax. Besides, it's more fun wondering who I am than actually knowing--believe me! (Here's a hint as to why: the only person who ever called me "Sonny" was Gramps--and Gramps, he dead...)
“Mad Max Perkins is willing to ask the tough questions and try to get a dialog going to see if there is any way to solve them. Any one who thinks like that is someone who I trust. Yeah, even though I don't know his real name.” --M.J. Rose - Author of The Halo Effect and the blog: Buzz, Balls & Hype
But what I've done instead is, I've solicited some comments from people who've actually had occasion to deal w/ me and, in so doing, have found me to be--well, honorable, or at least not a back-stabber. (That's what they think!) Yeah, they're mostly anonymous, and, yeah, I could have written them myself (BOY! You really have lived in New York too long)--but I didn't.
"Mad Max Perkins is a terrific and utterly trustworthy editor and human being. (He's my boss, what else am I going to say? But still, it's true.) The purpose of his blog is to advance good writing, good will, and better sales for the kinds of authors and books that he truly cares about. Feel confident in sharing your experiences and stories with him -- they will be used only for good, and your identity and identifying details will never be revealed."--S.J., Associate Editor
There you have it, from a really trustworthy source: "YOUR EXPERPIENCES AND STORIES...WILL BE USED ONLY FOR GOOD." (Couldn't have said it better myself!) So be brave, Publishing Insider...And the next time you get an email from me asking you a question or two, and promising to protect your anonymity, don't be afraid! I'm one of you and--to quote Elvis Costello--my aim is true.
First, M.J. draws our attention ["A 47% Sales Increase? That's a big bite!" Nov. 30] to a fantastic author-promotion site called MEETTHE AUTHOR.COM (which she credits Galley Cat for bringing to her attention) that's more fun than a barrelful of monkeys, an innovative way of introducing authors to their potential readers that comes to us (surprise!) from an creative & industrious group across the pond (England, that is). Check it out and spread the news.
Then, after Max contacted scores of people around town over the last few days w/ a questionaire about opportunities--real and potential--in the realm of online marketing; and had begun preparing something similar for book-bloggers, inquiring about the extent to which they might serve as a supplement to/replacement for the diminishing pool of book-review pages, he discovered--yup!--that M.J. had come & gone on both those scores as well ["Bloggers as Reviewers," Nov. 29]. Check out the interview w/ Kelly Leonard, TWBG's executive director of online marketing, who talks at length about the increasing importance of blogs...
Oh, and while we're at it, we might as well credit M.J. w/ bringing our attention to two other promising book-marketing enterprises ["Why This Works ", Nov. 22], VIDLIT.COM (check out their Yiddish with Dick and Jane flash presentation, especially) and JIBJAB.COM, famous for their hilariously even-handed Kerry/Bush "This Land Is Our Land" animated parody.
Good thing Max ain't done quit his day job...
You ride bicycles, when you do get hurt, you’re REALLY gonna get hurt. We’re talking about skipping your body over pavement at fairly high speeds--20 or 30 or 40 miles per hour--and while you may walk away from such a crash, you’ll be limping. Definitely. And bleeding. And you’re gonna be a hurting unit for days and weeks and sometimes months or the rest of your life….So you get injured, you don’t feel sorry for yourself. You heal and get back into shape and get out there and ride again.
I’d say the experience is identical to publishing books...
I should have gone to law school or something instead of being a writer...
The pavement is there waiting for us, but so what? We aren’t able to stop seeing the world the way a writer sees it, which is as a thing to be recorded, which means, one way or another, we will go on recording it. We will live in the hope that the next time we crash, it won’t be our last.
Here's the link to the full interview.
"When my own book was published -- a work of history published not long ago by an imprint of a major New York publisher] -- the publisher aggressively advertised the book -- Wall Street Journal, NYTBR, elsewhere. Though I had no name to trade on, the book smoked through eight printings. We had few reviews. No majors. The only broad exposure it got, beyond a BookTV appearance, were those ads."This sparked a vigorous round of commentary, along with a desire for more information. The author, who we’ll call William, generously supplied the specificity I requested—bravely, even, since his publisher wasn’t keen on him doing so, and chose not to provide information about advertising expenditures and so on.
William’s is the story of a genuine success—not a PERFECT STORM level blockbuster, but the sort of black-ink narrative that would make any editor (and most writers) proud. Despite the happy outcome, William warns that “there is not a lesson or a plan or a prototype [here] for any publisher to replicate. Nonfiction publishing is alchemy.” Like the crucial matter of chemistry in affairs of the heart, William’s point is that a book’s capturing the consumer’s attention depends, in part, on some indefinable X factor. And if it’s in play, it doesn’t much matter how attractive and intelligent the other eight women (or men, or books) in the room are. This alchemy—and William’s book “had it boiling over the cauldron”—is the difference between his publication and a dozen others that fall short.
