Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Focus Groups, The Americanizing of British Novels & How Publishers Can Join The 21st Century

(Quick news insert: Scotch on the Rocks over at Pulp Pusher, which you should bookmark because they’ve just accepted a story from yours truly for the July issue.)

”I am thinking it would be fun to do an arc in a f2f group. Discuss a book in detail BEFORE it is published and then give the author the feedback - or at least the feedback that might be useful.”

When I read that my automatic response was It’s never going to happen. Yes, call me a pessimist, call me a cynic. Lynne’s idea (posted on my Crimespace chat wall) has merit but adds a layer of work to the already lengthy publishing process.

Only a few days later an article in the NY Times said: The hunt for the key has been much more extensive in other industries, which have made a point of using new technology to gain a better understanding of their customers. Television stations have created online forums for viewers and may use the information there to make programming decisions. Game developers solicit input from users through virtual communities over the Internet. Airlines and hotels have developed increasingly sophisticated databases of customers.


Publishers, by contrast, put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.



“We need much more of a direct relationship with our readers,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and a former editorial director. Bloggers have a much more interactive relationship with their readers than publishers do, she said. “Before Amazon, we didn’t even know what people thought of the books,” she said.



Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling. Publishing employees tend to be liberal arts graduates who enter the field with a starting salary around $30,000. Compensation is not tied to sales performance. “The people who go into it don’t do it for the money, which might explain why it’s such a bad business,” Mr. Strachan said.


I agree that reader feedback is important and that publishers should be seeking it. However, I don’t think that Amazon is the best way to get the kind of feedback publishers need. More on this shortly.

Evil Kev and I have been talking about this a lot lately, for a variety of reasons. Part of what spurred it was the fact that Lynne has read my new manuscript. Lynne read SC for me when it was in ARC form. A 4MA-er, she knows her in-depth book club discussions. She made a list of discussion questions for me that I could provide to book clubs.

Since she was interested in reading What Burns Within I thought that was more than fair, since she’d helped me out with SC, despite the fact it’s manuscript stage. I was a bit unfair to her, because I didn’t even give her a teaser to ground her with the story. Just handed her the manuscript. Duh. When people read books they have the back cover description to tell them who the main characters are.

Lynne’s response to WBW (“I stayed up till three thirty this morning reading it. WHY did that publisher turn it down? Nice or not whoever it was has made a mistake - this is really good. I am totally enjoying it, I like the characters and the story has me totally sucked in.”) was what ultimately led to our discussion about readers giving feedback at the ARC stage.

As Evil Kev pointed out to me, movies have been doing this for ages, with focus groups. Writers often participate in critique groups, but that’s not the same thing. Those are selected groups of writers who see your work again and again, and who pass their work back to you. I’m not discounting the value, but this is about giving readers some say. I don’t want to touch on the issue of sensitive writers but believe me, if someone offers me an ARC or manuscript to read to blurb and doesn’t ask for feedback, I don’t give it. I know better than to mess with an author’s ego about their work and I actually do value my life.

End of day, it is the readers we write for. Without an audience no books will see print. And sometimes publishers underestimate their readers.

What justifies that assertion? Well, here’s just one example. Several months ago I was working on a profile for a new publisher that had a focus on imported British fiction. The profile fell apart, but the groundwork was there, in reader surveys I did.

“I frequently order from the UK or Canada,” DorothyL reader Sarah B told me. “Why? Because either the book is not available in the USA and I've had it recommended to me, or it's not available YET and I can't wait. Recent examples are Anthony Bidulka from Canada, and Jo Bannister and Val McDermid in the UK.”

Sarah isn’t alone, either. “When the US release is a year or more later than the UK release, I find a way to purchase the UK version,” Kim in Minnesota told me. “I'm impatient. I can generally wait a month or two but not a whole year.”

Deb in South Carolina voiced stronger opinions. “The main reason that I order books from the UK is that I don't want my UK mysteries or fantasies 'Americanized'. I find the 'Americanization' changes to be demeaning to me as a reader -- and an insult to the author. The author intended the book to have a certain impact on the reader and I have to believe that that impact can change with the 'Americanization' - changing terms, spelling, etc. If I don't understand a term, I look it up on the Internet or in one of the marvelous books such as BOB'S YOUR UNCLE or FANNY PACKS AND BUMBAGS. Most of the orders took a week or more -- depending on what I wanted to pay -- or could afford to pay -- for postage.”

Within thirty minutes of posing the question on DorothyL on a Saturday morning I had half a dozen responses in my inbox. What that tells me is that there are a high number of American readers who feel strongly about this issue.

American publishers are automatically losing domestic sales to the international market because of “Americanizing” the novels or bringing the books out months behind their original release. I understand sometimes this is necessary to accommodate author tour schedules and for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with ‘Americanizing’ the books, but a good example would be the most recent Rebus book. There was no new US Rankin title in 2006. The Naming of the Dead could have been moved up to coincide with UK/Canada release. Don’t give me the song and dance about touring. Allan Guthrie was in NYC recently doing promotion and Hard Man doesn’t come out in the US until June. In Ian’s case, this would have allowed US fans to get the last Rebus book alongside everyone else. I mean, imagine asking the US to wait six months for Harry Potter. Right.

