Thursday, November 05, 2009

Driving sales in the long term

For the past several days I’ve been editing a fascinating proposal by one of my clients, an economist who specializes in analyzing global entrepreneurship. Despite working in the so-called “dismal science,” he makes an encouraging case that this is an era of singular opportunity. He warns, however, that “yesterday’s powerbrokers can be counted on to paint opportunity as threat and dig in their heels against change.”

Although his book focuses on more far-flung examples, I wondered how this lens might be applied closer to home. Indeed, book publishing, and more broadly print media, feels distinctly threatened (a theme Miriam took on not long ago). It’s not only the New York Times that reports that the sky is falling, when I meet with editors especially, conversations often circle a drain of dispiriting themes, including: diminishing readership for books, intense competition for a decreasing number of publicity spots, and no guarantee--even when the stars and media align--that a given book will sell. Certainly, it’s clear to see that most everyone in publishing is working hard on behalf of their projects, but traditional models, especially in publicity, are no longer yielding the same results. There are likely any number of reasons this is so, subject, in fact, for another blog, but the upshot is that many books never get the sought-after spot that throws open the door to bestellerdom, and in cases when they do get it, and an author lands an interview with Terry Gross, trades banter with Jon Stewart, or has a substantive review in the NYTBR, sometimes nothing happens.

It is a pervasive problem, damaging to houses but crushing to authors. Houses (must) turn their attention to another book, as the so-called publicity “window,” open for all too brief a moment, slams shut. But for authors, cutting losses is not so easy. So, I wondered, combing through Bookscan numbers, is anyone looking at this grim picture and finding opportunity? Inspired by my economist client, I decided to look for book-business examples of entrepreneurs who are adapting to, and not bewailing, the changing media landscape. For my first “case study,” I did not have to look too far.

The staff of DGLM met recently with Fauzia Burke, a former marketing manager at Holt, who some years ago began her own internet publicity firm, FSB Associates. Cognizant that traditional publishing houses don’t have the staff or resources to pursue internet publicity with the same energy that they pursue the more traditional high impact gets--TV, radio and print--she and her team pitch bloggers, web magazines, communities of enthusiasts to spread the word online, where book sales are only a click away. Burke made a variety of convincing arguments for why this is effective, but the one that struck me as most interesting is that internet publicity does not have to happen in the brief window of time--say six weeks after pub--while the book is “news.” Bloggers, much like the New York Review of Books, don’t care so much about publication dates. Which is important. Because, as Miriam pointed out--books are supposed to be around for the long-haul, not have the literary equivalent of a blockbuster opening weekend then end up in the remainder bin. The idea that on-line promotion can help drive long term sales, or breathe new life into projects whose sales were disappointing is not necessarily a new one nor is it a silver bullet. Connecting an author with communities of like-minded readers on-line requires about as much virtual legwork as finding these folks in the real world, but especially as traditional media contracts, it’s well worth exploring. On-line promotion does not necessarily rely on a rolodex of producers and editors. Anything that helps move the industry away from the blockbuster model, which makes failures of far too many books, is, in my eyes, welcome.



  1. I think people aren't reading because of the internet.

  2. This is a great piece, Jessica. You’ve hit the nail on the head. People in publishing should embrace your ideas. Internet community networking represents opportunities for inexpensive marketing and distribution as well as increased after pub date shelf life. When everyone finally accepts the fact then fear will disappear.

    Alternative (cheap) marketing and long-term availability of books are building blocks of a new publishing pay model that I doubt will destroy traditional print. As the unfulfilled promise of a paperless office should testify, it will augment it.

    I wonder why paperback houses paid large advances in the 1970s? Did printing technology have anything to do with it? Hum? I’ve hear tales of a time when you could buy a book at the local grocer or drug store on these things called racks. Top shelf authors were “too good” to publish in paperback. That was until they saw the zeros on the checks.

    Some brilliant person will eventually develop a model that provides e-book incentives for authors, redefines first rights in light of new technology, and provides equitable long-term rights to publishers for e-book and print on demand sales that take into consideration those long-term sales you mention.

    Let’s face it authors want to write books. Most do not enjoy having to market themselves. They will always need a machine. Houses that recognize the opportunity and embrace it will still be in business a decade from now.

    Those houses that refuse to change will die bankrupt as their cash cows jump the fence to greener pasture.

  3. Robin Miura6/11/09 7:52 AM

    Great post; I couldn't agree more.

  4. Thank you Jessica. It was great to meet all of you as well.

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