Friday, July 29, 2005

Seth Godin's Advice to Writers

Anyone who reads Publisher's Lunch likely caught this bit about Seth Godin's advice to non-fiction writers. And for anyone who didn't, here's a brief summary:
1. Please understand that book publishing is an organized hobby, not a business.
2. The timeframe for the launch of books has gone from silly to unrealistic.
3. There is no such thing as effective book promotion by a book publisher.

4. Books cost money and require the user to read them for the idea to spread.
5. Publishing is like venture capital, not like printing.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing, as he provides greater detail for these points, which (more often than not) are spot on.

To begin, Godin points out that the return on equity (and more importantly the return on time) is awful for both writer and publisher. I can personally attest to that fact. Sadly, for a majority of published authors, writing books is not enough to make a living - not on the advances and book sales themselves. Many authors support themselves through other writing, lecturing, teaching, or consulting (and then there are a bunch who don't need a job anyway!). Something many people don't realize is that book publishing is a business run on very small margins. Some authors get huge advances and some executives take home huge paychecks, but the greater majority of writers and publishing employees are grossly under-paid (in comparison) and do what they do out of a passion for books, ideas, and ideals.

Godin's second piece of advice, that the time between the writing of a book and it's publication is painfully long (often a year or more), illustrates what I believe is a significant problem for the publishing industry. In this age of immediate, electronic access to information, the publishing industry still works according the Gutenberg model. The problem is that to change this, publishers will need to re-invent the way they do business and that promises to be quite painful, risky, and unfriendly. A book published today follows roughly the same procedures it would have 50 years ago. An editor buys a book from an agent and has to "sell" its virtues or "pitch it" to the marketing, advertising, and publicity staff at the publisher. The marketing staff then has to "sell" the book to the sales staff, who then has to "sell" the book to book buyers at the physical retail locations (bookstores, etc.). This is all before a single book has been purchased by a consumer. Additional "selling" of the book occurs through the publicity department who "pitches" the book to the media, who then provides coverage so that consumers know to go out and buy the book. It's a lot of convincing and hyping that needs to happen in order to ensure that enough copies of a book appear in bookstores across the country. And that's just to get it into stores - it doesn't even cover the marketing of the book to the consumer, the promotion of it, the advertising, etc. This model has been in place for decades and I don't see anyone (a major publisher) who is ready to change it. What I think publishers must realize though is that someone is going to figure out a feasible way to change the process. Someone is going to use the new technologies available now and develop a strategy for doing it better.

Godin's third point is clearly one with which I take considerable umbrage. To quote:
There is no such thing as effective book promotion by a book publisher. This isn't true, of course. Harry Potter gets promoted. So did Freakonomics. But out of the 75,000 titles published last year in the US alone, I figure 100 were effectively promoted by the publishers. This leaves a pretty big gap.

There are many things wrong with this statement. One, Harry Potter could have no promotion and still sell 10 million copies - it's hardly a fair example, and being a savvy marketer, Godin must know how improbable and unfair a comparison that is. Freakonomics is a better example, but even there you risk making a mistake by assuming that strong sales are necessarily the result of a great promotional campaign. Some books do exceptionally well without a great promotional plans behind them, some book with amazing promotional efforts completely flop. It's an art, not a science.

The larger issue at stake here is one of limited capacity. Godin says, "[O]f the 75,000 titles published last year in the US alone, I figure 100 were effectively promoted by the publishers." Frankly, there is not a market to support the promotion of 75,000 titles. The New York Times has a limited capacity to review books - they can't do all 75,000. The human brain has a limited capacity to process new information - we could possibly handle having 75,000 titles marketed and promoted to us in a year (which is equivalent to learning about 205 new books every day!). Blaming the publisher for a poor promotional plan is wrong, and doesn't go about addressing the problem accurately.

