Thursday, October 19, 2006

Predestined to Fail, Predestined to Succeed

When a book doesn't sell right away, the large chains sweep it into the back room, making space for the next aspirant. With 172,000 books published last year, shelf space is limited.*

Which means the competition for that shelf space is fierce.

The article I’m referencing above is discussing a publishing failure. In the book’s first week, it only made #18 on the NY Times extended best-seller list. The following week, the book dropped to No. 30 on the New York Times list. Any lingering hopes of achieving breakthrough sales were finished. Nielsen BookScan, which says it tracks about 70% of retail book sales, says "Murder" sold 12,400 copies in its first 19 days. Barnes & Noble alone sold nearly 15,000 copies of " The Thirteenth Tale" in only five days.
Holt invested $1.3 million in buying and marketing the book, a sum that doesn't include the cost of manufacturing. It will need to sell at least 150,000 hardcover copies to recoup its investment. Barring an unforeseen spike, it will be lucky to get to half that. Next year, Holt hopes to benefit from paperback sales. And there's always the chance a movie might get made.
Still, the book never caught fire and could leave Holt in the red.

I have heard it said that the success of a book is determined in the first month of release. If the book doesn’t make it into bookstores, it doesn’t generate sales and it doesn’t generate interest from booksellers in keeping it stocked.

In many respects, the battle for sales seems to be determined long before your book is officially published.

I read this article with a fair degree of interest and a growing feeling of depression. Is this really where the publishing industry is headed? Will we see publishers wiped out of business over one bad decision, such as this one? Why has it turned into bidding wars anyway?

What happened to producing a product you believe in, putting it out there and everyone earning off of what’s sold?

Now, clearly, there are a number of things about the publishing business I still don’t understand. And being a little shit-disturber, I’m prepared to question them all on my blog and display my ignorance.

But this goes back to some conversations I had with various people at Bouchercon. One author, whom I shall not identify, spoke candidly to me about the frustration of seeing new authors being signed to six-figure deals and getting enormous marketing push put behind them.

I had to say I was glad that wasn’t me. The author seemed surprised by my response, but as I pointed out to him, a debut author with a lot of money thrown at them, time and energy, has everything to lose. Publishers are less likely to throw big money at someone twice. If the author fails to live up to their expectations, it won’t matter that the publisher’s assessment of the potential of the work was off or that a bidding war drove them to offer more money. What will matter is how much they lose. I discussed this recently with another friend in the UK, who told me about an author who is no longer being published after failing to meet the sales expectations of the publisher they were with, and the author had money and marketing behind them.

I have stated here before that being someone with big push and big expectations makes you a target. I know I’ve felt that my friend Cornelia Read has received criticism she otherwise wouldn’t have gotten, if her book hadn’t received the buzz it did. When you’re the front-runner going into a race or a series play-off, everyone’s watching you.

And if anyone takes you down, it’s big news. It’s a bigger victory to upset the expected winner.

Despite saying that, I have to admit that there is truth to the fact that for the majority of books, whether or not you’re going to be considered a ‘success’ is going to be determined months before your book is released.

It’s a cycle. Bookstores carry the books they’ve been hearing about, books they believe will sell. Therefore, having publishers behind the books and publicists who’re talking up the books is essential. Getting the book reviewed is also critical. And book reviews require three to six months leeway before the book is released in order to get them. I went to the Reviewer’s Ethics panel at Bouchercon – I heard what those reviewers said. Six months. Wow.

And people wonder why it takes so long to get a book out…

This all meshed in my brain with a recent review I read, where the review for the book quoted blurb sources for the author. The review took the blurbs as validation of the quality of the book. When I read that, I really started to see how the game was rigged from the outset.

Now, I’ll switch gears to the person who hears from publicists. Because increasingly, publicists are asking Spinetingler to do reviews or interviews. And this is in no way directed at the ones I like (you know who you are!) but several have turned me off. This author is going to be huge. Why> Everyone is talking about them. Why Because they’re going to be huge…. Uh, should I repeat the question again?

There is nothing that kills me more than a publicist who clearly hasn’t read the work of an author trying to sell me on it when I know more about it than they do.

But that isn’t even the point. The point is, so many people who talk up authors to me don’t reference the quality of their work. I’ve been told ‘everyone’s talking about so-and-so’… uh huh. Why? What is it about THEIR WORK that is going to make them a huge author? Because I’m sorry to say it, but the author being cute, having a sexy accent, or even a big publishing deal doesn’t mean shit to me as a reviewer.

