Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Mad Max, R.I.P.? Hail to M.J. Rose...

On two (or is it three?) separate fronts today, Mad Max discovered that he's been scooped on topics he's been sniffing at--rendered, effectively, redundant by super-sleuth/marketing braveheart M.J. Rose at Buzz Balls & Hype...

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...
Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Cycling (no: CRASHING) as Metaphor for the Writing Life

Dan Wickett at Emerging Writers Network (www.emergingwriters.net) today posts a terrific interview with the very funny writer Mike Magnuson, author of LUMMOX, among others. Here he riffs about the relationship between his favorite activity (cycling) and his least favorite (writing):

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.

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.


Thursday, November 18, 2004

The (Good) News from Paraguay

Congratulations to Lily Tuck, WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD for fiction
  • 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"

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Memo to Publishers: "Ads DO Sell Books"

Last night an anonymous poster offered a detailed & intriguing rebuttal to the conventional publishing boilerplate wisdom that "ads don't sell books." Further (if I'm reading this correctly), this poster is in the rather unique position of seeing this from all three sides: as an editor, as an agent and, most recently, as a published author.

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 madmaxperkins@hotmail.com. 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."

Friday, November 12, 2004

Tom Wolfe Wuz Robbed! or, The "Irrelevance Factor" Explored

Is there no-one in the world of arts & letters (not sure who qualifies? Well, let's start with those of us who earn a living wage in the realm of books, magazines and newspapers) who is ashamed of the way we have greeted and mistreated this year's nominees for the National Book Award?

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


(! ! !)

--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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

MAD MAX SURVEY: Authors Speak!

The more frequent visitors to this site are about to notice something fishy about this "post." That it ain't, in fact, "fresh meat."

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


Authors Speak!

And maybe then I'd get your attention. So, yes: this post is, in fact, a rehash of a post from a couple of weeks ago (Oct. 29/'04) in which I asked PUBLISHED authors to share their expertise with the rest of us.

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.


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 madmaxperkins@hotmail.com
Tuesday, November 09, 2004

In Defense of Anonymity *#*

*#*With apologies to David Foster Wallace (or, indeed, to anyone especially weary of DFW) for the use, below, of footnotes...

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.
Monday, November 08, 2004

Bashing? Moi?

Sorry if this is tacky, but Matthew Flamm at Crain's New York Business caught wind of the site and tracked us down [note use of the royal "We"]; the result is this article in Valerie Block's "New York, New York" column in today's Crain's.

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 ]

By Valerie Block

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.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

MAD MAX SURVEY: Editors on Marketing

-> I'm extremely pleased to be able to share the completely unexpurgated replies to a series of questions from three of New York's top editors. I asked them to target their comments to what, for lack of a more precise term, we'll call a mid-list-ish title--that is, a book with a first printing in the 7500 - 15,000 copy range.

1. what can a writer do personally to increase his/her visibility--both in-house and out--before the book is published?

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!
Friday, November 05, 2004

Mr. Cader, and Mr. Cader

One isn't supposed to share the contents of a proprietary website without permission. For instance, the contents and resources of PUBLISHERS MARKETPLACE are meant for subscribers only. So I'm breaking any number of rules, laws, codes of conduct, etc., by cutting-and-pasting the contents of today's PUBLISHERS LUNCH email to subscribers, in which Michael Cader writes most beautifully about his father. The link is here: http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/lunch/ --but today's LUNCH won't be posted there till tomorrow. So, Mr. Cader, I apologize for taking this liberty, but know those (very, very few) readers out there who aren't already on your subscription list won't want to wait till tomorrow to read this moving tribute.

Published Daily. Except When Not.

Friday, November 5
Today's Meal

We have an oddly personal relationship going here, you and I, in this daily conversation about publishing that occasionally diverges, from my little wisecracks to broken refrigerators, school events, and back again.

As mentioned on Monday, I've had anniversaries on my mind this week--though today's occasion is of an entirely different nature.

As a result, this edition of Lunch goes further afield than ever before; it's actually about something quite personal (though very tangentially related to PL) and thus is my greatest indulgence since starting this newsletter. But it's what I need to do today.

With that in mind, if you want to put this mail away now I understand completely, and will visit you again Monday bearing publishing news.

Thirty years ago, my father, Gordon Victor Cader, died at age 48, after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.

