Tuesday, December 07, 2004

In Defense of the Blockbuster--A Topic for Booksellers

Dear Booksellers,

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--

(HONESTLY, now)

--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?


30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dearest Max,

You seem a little too savvy to go so overboard on this one, unless you've been sampling a little too much of the HC Kool-Aid.

What's interesting to me that this time *two years ago* the new Crichton (Prey) got a ton of release time press--mostly about how, though it was selling big, it was still under expectations--but now, you see barely a peep. I'd venture that the bulk of America, Crichton fans and civilians alike, have NO IDEA that yesterday was Michael Crichton Day.

Despite what Harper paid, Crichton seems to be one of those guys who, while still quite successful, has peaked. The last film or two tanked, PREY even in opening weeks hit numbers that pale next to FIVE PEOPLE... or DA VINCI a year after pub. Grisham still can draw (though who knows now that they moved his traditional Feb laydown), Nora, a couple of others. But Crichton? Not so sure...

Perhaps more germane, even if it is a blockbuster, the "booksellers" you address will see little or none of the action, won't they? A Crichton-style launch will ring up, what, 50 to 65% percent of its business at the mass merchandisers. Almost all the rest will go to the chains and Amazon. Mr. and Mrs. Bookseller are more likely to take advantage to sell other books, no?

Mad Max Perkins said...

Has Stephen King peaked? Has Tom Clancy peaked? James Patterson? Patricia Cornwell? Michael Crichton? Nelson DeMille? Sandra Brown? John Sandford? John Grisham? We've been hearing for years that some or all of these "brands" have perhaps lost ground relative to their high-water moments; and it may well be true. Nonetheless, there are hundreds of thousands of readers for each of these novelists who plunk down their hard-earned $$$ for the new novel by an author who--for those readers--has proven, consistently, that their novels deliver the goods.

YOU may not be aware that yesterday was Michael Crichton Day; on the other hand (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong), I'm fairly confident that you're neither a bookseller nor a Crichton fan.

This is an open forum, and you're certainly welcome to use the space to debate the larger institutional issues and, by implication & insinuation, even denigrate, if you chose, the decisions (and perhaps even the motives) of multi-national corporations and bookselling chains that are now at its center.
For me, though, this is essentially a theoretical debate: what is IS, and there's no productive utility to my talking about things that I can have absolutely no influence over in the first place. I have my own private opinions about the nature of those changes and the impact they've had on the industry; but there's nothing I can do or say to change them. So I generally turn my attention (on this site) to more practical issues--like how we, as authors, as publishers, as booksellers, can maximize such opportunities as exist to sell more books.

Meanwhile, Booksellers: I'd love to hear to what extent--if at all--did the fact that the new Crichton was pub'ing factor into your expectations of that particular Tuesday?

--MMP

Anonymous said...

Max, why the "gotcha" tone? Come spring the nurseries and garden supply stores are going to sell tons of horseshit, but they're not going to confuse the stuff with the roses, and it's not necessary for them to choose between the two.

Megan said...

I work at an independent and to be honest, the new Michael Crichton didn't make a dent in the sales yesterday. We've sold 1 (we didn't order that many to start). But our market is a bit different than a lot of the chains. Our customers do like to read the Booker and NBA winners. But no, we didn't lament the new Harry Potter last year. It made a big difference in sales. I suppose it depends on the book really. Crichton's not big, but Dan Brown still is. It's hard to figure out.

Angry Young Man said...

According to Bookscan, PREY sold 768,412 copies in hardcover, and a half-dozen other versions (mass, cd, et al.) brought in another half-million sales. That would make the actual sale around 1.5 million total. And PREY blows.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm not a bookseller but I think this is an important issue. I'm the anonymous soon-to-be-pubbed poster from yesterday who actually is happy with my editor, tickled with my agent, and thrilled that STATE OF FEAR is out even though I've never read Crichton.

My two cents on block-busters ... I hear time and again from unpublished or midlist authors (but mostly from unpublished literary types) that it's because all the money goes to the "big names" that there's no money for the "meaningful" books.

My argument is, if it weren't FOR the block-buster, big name authors, the publishing houses would have less money to buy new authors and the market would be even more difficult to break into than it already is.

The Stephen Kings (I've read everything he's written), the Dan Browns, the Nora Roberts, the Peter Straubs, the Dean Koontzs, the Janet Evanovichs, and all the other block-busters bring the money into the publishing houses so they CAN buy new authors like me.

So I celebrate the big releases because that means my publisher will make more money and some of that will trickle down to me.

Sarah said...

I don't work as a bookseller anymore, but when I did a few years ago, blockbusters did varying degrees of business. Patricia Cornwell's PORTRAIT OF A KILLER sold like mad (though I held my tongue very, very firmly because hell, a sale's a sale.) But when PREY came out, it did pretty marginal business, because it wasn't the kind of book our clientele generally went for.

And if Tuesday was Michael Crichton day, I think it seemed to pass with less notice than PREY did. To be honest, there didn't seem to be that much buzz about the book; heard lots more for any Patterson, Evanovich's METRO GIRL, the new Cussler, Demille, etc.

Anonymous said...

From the original commenter...

Didn't mean to make you upset, Max. I was trying to be add some helpful perspective; I love blockbusters (particularly when they work) and I love books sold in any venue. Like you, I'm all for ways that "we, as authors, as publishers, as booksellers, can maximize such opportunities as exist to sell more books."

