Michelle (msagara) wrote,

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.
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