Thursday, May 24, 2007

Jim McCarthy takes on Oprah

I’ve mentioned before that I love competition. Set me loose in a Pictionary game and suddenly it becomes a contact sport. So it should be no surprise that I track the comments on this blog with depressing fervor. Therefore, I’m going to make a blatant effort to elicit as much discussion as Michael’s take on THE SECRET did. What could I possibly talk about that would engender that level of conversation? Miriam suggested “The Bible: Fact or Fiction?”

But I won’t do that. I’ll go even bigger than God. I’ll go Oprah.

As everyone who works in publishing does, I follow Ms. Winfrey’s book club selections closely and keep an eye out for surprise bestsellers that can be explained only by an author’s appearance on her show. Anyone remember how fast ON THE DOWN LOW became a bestseller? I watched the fallout from Freygate on the office television set and pondered what it would mean for the future of memoirs (more disclaimers), and I bemoaned the choice of THE ROAD for her next book club (I know, I know, I’m still not over it).

I keep my fingers perpetually crossed that someday one of my clients will have the patented Oprah seal of approval stamped on his or her book, and I get a great big kick out of the fact that she uses her enormous commercial power to promote reading. I’m thankful that she introduced me to Wally Lamb whose SHE’S COME UNDONE is an outstanding read. And I’m delighted that she has compelled thousands upon thousands of people to keep returning to the works of my favorite author, Toni Morrison.

So why is it that there’s an eensy weensy nagging voice in the back of my mind that always questions whether Oprah, the woman and the show, is actually a good influence?

Let’s go back a few years to Oprah’s selection of Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS for the book club. This is an exceptional novel that deserves every reader it can snag. But the unthinkable happened: after the official announcement, Franzen cancelled. Ye gods! All hell broke loose.

It seems that Franzen questioned whether or not it was appropriate to allow one person so much control over what we read. At the time, the argument made sense to me. With hundreds of book critics nationwide, why should such an enormous group of readers instantly jump on board with whatever a talk show host happens to have picked for them to read?

It wasn’t too long thereafter that Oprah did her stint in the classics. Suddenly John Steinbeck and Leo Tolstoy were huge bestsellers. And people began to complain that those authors didn’t need the help. For one, they were already classics. And also, they were dead. Give the royalties to someone who needs them, right?

I’ve come around a bit over the past few years. No, I don’t think we should have one arbiter of literary taste. But then again, we get what we deserve, don’t we? If we lived in a society of readers, maybe the number of people buying Oprah’s selections wouldn’t make us blink. But we just don’t. One of the biggest shocks to me when I started working in this industry was how few books it took to create a bestseller. I figure there has to be a backlash to technology at some point and that readers are waiting to be made—just look at how much people latched onto a certain boy wizard and you can see the possibilities. But until then, perhaps I’ll just find happiness in the fact that at least someone out there is encouraging folks to read literature. Even if it is just a talk show host.

P.S. Dear Ms. Winfrey:

I mean absolutely no offense by that “just a talk show host” comment. I think you’re the greatest thing since Nutella. You’re a hero of the people. Herm├Ęs never should have slighted you. You’re looking awfully thin these days. Pretty, pretty please pick one of my clients’ works as your next book club pick...

Your devoted follower,

Jim McCarthy

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lauren Abramo adds it up

Numbers don’t mean a whole lot to me. I was always much better at the arts/humanities portion of my education than the math/science one. That’s not to say I don’t find math absolutely fascinating—I actually do, I swear!—I just don’t get it the way I do literature and language.

Without a ton of context, statistics don’t tend to make an impact on my brain. But there are some numbers that even the biggest numerophobe in publishing really ought to know. Here are some you might find interesting:

  • U.S. publishing is a $35 billion industry, the Book Industry Study Group reported at BEA last year—net revenues reached $34.59 billion in 2005, which was an increase of 5.9% over the previous year. We may tell ourselves that in this age of video games, technology and instant gratification people are reading less and less—but if that’s true, we’re certainly paying more and more for the books we’re not reading. That same report projects that revenues will break $40 billion by 2010.

  • How many books does it take to bring in that kind of money? Well, approximately 200,000 new books are published each year, reported PW in 2004.

  • And how much paper does it take to print so many books? According to the New York Times (via the Authors Guild Bulleting in Summer 2006), Random House buys 110,000 tons of uncoated paper to publish books each year.

  • Many of us know that the Bible has more copies in print than any other book, but what’s number two? Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, with more than 50 million copies in print and still going, according to Publishers Weekly from 2/12/07.