Instead, what happens is that reviewers in the US acquire copies early and say, “Don’t wait for the US release, get it now.” And people do, and down go the US sales figures.

This could be the same with American books being released in the UK – I honestly don’t know, so please don’t take it as US bashing. (If you want to hear someone bash just get me started on generalizations about Canada’s love of bloodless murders and stupid cops.) This is just one example of something I’ve seen readers discuss, that I know some feel strongly about.

I would like to see publishers utilize the internet to maximize their effectiveness. Having a website isn’t enough – it needs to be a professional website that suits needs. Friend of mine in the business told me about one night that $10,000 of sales were put through (educational publisher). She was finally able to persuade her boss that having a functional website that allowed direct purchasing was a sound investment. Go back to that last paragraphs in the NY Times article. Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling. Publishing employees tend to be liberal arts graduates who enter the field with a starting salary around $30,000. Compensation is not tied to sales performance. “The people who go into it don’t do it for the money, which might explain why it’s such a bad business,” Mr. Strachan said.

We may love writing and books, but this is a business. Presently, the method for determining popularity seems to be based on sales. However, that becomes cyclical at some point. Someone has a great book out. It gets lots of attention. The publisher puts money behind pushing the paperback release. It’s stocked in Wal-Mart and Costco and all the right places to fly off the shelves. Bestseller. Comparable success follows for the next book. The author becomes a bit of a brand name and so then every single title they produce is automatically stocked in those outlets. Of course the books will do significantly better than the one by the new author who got a $5000 advance and no promotional budget. Sales only show us part of the picture. This does not necessarily mean that there is more of an appetite for Mr. Bestseller’s book than for Mr. Unknown’s. It just means Mr. Bestseller’s book is more readily accessible and heavily promoted so more people are likely to see it and buy it.

A lot of authors seem to be invested in finding the way to get on that promotional cycle so they can get exposure. What I think could be great for everyone is if publishers would shift it in a different direction.

Here’s a thought. Okay, not all logistics considered. But what if publishers started forums attached to their websites. They pick focus books each month and the author comes on to do an online discussion of the book, interacting with readers. This would be an attraction feature. By that, I mean that if word got around that JK Rowling was going to be on one website interacting with readers and answering questions and reading their comments I bet the traffic for the site would go through the roof. HBO did this a few years ago, for THE WIRE, with David Simon. I hide behind the luxury that we aren’t on Orion’s radar and they’ll never offer me an ARC of a Rankin title. I’ve never had to make a choice about reviewing a Rebus book. I do still review books I buy but I use it as my ‘out’ with those titles so that I can just sit back and enjoy them instead of doing a more critical assessment when reading. But if there was an in-depth discussion Ian participated in on an Orion forum I doubt I’d be able to resist.

So, you have your attraction that draws an audience. In addition to selected monthly discussion titles you also have general discussion sections for news about upcoming releases and customer comments on books. Why? I have mixed feelings about Amazon, because of how the system works. Since Evil Kev orders the books when we do use Amazon I can’t post reviews because I’m not considered a customer. And since we share the same credit cards (you know, being married and all) well, I can’t participate. Then we see the power of anonymity at work and we know how some people use it to bash people they don’t like.

The forum could conduct polls, provide authors and editors with feedback on new titles, provide feedback on things such as covers, and properly designed be an effective promotional venue to spread the word about new titles from that publisher.

By comparison to some things publishers invest major promotional money on, this could actually be cost effective.

Now, I’m going to leave you with more thoughts from Lynne. She gave me permission to use them. They are her opinion, but I think they highlight things I’ve heard other readers say on lists, in one cohesive email, and these are things worth thinking about. Please overlook the fact she’s talking about my manuscript (I mean, bless fans like Lynne, this is who I want to please with my work and I’d keep writing if for no other reason than that she’d come kick my ass if I didn’t, but she was reacting to the reasons I’d been given for a rejection) and see beyond to what she’s saying about styles of writing and what does and doesn’t have a place in a story, as well as older books that are still popular that don’t fit the modern conventions.

Your book is good. Yes you have a lot of characters. Yes you have to read into it a bit to sort them out --- what are we? Stupider than a hundred years ago?

H Rider Haggard, Erle Stanley Gardner, George MacDonald, SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE -- not one of them would get picked up today because you have to read three chapters to get a start on the story and even then it is slow and takes time to learn who is who and what is going on. People today want instant gratification - open the book and the first person you meet is the only name you need to remember, and the action is right there. That is fine now and again but it is not the only way to write and certainly it is not the only thing to read!

