I don't know the source of MJ's data, but in a perfect world, 12-14 weeks sounds like a plausible gestation period for word of mouth buzz to build organically. Certainly there's no doubt that the hardcover shelf-life for a book that doesn't immediately catch fire is growing shorter and shorter. For editors as much as for authors, there's nothing more depressing than seeing returns starting to come back six-to-eight weeks after publication. Which happens all the time.
"Word of mouth takes at least 12 - 14 weeks to build....[For a book to succeed] it has to stay on the shelf in plain sight for [two to three months]....Yet the publishing industry continues to give a book - at best - 3 to 4 weeks of promotion and co-op."
MJ's right: in most cases (hell: in the best cases) publishers secure from 2-4 weeks of "placement" and/or co-op for new titles. Those books you see at the front of the store? For the most part they're there because the publisher has paid for them to be there--think of it as a "slotting fee" of the sort that General Mills pays to get supermarkets to stock Cheerios.
To my mind, co-op (the umbrella category for money spent getting bookstores to place, promote and sometimes discount books, in addition to getting them to place news about the book and author on their websites, in monthly newsletters, etc) is the most effective allocation of marketing dollars. Placement matters most. I'm not going to get into the "do ads sell books" debate here; but there's little doubt that getting your book placed on the "New Fiction" table at the front of the store for an extended period of time, or in an "endcap" display or a step-ladder display or in the front window--these things can make a huge difference.
But one aspect of this that MJ doesn't address is how decisions about co-op spending are made, and who it is that makes them. Tacit in her criticism--that publishers don't support the books long enough for them to come into the public's consciousness--is the notion that the choices in this regard are ours to make. The only way that could be true is if the booksellers themselves were passive participants. They are not. We publishers articulate our desires, convey our priorities, tell them how many copies we want them to take, and try to convince them that we mean business (when we do) by demonstrating the marketing and publicity campaigns planned for each book. And part of the ammunition for convincing them of this is to put our money where our mouth is through co-op--to give booksellers an incentive to take a bigger position, to promote it longer and so forth.
In the end, though, it's the bookseller who makes the final decision. And there are lots of reasons why a bookseller won't always play ball. Don't like the jacket. Don't like the title. Didn't like the author's previous book. Don't like the author. Don't like the category. Used to like the category, but now it's played out... And then there's the old-fashioned gut-check: 'I read this book, I think it sucks, and so all this stuff you're offering me, day-glo keychains and skywriting and a full-page ad in USA TODAY, they don't mean a hill of beans--my gut tells me I'm not going to sell many; and as a consequence I'm not going to take many, nor am I going to commit to putting this on the front fiction table for as long as you want me to. Even if you pay me to.'
In other words: for books (as opposed, say, to breakfast cereals), a willingness on the publishers' part to pay doesn't in all cases guarantee front-of-store placement.
Success breeds success, of course: if a book catches a wave and is selling well, booksellers sensibly are going to keep pushing it, keep giving it good real estate--sometimes with the publisher kicking in addtional co-op, sometimes not. But what can be done about ho-hum early sales? If a book's not selling right out of the gate, and a publisher cannot convince the bookseller to extend the front-of-store placement another two weeks, or isn't willing to outlay the additional expense? The publisher wants the same two-to-three month shelf-life MJ endorses (longer, even, to be honest), in hopes that a word of mouth buzz might finally start generating the sales that the original marketing push--reviews, book tour, f.o.s. etc--failed to do.
But does the bookseller? Does s/he have the luxury of waiting for a book catch fire? Certainly there are titles that a bookseller adores and so gives an extra chance for success, thus keeping them longer than perhaps their initial sales warrant; then again, such a title, almost by defintition, would have been the beneficiary of a bookseller's enthusiastic handselling; and, usually, a hand-sold book = a successful book. So the love-it-but-can't-sell-it-but-am-keeping-it-on-the-shelves-anyway scenario is a truly rare one.
I suspect, too, that when MJ refers to a two-to-three month run, she's not talking about a B&N keeping two copies of a novel (from, say, a 20 copy order, of which they sold 6 and have now returned12) upstairs in the stacks; she means face-out or on a table. Actively merchandized. But if a book's not selling after four weeks, what's the motivation for a bookseller to keep a stack of the books in prime real estate? Strip away from the bookseller the "specialness" we tend to attribute to those passionate about books, and what you've got is a retailer trying to stay in business. And the way a bookseller stays in business is by selling books. Full stop.
So: is it likely that the chances for a hardcover catching fire will improve in its fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth weeks if it hasn't already before then? My experience suggests otherwise: almost inevitably, the further we get from pub date, the less likelihood there is that a book's going to get "discovered" and embraced. The media moves onto to other titles, other opportunities; and each day dozens of new titles arrive in cartons and get unpacked, each with its own set of promises and expectations. And what inevitably happens is that these new titles push the old ones out, and the same Darwinian process begins again. And again, and again, endlessly.
So it's not enough to say that publishers are too cheap or short-sighted not to set up enough co-op (etc) to ensure that a book catch hold. Because there's another factor at play: the simple reality is that bookstores can't afford to hold onto merchandise that isn't selling. And so when they identify such merchandise, they tend to replace it with something new.
I'd love to be wrong about this; I'd love to be told that MJ's vision of the (potential) relationship between shelf-life and buzz is viable, and that her proposed test--to seriously extend co-op on a select group of titles & therefore have some real data to build on--sounds realistic and likely to produce the desired result. And there's a very good chance I am wrong: what I know of the details of co-op and in-store merchandizing (or think I know) has been amassed largely through osmosis. Marketing and sales departments rarely "open their books" for an editor's (or author's) scrutiny--not, I think, as a matter of secrecy so much as a factor of the imperfect realities that they face: the machinery of publishing such a huge volume of titles and putting out three lists a year would come to a grinding halt if they had to submit to marketing "audits" on every 8500-copy novel... But to get back on point: it's quite likely that I've gotten the nuances of the bookseller/publisher dance wrong as relates to co-op; and it's certain that others with more direct experience--booksellers, sales people, marketing directors--can provide much greater specificity.
So I hope booksellers, marketers, reps, and anybody else with experience in this realm will jump in here and share your opinions and expertise.
"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."
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