But I think your original post points towards some of things that traditional publishing people often don't understand about numbers, consumer marketing, the current marketplace, and so on. And I think Harper could have done better, that there's less anticipation than there was for PREY, and that rather than being a seminal event-of-the-week for the business, it's going to be just another big release. To wit:

1. Publishers manage even their biggest laydowns pretty poorly next to other media. Music and DVD fans have been trained that Tuesday is laydown day. But in publishing, the big six use different laydown days. We could fix that.

2. Other media like music and DVD also do a much better job of building consumer anticipation and driving opening day sales than publishers. A big opening day is Halo 2 selling around two million units; in turn driving 200,000 copies of Prima's guide book.

What will Crichton sell opening day if all went great (and I still doubt that it did)? 20,000 to 30,000 copies? Maybe booksellers who want to drive traffic and add incremental sales should be thinking about carrying the less obvious titles, like the Prima HALO 2 guide.

3. You're excited about the traffic you think this big opening is driving. My point here was two-fold; per above, let's saying everything goes well and BN sells 6,000 copies the first day. That's about 9 copies per superstore. I don't see how that's a flood that lifts the whole industry.

The second part of the point was that most Crichtons are selling in non-bookstores. So I'm not suprised that indie who posted her said she sold 1 copy and it didn't mean much. A new Crichton can help Harper's bottom line a lot if it goes well, and so the industry has happily gone along with having deep-discounter drive the sales of big new frontlist--but it's not the kind of book that helps bookstores, and the book industry--it's the kind of thing that might move some units at Wal-Mart.

4. It's easy for people in the business to assume the "Michael Crichton Day" is a big deal because we start to believe our own hype. But what I'm saying is that it's mostly stories we're telling ourselves, and thinking that because a bijillion copies have been printed and a USA Today ad booked and a bunch of co-op doled out that it's a big deal--but not a story that we're telling well to the consumer, and that the average consumer is hearing.

M.J. said...

RIght - esp to number 4 of the last comment. I think there is a huge crisis in publisher's thinking these days - people are not hearing about books in the ways they used to. An ad - or three - won't get the buzz going. Publisher's are not getting people panting for the big books in the ways that the film industry does or the TV industry does. I've ranted about this ad nauseum. But the marketing wisdom is - esp for a product (book/film/music) were a fast big opening is needed, you have to start seriously marketing to the consumer - to the consumer - to the consumer - 3 months before launch. Not to the distributor of the bookseller etc. THE READER. For some reason that I can't understand publishers can't get around the idea that the 1970 way of getting booksellers excited pre pub is not the be-all-end-all -all you need marketing strategy anymore. Readers are the ones who tell other readers and the way the system is set up it's not working. I could go on - but I have my own blog for this. And it's too depressing to keep seeing it done exactly backwards.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so let's forget about who's big and who's not anymore, and we can also forget about the totally anomalous books like Da Vinci and Five People. Let's talk about the article in last Sunday's NYT Magazine, about BzzzAgent (or is that too New York-centric?).

Is this the new marketing wave?

The book the article cites as the first to use this company (which was offered to Penguin for free!) was a trade paperback original, THE FROG KING. The best kind of test case. NOT hardcover. FIRST novel. LITERARY (I'm assuming, having not read it, but we know it wasn't genre). According to BookScan, this 2+ year-old book has sold (cash register sales) 26,000 copies. Not bad for the aforementioned kind of book, though not the 50,000 copies the article states, an inflated number from the publisher, no doubt. UNLESS, they actually printed 50,000 but only netted 50% in which case, agggghhhhhh. Which is a whole 'nother subject.

But back to buzz: now this campaign would cost $95,000, according to the company spokesperson. But can publishers, or even booksellers, invent their own form of "trendsetters troops" and "buzzzzzz on books"? Is this viable? Or is BuzzAgent just brilliant at getting people to work for them for free but not really contributing a new form of marketing?

Mad Max Perkins said...

Here's the link to the New Your Times Magazine piece

Mad Max Perkins said...

...and here's a link to Robert Gray's December 9 exploration of some of the issues alluded to above (and a good deal more, of course) at FRESH EYES: A BOOKSELLER'S JOURNAL.

Amber said...

As a former bookseller, usually our Blockbusters were a crapshoot. The place that I worked in was in a unique situation geographically, being the only bookstore within a 60 mile radius, so we got to know our client base very well. The problem always was that we were a chain, and our District Supervisors never got the fact that they didn't understand our client base. Everything that they would send us, thinking we'd sell out of, we usually ended up with the majority in overstock until returns went through. Crichton (and Grisham, Ludlum, etc. - you know, the Standards) did well, but they never did as well as our DS thought they should.
Of course, give them a Eugenia Price, and we'd sell out in a heartbeat...

M.J. said...

I spent a long time talking to the Buzz Agent folks when they first got started and have studied buzz building from several angles and have read everything in existence it seems like about word of mouth.

I think Buzz Agent is fascinating. But I don't think that for that kind of money its reasonable.

I'm have two essays that explain -and when you read it realize - to get 50,000 free booksto readers - it would only cost the publisher $15,000 to $20,000.

That won't make sense till you get to the end.

http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/buzz_balls_hype/2004/08/sneak_preview_t.html

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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."