Edgar Rice Burroughs - like how famous is Tarzan? - and his first book of the series is almost entirely a buildup for the rest of the series! One of the best stories I ever read was People of the Mist by H Rider Haggard and really getting into it was work. Getting into Lord of the Rings is work. Why do people still read it? Because we know it is worth it. Without already knowing that would they still keep going through chapter after chapter of scene building? Can you tell this is a rant?

The bottom line is that your book is worth getting through the beginning with. Has Bob Fate read it? In some ways it is not so far off from his style. Baby Shark took a bit of reading to get going in too. Yes there is, in both cases, action at the start, but there is also character building and set up, explanation of future events, background - all good stuff. It can and is overdone at times but not by you. There was one author who went into detail on the wife of a retired cop who was not in the story and the wife was certainly not in the story as she had been dead ten years yet he gave detail on her social life and colour preferences and stuff - now THAT was unnecessary and really ticked me off (in fact that whole book ticked me off and the author was and is widely published but I never tried another of his).

Okay, rant over. I am not saying your story is perfect - I am not qualified to judge really but I do know that I enjoyed it and expect a number of other people will too given the chance. It is better than what I am reading now.


Of course, maybe this is the reason publishers don’t have forums. Maybe they’re afraid…

24 comments:

Trace said...

Another great post, Sandra.

Vincent said...

I absolutely agree (and I actually can now that your blog doesn't crash my browser at work with a Flash error). It is extraordinary how reticent the publishing industry appears to be about market research. Focus groups may be much derided, but filmmakers like John Cleese won't release a film without getting their feedback first. The other thing about test screenings for films is that they're often random samples of ordinary film-goers and when positive buzz from such screenings turns up on sites like Ain't It Cool, it helps promote the film. While such feedback shouldn't dictate re-writes, it does indicate how a story could play to a wider audience outside the industry (ie. not critics and not publishers). Plus, when it comes down to it, it's heck of a lot cheaper and easier to tweak a novel than it is a film, so why not get that feedback?

The film industry also engages in extensive tracking of audience awareness before a film opens in different demographics. When it premieres, exit polls determine what people went to see the film and what they thought of it. Perhaps book 'A' failed because only professional women between 35 and 50 knew about it, when it would have actually appealed to blue-collar males between 18 and 35.

While it's commonly accepted that it's the surprise bestseller or novel that shifts copies year after year that makes the money that pays for all the other titles on a publishers' list. It'd be interesting to know how many publishers actually do a better job of spotting these money-spinners that might a dyslexic gibbon. If they can't do better than leaving the choice purely to chance (by which I mean choosing randomly choosing books that meet basic standards of literacy and grammer, rather than simply picking anything from the mire of the slush pile), then they need to step aside and give that dyslexic gibbon a chance.

Vincent said...

And yes, I do recognise that my last comment does not meet basic standards of either literacy or grammar.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Focus groups work well for certain things at particular stages of their development, and go tits up for others.

Software, for example. Software development is far, far different from writing a book. You can get partway through creating it and have your customers come in and tell you what works and what doesn't for them. It's like a car that way. "Put the button here," or "I think it should be blue". If you give a customer your software and watch him play with it, you'll learn a lot about how he's actually going to try to use it.

For the most part, you're gauging functionality, not necessarily enjoyment. If it's a pain in the ass to use, you have to change it. And you need to know that as close to up front as possible so you can go back and make changes.

But a book is radically different. For one, the subjective nature of it is difficult to track. How do you know you've got a representative sampling of your audience? And what kind of people do you want that audience to be? Who will it appeal to? 18-24 year-old males? People who like cozies? Folks who liked Harry Potter? What about those people who aren't your audience, but you want to reach out to them, anyway?

In this case you are trying to gauge enjoyment. The functionality is not a component of the story. How big is the type, is it a paperback, hardcover or ebook? These aren't story questions, they're format questions.

People have been trying to do the same thing with movies and television for years and they still can't get it right. Countless excellent shows haven't been picked up because of a focus group. Hundreds of movies have had their endings changed because of them (Pride & Prejudice, anyone?). How many director's cuts have come out for films that have turned out to be better and more interesting than the one that was decided by committee?

And what if people tell you it sucks at the ARC stage? Well, then you're fucked. You can't exactly go back and make radical changes. At least not and keep your deadlines. And why would you want to? You've already had a focus group. You've likely had first readers, maybe a critique group, certainly your agent and editor. You had to delight someone with the story in the first place, competing with all the other stories landing on that person's desk.

Before we're writers, or producers, directors, editors, what have you, I think we have to be readers. We have to set aside our editorial eyes that are proofreading, analyzing, looking for rhythm and flow, and just read. Set aside marketing and publishability questions. Does the story delight us? Do we want to read more of it?

I think the only focus groups that we need, that we can effectively use without going insane, are the ones that we already have. Those people we trust to give us straight feedback and an honest opinion.

Brian said...

This may be a bit all over the map. I think that a long and rambling post deserves a long and rambling response. Coherence is overrated!!!

