Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The best book event, like... ever!

Mr. Murray Hill poses for the camera

You know, I really hate to pat myself on the back (okay, I love to pat myself on the back), but recently Vintage Books held a book party for WHORES ON THE HILL and I have to say that it was the most fun I've had at any book event I've been to in the past 6 years.

The author and her hard-working publicist

Once again, I have to congratulate on of my colleagues for doing a brilliant job organizing the event. First of all, the event was held at the Slipper Room on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (a very cool venue that recently held the Lit Blog Co-Op's BEA party). The evening's entertainments included dramatic readings of WHORES ON THE HILL performed by three young actresses who dressed the part of Astrid, Thisbe, and Juli (the characters of the book). In addition to the dramatic readings, there were burlesque performances by the World Famous Pontani Sisters, who are some of the coolest, most punk-rock, bad-ass ladies I've ever seen perform burlesque (they give the Suicide Girls traveling burlesque show a run for their money). The Master of Ceremonies for the evening was none other than "Mr. Ton of Fun" Murray Hill, who is quite possibly the funniest performer I've ever seen. Seriously, Murray Hill is going to be very famous in the not too distant future - mark my words.

Murray Hill & the Pontani Sisters

Everyone in attendance was given a free copy of the book along with a goody bag that included a small bottle of Jagermeister, some candy, and Whores on the Hill stickers. There was a $5 cover to get in which paid for the talents of Murray Hill and the Pontani Sisters, but given the entertainment and the gift bag, it was certainly worth the price of admission.

Ultimately the event cost Vintage nothing. The venue was booked as a show, which meant that the bar made it's money from drink sales. The talent was paid for by the $5 cover. The Jagermeister was promotional donation from the distributor. And the guests were given lots of free stuff and a fun night. I think we paid for the candy and the brown paper bags, which was maybe $60.

And did I mention it was awesome? Did I mention how funny Murray Hill was? Did I mention how many people came up to me and said this was the coolest book event they'd ever attended? Not to say that any of this was easy to arrange, but it wasn't exactly rocket science either - just a little creative thought.

One of the assistants in the publicity department did an amazing job recruiting some of his friends that were actresses and fit the part. He took three chapters of the book and turned them into a script, which was a fantastic and highly original way to experience the book in a live setting. The performance was one of a kind.

The Whores on the Hill dramatic readers

Meanwhile, the author had it easy. Colleen sat at a table where she signed books and was able to simply enjoy the evening without any pressure to perform. Everyone there had ample opportunity to talk to her and socialize, which is far different than the typical book reading and signing.

Author Colleen Curran at her book party with friends

Lisa Selin Davis, author of Belly, was in attendance and here is her review of the party:

Au Curran, by Lisa Selin Davis

Colleen Curran’s Whores on the Hill may take place in Milwaukee, but the celebration of its release last night at the Lower East Side’s Slipper Room was a resolutely New York affair. The emcee for the evening — a drag comedian named Murray Hill (which is also the
name of an unhip east side of Manhattan neighborhood, which sits just below the U.N.) — kept posing for the camera, espousing hope that s/he’d find her/himself in the New York Post’s celebrity-ridden Page 6 the next day, but it wasn’t that kind of event. Instead, it was a very sweet tribute to a book about very naughty Catholic school girls — if it weren’t for the slight tinge of morality tale, the book might please Playboy readers as much as adolescent girls. Young girls in
plaid skirts and ripped fishnet stockings were recruited to read excerpts from the book, and the Pontani sisters (another New York institution —one of the sisters happened to be the author’s roommate in college) performed their delightful burlesque numbers.
With Carmen Miranda fruit hats towering above their heads, the three sisters forced strange smiles on their faces while they
shimmied and shook their hips. All the while, the author sat diffidently at her table, a smile sneaking from her lips. When Murray Hill offered her the chance to take over the microphone, she politely declined. Murray prodded her — 35,000 copies, he kept saying. They printed 35,000 copies, come on up here. But she continued to smile
and shake her head. The rest of the first novelists in the room -— none of them yet worthy of Page 6 coverage either — who had until
that point felt part of the joyous celebration, began to murmur among themselves. Thirty-five thousand copies? they asked, quietly comparing contracts by the bar. Luckily, the entertainment portion of the evening was over. Folks could speak loudly to one another, and, more importantly, speak loudly to the bartender, asking this time for a double.

This bit about the 35,000 copies of the book being published has me thinking about issues that have come up recently in my job here at Vintage (a topic for future posts). One of the issues at hand is choosing a publisher, assuming you are in a position to do so. Finding the right publisher is much like finding the right mate. I think a lot of writers are distracted by money and an uncontrollable urgency to publish.

