Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"Publish" as a Verb: Books on the Half-Shell, Part II

The number (and quality) of responses to last Sunday's post (The Half-Life of Shelf Life, Feb. 6/'05) indicates the degree to which MJ Rose, as usual, has her finger on the pulse of some of the industry's most critical issues. But she went further than identifying the problems--she even offered some possible ways of attacking these problems. My reply to her original Test This posting did her a disservice, in that in only addressed half (if even that) of what she had to say--the issue of in-store placement, and the extent to which publishers have leverage over same. MJ responded thus:

If the publisher isn't going to do radically different promotion and marketing for the book to get the buzz going - the shelf life alone won't solve the problem....So Max, sure, the way it is, just upping shelf life wouldn't work; but testing a new marketing plan and then upping shelf life might.

So now I'd like to go back to her original "Test This" post, where MJ pointed to a few of those "radically different promotion and marketing" ideas:

Even in the film industry - and movies are probably closer to books than anything else - each film is promoted for months to the CONSUMER before it's released. And what's more about hundreds of thousands of filmgoers see every film FREE before it's released to get buzz going....A book should have a two to three month pre-promotional push to the bookseller and then it needs to have a two to three month pre-[pub] promotional push to the reader and then it needs to have a two to three month [publicity and marketing campaign].

It's impossible to argue against the advantages those first two tiers of pre-pub promotion would bring--obviously the more people, booksellers AND readers, who get fired up prior to pub, the better.

But how do you pay for it? Not for a huge lead-slot title, but for something on a more modest scale?

Because (as anybody reading this is sure to know) there are books that get precisely the sort of pre-pub push MJ's advocating. Iain Pears' AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST was a textbook example of an author being sent out on tour months in advance of publication, to swap spit with booksellers all across the country and explain why this massive (700 p. hardcover) really could appeal to a broad audience. The strategy worked beautifully: the booksellers got on board, the book went out in big numbers; Pears then went out on a second tour when the book was published; Riverhead supported it (if memory serves) with a first-rate advertising campaign; the book was widely and well-reviewed--and its visibility and sales were such (it became a huge bestseller) that it all the shelf-life it needed, and then some.

But this was, without question, Riverhead's lead title. And under such circumstances, publishers are (occasionally) willing to go out on a limb, to (as we describe it) "overspend" in marketing and publicity up front in hopes that the per-book marketing spend won't look so outrageous over time--assuming, of course, that the book takes off and the number of copies in the marketplace grows and grows. So--now I'm speaking hypothetically; I don't know any of the specifics of the Riverhead campaign--let's say Betty Brightstar's Big Book ships 50,000 copies initially; and the money we've spent getting there--the A(dvanced) R(eaders) E(dition)s, the meet-the-booksellers pre-pub tour, the on-pub tour, the ads, the co-op, the website, et cetera--comes to $200,000, a.k.a $4.00 per book. (A whopping sum, it must be said.) But let's say things go well and those 50,000 copies become 100,000 copies (now you're down to $2 per book) and eventually 200,000 copies--well, now your marketing spend for Big Book was just a dollar per--which means you're a genius, because your initial outlay has paid off in spades.

Fact is, most publishers have one or two or three such books on every single list. And though the details vary (the big-scale pre-pub bookseller meet-and-greet is still a relative rarity, for instance); and though these titles still represent the great minority of the total number of books published; nonetheless we do see, fairly frequently, isolated examples of the sort of publishing that MJ is referring to.

[Sidebar: if there are, say, 20 such "make" books from various publishers in a particular season--I'm not including already established bestsellers, but "hot" new titles & authors that publishers are excited about and put significant moolah and expectations behind--on average perhaps three of those books come close to being, by any stretch of the imagination, a "success"--and generally two of those three can be deemed such only because the author has two additional books under contract, and the visibility of Big Book--even if sales didn't measure up--may pay dividends for books #2 and #3.

Overall, going for the Big Book home run is--by a huge percentage--a loser's game.]

