Monday, May 21, 2007

Things To Make You Think: Marketing, BSP & Publishing Thoughts Bring Me To A Bit of Rant

The Rap Sheet marks its one year anniversary with a series of posts that feature authors and reviewers naming books and authors they wish would enjoy a wider readership. My pick should be up later this week, but this is well worth checking out.

As it is, The Rap Sheet is one of my regular reads, and I think anyone interesting in the publishing world should make a point of dropping by – it’s always filled with interesting stuff.

Now, speaking of things to think about, Simon & Schuster have been setting the publishing world abuzz lately. First it was the criticism of changes to their boilerplate contract drawing fire. Now, in what feels a bit like déjà vu after my recent post about focus groups and reader involvement, comes word of a virtual stock market that may result in publishing contracts for writers. can crowds predict whether a book will succeed?

That is the hope of the founders of Media Predict (www.MediaPredict.com), a virtual market beginning today, and Simon & Schuster, a publisher that plans to select a book proposal based on bets placed by traders in the new market.

Media Predict is soliciting book proposals from agents and the public, and posting pages of them on the site. Traders, who are given $5,000 in fantasy cash, can buy shares based on their guess about whether a particular book proposal is likely to get a deal, or whether Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, will select it as a finalist in a contest called Project Publish. If either happens within a four-month period, the value of the shares go to $100 apiece; if not, the share price falls to zero.

The site also allows traders to bet on the chances that unsigned musicians who currently top the rankings on MySpace.com, the social networking site, will get a record deal.

Media Predict is modeled after other so-called prediction markets like the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which allows traders to bet on the four-week North American box office receipts of movies, or the Iowa Electronic Markets, which allow people to bet on election results.

“Being able to predict the performance of something is key,” said Brent Stinski, founder of Media Predict. A prediction market, he said, “is a very powerful tool.”

For Simon & Schuster, the partnership is yet another attempt to gauge popular tastes. Earlier this year, the publisher teamed up with Gather.com, a social networking site, to run an “American Idol”-style contest in which voters pick a manuscript for Simon & Schuster to publish.

In the case of Media Predict, traders are not voting on the book they like best, but rather are placing bets on which they think will do well. According to Mark Gompertz, publisher of Touchstone Books, Media Predict could do for book publishing what focus groups do for soap and soda and what screening audiences do for movies.

“Since Gutenberg first printed the Bible, critics have always said publishers don’t know what they’re doing. Just throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks is a crazy way to do business,” Mr. Gompertz said.


Well, I agree. The pasta approach to publishing isn’t a very sensible one. That said, there are all sorts of potential problems with this approach.

For one thing, I consider myself an avid reader. Okay, so I’m not a speed reader – I’m still someone who reads a lot, and reviews. I’m definitely part of the target audience for crime fiction.

But I know nothing about the stock market. Other than buy low, sell high, and there’s a gambling rush that goes with the territory and some people get addicted.

I can see that this approach will draw the interest of people who like to play these games. I can’t see this drawing the active participation of people like me who are too… non-math-brained to be able to figure out how the system works.

I have not done a full investigation of this new scheme, so I can’t comment on all specifics. (Yes, yes, I know, remarkably shoddy of me, but I wasn’t prepared to come blog until I’d done my minimum word count on the manuscript for the day.) However, I have serious concerns (as always) about people posting work online. How many of us have heard the story, of someone pitching a proposal, only to see a remarkably similar work pop up months later from the same source? I don’t believe this venture is limited to one genre, so there are a number of variables to consider. Do the traders understand market share? Do they know what percentage of the market is owned by fantasy/crime/horror/romance?

Anyway, if anyone goes to play with this and learns more, I’d love to hear about it. Okay, this is one of those ‘truth moments’ from me. Yes, I kicked some ass in my day in school. I believe my college math grade was 97%, for example.

But I have never been motivated to learn the stock market, and I have no desire to do so now. I’m writing a book at the moment. Well, to be technical, I have three under development, and one being shopped. And an issue of Spinetingler to finish up, and a bunch of submissions to wade through.

