Thursday, June 16, 2005

Finally! Someone Has a Pulse

I've been sitting here on my bully pulpit, ranting about an industry of which I am actually a part, being completely inappropriate and probably wrong more often than not, and yet no one (or very few) have dared to put a thought into the wayside and challenge me. Until now!

I am most pleased to report that someone has FINALLY taken some offense to my comments! Hooray, the democracy of the blogosphere actually works!

In response to my last post about the infamous "weenie" promotion at BEA, a fellow by the name of John wrote:

This truly is a strange way to promote a book, but isn't this better than a publishing house not promoting a book? Granted, if I was the author in question I would likely be a bit put out that this was the way they chose to spread the word, but how many authors have seen their books sneak into stores with no publicity at all, authors who would kill for a wandering weenie pitching their wares? Handselling, word-of-mouth, a great review in the NYTBR... all are preferable, of course, but how realistic are any of those for the non-A list author competing against the other 30K books released in a given year?

The problem here is that John is asking the wrong kind of question. The problem isn't whether it's better to have bad promotion over none at all. The question we should be asking is whether this is really the best use of the time, energy, MONEY, and creative thought for the book itself?

One of the problems in our industry is that very few outside of the industry really understand anything about it. John asks how many authors see their books sneak into stores without any publicity. Not having publicity for a book is not solely the fault of the publisher, nor is it a sign that enough money and effort weren't spent. Sometimes the media simply isn't interested in covering certain books. Publishers have no control over that (despite what many conspiracists out there would have you believe). And what is a giant weenie going to do? In the history of publishing has a giant weenie ever convinced anyone to buy a book?

John also mentions hand-selling and word-of-mouth, which are things done in large part by booksellers, not publishers, who take a liking to particular books. The books that get hand-sold and that generate word-of-mouth are not always (or even mostly) A-list authors (whatever that means). More importantly, publicity and the money a publisher spends to promote a book have little (if not nothing) to do with hand-selling and word-of-mouth. These practices are based solely on the quality of the work and the discretion of the booksellers talking about these books.

A million variables go into making a book a success, but you can't simply wrap up a handful of them and blame the publisher when they don't happen for any one of the thousands of books that get published each year. An underlying myth in this discussion that is kind of the large elephant in the room that no one's talking about is the perception that the publishing industry is somehow an evil enterprise that wants to undermine and cheat its authors. This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard and demonstrates just how little people understand this business.

First and foremost, book publishing is one of the least profitable businesses in our economy. The people who choose to do it, do so largely out of a true passion for their work and the literature they are helping to bring to the world. We have very tight profit margins, and truthfully only 1 in 10 books published is likely to be a financially successful endeavor within it's first year, or even it's first 10 years (I once did an interesting study on this topic that I will one day discuss here).

The thing that authors and author-hopefuls need to realize is that WE ACTUALLY WANT TO SELL BOOKS! We succeed when you (as an author) succeed - our future profits are mutual. Why on earth would we want to publish your book and then ensure that it won't sell? That makes no logical sense. The reason some books fail is because they aren't good, people who read them don't like them and don't recommend them to others. Some don't find the right readership. Some have such a limited readership that stores aren't interested in taking lots of copies of their books. Some fail because they are packaged and marketed poorly. Some get horrible reviews (deserved or otherwise). Only a handful of these things can even remotely be controlled by a publisher, and regardless of that, we always do whatever we can (that makes sense) to sell books.

Now plenty of authors have complained that they didn't get enough publicity or advertising or bookstore support. They believe that if they had just gotten some ads in the NY Times they would have sold 50,000 copies rather than 500. The fact of the matter is that no amount of advertising would likely save this book. If it only sells 500 copies, there's something (probably many things) far more problematic about this book than a lack of advertising. A book that bad could probably be advertised in the NY Times everyday for a month and not sell 50,000 copies. Meanwhile the cost of that much advertising would probably eat up all of the profits of our entire business for that year (NEWS FLASH: Advertising is obscenely expensive. When will people start to criticize the NY Times for gouging money out of its advertisers? And don't think they are alone in this either!).

The point I'm trying to make is that one could easily blame the publisher for not spending enough money on advertising, but in truth no amount of advertising would have helped. The publisher isn't being cheap, but it's also not going to throw money away.

Recently we had a perfect example of this. A very wealthy author wrote a novel and the hardcover publisher put out around 5,000 copies, only 1,800 of which actually sold, which is a failure under any circumstances. The publisher didn't do much in the way of advertising because there were only 5,000 books out there to begin with, but the author did her own advertising and spent upwards of $75,000 on ads in places like The New Yorker, the NYTBR, and others. That's roughly $42 spent in advertising alone for every book that was actually purchased, but more to my point it's $15 spent on ads for every book that could possibly have been bought. All that money spent and no increase in book sales.

I don't even make $75,000 a year in salary, but for that much money I could have driven around the country for a year selling twice as many copies out of the trunk of my car! Inflatable weenies, obnoxious amounts of cash thrown into advertising - they're just not good ideas, and not nearly as successful as something creative that makes sense for the book.