One of many things that I wonder about in the age of the internet and with our ability to easily purchase goods, in this case books, from anywhere in the world is if the idea of The US and the UK being viewed as separate markets is becoming an outdated business model. As you say there is no good reason for me to wait a couple of months on up to a full calendar year for the US release when with the click of a button I can order it from a UK seller. Shipping charges aren't even as much of an issue as they once were if you use a site like The Book Depository where they have free shipping on all orders to anywhere in the world. So what's the incentive for me to wait, well there is none. I just recently ordered Cross from The Book Depository, the cost was about $15 and it took about a week to get here. What's the downside to that transaction for me -- there is none but St. Martins just lost a sale next year.

I'm on the fence about fans/readers/viewers whatever giving advance feedback. I really am. I have loathed focus groups for movies for years and there are a lot of horror stories about the changes that studios have made based on focus groups opinions. For example, movie viewers by and large like happy endings. So there are many cases where a more palatable ending has basically been tacked on and then exists in such a capacity where it doesn't extend organically from what came before it.

So lets say that the wrong group of people got their hands on an advance copy of a book with a "dark" ending. Maybe The Dramatist or Darkness Take My Hand or Gone Baby Gone or Lights Out or whatever. Imagine some of the things that could have been said. Did (fill in character of choice) really have to die? Isn't the author being too hard on (fill in character of choice)?

My mom will literally get mad if a movie or book doesn't end "happy". God help us all if she's in a focus group.

Focus groups are designed to give feedback on marketing not promotion as you suggested.

Now to be up front I totally agree that the the flow of information should be both ways but in other ways. I really think that for the most part promotional dollars are basically squandered by publishers. Too many eggs are going into the wrong baskets or into an out dated basket. Or too many dollars going to over-priced retail services that basically have a negative return for the investment. That money, better spent, would result in not only better sales figures but I would venture to say a higher profit margin for the companies.

Now, you know that I want a comprehensive study of peoples book buying habits done because I suspect that there is a wealth of information to be had there. Valuable information that quite frankly change the face of the way that business is done.

We are now starting to see how tracking needs have to change in other mediums as well. TV. The Nielsen's rating system is out dated because it only provides a snapshot of one viewing moment and the microcosm doesn't reflect the macrocosm. It doesn't track how many shows are recorded and watched multiple times later on, or how many times a show is watched, or how many people watch a repeat viewing of an episode, or watch it On Demand. Here's two examples:

1) The Wire - For years now it has been the lowest rated of all the HBO shows. But those ratings don't reflect the distinct possibility that The Wire may be the most rewatched of all the shows. A lot of people watch the new episode when it airs then re-watch it multiple times over the next week because of their complexity.

2) Mondays "Endgame" of Law & Order - There are concrete numbers that show how many people watched that episode when it aired on Monday at 10, but there aren't any numbers to show how many people watched it last night at 9. Why is one viewing considered less important then the other.

Shouldn't the aggregate be counted here?

Years ago I used to manage a record store that bought and sold used cd's. I used to be amazed at how disposable popular cd's were. A hit cd would come out and sell millions of copies then six months later a flood of them would come in and we would pay pennies for them.

Is it better to have less sales and your book kept by the reader or to have huge sales then your book donated to a thrift store? Now that's for the author to decide but I think that these types of numbers should be factored in somehow.

I just typed my ass off and it probably doesn't even make sense but that's the response that you provoked Sandra. If this discussion takes off like it probably will then I'll probably have even more incoherence to spew

Evil Kev said...

I really believe in the concept of a focus group for a book, except I am not thinking of picking 200 random dullards who would prefer wrestling biographies over actual fiction. When Sandra and I discussed this, the idea I had was taking 200 ARCs and giving them to 10 or 20 reading groups that read and discuss works in the same genre. Take the author name and title off of half of the books and get more honest feedback. Locate a group that loves an existing author's work and give them the book. What is their impression? Do they like it more or less than previous works?
Stephen said "And what if people tell you it sucks at the ARC stage? Well, then you're fucked. You can't exactly go back and make radical changes. At least not and keep your deadlines."
My question is why not? If the author is about to put out a career destroying book, should someone stop them? Delaying the book for three to six months would do far less harm than releasing a piece of crap.
We need a new way to select, publish and market books. As Brian mentioned, current marketing strategies are either outdated or cost ineffective. There are numerous book clubs, list servs, etc that are filled with readers. It is easy enough to tell what these core fans will buy and not buy.
The issue that the Times article raises is that the publishing industry is out of touch with the readers and success is more or less a shot in the dark. When we depend on the views of a few people, why are we surprised when only a few copies are sold?

angie said...

Hmm, I'm sorta agreeing with Stephen on this one. Film/tv focus groups have in many cases been a bane to creativity and have resulted in butchered work. Not always, but often enough to make me very, very leery.

Most writers have either a crit group or crit partner who serves as first reader(s) and then several (or a few) individuals who are their beta readers. Bringing a novel to a focus group at the ARC stage seems like a recipe for disaster - mainly because the majority of the work is done at the ARC stage and little can be altered, even if the writer wants to.