However, I would like to direct you to one other place for worthy thoughts. Kevin Wignall has another thought-provoking post up at Contemporary Nomad and it ties right in with this. I’ve already said more there than I probably should have, but they are thoughts I stand by. I want readers to have input in the publishing community, to a point. I specifically want devoted readers of a genre to be heard. Now, I’m not American, so this doesn’t affect me, but when poster after poster on DorothyL is saying they don’t want books by British authors ‘Americanized’ I think we should pay some attention. In fact, Spinetingler’s policy is, if the author is British they write British, if American they write American. As a result you might see both styles used in the same issue. I am Canadian and I still use the ‘u’ key a lot more than my neighbours to the south. I use American spelling for manuscripts, but when it comes to blogs, emails, etc, I usually use Canadian spellings.

However, the thought that publishing is being driven more by marketing groups than editors is cause for some concern. What will this mean for quality? Will we see more gimmicky books and fads filtering through the bookstores?

Meanwhile, John McFetridge sent me this link, about hip-hop lit, more than a week ago, and I’ve still been mulling over it. On the one hand, the proof that there is a market and appetite out there for some things traditional publishing venues have previously been overlooking.

On the other hand, there’s more emphasis here on marketing and concept than quality writing. Now, that’s an assessment based off reading one news article, and since I haven’t read any of the books I don’t mean for that to be a hard and fast judgment. Just a note – the founder of Triple Crown says herself she isn’t concerned about the technical writing, just the authentic voice.

I feel caught between two worlds. On the one hand, I have no problem with the fact that I need to have a public face and that I need to have a role in marketing my work.

On the other hand, if I felt like I was becoming one of the bsp brigade, and spent my time selling books out of the trunks of cars and invested more energy in promotion than writing, I’d be concerned.

That’s actually one of my big concerns about leaving authors to do their own marketing. It’s as bad as the pasta approach to publishing. Most authors don’t have a marketing background, and some have no idea how to handle the public sphere. On the whole, authors invest more money in bookmarks, postcards, coasters and paraphernalia than they do on public speaking lessons. Some spend more time on forums, blogs and network lists than writing their own stuff.

On a closing note, I would like to direct your attention to this post on publicity by Jon Jordan, over at Crimespace. Jon gives some good advice. I’m going to take it one step further.

A lot of people ask for publicity. And very few people give it.
This brings me full circle, right back to what I like about The Rap Sheet’s anniversary celebration idea. Here’s a way to get publicity – offer to write some reviews. Offer to do some author interviews. You get the profile, and a publishing credit, while doing something good for someone else.

And I’m so much more interested in people who participate in this community as a community and are happy to help other people who need it than those who just look out for number 1.

In fact, the more I think about this, the more I think that part of the reason I’ve wanted to see some more constructive methods of promoting books is precisely to do away with the bsp* brigade.

Then again, I’ve thought that being here, in my own little corner that nobody has to come to, promoting books I love, would be a relatively safe, painless thing. We started Spinetingler to give new writers a chance, and quickly expanded to promote authors at every stage of their career, to help out as many people as we could.

And the result of that has been a lot of criticism, that we play favourites, yaddi yaddi yadda. Earth to morons – how many Rankin books have I read since we started Spinetingler? And how many have I reviewed? Chew on that.

No matter what you do, someone will be right there to criticize you. But at least if I’m going to be criticized it can be for expressing my sincere enthusiasm for the authors who’ve entertained me and restored some of my faith, that great books still do get published, and that discerning readers still champion them.

And I hope those who only get ahead by puffing themselves up or cutting others down have short careers. I won’t just take note of the recommendations on The Rap Sheet this week – I’ll take note of every author willing to endorse someone else’s work.



* By this I’m talking about extreme self-promoting types, who only turn up on lists to proclaim ‘LOOK AT ME’, add people to spam mailers without their request, and think the way to get ahead is to harass people to death. Every conversation is about their book. Gag.

13 comments:

norby said...

In my opinion the only people who should be responsible for a marketing campaign are people who have studied marketing trends, who are familiar with consumer habits and who actually have a business backgrounds. I love authors, God knows, but most of them don't fit that criteria. I would think that their time would be better spent trying to interact with the fans while they're on tour or writing rather than worrying about what the next publicity step is.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm afraid that thinking just isn't possible anymore, unless you're already famous.

But take 2 on the latest trends might be coming to a blog near you sooner than you think... and it will definitely be the other side of the coin if that happens.

norby said...

You and your little hints and clues.

