Friday, April 22, 2005

You Could Be Wearing this Hat

Mr. Jonathan Ames
It looks like a fun party, doesn't it? 275 people mingling in a bar, B and C list literary celebs with a sprinkling of other media big mouths and bloggers. It actually was a fun party - plenty of free alcohol, transvestites, and even a cute gift bag for all in attendance that included a free copy of Jonathan Ames' Sexual Metamorphosis, Condomania condoms, Izze bottled juice, and cosmetic products from Blue Q and Sharps (I personally love these guys). I had a great time, met lots of new people, and all of those new friends seemed to enjoy themselves as well. What a great thing to build buzz around this new book. Guess how much of our marketing budget was spent in pulling this thing off? It's less than you think.

My colleague who arranged this party did a phenomenal job in organizing it and bringing in co-sponsors. First she found a venue willing to host it, and a media partner to get the word out. The venue was the very stylish Table 50 in lower Manhattan, who had the best martini glasses I've ever seen (not that I drank several martinis or anything of the sort!). And the co-sponsor was Nerve, who designed the invite and provided their party list of important media types. Once those two critical parts were in place, she then approached several liquor sponsors to provide alcohol for the event. She found a company called Triple 8 to supply vodka (which was excellent, again not that I drank a lot of it, I swear!) and Hendrick's to supply gin.

Venue, guests, and drinks secured, my colleague started organizing the gift bag. Obviously the book was to be the featured item in the gift bag, but it was important to leave guests with something more than just the book, while also keeping everything related to it and preferably nothing that competed with anything else. The condoms and the hygiene products were great. We also tried for some sex toys from Toys in Babeland, but they never got back to us (note: they're also not getting a link because they didn't earn one - booo!). The can of Izze, well, that was just to protect against hangovers I guess (not that I have any first-hand knowledge of that!).

The gift bag was a nice touch that made the event just a little more special and a little more memorable for the attendees. It was also a great opportunity for the companies that donated these products to get their name and brand out there. Yes, you heard me right. I said, "donated." In case you were curious, the final cost in terms of marketing dollars that this party cost us was $160. We had to pay the bartenders, and that was it. Everything else - the liquor, the venue, the guest list, the gift bags - was free.

I tell this story with such elaboration because it illustrates a very important point about marketing. The best marketing is not a function of the dollars you spend the effort and inventiveness that you expend in organizing it. You too could arrange an event like this at virtually no financial cost to you. It will take a ton of work, a lot of creative thinking, and some really persuasive pitches, but it can (and does) work.

In my short career in business, I've stumbled upon a very simple, yet practical equation: f(e) = 1/$. The 'e' here is effort, and for those of you without any mathematical inclinations, this equation means that the function of effort is such that as it increases, the amount of money ($) decreases or in marketing terms, spending money becomes less necessary.

I've said this before, and I'll likely say it over and over again until someone slaps me: so many times we choose to throw money at a problem rather than put the effort into solving it (almost always at a much lower cost). This is more than bad marketing - it's a lousy work ethic. Often we do this in the interest of saving time, which I think can have its justification, but those instances should be fewer and further between.

My colleague pulled off a huge party, virtually for free. Creative thinking, organization, and phone calls (and emails). There, that's the secret. Now run with it. And for the record, I only had 3 martinis, I swear.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Geeta Thee To A Nunnery

Geeta Sharma Jensen wrote a piece in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the controversy surrounding the book Whores on the Hill by Colleen Curran. Apparently, the school Colleen attended (Divine Savior Holy Angels) has taken a disliking to the book, which follows the lives of three teenaged girls known as "the whores on the hill" at the fictional Sacred Heart Holy Angels school in Milwaukee. Administrators at DSHA have warned parents and students about the book, assuring the parents especially that the sex, drugs, and bad behavior that the narrator describes in the book (NOTE: I said "narrator"), has no basis in fact. Yeah, right! I guess the school believes that sex, drugs, and bad behavior don't happen at the school now, and didn't happen there 20 years ago either. I feel relieved, don't you?

by Colleen Curran

From what I can tell by talking to women who have gone to catholic school, behavior among these students is far more racy and risky than anything happening at public school. It seems that the more these students are repressed socially and sexually, the more they act out secretly. And for a school to presume this doesn't happen (not now, and not ever) just demonstrates what a willingly-blinded, out-of-touch institution it is. [Such institutions and administrations seem to be quite popular these days]