I know that as a publisher, we would love to be able to successfully promote everything we do (and believe me, we try very hard to do that), but it's simply a fact of life that there are limits out there that are imposed upon us (not from within). Every book we publish is sent to The New York Times for review, but as I said, they have a limited capacity to review books, so not every books gets the attention it deserves. And unfortunately, newspapers often review the same books, so one book may get lots of attention while others get none. This is not because the publisher didn't do everything it could to get all of their books reviewed. So what are we to do? Publish fewer books? That would mean you are less likely to have your book published at all. Is that what these kinds of stabs at the publishing industry are trying to achieve?

Godin's fourth point, which is not so much advice as an observation, is that people don't read. That's an over-statement, but it gets back to point 3 in that we have a limited capacity for information and in this day and age the average person seems to be over-whelmed with information to the point that it's hard to finish a book. As a writer, I wouldn't let this get you down. There are plenty of people who will find your book, devour it, and salivate for the next - you may just not hear from them. One also needs to recognized that the most important word in book publishing during the next century is going to be "niche."

The fifth point, that publishing is more venture capital than simply "printing a book," is one I like quite a bit, and I'm glad someone other than a publishing "insider" said it. An advance is an investment, not a gift, and while I'm reluctant to say publishers are looking for a "big" return (see point 1, there are no big returns), the money we put into a project is a joint venture for us, one we would expect you as the author to treat as a partnership with mutual goals and hopefully shared success. Basically, it becomes our baby, too! I recently had an experience with a potential author who wasn't able to accept this idea of partnership, and she eventually dropped out of a verbal agreement we had to publish her book. So working with a publisher is definitely not for everyone.

Seth Godin's final piece of advice is to build an asset (network) and then spread your idea(s) through the best means available (be it blog, pamphlet, street corner soapbox, etc.). He says, "Then, if your idea catches on, you can sell the souvenir edition. The book.... Books are wonderful ... but they're not necessarily the best vessel for spreading your idea." What is wonderful (in a not-at-all-wonderful kind of way) is that he calls the book "a souvenir edition." That, my friends, is exactly what book publishing is at risk of becoming: collectibles.

Friday, July 22, 2005

The Death of Information

Good god, so many things to be alarmed about and so little time to blog about them all, though I suppose I could summarize these concerns in a single category one might call "The Death of Information," which seems sufficiently vague to encompass nearly anything. But I'm not talking about just anything. I'm specifically interested in the silencing of many voices here in the blogosphere because of "business."

Most disappointing of all the examples I will mention is that of Mad Max Perkins and the death of BookAngst 101. I didn't always agree with everything Max had to say about the industry and the state of book publishing, but that was precisely his value to me and to the book community at large - he offered a unique perspective. I'm certain he has good reasons for quitting his blog, and his leaving is unquestionably a loss to the community, but it would be a far greater affront to justice if his reasons are primarily related to job pressure, or a sense that his contributions to the industry will be better felt through concentrating on his work in the office rather than his work online. This simply is not true.

Every business in the world benefits from frank discussion abouts its ends and means, and book publishing is no different. And the more varied the perspectives that participate, the more valuable that discussion becomes (see THE WISDOM OF CROWDS by Jim Surowiecki - a brilliant exposition of the benefits of democratic thought). Bloggers like Max and myself (and others in the publishing profession) are not simply out here giving away information about the industry - we're taking something away from it too. Writing about my job and the issues we are all facing in trying to publish books makes me better at what I do everyday in the office. My mind, my work, and my company are all enriched by my participation in this process, and it's no different for Max. His absence is not simply a loss for all of us, but for him as well.

Another issue of some concern is the recent spat of bloggers being fired from their publishing jobs for writing about them, most recently with a beauty editor at a major magazine losing two jobs (almost simultaneously) after being exposed as a blogger. [NOTE: We will from now on simply refer to bloggers as "sinners" (blogger=sinner). It's easier, fewer letters, no problems with spell-checkers, etc.] As I've mentioned before, my concern is not personal, but ideological. Writing (and therefore thinking) about the problems an industry faces is in the final analysis beneficial to that industry - it encourages communication and the sharing of information, which is not to say that it is only information going out. Learning happens in both directions. Trying to silence this dialogue is not only harmful to a company's growth, it's also bad form and makes the world of corporate publishing look paranoid and fascist.

