Thursday, March 17, 2005

Bravery at the Top: Rainmaker R & D

Recent corporate restructurings / layoffs /call-them-what-you-will at Bertlesmann, Penguin Putnam and HarperCollins continue (it might be argued) to beg the question of whether, or to what ultimate end, there are real gains to be made in the merger-mania that's consumed publishing (and the rest of the corporate world) in the last umpteen years. In the short-run, of course, such "internal tinkerings" (here I mean personnel cutbacks rather than mergers--the elimination of redundant positions and/or expensive employees) are one way of better serving the "needs" of MultiMerge shareholders, in terms of cutting cuts and thereby increasing profits--again, I stress, in the short run.

There are of course many other views about how shareholders' longterm interests might be as well (if not better) served by the publishing divisions of these larger companies--one that comes to mind is that we make sure to support the up-and-coming writers of today to ensure that we will have bankable "brands" capable of getting around without canes and wheelchairs ten years from now. When one considers recent full-page "milestone" advertisements in the New York Times for books like THE DA VINCI CODE, BEL CANTO and THE KITE RUNNER--books that have sold (according to the ads) in excess of 10 million, 1 million and 1 million copies respectively--one can argue that such ads are good for the publisher's profile, and perhaps crucial to author/agent relations. And--perhaps--celebrating such "breakout" successes is good for the industry, in that it sends signals to those outside the typical book-buying demographic that "reading is fun." (Whether that demographic is found reading the New York Times is debatable, but even so...)

This approach, though, seems to come directly from the current Administration's theory about the proper allocation of scarce resources, which has as its theme song (mother of all ironies...) Billie Holliday's "God Bless the Child"

Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose

What if, instead of the Bush/Chaney/Rove allocation of those resources, we were were to employ something like a WPA approach? Let's take the $150,000 ($50k per for a full-page black & white ad, more for color) those three ads cost and stread it around some--toward "emerging stars"--$30,000 each, say, for six writers "on the verge." To me, whether spent in additional co-op or in a series of small repeater-ads (the more impressions the better...), this constitutes an investment in the potential brands of the future.

Another double-page NYTBR ad for Danielle Steele? Full pagers for James Patterson...John Grisham...Nora Roberts... Robert B. Parker...Lisa Scottoline...Michael Connelly...Jackie Collins? They're done because, well, because that's what's done. But--and meaning no disrespect to any of these fine individuals--where are we as an industry going to be a decade from now if we're still promoting the same authors we've been promoting for the last decade? Brands eventually do lose their lustre (anybody know what John Gray's up to these days?), plateau, and fall off. So if Job #1 is reinforcing the brands that are working, Job #1A should be building the brands of the future.

Which requires being encouraged to take the the long view. The problem is, such planning is in short supply when Publishers' performances are measured not over a five-year span but, rather, quarter-to-quarter. They have to "make their numbers" each quarter, certainly each fiscal year, or they'll soon be on the street. Which places an almost impossible burden on the shoulders of these few individuals. There's your own private survival on one side--and then there's the responsibility of the very future of our business on the other... You publishers/eds-in-chiefs--Michael Pietsch and Michael Morrison and Gina Centrello and Bill Thomas and Jamie Raab and Will Schwalbe and John Sterling and Brian Tart and the rest of you--are walking an incredible tightrope. Because the constant scrutiny of your performance relative to your budgeted tagets functionally discourages you from engaging in what we might, in other industries, call R&D. And yet, for the business to sustain itself--and this is why your jobs are so incredibly stressful and demanding--you've got to be able to do exactly that: take chances on writers, and stick by writers, who won't necessarily become bankable brands (if they ever do) within three months, or even three books. With the fate of your kids' college educations on the line, you've got to be able to say to those people above you--the ones who talk to the suits above them, at Viacom and NewsCorp and Time-Warner and Bertelsmann and so on--that sometimes real money must be invested now on "product" that won't really come to market for five years. CEOs--and even shareholders--in pharmaceutical companies understand this. Why not in our industy?

It's a virtually impossible position you're in, and I admire and salute you for undertaking it. I wish you bravery and great success; that you're able to leverage the success (and even some of the assets) that a Sandra Brown or a John Sandford brings you to make sure that the 30 year-old second or third or fourth novelist has the time, and the support, to become the next-generation of hitmakers; and that you are blessed with CEOs with the long-term vision to match your own, CEOs with the vision and guts to explain to their shareholders why a 4% return is sometimes preferrable to an 8% return, because the difference has been reinvested into the piece of infrastructure most essential to our business: talented writers, the next generation of rainmakers.


Anonymous said...

Say, am I the only one who finds the language of branding as applied to authors a little . . . icky? I'll confess to having a skepticism about publishing economics and, OK, late capitalism in general that would make the dewiest undergrad wince. But even taking this on its own terms, it makes me uncomfortable to talk about not just James Patterson (who, if the technology existed, would transform himself into pure logo form and upload himself on the Internet) but "up-and-comers" strictly as assets.