Having said that, I suppose it's possible for publishers to have a hand in creating a pool of beta readers for novels at the pre-ARC stage. Logistics aside (what form would the book be available in, how and to whom is the feedback given, etc.), it could be challenging for the writer. If a focus group comes back and wants an ending changed, treatment of a certain character altered, different city location, etc., that's a flippin' problem. At what point would the author be allowed the creative license to, y'know, write their damn book?

Focus groups could be a good thing if handled appropriately. They could widen the net for feedback and serve as advance promo (providing the readers dug the book), but it's an idea that will definitely result in massive headaches until the kinks are sorted out.

Perhaps the other issue to consider is...money. Focus groups are associated with high dollar undertakings (film, television, software, etc.). I'm not sure how this would translate to the publishing industry. Comparatively speaking, books are small fry and the amounts of cash are similarly small and spread out among bazillions of different authors and genres. So what does that mean? "Small" books by relatively unknown writers still getting the proverbial short end in order to maximize the selling pow of the big names? Or would lesser knowns end up with more "helpful feedback" from a focus group in hopes of turning it into a "Big" book? I dunno. Just a lot to think about.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks Trace!

Vincent, sorry my blog's been giving you trouble at work.

Okay, I can't really take these one by one. This is what I'm going to add:

I cut out a big chunk about critique groups because it was another detour from the main point and the post was long enough already. Critique groups aren't a fair market sample for a variety of reasons. We rely on ourselves to build a relationship with other people we exchange work with. Often we pick like-minded people we have some rapport with. That will only be beneficial to a point - do these people read your genre? Do they write in the same spectrum? Did you kick their ass last week so their ego is up for revenge and really tears in on your stuff?

Now, I agree with Lynne. There's merit to the idea of a focus group. I'll add to that what Kevin's said above, about it being specific targets. I'm not saying do it with each and every book, but I am suggesting that this is a way that publishers could learn what serious readers of the genre really think.

Plus, it's clear that the present system isn't weeding out bad books or obvious errors. While I personally don't want creative aspects dictated to me by a poll (53% don't like the colour of the living room) I am interested in structural issues.

In fact, I would venture to say that doing a few target focus groups through independent bookstores would be ideal. Look at Poisoned Pen Press. Those people have a direct line to their audience. They get feedback on a different level.

Here's something I've learned reading lists. Hard-core genre readers are thorough. Now, I'm not talking about using focus groups for nitpicky stuff, or things way outside the reader's area of interests. Case in point: recent question on DorothyL about if you'd read a book that had a dog that got hurt by the bad guy in it.

My response? Could you tell us if the book is meant for a cozy audience or noir/hardboiled? Because the initial question didn't focus on their target audience.

This is the real problem with taking generic opinions thrown about on blogs/lists and sometimes even reviews as indicators.

Something else I've learned: A lot of readers are more intelligent than we sometimes give them credit for.

Right now, the present system relies on impressing one person. One person can decide to scrap your book. Now, before X amount of money can be plunked down on purchasing a manuscript a group of editors has to support it, but it only goes to that point IF the editor who got the submission package was interested.

A friend told me recently about sending the beginning of book 2 to their editor and the response was lacklustre. Not at all enthused. About a week later the editor got in touch and said they didn't know what was wrong with them last week, they'd re-read it and loved it.

Now, imagine you're the new author with a submission passing that editor's desk that day. Done. No second chance.

Should every decision an editor makes be based on "I love this" alone? Should there not also be "I can sell this?" I realize most of us artsy types don't want to think about our work as a commodity, but that is the reality. What the NY Times article is suggesting is that editors are working in a vacuum. But then I wonder how it is that they decide author X will get a $100,000 advance while author Y will get $40,000 and author Z will get $10,000. It can't be completely random - they must be assessing how well they feel the book will sell. And what are they basing that on? Last year's trends?

I find a lot of readers get bored with repetition and don't just want more of the same. Okay, there are those who've followed The DaVinci Code into that subject area, and Harry Potter has led to a surge in new YA books in the fantasy vein, but when it comes to adult genre readers most people I talk to are tired of cliches they don't like formulas and they long to see something fresh.

The fact they don't see it isn't always because it isn't being written, and written every bit as well as other stuff out there. It's because the present system has no way of measuring risk. They stick with the same old, same old. As I heard at Harrogate two years ago from a publisher on a panel: publishers don't want something new. They want something with a bridge from what's known to something a bit different. Change in this industry is slow, and reactionary. A popular movie/tv series comes out and then come the books. Are we cultural leaders or cultural followers?

Aside from focus groups, my suggestion about forums allowing for direct feedback was not based on ARCs. And I think it's a damn good idea. Focus groups will never happen - I know that - but this is the compromise. Let publishers get direct feedback. Let them have practical information they can collate and use to move forward. Instead of having 6 million people write Ian Rankin and ask for a damn map in the next book the poll on the site shows 98% of readers want a map. They get one.

