Monday, February 28, 2005

Return of the Returns

America's most eloquent bookseller, Robert Gray, picks up on the topic of returns today at FRESH EYES: A Bookseller's Journal. My paraphrasing his views would only serve to illuminate the differences between nimble & not; and seeing as how I'm already well-supplied with sources for potential self-loathing, I'll instead give you a snippet of the original--here he speaks of the adaptability of indie booksellers--which, I have no doubt, will encourage you hop the e-train and enjoy Bob's essay in its entirety.

"The independent bookstores that survived the late-twentieth century decimation period did so by adapting to circumstances....We're bibliosailors, reading the breezes and the waves, trimming and unfurling sails, tacking when we have to, and, most importantly, keeping watch for unanticipated wind shifts. We survive, if we survive, by being alert."

--Monster Horror Theater Presents:Return of the Returns, Feb. 28, '05

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Say You Want A Revolution? End the Returns "Subsidy" of Booksellers

Thanks to Booksquare for bringing to my attention Doug Seibold's "cri de Coeur" in the BookStandard, Returns Suck: So Do Something About it. Like Doug [former bookseller and now president of Agate Publishing in Chicago], I know nothing about the historic origins of this ridiculous policy, nor even do I know to what extent previous (or even current) coalitions of publishers have tried to find a way to get booksellers to acknowledge--and participate in amending--the policy.

My sense (again, based on no research whatsoever; I'd love if those more knowledgeable would set the record straight) is that the rationale behind the unlimited-returns policy on publishers' parts was a way of subsidizing a retail niche that has almost always operated at the thinnest of margins--and, so, as a way to encourage booksellers to take risks they'd otherwise be loath to undertake, they essentially said, "Don't worry--you don't sell 'em, we'll take 'em back, full cedit." It's funny: publishing gets lambasted for emphasizing "brand name" authorsto the exclusion of others--but imagine a typical bookseller's order if the policy of (virtually) unlimited returns were to be banished. Naturally ALL orders would be diminished, including the James Pattersons of the world. But those that would suffer most would be first books by unknown writers. It's heartbreakingly common for a first literary novel to ship between 3500-6000 copies. What would those numbers look like in a universe with no returns? The consequence, ironically enough, is that the proportion of brand-names to fresh new writers would get even worse than is currently the case.

On the other hand, such a policy--or, to speak more broadly, the elimination of this "subsidy" that publishers provide booksellers through current returns policies--is that it might force booksellers to do something that, historically, they're pretty lousy at: promotion. We LOVE to love independent booksellers, and much of the applause they receive for hand-selling is indeed well-deserved. On the other hand, for all of the hand-wringing that goes on about the big chains driving the independents out of business, for most of my authors on book tour, it's the Indie stores that draw the smallest crowds. A sign in the window that someone sees in passing at 8:00 that morning isn't going to persuade him to come back 12 hourse later to hear this author read. As an editor recently said to me,

Who really cares if the bad [independents] go out of business? The horror stories of authors who travel miles for a reading that was a) scheduled the night of the big game in the same neighborhood and b) not advertised anyway, is not the fault of publishers. It's the bad independents--the same stores that everyone bemoans when they go out of business. Maybe the ones that went out of business did so because they weren't run like a business. I shopped in my neighborhood independent for 13 years before I moved, and NOT ONCE did anyone ever offer to recommend a book to me. What kind of store is that?

One of the things we all bemoan is what seems to be the diminished shelf-life of front list titles. Surely there's a way to link these two issues in some meaningful fashion, i.e. rewarding booksellers who keep the titles on display longer by some sort of sliding-scale returns schedule with an inverse relationship to the amount of time the story keeps the book out there: the longer they keep the book, the higher percentage of their initial costs are recoupable. [Here again I must confess: It may well be that a strategy/pricing schedule of this sort already exists.]

It's naive to think that returns policies that have been in place for decades are likely to change in any meaningful way. On the other hand, Booksellers, consider this: an unwillingness to reform on this score gives publishers all the more incentive to develop more and more aggressively their own direct-to-consumer outreach. And I'm fairly certain there's no store out there who relishes that outcome.
Thursday, February 24, 2005

BUY THIS BOOK! A Guided Tour of an Approach to Marketing You Don't Already Know About

One of the reasons I stumbled into the blogosphere a few months back was in hopes of learning more about how other people market their books--online or otherwise. Fact is, when my in-house people promised "web outreach" as a key component of a marketing plan, I never really understood, specifically, what the hell they were talking about; and wondered, on occasion, if there was actually much more to it than making sure posted the right jacket art...

Finally I got up the nerve to start asking my stupid-person questions. Not so long ago MJ Rose at Buzz, Balls & Hype told me about something called a "virtual book tour" that she'd had success with. Huh? Then last week I saw that a company called Virtual Book Tours (VBT) was putting together a "tour" for a novelist named Tom Dolby. Terrific, I thought--but what's that actually mean? What are the mechanics? Who comes to the party, and in what numbers? How much does it cost? And--the big question--does it actually sell any books?

So I went to the source, and asked the author--
Tom Dolby--if he'd give me the low-down. He agreed to provide a first-hand accounting of his "tour," which follows. At the same time, our friend MJ interviewed the man behind Virtual Book Tours, Kevin Smokler; Tom's chronicle, below, serves as a useful complement to MJ's terrific interview, "Betting on Bloggers" --or perhaps it's the other way around? Whatever--point is, even a technospaz (like me) can, by reading these two pieces, come away with a clear picture of what, for the right kind of book, is an exciting and innovative approach to marketing.