Now back to our regularly-scheduled programming: somehow I doubt that these are the books that MJ's stumping for--because these are the books that are already going to get their fair share of resources. My sense is that MJ sees a way that these general principles--perhaps applied in different ways, and/or on a slightly smaller scale--can and will work for books with first printings more in the range of, say, 15,000 copies. And this, of course, is what we're all (many of us, anyway) dreaming about: how can books published in "real" quantities--that is, quantities that represent to so-called "average" book--how can these books, and their authors, succeed? What is the model/mechanism whereby books published at a relatively modest scale can, nonetheless, be published (read: as a verb) instead of (as so often seems to be the case) simply tossed out there to fend for themselves (read: D.O.A.).

So: color me intrigued. But there's one thing I still have a hard time getting--and here I'm hoping MJ Rose and Michael Cader and others can light the path: for a modest-scale publication, how do the economics of these three-month pre-pub efforts work? I look back again to MJ's film industry comparison; but because the financial stakes--and the potential upside--for a "big" book pale in comparison to even a "small" movie, that analogy doesn't apply in any practical way.

Then what analogy does? What am I missing? Please walk me through it, help me see how these things can, with some imagination and initiative, be accomplished.

--Max

P.S. One of MJ's readers, ScriptGirl, said: "Why can't they leak a first chapter -- or hell, even a first few paragraphs -- to create buzz ahead of launch? We do that in the film/tv biz all the time." In fact first chapters are frequently sent out by publishers, made available through linked sites, and so forth. Also: I'm aware of at least two publishers (and there are probably more) doing active pre-pub outreach to readers, soliciting volunteers to read and appraise a free copy of a forthcoming book, in exchange for letting the publishers use those reviews for publicity--posted to author websites, sent out in e-blasts, etc.

If you know of anything else along these lines, please let me know.

P.P.S. For more on this issue, from a bookseller's perspective, see Bob Gray's excellent Herding Booksellers: Shelf Life & the Co-oping of Lit.


55 comments:

Karen Junker said...

I just went to a reading by Carlos Ruiz Zafon...the publisher of The Shadow of the Wind thought he might sell 200 copies. But readers love the book and tell their friends about it - they want to share the experience.

He sold 300K copies in the UK, where (he says) the average translation sells under 3K. He's been on tour for 18 months, as long as it takes him to write a book. He's making connection with his fans through the tour, but that connection started on page one and doesn't let up. Booksellers put the book into the hands of their customers with loving care and the customers come back to thank them. On the day I bought my first copy, my friend 'sold' another one to a browser in the same store. He's been on bestseller lists all over the world for three years. What kind of genius could come up with a marketing campaign that would do that?

I want to buy everything he's ever written, even if I have to brush up on my Spanish to read it.

GGJ said...

I don't understand, Max. You're asking how pre-pub efforts work for modest-scale publications when you're also saying only 15% of any given season's 'big books' actually succeed? Your 15% figure is more alarming than the 'they ignore the midlist' stuff. Even when the publisher absolutely invests the money and time, there's STILL an 85% chance of failure? It's no wonder they don't invest more often.

Too many books.Too many choices. (Have you read Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice?)

Anonymous said...

I understand that ARCs cost money, and printing more would cost too much. But in regard to putting out excerpts: publishers could put a chapter or two on the web at no cost to themselves. The coding would take five minutes from a digital copy, and the publisher already has a website. That link could go in all PR materials, and booksellers would thereby have access to the inside of the book from the day the catalog was published.
As the writer of three midlist books for which ARCs were always in short supply (I think a total of 80 were printed for my last book, and my own advance mailing list was 40 people), I do think this is one extremely simple solution that MIGHT help more booksellers and press people judge a book on more than its catalog copy.

Katharine Weber said...

Too many books are being published. If publishers don't start to trim their lists, we're headed for complete disaster. The bad is driving out the good. The borderline good-enough is driving out the elegant-but-destined-for-a-small-readership. The should-have-just-been-the-magazine-article-it-was-in-the-first-place is driving out the dynamic literary nonfiction narrative.

Too many books.