Alchemy indeed—still, I disagree that there are no lessons to be learned. William’s was as close to perfect as a publication could be: the book’s potential was recognized by all from the outset; the manuscript, with expert guidance from his editor, delivered the goods; the publisher took an aggressive stand and never wavered in its support; and execution of the 1,001 details—from design and cover to advertising and promotion (any one of which has the potential to derail the enterprise)—went off without a hitch.
If William is reluctance to hold up his book’s publication as a template for certain success, it’s because he knows that even perfect execution of the 1,001 details guarantees nothing except a ticket to the ball. Just as writers wonder about the capriciousness of publishers, publishers scratch our heads at the virtual impossibility of knowing—even when you’ve done everything right—what’s going to happentranspire when the books appear on the shelves, and the consumer approaches. What happens then isn’t science. It’s alchemy.
Here’s what happened in William’s case.
THE BOOK: an unlikely tale of personal fortitude in the face of adversity that marries popular history and narrative drama—the sort of book that one might compare to David Hackett Fischer’s PAUL REVERE’S RIDE or Robert Kurson’s SHADOW DIVERS.
THE AUTHOR: Someone experienced in the world of book publishing but completely unknown to the reading public. No platform. No close personal friendship with Matt Lauer. Never shared a taxi with Oprah. Never went sailing with Walter Cronkite.
THE PUBLISHER: one of the Biggies, who ponied up a six-figure advance to acquire the book.
THE FIRST BIG BREAK: William’s editor was “off the charts on all fronts” in terms of supporting the book, having a vision for its publication, and responding to the author. It was a dream match. “[The editor] really cared, editing several drafts very closely and thoughtfully. And positively kicking heads in-house to get a number of special touches from the production department.” From Day One, William’s editor, highly respected in-house, positioned it as a big book—“and lo and behold, it was treated that way.”
THE SET-UP: His editor’s enthusiasm radiated throughout the house, buoyed by good in-house reads, several early blurbs, and a cover that the sales department adored. The house demonstrated its high hopes by devoting a two-page spread to the book, producing handsome four-color Advance Reading Editions and announcing a 60,000 copy first printing. The back-panel bullets went on to promise an extensive marketing push, including radio promotion, floor displays (a.k.a. “dumps”) and a major national print advertising campaign. William was delighted.
THE SECOND BIG BREAK: William remembers getting the news from his giddy editor: the book had been selected by three book clubs, and as a Main Selection for two of the three. William was stunned. This “book club trifecta” was a crucial piece of confirmation to everybody involved that opinion makers were taking notice—and that the book had the potential to be something special.
PUB DATE APPROACHES: The pre-pub reviews—one of which was starred—were strong and laden with adoring and invigorating adjectives. Even so, the orders came in lower than William expected; the initial quantity out the door was roughly 30,000 copies. But if William was disappointed, the feeling didn’t last long. A second printing was ordered a week later—still almost two weeks before the official publication date—followed quickly by two or three more.
[Lest there be any confusion, the management here at BookAngst 101 wants to acknowledge that in many, many cases, shipping 30,000 hardcovers is an accomplishment not to be sneezed at.]
PUB DATE ARRIVES: “We started with a local book signing at [William’s home-town independent bookseller], which was very successful—I leaned on my friends and sold about 60 books. This was followed by a lecture that—big break—got picked up by BookTV on C-SPAN2, airing the same weekend that several major ads hit.”
“SEVERAL MAJOR ADS HIT”: True to the promise on the back of the ARE, William’s publisher kicked off a national advertising campaign with a Friday ad in the Wall Street Journal and ads two days later in the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post Book World. Combined with the BookTV lecture and a single national radio interview, the results were instantly apparent. On Friday the book jumped to #75 on Amazon; two days later, when the TBR and BW ads ran, it peaked at #14.
AFTER THE FIRST WEEK: Two more print ads (WSJ and NYTBR) and a series of brief radio spots, plus concerted outreach—online and otherwise—to “related interest” sites and organizations, plus good word of mouth, kept the book in the public eye. Perhaps due to the onset of the Iraqi War dominating the media coverage, there were relatively few reviews. Those that appeared—mainly in second-tier newspapers—were uniform in their praise.
THE FINAL TALLIES: 8 printings, 60,000 copies in print, and a net first-year hardcover sale projected in the high-forties. The book spent several weeks among the BookSense top 50, hit several regional bestseller lists, and won a significant book prize.
