Anyone else getting tired of hearing about how the book business is in a slump? I have a cold, summer’s over, and the health care battle wages on in Congress. Sure, the Yanks are in the playoffs, but aside from that, there isn’t a whole lot out there that makes me feel optimistic. Except, that our agency is having a good year. A really good year. We’re selling books faster than we can turn contracts around, we’re seeing authors whose careers we’ve helped build show up regularly on the bestseller lists, and we continue to be engaged in developing the myriad ideas that cross our desks every day.
So, when I open the paper (actually, I read the Times online) to yet another “the sky is falling” piece citing as the primary indicator of the industry’s woes the under-performance of titles like Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, Ted Kennedy’s posthumous memoir, and Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, it makes me just want to…write a blog post. Last I heard, Dan Brown’s book has sold about 3,000,000 copies and I’m guessing it will eventually sell all the ones his publisher printed. If you factor in rights sales, this book will make money (despite the astronomical advance and whatever you may think about its literary merits). Likewise Ted Kennedy, whose book should have even greater staying power than The Lost Symbol. Senator Kennedy’s career and storied family, not to mention his contributions to his country, would seem to guarantee that generations hence political science students will be reading True Compass. I confess to being one of the few people I know who didn’t love The Time Traveler’s Wife so I would not be surprised if the author’s new book finds a true and loving audience or really does end up disappointing the publishing execs who overpaid for it. That’s what makes horse races, as they say.
What I really object to in today’s article (among other things better left for other blog posts) is the notion that books are like the latest Tom Cruise or Will Smith movie, that opening weekend grosses are more important than overall sales (and an author’s career), and that books are going to find themselves in the remainder bins as quickly as one of those films goes to DVD because they don’t sell out their entire print runs within the allotted 10 days of co-op placement. In fact, the marketplace is changing and it seems that only publishing people are unaware of that. Given the internet’s ability to create niche audiences for everything from bento boxes to splatterpunk, it takes longer for some titles to build sales. Readers are becoming used to the fact that they will be able to find the books they want to read either in their originally published form or through used book sites or e-book editions. Just because these people are not in the bookstore the day a book is published doesn’t mean that that audience, if marketed to correctly, can’t make a title a bestseller six months after publication.
Despite this, publishers are still overpaying for a tiny percentage of books and then rolling them out as if the entire business depended on them, and they are invariably disappointed when they don’t sell by the truckload within a couple of weeks. And then the second guessing and hand wringing begin. Instead, how about not paying such ridiculous advances and publishing books more intelligently? You can still have your Dan Browns and your Ted Kennedys and your books about bento boxes but won’t bankrupt the system by making them happen. Building sales slowly and carefully may not be “sexy” but it will guarantee a loyal audience that will follow an author (and a book) for years to come. That’s been our M.O. here at DGLM and it’s what will ultimately take the publishing business out of the doldrums.