From the article:

"Although the author stresses this is a work of fiction, its first-person style and its familiar sounding references to Milwaukee may lead some to wonder if it has any basis in fact," wrote school President Ellen Bartel in the letter dated April 6. "I can tell you that the author has stated clearly to us that the novel is not about DSHA nor is it autobiographical . . . . We are committed to the intellectual, spiritual and personal growth of young women in an environment that fosters faith formation, academic excellence and responsible decision-making."
The school, however, has not banned the book. Nor does it intend to, Bartel said Monday. "We have noted there is a similarity in names (and setting) . . . I imagine that some people might be tempted to conclude that it is about Divine Savior," she said. "So we're letting parents know. . . .
We're not going to tell the students not to read it." Bartel said she had read a copy she had received from "someone in the book business," and "it's not my particular taste in fiction."

One has to wonder what is her "particular taste in fiction," and whether such a thing could conceivably be characterized as taste. But snide insults aside, the word among students at the school presently is that the book absolutely has been banned whether it's been publicly stated or not. While this is obviously a rumor, one can imagine the reality of life at the school for the actual students - what do you think the sisters will do if they find a girl reading this book? I doubt such an instance will generate a warm reception.

Clearly the sexier story here is another catholic institution turning its traditional blind-eye to the scandalous events happening beneath its own vestments. But for us literary types, there's something more damaging at stake here: the freedom to write fiction that is informed by our experience.

The phrase that bothers me in the quotation above is the part about the novel not being about DSHA nor autobiographical. Put aside the fact that it's utterly impossible not to put something of yourself into your writing (everything you do is, in a way, autobiographical). What troubles me is that the attempt to protect the reputation of the school inherently seeks to negate the experience of the author, whether the events related in the book ever happened or not. The facts of their happening make no difference, but of vital importance is the feelings they inspire, which is the basis of our connection to a work of art. This act of protection wants to undercut the legitimacy of those feelings by proclaiming, "This never happened!"

This is very dangerous ground for artists and writers, not an inch of which should ever be surrendered to those who actively work to subvert the truth. I would encourage anyone who reads this to talk about it with people you know, and people you don't know. We can't let these ridiculous affronts to literature pass quietly.

And speaking of passingly quietly, I hope someone other than me noticed that little stab by Geeta Sharma Jensen in the article. In talking about the school wanting assurance from Colleen that the events in the book didn't happen, Geeta writes, "Why these assurances, this attention on a first-time author whose book is coming out only in paperback?"

ONLY IN PAPERBACK? How many books has Geeta published? Zero. So where does she derive the authority to judge the importance of a book based on its binding? Has it occurred to her that this book's publication in paperback is not a matter of legitimacy but one of fucking common sense? Can Geeta comprehend that the audience for this book might trend younger than most literary works of fiction, and that audience may not be willing to part with $26 for a hardcover, but perfectly happy to spend $12.95 for paperback? Does it take more than one minute of genuine thought or a reasonable understanding of 20th century literature to remember that books like
Bright Lights, Big City and American Psycho were first published in ONLY paperback? Both of which proved to be pretty insignificant works of fiction, no doubt!

Clearly, I am outraged by this subtle slap in the face, but for good reason. Original paperback publishing makes a lot of sense for many reasons, but has yet to be highly successful. Much of the blame for that can be placed in exactly these kinds of preconceived notions of what is "only" a paperback. In the weeks to come, you will hear my sentiments about this and what I think can be done about, but until then you'll have to wait.

Monday, April 11, 2005


Thank god for the clarity that wiki offers...

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

WYSIWYG (pronounced "wizzy-wig" or "wuzzy-wig") is an acronym for What You See Is What You Get, and is used in computing to describe a seamlessness between the appearance of edited content and final product. Today this is expected for word processors but in other situations, like web (HTML) authoring, this is not always the case.

