This summer, more than anything else professionally, I’ve had the opportunity to explore the periods just before—and after—a book is published, and really analyze what an author, a publisher, and now also an agent need to do in order to position a book for success.
Look, until a certain period of time in the past, an author wrote a book, attracted a publisher, signed a contract, and was more or less able to assume that the publisher would take it from there. Now, there are certainly many folks who say that that period ended very recently, but I recall differently.
In 1991, I was working as an editorial assistant at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich under the legendary, irascible Anne Freedgood (one of the few people I know for whom “irascible” is both a condemnation and a compliment). I ended up leaving Harcourt and publishing and going to business school because I was so frustrated that, as editors, I felt our hands were tied by conservative and short-sighted policies toward marketing and publicity. We were publishing a marvelous, beautiful, fanciful novel called A Case of Curiosities by Allen Kurzweil. We had paid very good money for it. It had received terrific reviews. The author had written a gorgeous book. Anne had edited well, and the designers and production folk had put together an excellent package.
And it was absolutely dying on the vine.
I couldn’t fathom why there was no money for ads in the New York Times. (I know, I know, it’s a waste of money…most of the time.) I saw the sales dwindle after a few weeks, stopped seeing it on the front tables in the bookstores, never saw anyone read it on the subway or the beach. I despaired, and I went to get my MBA specifically in order to understand how to sell books.
And now it’s 2013, and so many of the problems still exist. Authors still write gorgeous books, which are packaged well and at times given reasonable advances—and die on the vine in precisely the same way that Allen Kurzweil’s novel did in 1991, and so many have before and since. And I wonder why, and at times I despair for this business, for its seeming randomness.
So this summer we started thinking about the differences between 1991 and 2013, and most specifically how an author can work to promote his or her book both before and after publication in order to create the elusive buzz and to achieve sales success through either pre-sales or sales after publication. Sometimes the publisher takes the lead; sometimes it is up to the writer (who most of the time hasn’t bargained for a position of such primacy in the marketing—after all, isn’t it enough to write a book strong enough to be released into the public???). Sometimes there is support and enthusiasm from the publisher, sometimes the author is made to feel like he should be grateful just to get a deal, and should go back home and be satisfied.
So we think, and we analyze, and we adjust. When we can find a particular market segment to target and the author has a platform within that segment, we try to exploit that advantage. We see if television exposure works (not terribly often if you are a talking head, in terms of resulting in folks actually clicking the Buy button on Amazon; but more likely if you are the subject of a story). We see if posting on genre-appropriate blogs work. We see if Tweeting and sharing on Facebook make a material difference, and for how long prior to publication you need to build up your base (hint: it helps if you have an established web presence, at least within your genre, from the get-go, but it’s certainly possible to make up for lost time as long as you aren’t perceived as overly craven).
Finally, we try to find places—not bookstores—where the author can appear and speak to the end user. For a children’s book writer, that’s often a school or a library. For a lawyer or a business author writing with expertise about a particular industry, that could be to conferences or firms or to different divisions of large companies. In these circumstances, what’s often the difference between success and leaving money on the table (as it were) is the combination of time, energy, and resources. We have brought on interns and part-timers to call schools and law firms and coordinate appearances, and work with the publishers to ensure that there will be books available to purchase at the events. We help create a degree of buzz.
But what causes the tipping point between a nice tour and a long, extended sales arc? Seemingly it’s the confluence of everything—the book, the package, the reviews, the appearances…and the support by the publisher. And that can be alchemy. Sometimes it’s throwing money at a book (which is nice, certainly). Sometimes it’s a galvanized sales force that goes to its retail accounts and gets the elusive traction. Sometimes it’s ads in the paper or on Amazon or on the subway. Sometimes it’s simply making the book ubiquitous.
And that part, what goes into the elements of that last paragraph, is REALLY HARD. So few authors get all of it. My clients laugh at me because at some point in my relationship with every client I tell them straight out that I am managing their expectations. I’m not subtle. And when I do, I try to figure out what the first point is where that author will be happy, and start by trying to exceed that point. Sometimes it’s simply seeing a book in print. Sometimes it’s earning out an advance. Sometimes it’s getting enough sales to ensure a next contract. Sometimes it’s a specific number of sales, or an Edgar, or a spot on a best seller list. Often those marks are very difficult to hit. Often those marks are unrealistic. Occasionally we exceed them. Sometimes I feel like I’m reliving Allen Kurzweil’s experience over and over, and need to go back to business school to try to figure out a new way to help these books succeed.
But then we close a new deal, and a new book starts the process, and we start to parse the markets, and I think, “This is the one where we figure it all out.” But even if we figure it out once, it’s not necessarily replicable throughout publishing—a cozy needs something different from a middle grade fantasy, which needs something different from women’s fiction. It keeps things interesting, even if it feels like I’m constantly rolling that rock up the hill and waiting for it to slip. But once in a while, you get traction, and then you go back down the hill and start over with the next rock.