One such book is THE TROUBLE BOY, a Bright Lights, Big City-like novel about (to quote PW) "A Yale-educated gay freelance writer [who] navigates the shark-infested waters of Manhattan hoping to score a screenplay deal and a loyal boyfriend." PW concluded that "Dolby's writing is smooth and his flashy scene-setting spot-on. "

I'm pleased to introduce Tom Dolby, who has agreed to take us with him on his journey through the blogosphere--a case study, if you will, of his first Virtual Book Tour.

by Tom Dolby

My debut novel, THE TROUBLE BOY, was published in hardcover a year ago (2/04) by Kensington Books. It's the story of a young man's coming of age in post-millennial Manhattan; considering that it was a first novel--and one with a gay main character, at that--it was a successful launch. It received coverage on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section, was excerpted in the New York Times, and was mentioned in both the Page Six column and the Lifestyles page of the New York Post; it was also covered by Publisher's Weekly, Out, The Advocate, Instinct, Genre, and many others. I went on a five-city tour which attracted excellent crowds, in several cases standing-room only. The novel was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, a #1 Gay & Lesbian bestseller, and was the highest-selling Main Selection ever of the InsightOut Book Club, shipping more than 5000 copies. In the end the book netted roughly 10,000 copies in hardcover. My website had strong traffic, and I had received hundreds of emails from readers begging me to finish my second novel and/or to come to their hometowns and make an appearance. All in all, a good showing for a first novel.

As I prepared to have my agent go out with my second novel, tentatively titled THE SIXTH FORM--an exploration of the relationships between two teenagers and two adults (one gay, three straight) at a New England boarding school--I felt sure that it had the potential to reach an even bigger audience than did THE TROUBLE BOY. It has become, over the three years I'd been writing it, a complex investigation into (as one friend put it) "the fallibility of personal narrative." In the meantime, though, the paperback publication of THE TROUBLE BOY was approaching...

Everybody knows that trade paperback releases historically receive little or no press; short of publishers putting money into marketing (which, no surprise, only happens for really big books), there is scant fanfare. Yet because of my positive experience with the hardcover--and my desire to build a larger audience for the eventual publication of THE SIXTH FORM--I was determined to find a way to get it noticed.

That's where the the Virtual Book Tour came in. Kevin Smokler, a San Francisco-based literary organizer/editor/writer, came up with the concept of the Virtual Book Tour a few years ago, just as the blogging craze was gathering steam. The idea is this: for a modest fee--far less than a one-month retainer for a good publicist--Kevin "places" his authors on a dozen or so high-traffic blogs over the course of one day. Once he agreed to take me on as a client, he put together a roster of eleven different blogs, all of which would be linked together and accessible from his Virtual Book Tour site, as well as from my author site. He attracted such notable literary blogs--the bold-faced names of the blogosphere, if you will--as The Elegant Variation, Beatrice, Backstory, and Zulkey. To reach the gay market, Kevin booked me on such popular blogs as Towleroad, Bradlands, and OhlalaParis. And just for fun, on Largehearted Boy, an MP3 blog, he had me create a "Trouble Boy mix" of music that I had rocked out to while writing the novel. Kevin set the date of my tour for February 15. Passwords in hand, I started on my journey.

Being a confirmed workaholic, I spent a good portion of the week leading up to the VBT preparing content, writing essays, answering Q&As, and making sure everyone had images of the book cover and an author photo. (So many decisions: Did I send one that was serious? Smiling? Sexy? The beauty of the VBT was that I got to choose.) Aside from a few conversations with Kevin and a tutorial from Mark Sarvas on using The Elegant Variation's blogging interface, everything was done online, via email. Though I am neither, the Virtual Book Tour is a perfect vehicle for misanthropic, interview-shy writers--as long as they're willing to spill their guts over email.

Figuring that the lit crowd likes to read about lit stuff, and the gay crowd likes to read about gay stuff, I tailored the content for each site according to its demographic. For the literary sites, I wrote critical essays, including one on the connections between gay fiction and chick-lit ("Bright Lives in the Big City") and another on what it was like to write in the voice of a straight woman in my new novel ("What It Feels Like for a Girl"). For one of the gay blogs, I wrote a piece called "Just How Real Is It, Anyway?" about the similarities between my life and that of my main character's. I did Q&As with several of the blogs in which they got to pick the questions that would appeal most to their readership. (A favorite from SFist, a San Francisco-based blog: "In your opinion, what's the most debauched club on the scene today?" Hell if I know. Lately, debauchery for me has consisted of drinking too much green tea. Read my novel instead.) Two of the sites took the content into their own hands, and posted reviews that were snarky, yet also astute. At The Elegant Variation, I was the guest blogger for the day; I posted nine entries, from interviews with writer friends of mine to commentary on current events to personal posts, such as one about my second novel arriving on my agent's desk that day. The readers at TEV were a fabulous bunch, a virtual version of the Algonquin Round Table, except that instead of being vicious, they were all unfailingly polite.

After I had posted the majority of my content, the actual day of the tour was relatively low-key. Touring virtually isn't a job for the technologically averse, but I wouldn't say it was all that difficult, either. During the day, I fielded emails, read and responded to comments, and judged contests on two different sites, the winners of which would receive a signed copy of my TROUBLE BOY paperback. I posted an "end of day" entry on TEV around 10pm EST, and I was done.