William takes his success with a grain of salt. In his years in the business, he’s seen a lot of good starts go awry, and has a keen appreciation for how fortunate he’s been. He’s found a top editor who is committed to him [n.b.: they have another book under contract together], and a publisher who has delivered on its every promise—one that puts its money where its mouth is and really supports the books it publishes. “There’s a lot to gripe about in today’s publishing environment, but if you’re lucky—as I’ve been—it can still work the way they say it did in the old days. I wouldn’t trade my relationship with my editor for anything. We’ve got great chemistry, and we trust each other. I feel like I’ve got a real ally, someone who’ll pull on the boxing gloves in my defense without a second thought.”
That’s the best possible starting point--the sort of partnership, sadly, many authors never experience. But even that’s just a beginning. Each of the 1,001 details must be attended to, the gears of the increasingly elaborate and fast-moving machinery of publishing must be in sync—and even then, nothing is guaranteed. William and his editor did all that, which simply put them in a position of readiness in the event that the book were to become (as it did) the happy beneficiary of the X-factor, that mysterious alchemic dust that settles on some books and not others.
Recently someone on this site asked me why I’m still in the business if it’s as hard as everyone says. A story like William’s is the reason. Every so often, the planets align, Murphy’s Law takes a holiday, and everything that can go right does. And when that happens—especially when the relationship between author and editor is a warm one—there is literally no better job in the world.
- Read the 11/18/04 New York Times report on the Awards
- Review the spirited debate enjoyed on this site on the "controversy" surrounding this year's Fiction finalists.
- Revisit Laura Miller's thoughts in the NYTBR, who said that THE NEWS FROM PARAGUAY seemed to be the only nominee that "could be reasonably expected to please more than a small audience"
- Relive Caryn James's memorable rant on the "tyranny of white space", where she said "the Tuck may be the most accomplished" of the nominees
- Enjoy Beatrice.com's interview with Lily Tuck and Joan Silber. I especially like Jimmy Beck's after-post commentary, calling this "the hottest-looking crop of NBA nominees [ever], and by a wide margin"
I'm ENORMOUSLY grateful for this posting--indeed, before I post your comments, I'd like to ask, in the interest of being as precise as possible: would you do us all the enormous favor of providing more details? You mention eight printings; it would be enormously useful to know more--let's discuss this offline. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I guarantee your anonymity.
"To say that ads don't sell books is a ridiculously counterintuitive and ultimately nihilistic assertion. It is to assert that the entire edifice that capitalism is built on has no form or substance. It is, speaking plainly, wrong. If ads don't sell books, then book catalog pages don't persuade booksellers to carry books. If ads don't sell books, sales conference presentations do not persuade reps to push a book more aggressively. Indeed, if ads don't sell books, information has no influence over consumer behavior. When I worked at at a top New York commercial house, we told authors "Ads don't sell books" to assuage hard feelings that their budgets had been cut. As an agent, I see it from the other side of the fence. But my best data comes from a foray onto my clients' side of the fence. When my own book was published -- a work of history published not long ago by [an imprint of a major New York publisher]-- the publisher aggressively advertised the book -- Wall Street Journal, NYTBR, elsewhere. Though I had no name to trade on, the book smoked through eight printings. We had few reviews. No majors. The only broad exposure it got, beyond a BookTV appearance, were those ads. Obviously what happened was something mysterious, magical, and beyond the ken of what too many publishers claim to understand: newspaper reader sees ad; newspaper reader reads ad; newspaper reader says to self, "Looks like an interesting book; would like to read book"; newspaper reader buys book. What is so inscrutable, unlikely, or mysterious about the above scenario? Why shoulds its underlying dynamic not be the rule? The burden of persuasion, it seems to me, should lie with the promulgators of the pseudoscience that ads don't sell books.That's anecdotal evidence, so here's a counterbalancing sweeping generalization: Book editors -- who as a class are not widely acclaimed for their facility with the engines of commerce, hence their career avocation -- claim that ads don't sell books because they cannot reliably predict the extent to which any given ad will sell any given book. That's fair to say. But it's far from the more sweeping assertion that we are frequently asked to accept as conventional wisdom, if not an entirely settled question."
- Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of MADELEINE IS SLEEPING (Harcourt);
- Lily Tuck, author of THE NEWS FROM PARAGUAY (Harper);
- Kate Walbert, author of OUR KIND: A NOVEL IN STORIES (Scribner);
- Christine Schutt, author of FLORIDA (TriQuarterly/Northwestern U. P.);
- Joan Silber, author of IDEAS OF HEAVEN: A Ring of Stories (Norton)
You'd think these five writers hadn't only bribed the NBA judges, but also fixed the election of an idiot President and (here in New York, at least) nightly engaged in some sort of ritual voodoo wamma-jamma that resulted in several unprecedented tight-game meltdowns of the formerly-immortal Mariano Rivera. If I was the NBA, I'd put these women into Witness Protection until the night of the Awards banquet.