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

I still think you're missing an important point. You say that a couple of publishers are doing an active pre-pub outreach to readers. But I'm curious how they're finding these readers. Online links are fine - but I'm convinced that the online community is not representative of the average reader, at least for certain books. I think the industry still has not figured out a way to reach out to the average book club lady, or the mom who buys her books at Costco or Wal-Mart. You're not hitting the consumer where she lives. I know that the intended audience for my book isn't likely to read blogs or PW or the NYT Book review. Why can't we advertise books on the fronts of grocery carts, or on the sides of buses, or with coupons in the Sunday paper - I could go on; you get the point. I still think this is a question of reaching out to the typical consumer, who the publishing industry refuses to believe lives outside of New York City, and could care less if another book about publishing executives and their nannies ever makes it to the shelves.

Define your audience, people. Then hit them where they live.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Baen routinely makes entire novels available for free online at and prior to publication. The thinking is that more readers are gained (and sales made) than lost. Baen's been happy with the program, and says they have the numbers to prove it. I haven't heard any of their authors complain. But I don't know if that kind of impact (modest or not) can be translated beyond the SF/fantasy genre market.

Angry Young Man said...

I'd like to take one step farther the comment above about defining an audience and then figuring out how to reach it.

It seems to me that many books, especially literary fiction, either don't have an easily definable audience, have an audience that is defined as the readership of another book or author, or have an audience defined in such general or borderline prejudicial terms (for example, middle-aged women who shop at CostCo) that the definition is worthless.

Here's what I would suggest: If the audience can't be defined in quantifiable terms and if there is no specific vehicle to reach the audience (such as newsletters or websites) or specific place for them to find a book meant for them (such as a well-trafficked genre shelf in the bookstore, a niche with good sales historically, or specialty stores), then don't do the book.

Melanie Lynne Hauser said...

I actually said "moms who shop at Costco," not middled-aged women. But as both a middle-aged woman and a mom - and as someone who shops at Costco - I find nothing prejudicial about it. But that's not the point - the point is that there are a lot of readers who don't read the NYT or spend a lot of time online. And somehow publishers aren't making efforts to reach them, instead relying on that old warhorse, "word of mouth."

But your point, AYM, has less to do with the author and more to do with the editor, I think. In my experience (with two previous books making it to committee level, before finally selling my third), every editor looked at my book with an eye to fitting it in an already-established market. If it doesn't fit, they won't buy it. (For commercial fiction, anyway.)

And I still maintain, though, that they're not effectively reaching those markets.

Karen Junker said...

Ms. Hauser has a point. Books like The Shadow of the Wind sell by word of mouth because the author has not written to a market, he has insisted on artistic integrity. Commercial writers (and if 'literary fiction' authors don't think of themselves in this way, they are deluded) don't often have that luxury.

Zafon's book sold itself because he spoke so clearly to the reader and his message cannot be denied. It self-propogates. Romance writers say it all the time: write the book of your heart. If you pull your punches to satisfy some imagined market, the work suffers.

Are we writing, editing and publishing for money or to communicate, to connect? When money becomes the driving force, the very human need for companionship is lost. Do we write to enlighten and inform? That hubris is not lost on the reader. Do we have a story to tell, one that speaks to us so distinctly we must tell it to someone else, even if our telling of it is flawed by first novel language?

I'd as soon settle for letters to friends rather than a publishing contract for a book edited to suit corporate sales goals for that year.

Angry Young Man said...

Ms. Hauser, sorry about the misquotation. And you're right: my comment was directed at editors, who too often blithely say, I love this, I must have this, and I'll figure out the audience beyond myself later.

Ms. Junker, In answer to your question, "Are we writing, editing and publishing for money or to communicate, to connect?" the answer, at least from my standpoint as an editor, is the former. It has to be the former. Publishing is a business, not a charity. Should I forgo my paycheck because the opportunity for connection is so much more important? If your book will not make money, you should not be published and your editor should be out of a job. If an editor wants to communicate or connect, then he should call a friend, play with his kid or post to a board.