I loved and admired him in the ways I imagine any 12-year-old would love his Dad; he was funny and kind (shades of his impish wit and language play may be found here from time to time), smart and affectionate, with a slightly unnatural but generally charming interest in Civil War battlefields, fishing, excessively worn sport shorts, and the Baltimore Colts.

Gordon Cader was one of the youngest-ever graduates of the John Hopkins Medical School. An "old-fashioned" internist with a passionate commitment to patient care-and an equal devotion to sharing that tradition and those values with Hopkins students and interns-he was known in this tight-knit medical community as the "doctor's doctor." In other words, he was the one who all the other doctors wanted to have taking care of them, and in many ways he was the kind of doctor that many of them aspired to be. He both embodied the best of the "Hopkins tradition" and made it stronger, through example and through personal effort.

Only after he died did I hear from an unimaginably large circle of friends, colleagues and patients of their deep affection and enduring admiration for my Dad's skills as a clinician and the great humanity with which he applied them. Only then did I began the journey of knowing him not just as a father but as a man. And only then did I come to understand that in the community that mattered most to him, he was a quiet giant--and that in even a life cut short, he lived more, and left more, than many could ever hope to.

It's a pretty rare thing, in the noise of every day life, to be offered a window into your own self--but that's what happened to me recently in thinking about my father and the time passed. Every time I'm asked to explain the curious course and furious intensity that's led me to create and develop this funny electronic publishing village of Lunch/Marketplace we now inhabit together, I've had an array of different explanations.

It turns out that the truest reason was eluding me all along: a part of me has simply been striving to build the kind of deep, connected and essential community that my father built around himself, trying to be the kind of man that he was.

Most days in life it feels like we're driving all the time, without necessarily knowing where we're going or why. Just recently, I feel as if I've glimpsed the map and started to understand why I'm on this particular road. Whether you knew it or not, with your kind attention, your abundant enthusiasm, and your sharing of this passion to build and connect a community around something that matters so much to us all, you've helped steer me to a course that feels right now as if it's headed true North, For both joining and directing me on this journey, and for this rare window into your daily lives, I am profoundly grateful.

And in loving memory of the quiet, gentle, powerful and everlasting model of Gordon Cader, with a nod to fathers everywhere, today I will appropriately avail myself of our longstanding "except when not."

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Johnny Damon Wept: The Curse Lives On

Sorry, Sox fans: your reign is over. Hope you enjoyed your week of glory.

Think about it: one week ago the Sox were the Idiot Kings of the World, ending nearly a century’s suffering. On October 27, its 3-0 victory iced a 4-0 sweep over the St. Louis Cardinals, earned Boston its first World Series Championship in 86 years, and capped one of the greatest playoff runs in American history.

Today, in a stunning turn of events that eclipses the shame and disappointment conjured by names like Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone and Bill Buckner...

[--and let us not forget Ralph “Black Sock” Nader, the bag-man to the black-clad officials charged with calling balls and strikes, who delivered the 2000 Series to the Florida team]--

Today the Red Sox have been ingloriously stripped of their rightful title.


Originally posted as under "Occasional Pontificator" as a post-election Sidebar Rant, 11/3/04
Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Mad Max Statement-of-Purpose-Slash-Welcome-Wagon: Post Numero Uno

Hi folks. I'm tired of being frustrated & depressed about the business of publishing--so, following the principle that misery loves company, I've decided to start my own blog. Welcome to BookAngst 101.

Writers, agents, publishers and booksellers all agree that the business of selling books has become heartbreakingly hard. So what can we do? I'm a senior publishing executive, and I'd like to hear your thoughts. Bitch & moan as necessary--I'm very much in the mood for that myself these days--but ultimately I'm hoping we can take for granted that the books we write, agent, publish, and sell actually matter to us, and that the people involved in every phase of the process care, deeply, about those books succeeding. (Obviously "success" in this regard is a relative thing, measured according to a sliding scale; but that's a topic for another post.)

My hope is that this will provide a constructive forum for venting, yes--for extending, perhaps, what constitutes the publishing "community"--but also for throwing out ideas that might prove useful to someone else, to discuss what's working & what's not... Above all, for both neophyte and grizzled pro to share their insights, frustrations and predictions, and maybe, along the way, be reminded of why we didn't all become accountants in the first place.

Yours truly,
Mad Max Perkins

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."