According to Kevin Smokler, on February 15, 2005, content about me and my book reached more than 50,000 readers; this made my tour the second most successful he has done to date, trumped only by that of novelist/web guru M.J. Rose (and I'll take second place to M.J. Rose any day). What kind of sales did this effort result in? It's difficult to say exactly, but I do know that my Amazon numbers shot way up, and booksellers that I visited in Manhattan over the following several days appeared to be constantly in the process of restocking their copies, so I know it had a positive impact.

More importantly, as an author, I am interested in building a long-term audience. Naturally, I want to sell books, but most of all, I want to create allegiances with my readers, those fans who will continue to buy and read my novels years from now. From the emails I've received and the comments I've read, I know I'm developing a fan base who will tell their friends about my books, will attend readings, and will write about my work on their own blogs. As with much of book marketing, energy begets energy--not simply hype, but that ineffable phenomenon called word of mouth. To be able to create that from the comfort of my laptop, all through the medium of writing, beats sitting behind a table at Barnes & Noble any day.

Click here to order THE TROUBLE BOY, just out in paperback from Kensington Books.
Monday, February 21, 2005

The Curse of the Cardigan: Some Thoughts on Editors and Bookselling

There's a trend afoot in publishing--more than a trend, really; an institutional shift--to keep editors as far removed from the sales side of the business as possible. The marginalization of editorial in this regard seems, I think, to date back the old saw about editors always having their heads in the clouds & not having a realistic sense of what will sell.

Here, for instance, is a true story, which occurred about six years ago. A well-respected New York editor, puffing his pipe as he reads the New York Review of Books, comes across an essay he finds fascinating. Hmmmm! he thinks, reaching for the phone. Two minutes later he has its author on the phone.

"Dr. Windbag," the editor says, "This is Walter Cardigan, I'm an senior editor at MultiMerge Inc. here in New York, and I've just read your penetrating article on the socioeconomic implications of our national obsession with coffee, and I believe this could be a very important book!" At which point Prof. Windbag indicates that Sir Andrew is representing him; and Cardigan--moving with uncharacteristic speed--manages to coax a three page proposal on the subject, for which the Wylie Agency extracts the modest sum of $275,000. Windbag's credentials are impeccable, his comb-over is, when shot from the left side, barely noticeable, and it turns out Chip McGrath (then the editor of the NYBTR) had studied under him at university. All signals go! ...until Cardigan gets to sales conference, and discovers that the reps are finding CAFFEINE NATION: The Semotics of the Coffee Bean tough sledding. He raises a hissy-fit, the reps wind up demoralized--both due to the hissy-fit, and to the fact that a senior editor thought this clap-trap, which they'll ship 6,250 copies, to be worth $275,000.

So I guess we have Walter Cardigan to thank for the ever-widening schism between editorial and sales. Because the shift, though gradual, is now nearly complete: Where I work, editors simply don't attend sales conferences any more. We used to--indeed, we used to present our own books. Then we moved to a modified editorial presence--a select crew of editors, along with the marketing and publicity team, would participate in the presentations of their books (and other authors' too) on a rotating basis. In time we stopped being invited altogether.

Why? One explanation is that reps feel inhibited to say what they really think about a book, or a jacket, or a title, or an announced first printing (etc) if the editor is in the room. (Ever hang out with sales reps? Shy & retiring they ain't...) Another reason is that some editors are better presenters than others, and some have a better sense than others of the sort of info that reps actually need. (I don't dispute either point, by the way--although wearing a marketing hat by no means guarantees a terrific stage presence).

Above all, though, I suspect it's a matter of expense: as MultiMerge has grown, and with it the number of employees, the costs of sales conferences has risen. The response has been to limit attendence; and so a smaller team--publishers, associate publishers, publicists, marketing managers--present the books, while the editors stay home.

Now let's go back to the old saw about editors' heads being in the clouds: if this is true, is providing said editor with a feather pillow really the best solution? In my opinion, a better way to save money than to exclude editors from sales conferences is to sack those editors so clueless and disconnected that they lack the skills to present a book compellingly in the first place! The truth? From the very instant an editor has an inkling she might want to acquire a manuscript or proposal she's reading--long before she's even gotten other reads or spoken to the agent or made an offer--she is already thinking about how to sell the book, about who its readers are, about comp titles and covers and so forth. For me, anyway, the process of falling in love with the writing of a book is inextricably linked to the process, at the earliest stage possible, of formulating its "pitch." If it's good, I'm selling it before I've even bought it...

Are editors trained in sales per say? In terms of selling to accounts, the answer is, in most cases, no. On another level though, a huge percentage of an editor's daily energy goes into selling. Convincing an agent that you're the right editor for him to submit such-and-such a project. Convincing other overwhelmed editors that the thing is so good that they'll actually be glad they set aside their other work to read a chunk of yours. Convincing a publisher that you have a vision for how to publish it, that it's worth $X+6 that you'd like to offer rather than the $X-4 that she wants you to pay [editors often lose that argument, by the way--such is the nature of a publisher's job]. Upon its acquisition, convincing key in-house people to read the book in the dreaded manuscript form (prior to bound galleys), and likewise finding potential blurbists to do the same. At launch (the first in-house presentation of the new season's books to the heads of sales, marketing, publicity, subrights, etc), finding a way to convey what's remarkable about the book in 90 seconds or less, to a group of people who, by day's end, will have heard perhaps 300 such presentations. Then there's the title information sheets (which sales use in the field) and the flap copy, the proper "presentation" of the author (overseeing author photos, shaping talking points, in some cases media training)...and so on.