The money part is probably due largely to their agents who want to find the highest advance so that they can reap the best return on their effort. The publisher who offers the most money is not always the best publisher for that particular book. Is the richest man you can find the best one to marry? I guess that depends on who you ask, but for the wise, the answer is no. Authors should ask their agents lots of questions about the different offers and not assume that the largest financially is the best.

The urgency-to-publish problem is equally dangerous and disturbing. Authors (especially those who haven't been published before) are so happy to finally have "a deal" that they don't pause to ask themselves whether it's a good deal, whether the publisher shares their goals and ideals, whether the publisher has a staff that's talented and knowledgeable in a way that's going to be effective in promoting and selling their book. These things are far more important to an author's success than the amount of money they get on their advance.

There are these myths out there that the size of the advance dictates a publisher's willingness to get behind and promote a book. This is not always true, and not even often true, especially if you're talking about a publisher that actually cares about and believes in the books they publish. The fact that money (as I've demonstrated above) doesn't even directly correspond to the effective promotion of a book, renders this myth utterly useless.

Creativity, hard work, enthusiasm, a willingness to experiment and take risks on new ideas - these are the traits of a publisher that knows how to publish and promote a book - and these authors lamenting that their books aren't printing 35,000 copies should ask themselves how much thought and research they put into selecting a publisher. Did their agents pursue the kinds of publishing houses that would do a great job or just the ones who paid the highest advances? Did they take the time to ask questions and meet the people who would be doing all the work to promote their book? Did they even ask how the publisher envisioned promoting the book, how many copies they thought they might print, whether or not there would be a tour, or whether that was even the best way to promote sales?

It's funny to hear authors complaining about their publishers, especially when they make it seem as though they are all the same. They're not. As the saying goes, you got to dance with them that brung you. On Thursday night, we danced with the Pontani Sisters and had a great time. Colleen Curran could not be happier with the effort Vintage has put into her book, and it's doing very well. Sales for WHORES ON THE HILL are among the best for any paperback original we've published.

Beatrice was there, and he seemed to have fun:

Last night, after birthday dim sum in Chinatown, Mrs. Beatrice and I walked to the Slipper Room where Vintage was throwing a book party for Colleen Curran's Whores on the Hill. I was glad to meet Colleen in person, since she'll be part of next week's Author2Author feature. And let me tell you, this was a party, emceed by Murray Hill with burlesque routines starring the Pontani Sisters. Plus three girls in tank tops and Catholic schoolgirl plaid skirts reading passages
from Whores that would no doubt send Colleen's Amazon hate squad--you should see some of those reviews--into a tizzy.

The Pontani Sisters in Action!

Friday, June 17, 2005

Answered: More Readers' Comments

Over the past few months I've been inundated with questions and comments about the blog, book publishing, and other products and services related to the things I discuss here. I'd like to respond to everyone because that's part of what makes this "interactive" medium so useful, but unfortunately I can't address everything that comes my way. That said, here are a few things that have come up recently that are worth mentioning...

I received a nice note from Mitchell Silverman who wrote to tell me about a book-trading website he just launched called Bookins. He described it as such:

It is an automated system that finds good homes for members' used-books, while getting them titles they want in exchange. Membership is free, and it's easy to use. Like Netflix (the famous DVDD-by mail website) everything is automated, and postageis providedd. But instead of getting DVDs from a warehouse, members get books of equal value from other members. They receive a much greater return on their trade-in than at used bookstores, and we are connected to the US postal service, so mailer labels print with official postage from their own printers ($3.99 to receive a book, no charge to ship them).

I don't know if Mitchell realized it or not, but I work for a very large book publisher and the idea of organized book trading doesn't exactly please people who make their living by trying to sell NEW books! Well, I'm not the kind of person who values proprietary interests over common sense, and I firmly believe that good ideas should be recognized, rewarded, and given the chance to succeed. I'm sure my bosses would scream bloody murder to hear me say it, but I like Mitchell's idea and I hope it works out. The book publishing industry could use some creative thinkers as thoughtful and resourceful as Mitchell.

I also received a very kind note from Randall Williams, editor of NewSouth Books in Montgomery, Alabama, who offered me alcohol:

It's a good thing you're in Manhattan and I'm in Montgomery, or I'd have to come over and buy you a beer or three and I'm sure neither of us has time for it no matter how much we might enjoy it. You write well, and your comments are dead-on. I reached your web columns off a link on a newsletter I read, and I'm glad I did.

