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Marginal books (no, not the distributor)

High advances are not the whole game. Promotion is not the whole game. And by now you've seen that promotion is a slippery word -- there are many elements of promotion that are invisible from the outside. Like, for instance, being Lead or Lead SF title. Placement dollars for position in bookstores is now no longer invisible -- to you. To most book buyers, it still is. In order to get the money and the positioning, there has to be a reasonable chance -- in the eyes of the editor or publisher -- that your book is enough like a bestseller that it has a damn good chance of being one. Money alone won't buy you that. And brilliant writing doesn't either.

Also, at most houses, you're in competition with John Grisham for placement dollars. No, seriously. The house as a whole is pulling for that promotional money. In a house which specializes in your genre, your chances are much better, because what else is there to spend the money on? But the down side of that is that there's frequently less promotional money to begin with because, well, much smaller publisher.

In the store, I can walk by the shelves and pick up authors I admire. And I know, reading their works, that the publishers could spend 6 figures in promotional dollars, and in the end, it would be 6 wasted figures; the author's sales would increase, but marginally; there wouldn't be that rabid fan-base word of mouth that would cause it to grow by leaps and bounds. If I, as the person buying and shelving these books, have a pretty good idea of what those books are, you can bet the publisher does as well. There are many that are not clear either way. Some of those will creep up; they start out beneath the radar, build momentum, and break out without any initial wattage from the publishing lights.

There are whole months that go by where I wonder why editors don't talk to writers more openly about the publishing business and their place in it.

And then I wander into discussions -- either in real life or, much more frequently, on-line, and listen to writers (often unpublished but by no means always) and realize that it's partly because it would take the editors a zillion hours to explain enough of the background to make that discussion possible. I don't know about you, but I have enough hissy fits in my life from other sources that dealing with them is one of the last things on my desireable list.

And, for the sake of full disclosure, I've -had- hissy fits. At my poor editor. Or DAW's poor managing editor (about type-face, and it ended up being about nothing; the printer's proof machine didn't actually have the font installed, so it printed a really ugly approximation that was -unreadable-. Um, if you're sensitive to typefaces. Neither I, nor the managing editor knew this, so I assumed that the galley pages were what the book would look like. I phoned, I had a fit, I asked pointedly that they never ever use this font again, and then I struggled to proof the pages. And then, of course, the printed font, the published font, was absolutely fine. It was SEA OF SORROWS for anyone who's curious. I phoned and really groveled. Total abasement. Exposing of throat.) And I do understand a lot of how the business works. I've perfected the art of groveling. Oh, and mentioning PMS. Because, you know, I have that too.

Because I've established that digression is essentially my mode of thought, I'm about to wander off on a different tangent, and discuss something else. An author of my acquaintance, who is as yet unpublished, is fabulous with words. The books this author has written are dense little gems; they're not without flaws, but the flaws are structural and harder in some ways to see clearly because the prose itself is so flawless. Because I'm generally not known for tact, and I'm always insanely busy (or distracted), I seldom read first novels that aren't published. In this case, tact was not an issue; it was neither expected nor actually wanted. So I read the first novel this author wrote; I adored it.

So, too, did an editor at a major house. But both she and I had the same secondary reaction, the first being I love this! and the second being and fifteen other people will love it, two of whom would probably only be able to understand it in translation.

Why? Because it's dense and difficult in places, requires and rewards an enormous amount of attention; it isn't accessible enough. For what?

Good question.

An editor works for a publisher. Everybody knows this. What some writers -- and I would have been right up front and center in that line when I was sending my first novel out -- don't understand is that the editor loving the book is not a guarantee that it will sell. It's not a guarantee that readers will love the book. There are books which editors will buy in blind hope; they love it, they don't think it will sell in anywhere like huge numbers, but they think it might sell enough to justify the purchase and publication, and they want that book out there, speaking to the small audience that does exist for it. The small audience that will love it just as passionately as they did.

No one starts out in this business for money. Not the editors, not the writers, and even -- at least in small press cases, not the publishers. But because it is a business, at one point or another, a wake-up call comes. It's not a happy call. The bottom line is made of barbed wire. When it happens, it doesn't mean that the editors buy only crap, because lord knows that doesn't work either. But it means that their buy decisions are based on a number of factors, and what they can do with the book in house depends on those. So back to the book an editor loves that won't sell huge numbers.

For a book like this, which pierces editorial heart, but which doesn't have that mass market potential, a publisher is simply not going to offer scads of money. Ever.

