Last Monday, I was sick at home with no voice and no energy, but was excited to hear this discussion on "What Makes a Best-Selling Children's Book?" on the Leonard Lopate Show:
If that didn't work, you can also listen to it here (the comments are, uh, funny).
I didn't really hear anything I didn't already know, but one comment in particular that I found interesting was Jean Feiwel's (I think?) belief that a great book will always find its way in the market, which Micha Hershman of Borders disagreed with. I would disagree as well. I think that there are countless wonderful beautiful books that get published that never find the audience they deserve. Which leads us back to my post from last Monday.
To be fair, "no whining," is indeed, as Anna said, a patronizing way to put it. And to the agent's defense, I think he or she said that as a way to show sympathy for the publishing side, to indicate to me that the agency appreciates all that a publisher does for each and every book that gets published (Harold Underdown has a good outline of this here, and Stacy Whitman one here), and understands our limitations in terms of marketing and publicity. I also wanted to add here that my #4 on the list, that the publisher puts the book in their catalog, wasn't really from the agent, and was really meant as a stand-in for all of the basic marketing and publicity that a publisher would do for each and every book--the catalog, presenting the books at trade and institutional shows like BEA and ALA, sending out review copies to over 100 different publications, and so on. No book is just thrown out there with no support, even if it may seem that way.
The agent was basically saying that their agency's clients would never be those authors (and we all know they exist) who complain that their publisher isn't doing enough to support their books. (I'm sure exceptions would be made for valid issues.) The agency also focuses on finding authors with a "platform" so that they can better help the author find marketing and publicity partners.
Unfortunately, the need for a "platform" may limit who their clients are. But this is the business plan their agency has decided on, and I think it probably works well for them and their authors.
Believe me, I wish we could do more to help each book be a success, and I agree that the publisher and author should work together to do everything they can reasonably do to make the book sell. Authors have the right to ask the publishers for as much as they can (without actually whining!), but it is also the responsibility of the authors to do everything they can, too. But the thing is, publishers don't randomly pick which books they decide to give big pushes for--a lot of thought, various factors, and a ton of planning goes on. A publisher is most likely not going to change their publishing plans too drastically because an author or agent complains or asks for more, unless they see that it makes business sense. Then again, it really doesn't hurt to ask nicely for something specific you feel will really make a difference--for example, if you do a ton of school visits, you might want to ask if the publisher could print bookmarks or postcards for you to distribute. Or, they may decide it's worth it to produce teacher's guides to help get your books into schools. If you know the perfect specialty website or magazine to send your book to, they'll most likely comply.
Because of the way the publishing business works these days (and to be honest, I don't know how much this differs from "the days of yore"--perhaps it was always this way), it's just not possible to promote every book we publish heavily, and virtually impossible to market each book to the author's satisfaction.
The fact is, there are too many books being published. I used to think that marketing money=sales, that you could make any book a bestseller if you did everything in your power to do so, but I've seen enough examples of books with huge marketing plans that underperformed to know this isn't the case. And in other cases, a book with little or no marketing "extras" can often out perform expectations. And remember, any marketing money spent on the book gets factored into the book's profit and loss calculations, so that's yet more money the book will have to earn back in order to be considered a success. (Harold Underdown has a great snapshot on what it takes here.) The publisher has to weigh whether, say, the cost of an ad would more than make up for the number of copies sold.
As I mentioned in this post, I've decided that it's basically a crap shoot as to what succeeds and what doesn't. And I think partially because of this, publishers send out as many books as they can in the hopes that the more books they publish, the more possibilities they have for success.
But there's an adult publisher who has tried a new strategy: Twelve. I will disclose now that Twelve is actually part of the umbrella publishing group that my division is part of as well, but it took an NPR story for me to actually understand what they were doing. They've decided to publish twelve books a year, one each month, and do everything in their power to make each book a best seller. Two of their first four books published were, indeed, New York Times best sellers. Not a bad percentage--although I think this also shows that marketing attention doesn't guarantee best selling success.
Although I find this publishing strategy extremely attractive, I wonder how the publishing landscape would change if more publishers adopted their plan. (Check out their mission statement!) One definite result would be that less books would be published each year--which means fewer authors would have their dreams of being published realized; publishers would be even pickier than they are now. Also, more books published encourages more diversity in the subjects covered, and more freedom for a publisher to take chances.
So, what do you all say--would the trade offs be worth it? How can we do things better?