ALL this energy and expertise we put toward pre-selling the book, from inception to publication--yet when sales conference itself rolls around, we're left off the invite list. For a couple of years now I've been telling myself that this sort of thing is cyclical, that the pendulum's due to swing back. Now I'm not so confident.

It's obvious that I see this as a short-sighted view. If the problem is that the editors are clueless about the realities of the marketplace? All the better reason for them to be there, to have to hear their books taken to task for being poorly positioned, for sending mixed-messages that make them hard to sell, etc. If the problem is that sales reps feel inhibited to speak up in front of editors, then institute a gag-order: editors are to listen and learn, but not rebut.

If I were a Publisher--if that were my job, to run a company--I'd insist that every editor go out on the road with a sales rep for a few days every year or two. Sure, it's a pain in the ass for the rep--but, again, we'd institute a gag order. The editor sits in on the sales call, listens, but doesn't get to say a word. When the buyer says "Pass" on three of the editor's own titles in that particular catalog; when the rep gets nine seconds to begin to pitch something before the buyer's eyes glaze over and she shakes her head--hard lessons much needed. Call it educational by humiliation.

Yesterday I riffed about how authors were in some cases discouraged from developing any sort of relationship w/ other members of the houses that publish them. This is, ultimately, to the detriment of the book's chances of success. The same is the case--moreso, in fact--through this artificial, institutional division between sales and editorial.
Saturday, February 19, 2005

A Dumb A** Notion

In my last post (about how much I love Valentine's Day) I quoted MJ Rose's post (about how much she loves being infantilized by publishers) and indicated I might have a thought or two more to say about the editor who appears in this little vignette:

An author who just finished taking my buzz class today told me her editor wouldn't give her the last name of a sales rep who did something lovely for her last book. "Just write to her and give it to me and I'll get it to her," she offered. When the author asked why she couldn't just send it herself, the editor said: "We can't have our authors communicating with sales reps."

Perhaps it was unfair of me to call this editor a dumb a**; what I should have first acknowledged was that she was doubtless just following company policy, stupid though it may be. The official rationale behind such policy is that the editor is the conduit for all author/company exchanges, in both directions (i.e. from the author and to the author)--if another editor wants to ask my author for a blurb, that request will (or should) come to me, because I'm in the best position to know the disposition of the author toward such requests--to know, that he is feeling anxious about completing a draft of his current book, and is consciously trying to cut down on "outside" distractions (e.g. book reviews, magazine articles and--yes--blurb requests)--and, so, to know that this is a particularly bad time for such a request. In that direction, such policy makes sense: an editor, attuned to his authors' individual circumstances, can (if needed) serve as a gate-keeper/filter/contextualizer for the various queries and requests that various departments might have.

In the other direction, though? In a company as large as MultiMerge Inc (the corporation for which most of us work these days), it's in the best interests of both editor and author for the author to have and maintain as many personal contacts within the company as possible. The reasons for this are self-evident: more contacts=the possibility for more love. An editor is but one person; and since it's rarely the case that any of my colleagues is going to care as much about my authors as I do, it's a critical (if unacknowledged) aspect of my job to increase the love, to extend to as many departments as possible an awareness of the author behind the book, the author as (gulp) human being [this tends to work best in cases where the author is, in fact, a human being]--to get others to be invested in, indeed feel responsible for, my author's success.

It boils down to this: an editor's job is to do everything in his (legal) power to further the success of his author. Sometimes this means helping out in arenas (marketing, publicity, promotions, subrights) that are officially beyond the bounds of his responsibility, to ensure that the proper attention & care are being given. Sometimes this means placing a boot where it doesn't, institutionally, belong--in the back, say, of the marketing department or the publicity department or the art department, arenas that are technically outside the editor's official sphere of oversight. Often it means schooling the author in the various ways she can help herself: building visibility by writing for magazines; developing and maintaining relationships within the writing and reviewing communities; taking an active role in self-promotion (via websites and blogs, e.g.); expressing gratitude toward all booksellers, even the ones who've just done a lousy job promoting your reading; building a database of bookselling contacts, and engaging them as personally as possible--by sending thank-you notes after events, and Christmas cards, and personally inscribed ARCs of the next book; maintaining similar contacts with readers who come to your events and website; and so on.

Now let's return to the editor mentioned at the top of this "essay." Friend, tell me this: why would we encourage authors to be so attentive to the bookseller AND the customer, but discourage the same behavior toward the people actively involved in selling the book? It's a stupid policy--a dumb a** notion designed, no doubt, to protect the delicate flowers in sales from the pestering of pesky authors. Yet sales reps as a group are among the best and most passionate readers in the world; they play a HUGE role in an author's chances for success--and, in my experience, they generally love the opportunity to interact to some degree with authors they admire. [And if they don't especially admire your author? An earnest expression of appreciation for a job well done is likely to do wonders...] So when an author wants to take the initiative to write a thank-you note, why not give her the address? Do you really think the rep is going to complain?