Related acronyms (in order of increasing obscurity)

WYSIWIS - What You See Is What I See (used in context of distant multi-users applications, e.g. CSCW)
WYSIWYAF - What You See Is What You Asked For (in reference to programs such as those used for manual typesetting such as TeX or troff, that what is retrieved from the system is what the user specified - in essence, a statement of GIGO)
WYSIAYG - What You See Is All You Get (used by computer programmers who point out that a style of "heading" that refers to a specification of "Helvetica 15 bold" provides more useful information than a style of "Helvetica 15 bold" every time a heading is used)
WYSIAWYG - What You See Is Almost What You Get (most text editing programs)
WYSIWYM - What You See Is What You Mean (You see what best conveys the message)
WYSIMOLWYG - What You See Is More Or Less What You Get (another way of stating WYSIAWYG)
WYGINS - What You Get Is No Surprise - Weaker version of WYSIAWYG and WYSIMOLWYG
WYTYSIWYTYG - What You Think You See Is What You Think You Get ("whit-iss-ee-whit-ig") (when a program claims to be WYSIWYG but isn't)
WYCIWYG - What You Cache is What You Get ("wyciwyg://" turns up occasionally in the address bar of Gecko-based Web
browsers like Mozilla Firefox when the browser is retrieving cached information)
-or - What You Create Is What You Get -or- What You Click Is What You Get

WYPIWYF - What You Print is What You Fax, briefly popular in the early days of fax modems, to distinguish software that presented the fax modem to the OS via a printer driver and thus fax-enabled any program capable of printing
WYGIWYG - What You Get Is What You Get (an alternative approach to document formatting using markup languages, e.g. HTML, to define content and trusting the layout software to make it pretty enough)
WYGIWYGAINUC - What You Get Is What You're Given And It's No Use Complaining

To that list I humbly suggest, WTFDWBWAAFTS - Why The Fuck Did We Bother With An Acronym For This Shit, or maybe WYSIRFUBBHASTE - What You See Is Really Fucked Up Because Blogger Has A Shitty Text Editor. I like that one because it rolls off the tongue so easily, Why, Sir Fubb Haste! And here I thought we were retarded for refering to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as AHWOSG.

PS - I apologize if there are spelling errors in this post, but there was no way in hell I was going to use a spell-checker and have to skip half the words!

Friday, April 08, 2005

Call Me Martin Luther

Apparently some of my opinions have hit the publishing world like ripe shit. Now while it still falls short of nailing a treatise to the castle door, I am quite pleased that my blog has bound the britches of a few industry people. After being mentioned in Media Bistro's book publishing blog, Galley Cat, word of our little coup quickly spread to Publisher's Lunch:


Among recent blogs launched is one from a guy whose "job at Vintage and Anchor Books is to research and develop new ways of marketing and publishing books, to identify new channels for promotion and sales, and to organize alternative marketing campaigns - and by 'alternative' the book publishing world often means 'online.'" He notes, "in the current state of publishing, there's little (if any) infrastructure to reach outlets that are not mainstream media and traditional book retail."
One post relates to his realization that Vintage--arguably one of the best-known names in trade paperbacks--"has found itself in something of a schizophrenic nightmare due in large part to the fact that it has no universal image or logo that consumers can identify when browsing in a book store." He counts nine different imprint logos "and only a few of them look even remotely similar" and that doesn't even count the logoless sci-fi line.
One of his first posts relates to being one of the few publishing people to appear at the SXSW Interactive conference. Among the things he heard: "Tom Anderson of MySpace said, in short, that MySpace has more money than it knows what to do with because companies are spending so much to advertise on his site. Why? MySpace is the #7 most trafficked site on the internet behind Google at #6. Tom went on to advise audience members NOT to advertise on MySpace, but to actually use the site, open a FREE account and use it - he promised the return would be hundreds of times more valuable. The problem is that takes work, time, and some creative thought as to how MySpace can work for you. It's easier to throw money into an ad than try to understand this new, 'cool' medium."

My favorite part is clearly about Vintage arguably being one of the best-known names in trade paperback publishing. If you only talk to people who work in publishing, or a related industry, then yes, Vintage is among the most well-known and highly esteemed, but I try to avoid talking to industry people too much because it warps ones perspective. It's like a priest getting feedback from the choir (ah, I have pope-on-the-brain today).

I take my job with me when I leave the office and I talk to people about books and authors and their perceptions of both and the publishing industry at large. It's easy to get this information from people through casual conversation if you simply listen. I would say that easily 90-95% of the people I talk to have NO IDEA what Vintage is (and these are just the ones who read books). I always have to tell people that Vintage is part of Random House, a name which nearly everyone recognizes. That's not good branding.

Would I have to mention General Motors or even Pontiac for you to know what a Firebird or a Trans Am is? [I hope someone out there gets the
irony here] Or even closer to home, would I have to mention Bertelsmann or BMG for you to recognize labels like Arista, Columbia, RCA, or Epic Records? I doubt it.