I’ve heard no end of great things about Mo Hayder’s work. And some of those compliments come from friends of mine, people I really respect. But I had issues with Birdman that kept me from finishing it – I thought the violence was gratuitous and I didn’t like the protagonist at all (I have no respect for men who can be led about by their genitals and lack the backbone to stand up to a manipulative woman) – and haven’t been enticed to try anything else she’s written yet.

I know she does well. I know that in the publishing world, she’s a success. But that doesn’t earn a buy from me automatically, nor does it garner a guaranteed review.

One of the biggest compliments I had at Bouchercon was from the author who told me that when I reviewed his book, his amazon sales ranking spiked. It was the first time that it really hit me that any of the reviews we print might have an impact. I’ve been telling myself that they don’t so that I don’t feel guilty about pointing out issues with books that don’t quite work for me.

So, I’m thinking about all of this, about how many places won’t review a book after it’s released, about the lead time needed to get the reviews, about the need to have a publicist who is making those phone calls and sending out the information to the bookstores that will entice them to carry your book… And I’ve realized how much of an anomaly Spinetingler is, because if I discover a book/series/author a few books along, I’m happy to choose to feature it. Let’s face it – in the competition for reviews and PR, a lot of books get overlooked when they’re first released. And some of those might well be by the long-shot players in the game who stage the upset victory. The ones nobody was talking about four months before their book release, but that people will be talking about later. I mean, we could compare the initial sales figures for Rankin’s books fifteen years ago to what they are now…

Now, that article goes on to speculate about why this particular book failed. Still, the book never caught fire and could leave Holt in the red. What happened? A timing issue, say several rival publishers. Holt may have erred in promoting its book so heavily six months prior to publication. Booksellers might have been talking about "Murder" during the summer, but they were recommending " The Thirteenth Tale" in early fall. Mr. Sterling disputes that, saying it was imperative to get the industry talking about the book early, given that it was a first-time effort.

I understand that how my book will do is predetermined. The decision’s being made right now, either by the reviewers who don’t have the book yet and therefore won’t review it even if they get a copy now, the booksellers who haven’t heard of it and are hearing so much about other January releases they couldn’t care less about one more book coming out that month, the reviewers who do have the book who aren’t seeing big enough names blurbing and endorsing it to warrant the checkmark of approval from them.

Reading this speculation about why this particular book failed was the first thing to give me any hope. Did that book peak too soon? Was there too much advance buzz, months before release, and not enough timed with the book’s actual launch?

Who’s to say?

There is a big part of me that wishes that books were published because the publishers loved them and believed in them. That everyone came in on equal ground and received the same level of support, and that readers - not critics – would determine whether or not the book succeeds or fails.

It isn’t the way the world works.

A lot of people have asked me questions about my contract, my career, what I’ll be doing to promote my book when it comes out.

And all I can really do is shrug. If I get the promotional grant money I applied for, then I’ll be doing a bit of traveling in February in support of the book. And if I don’t, then there’s nothing planned.

It really is down to the roll of the dice. Maybe that’s why I’m cynical about the way the publishing business is sometimes. I mean, this book had a $500,000 marketing campaign, 10,000 ARCs printed and a $10,000 website behind it.

To make #18 and then fall to #30.

I know many consider me a pessimist, but I consider it pragmatic. I hold no delusions about making the best-seller list. I am well aware that the chances of my book ending up in a lot of stores is slim to none. There are some authors who will only blurb writers from big publishers, from the same publisher they’re with, or people they personally know. Without a big marketing campaign and a lot of money coming at you from a publisher, it almost feels like you have to be rich to even just be in this business.

And you end up feeling like it doesn’t mean shit if your book is great, because it doesn’t seem publishing is about putting out a great book anymore. It’s about knowing how to play the marketing game and having the money to stay in instead of folding.

The one thing I’ve always maintained when people did agree to consider blurbing the book was that they weren’t obligated to. If they didn’t like it, there was no pressure. I actually believe – based on adjoining emails and comments- that each person who blurbed my book really liked it.

I hope so. Because success for me is going to be having readers who say they felt the time they spent reading my book was time well spent.

* Quote from One Publisher Rolls the Dice


angie said...

