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.


Anonymous said...

Mad Max, thank you for the brutally honest peak into the publishing process. It is shocking and alarming to hear what goes on behind the closed doors of the major publishers--even when the author has a passionate, influential advocate like yourself.

I published my first book with a smallish/midsize publisher about a year and a half ago. It has been a constant struggle to walk the fine line between being a positive, enthusiastic force for my book and a pain in the ass for my publisher. Most of the time I have felt like the latter.

Ever, the diligent student, I read all the publicity/book promotion books and prepared myself to be an active part of the post publication/promotion process. In my previous life, I was a wildy successful software salesperson (consistently earning low-mid-six figures) so I thought selling a publisher would be simple. Wrong.

At almost every turn I was generally treated as a major thorn in their side. The first indication was when, after I killed myself to turn in my manuscript (purchased on proposal) under a 3-month deadline, I was told by my editor/publisher "You have a monogomous relationship with your book. I have a polygamous relationship with it." She would get back to me in a month or so. No rush.

(Excuse, me, I am sooo venting here.)

I flew myself to BEA on my own dime to meet the important players at the publishing house and was greeted with a cheery mass email threatening all the attending authors to stay out of the booth. I met with the new (way over-extended) director of publicity and told her that I did not expect ANYTHING from her. That I was willing to work hard and do whatever they wanted and consider anything they did do for me as a gift. (Could I be more puppy-do accomodating?) She seemed suspicous.
(and was gone within six months.)

For reasons which I still do not know, the publisher was not able to sell the book into the major chains--yet I have manged to sell about 6,000 copies--earning out my meager advance three times over--and my book continues to sell steadily. The book has had awesome reviews (from a few niche market reviewers) and has a great word-of-mouth, grassroots appeal and I have gotten tremendous publicty in my regional metro area.

However, I know that even when I hear about a book I want to buy, when I walk into my local store, if it's not in stock (on the shelves--forget about placement!) I tend to forget about it rather than special order it.

Yet, I have heard from so many people who have told me (in person, via email, in written notes) that my book has changed their lives. It sounds corny, but that is my reward.

The lesson that I have learned from this amazing and (despite all the disappointments/disillusionments) wonderful journey of seeing my words and ideas get out into print is that every writer should write only for passion. Publishing is a business. Writing is a calling.

Anonymous said...

Dear Max,

Many, many thanks for letting us see deeper into your world. JBK

Sam said...

It must be terribly frustrating for an editor who has gone out on a limb for a book, acquired the project, brought it to be told to go sit down somewhere and be quiet, and let the marketing department take over.

Anonymous said...

Excellent essay on just another cog in the wheel.

I'm curious, though, when the sales rep become aware of which way the winds are blowing, thereby telling them which books to push harder.

(I know... I know... the reps aren't really PUSHING; some magic force is PULLING the sales through.)

But seriously, all sales reps - regardless of industry - are told which items in their goodie bag should get the hard sell, and I'd like to know who tells them this, and how that decision gets made.

And also, does a large advance mean the sales force will be encouraged to yank up their bootstraps and turn the big investment into a profit?

(I realize that managing sales forces is like herding cats - and not necessarily the friendly kind, either - but still... I'm sure there's a publishing sales manager out there who has a theory on how this should work.)

Anonymous said...


Rather than do nothing, why not start polishing your marketing plan?

Anonymous said...

If writing is a job, it is the worst paying job in the universe. Most authors would make more money per hour scrubbing toilets. The number of authors who can actually make a decent living from their advances and royalties is a very small percentage of published writers. I know lots of writers--published by big houses and small, some with NY Times Bestsellers to their credit, and even one writer who pumps out an average of two books a year (some under pseudonyms)--and none of them could pay their bills if it weren't for teaching, consulting, another type of job entirely, or a supportive, bread-winning spouse.

Now, if you want to write press releases or brochures or technical manuals, you can make a living, but I don't think that's what we're talking about here.

Anonymous said...

ggj wrote: "Writing pays worse than selling plasma because so many writers don't consider this a job and don't consider themselves professionals.So, you were like born a professional writer? And when was the last time you sold your blood? I'd like to peddle a few pints there.

Sure, there are a lot of unpublished writers, and many view writing as a calling, and they pursue it with all their hearts. The serious ones eventually learn how to be professional. Give them a chance.

Out of twenty thousand unpublished writers, maybe two hundred will end up in print. Out of that two hundred, twenty might stay in print. Out of that twenty, perhaps only one or two will be great and enduring authors who contribute significant works to our field and inspire future generations of writers.

Are the two worth the twenty thousand? In my view, absolutely. As for the rest, they had the courage to go for it, and what could be more admirable?

Rather than condemn the unpublished, why not help them, however we can? We pros were all there once; we shouldn't forget that.