The author who somehow feels that if this type of book had gotten a higher advance, it would have been promoted, pushed and would have sold a zillion copies is, in fact, living in a dream; high advances in this case would guarantee only that the P&L statement would suck rocks, and the editor would have a lot to answer for.

The editor is probably fighting a rear-guard action for love of the book in house. She will do everything she can for that book. But what she can do is limited. And one of the things that it's difficult to explain is that it is limited. That the quality of the writing, that the love of it, is not going to be justification for the bean counters. [Getting a fabulous NYT review for your first novel can often bump advances up a bit even if the sales don't justify it -- prestige does matter. People are people. But you won't know prestige until after the first book is out -- and in the end, prestige can only carry you so far. At some houses, I don't think it matters; at some it definitely does.]

Of course it's best if the editor both loves the book and thinks it will sell a zillion copies. Sometimes that does happen. Sometimes she likes a book, and thinks it will sell. Sometimes she holds her nose because all the other books by this author have sold well and she doesn't want to lose a successful author over a single unsuccessful book.

Sometimes love of the book just isn't enough. If you can't justify it financially, you don't buy it. You can weep and pull out your hair and feel a deep and desperate regret at the state of the universe -- but you don't buy the book. Because you're doing your job. Saying no in this case is your responsibility. Recognition of genius -- which some odd people seem to feel is actually the editor's responsibility -- is, in fact, not part of the job description. An editor is supposed to acquire properties for the publishing house that employs them that will make the publisher money.

In fact, recognition of a certain type of genius is probably only painful.

If the editor can justify it, she can buy it -- but again, she won't be able to secure the money for placement dollars beyond the bare minimum required to actually get a couple of copies onto shelves. She won't get money to advertise it in those flyers that the chains publish (everything advertised in those is paid for by the publishers), or on the front page of Amazon, etc. She won't get Michael Whelan to paint the cover for it. With good reviews, and a hardcover publication, she could get library sales, and foreign sales are also more of a possibility, but again, no guarantee.

And there's no point in trying to convince people that the quirky book she adores is a mass market break out novel -- because a) they won't believe it and b) if they do, and it isn't (and let's assume the editor knows enough to know it isn't), this is bad in the long run for both the editor and the writer's possible chances of selling another book to the house.

As an author, what do you do in this case? If the book is something that gets NYT reviews that are glowing, because one of the people who does love it as passionately as the editor is a reviewer, you have prestige. Not sales, but prestige is not without some value to a publishing house. You don't, however, have a career that allows you to quit your day job. Day job is important.

You can do one of two things. You can try to make your work more broadly accessible -- if that's even possible -- or you can continue to write for love of the writing, and understand that it is, in financial terms, a hobby. Many, many people work day jobs to support their hobbies; in theory, yours at least won't cost you a lot of money.

Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
kristine_smith
Aug. 2nd, 2004 06:33 pm (UTC)
*depression*

I think that to a certain extent, a writer can change course or broaden the accessibility of their work if they find the right niche/genre that supports their natural inclinations. Examine your work and determine the aspects that you most enjoy writing, then ask yourself if those are the aspects that most readers you know look for when they read the genre in which you've written. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part those exceptions are exceptional.

I don't mean to say that one should try to write to the market or sit down and attempt a formulaic work. But speaking as someone who is struggling to figure out what to try next, I will say that if I had to do it all over again, I don't think I'd have written the books in the same way.
msagara
Aug. 2nd, 2004 08:25 pm (UTC)
*depression*

I don't mean to say that one should try to write to the market or sit down and attempt a formulaic work. But speaking as someone who is struggling to figure out what to try next, I will say that if I had to do it all over again, I don't think I'd have written the books in the same way.


:/. I certainly don't mean for any of this to be depressing. In the case I was speaking of, I had pretty specific authors in mind, and having read your work, oddly enough, you weren't among them; I'd put you more in the Miller & Lee camp. I do find your work accessible. The person of whom I spoke (who may out themself only if they choose <w>) is writing what amounts to poetry in prose form, and at that, with English use that would be considered almost archaic (not by the author for the most part, just by anyone else <g>).

Reaching a broader audience while maintaining the heart of our own voice is what many of us are struggling to do. When I first started, I was trying to write a perfect (ha, hubristic youth) book. I didn't really think about readers at all.

I can say with absolute certainty that there are writing choices I'd avoid at all costs if I was going to do it all over again; I'd certainly have chosen a very different way to structure the first two books of the SUN SWORD, because the shift from one set of characters to a complete different set of characers for a very very long book did, I think, lose some people. Hind sight is, as they say, 20/20.