  • In 2006, Bowker, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading source for bibliographic information,” published a survey based on 13,000 novels published in the U.S.
    • 1,550 of those with a location that could be identified were set in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland.
    • New York and London were the two most common cities used as settings.
    • The same study showed that 65% of romance books, 61% of science fiction titles, and 58% of mystery/detective novels were published in paperback (meaning both mass market and trade).
    • And just how long were those books? The average for sci-fi was 329 pages with romance on its heels at 324. Mysteries were just shy of 300 at 292, followed by westerns at 261.

  • So just how long does it take to write those 13,000 novels anyway?
    • Tom Perkins, ex-husband of Danielle Steel, wrote Sex and the Single Zillionaire in 100 hours over 30 days.
    • Compare that with Donna Tartt and Shirley Hazzard. Tartt published The Secret History in 1992, then spent the next decade writing her second novel, The Little Friend.
    • Hazzard’s follow up took even longer—2003 saw publication of The Great Fire, 23 years after her debut, The Transit of Venus.

  • And do they sell well? The standards for success really do change from book to book based on any number of factors—category, author’s platform, size of the advance, size of the marketing budget—but everyone agrees that the majority of books fail to earn out their advances (meaning that the author’s royalties never accrue to the point that they actually earn more than they were paid up front). What percentage? An exact number is probably impossible to pin down, but it’s said that 80-85% of books published don’t earn out.

  • And how can we know how many copies of a book have sold? The closest we get to reliable public information is via Bookscan, a tracking database operated by Nielsen, the same people who tell us what everyone’s watching on TV. (As you may know, it’s not a perfect system since Bookscan only reports sales from certain segments of the market. If a book sells a large percentage in the “special sales” category—i.e., via outlets other than traditional book channels, including stores like Wal-Mart, which declines to report—Bookscan might not give a particularly good idea of how well that book is selling.) Just how accurate is Bookscan? They claim to be 70-75% accurate, according to a Publishers Weekly article from 2004. Of course that also changes depending on what type of book you’re talking about. Bookscan is more accurate for books that sell primarily via traditional book retailers, and less accurate for categories—like mass market fiction, cookbooks and children’s—that sell a large volume outside those channels.

Some numbers are critical to understanding how publishing works, and others are just an interesting way of looking at what seems like a completely abstract world. What statistics do the rest of you find fascinating? Which sets of numbers comfort or terrify you? What numbers do you wonder about?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Psst...there is no Secret, says Michael Bourret

I think, at this point, that everyone is familiar with The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. It’s a runaway bestseller, Oprah loves it and Boston Legal (the second-best show on television that nobody watches) even poked fun on a recent episode. Someone I know was even told to read The Secret for work. But you know what the real “secret” is? There is no secret. There is no magical way to make your life better. If there were, don’t you think someone would have discovered it by now? Oh, wait! Someone actually discovered “the secret” in the ‘50s, when it was The Power of Positive Thinking. The self-help industry is amazing. Despite the fact that they seemingly haven’t even cured one person – how else could they keep coming up with new ideas about changing your life? – they continue to be some of the biggest money makers around. One of my clients, Dr. Paul Pearsall, discusses these ideas in The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need. As Paul so aptly points out in the book, the industry first convinces us that there is, indeed, something horribly wrong in our lives, and then it offers up a nicely packaged solution that usually comes in several formats, including books, CDs, and now DVDs. You need all three to really make a difference. So is it all just a big scam?

Not necessarily. Plugging another book of ours, Joachim de Posada’s Don’t Eat the Marshmallow...Yet is a terrific book about how delaying gratification makes one a stronger person. And there are certainly good books on overcoming shyness (Goodbye to Shy by Leil Lowndes), sex (anything by Sue Johanson), nutrition (Joy Bauer’s Food Cures), networking (How to Work a Room by Susan RoAne), and the list goes on. These books, however, have a few things in common: they generally only tackle one specialized subject, the author is already an expert in said subject (or the information is based on a study), and the books don’t claim to fix your entire life. In fact, I’d say the authors are rather humble about what they can help you accomplish. They’ll tell you that it’s going to take hard work to make an improvement. They don’t suggest that merely thinking something will make it happen.

I think what we like about The Secret and other “big fix” books is the promise of a better life. The fact is that things aren’t great for most Americans. Our economy is weakening. The poverty rate is increasing. Many of our citizens are without healthcare. We’re stuck in a disastrous situation in Iraq. We can’t trust our elected officials. Corporate crime seems to be at an all-time high. Global warming turns out to be more a current reality than a future threat. We’re warned that another act of terrorism could be around the corner. No wonder we need fixing! But the help we need won’t come from The Secret. It’s not going to happen just ‘cause we wish it so; if it were that easy, wouldn’t it have already happened? It will come from pulling together and working hard for a common goal. It will come when we decide to make a change.

Okay, that was me on my soapbox. What do you writers think? Do you spend all day picturing your manuscript, or do you actually write your books?