But books that are written with the intention of bestsellers inevitably fail. Just look at the chinese menu approach taken by the authors of The 10th Plague a few years ago. Total disaster. In the movies, look at what crap Hollywood is churning out when CGI trumps script. There is indeed something organic about writing. The author and editor have to believe in the story. And there has to be a market that can be reached for that story. Otherwise, why bother? People who tell stories that no one wants to hear, no matter how much they want to tell them, are called boors.

Sad Saxe Commins said...

Why don't publishers open their own retail outlets? Prada doesn't feel as if it has to place its wares at the mercy of buyers at Bloomingdales, and then run the risk of losing out to competitors on the very same racks anyway. If Jane Friedman can envision a HarperCollins book as a "branded" item, a known quantity, why not jump to the next step and have a HarperCollins store? I could see one in Midtown, one on Market Street, one on Michigan Avenue... And wouldn't discerning book lovers everywhere head to the quaint FSG bookstore on Lower Broadway? The stuff could sit on the shelves as long as it took. They could stock the place with the backlist, carry Picador paperbacks, push the promising midlist titles, and put the new Michael Cunningham front and center.

I suppose I'm being facetious. But I have always gotten the sense that publishers were more or less happy to sell to the trade, but very uncomfortable with the idea of taking books directly to the Reading Public, whatever that may entail. This discomfort, this eagerness to drop the messy business of actually hawking product into the hands of retailers, has put them in the situation where big box retailers jam books into their existing sales scheme, trying to sell them as if they were frozen shrimp or Jumbo-Paks of toilet paper and then exerting pressure on publishers to manufacture books that are more to their liking when titles don't fly off the, um, pallet.

Sad Saxe Commins said...

Sometimes they're boors, Angry Young Man. Then again, sometimes they're Faulkner. By your lights, Random should have dumped him--and insulted him into the bargain. I pity whoever you edit.

Angry Young Man said...

Sad Saxe: Regarding your comment, "By your lights, Random should have dumped [Faulkner]--and insulted him into the bargain," I would counter that for every exceedingly rare Faulkner, there are thousands upon thousands of unprofitable authors who aren't Faulkner. It makes sense for an editor not to give up an author if, for some reason, one book didn't work or two haven't broken out or just missed expectations, especially if the next books has the most promise of all, but it makes no business sense whatsoever to simply publish a list that brings in no cash up front or, more importantly, as backlist because it allows you to be intellectually smug.

As for your comment, "I pity whoever you edit," that's all you've got? Please.

Anonymous said...

You can point all you want to a film model of publicizing a book but I don't really think it correlates. The studio I work for (which shall be nameless), distributes about 20-24 films a year. Half of those are very small independent features. The other half run the range of production from $20 million to $150 million for a film. Advertising may run as high as $100 million for the high end film, plus we get commercial tie-ins from a range of advertisers who may put in another $100 million of their own, cross-promoting. There are 250 people in the advertising and marketing department working a film at any time. Can any publisher put on that kind of push?

The film has no actual shelf life. If it doesn't hit on the first weekend, the bookings are cut back, effectively throwing it "off the shelves." The DVD window my be as little as 3 months after the initial theatrical release. It's here. It's there. It's gone.

The better model is the music business and they're as messed up as publishing. They dump a ton of product on the market, give prominence to a few lead acts and the rest, well if you catch on you'll get some attention. If not, sorry charlie. Sound familiar?

I haven't seen an estimate of the cost of doing the kind of promotion Rose is suggesting. How many people are working those different promotion period? And while it's true that there are test screenings (replacing what we used to think of as previews), the difference between a film and a book is that once I've seen a film I may pay the admission to see it again. But once I've read a book, am I going to buy another copy?

Recently I was at an outdoor shopping mall here in Los Angeles and two men had boxes of a new book that they were handing out to anyone walking by. I asked what they were doing and they said, "Trying to get a buzz going." I thought they were insane. The buzz model from a company like BzzAgent in Boston may be viable. But here, you're paying a group of agents to seed the culture with their suggestions, you haven't actually given away the product for nothing.

