Keeping Pushing The Book Publishing Model Blues

July 13th, 2005 · 5 Comments
by Booksquare

If you’ve been paying attention to the news recently, you’ve noticed two major stories: Shrek2 and The Incredibles were victims of stronger-than-expected DVD returns. There are all kinds of questions being asked of the studios behind these films, but, oddly, nobody’s asking about overproduction. Nobody’s asking why the system isn’t more efficient.

Hollywood is lucky in that a few films making it big can pay a lot of bills. But you have you understand that there’s a long revenue stream attached to every movie and television series. For one or two books to carry a publishing house in the same manner, it would require more sales than The DaVinci Code has managed. This book is a fluke, not the norm. Harry Potter? He’s proven to be a genuine money machine. Of course J.K. Rowling can only write so fast — writing isn’t a business where you do a lot of collaborating and sharing.

Terrill Lankford talks about the state of publishing today, wondering if authors like Dan Brown, who paid his dues (whether you like his work or not) before hitting the big time, could survive today’s Costco-and-WalMart mindset. Probably not. Gorman envisions a nightmarish cycle:

A LOT of mid-listers are going the name-change route because of the weird practice in many bookstores of ordering the same amount of an author’s next book as they SOLD of said author’s LAST book: not ordered, but actually sold. Since there are almost always returns – especially in a business that rewards you for NOT selling the merchandise – this is a law of diminishing results where the end number would almost always be zero if allowed to play out to the end. I know of many writers who are having to assume secret identities to hide from these old numbers. This is no longer a growth business for a certain kind of writer – mostly the new ones who have not had the time to establish themselves. I can easily see a time, in the not-too-distant future, where a writer’s career will have to consist of a string of two-book deals, all under different names to avoid the dreaded computer numbers.

We’ve all heard that a movie lives or dies by its opening weekend. What is forgotten is that there’s generally a pretty decent marketing push behind the opening, awareness has been built over a period of months via trailers, and, for most studio releases (even the duds), stars are foisted on the public at a rate that is quickly achieving oversaturation (unless we’ve become so numb that we missed this moment when it happened).

Books, with rare exceptions, don’t get this sort of treatment. Some, as Lankford notes, get a few co-op dollars and prime placement in stores. Most get shelved with lots of other books. Everyone hopes that readers browsing through stores will find new titles. The next thing you know, the author loses because his or her numbers didn’t achieve a certain level of expectations. It’s unclear how the author is supposed to win, or even make it out of the starting gate, these days.

We’ve suggested (as have others) that publishers take a look at their marketing approaches, spreading more dollars to more titles, fewer dollars to authors who are contractually privileged to receive full-page ads in the New York Times. Lankford talks about letting books build regionally; maybe it’s time to return to this practice. Word-of-mouth can often be a highly effective tool for building interest, but if that’s your business model, then you need to do something to get the words in the right mouths. (via Lee Goldberg)

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

5 responses so far ↓

  • Karen // Jul 13, 2005 at 8:58 am

    This is thoroughly discouraging. Sales of my 2 novels have been, shall we say, modest, and I’ve thought from time to time of submitting the next one under another name. Neither agent nor publisher has suggested this — but then I’m not finished writing. The day may yet come. I can’t think what the solution is, other than (as you and others suggest) spreading the marketing dollars around. But aside from a few odd corners of the book world, it’s not really happening, not as far as I can tell …

  • Susan Gable // Jul 13, 2005 at 4:08 pm

    I was talking about this today with some other writers, but in terms of a publisher cutting back print runs based on previous sell-through. Same point – there will always be returns, so if they keep cutting the number, then logically it’s going to get smaller and smaller. You can’t sell product that’s not out there.

    Please, please, where is the LOGIC??? (sigh)

  • Booksquare // Jul 13, 2005 at 5:29 pm

    Susan, if you’re seeking logic, you’ve come to the wrong business (g).

    Karen, I am hiding out in the secret lair today, and was stopped by the coffee maker (all secret lairs come with an unlimited supply of caffeine). A reader of this blog, after ensuring I had a full, steaming cup of double-strength brew, said, “Karen posted a comment on your blog. I nearly responded.” I said, “Go ahead, you know this stuff.” He said, “I think she should start blogging about her book now and forever to build buzz.” Then he left me to ponder such a thought.

    As a terminally shy person, I find the idea of self-promotion to be ulcer-inducing. That being said, I have no problem telling other people what to do. And what to do is build name recognition. You’ve already started with your official frequent-commenter status — next step is to put a URL in the URL (or URI) field. People click on such things with alarming frequency…repetition is key and the more people who click through are likely to remember your name!

  • Susan Gable // Jul 14, 2005 at 6:44 am

    But, Booksquare, shouldn’t all businesses have LOGIC?

    Yes, logically, they should, but alas, I know you’re right. (g)

    I’d settle for steps in the direction of less illogical. LOL.

  • David Isaak // Jul 18, 2005 at 12:11 am

    Yep, the numbers game.

    If you want to read a great fictionalization of the “only order what sold last time” trap, check out “The Hook” by the estimable Donald Westlake.

    Creepy, sad, accurate.

    Treat it like a Zen thing.