According to the letter of the law, you behaved appropriately by following MultiMerge policy; and you're likewise blameless for any minor deleterious effects following said policy might have. You're just being a dutiful and conscientious employee--and fair enough. But sometimes duty requires you (to borrow & misappropriate a notion put forth long ago by Jonathan Galassi) to be something of a double-agent. If institutional stupidity presents a roadblock to your author's success, then some degree of circumnavigation is called for....And while working for a corporation as large as MultiMerge often means having to contend with (among other things) a remarkably extensive list of regs & policies,

Statute XI. Clause B: "Editors shall be responsible for and answerable to all Author queries and concerns, and shall serve as primary conduit for same..."
its size also allows editors perhaps slightly greater opportunity to work both sides, since the consolidation of MultiMerge's back-office operations (through its multiple mergers) has left all parties spread, shall we say, a little thin. I'm not advocating for murder, or thievery, or a Tanya Harding-like sabotaging of the competition--just for advocacy itself, and the recognition that the more genuine connections your author has in-house, the greater her chances for success. And, so, for yours.
Thursday, February 17, 2005

Publishing 101: Infantilization & You, Plus Some Curse Words and Some Thoughts About Valentine's Day, May it Rot In Hell

One thing we can all agree on: good riddance to Valentine's Day, am I right? I'm sure St. Valentine was a great guy & all, but I'd love to send Da Govna Terminator of California back in time to find the misanthropic bastards at Hallmark or whoever their predecessors were, the black-humorists responsible for this hell-hole holiday, and slit the throats of every god damn one of them. Get the job done just before they walk out of that brainstorming meeting where it was decided that a great deal of money could be made AND a whole lot of people could be made utterly miserable, for a whole variety of reasons, in one fell swoop!

That'd be a pretty funny scene, actually--get Mamet or LaBute to write the boardroom brainstorming, all those mean muthas laughing themselves to tears as they visualize the thousands and thousands of thoughtless and/or befuddled husbands and boyfriends spending the night on the couch, or on the porch, or in the hospital, for having forgotten the Godivas and the roses...

For the finale, though, we'll have to fire the artsy writer and bring in somebody who can really deliver the big ol' can of whoopass... The Wachowski Brothers, say (sorry, Mr. Mamet)--and instead of Da Govna, let's cast Keanu, who appears outta nowhere, steps up on the boardroom table, and says,


and blows them all away. Just make sure he incinerates the place after the blood-bath--can't afford for even one copy of that Valentine's Day memo to survive...


Over at Buzz, Balls & Hype MJ has likewise decided, enough of these damn Valentines--she's dropped the rose pedals and has come out with pistols blazin':


By "us" she means authors:
"Authors probably have less control over their own careers than any group of professionals but it takes us years to understand that. Long past the time it would have benefited us to know it. Most of us go into the dark the minute our agents negotiate our first sale and stay there the rest of our careers. So we don't find out when our book has been all but abandoned pre-publication. Or that there was poor sell in. Or that the coop's been scrapped. We're somehow not entitled to be told what is about to happen and get prepared. The non-communication is more than emotionally scarring, it is unfair to us professionally. It infantalizes us."

All of which is, sadly, true. ALL YOU NEWBIES OUT THERE, LISTEN UP: You, and your agent on your behalf, need to be pressing for answers from Day One. Yes, there are periods of intense contact and then long periods of quiet, and some of this quiet is inevitable. But once you're within, say, six months of pub, it's time to begin pressing your case in a serious way. [Details, you say? Ahh, yes--but I'm tired, so I invite you to read back issues of BookAngst 101, and/or Buzz Balls & Hype, or Publishers Lunch, or Paperback Writer, or talk to any writer who's been published anytime in the last 30 years, cuz sure as shootin' that writer's got tales to tell.]

But there's probably no business for which the old saw "if I knew then what I know now" is more apt. Doesn't matter whether you got $25k or $250k, Newbie: NOBODY's safe, so get yer schoolin' started NOW.

There's more I wanna say about MJ's post, but it's late and I'm so damn tired, doncha know? So maybe I'll come back another time and explain why, sometimes, we "motherfuckers" (no, she didn't really say that)--"editors, publishers, publicists"--can't (or won't) tell the truth... And for sure I'll offer my humble opinion as to why the editor MJ mentions, the one who refused to let an author correspond directly with a helpful sales rep is

But for those nuggets, I'm afraid you'll just have to wait a bit...Goodnight & God speed...
Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Simon Says: Don't Say "Too Many Books"

Here's the second half of Simon Lipskar's essay on the dangers of proclaiming "too many books" as the core problem facing publishing today. For the first half, see "Too Many Books"

On the topic of "too many books, " I'm struck by the fact that the authors preaching the gospel of the sheer overabundance of titles seem to take for granted that they'll be exempted from this new ethos. It’s those other undeserving books that would get snipped – not their own, nor those of authors they like and admire.

Another thing that bears serious consideration is that the business consequences of this would go beyond what authors expect. Were publishers actually to publish significantly fewer titles, the likely result would be an even greater focus than is currently the case on existing brands, as they would look to amplify what already works rather than try to mount new authors. We’d see more spin-off series using a branded author’s name (written by underpaid and/or uncredited ghosts), because with fewer slots to fill, it would make sense to try to build on already existing readerships rather than try to create new ones—it’s simply easier to do. You’d see more titles by non-book celebrities, as publishers tried to borrow existing brand identities to sell product. We’d see publishers give up much earlier on titles that didn’t get significant preorders, focusing even a great percentage of marketing and promotional dollars on the thing that looks like it’s going to work, or the thing that worked last time, or the thing “written” by the most recent winner or host of that year’s reality TV phenomenon.