But it's not the understandably disappointed George Steinbrenner who's railing against the Felonious Five--it's the supposed avatars of middle-to-high-brow culture, led by the New York Times, but with emissaries from many other camps as well. So what, exactly, is the charge? Edward Wyatt fired first, taking issue not with the books themselves but with the fact that the their sales figures were miniscule. Subsequently, fellow Times culture writers Laura Miller and Caryn James have joined the lynch mob, leading a crowd of protesters armed with signs that read P. Roth Wuz Robbed! and Hell No, We Want JCO!
This year's National Book Award nominees have been charged with the worst crime imaginable: anonymity.
Please! In a publishing environment that too often replicates the George W. Bush social contract, allocating a greater and greater portion of its resources to a smaller and smaller percentage of the population, does EVERYTHING have to be about the obvious choices getting their inevitable due? With all due respect to Roth, Boyle, Banks, Oates, Updike and any number of other "established" writers who might belong on this list, have we totally lost sight of the thrill of discovery? In this era, when marketing literary fiction & trying to build a readership for relative unknowns is harder, perhaps, than it's ever been [and let's not forget that the engines of our industry will cease to function if we don't provide them with the fuel they need by "growing" new writers], is this--five unknown writers being nominated for
THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
(! ! !)
--is this not something akin to winning the lottery?! Where are the interviews celebrating the editors who believed in these books from the get-go, who saw potential where others saw none? Why, instead of CELEBRATING these authors, are we essentially trying to humiliate them?
I think there are two reasons. The first is simple sour grapes. I know whereof I speak: as a participant in this game myself--shepherd of more than a few books that, in my humble opinion, were cruelly overlooked in this and previous award nomination processes--I know all too well the feeling of disappointment/resentment that comes with being left off the list. It's a little easier to stomach when it's one of the Inevitable Big Fish (Atwood, Walker, DeLillo, Ford)--you figure, Yeah, well, of course. But to be passed over for relative small-fry? Sets the blood to boiling... [Reminds me of Michael Naumann's famous boycott of the NBA a few years ago when Thomas Pynchon's MASON & DIXON wasn't nominated. Naumann's response was invigorating--controversial, personal, rooted in passion, an uncharacteristically honest and public expression of the sort one rarely sees. I'd wager it also generated additional sales for his star author, which was surely at least part of the point.]
The other, more troubling possibility for our taking Mss. Tuck, Walbert, Schutt, Silber and Bynum to task is that these choices reflect so poorly on us. Much of the writing about these books has focussed on their same-ness, their narrow, intimate focus, the extent to which the "compressed observations" risk "veer[ing] into precious writers' program language," too "poetic for its own good." Presumably the link between this charge (preciousness, style for style's sake) and the other (lousy sales) is this: these books don't speak to the consumer. Their primary purpose isn't to entertain. They're too pointedly--what? highbrow? Why, suddenly, are we so defensive, such enemies of literary-ness?
Remember back in the day, when Oprah was still picking books by living writers? Back before Jonathan Franzen so thoughtlessly killed the goose that laid the Golden Egg by giving her pseudo-literary sensibility a more accurate name? How ironic: Oprah was middlebrow, yet we had no problem reaping the benefits of her tremendous largesse, even if we privately looked down our nose at many of her selections.
But imagine for a moment how we'd feel if any one of these five books (but only one, please!) had been chosen by Oprah? One of these publishers would be dancing in the streets; and the rest of us (once we'd swallowed our sour grapes) would find solace in the fact that Oprah had, in a relative sense, "gone literary." Thereby allowing ourselves to look a little more bravely into eyes of the P&L gatekeepers as we try to make yet another case for the fool's errand that is publishing literary fiction.
Well, Oprah, she gone--she's in her classics' mode now, which means (Garcia-Marquez excepted, just barely) you gotta be dead to hit paydirt. What we're left with instead are opportunities like these, meager though they may seem: nominations for major prizes that have the potential to bring unknown writers a larger readership, and to get those BookScan numbers up to more respectable levels. These five writers and their books should be applauded and promoted with equal vigor. Yet it seems (to me, at least) that they've been castigated as much as they've been celebrated.
Whatever sin/agenda some may feel these nominations represent, a far greater offense will be committed if, whether by accident or as an act of recompense, the National Book Critics' Circle designate a work like Tom Wolfe's gassy, completely irrelevant new novel as one of the best books of the year. Now that would be a travesty.
