Sunday, December 05, 2004

Inside & Out: An Editor's View

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.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

When Mad Max said that he was surprised that there weren't more positive comments about "William's" story and that bad news tended to be more energizing, I felt I had to respond.

It's true. When something bad happens, people want to talk about it. When something good happens, people might say, "Great!" and move on.

I don't know if anyone will want to read my positive comments, but here they are:

I love my editor. I am a soon-to-be published author with a great house (three of my all-time favorite authors are published with this house). My editor is behind me 100%. If my books fail, it'll be because my stories didn't resonate with the public or because of some intangible thing no one can quantify--not because of my editor.

So far, my editor is working hard with me to make my books as strong as they can be; the editing advice has been right on, and I've learned so much that I hope the next book I submit will have "solved" a lot of my beginning writing problems. I hope I never get to the point where my ego is so great that I don't accept editing.

When I sold earlier this year, I had no idea what went into putting together a book. From the initial sale to marketing to art to a sales force--I'll admit that I was a little overwhelmed. I'll do anything my editor or agent thinks will benefit my career, then go home and do what I love to do: write.

I love my agent. She negotiated a fabulous deal for me and has been a pit bull in making sure that my interests are served. Her advice has been solid and if I never make another sale, it's not because she wasn't behind me.

I'm still in the middle of the process so I don't know everything that will or won't happen with my books. But like anything in this business, it's part luck, part talent and part perseverence. I know many wonderful authors who are still unpublished. Why me and not them? Because I found an agent who loved my story when others rejected it? Because she found an editor who loved my voice and was willing to fight for my books?

I'm in it for the long haul. I'll never forget the many, many people who are working together to make my books a reality.

Oh, and one little comment on the whole ad business. I, personally, think that book covers are the deciding factor as to whether someone buys a book (other than word-of-mouth). Why? Because it's the cover that makes them pick it up off the shelf in the first place (then the blurb better be good, too!) Just my opinion as an avid reader.

Mad Max Perkins said...

Wow. Whoever you are, thank you so much for your contrarian reply. Your comments--and the great good feeling behind them, and the way your editor and your agent so clearly are of like mind--reflect the way in which the partnerships that develop thus can, sometimes, make this business beyond compare.

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