Anonymous said...

The question is really about the relationship between sales departments and editors, and that seems to vary from house to house. But as far as sales conferences go, I can't believe there's an appreciable difference in result whether an editor attends or not. After all, the fix is already in. The reps--and more importantly, the national account managers--know which are the big-bet books, so editors' presentations are more ritualistic than anything else. I've heard about presentations that have "killed" books, but I think that's just lore.

In my experience, reps and national accounts managers have all been happy to talk with editors, because the result is usually mutually educational. The rep learns why an editor might have signed up a book, and the editor learns what kinds of obstacles or challenges the rep is facing in the real world. I've never encountered a sales person who didn't want to talk to me or take my call, wherever I've worked.

As for the idea that reps feel inhibited about voicing their opinions when the editor is around, I've got to tell you that the anecdotal evidence I have is something of the opposite: that sales directors *don't* want their reps to speak up, because the sales directors are under a lot of pressure from the publishers and division heads to make books work. I know of one ardent, hardworking, book-crazed sales rep who was let go from his job at a major conglomerate because he often spoke his mind and sought out editors to express his opinion (both enthusiastic and otherwise).

I think the biggest problem facing the book world today is from the cultural assumptions of big corporations, which prize "team playing" and the like, all of which have a chilling effect on real communication.

Anonymous said...

What makes anyone think a writer would know anything about promotion? After all, we're not the "experts," right? But hey, running the gauntlet of modern-day publishing means that those writers who end up published are either (a) very talented, (b) very lucky, (c) very smart, or (d) some combination of the three. I may or may not be talented, but I think I'm pretty smart. When at first I didn't succeed, I tried, tried again...and ended up with nine books under contract at a major house. I guess that doesn't mean I would necessarily be a great publicist for my book, but it does mean I learn fast, I'm adaptable and audacious, and I have a thousand contacts out in the "real" world. I would never criticize my publicists (who are fantastic), but I think I bring a special insight into promoting my books. My five publicists have always agreed--strenuously. I've since talked to dozens of writers, and an equal number of publicists, and I am absolutely convinced that writers can bring great and unexpected things to the marketing of a book. Too bad some publishers don't seem to care.

Anonymous said...


Two words--supply and demand. As soon as there is an overabundance of inspired plumbers who will self-actualize by diving into your septic tank, there will be a level playing field (in regards to earnings) between writers and plumbers.

Actually, the comparison between plumbers and writers fails on other points, such as risk (an amatuer plumber can cost you a fortune in mistakes, while a bad writer will cost you, at most $25 for a hardback and a couple of hours of time) and value (a good plumbing job is fairly objective, while a good book is something that is almost always subjective).

I think that it is a naive myth that if you treat writing (books, not business types of writing like PR and technical) as a job, it will pay off for you as a job. It's a fantasy perpetuated to make writers feel as if they have some kind of control over their destiny when it is clear that even the best do not. For the most part, success in publishing today is some magic indefinable combination of "platform," marketing savvy, luck, persistance, and occasionally talent.

And raising children (while clearly the most challenging endeavor in the universe) is not a job either. It is a choice and a moral responsibility, but nobody ever expects to be "paid" for raising their own children.

Anonymous said...

Dear Max,

This is more of a general comment after having followed the dialogue taking place here and at other literary blogs. Quite frankly, as a writer of 20 years, all this energy being poured into blogging and obsession about self-promotion concerns me. First of all, the blog world which seems to be proliferating at an alarming rate, might on the surface fill the solitary void in writers' lives, much like the cafe life in Paris of the 20's. But writing a blog and replying to a blog is not a live conversation where facial expression and tone of voice often say more than the words spoken. Additionally, I think writers must feel that pang of loneliness, the yearning for connection in order to dig most deeply inside and learn how to communicate more effectively on the page. If writers, especially those coming of age now, are already so instantly connected and have access to so much distraction on a daily if not hourly basis, then I worry about the future of writing. As for self-promotion, which is tied into the blogsphere. Again, I think if a writer is shooting for greatness, then a writers job is to write. I remember when Terry McMillan took it into her hands to self-promote her book HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK. Although she did a brilliant job in that area, her book was only mediocre. It may have sold more copies that way but what about the writing? Again, it seems too many writers are getting distracted from the hard, solitary, utterly unglamourous work of placing one word after another day after day with the prospect of spending entire lifetime UNRECOGNIZED. Depressing? Sure.But how do you think most of the books we cherish from the past were written? Writing as a profession has never been a sure thing. This blog is very insightful, Mad Max, but my concerns are of a more global nature. The future of writing itself. I don't think those writers in the cafes in Paris were discussing marketing plans.

Anonymous said...