P.S. Sidenote to writers, editors and anyone else who gives lip-service to the importance of literary fiction: you have an obligation to go out and BUY at least one of these books. Those with expense accounts should buy the whole lot.
Eh? Come again?
A couple of weeks ago I posted a request for feedback from published writers; and so far that feedback has been somewhat limited in volume. I noticed, though, that the first "MAD MAX SURVEY" post (Saturday, Nov. 6--"MAD MAX SURVEY: Editors on Marketing") has received quite a lot of attention. Since publishers talk so much about building and exploiting BRANDS, I figured I'd repackage my earlier query--replace a dreary title ["A Call to (Published) Writers"] with something spiffy and market-proven, as in another
MAD MAX SURVEY®
I'm extremely grateful to the brave handful who've replied so far; and understand completely how uncomfortable it is to share hard facts (much less relive what, in some cases, are no doubt unhappy memories) with a complete stranger, much less one who won't use his real name.
But if this experiment--this "dialog" between publisher and writers (and agents, and booksellers) that BookAngst 101 represents--is to have a chance of being something more than just another blog-sport diversion, then I NEED SOME INPUT. I'm doing my best to provide actual data (quote unquote) about how things look from the publisher's perspective, and it seems that many of you are glad to have it. But it's a two-way conversation; I've asked for specific details from your own publishing experience, in hopes that something useful might emerge; and that won't happen without a broad range of responses.
SO: HERE AGAIN IS THE QUESTIONNAIRE. PLEASE FILL IT OUT! AND SHARE IT WITH ANYONE/EVERYONE TO WHOM IT APPLIES, AND URGE THEM TO FILL IT OUT TOO! Replies, please, to email@example.com
Here are the rules: Authors will NOT be named. Publishers will NOT be named. Sales figures (if you choose to provide them) will NOT be included, except perhaps in a relative sense--if you tell me Book 1 sold 10,000 copies and Book 2 sold 11,000 copies, I'll call that a 10% increase, without specifying the base figure. You have my word of honor that I won't sell you/your data out to the National Enquirer.
Here are the questions--again, for writers who've had more than one publisher.
1. what (if anything) did publisher #1 do especially well as pertains to the positioning/marketing of you/your book(s)?
1A. how many books did you publish there?
1B. if more than one, did your sales increase/decrease/stay the same?
2. why did you switch publishers?
3. did your sales on the first book w/ publisher #2 increase/decrease/stay the same relative to publisher #1?
4. did you do subsequent books with publisher #2?
4A. if so, did your sales increase/decrease/stay the same?
5. when you switched publishers, were any promises made (or implied) about a bigger marketing effort than what you'd had before?
5A. if so, list them; and to what extent did they deliver on their promises?
6. promises notwithstanding, what differences did you see in the efforts between pub #1 and pub #2?
7. what (if anything) did publisher #2 do especially well?
8. are you glad you switched publishers? why/why not?
9. based on your own experience, what one or two things have had the most impact on the successes you've achieved so far?
10. what are the one or two things that have had the least impact--waste of time, waste of money, etc?
11. knowing what you know now, what strategies would you most want to see implemented for your next book?
12. any other comments?
THANK YOU! Replies to firstname.lastname@example.org
Recently Boston Globe correspondent Jessica Brilliant Keener posted a comment here which began:
Could we talk about the intensity with which everyone is protecting his or her editorial identities? Could editors (anonymously, if necessary) discuss why they feel compelled to remain anonymous? I don't mean to be strident or naive but the publishing world is beginning to sound like an incest anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous group. Is there some kind of dependency/co-dependency factor going on here? And what's the root of this?Dear Jessica,
I admit I'm a little surprised by this: has the anonymous source, the insider who'll tell what she really knows about the view from inside, only under the circumstance that her identity not be made public--has this not been a staple of the journalistic enterprise since, say, the days of Watergate? Not to suggest, even remotely, that protecting the identity of an editor who said "ads don't sell books" is anything other than a theoretical parallel to protecting the identity of the joker who said "follow the money"; on the other hand, if anonymity makes it feasible for you to have access to information you might not otherwise have--and, apparently, desire--is it really fair, in fact, to describe the presentation of said information as evidence of some sort of inbred insider co-dependency? any more, say, than you would your own journalistic endeavors?
I insisted that the editors' remarks be published anonymously, just as I've insisted/promised that the information provided by all WRITERS who respond (to a different survey posted herein) will ALSO be presented anonymously. Any editor who puts her name on the web immediately becomes subjected to [yes, the negative connotation of that phrase is intentional, as anyone in publishing will understand] scores of unsolicited submissions (a cruel reward for her generosity) and, quite possibly, a reprimand from her employer. Likewise, why would a writer share the intimate details of his own publishing experience, especially if that experience were to reflect poorly on his future prospects, as it might if his name & particulars were made public?