Is this really what we want?

And what’s the consequence of publishers focusing in an even more pronounced way on existing brands and trends? Undoubtedly, it means that the business as a whole would grow stagnant and increasingly unhealthy. Readers’ tastes change with time, and one advantage to the (admittedly great) number of books published today is that it helps provide publishers with hints about which direction those tastes might be headed next. This Boy’s Life was a harbinger of the explosion of interest in memoir during the nineties, in the same way that The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air exposed a hunger for perilous true-life narrative. The fact that publishers have the space to take chances on many different kinds of books means that the success of one of the many unlikely candidates might illuminate a previously untapped niche in the market – one that both makes for lots of good business and many happy readers.

Who’s to say whether, faced with fewer slots for new material, Scholastic would have taken a chance on Harry? At the time, it was common wisdom that the market for children’s fantasy was moribund. The extraordinarily vibrant landscape for fantasy that has emerged, both in children’s and adult publishing, was precipitated by the phenomenal success of everyone’s favorite student wizard; imagine if his stories had never found their way into print. Who’s to say that Viking would have published Bridget’s obsessive scribblings about cigarettes, dieting and the search for Mr. Right if they had agreed that there were just too many books? A new and commercially lucrative category, chick lit, might not have come into being. These categories may appear overexposed or unexciting to us today—but at the time those books came out, their respective publishers were, in fact, taking a leap into the great unknown.

We need this natural ebb and flow, the rise and fall of categories and mega-authors. Twenty years ago, the kind of commercial fiction that dominated the bestseller lists looked remarkably different than today’s. But if publishers began calcifying their lists, hoping to extend existing brands rather than taking chances on new ones, what would the results be? Similarly, are you confident that, with so many less slots to fill, publishers would have bought your own favorite unexpected treasure of recent vintage? Would they have published The Lovely Bones, Bee Season, The Nanny Diaries, Running with Scissors, Fight Club, or [insert your favorite book that didn’t sell for six-figures here]? I think we can safely say that fewer books would make for a smaller market for new material, and a particularly reduced market for books that aren’t high profile acquisitions.

I’m not saying NONE of these books would have been acquired. But I am saying that, in a world in which publishers took heed of the “too many books” decree, it’s conceivable that few if any would have made the cut.

All this notwithstanding, I’m very much in your camp regarding the reasons that I’m guessing spawned Max’s blogging in the first place: we’re all frustrated by today’s publishing game, and we’re all having a hard time explaining/understanding why so many good authors are not getting readers at all (never mind the readers they deserve), why so many books get returned in the blink of an eye by booksellers [did they even open the boxes?], are ignored by critics, forgotten by their publishers and unknown to readers. And I hate it. When it happens to one of my own, I don’t sleep. I get depressed. I get angry. That it’s happened before (and so frequently) doesn’t lessen the blow. Like most agents and editors I know, I take it very, very, very personally.

This is what I do for a living: someone I probably don’t know, an author who’s maybe written her first novel, sends me her manuscript. I read it. It makes me laugh, or cry. It moves me, scares me silly, or transports me. And I think to myself, other readers might like to have this same experience. I’ve got nothing to go on other than my own taste – and faith. Faith is the key word here. It’s the sacred contract. I have to have faith that at least one editor at one publishing house will see what I’ve seen, that he’ll convince his publisher to make some space on an already crowded list for this new novel. And then we’ll all have to have faith that readers will find our beloved book. But, ultimately, we all know, deep down, that it’s a lottery.

There are things we can do to reduce the odds – publishing well and aggressively certainly increases the likelihood of success. But it’s only buying more lottery tickets; it’s not guaranteeing success. And that’s the rub. Nobody knows, really, what’s going to work. Nobody. Which of the many, many books published every year – which of the “too many books” – will be the one to reach out and touch an audience of more than just a handful of admirers is as unknowable as it gets. And so, publishers take chances, they acquire lots of first novels, they keep on publishing authors whose sales aren’t all that terrific.

Because despite everything, despite mergers and corporatization, despite the continuing decline of the American independent bookseller and the rise of non-book mass retailers who’d be just as happy to sell t-shirts or frozen chickens as books, publishers keep on publishing too many books. Because, well, because of faith. And because it’s good business.

We owe Max a debt of gratitude for providing a forum that we can use to brainstorm solutions to the real problems. But, for heaven’s sake, no more of this received wisdom about “too many books,” especially not from the authors out there! Because—and here’s what really keeps me awake at night, when the anxious hours are upon me: publishers just might start listening.
Monday, February 14, 2005

"Too Many Books": Shots Across the Bow, Vol. IV

A number of readers here at BookAngst 101--enough, in fact, that I'd planned to cover the subject as Part 4 in my recent "Shots Across the Bow" recap--have said that the real problem w/ publishing today is that there are just too many books. Considered from the micro-level, it’s a seductive argument. I, for instance, am constantly frustrated by how much competition my books face for review attention, shelf-space, marketing dollars, etc. Surely all these things would be easier if there was less competition—so fewer books makes sense for me, no? One pen-pal who had a dissenting opinion was Simon Lipskar, a literary agent with Writers House. He explained to me why I was absolutely, categorically wrong. I was so impressed by his argument that I asked him if he’d share his views with the gang here at BookAngst. And so he has.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let's give a warm Mad Max welcome to Mr. Simon Lipskar.

