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An interrupted conversation

As many of you know, I work in a bookstore. I like working in a bookstore.

Some of our customers know I write books (some of them also read them). One of our customers came into the store yesterday, where I had taken one of my hardcovers (mostly to show cszego, who was also working). The customer looked at the book and then asked me what the print run was. He's worked in the printing industry, and I think he was trying to price the cover, although I'm not certain about this. He has also, as came out later in the conversation, worked with ad agencies, or rather as part of them.

I said, "I don't know." Because, actually, I don't know.

This surprised him, and he asked why I didn't know.

I mostly don't know because at this point, it doesn't matter – I can't change it. Actually, at almost any point it doesn't matter, because I can't change it. This doesn't mean I wouldn't listen with interest if someone were to take time out of their overworked and busy schedule to tell me, but it does mean that I won't demand time out of same to find out. I told him that all of the relevant information would come to me on the royalty statement, and that since I could not change anything at this point, I was content to receive it then.

The next question he asked: "How much self-promotion does your publisher expect you to do?"

I said, "None." Because, actually, it's true.

There was another disconnect, another silence, and then "Why?"

"Possibly because they're afraid we'll offend everyone when we're sent out in public. Or possibly because they're afraid we will bother the publicists they do employ."

The next question, then: "How much self-promotion are you planning to do?"

Oddly enough, I said "None." This is not entirely true, but for the purpose of this particular conversation, it was close enough.

And then he asked me both why, and how I expected to actually – well, to be fair, I can't remember his actual wording, but what I took from it was: Sell any books.

He has done promotion in the music business, to some effect, and of course pays attention to promotion done in any other businesses. So he looked at me as if I were a complete moron when I said "the type of promotion that I consider effective, in terms of marketing books, I can't afford." In particular, the display space/endcap space/front shelf multiple-pocket space, that the chains sell to publishers. I am not 100% sure that I could, as an individual, purchase those spaces, but I admit that I've never done any research with that in mind. I think, to his mind, I couldn't afford not to do these things.

So I said, "The publishing industry is not, in general, exactly like the other industries in this regard."

"Why not?"

"Well... what makes you go and pick up a new novel? Because for most of the people I know, it's someone else telling them they really liked the book (or hated it). I realize you probably hear this all the time, but word-of-mouth, which it is very hard to buy, predict, or control, seems to be the biggest factor. And then cover. Where I'd prefer the money be spent, if I had any say in it."

He felt that radio ads would at least be useful (and economical). I could not imagine a radio ad that would work, for me, but I don't listen to all that much radio. But he kept coming back to the same point: Movies. Music. If the big guys are all doing this, there's got to be a pressing reason, and it's something that publishers should also be doing if they own the property (and that, by implication, I should be doing on a shoestring if I do, although to be fair, he did not suggest that I spend millions of dollars doing it).

Of course, he also admitted that a 60 million dollar movie with its 20 million dollar promotional budget made 10 million dollars.

I really like this person, btw. I like his taste in books, which is often quirky, and I generally enjoy talking to him – but I admit that I have never talked about the business of publishing with him until now.

And I was trying to think of a way to say that the promotional budget of most houses is probably not much more, in total, for every book they're publishing in one year, than the budget for a single movie of the type he was citing, with regards to advertising/promotion campaigns. (Yes, I could have just said this, since that's what I normally do, but on rare occasions, I try not to be entirely offensive. No, there is nothing offensive in what I just typed, but when someone says something that shocks me, I tend to be a touch on the more forceful-than-necessary side if I just blurt out the first words that come to mind.)

While I was doing this, because I admit I live in a bubble where most people who will speak about these things have the same general sense of the business, overall, that I do, he said, "How do you think J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Robert Ludlum got started?"

And while I have no idea how Ludlum got started, I know that Rowling's first book was published in a small run, and with a small advance, by the division of the company that published middle-grade fantasy. I know that King's first novel, Carrie did better than anyone expected in hardcover, and at that time, the hardcover publishers frequently didn't have a mass market division, so the auction for the paperback rights were big. But in either case, the word-of-mouth response built – quickly.