I'm in complete agreement with your other points; indeed, one might say that your remark about how "the more straightforward everyone is about the business, the healthier and more successful everyone--editors and writers--will be" (etc) represents the principles on which this blog is based.* But I flinch, just a little, at the suggestion that the rules that apply to your profession should not also extend to mine.**
*One might describe these as "founding principles," except then one would be lying. In truth this can only be said to be the case in hindsight, since I hadn't more than a passing notion of what the hell I was getting himself into when I launched this paper boat...
**Here, too, I stretch the truth for dramatic effect: yours (presumably) is in fact a profession; this can only--generously--be described as my "hobby." I'd reinforce that notion with the insertion of a benign smiley-face here if I could--but this would exceed my technological capability.
I take issue w/ the fact that I'm bashing the industry per se--I see this as trying to open up some sort of constructive dialog--but beauty (like abuse) is in the eye of the beholder. The part about the pay phone is true.
Here's the link which may or may not work (I don't know, I'm not a Crain's subscriber) so, for the second time in less than a week (apologies, also, to Michael Cader), I violate various copyright & proprietary regs by posting a cut-and-pasted version of the article.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK [Crain's New York Business, published on November 08, 2004 ]
Strong words about books
An undercover blogger is bashing the book industry. A veteran New York editor started BookAngst 101 last month out of frustration with how poorly books are selling. Preferring to remain anonymous, he goes by the moniker Mad Max Perkins, after the legendary Scribner's editor.
"It occurred to me there wasn't anybody on the inside of publishing talking in straight-on terms about the business," says Mad Max, who is so leery of being outed that he spoke for this interview from a pay phone near his office.
He hopes to get publishing executives, authors and booksellers to share ideas. "We all know that if we don't figure out some way to fix our business, it's going to be in the toilet, if it isn't already," he says.
So far, the site features unflattering commentary on New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, among others, and a call to authors to contribute confidential posts about their experiences with publishers.
Literary bloggers are welcoming the new addition. "I'm so glad there's an editor out there who's willing to talk about some of the crises in the business," says author and blogger M.J. Rose.
1. what can a writer do personally to increase his/her visibility--both in-house and out--before the book is published?
ED#1: As far as increasing visibility inside or outside a publishing house, the writer is presumably limited by finances. Hiring an outside publicity firm can be very effective but is a big expense. Having a professional to create and maintain a website is also an expense. The free or cheap thing you can do is treat your book as a career (i.e. a business) and assume more responsibility than just writing the book. Answer the author questionnaire in as complete a manner as possible and give the publicity department something to work with. Find effective ways to spend a small promotion budget ($500 for an announcement postcard if the house will assume the expense of mailing it). Do some on-line research to see if there are any specific websites that will give good exposure to the book and then use them in whatever way is possible. But these are the traditional answers and more and more it seems as though breaking through the clutter is getting impossible.
ED #2: One thing that is worthwhile, I think, is to plan to visit New York some point early to midway throught the publishing process so you can meet your editor personally. If it's appropriate, your editor may also then introduce you to some of the others within the house who will be working on your book. The economics of publishing prevent a house from being able to fly in every author they sign up in order to meet them, but it's just human nature that people tend to be even more invested in the work of someone they've spent some time with, and know a little bit better.
The other thing to do is simply to make sure that you or your agent ask questions about the promotional strategy--ie marketing and publicity--throughout the process. It's important that everyone be on the same page from the beginning about what the house's effort will entail. Even if it isn't as much as you'd hoped, knowledge is power, and you can make decisions about whether there is something you can do to supplement the efforts of the publisher. Also, though publishers genuinely want to do a good job for their authors (it's in their interest to sell books too!) things are less likely to slip through the cracks or get off course if you keep yourself in the loop.
The caveat is not to go too far and start driving the editor and the house crazy with questions and demands. Hopefully your agent can give you guidance here.
ED #3: Most important is getting over the mindset that just because you have a publisher, they will do everything for you. A publisher is a partner, not a savior. A midlist author really needs to fire on all cylinders, both in terms of honoring all the obligations he has with his publisher as well as aggressively pushing his interests. He (I'm just going to use "he" throughout, pardons to anyone who might be offended) needs to be in close contact with his editor, for starters: he can't just be satisfied with the one lunch at the time the deal is made and no contact until he drops the ms. off. Make the editor your partner, your ally. Call him once a week or so, not to noodge him, but with your thoughts, with a progress report, with what is exciting you about your book. And don't dodge his calls, either, even if you don't want to tell him you're behind schedule.
