Monday, November 22, 2004

When Murphy's Law Takes a Holiday............ The Alchemy of A Success

Recently I posted the comments of an anonymous author who took issue with the line (oft-repeated by publishers) that “ads don’t sell books.”

"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.]
THE TOUR: “There was no tour,” William explains, “and I actually didn’t mind. I think a generalization that’s demonstrably more true than ‘ads don’t sell books’ is ‘tours don’t sell books.’ Sending an author to a strange city on a $400 airline ticket to occupy a $300 hotel room and eat $150 in meals to do a single local TV interview and an invariably poorly attended bookstore event is a grand waste of money and, worse, a grand waste of time for the author. (He should stay home and write.)”

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.



Mad Max Perkins said...

Post-script: I said this in my original post, but want to say again how INCREDIBLY generous it is of William that he shared this information with us. He was apprehensive, as you might imagine--not just about whether I could be trusted with it, but also about the possibility that you, Dear Reader, might be inclined to play "literary CSI" and try to suss out who he really is. It's an enticing challenge, a bit of good sport perhaps, to use your sharp eye and insider connections to survey the scene of the crime for the stray fingerprint or carpet fiber that will illuminate William's true identity. But William has absolutely nothing to gain by sharing this level of detail. He did so for the same reason that I started this blog (and, presumably, for the same reason you read it): because specific information about the inner mechanics of book publishing are not readily available to the general public. And maybe providing more of them will spark a larger conversation about the publishing process that will prove useful to all of us.

So please: let's reward William's generosity by respecting his privacy--and in the process encourage others (agents, publishers, other writers) to be similarly forthcoming.

Anonymous said...

Thank you taht was fascinating. I don't at all want to bust his annonymity, but I'd love to read the book!

I hope you can post some more good news stories. They are joy to my ears.


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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"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."