My suspicion, and this spans all of major publishing, is that very few consumers have ANY concept of or identification with brand when it comes to books, AND, most disconcertingly, I also suspect that we're one of the ONLY media industries without significantly recognizable and distinguishable brand identities.

Now I'm certain there are exceptions, and I have met plenty of people who do recognize imprints, but the fact that so few notice book branding only illustrates the point that much work in the publishing industry remains to be done, or (possibly) we need to rethink our branding strategies.

And thanks to
Buzz, Balls & Hype for the bump - I'm glad someone appreciates a frank discussion of these issues.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Watch Me Pull a Rabbit Out of My Ass!

In recent weeks I've been informed by at least three different colleagues that a particular author of ours has found out about me and my new position and is interested in having me develop his web presence. That's all, really, just develop his web presence. Right. When asked where he'd like to be more prominent, the answer has been, "you know, like online reading groups." Oh? Which ones? "I don't know. There have to be some out there, right?"

Now I'm all about doing the impossible, but no where in my job description does it say I will pull rabbits out of hats or perform other feats of magic. I suppose this is the result of having a new job that my colleagues (and authors) don't yet understand, but I think it's also indicative of a more wide-spread phenomenon: authors want something to happen for their books, but haven't a clue as to how to go about it.

How many times as a book publisher do we hear an author say, "I think my story would be great for Oprah. Can you make that happen?" If some authors sold a book for every minute they pined over the Oprah Winfrey Show, they would probably be national bestsellers. Getting on Oprah is about as easy as hitting the lottery - and about as equally fair, too, which is a credit to Oprah. Just because you've booked an author on her show before (or even twenty authors), doesn't mean you have any kind of inside track on booking other guests.

While the Oprah show deservedly has a good reputation for selling books, ...wait, here comes the shocking revelation: there are OTHER media outlets that help influence book buyers as well! It's hard to fathom, but for years now literate people have actually been getting quality information from sources other than Oprah. In fact, there's a whole tradition (which supposedly pre-dates Oprah) called "print" media that seems to have some effect on consumers, and then there's something called the "interweb" which the kids keep yammering about, going to "revolutionize" something or other.

All joking aside, this is really to say that there are thousands of ways in which we communicate information to one another in our modern (I should say post-modern) lives, and different groups of people gravitate towards different mediums and modes of communication. I don't watch Oprah, but I could probably tell you everything that was on Nerve and Gawker yesterday and, this may surprise you, I love reading about medieval British history. My grandfather wouldn't know a URL from a UFO, but he loves using email and reading detective novels. Mainstream media might not reach either of us effectively. We're both avid readers, though not always conventional readers in the way demographic marketing might think of us.

In fact, the best way of ensuring that we get a marketing message is through an integration of several mediums (big and small, complicated and simple). Parts of that web might include an interesting online presence, possibly one that supports a poignant, viral (read e-mail) marketing component, and recommendations from credible sources (be it traditional reviews, bloggers, word-of-mouth, gift-giving, etc.). Credible sources come in a thousand different varieties, and their credibility varies among different audiences, but it's the primordial "grass roots" technique that is still the most powerful form of marketing there is.

There’s no universal answer or formula for success, no magic hats. There’s not even a simple solution, and this brings me back to my original point about expectations. In the history of the world, no meal has ever been prepared simply by wishing for dinner. Not only does it require someone who knows how to cook, but the right ingredients as well. I suppose it’s possible I could improve the web presence of an author, but what’s the point of that when his readership isn’t online? Hell, I might be able to get a book about the history of post-industrial capitalism on Oprah, but it probably won’t sell any copies (that’s actually an experiment I’d really like to test). Simply put, the fact that the internet or Oprah exist and probably influence people to buy books doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for every book and author, and if we as publishers we willing to be a little more honest with our authors, maybe I wouldn’t have so many requests for the ridiculously impossible.

Postcard Secrets

My friend, who shall here-to-fore be known as Link-Master Mike, sent me this link to PostSecret, a blog that accepts handmade postcards that reveal a deep, dark, often funny secret about its maker. The best cards are posted on the site, while the rest are (presumably) returned with uniform rejection letters that say something to the effect of, "Sorry, your postcard isn't right for us at this time. Good luck publishing it elsewhere. - The Editors"

The timing of this discovery, as is often the case with the timing of the Link-Master's notes, is perfect because just last night, over a $20-sandwich-and-glass-of-wine dinner ($20 eff'n dollars!), I was talking with a friend about "dis"honesty in the workplace and whether omission was actually a form of lying. The conversation began with a comment about knowing that you are close to a person (or real friends) because you occasionally fight with them. The fact that you fight with them means that you care enough to tell them what you honestly think even if you know it will make them unhappy or angry.

