Thursday, October 08, 2009

Book sales and wails

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.

-- Miriam


  1. Thanks for talking sense. Very nice!

    As far as Dan Brown's sales go, I believe they're down because the Church hasn't announced it's formal protest of the book.

    While I'm sure The Lost Symbol is a fun book to read (I'll buy it... I've read all of Dan Brown's books), without the controversy surrounding The DaVinci Code, the 'non-reader' just isn't as interested. Hence, less sales.

    Anyway, I like your comments. Thanks.

  2. Thank you. It's nice to hear some optimism and realistic points presented.

  3. Wonderful post! A breath of fresh air. Thank you for your thoughts.

  4. Isn't there a market opening here for publishers that would be more supportive of mid-list books, bundling up small profits here and there, instead of always rolling the dice on big blockbusters?

  5. Glad to hear I'm not the only one who was underwhelmed by TTTW.

    The tell? It fell under my “10-5 Rule”: If you absolutely know within the first ten pages of a new novel that it will be made into a movie with a big-name star within 5 years, it’s almost guaranteed to be ho-hum.


  6. Hear! Hear!

    Good to hear it from someone in the industry.

    Hope the cold is gone.

  7. I do wonder why so much emphasis is placed on initial sales. I generally spend $50 a week on books but rarely do I buy anything that's brand new. I buy based on my reading interests, which may very well be spurred by blogs & other coverage. Indeed, I would be happy to find niche blogs that cover more mid-list books from not just 2009 but the last 20 years.

  8. I like your perspective, especially re: this:
    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.

    I don't know anyone who rushes out the day a book drops to buy it the same way they flock to movies on opening night. Maybe for huge, huge titles, like the last Harry Potter book (and probably A DANCE WITH DRAGONS whenever that's released, because I'm friends with a lot of huge George R.R. Martin fans). But those are a fraction of what those people read. It usually takes me weeks or months, sometimes even a year or two, to pick up new books, because my reading list is so long. (I do try to move more quickly if I know it's a new author or someone who could really use immediate sales, though.)

  9. Well-said and Amen.

    Now if only everyone else would pay attention to your wisdom...

  10. I buy lots of backlist books for scifi and fantasy authors I just discovered, so this makes perfect sense to me :).

    Thank you for this perspective!

  11. (that means....well done.)

  12. And now thanks to Kristin's post I feel like a big nerd. =) I am far more likely to run out as early as possible to get the latest novel from one of my favorite authors, or a book I've heard a lot about than I am to see a new movie. In fact I do not remember the last movie I saw in a theater. I tend to wait for DVD.

    But I guess I'm part of the nerdy minority on that.

  13. Thanks for all the comments, guys. To answer Travener's question, I think some publishers are starting to wise up to the idea (which is not new, by the way) that books have long lives and should be given the opportunity to find their audience. A strong backlist is a necessity for financial health in our business and back to basics may well be the new trend.

    As for Tara's comment, I'm all for rushing out to buy a book by a favorite author as soon as it comes out and I think most bookworms have the impulse to do that even if they don't act upon it, but my feeling is that publishers have to give the books they publish the opportunity to find their readers and that sometimes takes months (in some cases years).

  14. I tend to buy bestsellers long after they're off the hot list. Last year, I saw half a dozen books long past their first flush of popularity on the display shelf of our local book store, with the current bestsellers. When I asked why they were there, I was told that they were so popular, it was easier just stocking them where everyone could see them. It's heartening to know that books don't just get one fleeting chance before they end up remaindered in some stockroom.

  15. If I may make a really silly analogy, everybody knows that Kevin Costner's film, "Waterworld" was a total flop, right?

    Because it only made $21 million in the opening weekend.

    Of course, it then went on to make $88 million domestic. Still not so great, considering how much it cost to make.

    But then it made $176 million in foreign box office, so there was a total of $264 million in box office sales total.