Often, I see posts on DorothyL in particular, where readers complain about something and then wonder why the authors don't do something about it. Because after a certain point the author is powerless. I can't decide there will be a map in my next book. I can't decide if there will be a glossary of terms.

Here's one last thought on it, for now. The Da Vinci Code: 10,000 ARCs were sent out. The result? People got talking about it. Look at the sales figures. Now, I haven't read it, can't personally comment more on it, but we've all seen the criticisms. Did that make one ounce of difference to the success? Doesn't seem to have made a difference. If it did, let me be so unfortunate.

I've stopped reading a few series I used to love when the books started to feel the same over and over again. We've all heard of series/authors who a great number of readers feel have jumped the shark. As an author, wouldn't you want that feedback so that you can improve?

Does anyone ever consider that perhaps some series authors would like to branch out and do different things but are under pressure to produce the next X book? I don't personally know of anyone who's in that boat, but I can appreciate that when a series is sucessful the publishers do want more of it. And at what point then is it a creative process, if the author feels trapped doing it?

All things to think about.

Evil Kev said...

My concern with the idea that an author's critique group, agent and editor will give the essential feedback to make a book solid is that there is an assumption that these people are representative of your target audience. What happens if they are not? If your eight writing friends in your critiquing group love your book, but 95 out of 100 of a reading group thinks the story is weak, whose opinion should be given more weight?

The reason I say that the ARC is the right time is it is the closest point to the finished product. This will give the best impression of how the book will be received.

In my line of work, we have delayed huge projects that caused us to lose tens of thousands of dollars, but prevented millions of dollars of losses if we had deployed it just because we didn't want to miss the deadline.

Deadlines are not absolute and when we let go of that way of thinking, it allows us to avoid the "Its too late to fix this problem, the deadline is looming problem." How many writers wish they could have revisited a book a few months before release when a weakness in the book is identified. A bad book can destroy a career.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

"Stephen said "And what if people tell you it sucks at the ARC stage? Well, then you're fucked. You can't exactly go back and make radical changes. At least not and keep your deadlines."
My question is why not? If the author is about to put out a career destroying book, should someone stop them? Delaying the book for three to six months would do far less harm than releasing a piece of crap."

I agree with the logic, but not necessarily with the conclusion. Yes, it would be a great thing to know if someone's putting out a career destroying book. I agree with you about the 200 random dullards. Not what you want, obviously. They'll tell you bupkes.

But I don't think that a series of specially handpicked readers are necessarily going to be able to make or break a career. I would wonder about the demographics. Reading groups are a good start, but I doubt they're actually the ones who are going to be the bulk of one's buyers. Reading groups make up a very small part of the reading population. And the people who are in reading groups may also be more inclined to look at a book more critically than a regular reader might.

And do you want to restrict your focus group to readers of the genre? Books become successful because they get a large readership. They only get a large readership if they break out of the niche of a particular reader. There are those who will not read anything smacking of literary, or romance, or science fiction. Yet, if you can't reach out to at least some of those readers, your book sales will be restricted to a smaller niche.

Not necessarily a bad thing, but if you're looking for data on reader habits I think you would want to get as many diverse readers as you could, with as much overlap as you could. Where do you find them? Like I said, reader clubs are a good start, but I think you'd be getting skewed data if you relied on them alone.

And also, some careers are based on taking risks. How many people have written Ian Rankin about retiring Rebus? It's a major risk. Yet, I'm willing to bet that that will be his best selling Rebus novel. What if a well known author decided to go into a different genre than he or she is typically equated with. Who are their readers then? The fans or the people who read that genre?

I'm not saying that the publishers and authors shouldn't get to know their audience better, but I think a focus group is a painstaking and ultimately fruitless way to get the data. You have to get the right mix of people, ask the right questions, hope you get the right answers.

As to releasing a career destroying book, what is it about a book that will destroy a career? That it offends the fanbase? That it isn't well written? What about if the publisher isn't behind it? What if the publisher is?

I hate bringing it up because it makes my eyes water, but consider the DaVinci Code. It blows great big, ropy, goat chunks. But the publisher beat the PR drum so long and so loud, and it's written to such a lowest common denominator that it's accessible to just about anyone, that it became a huge success.

I, and I suspect many, would not have read it had it not been for all the press. There wouldn't have been that much press if the publisher hadn't been behind it with full force.

Not that focus groups and polls don't have their place. I think more efective would be to get a sense, not of a particular book, but of reader's actual habits. Sales numbers tell a lot, obviously, but only in context. I suspect that those who actually pay attention to that (as opopsed to the ones paid to do it) tend to look at the sales figures of a particular author and ignore, disregard or just don't have visibility to the rest.

Looking at sales across a spectrum of genres, authors, etc. would yield better results of reader habits. Getting a sense of the types of authors and stories people typically read might yield some information on what a wide array of readers might like, though you still have the problem of getting the input of enough of the right people.

And then you also don't know why. The soundtrack for The Departed showed up on an episode of The Sopranos recently. Called out by name. The next week, sales on Amazon of that soundtrack had doubled. Just based on the timing, I think it's likely that the sales jump had nothing to do with the music. Same with an Oprah pick.

