Monday, March 10, 2008

More thoughts on whining

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?


Anonymous said...

Dear Alvina,

I think Twelve worked, in part, because it is a new idea and consequently received press coverage. That strikes me as the tricky part of marketing. It is oftentimes most successful if it has never been done before.

Did you see the article titled "Book Lovers Ask, What's Seattle's Secret?"in yesterday's NYTimes? You can access it from their website. The article was actually more about how books are being sold today, rather than books in Seattle. Seems sales are shifting to different outlets and larger outlets. More Costco, Amazon, Starbucks etc. "More people are bypassing bookstores and buying at mass-market merchants, online retailers and specialty stores, says Albert N. Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business Administration."

I wonder how this shift is going to affect marketing. Are you aware of any marketing shifts in your company to respond to these trends?


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Christine Tripp said...

I wonder how the publishing landscape would change if more publishers adopted their plan.

Well first thing would be the pubs would have to leave their massive Manhatten buildings and relocate in small town USA. Then they would have to learn to operate with one Editor, one AD, one Marketing person and one legal/contract person.
I just don't see the publishers loving this somehow:)

While it would put to an end the massive and controlling book store chains (not enough books to fill their thousands of sq feet of floor space) it would have the Indies cheering in the streets.

On the author/illustrator side, it would be dismal. With so few books to make a living from, it would seem the publishers would lean toward commercially successful books alone, leaving no room for taking chances on something very good, well written yet perhaps a risk and not going to appeal to the masses.
Looking at 12's titles, they appear to mostly be non fiction, with a lot of potential for movie and television production... but that is only a first glimps feeling I get.

Meghan McCarthy said...

I would rather publish fewer books a year/years and have those fewer receive more attention than publish all the books I want and have them receive no attention. It's true, lots of people get to realize their dreams, but I don't think it takes long for reality to set in.

Grace Lin said...

hmm, I'd have to say I wouldn't be willing to have less books. I think, as Alvina and the commentors said before me, that publishers would just end up printed the "safe" books or only the ones with perceived marketing value. Those quiet books that I love so much would probably be the first slashed, quickly followed by the niche market multicultural books. And I would be out of a job. Okay, I admit to selfish motivation...
-grace, who is now going back to her work on her small market novel

Anonymous said...

There's a huge difference between publishing only 12 books a year and publishing, say, 100 new titles per year. I do agree that the reading public (and authors and illustrators) would suffer if every publisher switched to the Twelve model, but I also think it's a false choice to say that's the only alternative. If publishers cut back their frontlist by even 10%, I wonder if it wouldn't help everyone by easing what is definitely a glutted marketplace.

Then again, I work for a nonprofit press that only puts out 4 new hardcovers a year, so...

Christine Tripp said...

>If publishers cut back their frontlist by even 10%, I wonder if it wouldn't help everyone by easing what is definitely a glutted marketplace.<

I agree, unfortunately my fear would be that cutting back the number of books, even by only 10%, would result in a publishers knee-jerk reaction to ALSO cutting back on staffing by that very same percentage. I don't know if they would give the idea time to see if it resulted in larger profits. The cut backs could put everyone back to square one, too few people to give all of their books the attention they would wish to give them.
Publishers already have to think of tie ins, potential series and licensing. I think suggesting they reduce their new releases will result in even more of the same, with more manuscripts read with this criteria in mind.
Not saying any author wouldn't want these things for their book, just saying many good books out there do not lend themselves to more then... just a good book. Would they be passed over?

Just finished listening to the radio podcast. Not a lot new but one thing I did not know before, about the NYT book reviews and how, before the Children's review was set up seperately, Adult authors were screaming mad that the odd Children's Author would make the Best Sellers List. I had no idea some of the adult authors contracts would include bonus clauses for getting on the NYT list!:) Do some Children's book contracts have this same clause I wonder?

alvinaling said...

Katherine--thanks for the referral to that article, interesting stuff. I know that in some rare cases we've tried to follow some of the formatting and pricing guidelines for Target (they prefer vertical trim sizes so they can display more copies, and have a lower ideal price point than book stores), but overall, not much has changed except we try to get our books into those markets!

Dana--I think that's a good compromise, and in a way, I think some publishers HAVE decided to do this already (we slightly reduced the number of titles we publish each year about 4 years ago), but I don't know if it's made much of a difference. Then again, our company has been doing really really well, so maybe it HAS made a difference. I had forgotten about that...

Christine--yes, occasionally children's book contracts have similar best-seller bonus clauses, just as we occasionally have bonus clauses for Newbery, Caldecott, and other such awards. Generally, though, we try for net sales bonuses as opposed to best seller list bonuses, because it's kind of a mystery what really determines how books land on bestseller lists. Anyway, these bonus clauses have become more common as more adult agents have come to represent children's books, too.

Christine Tripp said...

Thanks for that info Alvina! I loved where the person speaking about this (I have forgotten the woman's name) mentioned that the "Adult" authors where NOT happy when a "Children's" author would make it on the list and cut them out of their bonuses, haha, I could just imagine some of them, bested by an author who writes for, for.... CHILDREN!!!!!:) Pretty cool actually!

Anonymous said...

Alvina, I'm curious -- did the decision to cut back on new titles come from discussions around this issue of there being too much product in the marketplace? Was it accompanied by staff cutbacks (I'm thinking of Christine's comment above -- I hadn't thought of that as a possible consequence of reducing the number of frontlist titles)?

alvinaling said...

Hard to say, but it did come at a time when my company had a hiring freeze and a few layoffs--not in my department, luckily (we did have one editor leave to go to grad school, and we chose not to replace him).

I think it's all about profit, what balance of titles to employees makes the most financial sense.

I think there will also always be small niche publishers who will make sure that diverse topics get covered, but again, they might not get the attention they deserve.