    And you know what? It probably sold a few videos. And it's regularly on the cable rotation. And I'm hardpressed to believe that any product, movie, book, or automobile, that makes 4 to 5 times what it cost to make and CONTINUES to make money, is somehow a failure.

    Dan Brown's latest isn't done selling, hasn't come out in mass market yet, etc., etc. Enough already.

  16. Very intelligent perspective. This comment in particular:
    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.

    I believe that sustainable author popularity is still, in this Twitter age, hand-to-hand. Book-group-to-book-group. The culture of readers will endure the peaks and valleys of sensation because of the nature of the activity, and its particular relationship with the brain and emotional construct.

  17. I spent a couple years spending $200 a month on paperbacks. I only started rushing out to get the latest releases when I started my blog.

  18. I think all the moaning over Ted Kennedy's memoir is pathetic.

    Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are wiping the floor with it but you never mention them.

    I suppose you (and the NYT) think any recognition of these "other" authors is beneath you because they're conservatives. But that really shows a lack of judgment in my opinion.

    Whether or not you want to admit it, there are a lot of conservative readers (and maybe even writers) out there and you shouldn't let your personal political leanings get in the way of doing your job.

  19. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Traditional publishing really needs to get with the new century and not rely on practices that developed out of the 20's, 30's and 40's of the last.

    And thanks, too, for the slow build comment. The tortoise and the hare really seem to apply here. Why on earth would anyone in their right mind even consider comparing book sales to opening weekend of a movie? That's like comparing bananas to a Mercedes (guess you can tell I like books). There are an awful lot of good and even great writers and sometimes, gosh, they have to be discovered and discovery sometimes, time?

    Ironically, historically in times of economic downturns books and movies (okay, and alcohol) have better than expected performance.


  20. Thank you! Interesting that publishing may return to the way it used to be: building a larger and larger audience for midlist authors over the course of three or four or five books...

  21. You are so right. And it's sad to see that some higher ups in publishing have yet to get the message about how the market is changing.

  22. Thanks for the encouraging post. I had similar convictions, and it's nice to have them affirmed by someone in the know. (I'm not just foolishly optimistic, hurrah! ;-)

    Have a great weekend.

  23. I didn't like the Time Traveler's Wife either. Barb

  24. LOVE your perspective here. I completely agree that a long-term approach, and a spread over more authors/books for that advance money, is a smarter way to be sure things pan out. It is the same idea with investing--spread the risk and you'll do well eventually.

    As for book buying--there are two times I buy day of: 1) it is part of a series my kids are following, 2) there is a STEEP discount for first day sales of something I know I'll buy anyway--a gimmick I know is devised to make a best seller list, but why not take advantage? (and if everybody buys it that way, doesn't that make it HARDER to make up the advance? Unless the gimmick works, I mean)

  25. Thank you so much for this post! how refreshing to finally hear something positive. Now it's time for more manuscript revisions:)

  26. Thank you so much for that post, Miriam. I couldn't have said it better.

    I was put on the spot myself by the Dallas Morning News not too many months ago. I thought I was being interviewed about MY opinion on the economy and independent presses. Unfortunately they were more interested in twist my words so they could have the gloom and doom article they were looking for.

    We're buying books from authors - bookstores are selling them. As far as I can see the book business is still in business.

  27. I think that this posts hits the nail on the head regarding long term sales. Today writers can build the kind of web presence that brings them new readers all year round. After a book is new to a reader the first time they read it!

  28. Wise words that hopefully some executives in the publishing houses will read.

  29. Wonderful post & comments. Sure, it takes a longer time for a book to build sales, but the corp of fans that develops around that long tail is extremely devoted. Loyal fans buy books and see the movies made from those books! The publishing industry will be back, but it will have to adapt. Smaller advances for authors, attention to niche marketing, and an internet + audiobook friendly approach are the way of publishing future. The publishing industry isn't dying, it's changing. Books are just houses for stories. Great storytelling never goes out os fashion.

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