I still don't think we've reached the point in this industry where that's going to go away; I still don't think we can package and promote our way to Rowling or King status. I understand that in our ad-aware society, there's possibly going to be some misconceptions about this. And because I can think of so many titles that were heavily pushed and fell into obscurity, I never think that the big sellers are entirely due to marketing efforts. Terry Brooks owes something to the marketing effort, but it is not clear to me that he would not have reached critical mass without it.

The point is: Books are not interchangeable. If publishers knew in advance which titles could to promoted to greatness, they would be doing that. They're a business. It's not always clear that a book that you loved will hit a broad range of diverse readers in the same way, which is what is needed. Boiling the books down to the plot/genre elements doesn't work; there's some alchemy that gets missed when you dissect a novel, because in general you dissect corpses, not living things.

Do I want my books to sell? Well, yes. Do I want people to love them? Of course I do. But I suppose at this point in my life, with almost 30 years of watching the bookstore shelves, I don't feel as if I'm betraying the book by putting most of my effort (and my endless fretting, which I promise I will try much harder not to burden you all with) into working on the next book.

And that's what I didn't actually get the chance to finish saying to this poor man: In terms of career investment the best thing I can do is to write new books in as timely a fashion as I can manage. If all my books are written on time, and I am not foolish enough to start working on a third world, my feeling might be different.

But I might also spend more time with my husband and children.

Comments

( 42 comments — Leave a comment )
dancinghorse
Feb. 21st, 2008 11:14 pm (UTC)
Oh, finally! Someone else who feels the same way I do about promotion.

I've been feeling really behind the curve lately, watching all the kids get freaky about their Pub Date (as if the actual day means a thing--unless they're Harry Potter, books slide out there over a period of weeks, not on a single day), and go on about this promo op and that bookmark and this or that signing and on and on. They're working like mad to promote their books, with the clear assumption that it's required and, more to the point, effective. It's been giving me a complex.

I mean, back in the day, she said, looking around for her wheelchair (must be somewhere between the saddle racks and the manure cart), we were taught that signings and the like make an author feel good and keep the author's family off his case, but the only real, effective promotion is what you've described. Well, that and a good website, regularly updated, and a blog that builds a following.

So it's still true? I'm not insane for opting out of the self-promo game?

I can't tell you how much better that makes me feel.
tobemeagain
Feb. 22nd, 2008 12:20 am (UTC)
As a former bookstore manager, I can tell you word of mouth is key. I tend to think of publishing promotion in a grassroots style of promotion. It doesn't matter what signs are up - it matters that a book is faced and/or has an employee rec under it. One of the largest sales tools for books is employees who can speak knowledgeably for "If you like, you'll like/love ___" It is one reason I love the idea of ARC's and galleys which lets employees get a jump start on reading new books to hand sell. Bookmarks are great, but I've only found them to work in the romance section, especially the Eroctic Romance (like EC, Samhain, Brava). Signs through out the shopping mall don't work, and I've heard radio and TV ads for the last few Patterson and Krentz books, they don't drive sales at all. Mailed or emailed coupons however always bring people into the store! The wonderful thing about e-coupons and e-newsletters is the very low overhead for return in sales... sorry I think I got off topic. Anyway I wouldn't dream of writing, but as an avid reader, it doesn't matter if it is on the radio or TV it matters that another reader suggests it :)
(no subject) - msagara - Feb. 22nd, 2008 12:27 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tobemeagain - Feb. 22nd, 2008 09:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - janni - Feb. 22nd, 2008 02:08 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Feb. 22nd, 2008 02:18 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dancinghorse - Feb. 22nd, 2008 02:46 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tobemeagain - Feb. 22nd, 2008 09:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Feb. 22nd, 2008 02:26 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dancinghorse - Feb. 22nd, 2008 02:40 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Feb. 22nd, 2008 02:59 am (UTC) - Expand
zencuppa
Feb. 21st, 2008 11:28 pm (UTC)
Ummm . . . This guy knows about publishing, but he doesn't know anything about marketing.

Without knowing as much as possible *who* is going to read a particular book, buy a specific thing, service, etc. It's impossible to know where and how to advertise effectively.

