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.


Karen Junker said...

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

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

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

Anonymous said...

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

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

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

Karen Junker said...

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

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

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

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

Anonymous said...

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

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

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

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

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

Anonymous said...

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

Libertarian Girl said...

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

Anonymous said...

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

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

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

Anonymous said...

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

Anonymous said...

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

Anonymous said...

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


Martha O'Connor said...

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

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

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

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

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