Too Many Books? Not So Fast…

Too many books. Among the laundry list of the problems afflicting publishing today one hears enumerated, none is so popular as the notion that too many titles are being published. It seems so logical, so transparently obvious, so quantifiable — just look at all the deals for first novels that were posted, just last week, on Publishers Marketplace — that nobody even gives it a second thought. In an industry where the results of what we do baffle virtually everyone involved – Why did this book succeed? Why not that one? Who knows?! – there’s comfort, perhaps, in being able to say one thing confidently. And so we say it, again and again, like a mantra. Too many damn books.

The various and sundry disseminators of this little maxim come from a variety of vantage points. Readers, bemoaning the veritable avalanche of books for sale, complain that they don’t know how to choose amongst the panoply of offerings. Reviewers, kvetching about the number of glossily bound ARCs the publishers send them, complain that publishers don’t even bother to try to understand what would motivate them to cover a particular book in a particular venue. Booksellers, caterwauling about the overwhelming number of titles on each publisher’s list, complain that they can’t possibly take a real position on more than a few at a time, resulting in a “my hands are tied” shrug and an “order to previous book’s net” mindset that kills authors’ careers, causes more unearned advances than any other single factor and drives publishers, agents and authors to the point of literal insanity.

From a certain perspective, of course, each of these constituencies have valid arguments. I could go on at some length debating them – for example, one could easily maintain that the number of books published represents a Garden of Earthly delights for the reader, with every possible taste and interest addressed and consummated – but I won’t. But there’s another constituency that I do want to take issue with; this group is the #1 proponent of the too many books school of thought. Oddly enough, it’s authors themselves.

Let’s start with the obvious question: what is it that you, as an author, hope to accomplish by complaining about there being too many books? Are you hoping, indeed praying, that publishers will start to listen, and that they’ll buy fewer first novels next year, maybe prune a few low-selling standbys, and thereby have the time and money to pour more attention and cash into promoting the books they publish (such as, and let’s cut to the case, your own)?

If that’s the case, I’ve got some bad news for you: it just might be your book that they’re going to trim off their lists. Do you think, somehow, that yours is going to be the last one through the door, after which your publisher is going to barricade the gates and proclaim, in loud, lusty tones, “These books and these books only shall pass”?

And then your book has entered into the Holy Kingdom of Books That Have Big Marketing Budgets—is that it? And thus it will find the readership that you and your spouse and your parents and your friends and your agent and your editor know you deserve? [And lest my tone be misread as solely mocking, please know that I empathize: I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t believe so strongly that all my authors really do deserve large and adoring audiences.]

Alas: I don’t think so. The more likely outcome is that, if you’re writing finishing your first novel, you might as well leave it unprinted or in the drawer. If you’re an author in mid-career, with nothing particularly inspiring to note on your sales record (despite the glowing reviews and acclaim from one and all), you should probably be thinking about that long-delayed return to full time employment. There is nothing – NOTHING – I find more terrifying than the idea that publishers stop buying lots of first novels, that they stop believing in the merits of sticking by their own authors if their careers haven’t hit pay-dirt by Book #2.

Be certain: it’s the first novel that I’m just about to submit that likely wouldn’t find a home under these circumstances; it’s the author whose work I adore who’ll be dropped because his last book underperformed, and for whom I would suddenly be unable to find a new publisher. And think of the terrible irony here—that publishers would have been encouraged to do so by the very constituency that has the most to lose: authors themselves.

This is a consummation devoutly not to be wished.

TOMORROW: Why Chick Lit Matters [sic]
Saturday, February 12, 2005

Apocrypha: the Final (or First?) Word on the Craft of Writing

Concluding Words
That is how things turned out for Nicanor. The city of Jerusalem remained in the possession of the Jewish people from that time on, so I will end my story here. If it is well written and to the point, I am pleased; if it is poorly written and uninteresting, I have still done my best. We know it is unhealthy to drink wine or water alone, whereas wine mixed with water makes a delightfully tasty drink. So also a good story skillfully written gives pleasure to those who read it. With this I conclude.
--Maccabees II:15
The final passage of the Old Testament, deemed "Apocrypha" by Martin Luther and so excised from The King James Bible. Taken here from the Good News Bible, with thanks to ABR.


A fiery intercourse--an orgy of opinion, one might say--hath been had here in Max City in recent days. Lots of interesting questions raised (and a few voices too), all good. I thought I'd try to pull out and highlight a few threads of particular interest.

Bowshots, Pt. 2: Beyond 'A New Yorker's Map of the World' (and Costco Too)

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

Dear MLH: I don't dispute that we're not effectively reaching those markets; but in terms of that outreach to readers I mentioned, I can assure you (because a number of my own books have been sampled thusly, and I've seen the unedited readers' reports): they represent the broadest possible cross-section of America's diversity. They come from all parts of the country (rarely, in fact, do they hail from New York), they represent the broadest possible range of education and literary sophistication--and they do, indeed, shop at Costco. ["Not that there's anything wrong with that!"]

For the record, I'm a proud, card-carrying member of the Costco Collective...

Across the Bow, Pt.1: RETAIL

"Why don't publishers open their own retail outlets?"

A decade ago the Doubleday Bookstore still resided on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan (where, I'm told, William Faulkner worked briefly circa 1921); and my understanding is that there were other Doubleday Bookstores scattered across the country. These did not, however, sell only Doubleday books. I've no idea to what degree the publisher oversaw, or was involved in, the bookstore operations, nor at what stage it was decided to shut them down. Nor do I know what led to the closing of the McGraw Hill bookstore on Sixth Avenue in 2002; nor the small store Harper & Row had in its lobby for many years. But not so very long ago Manhattan was dotted with booksellers bearing the colors of one publisher or another.

