Sunday, February 3, 2008

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Why I'm screwed in the book publishing biz

Rachel Donadio's essay in the New York Times Book Review asks a very good question: why, in this age of digitized publication, does it still take friggin' forever for a completed book manuscript to actually become a book?

Donadio's answer -- marketing a book is essentially like marketing a movie:

The three-martini lunch and the primacy of the Book-of-the-Month Club may be things of the past, but publishing still relies on a time-honored, time-consuming sales strategy: word of mouth.

“It’s not only buzz, it’s a product introduction — but with nothing like the advertising or marketing budget that a piece of soap would have,” said David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster. With the Internet and blogs, word of mouth travels more quickly today, but there’s a glut of information. To help a book break through the static, publishers have to plan months in advance....

As soon as a literary agent has sold a publisher a book, and even before it’s edited, copy-edited, proofread and indexed, the publicity wheels start turning. While writers bite their nails, the book editor tries to persuade the in-house sales representatives to get excited about the book, the sales representatives try to persuade retail buyers to get excited, and the retail buyers decide how many copies to buy and whether to feature the book in a prominent front-of-the-store display, for which publishers pay dearly. In the meantime, the publisher’s publicity department tries to persuade magazine editors and television producers to feature the book or its author around the publication date, often giving elaborate lunches and parties months in advance to drum up interest.

Chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders generally buy books at least six months before the publication date and know about particular titles even farther in advance. Much to the anxiety of midlist writers clamoring for attention, chain stores determine how many copies of a title to buy based on the expected media attention and the author’s previous sales record. Which is why publishers say it’s easier to sell an untested but often hyped first-time author than a second or a third novel. “It’s one of the anomalies of our business that you have to reinvent the wheel with every title, virtually,” said Laurence Kirshbaum, a literary agent and former chairman of the Time Warner Book Group.

Although digitization has made the printing and typesetting process much faster, distribution still takes time, especially in a country as big as America. (In Britain, with its smaller size and more insular literary culture, things move faster.) But once a book hits the market, the product has to move. “For all the weeks and months that go into the gestation of the book, we’re up against the so-called lettuce test once we get into the stores,” Kirshbaum said. “If we don’t get sales fast, the book wilts.”

Read the whole thing. One part of the essay surprised me, however:
Like movie studios jockeying over opening dates to score huge first-weekend box office numbers, publishers often change publication dates to avoid competition for reader attention and marketing buzz....

[T]wo books on sushi — “The Sushi Economy,” by Sasha Issenberg (Gotham), and “The Zen of Fish,” by Trevor Corson (HarperCollins) — appeared nearly simultaneously. “You never want to get in a horse race with another book on the same subject,” said William Shinker, the president and publisher of Gotham.

Actually, for books on more arcane topics -- like sushi in the global economy -- I would have thought the reverse to be true. If two or more books on a similar subject come out at the same time, well that's a trend. This means they're more likely to earn reviews at high-profile places, and other sections of the newspaper might even start writing about the trend.

It's dead-wrong instincts like that one which might explain why I'm not in the book publishing industry.

Hat tip: Megan McArdle.

posted by Dan on 02.03.08 at 11:53 AM


This reminds me of Chris Anderson's article on The Long Tail in Wired a few years ago. Check out how he starts the article. But so is the idea that a similar book can only help if it comes out a few years after yours?

This also reminds me of my post on my father's book (published by Oxford UP, famous for not putting any funds into marketing) vs one that had a serious marketing machine behind it. Back then that book didn't help my father's at all. Interestingly, by now my father's book ranks higher on Amazon, but for unrelated reasons I won't get into here.

posted by: eszter on 02.03.08 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

I've just gone through this process myself, regarding my new book on centrist politics, The Missing Middle. I wasn't able to get a single literary agent or publisher to look at it, the key issue being that I don't have a "platform" for marketing -- e.g., I don't already have media exposure of any kind. The entertainment business and the book business are getting more and more intertwined these days.

What's funny about this is that the new technology for publishing is headed very much in the other direction. Print-on-demand publishing makes it possible to print new copies when they are ordered, one copy at a time, and to do so economically. I can order copies of my new book for $2.70 a piece, which makes for a nice little profit margin given the $12.95 cover price.

I was going to sent you an email, Dan, asking if you'd like to have a copy. I get the feeling the overall policy perspective in the book is very similar to your own. I'd be happy to send one your way.

posted by: William Swann on 02.03.08 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

Ooops. Linky didn't work. Try this: The Missing Middle.

posted by: William Swann on 02.03.08 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

My instinct about simultaneous publication and trend-setting (and trend-following) was the same. Which makes me wonder, is the dynamic the same for general interest books as for academic publications?

Academic books tend to be framed in "conversation", as part of research agendas, subfields, and programs. And academics often don't buy books with their own money, but with research accounts and library funds.

Then again, academics tend to think they're "special", that regular market dynamics don't apply to them, and this is often without warrant.

posted by: Victor M. Muniz-Fraticelli on 02.03.08 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

Not to mention all that pointless editing. I always want to ask editors why, if they are so smart, they don't write their own book instead of always "improving" others' work. Of course, I don't actually ask, because that's a good way to ensure the manuscript never sees the light of day again!

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 02.03.08 at 11:53 AM [permalink]

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