The conversation moved on to the fact that generally people don't speak their minds out some sense of "civility" and "politeness." The old saying goes, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." What a fucking myth! What horseshit advice! We might as well tell each other, "Just repress your feelings." I guess that's not so nice, but it's basically the same thing.

Then I went on one of my characteristic diatribes about office culture. This rant was about how a lot of people I know are basically scared to say what they really think, afraid of confrontation or direct disagreements with someone even if their opinion has merit, and occasionally downright dishonest in acquiescing to ideas with which they don't agree. It's madness! Sometimes people are so busy being civil to one another that much of what they say and many of their interactions are simply fabrications. This will probably get me in trouble, but in keeping with speaking my mind...

It's infinitely worse when dealing with authors, who must be appeased, flattered, and generally satiated at a wretched cost to honesty. In the end, the ego-stroking and appeasement doesn't really help sell books (which is everyone's basic objective here). Personally, I have taken the position of full-disclosure. When I talk to authors I answer their questions and concerns honestly and (perhaps) crudely. I'll tell an author openly that they have a small ad budget because we're only printing 15,000 copies of their book, and the reason we're only printing 15,000 is because our retail outlets have only ordered 12,000 copies. Would we rather sell 100,000 copies of your book and spend tens of thousands of dollars advertising it? Sure, but the market won't support that. This is a business, and we try to make it work the best we can. There's always a good reason for the decisions we make, and if an author thinks we're skimping on ads for a book, it's probably because we haven't been honest enough in explaining to him or her why we haven't advertised more. We want to sell books as much as anyone (the author included) - there's no reason to hide from the truths behind that.

So yeah, this honesty thing - look into it, folks. It's one investment that's actually worth the risk. Otherwise you can keep sending your postcards to PostSecret. Look for one that says, "One of our author's book sales suck because she writes about characters with whom people can't identify and generally dislike. I've never shared this info with her because I'm afraid she'll leave for another publishing house." [If you thought I was going to link that statement to a particular author's book on Amazon, you're f*cking crazy!]

Friday, April 01, 2005

We Were April's Fools

So this morning I was reading the blog of Jason Calacanis, one of the co-founders of Weblogs, Inc. and one of the many very sharp, highly opinionated people I met at SXSW, and his web entry for today was a funny bit about selling Weblogs, Inc. to CNN. The thought of Lockhart, Krucoff, Dobkin, and Spiers hosting a LES version of "The View" in the backroom of the Magician makes you realize how absolutely intolerable a group of snarky bloggers would be to a national television audience. Let's face it, people don't turn on their televisions to do any serious thinking!

But this April Fool's gag had me thinking about why the hell we accept this as a kind of national day of acceptable lying, so of course, I googled it.
One of the first sites I found that tried to explain the origin of the day didn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence in it's accuracy. Here's an excerpt:

Ancient cultures, including those as varied as the Romans and the Hindus, celebrated New Year's Day on April 1. It closely follows the vernal equinox (March 20th or March 21st).... In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar (the Gregorian Calendar) to replace the old Julian Calendar. The new calendar called for New Year's Day to be celebrated Jan. 1. Many countries, however, resisted the change.... In 1564 France adopted the reformed calendar and shifted New Year's day to Jan. 1. However, many people either refused to accept the new date, or did not learn about it, and continued to celebrate New Year's Day April 1. Other people began to make fun of these traditionalists, sending them on "fool's errands" or trying to trick them into believing something false.

Huh? France adopted the Gregorian Calendar 18 years before its existence? Why, if this isn't the straw that broke the Bush administration's back! With such a history of omniscience it's a pure wonder Bush & Co. didn't pay closer attention to France's resignations about Iraq. But wait! The last line says, they "began to make fun of these traditionalists, sending them on 'fool's errands' or trying to trick them into believing something false." That sounds eerily familiar. Perhaps France fooled us into invading Iraq by saying we shouldn't! Aha! They are the dirty bastards we always knew them to be. Well, it's high-time we stop blaming our intelligence community for our failures and get back to our French-hating, redblooded American roots.