M.J. said...

I haven't addressed all the points specifically but I have posted a response of sorts at my blog:
http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/BkDoctorSin

Scott Esposito said...

Max,

Maybe I'm coming at this from the wrong angle, but the idea of a huge pre-pub blitz like the around blickbuster movies seems like just about the worst thing possible. I already think publishers depend too much on front-loaded hits, and I really don't want to see anything that would encourage greater frontloading.

Besides, hasn't Hollywood shown us that these movies tend to flop more than they live up to expectations? Hasn't Hollywood's model just sunk studios deeper into a viscious circle of frontloading ever bigger blockbusters?

Jessica said...

Angry Young Man’s attitude as an editor scares me a bit and confuses me, too. If believing in a story means there “has to be a market that can be reached for that story,” then how does he define “reached”? Many books have failed to reach their markets because publishers have failed to broaden their sales approach as discussed by MJ, Sad Saxe, Friedman and others (sustained marketing and shelf life, Cosco outlets, branding). I co-wrote a business memoir with the founder of Dunkin’ Donuts—and readers can think what they will about this franchise or its product and how it relates to books—but Bill Rosenberg, also known as one of the fathers of franchising, helped create a new model for selling (franchising) in the sixties. This “new” model was considered radical by mainstream business associates. Near the end of his life, Rosenberg liked to remind me that the only reason a good idea didn’t come to fruition was because somebody didn’t make it happen. Making things happen requires a positive attitude. But who is going to make it happen? Many of these innovative marketing/sales ideas deserve a try. Many good books deserve a better chance to reach their markets. At some point (soon, I hope), a collective “yes” has to occur. Jessica Keener

Mad Max Perkins said...

Here's the link to MJ Rose's site, where she's posted her comments.

Angry Young Man said...

Jessica

I don't know why my attitude should "scare" and "confuse" you. "Reached" to me means the book was bought in the quantities projected (which justifies the advance) by the target market.

Take your Dunkin Donuts book. If it's about how Rosenberg built the franchise, the market for that book is obviously the business reader, specifically those interested in small business practices and franchise ownership. How to reach them? This, fortunately, is a market, at least today, with a wealth of ways to get at: newsletters, organizations, and magazines; the author's own speaking engagements, if he did them; and, if possible, in Dunkin Donuts itself, especially in business regions such as Wall Street. Hell, if he's the owner, he should have done a couple of meet and greets in some of his stores, bringing in customers for books and donuts alike. [Marketing rule #1: Donuts always draw.] In addition, the business shelf is regularly shopped by its audience, who are every desirous of some trick or new plan to get ahead, so an endcap or face out placement would also be good but not necessarily necessary. The fact is, Dunkin Donuts is about as recognizable a brand as you could find. It sells itself. People will pick the book just because they know the name as opposed to some very successful but relatively obscure plumbing supplier.

Do you really think trying to broaden the market to Costco Moms will be any more than a waste of time? They aren't the market for the book.

And a word about Costco: They carry a very specific type of book and are incredibly price sensitive. They are not a bookstore, and not just any book can be sold in there. The same is true about your other mass market retailers. This isn't a matter of publishers marketing poorly. It's a matter of the stores' business models. They aren't going to take your first time author's literary novel unless that book is a TV book club pick. They just aren't.

Michael Cader said...

Don't expect too much, Max, but I'm willing to take a crack. But first a question and a preamble.

The question: Are we talking about all books here, or something like that much smaller market of hardcover fiction?

The preamble: We can brainstorm, innovate, experiment and market all we like, and individual results and performance can certainly be achieved. But in the bigger picture, the best statistics available tell us it's currently a zero-sum game at best. [Dollars spent on books are stagnant or declining on an inflation-adjusted basis; unit sales are flat or declining; and new books published (and old books still in the marketplace) keep rising, meaning that overall dollars tend to be spread over more titles.]

Sad Saxe Commins said...