In response to Marcus & Anon. Editor-- it varies among companies whether or not editors come to sales conference. They do come to the one at my company, and they present their books. And a lackluster presentation to the sales reps makes for a lackluster presentation from the rep to the book buyers. The sales reps will still try to do their job, but if they don't have much info to work with in the beginning, it will hurt advance sales.
Marcus asked when the big titles are decided on, and I can say that where I work, that is decided between launch meetings and sales conference, and the reps are encouraged to comment at the end of the conference.

Anonymous said...

A year to write a novel? How about ten?

I get the feeling that everybody wants to be 'a writer' but few want to labor over the writing.

Anonymous said...

[a new anonymous, here]

ggj, you may resent writers who consider their work a calling and consequently accept low pay, thereby undermining those "who do professional work and expect professional pay," but simply saying "writing is a job, not a calling" doesn't make it so for the writers who feel differently.

And Anonymous who said that the gap in ggj's logic is that writing, unlike plumbing, has for many writers a self-actualizing aspect to it, which will always lead to an excess supply of cheap labor, that doesn't account for the fact that other self-actualizing professions are at least viable ways of earning a living. After all, many teachers consider their job a calling. And yet, although teachers salaries are abysmally low, most teachers are able to support themselves through this "self-actualizing" profession. So why can't most writers do the same?

I believe it comes down to a different question of supply-and-demand, one that unfortunately can't be solved by unionizing the world's writers and convincing them to demand higher pay. Because it's a problem that's inherent in fiction writing - that the supply of fiction will almost always greatly exceed the demand. And when the supply is great and the demand small, the suppliers are not in a position to campaign for large amounts of money, even when they put in long hours and lots of hard work.

There was an interesting discussion on this blog recently concerning the number of books in the marketplace. And while the sundry reasons why there's no such thing as too many books have merit, there's one issue that seems to have been ignored: that the world doesn't *need* more fiction.

This is not to say that the world doesn't benefit from new fiction. This is not to say that new fiction doesn't sometimes affect people deeply. This is not to say that new fiction can't be as "important" as the fiction of yesterday.

But it's impossible to get around the fact that the world already has more than enough fiction to entertain and interest and provide escape for anyone who reads for those purposes.

Take Jane Reader. At 15, she's a voracious reader who finishes 2 books a week, a practice she continues until she dies at the ripe old age of 90. In her entire life, she will have read 7800 adult books. Do fiction writers out there honestly believe that there aren't, among the scores of books already published since the dawn of publishing, 7800 that could interest Jane? And when you factor in that most people do not read 2 books every single week for 75 years, and that many people mix in some non-fiction to their literary diet, the numbers representing "fiction demand" - forget new fiction demand - are even lower.

[Non-fiction is its own story, because people read non-fiction to understand their reality, and yesterday's non-fiction may not accurately reflect today's reality (I imagine it'd be hard to find a book on Al Qaida written 100 years ago). ]

The bottom line, ggj: if fiction writers are providing the world/public with something it doesn't actually need, and aren't able to deceive the world/public into thinking otherwise, then they have no reason or right to expect large amounts of money in return. And if your books aren't going to sell well, then there's no reason for publishers to pay you big advances simply in recognition of your hard work. Remuneration isn't about recognition; it's about an exchange of goods and services, and if your goods end up translating into little value for your publisher, then they owe you something of little value in return. And, if your book is as amazing as you think and everybody rushes out to buy a copy, then you'll get the same $50,000 in royalties in the end - the only difference is that you'll get it when you earn it rather than on spec.

Anonymous said...

But to get back to the thrust of the post: editors and marketing/sales staff.

I work in that 'other' area - the production/design area, for midsized publishers - and watch the battles from both sides. I know of editors who have passionately fought to get rid of the general sales and marketing staff and instead hire their own personal sales/marketing lackey (what???), as well as watched marketers tear apart a book. However, I haven't seen too many editors that are savvy enough to understand the market for all their list (they have favorites - who wouldn't when you're reading endless manuscripts?), much less understand how to market their book. And yet those very editors don't trust the marketing department (much less sales) to follow through. Why? Because in the past, editors not talking/discussing/alerting the marketing and sales staff to the list translates into ignorance on the other end, hence misrepresenting the book to bookbuyers etc. Then the editors don't trust the sales and marketing staff for the next project, and so the cycle continues.

I don't think that sales and marketing should be in charge of - nor have a heavy hand in - acquisitions. However, they should be on board with the project from acquisition onward, at least to discuss and fight and figure out how to get readers to read the book. Editors who play precious, like marketers who promote scalping yesterday's bestseller - are a detriment to the entire process. Authors lose, readers get confused, and the teamwork required to get a book out there disintegrates into jaded, not-my-issue semantics.

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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."