Otoh, at least half of the writers I know would do things differently if they could write things all over again.
kristine_smith
Aug. 3rd, 2004 09:27 am (UTC)
I didn't believe you did have me in mind--definitely not a chewy prose stylist here. I respond to the accessibility argument because of criticism I've received over the years concerning what some people see as my overly complicated plots. I think part of the issue is the fact that I was trying to meld several genres--SF, espionage, mystery--and that each genre carries with it the baggage of different reader expectations, all of which I apparently didn't meet. I don't know if it would have been possible for me to meet them all--if I had it to do all over again, I would have narrowed/refocused the story.

In a way, it's reassuring that other writers are in the same boat--misery loves company, after all. But it can be depressing, because you love your stories and wants to see them succeed in the world. But they don't, both for reasons you have discussed and others. I agree wholeheartedly that story trumps all, including good writing, sparkling characters, and all sorts of unique approaches. This can be discouraging because the knack for formulating a tale that appeals to broader audiences is a gift more than an acquisition.

And I'm typing this during lunch while talking on the phone, so I hope it makes sense.
msagara
Aug. 3rd, 2004 11:43 pm (UTC)
In a way, it's reassuring that other writers are in the same boat--misery loves company, after all. But it can be depressing, because you love your stories and wants to see them succeed in the world. But they don't, both for reasons you have discussed and others. I agree wholeheartedly that story trumps all, including good writing, sparkling characters, and all sorts of unique approaches. This can be discouraging because the knack for formulating a tale that appeals to broader audiences is a gift more than an acquisition.

There is a way to do a complicated story with a million characters and still somehow make it clear enough that readers follow it all; George Martin has done it admirably in his series. I'm not George Martin, either <wry g>.

I'll never be Robert Jordan, either. I accept this as a limitation of what speaks to me. I honestly believe that no book written without heart, love, fury and passion will actually reach readers; that even the books I dislike or feel are not done well are written with that sort of heart and belief by their authors. But even if a book written without that innate belief and grounding could speak to readers, I couldn't write it because it wouldn't speak to me, and writing a novel is hard enough as is without being stripped of the things that compell us to tell that story. The trick is to navigate the shoals of the things that speak to us as writers while trying to reach out to people who found elements of our previous work difficult.

And I'm typing this during lunch while talking on the phone, so I hope it makes sense.

It made a lot of sense. All of it. The heartbreak of seeing a story that moves us so much founder is probably the worst part of the business, in the end, for writers. And editors, too, although perhaps not quite as intensely. If we don't care, who will? The story, start to finish, is ours; the characters are in our hands.

The outcome of blending business and art is always going to be some pain and uncertainty. Even authors who sell a zillion copies grind their teeth at the lack of recognition their work receives; they cringe at the bad reviews, etc. Its the thing we all have in common. Okay, one of the things <g>.

But getting past the post-pub blues and continuing to work at both reinventing -and- being true to our vision is what makes us all professionals, imho.
janni
Aug. 2nd, 2004 08:50 pm (UTC)
I don't mean to say that one should try to write to the market or sit down and attempt a formulaic work. But speaking as someone who is struggling to figure out what to try next, I will say that if I had to do it all over again, I don't think I'd have written the books in the same way.

I actually think, oddly, that if I were doing this all again I would actively spend less time trying to write to market. I don't know whether it's that I, personally, wasn't all that good at deliberately writing to market--but in large part, trying to write to market resulted, for me, in weaker books that were no more marketable than the stronger ones.

I finally realized that in my case, writing the books I wanted to write resulted in books that were more marketable, rather than less, at least based on the resulting feedback as I've marketed them.

This might change again at some later point in my career. And for someone else it might not be true. But it was an interesting realization.

I'm sometimes not sure we really know enough about the market for writing to market to be all that viable a strategy.
lnhammer
Aug. 3rd, 2004 08:17 am (UTC)
I think that to a certain extent, a writer can change course or broaden the accessibility of their work if they find the right niche/genre that supports their natural inclinations.

I've been working my way to that conclusion the past couple years. Of course, this led me into primarily writing narrative poetry ...

---L.
rilina
Aug. 2nd, 2004 07:08 pm (UTC)
I was directed to your books on publishing and the book industry by yhlee and wanted to let you know how much I've been enjoying them.