Also, be really attentive to what the editor asks of you. Author questionnaires are pains in the butt to fill out, but they can be incredibly useful in highighting contacts you might have. Don't have a meltdown over editing. If your editor wants changes, listen to why he's asking for them. Generally speaking, if it's not working for him, it's certainly not going to work for your readers.
A writer should build his base--other writers, media, booksellers. And he should remind/update the editor on his contacts. This requires organization on the writer's part, too: keep a list of contacts as you make them, with names, phone numbers, emails, etc. And if the writer has friends in other cities, get names and addresses out of them, so that you can send postcards announcing readings should you visit that town.
If possible, the writer should try to get published in magazines, newspapers, or journals--writing articles, reviews or essays. That can greatly add to a writer's exposure and name recognition. It also builds contacts.
In short, anything that builds an alliance with the editor and builds the writer's credentials (which means the editor can sell in- and out-of-house without appeals to subjective criteria, such as the editor's own taste or judgment) will be useful.
2. what are the two or three things an author most needs his editor to accomplish in-house to increase the chances that this book won't get lost in the shuffle?
ED#1: Every book needs more than one in-house champion. Presumably the editor is the first champion, but the editor needs to find fans in sales, marketing, etc. And the editor needs to constantly talk about the book to any one who'll listen, but never cross the border into annoying.
ED #2: The first thing an editor needs to accomplish is decided long before the author even signs a contract, which is the editor must have already established him or herself as someone with good relationships in-house. Sales, marketing and publicity need to trust and respect the judgment of the editor based on their experience with him. It's from that platform that everything else will spring.
Secondly, the editor needs to get sales, marketing, rights, and publicity people to read the manuscript. Depending on the house and the book, this may be a no-brainer or the hardest thing in the world to accomplish. And there's no way to control whether this team will ultimately agree with the editor's assessment of the book's saleabilty once they have read it. But everyone is more likely to feel invested and will be able to execute the house strategy more effectively if it has been.
Thirdly, the editor has to develop a very clear and specific vision of who the target audience for the book will be, and then make sure that every element of the publication carries out that vision. If the cover they come up with doesn't convey it, they'll have to keep fighting for the art director's time and attention until it does. If the bound galley, catalog copy and sales conference presentations don't make it all very explicit, they have to keep rewriting until they do. They have to make a serious effort--despite the fact that even the most connected and hardworking editor can sometimes turn up empty-handed--for quotes from other authors to use on the jackets. They have to follow through with sub rights and sales and publicity to make sure that they are all holding up their end of the bargain. There are a million details that the editor must oversee--and each should be consistently targeting the same clearly identified audience/s for the book.
ED #3: It's not up to the editor. Ultimately, editors have little more than enthusiasm. As indicated before, having your editor like you and feels he wants to help you is a good start. At the end of the day, though, despite all the noise you and your editor can make, decisions about how books get published are out of the editor's hands. It's usually a committee (in some houses a formal one, but in most an informal one), led by the imprint's publisher and including the sales director, publicity director and marketing director, that decides which books are to live and which are to twist in the wind.
3. beyond the catalog listing, the advance galleys, the finished book mailings and the related press-release materials, what (if any) additional marketing is this book likely to get?
ED #1: "Likely"? None.
ED #2: In general, most houses will do something online, whether it's just a listing of the book on the house website, posting a readers' guide, or something more elaborate. Other than that, efforts might range from those basics to anything under the sun. There are a million ways to promote a book, depending on its content. If it's a novel, perhaps it is set within a particular ethnic community, or in some other milieu, that provides a likely base for readership. The house might choose to target such a group in any number of ways--via online promotion, postcard mailings, events targeting that community, etc. That's just an example. Or, if the book fits into a particular genre of fiction, then you can find ways to reach readers of that particular genre, whether electronically, by mail, or doing any number of things that might facilitate word of mouth. Whatever additional marketing the publisher does, they'll have to believe it will have a significant impact in exchange for the dollars it will cost. And the economics of publishing usually mean that the number of dollars will probably be relatively small.
ED #3: If a writer makes a plausible case--you have connections, you have an address list, you are willing to address postcards to 100s of people--he might have a shot at a tour. Coming up with innovative suggestions also can help--like using a web site in a new way. Aside from that, the writer shouldn't expect too much. Also, writers should just give up on the idea of advertising. The truth is, ads don't help sell books, no matter what anyone says.
3A. In your experience, how many copies does a book have to ship before there's a chance of print advertising entering the picture?
ED #1: MINIMUM: 35,000. More likely at 50,000.
ED #2: It's a difficult question to answer. For example, a novel with a small printing might still be advertised in one of the specialty genre magazines if that's appropriate. Or there might be some angle (whether the book is fiction or nonfiction) that causes an ad in a smaller, targeted publication make sense.