Not knowing the specifics of this young woman's employment, nor the details of her every post, I can't say anything too specific about her case, but it is still troubling to hear these stories of people being fired from corporate America on the basis of being bloggers (I mean, sinners) - a thing which, in the end, stands to benefit the company.

Now, I understand the counter-argument. Not all of these blogs-to-pinkslip stories involve people who are contributing much aside from bitching about the office, but I would argue that these blogs are likely the least dangerous to any business because they tend to say more about the individual than the company or industry. Ultimately, these blogs are about what type of person this particular blogger (sorry, sinner) is - they're vanity projects.

The more critical concern a business faces is the possiblility that private information could find its way (very easily) into a public forum, which is why a company should be more concerned about a blogger (damn, sinner) like me than some of these others who have actually been fired. I'm not writing about the aches and pains of office life. I'm writing about what's wrong (and right) with our business, how it works, why it fails, etc. It would be very easy for me to leak information that could be harmful to the company, our authors, or my colleagues, but I won't be doing that. My aim here is to be as honest as I can in my analysis and ultimately benefit everyone involved. Unless you actually wanted to be fired, you would never actually release sensitive information into a public forum. It's professional ethics. It's the same thing that would keep me from mentioning to my friend at the NY Post how much we paid a certain author for a book.

There is also the concern about giving away ideas, or what we might call "intellectual capital." Mad Max touched on this a bit in his farewell:

The business is so f***ing hard now, and there's so much pressure on those working inside it, that either they don't have the time for (shall we say) pro bono discourse about (say) how to do some of the little things better; or they feel that giving away what few secrets they possess will put them at the sort of competitive disadvantage that might, soon, cost them their jobs.

There was a time when I might have subscribed to this mentality, but I am well past it now for one primary reason: imitators don't have ideas. I keep no secrets about my "tricks of the trade" because I know that the real intellectual capital exists in my head. The techniques and tools (both new and old) have been around, are accessible to everyone, or are at least "known" to all. I haven't tapped some secret marketing resource that makes what I do successful. It's all about new ideas, figuring out how to make old mediums work better, and asking questions. The secret is that there is no secret - all of the vital information is out there for everyone to use, and success is determined by those who use this information most wisely.

Max laments that the business is so hard now. The business is not any harder now than it was before, in fact, it's probably easier because there are more consumers, there's more disposable income, and there are more outlets for retail, merchandising, and marketing than ever before. The trouble arises from the fact that the business is so DIFFERENT than it has been. The world has changed, and thus far many in publishing have yet to accept or understand what these changes mean and what they require in order to survive.

You can hear some of what these changes require in the voices that comprise the literary blogosphere, which is precisely why every one of them is so essential to the industry. The very last thing we can afford is silence.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Blogging on the Job

So several people have asked me what I think about this story of an employee at a major book publisher getting fired for blogging about her job and co-workers. The real question they mean to ask me is whether I'm afraid of getting fired for writing about my job, especially when I've made it explicitly clear where I work and I what I do. Well, the answer is NO. I am not afraid, which is not to say that I think they won't fire me - they very well could, and there seems to be very little legal footing for a person such as me to argue against it. I am not afraid of being fired because it would be a very stupid move on their part to fire me. I am good at what I do, and an essential part of that is how I think critically about my work and the industry as a whole. A blog is a wonderful way to put ideas out into a public forum where they can be considered, discussed, and torn apart if they're no good. Apparently this young woman's blog was less thoughtful and simply more bitchy, and that I guess is a shame. There's much to criticize about our industry. There's much to criticize about this company. I wish she had done it in a more thoughtful, provocative, and insightful way - something she could have argued was aiming to make our industry better. I stand by what I've said in these pages, and I would stand by them in the face of my employer, who is likely monitoring everything I do anyway. So here's an open invitation, Big Brother, throw me a pink slip for speaking my mind and we'll see who really loses.