Publishing is a scary, scary biz. All you can do is the best you can do, right? Address the things you can impact and leave the rest.

There's a reason why so many writers don't quit their day jobs. And yet we get up each day, sit in front of our keyboards (or notebooks for those of us stuck in long-hand weirdness!) and write our little hearts out. Every day. Sometimes twice a day. Even when we really, really don't feel like it. Even when the household tasks are two weeks behind and our families are less than happy with us. Even when we know that the odds of getting an agent or a publisher are slim. Even when we fully understand that getting a book - even a super-duper-pow damn good one - published doesn't guarantee a blessed thing. We do it anyway. We're just crazy like that and I don't know of any 12-step programs that can help this particular addiction yet. So here I go, back to the keyboard with my heart a little stronger and my hopes still high. I'm just a goddamn optimist & my inner pollyanna won't let me focus too hard on shit I have zero control over.

Damn. I totally crack myself up sometimes...but I guess it's better to laugh than to cry!

angie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sandra Ruttan said...

You're right Angie, and that's why there are still authors. Because we love writing too much to give it up.

If it was about the 'business' side of it, I'm convinced 99% of us would pack it in. It's the love of writing that keeps you in the game.

anne frasier said...

last week i had lunch with some writing friends. most of us have been in the biz for 20 years. combined we've probably written for every major house. two of the gals have often appeared on the NYT's list, and i can tell you that everybody is scared shitless. we all had our own recent horror stories. i think the strangest one i heard was about an author (nobody in the lunch group)
whose last book made the times list -- but couldn't make it with a following book because the publisher was unable to purchase bookstore shelf space. reps are finding it hard to get the books in the stores -- even books by NYT writers.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

"...because it doesn’t seem publishing is about putting out a great book anymore. It’s about knowing how to play the marketing game..."

But hasn't it always been that way?

I think that there's a fundamental disconenct between the writer and the publisher, though not as big a disconnect as many might see it.

It's the same disconnect that exists, and has existed, between any artist and the mechanism for selling the art. The writer wants to write a good book. The publisher wants to make money. Not saying that the writer doesn't also want to make some cash or that the publisher doesn't want good books, just that their fundamental focus is going to be different.

I don't believe it's about playing the marketing game. I think it's about playing the "Getting Your Book Read" game, and the marketing game is one of the steps in that game.

I don't think putting out a great book and playing the marketing game are mutualy exclusive. Put half a million bucks behind marketing on a crappy book and it still might not sell. Do nothing for a great book and it might skyrocket to the top of the charts. And vice versa. There's no way to tell what will and won't work.

You're trying to craft and sell an experience, not an object. People don't buy books. They buy the promise of a good time, an enjoyable ride. The packaging is part of it. Some people like paperbacks, some people like hardbacks. But it's what's inside that they're purchasing.

Thing is, unlike selling a car, for instance, you can't always tell whether you're going to enjoy the experience just by flipping through a few pages, or reading blurbs. And so the writer's and publisher's jobs are that much more difficult. People instinctively know how to sell and buy objects. How do you effectively sell an experience? The only tools you really have to do that are marketing. Of course, there's good marketing and bad marketing.

And I don't think I, or anyone else, can really tell the difference.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Anne, that is frightening. I've heard some stories from my friends that work for publishers in NY in marketing, and it scares me. Then it has me wondering if the only future is amazon and whether I should be more supportive of that sales venue. I've been trying to maintain my support for physical stores, but when I put on the author's shoes, I don't know what to think anymore.

Stephen, you don't think you can tell the difference between good marketing and bad marketing? Or did I miss something? I think most people can. Bad marketing is what turns me off something. Okay, this is totally stupid to say, but I hated Pepsi as a kid because I didn't like their commercials. They were mean.

So I wouldn't drink Pepsi. I would only drink Coke.

Now, to me, that's bad marketing. Because they turned me off. Maybe the same ad works differently for someone else, and that highlights another thing: marketing is highly personal. Different people will respond differently to different promotional efforts. I'm a girl. Maybe that's why I didn't like Pepsi's ads, but maybe all guys loved them. Who knows?

I don't think that it's mutually exclusive - I suspect a lot of publishers still want great books, but they want marketable books. Authors want to write great books that sell well, because that's validation for their work. My main point is that it's very hard for a book to sell well, even if it's exceptional, unless it has the full marketing push. We do hear about the 'surprise' successes at the box office, or movies that gain an audience on video and end up being regarded as a success, but how many of them earn what Lord of the Rings or Star Wars earns? They can be respected but they won't be a blockbuster.