I work in the marketing department of a nonprofit, independent trade press--a rather rare breed in this day and age. My company's idealistic and progressive, but money still talks. It has too; if it didn't, we'd very quickly go out of business and be little more than a memory. And it's worth remembering that it's not just publishers who make decisions based on money. My press has launched a number of good authors, only to see them take their next book to a bigger publisher for a bigger advance. And it's not unusual for that author to come back to us later, complaining of how little attention they're getting at their new company. Is it better to be a lead author at a small press or a less-important one at a large one? My company will often pull out the full promotional press--tours, national publicity campaign, advertising, coop--for a book with a first printing of 5-7K. That's not normal in other places. I don't really blame my company's authors for leaving us for the bigger advance or the bigger name. In their shoes, I'd be tempted to do the same.

There are whole months that go by where I wonder why editors don't talk to writers more openly about the publishing business and their place in it. And then I wander into discussions . . . and realize that it's partly because it would take the editors a zillion hours to explain enough of the background to make that discussion possible.

*sigh* We still try. We really do (for very self-interested reasons). We try not to roll our eyes when our authors suggest sending their book to Oprah or "the NPR program in Philadelphia . . . Fresh Air or something?" But in the end, as you say, it's a lot of time, and there's hardly enough hours in the day to do the actual business of marketing (or editing or production of) a book.
msagara
Aug. 2nd, 2004 08:37 pm (UTC)
I'm curious -- when you pull out the full promotional press -- tours, etc., etc. -- is this for fiction or non-ficiton? I'm assuming that in either case, the 5-7K first printing is either trade paperback or hardcover, but will happily take correction.

Marketing is one part of the business I've had almost no contact with; I do see publicity people in the store from time to time with authors, and there's almost always some contact because of that.

Actually one of my favourite people in the industry was the VP of one of the Canadian distribution companies. He was slightly surprised at how low on the totem pole my knowledge was, and it was he who pointed out that the person who actually held the title "publisher" for various lines did, in his opinion, make a difference to the line; it wasn't a convenience or a figure-head title. I did try to pay attention to more of that, but that's still harder for me because I tend to be very focused on things that reflect the genre I write in <rueful g>.

rilina
Aug. 3rd, 2004 04:35 am (UTC)
It's largely for nonfiction - we only do a smattering of fiction and poetry. Obviously this makes the marketing effort a little different than for fiction. Nonfiction tends to be more publicity driven, which is something my press is particularly good at doing. And yes, it is trade paperback and hardcover; we've never done any mass market that I'm aware of. (Reps and stores have actually been asking us to do more trade paperback originals, which always becomes a point of contention.)
haikujaguar
Aug. 3rd, 2004 05:46 am (UTC)
I really think being able to have this kind of discussion sensibly with editors and publishers is a prerequisite to a happy tenure as a professional full-time author. It behooves us to know what we're getting into, and not to be shocked and unhappy when the business we're trying to get involved in turns out to be... well, a business. :D
rajankhanna
Aug. 3rd, 2004 11:17 am (UTC)
I just wanted to say that I am really enjoying these entries. I used to work for a large bookstore chain and I am currently an aspiring writer, so it's very interesting for me to read all this. Small bits and pieces I've seen before, but I appreciate your dual perspectives on the issue. Thanks.
msagara
Aug. 4th, 2004 02:43 am (UTC)
Thank you!

I can reliably express opinion for far longer than most people can listen . I certainly don't expect people to comment "me too" vis a vis the series of rambles (I can't quite consider them articles, given how off the top of the head they are), but I'm very happy that you (and everyone else who has said something) find them either interesting or helpful.
valancy
Aug. 4th, 2004 07:43 am (UTC)
Hi! I'm here via hernewshoes. With your permission, I'd love to link to this and some of your other publishing entries from inkstinks, a community for writers dealing with publishing angst. Please feel free to check it out - most of us are amateurs, but we've got a few veterans, too.
msagara
Aug. 4th, 2004 10:36 am (UTC)
... a community for writers dealing with publishing angst.

I cannot tell you the image that this initially conjured up. No, honestly, I can't <g>. Please feel free to link, if you feel it'll be at all useful -- I can't help but think, going over things, that some people in the midst of publishing angst might find it a bit cold.

valancy
Aug. 6th, 2004 06:31 pm (UTC)
I'll give a wee warning with it, but I really think most people will be excited to see a little into the world of publishing - there's not a great deal of info out there on it, you know? Not for the average Joanne. You're not being cold, you're just being honest, and it makes for a fascinating read. Thank you again!
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