I'm just surprised at how many authors would even want to take on the headache. Publicity is a huge pain in the ass-I've had to do it for the nonprofit I was involved in and I can't be happier that I'm done with it.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, well...

I'm horrid. We all know that. It isn't a news flash!

And I don't think most authors want to take on the headache. I certainly know in my case that if I did nothing, that's exactly what would have been done for the book. Honestly, Ken Bruen has probably sold by referral as many copies of SC as I sold in the whole first month of its release. The publisher probably hasn't been responsible for even a tenth of the total sales. The only difference between me and some people was that I was under no delusions about that from the beginning.

Jersey Jack said...

I'm trying to have fun with the marketing part. Traveling and meeting other authors has been great. Meeting an occassional fan is even better.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with that, Jack, but I'm thinking more about the overall strategy. I know some people several months away from publication who already have detailed marketing plans. So many people just add me to their newsletter and promotional email lists. That drives me nuts. I love meeting people, but not if it comes with someone automatically sticking their book in my face.

That is the problem, for me anyway. There's a time and place for stuff. If someone mails me a magnet or a calendar I'm likely going to use it. And as a result will think about their product more often than I otherwise would.

But at a convention, do people really think I want to lug piles of crap home with me on the plane? Nope. I don't even take home all the books in the freebie bags.

Fine lines...

Sandra Ruttan said...

By crap I mean bookmarks, postcards, coasters, aprons, etc. etc. etc. Promotional junk.

angie said...

Oooh! Look at me, me, ME!!! Oh. Wait. I don't have a book to flog. Never too early to start practicing the BSP, though, right? ;)

I am so gonna have a hard time with the whole marketing thing when I do have a book to flog, though. It's just so...uncomfortable. Just reading about this is giving me the screaming willies.

Jersey Jack said...

Of course you are in a different position. You see all the worst of it--pushy people pushing themselves and their book on you. But if you didn't want that life-size poster of me to take home from Left Coast, why didn't you say so?

Brian said...

Saundra, I'm going to commandeer you blog for a moment.

I've witnessed first hand the hip-hop books popularity. The stores around here have whole, separate sections devoted to it. I see people reading it all the time. I think that its an interesting trend.

I personally call them street books because they aren't isolated to the Hip-Hop era but were very influential on it.

I think that the modern incarnation of it started with a book called The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah that was published in 1999. This novel was HUGE -- receiving some critical attention and was VERY popular. I read it, its pretty good but not great but then again I'm not the intended audience. Some of the women that I worked with at the time were surprised that I was reading it. But everyone was talking about it and I love to read so......

But this type of book -- written in a certain style for a certain audience goes back a long time. They are really just great pulp fiction/social fiction that people not living in, around or near urban areas never got to read because they were marketed to an intended audience. Just take a look at the books of Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines & Jerome Dyson Wright.

So for those of you looking for some new books to try -- something really different, especially when compared to other pulp/crime fiction books of the same era -- then try reading some of these titles. So in the spirit of The Rap Sheet's current posts:

Iceberg Slim was a pimp and in many ways was the archetypal pimp. He grew up dirt poor. He went to school with Ralph Ellison. He started pimping at age 18 in Chicago. The guy was insanely intelligent. He traced pimping back to its roots in the slave trade. He went to jail multiple times, even escaping once. He stopped pimping at age 43. He "retired" out to L.A. and started writing. His first 2 books are out and out classics:

Pimp
Trick Baby
The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim

Donald Goines was addicted to heroin, did hard time and was murdered over a drug deal in 1974. He wrote 16 novels. Some of his best are:

Whoreson
Dopefiend
Daddy Cool

Jerome Dyson Wright. Still to this day I don't know much about the man. But one of his books is a classic.

Poor Black and In Real Trouble.

And of course the aforementioned The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah.

I recommend reading all of these books if you haven't. They really are just the tip of the iceberg. In many ways they are the forgotten wing of the building. If anyone wants any more information on these or others please feel free to ask.

I could write more on these but that wasnt the point of the original post, Sorry for that Sandra.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Jack, the poster's on my dartboard - of course I wanted it!

Brian... wow! you're a wealth of information. Thanks for all that background. And sounds like it started before Triple Crown.

jersey Jack said...

Have to jump in one more time to say "Pimp" by Iceberg Slim is indeed a classic. A wonderful read. Talk about being transported to a different world...

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