At the present time I'm aware of no publishers who serve also as their own principal retailer. It's interesting to note, though, that as the country's largest retailer of books (Barnes & Noble) is blurring the lines by publishing more and more books under its own imprint each year (think they get favored placement and a discount on front-of store promotion rates?), the publishing industry seems to be gearing up to return the favor by offering consumers the option of buying direct. This option has always existed--individuals are always free to call a publisher's customer service department and order a copy of a particular book. But what we're certain to see going forward is a less passive approach--publishers actually reaching out to consumers in a variety of ways (online, initially).

My understanding is that W.W. Norton, the last of the "major" independent publishers, was the first to actively pursue this line of direct-selling; in the last few months we've heard of similar initiatives from Bertelsmann and HarperCollins.

It'll be interesting to see whether B&N has the gumption to get up on its high horse about how this sort of "direct to consumer" selling represents a conflict of interest, given its own most recent expansionist proclivities. And won't it be ironic if B&N, in seeking to protect its market share from publishers' direct-selling initiatives, winds up aligned, this time, on the same side of the table as the Independent Booksellers whose ranks they've had such a deleterious effect on?

Bowshots, Pt. 3: Costco Redux

Angry Young Man had this to say:
"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."

Mad Max has this to add:
Furthermore, if they DO take a first-time author's literary novel, or indeed any book by someone not yet VERY well known, God help that author. Dollars for donuts, those books won't sell, and they'll come back in droves, and that novel's sell-through will sag under the burden of those returns. Yes, there are lots of discerning Mom-and-Dad Costco shoppers (present company included)--but that's not where we shop to find literary fiction. It might be where we pick up a (deeply discounted) copy of the new Michael Crichton or the new Tess Gerritsen as a Christmas gift or a Mother's/Father's Day present--or, perhaps, a literary bestseller like the newest from Phillip Roth or Margaret Atwood. But we buy them there because they're cheap. Discoveries? We make those at our local brick-and-mortar, or at Amazon, or on the recommendation of a good friend or librarian.

Mary O'C. (unaware of the potential wamma-jamma Max would preface her comments with) responded to AYM's comments with some cheery good news:
"A friend of mine, Jane Guill, has just been told her book [NECTAR FROM A STONE]--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."

To which Max, in hopes of counter-acting his wamma-jamma, adds LINKS, knocks wood, and offers reason for optimism:
At first glance, this novel does seem like it might be a good candidate for Costco, despite the fact that Ms. Guill isn't (yet) a household name. Meaning no disrespect to the quality of the writing, it's not being presented as a literary novel, but rather as a rich and well-research historical drama with romantic overtones. Could work; hope it does; and hope, too, that Ms. Guill (or Mary O'C.) will let us know if it does.
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.


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.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Half-Life of Shelf-Life

MJ Rose's expressions of frustration [see her Feb. 3/'05 post, 'Test This'] with the way publishers conduct business goes way beyond the usual ranting to address a number of broader issues about the industry. She covers a lot of ground, and there are a number of points I'd like to comment on (and may, later), but for now I want focus on just one of those issues, the matter of shelf-life and in-store promotion. She explains:

"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."

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.

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.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Stop the presses! Labor unrest threatens blogosphere!

Mad Max Inc.
Given that BookAngst 101 is our sole material asset;

[Which means--since BookAngst 101 doesn't exist except as a figment of some incomprehensible bandwidth something--that we have none];

We the Board of Directors hereby notify our share-holders that the ops center @ BookAngst 101 is undergoing technical difficulties. Or, more accurately, aesthetic difficulties. Our crack creative and technical staffs had been brainstorming--or, more accurating, headbutting--over the design of the site. Unkind things were said about the "technological deficiencies" of the production department; Creative was then given a harsh critique of its decidedly 20th century sensibility; and so what started out with finger-pointing among the staff, and with nobody willing to take responsibility for their various f*ups--
[it's SO hard to find good help these days!]
--eventually escalated into a full-out civil conflagration. And, as happens among the working classes from time to time, the focus of the rage soon shifted; the two opposing sides realized they had common "issues"; and suddenly it was management under fire. Can you imagine? A workers' uprising! Complaints about the pay, the hours, the unsanitary working conditions... But the straw that broke the camel's back? Not so much the pile-up of complaints from our shareholders, but, rather, the fact that management chose to post those complaints prominently on bulletin boards throughout the shop.
Morale at the shop had simply bottomed out--and just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, management's most dreaded fears were realized:

the employees staged a sit-down--right there, on the assembly-line floor!--and production
* BOOM!*
--came to a complete standstill.

But please rest assured, trusted Shareholders: a resolution is in the works. A top labor negotiator has been brought in, along with grilled cheese sandwiches and milkshakes (and, later, six-packs of beer), and eventually cooler heads prevailed. At this juncture, we are cautiously optimistic about the progress of the talks; new investors are being approached, new management strategies are being discussed, the possibility of profit-sharing is on the table--and we expect to be operational again very soon.

In the meantime, we appreciate your patience. We at Mad Max Inc. believe your confidence will be rewarded by robust sales, not just in the fourth-quarter but carrying on well into the new fiscal year.

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."