There might be some aspiring authors who have to think about that. Because if nothing less than being a NYT best seller is good enough, then nothing less than the six-figure deal with a mega marketing campaign behind it is going to be good enough for them.

Maybe you don't really have to ask yourself that when you make a decision to sign on, but it could be that more authors should ask themselves that. I honestly don't know. It used to be getting published was enough for me. Now, I feel a lot of external pressure to be a raging success and I'm shaking my head at those people. The truth is, 99% of authors with small publishers are handling 99% of their marketing all on their own. The budgets, staff and resources aren't there.

And if I don't have the tools or ability to play the game, then nobody will play it for me, which is why I say I'm playing a different game than some other people are playing. There's really only one thing I have control over, and that's the quality of the story I wrote. If I felt that it was coming down to quality writing or blogging, I'd drop my blog in a heartbeat, and the day may come when I do feel too busy for it. But I honestly don't feel like it's an option right now, because without a big external marketing push my web presence is critical.

Unfortunately. I mean, I'm here because I like it. But if it gets to the point where I have to be here to sell books? That really will depress me.

Bill Cameron said...

I still won't eat at Arby's because of their idiotic ad campaign, "America's Roast Beer, Yes, Sir!" from like 35 years ago. As if the saturated fat and nitrates weren't enough reason.

mai wen said...

Argh, publishing, yikes. If I were home I'd run to my bedroom and hide under my covers right now.

I have come to terms that most likely I will always have to have a day job, and I'm fortunate enough to never have had any expectations of actually making money off of my writing. It's so difficult in this day and age to be a writer or artist and to get your work appreciated... it seems if there isn't an electronic version of your art or a way you can incorporate your art in electronic manner then your art is lost to the general masses.

This is probably what has surged the popularity of blogs and e-magazines, etc.

Sigh, why couldn't I have been good at acting or sports? They seem to be the gems in our society.

JamesO said...

10,000 ARCs printed? No wonder the book bombed. After they'd handed that lot out free, there wouldn't have been anyone left to pay for a copy.

Seriously though, this question seems to pop up with predictable regularity. Marketing something as complex as a book is always going to be difficult, and throwing huge sums of money at something is never a guarantee of success - quite often the exact opposite. In the end, the books that succeed are the ones that were in the right place at the right time.

Bill Cameron said...

I'm pretty sure my actual print run will be less than the number of ARCs that book got.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Mai Wen, I'm so jealous of people with the heart for music. But then, in music, there's a degree of 'needing to be pretty' too. I've heard the inside stories from Nashville. Men have it so easy. (Said just to entice some guy to come and tell me I'm being sexist!)

James, ha! 10,000 ARCs of DaVinci were what pushed it to success. I hear a lot of people say if they read an ARC and like it, they'll buy the book. It's a way of getting people to try a new author that clearly in Mr. Brown's case, worked.

Bill, you make me smile! At least I'm not the only one who holds a grudge over bad ads! We really are siblings!

I think you've nailed the other side that's a bit depressing, though. Dan Brown's publisher put out 10,000 ARCs. That money comes from somewhere. People gripe about higher book costs, but it goes back to the cost of marketing, paying for shelf space in stores... I mean, even that baffles me. Here, I go into Canadian Tire and they're carrying products they expect to sell. They aren't carrying products because Black and Decker pays them to have a shelf of B&D products. At least, they sure weren't when I worked at Canadian Tire.

I think this is why I'm constantly perplexed by the book industry. Okay, argue that the booksellers aren't making enough money to stay alive, so they rely on selling bookends to pay the bills. But then the cost of books goes up, so fewer people are enticed to buy those books, so they're more dependent than ever on payment for displays, but the publishers have less and less so they gamble big on a few books and hope it pays off. It really is like playing the ponies. We're contributing to the cycle - this is why any time I talk to aspiring authors who expect to sell their book but refuse to buy books and will only read what they can check out of the library, I shake my head. Damn, I love my books too much to give them back, not to mention that if you don't love books enough to buy them, do you really expect people to love your stuff enough to buy it? I'm not saying you have to buy everything, but nothing?

Don't even get me started on return policies...