Squeamishness aside, this approach would make sense if there are good business reasons for using it. As Max points out, branding may be a good way to develop the next crop of "hitmakers" in order to meet quarterly earnings quotas at the conglomerates. But I feel as though branding is a concept that's gotten spread pretty thin. There's obviously some extensive theory behind it, and it gets applied by Martha Stewart OmniMedia and Hillary Duff's handlers and, we're beginning to see, HarperPerennial and Picador in fairly sophisticated ways, but it's also become another buzzword that's bandied about by just about anyone with something to sell. Often, it seems like just another word for good old-fashioned marketing.

So, beyond Dan Brown, beyond Joel Osteen, does it make sense for us to think of all authors as brands? Does a great review of an Alice Munro collection by a hip, popular novelist give leverage to the Alice Munro brand? Or does it simply pique the interest of potential readers? If we do extend the logic of branding to include almost everyone, will that help the midlist author, or demand of her the superstar sales on which this bestseller-driven industry increasingly depends? (How's that for a leading question?)

All due respect to Max here, whose sincere devotion to his authors and combination of idealism and realism come through in every entry.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Isn't this a prime example of how publishing is poor fit for mega corporation business? Sure, big publishing houses have high profile product and can generate revenues that run into the many millions of dollars, but usually publisher profit *margins* are small--in the cited range of 4% or so--whereas investors and the corporate hierarchy is looking for double-digit returns and strong, steady growth that isn't realistic when the history of publishing as an industry is considered. Isn't the stockholder-widget factory model simply a poor fit for publishing at all levels? It seems to me, at least, this is partly the reason for the lack of long-term planning in publishing. But that's just me.

Ami said...

I don't know if there are other programs like this, but nine years ago, Louise Dennys started The New Face of Fiction program at Knopf Canada.

Each year they choose two or three first time novelists and give them an extra 'push' in launching their careers. Some of the alumni you may have heard of include, Ann Marie MacDonald -Fall On Your Knees, Yann Martel - Life of Pi, Lori Lansens -Rush Home Road, Lilian Nattel -The River Midnight, and Mary Lawson - Crow Lake.

The New Face novels are launched in the spring (generally between February and March) so they aren't competing with the heavy hitter titles that are released in the fall. This year's class was ushered in by Ann Marie MacDonald at a big reading in downtown Toronto. (They had to turn people away at the door) Each of this year's authors have been blessed with press coverage, busy with interviews, book tours and so on.

As far as 'branding' goes...I'd guess that none of the authors included in this program over the years has been made to feel like they are merely grinding out 'product' for Knopf.

In my opinion, Louise Dennys and Diane Martin are doing just what Max is suggesting, giving new novelists "the time, and the support, to become the next-generation of hitmakers"

The New Face of Fiction

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. Right on the heels of the PW article I read about poor numbers for some of the major author franchises. Not just a one time thing, but a steady slacking off without new talent to come up and fill the void that's being created at that particular house.

Regarding "branding": I don't find this language "icky" at all. I think it's necessary. When someone picks up a Stephen King novel, they knew what to expect. When someone picks up a Nora Roberts novel, they know what to expect. Readers like plot surprises, but they don't want to be "taken". If they pick up Nora Roberts and suddenly her heroine is killed off by a deranged clown who lives in the sewer, you bet she'll be hearing from her readers!

s/anon suspense writer

Anonymous said...

a good publishing list needs some big to help pay for the little names. how many minor, sub-5000 copy works of history has knopf been able to do because it has a couple of heavy hitters?

but a list can't survive on big names alone, as harpercollins proved with their disastrous initial foray into mass marketing publishing which had the motto, "all leaders and no followers." how often has a season been saved by some midlist hit that came out of nowhere (dan brown, for instance) just as the heavy hitters went into a slump? remember when r.l. stine went into the tank overnight and scholastic followed right afterwards, only freeing itself with the titanic brand that is harry potter--and notice how crappy their one-tune company does when a potter book is delayed?

a good list is a balanced list.

Anonymous said...

Once again Mad Max, well said. I would beg to differ only on one point. The pharmaceutical giants as well as other consumer products companies do not invest marketing money unless they have carefully scoped out the risk, as best as they think they can. They in fact invest only in what they perceive as sure bets, much like the publishing industry. They invest only R&D money long term to develop potential, and to some extent, publishers do that by virtue of advances against unknown authors. What the publishing industry might learn from consumer products marketing is to do exactly what you suggest - spend less per unit [although still much overall] on the known brands [Patterson et al] and more per unit on the brands you wish to build... You clearly have a good handle on marketing, as well as your editorial finesse, as your marketing colleagues would be very well advised to invest in frequency advertising in selective markets and venues for the books with potential and a few big hits, that's all that's needed, to promote the big guns. [You know as well as I do that B&N wants to know that there is advertising behind even the sure-thing book.]Publishing only thinks in terms of total dollars and "hits" rather than cost per book, which might be worth considering... None of us wants to think of books as brands, then again, if one wants to get marketing support, perhaps we must.

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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."