If you are talking about the New York Times Book Review--which seems to be what many authors see as the holy grail of print advertising--or any other mainstream national venue, it also varies widely. Some houses will do an ad for a 10,000 copy hardcover in the Times Book Review if the reviews they are getting in are extraordinary, and they see the sales of the book as having potential to build. And some houses may publish a book with 50,000 copies, that has a sizeable marketing budget, and just not feel that print ads are the most effective use of that budget.
ED #3: In my experience, advertising has nothing to do with how many books are shipped. It's about so many other things that have nothing to do with marketing. When it's part of a big marketing campaign, it's just a sign of how big the publisher wants booksellers or media to think the book is. It can also simply be a reflection of a particular deal with a particular author, or how the publisher wants to treat one of its editors. It's random, it's useless, and see above: don't worry about advertising.
3B. Quick estimate: what percentage of your titles get any print advertising at all?ED #1: 5%
ED #2: Where I work, I'd guess that about three-quarters of the titles get some form of print advertising.
ED #3: 10%.
4. does marketing drive sales, or do sales drive marketing? That is: what (if anything) can a publisher do for a book that doesn't come shooting out of the gate?
ED #1: At this level printing [7500-15,000 copies], it's going to be a case of "catch up." What's likely to happen (if anything happens at all) is that IF it gets enough POSITIVE review attention, the publisher MAY chase it and be satisfied to get the ship up to 15,000 to 20,000 copies.
ED #2: Does marketing drive sales? Marketing can certainly help drive sales, obviously--unless there's a simple basic problem, which is that no one wants the book no matter how much they are told to buy it. Sometimes that happens.
Sales can also drive marketing. Imagine it as the equivalent of trying to build a campfire. Even a modest amount of sales activity is like that little flame or spark that gives you something to blow on, and feed fuel to.
If a book doesn't come shooting out of the gate, you have to really hope that you'll get some great reviews: that's the one main tool that can help get things going. Otherwise, you are really operating in something of a vacuum, and it's hard to get any traction at all. Unfortunately, the house can't control reviews. And even more unfortunately, sometimes the reviews are glowing and still have no impact.
ED #3: The right marketing can help sales, but there you have to have either a brilliant marketing idea, or you have to have a book with an audience that can be targeted. Marketing has almost no effect on midlist fiction.
5. An agent submits you a novel; you read it, love it, and are optimistic enough about your chances of acquiring the book that you request to speak w/ the author; whereupon the author tells you, "I'm a writer; my job is to write--to make this book as good as it can be, and then to begin writing the next one. The marketing of the book is your responsibility--I'm not good at it, and it takes
time and energy away from writing." To what extent (if any) does this change your enthusiasm for the book?
ED #1: Sometimes, enough to lose the enthusiasmto fight for it, if one has to fight for it. If EVERYONE else loves ittoo, then the author as marketing person is less important.
ED #2: It all depends on what kind of book it is. Having an author who will be an effective element of a promotional campaign can sometimes be essential. Other times it isn't. It's impossible to be more specific than that.
ED #3: Hard to say. It might not change my enthusiasm for the book, but it might change my ideas of how much of an advance I'd want to pay.
5A. Is it conceivable that you might choose NOT to offer based on that response?
ED #1: Depends on how much I love it. But my enthusiasm would be at least slightly dampened. The author should recognize that, at some level, they're self employed and nothing is going to be handed to them on a silver platter.
ED #3: Oh, yes, absolutely it's conceivable. It would depend on just how much I loved the book.
-> Mad Max would like to extend his personal thanks to Eds #1, #2, and #3, whose anonymity he'll take with him to the grave!
"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
- ► 2005 (75)
- Happy Holidays & All That Crap
- Letters of Protest
- PART II: An Editorial Response
- Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal
- 'Here I Come, To Save the Day!' or; Dispelling th...
- A Love Letter to Booksellers
- In Defense of the Blockbuster--A Topic for Booksel...
- Inside & Out: An Editor's View
- You Can Trust the Man Behind the Max
- Mad Max, R.I.P.? Hail to M.J. Rose...
- Cycling (no: CRASHING) as Metaphor for the Writing...
- When Murphy's Law Takes a Holiday............ The...
- The (Good) News from Paraguay
- Memo to Publishers: "Ads DO Sell Books"
- Tom Wolfe Wuz Robbed! or, The "Irrelevance Factor...
- MAD MAX SURVEY: Authors Speak!
- In Defense of Anonymity *#*
- Bashing? Moi?
- MAD MAX SURVEY: Editors on Marketing
- ▼ December (9)