And there's the additional problem that that data tells you only what people are interested in in context of what's out there. If someone's writing something that doesn't fit into a particular genre, or can be compared to something that already exists, how do you frame it against the data?

It's a difficult thing to parse out, and any data can be taken in a multitude of ways. As a statistics professor once told me, "We have the numbers, what do you want the conclusion to be?"

Sandra Ruttan said...

FYI, slightly unrelated, the fact I have three protagonists seems to be an issue for some people. Look at Val McDermid's Tony and Carol series. Two main, but she's had point of view with Kevin, Don, Paula, etc. There is a large team surrounding most investigations. In WITB, Shaz as well, in TTOO Jan.

Even the latest Rebus book I read (The Hanging Garden) focuses on Rebus for pov, but has an incredibly large cast of external characters. You've got Telford's guys. You've got the Newcastle gangsters. You've got a Nazi/Academic angle. You've got Cafferty and his crew. Not to mention Rebus's family.

Me personally? I guess I like books where you have to pay attention.

Ensemble casting didn't hurt Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, nor did multiple plot lines.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Stephen said: "As to releasing a career destroying book, what is it about a book that will destroy a career? That it offends the fanbase? That it isn't well written? What about if the publisher isn't behind it? What if the publisher is?"

The only Rankin book I've reviewed to date was The Flood, precisely because it wasn't labeled crime fiction. It was also his first book. I felt it would be the book I'd be most likely to give a fair, balanced assessment of. In other words, it was the book I was most likely to dislike, I thought.

I love that book. I mean.... love that book. I don't re-read everything on my shelves, but that? In a heartbeat.

There are some readers who will follow an author. There are some readers who won't. These are other things publishers should look at, to some degree.

I think to some degree I live in a radically different world from you guys. As in, a Canadian world. We get the British versions of most British books. We get the American versions of most American books. We speak some sort of hybrid language where we use some American spellings and terms and for other things go British. We're in a cultural cross-over.

I've never made a secret of my love for British crime fiction. What I'm finding is that it's a hindrance to how I write, though, particularly since the focus here is to sell south. More than ever, I maintain my love for Orion (and you'll see why when you see the full comment from Steve Mosby in the upcoming interview in Spinetingler). I just think they have the right attitude about growing authors.

Brian said...

Since we're tossing ideas out there here's one for you. The single best promotional tool in the world, just ask any drug dealer, is to give the fucking product away in the beginning.

You want to try something new? Buy this debut novel for $1.00.

Or

Buy one Random House book get another debut author book by the same company FOR FREE.

The first one might be free but that second one will cost you.

Last year as I was looking around at Borders I saw a book that caught my eye. Was it the authors name that did it? How about the title? Catchy cover? Big name blurbs? No. No. No. and No. It was a sticker on the book that had it priced at $16.95. This wasn't a sale price it was the retail price from the publisher. It was a hardback by an author that I had never heard of before. So what did I do. I bought it. Turned out to be one of the most enjoyable books that I read last year. That same author has another book coming out this Fall/Winter. Am I going to buy it? Yer damn right I am.

The book was Chasing the Dead by Joe Schreiber.

Or more recently in an attempt to push his third book and also their imprint Mortalis has David Corbett's Blood of Paradise hard-priced at $9.95. Trade paperback. Good deal for those of us who were going to buy it anyway and a great deal for someone wanting to try something new.

Bottom line: Speak directly to my wallet and I will reciprocate

Sandra Ruttan said...

Brian, I'm surprised that more of the 'By 2 get the 3rd at half price' deals aren't limited by publisher - use your own to bolster your own. More publishers are getting into the direct selling game. Will we see more of this? I don't know.

But you're right. Chapters had almost all hardcovers 50% off after Christmas and we made good use of gift cards and money to buy a lot of books, some of which I might otherwise not have picked up. Sometimes they do buy 3 get the 4th free, and if I'm already buying 2, I figure, buy one more and get two instead, so I'll take a gamble and try something different for that fourth.

I guess I'm an anomaly. Or an idiot. But yeah, that kind of promotion works with me.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Actually it works for a lot of people. Take a look at Baen Books. They're a sci-fi imprint that puts up the first book of many of their series online for download in a variety of formats. They've even been putting CDs with electronic copies of all of the previous books in a series in their latest hardcovers.

It's worked out great for them.

I don't know how well it would work for everyone, though. Being sci-fi, their audience tends to be very computer savvy and open to reading things on PDAs, computer screens and ebook readers.

From an individual author perspective, Craig Clevenger. Horror writer put his first few novels online for free. Got a pretty lucrative deal after that from what I understand. Again, he writes in a genre that's a little more open to that than some might be.

Vincent said...

While the idea of a focus group of random dullards has been written off once or twice, isn't that falling into the same trap of underestimating the reading public?

