It’s Not The Book, It’s The Front

April 28th, 2007 · 7 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Books are funny things. You’d think, after centuries of printing and selling them, industry professionals would understand how the business works. They would get that buzz doesn’t necessarily translate to sales — especially when that buzz is inherently incestuous in nature — and that the buying public is completely overwhelmed by choice.

Publishers need to remember that trying to recreate the successes of 1963 means building time machines.

You would also think that publishers would realize that niches are different than trends. The latter leads to glutting the market when just one or two would do; the former simmers along at just the right temperature, just the right speed. By way of example: moms arguably comprise a massive portion of the reading audience, while so-called “Mommy books” comprise a small portion of the book-buying audience. See the difference?

If you do, you are clearly not in the publishing industry.

The often-clueless New York Times is tangling with buzz-versus-sales quandary relating to these mommy books. Why, Motoko Rich wonders does the online buzz fail to lead to book sales? She actually puts the answer in her fourth paragraph, but keeps asking the question anyway:

“I really think she laid out what she wrote about in the book in the article,” Ms. Moen (a mommy bloggersaid. “The whole article rubbed me the wrong way, so I’m not inclined to read the book.”

And there you have it, publishing industry, the answer to all your questions. The idea that “…mothers who stay at home with their children are financially, emotionally and medically at risk…” is not a topic that requires an entire $24.95 tome. It’s not a topic that requires actual reading — at least from some perspective — to invite debate. It requires public forum and conversation.

This topic requires a…blog. Forums. Interaction. Face-to-face. Real-time communication and asynchronous discussion. Not necessarily in that order.

Let’s face it. Nobody really wants to spend twenty-five bucks to be told that their personal choices are making them miserable. Especially when they aren’t so miserable. Life is one of those funny things: lifestyle decisions are based on a lot of inputs, many of which are variables (money, number of kids, time in the day, child care options), and what works for one may not work for others. And, yes, it’s likely that some stay-at-home mothers face the dire circumstances outlined in Leslie Bennetts’ book (The Feminine Mistake), but the flip side is just a well-represented.

This is why we say blog, not book. Sure, Bennetts would have missed out on a nice advance and probably her marketing campaign would have been different, but it seems clear that the book isn’t reaching the target audience by sitting neatly on a shelf in a bookstore. While publishers are aiming for the longevity inspired by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, they are neglecting to factor a key point into their marketing equations: it’s forty-four years later. Different world, new ways to get the message out.

“There is a lot of discussion out there about this issue [mothers who work and mothers who stay at home] and that’s why we’re having these books,” said Nancy Sheppard, vice president of marketing at Viking, which last year published “Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World” by Linda R. Hirshman. “But it’s mostly just a discussion.”

Because books don’t invite the same kind of discussion that blogs or other media do. You cannot debate the author of a book real-time, even when that author hits all the major media outlets. We’re not talking about a ten-minute interview (with commercial breaks), we’re talking about a topic that has been and will be debated for generations.

The publisher, Voice (a Hyperion imprint), would have been better served by creating a dedicated website and making it a place for serious public debate. Bring in the readers and sell advertising. Crass? Of course not.

It is not that women don’t want to discuss this topic, as suggested by Jonathan Burnham of HarperCollins (“‘It was a problem that touched very complicated feelings, so while they read a magazine article or watched a segment on ‘Oprah,’ they didn’t want to read a whole book about it because it was such a difficult subject.'”), it’s that women are not men. It’s pretty clear from online debate this is a topic being discussed by women. The women engaged in the debate have clearly chosen their forum. And maybe it’s because the topic is so complicated — there are too many moving parts to fit into a single book. No single hardcover book will ever do the subject justice. Quite possibly, no library could ever do the subject justice.

Books are not conversations; books start conversations. But not all books need to be books to invite conversations. Sometimes a book is the wrong forum. And, let’s be frank, if you’re a mother in this modern world, what is your best investment option in this discussion? One-way conversation or two-way? Bennetts will done with her book tour by the time most women have the time to buy and read her book. She may be up for the asynchronous discussion that our time-shifting world requires or she may be on to the next book or topic.

Publishers need to remember that trying to recreate the successes of 1963 means building time machines. While books are very cool and still highly relevant, not everything is a book, or rather not every topic is a book in the traditional sense of the word.

File Under: Non-Traditional Publishing

7 responses so far ↓

  • Bill Peschel // Apr 28, 2007 at 6:32 pm

    Perhaps it would have served the book better if it had been discussed before it was written. Blog readers would have asked pertinent questions that Bennetts could have addressed, and poked holes in her arguments. This type of interactive collaboration could offer an interesting new way of publishing some types of non-fiction.

  • Kassia Krozser // Apr 28, 2007 at 11:11 pm

    Okay, hello, Bill. While this is a direction I hadn’t considered in this instance, it’s a direction I’d advocated in the past. You are right to point out the counter-arguments and interactive collaboration. And it’s exactly the sort of interaction that I’m talking about — I mean, I have theories and supporting evidence, but I’m not necessarily right. At least when it comes to other perspectives.

    We have become accustomed to books being the soul conduit for social discourse, of a certain type, yet books are, by the nature of publishing, behind the curve. It makes no sense at all to start some arguments in a print and bound format.

  • KR Blog » Blog Archive » Short Takes // Apr 30, 2007 at 6:01 am

    […] “You’d think, after centuries of printing and selling them, book industry professionals would understand how the business works.” […]

  • Brian Hadd // Apr 30, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    Topic needs definition right? We know what to say Klever!

    If the model of income (advertising) works why this works right? Does it?

    The Hood Company

  • Brian Hadd // May 1, 2007 at 7:16 am

    Forget that. Think of communication as aggregation. I present you selected facts established by you typing my brain Google.

    Think of blogs as aggregators. You present me information based on you selecting.

    Tell how to pay you.

    The Hood Company

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