I'm sure I have much more to complain about, but I need to move on to further complaints about my posts. LostBoyPN writes:

I agree, the weenie guy sucks. I wouldn't want to stoop that low to promote my book. But, I also agree with John that at least they were doing something... and it was somewhat memorable. Any publicity is good publicity, right? Then again, after writing that, I think I'd rather have nothing than have a walking weenie guy.

The idea that "at least they were doing something" is precisely the problem. Writers are so desperate for their publisher to promote their work that they're almost elated to see them do something as crazy as put a publicist in a weenie costume. It doesn't have to be this way. The options in this world don't have to be bad ideas or nothing. Every author should have the courage to say, "This doesn't make any sense. Wouldn't it be a better use of time and money to do x, y, or z?" or at least engage their publisher ina dialogue about why they feel this is the very best thing for them and the book. The point is, we don't have to settle for weenie promotional ideas. God, I'm glad that thing was a weenie.

And no, not all publicity is good publicity. If that weenie stunt caused me to disrespect the author or (especially in my case) the publisher, I'm not going to buy their products. I know that I will probably never work for that publisher if that's the type of thing they do. Creating a spectacle does establish recognition, but the associations one makes may not always be positive. Is all the publicity Michael Jackson's getting now going to help him sell millions of records again? I really don't think so. (Damn, I swore to myself that I wasn't going to mention anything MJ related in this blog.)

More comments, Anonymous writes:

Well, it's a children's book. The weenie is the title character of the book (INVASION OF THE ROAD WEENIES) so it seems much like having a giant Babar, Walter the Farting Dog or Curious George for kids to interact with. While there were less kids at BEA than, say, a traditional author booksigning...a lot of the adults seemed to love acting like kids again. And from what I've heard, if a kids/YA book doesn't have a message or any entertainment value for adults, it's
probably not worth reading.

Well, what a jerk am I? I neglected to notice that this was a children's book. I'm certain that all the many BEA-loving children that were in attendance simply adored the weenie and went right out to buy books.

The fact of the matter is that BEA (from a publisher's perspective) is largely a schmoozing event where they can get book buyers (i.e. accounts) to get excited about their books. The weenie wasn't there to entertain children - he was there to get the attention of booksellers by the most absurd means possible. Does the weenie in any way convince booksellers that they will be able to sell copies of the book? I don't see much of a connection. Now if the author was going to dress up in that weenie suit and tour the country to the delight of young readers, then I might buy into it. But as a BEA gimmick, it's just sad. And insulting given that a young professional had to walk around in that thing.

You went to school, studied hard, and did well precisely so that you wouldn't have to dress in a weenie costume and sell crap. Let's keep our eye on the ball here.


Anonymous John said...

Wow, I'm glad to have been able to kickstart things for you. You raise a good point about the differences between publisher promotion and other forms, but my original point was that fawning reviews, enthusiastic support from booksellers and other more flattering (and perhaps, organic) types of promotion obviously are more desireable than a wandering weenie, but that any method of getting word out is preferable to none. I know more about the book in question now than I would have before because of that weenie and the coverage given to it (her?) by you and others in the blogging world.

I wrote about books for a mid-sized Midwestern daily newspaper for about five years, and saw the various things publishers, authors and others were willing to do to get word out about a given title. While those things might have helped to get a book onto my radar (and the real, obvious passion some publicists felt for a title or author did help), it was the work I did to learn more about the book (often, of course, by reading it) that determined its coverage. I saw myself as a filter for the public, and chose what they heard about from my paper based on a book's merit and what I saw as the potential interest among readers.

Your point about the best use of time and money misses the point a bit, I think. Before you even get to the notion of whether a lot of promotion should be thrown after a dog of a book, shouldn't the question of whether the book should be published at all be asked? If a book is only going to sell 500 copies, why would a mainstream house publish it? You're right; no amount of help will get a bad book into very many hands, so why take on that task at all? Much as I saw myself as a filter, I also count on publishers as a filter. That's why most papers won't review self-published books, for better or worse.

2:59 PM  
Blogger sepulculture said...

We all now know more about the weenie book, sure, but what I also know is that I would never buy it AND that I've lost a some respect for its publisher. Not all press and hype are good for a product, despite the well-worn cliche.

Should a 500-copy seller be published? Obviously not, but hindsight is 20/20. Publishers buy many of the books they publish before they're ever written, which sometimes works out well and sometimes turns disastrous. Publishers are also (very often) hand-tied into publishing books because they've signed authors to multi-book deals. Sometimes publishers take big risks and they fail. There are lots of reasons why 500-copy books get published. My point is that it's not always the publisher's fault, nor is it always a function of being poorly promoted, under-advertised, or unsupported.

Frankly, I think the publishing industry has many problems in the way it does business, but I also will defend the industry to some extent because it's perceived problems among readers and writers are not entirely accurate.

11:45 AM  
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10:59 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

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3:52 AM  

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