Let's just state for the record that I always have time for a drink (or three) especially if you're buying - this is publishing after all. Randall was additionally kind enough to send me an article he wrote on Print-On-Demand (POD), which is a topic I plan to address here soon.

The link in the newsletter Randall mentions is (probably) Publisher's Lunch, which seems to enjoy quoting my saucier moments. This focus on the most sensational things I say is a bit disappointing. Going to such lengths to push a thought into the ether, one certainly would appreciate some thoughtful contemplation from ones colleagues rather than being reduced to juicy soundbytes. But perhaps with our limited attention spans, there is no room for that dialogue.

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.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Book Exploitation Absurdities (BEA)

Why do I feel like the only person (aside from GalleyCat) who was horrified by the this little snippet that ran at the end of The New York Times' coverage of BEA this week?

On Friday afternoon, four young publicists from Tor Books were spotted in a corner trying to get one of them, Melissa Broder, into an 8-foot-tall hot-dog costume; it did have an air pump so the wearer could breathe. They were promoting "Invasion of the Road Weenies" (Starscape/Tor Books) by David Lubar. Finally, they zipped Ms. Broder up. Fiona Lee took her hand, or paw, or whatever, and led her across the convention floor. "Would you like your photo taken with a giant weenie?" Ms. Lee asked, over and over again.

Book publishing has literally become a circus. I've been seeing a lot of this stuff lately (much of it from imprints here at Random House). I noticed a few weeks ago that a sister imprint here was having a $200 American Express "Vacation to Italy" contest to support some mystery novel set in Italy. Also I was recently alerted (by the ever-frisky GalleyCat) to a very disturbing gimmick being run (I guess corporately) at Random House to get content from young writers for essentially nothing.

The stunts, gimmicks, and questionable contests really bother me - not simply because they are stupid - but because they make it harder to do legitimate creative marketing as people grow suspicious after seeing so much crap.

A giant inflatable weenie, while curious to ponder, has nothing to do with a book. Doesn't tell you anything about the book, doesn't offer you anything tangible that will improve your connection to the book. It's purely a puerile spectacle - a shameless arms-race of sensationalism designed to steal your attention. I can't believe that a group of smart people thought a walking, inflatable weenie was a good idea.

Say hello, Mr. Weenie.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Why Can't I Get a Book Deal?

I hear that question a lot, and frankly, the appropriate answer 12 times out of 10 is, "Because you're an idiot."

Several weeks ago (okay, months ago) I posted a piece about
Whores on the Hill, which received a comment by a blog called Another Useless Fact directing others to his "review" of the book. As it turns out, the Useless review was simply a listing of titles released (by many different publishers) from Random House that could be construed as "chick lit" based solely on their titles and brief descriptions. Now, without getting into any discussion of chick lit, it should be said that Useless hadn't actually read any of the books he chose to disparage. Each book description was followed by several snide remarks, few of which were even remotely humorous.

But before treating us to any of his incisive commentary, Useless first took a moment to re-iterate that well-worn phrase, that battle cry of the untalented writer, "It's no wonder most of us can't get an agent let alone a book deal...." I suspect that if Useless employs the same sound judgment, reason, and good taste in his writing as he does in his reviews, he'll never get a book deal. Perhaps he will one day write the authoritative biography of Lincoln without actually having read any books about Lincoln. I'm sure it will incorporate Useless' uniquely "snarky" tone that we all love.

But hey, it's fair to blame the industry, right? After all, they are collectively responsible for all of the books that get published. Those nameless, faceless giants at Random House and thoughtless publishing mill they run - naturally they're all morons for not seeing the linguistic cunning of dear old Useless. Or maybe they're just too polite. There's a large elephant standing in the middle of our little book party here and it's dying to tell you, "If no one's interested in your book, it's because it isn't good."

And the Dead Shall Rise

The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. The fact is that I have been too busy doing my job to actually write about it. In my silence, many events have passed that would have (I'm sure) enjoyed my commentary, but I'm not one to rehash the past, so I won't here.

One of the more interesting reasons that I haven't been blogging is that I acquired my first book for Vintage, so in addition to all of the marketing, advertising, and PR I've been doing, I'm knee-deep in the editorial process as well.

Now I can't give particulars about the book I bought (it's something of a "secret"), but I can tell you that it's something completely new for Vintage. It's based on a blog and might just be the first truly successful blog-to-book project thus far (seriously, for all the hype, no one gives a shit about the Washingtonienne). The book will likely go on-sale in February of 2006, but more details will be available this summer.