"That's all you've got?" What, you want to throw down, Angry Young Man? I think my comment was piquant enough, although the more I see of your posts the greater my suspicion that maybe what you "edit" are Chilton guides to Ford Pintos, in which case your vocational activities consist of a series of victimless crimes. If you actually go anywhere near what I fondly refer to as "literature," then the plot thickens a little; your mastery of jargon is admirable and from your mots I've plotted your position on the evolutionary scale as somewhere north of a very cerebral cantaloupe (with a bullet!), but neither of these things is enough to disguise the fact that you're a bloodthirsty prick, with sufficient arrogance to suggest that you would have had the eye to spot, and stick with, Faulkner, while wisely peeling off from those "boors" who bring in "no cash up front." Seems to me, AYM, that you already have a little problem with being "intellectually smug."

Jessica said...

Alas, the negative “can’t-do-it” talk sure gets discouraging. I guess I believe every good book, large or small, literary fiction or business has a market, and we have to do more to reach that market. An unknown “brand” such as a literary novel may take more effort and time to reach its market but it still deserves that chance. It seems even a few minor adjustments in terms of how money is directed could have happier (profitable) results for writers, booksellers and publishers.

Angry Young Man said...

Ah Sad Saxe, how I knew you were going to go in that direction. It's not worth the trouble to respond.

Jessica, I'm not being negative. I'm being realistic. Let me ask you a question, How do you define a "good" book?

Jessica said...

AYM: Can I have a week to answer your question (what’s a good book)? I fear we’re getting into a circular argument. For now, I’d like to defer to MJ Rose’s current blog posting: Test This. Or Not. She pretty much says what I’m thinking. All best, JBK

Anonymous said...

As a reader, I think publishers are pretty much terribly at publicity in general, but front-loaded publicity in particular. A couple of people have stated here that publishers spend a lot of money on front-loaded publicity, but if they do, I haven't seen it! It's obviously staying 'inside' the industry, and being spent on other publishing professionals, booksellers, and buyers. Obviously, these people are important, but it is the readers who buy the books! I am a voracious reader. I read (and buy) hundreds of books per year. And I work at a library. Yet somehow, I still frequently don't know what is new or what it coming. Reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, etc. are nice, but they aren't seen by the average reader. Publishers don't put out newsletters (either online or in print) or if they do, I haven't seen them. And I should have, because I am a library and bookstore frequenter and buyer. Publishers rarely post what's new or what's coming on their websites. Why not? What else is a website for? If it's there to show off to other publishers, then they're missing the mark. I have to dig myself to find out what is upcoming in the book business. I look at author websites, I look at sites like Amazon.com, and I look at review sites to find out what is new or forthcoming. None of these places (the magazines, the websites, etc) includes effort from publishers. Everyone is talking about how to reach their market. Well, I am the market, and I'm not being reached!

Beverly

M.J. said...

Beverly, that's a brilliant post. I'm like you. Off to my blog to respond and I'll post the link back here.

Martha O'Connor said...

Had to add this before I run out for the day--

Someone said,
"And a word about Costco: They carry a very specific type of book and
are incredibly price sensitive....They aren't going to take your first
time author's literary novel unless that book is a TV book club pick.
They just aren't."

A friend of mine, Jane Guill, has just been told her book--a serious novel by a debut
novelist--will be stocked at Costco. It hasn't been published yet (due
in March), so it's not a TV book club pick... yet!

I realize this is the exception, not the rule, but it does happen. Take care & have a great weekend; this discussion has been very interesting!

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Electronics Lover said...

Hi,

To get informed on consumer electronics service , other than coming here on this blog, i know this site consumer electronics service as it has a rss feed, i got daily updated electronics news.
Other than that, almost the end of the month (january) and i still haven't got enough money to buy my new big tv ... it stinks :-(
Anyone knows a great deal out there ?
Thanks
Amichele

Electronics Lover said...

Hello Bloggers,

My name is Chris. As your blog is consumer electronics show related, i would like to invite you to my new site : http://www.newelectronicsproducts.com
It is free, it is updated daily and you can use rss feed to get the lastest info on electronics products.
Thanks for your time and thanks for letting me use your blog
Chris

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."