Unlike nonfiction books, fiction/SF/Fantasy, etc. books can be very hard to categorize and as you pointed out, it's very difficult to figure out what will sell. Publishers do promote new books when they know there's a large (and quantifiable number) of people who will buy a book because of the *author*, but not necessarily because of content (unless it's a really hot topic at a particular time).

My two cents :-)
the_nita
Feb. 21st, 2008 11:30 pm (UTC)
Amen. I do marketing for a living. Knowing who your market is comprised of is critical to ever selling a thing beyond what you'd get from random luck of the draw.

He may well be a nice guy, but he needs to study his marketing textbooks again.
(no subject) - msagara - Feb. 21st, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
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wmchichiri
Feb. 22nd, 2008 12:06 am (UTC)
I work in the DVD side of the publishing industry. I'm actually of the opinion it's hard to say that what works for music, or even film & tv would work for literature. Why? So much of our advertising is geared towards visual looks, and sound, and mixing them in such a way to grab one's attention. That's alot harder to encapsulate for a book. You can't give someone a trailer of a book and say "here's a teaser to wet your appetite" the best you can do is give them a snippet of the book, and a series synopsis.

I discovered your book on one of my random "let's see what I can find on the lark" whims. I was looking for something new to read, by an author I hadn't read before. It was a mixture of the cover, the title, the back copy, and reading the first few pages that convinced me to purchase Cast in Shadow. The book also stood out from other books that I was also considering.

But even going back to my experience in Marketing in the DVD Publishing world... we're in a niche market, so we simply don't have the sort of advertising spend that Big Hollywood, be it film or tv has. But in that way we're like Southwest Airlines. We may not have all the frills, but we have a sound business model, we're always quite in the black, and our customers enjoy the ride.

But honestly, you're an author, you shouldn't HAVE to promote your own book. A good publishing house should have someone do that for you, they have contacts and a network you most likely do not. They know the usual places, and they can also see from a business standpoint when it makes sense to go the extra mile or do something a bit more special. They have a grade scale, varying on how they think the book will sell into retail, they reverse engineer a cost of goods which covers the printing of the book and is the base on which other considerations are added to in order to get the SRP.

Honestly, if you look at music, sales have been dramatically dying off, and so it doesn't make sense to spend as much in promoting these days. You have to learn to change and adapt to a different consumer. Throwing money at a problem, doesn't fix it.

I know one of the most difficult things I have to do in my job, is at the very beginning when we have just finalized a new acquisition that I've been assigned. I write a creative brief, which influences & impacts ann future creative (from ads, trailers, packaging, etc.) Followed by coming up with comparative titles--which we always compare to mass, mainstream works--yet even then it doesn't capture the spirit of some of the properties we manage.

---

Now what I'd like to know, is there some way fans can acquire autographed books? Maybe if I sent a book with a SASE it could be mailed back in somewhere?





Edited at 2008-02-22 12:10 am (UTC)
adriannebrennan
Feb. 26th, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC)
But honestly, you're an author, you shouldn't HAVE to promote your own book. A good publishing house should have someone do that for you, they have contacts and a network you most likely do not.

This unfortunately is not the case in the epublishing industry. You're expected to do a LOT of self-promo and you can't rely on the publisher for that. That's the way the business works.

The divide between print and epublishing I think is growing more than shrinking these days, I'm afraid.
(no subject) - msagara - Feb. 28th, 2008 08:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
motteditor
Feb. 22nd, 2008 12:09 am (UTC)
The one area I think book publishers -- especially if they're in the fantasy genre -- could do a better job with promotion is online.

I think genre fans are the type who are going to be geeky enough to be very Internet savvy and invested enough in an author to go online and look for their Web site. I remember half a dozen years ago trying to find information about your work online, because I wanted to discuss it -- or at least find out when I could expect the new book in the series. I remember it took me a long time before I finally stumbled upon your Web site, which IIRC is what led me to your livejournal.

It's a medium that I think is eally rewarding. I know Rowling obviously has a great marketing plan, but at the same time, I know several of my friends spent hours and hours on her Web site as they waited for book six and then seven. I think another author who's Web presence (in part thanks to rabid fans) was very good is the late Robert Jordan. Granted, the FAQ for his series alone was huge, but it was easy to find.