Stephen Blackmoore said...

"Stephen, you don't think you can tell the difference between good marketing and bad marketing?"

What I'm trying to say is that I know what's effective marketing for me, but have no idea what's effective marketing for you. All I can do is guess. I think it's probably a safe bet that half-naked, latex, bondage nurses aren't going to sell you anything nearly as effectively as they'll sell it to me.

I agree that if the publisher won't get behind you with the marketing, you're fighting with one hand tied behind your back. And there seem to be few options for authors to market themselves effectively in the way that a publisher can.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah, okay, I understand.

I guess the people in marketing must be trained to assess demographics and understand target audiences... yet from what I hear - I stress hear- publicists move around more than anyone else in the publishing business. I can only say from my end, there are a few I actually like hearing from (and they know who they are!) but there have been a few who've made me cringe. Any time I get put through a publicist for something now, I'm more likely to drop it. Just enough bad experiences on the reviewing/Spinetingler side of the equation to make me guarded.

I also know authors who have great publicists, so you can't make any absolutes on it. One thing I know is, most authors don't take marketing.

Al said...

"The truth is, 99% of authors with small publishers are handling 99% of their marketing all on their own. The budgets, staff and resources aren't there."

Perhaps more worryingly, there's a very large percentage of authors with BIG publishers who are handling 99% of their marketing on their own.

Sandra Ruttan said...

That is more worrying Al.

And it's a reality check for people who think bigger instantly means better, I guess. Is it better to be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond?

I really have no idea, but I can see pros and cons to both.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Interesting discussion going on here. The most important thing I've gathered is that if I buy Sandra's book, I'll get a half-naked latex bondage nurse.

Did I get that right?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Damn Daniel. Can I have one of those for writing the book?

Daniel Hatadi said...

I'm really not sure how to respond to that. :)

Vincent said...

I get the feeling the way publishing works is going to change in the not so distant future. That's because at the moment it's still largely governed by book store shelf space and physical publishing, the latter of which leads to books going out of print. But going up against those restrictions are The Long Tail and an e-Book reader.

This is the original article about the Long Tail.

The long tail is important because, as the article's writer Chris Anderson points out, the average Barnes and Noble stocks 130,000 titles, yet more than half of Amazon's book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles (the article states Amazon had 2.3 million titles in its catalogue at that time). The market for hits is actually smaller than the one for misses.

On the other point, Sony are still trying to crack the problem of a workable e-Book reader (e-Books on their own will only be a niche market until someone unleashes them from a computer screen). Frankly, I don't think they will with their latest attempt if it sells for $300-$400, but sooner or later someone is going to come up with a iPod for books. At that point it'll become less of an issue if your book doesn't get printed and bound and stocked on the shelves of a major high street bookseller. If it's available on the 'net, it's a viable download.

Right at the start of the Long Tail article the story of 'Touching the Void' is recounted. Not the story of mountain climbers defying death in the Peruvian Andres, but the story of the book about mountain climbers defying death in the Peruvian Andres. This was published in 1988 and achieved modest sales. Eventually it was forgotten and went out of print.

Except it didn't. It was on the brink of going out of print when 'Into Thin Air', another mountain-climbing tale, became a publishing sensation. The similar subject matter lead to Amazon recommending 'Touching the Void' to people buying 'Into Thin Air' and, to cut a long story short, I'll bet far more people today have heard about 'Touching the Void' than 'Into Thin Air'.

Yes, at the moment bookselling is a hit driven market place and a book's place in the spotlight is all too brief, but things they are a-changing.

Karen Olson said...

Even authors with bigger publishers have to promote their own work. Take a look at the NYTimes Book Review some week. Which books get the big ads? Danielle Steele, Nicholas Sparks, authors who are already big sellers and don't need the ads to promote their work. I was lucky enough to get a NYTBR ad for my debut novel, but not for the second book. Did the ad last year help? Not sure. It probably didn't hurt. But while my debut got a lot of attention, this second book hasn't gotten reviewed in any major newspaper, even though I do know ARCs went out early enough. It's all a crapshoot. Newspapers are cutting back on book reviews. And if that's what the publisher is relying on for book sales, then authors with "smaller" books are screwed.

That said, I wouldn't give this up for anything, and I do what I can. And I'm fortunate enough to have just signed a new contract with my editor, who loves my work and believes in it.