The problem with focus groups is assuming they'll provide answers (typically this is what risk-averse movie execs and TV suits do). In the software business, it's the equivalent of asking the user what they want. It never works. It's why business and system analysts exist - to figure out what a user actually needs.

If 2 people from a random sample of 200 like a book and the rest hate it, it doesn't mean there isn't a market for the book. Those 2 people could represent thousands of potential buyers, but it could turn out they're not the buyers you'd expect. Perhaps this quirky murder mystery is a turn-off to crime genre die-hards and their reading groups, but it might instead appeal to soccer moms who prefer 'Desperate Housewives' to 'The Wire'. That doesn't mean you need to re-write your book, but it does mean the publishers can reconsider where they were planning to spend their marketing budget.

On the subject of releasing books at different times in different countries, it's no doubt in part due to publishers being historically limited to a region rather than being global and, unfortunately, due to copyright. Copyright is one of the main reasons why region-encoding still exists on DVDs and why I often can't download music tracks from vendors in the US. The up-front costs of a global release are also higher. Movies are increasingly opening day-and-date worldwide, but that's mainly to combat piracy and it costs substantially more, because the studios can't let a film wind down in the US and then send those same prints on to play in Europe and elsewhere, instead they have to produce brand new prints for every screen in every country. I guess publishers face similar problems.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"Perhaps this quirky murder mystery is a turn-off to crime genre die-hards and their reading groups, but it might instead appeal to soccer moms who prefer 'Desperate Housewives' to 'The Wire'. That doesn't mean you need to re-write your book, but it does mean the publishers can reconsider where they were planning to spend their marketing budget."

Smart thinking Vincent. Very smart.

In fact, I've been reading a book this week that I've been tempted to throw at the wall a few times. Part of the reason? The cover/description suggest a very ominous, suspense-ridden book with a premise I really liked.

The reality? What's said on the back about the book is true for about five pages, and then everything gets better. There's no 'one person against the world' story. I feel misled.

There really aren't higher costs for worldwide distribution. In most cases authors have entirely different publishers who are already duplicating costs. Think of it this way. Rankin writes a book. It goes to Orion, who do edits on it, design a cover (always in short order too, since he turns it around in a matter of months) and begin the promotional campaign.

The book then goes to Little Brown, who do their own edits on it. They design a new cover. Sometimes they change the name. Then they do their promotional campaign.

In Canada we get the books about three weeks behind the UK, I guess. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Stuart's new book isn't out here yet... so I can't review it in time for the next Spinetingler. If Steve Mosby hadn't sent me a copy of The 50/50 Killer I would have been waiting until June. Not long, considering it was out in April, so that's okay (except for the review component).

But if it was six months? I know a lot of readers who order the books in from amazon.ca or amazon.co.uk. In cases like that the US publishers (and it may be the same for the UK publishers going in reverse, I don't know) invest that money but have already lost sales.

In Ian's case good for Orion. Not so great for making the NY Times bestseller list.

norby said...

Well, I don't know about focus groups and all that. I usually rely on the word of friends when it comes to choosing books.

As far as choosing new authors goes, I trust the opinions of people I truly respect, or if a bunch of people have been recommending the author. Quite frankly though, I rarely, if ever straight out buy a book by a new author. I'll grab the book from the library (if they have it) and read it. If I like the author, then I start buying.

I have, however started buying more books from Canada and the UK, much to dismay of my wallet. I've just gotten tired of waiting for the US release of the books that all my friends are reading. It's ridiculous. Not to mention the better cover art, and the fact that you get what the author's originally wrote. For example, I just ordered Stuart MacBride's new book from the UK because of one page-according to Stuart, that's all his US publishers made him change, but you know, if I'm paying for a book, I'd like to read what he wrote, not what the publishers think I should read.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ah Norby. One of the reasons I like you. You're as feisty and opinionated as I am. ;)

Cornelia Read said...

Dude Sandra. You are a goddamn genius. But we knew this...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Cornelia, can I use that as a blurb for my next book.

"Goddamn genius."
Edgar Award nominated author who kicks ass and takes names and is worth every penny of a six figure advance, Cornelia Read.

: )

norby said...

Like you didn't know that post would irritate me when you put it out there!!

Vincent said...

Sandra, about the book you were missold by the cover - that, surely, is the marketeer's biggest crime. Not failing to sell a book, though that's pretty bad, but selling a book to the wrong person.

I'm not saying you're the wrong person, but a book cover and a blurb set a buyer's expectations about the kind of story they're in for. While the plot should certainly try to confound their expectations, being fresh and surprising instead of tired and predictable, the story should not. If I'm expecting a fast-paced thriller, don't give me a slow-burn drama. I might like slow-burn dramas, but if I'm constantly expecting it to spring into action and it doesn't, I'm more likely to dismiss it as a bad thriller, rather than a good drama.

The consequence of that can be that this great thriller cover sells lots of books in the first instance, but then fails to build any word of mouth because the people who do buy it feel they've been short-changed or misled.

Eileen said...

I adored that article in the NYT and I wanted everyone to read it. Great post