A good Web site lets fans stay aware of a writer, so we can get out to the bookstore the week a book comes out, instead of noticing a favorite author finally has a new title out when I happen to be browsing at Barnes and Noble (assuming they carry said author's books) while killing time.
wmchichiri
Feb. 22nd, 2008 12:14 am (UTC)
I agree with this. While graphic novels are more of a niche, especially manga, TOKYOPOP is doing some amazing cutting edge things to reach out to their consumer. They even have sample pages to read, voice-overed chapters of some of their comics. Of course the problem is at the same time, many of the features they have are hard to find, and hard to navigate. It needs design overhaul in my opinion.

Obviously their targeted consumer is the teenager. BUt many of the concepts they have in place can be adapted and grown to fit a wider range of demographics.

Edited at 2008-02-22 12:15 am (UTC)
(no subject) - motteditor - Feb. 22nd, 2008 12:24 am (UTC) - Expand
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themis
Feb. 22nd, 2008 12:20 am (UTC)
I have to say, whenever I see or hear commercials for books it makes me less likely to read them.

This is because I am a snob.
(Deleted comment)
damedini
Feb. 22nd, 2008 01:48 am (UTC)
I would never (that I can imagine) buy a book due to advertisement beyond a simple announcement that it was out. In fact, I avoid almost all "bestsellers" because I find having someone try to dictate my reading choices distasteful. I remember even in grade school I would argue to read something /not/ on the list. Since I read way above grade level (off the scale) I generally got my way.

I read a book based on recommendation, cover or, mostly often, love of the author's previous work. I'll walk into Bakka and ask whoever's working what I should buy, or I'll wander Bookcity aimlessly til something grabs me. Strangely, this works very well. I might miss books I'd otherwise like, but I very rarely buy something I dislike.
themis
Feb. 22nd, 2008 03:32 am (UTC)
Drive-by icon appreciation!
radiantfracture
Feb. 22nd, 2008 02:44 am (UTC)
As a reader, the idea of radio ads confuses me. I would read a book based on an interesting radio interview with an author, or a discussion of it on a book panel, but not on the basis of an ad alone.

{rf}
spiffikins
Feb. 22nd, 2008 04:52 am (UTC)
I'm completely stumped on the concept of radio advertising for books.

Book reviews, word of mouth introduce me to new authors - recently it seems like I keep stumbling across new author livejournals, and it's really opened up a whole new list of authors whose work I will check out.

If I'm in a book store, end caps, and the "new releases" show me new books by authors I don't know about - and cover art and titles are what will draw me to pick up the book and read the blurb.

While I'm not in the industry at all, my gut tells me that recently, the biggest single impact on a novel might be whether Oprah picks it up for her book club and waves it around on tv.

But again - that's just word of mouth on an unbelievably giant scale :)

My two cents as a reader and fan
starlady38
Feb. 22nd, 2008 08:15 am (UTC)
Who the hell listens to radio anymore? At least not through the Internet?

Ahem. Sorry. Somehow I get the feeling that if it had been me in that discussion I would have had to take the same measures to avoid being offensive.

As a reader of yours, what got me to buy The Broken Crown was indeed the cover. Ditto for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone--I was one of the people who bought in its its original, very small American print run, because I thought Mary Grandpre's cover art was interesting.

While I'm not one of those people who trumpets the death of reading in North America, after living in Japan and spending time in Europe I have to say that it's my impression that marketing campaigns for books work AFTER there's a built-in audience--whether it's a public that demonstrably reads a lot, such as here in Japan (everyone's got to do something on trains), or the huge audience that HP had obviously gained round abouts the publication of the fourth book in America, which is when Scholastic started rolling out all the marketing.

Movies and music are different. For one thing, it's a lot easier to pirate them, which I tend to think does usually have a usually positive impact on the sales of genuine product.
falcongirl
Feb. 22nd, 2008 02:23 pm (UTC)
Best marketing tool currently available: Internet. Back in the days of yore, I only knew books were due out when I saw them in the store. (Or when my local book pimp fiction store owner called me..) Now, I can find author web pages, blogs, or if all else fails, Amazon for release dates far in advance.

As a reader, I love that. It gives me time to read the past books in the series so I come to the new book with all the backstory fresh in my mind. It gives me time to rave to everyone I know about the book or the author, and spread the addiction. Heck, it allows me to find a holiday in time to gift the author's other works to people.

I think perhaps Mr. Promoter doesn't understand that with books, most of the large, effective promotions are fan driven. We use the internet to find each other, to communicate, and are capable of assembling a flash mob on surprisingly little notice. Getting 100 people to dress up as their favourite character and go buy a new book on the same day is a lot easier than it used to be, and it can be coordinated worldwide.

Which is kind of scary, when you think about it.
-T
rocalisa
Feb. 22nd, 2008 08:23 pm (UTC)
There are basically two ways I find out about new books/authors beyond word of mouth from RL friends.

Both are internet based.

One is through blogs I read where people rave about/review books that have caught their attention. I suppose this is Internet word of mouth.

Lately, I've also started listening to genre based podcasts. These often talk about books and authors and tend to have author interviews. These can be really interesting and if an author comes across well and their book sounds interesting I'm quite likely to go and investigate their book - and subscribe to their blog feed if they have one, keeping me in the loop.

My personal favourites are Dragon Page Cover to Cover (www.dragonpage.com) and Adventures in SciFi Publishing (www.adventuresinscifipublishing.com).

Oh and anywhere you're offering news or comments, make sure you have an RSS feed. I don't have the time or memory to remember to keep going back to websites, LJs or blogs, but I subscribe to the feeds and keep a daily eye on those.
adriannebrennan
Feb. 26th, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC)
Total reverse in the e-publishing industry--lots of heavy lifting is involved in regards to self-promotion to get you noticed and out there. I don't know if this changes if you have both ebooks and print ones out there, but I know it's the case if you're e-pubbed.
deborahjross
Feb. 26th, 2008 11:17 pm (UTC)
Hi, Michelle!

It's reassuring that I'm not the only one who finds self-promotion a daunting and uncomfortable proposition. One that, I might add, carries the penalty of an enormous drain on creative energies. I have to be careful not to listen to the (loud-mouthed, opinionated) self-promoters or I'll start feeling guilty and inadequate because I don't spend every waking moment on it.

Alas, one of the reasons that my internet presence is light is that I have only so much time my eyes and my back can stand being at the computer (and three novel projects I ache to be working on), so that doesn't often leave a lot of time for other writing.

I suppose that going to cons is a form of promotion. A small number of readers get to hear me enthuse about the project of the moment, or the latest thing to come out. But mostly, I do them (and rarely away from the West Coast) because I find it nourishing and energizing to hang out with like minded people, talking about writing. When I lived in LA, I had more local writer friends, so now the cons provide a partial antidote to sfnal writerly isolation. I don't expect to sell any books as a result, and am always surprised and delighted when asked to autograph something. This, of course, makes the reader feel good, so two people are happy. That's always a good thing
msagara
Feb. 26th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)
It's reassuring that I'm not the only one who finds self-promotion a daunting and uncomfortable proposition. One that, I might add, carries the penalty of an enormous drain on creative energies. I have to be careful not to listen to the (loud-mouthed, opinionated) self-promoters or I'll start feeling guilty and inadequate because I don't spend every waking moment on it.

Hello =D.

I think most authors find self-promotion a daunting and uncomfortable proposition, but not all -- but yes, if you do, it's a big drain on creative energy because it's a big drain on energy, period. As are all things that we loathe and feel inadequate doing.

But in fairness to the self-promoters, I think they're trying everything to see what works, and they try to share what did work. I don't think they (all) realize the effect this has on the writers they're sharing with, because in some ways, self-promotion is the attempt to do something in an industry in which there's very little author-end control beyond the writing itself.

Publishing is not a field that is kind to control freaks. Of which, I have been accused.

But mostly, I do them (and rarely away from the West Coast) because I find it nourishing and energizing to hang out with like minded people, talking about writing.

Me, too. I like conventions, and I like seeing my convention friends and the writers I only have face time with at cons. I like meeting readers as well.
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