Monday, May 14, 2007

On the unfathomable mysteries of book-publishing

There are writers out there who know their novels are good enough to sell, but who find the publishers aren't biting. They twist their brains into knots trying to figure out why so many poorly-written, predictable novels are snaped up by acquiring editors when their manuscripts don't even get a full read. Those people and many others will find some eye-opening quotes in yesterday's New York Times article about the shocking cluelessness of the book-publishing industry. The article pretty much spells out that deciding which books to buy (or not) is no more exact a science than picking winning ponies at the race track.

There are quite a few eyebrow-raisers in the article. I'll quote some of them:

Publishers...put up Web sites where, in some cases, readers can sign up for announcements of new titles. But information rarely flows the other way — from readers back to the editors.

“We need much more of a direct relationship with our readers,” said Susan Rabiner, an agent and a former editorial director. Bloggers have a much more interactive relationship with their readers than publishers do, she said. “Before Amazon, we didn’t even know what people thought of the books,” she said.

Why not? How hard would it be to ask?

Most in the industry seem to see consumer taste as a mystery that is inevitable and even appealing, akin to the uncontrollable highs and lows of falling in love or gambling. Publishing employees tend to be liberal arts graduates who enter the field with a starting salary around $30,000. Compensation is not tied to sales performance. “The people who go into it don’t do it for the money, which might explain why it’s such a bad business,” Mr. Strachan said.

That's an interesting observation. But it's a "bad business" all around, as few published authors are able to make a good living, either. I lay that at the door of publishers, who make money purely by accident and who lose it by sheer stupidity. That's some business model you've got there, friends!

Eric Simonoff, a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, said that whenever he discusses the book industry with people in other industries, “they’re stunned because it’s so unpredictable, because the profit margins are so small, the cycles are so incredibly long, and because of the almost total lack of market research.”

Why haven't publishers made any discernable effort to get a handle on what makes readers buy some books and not others? How is selling books different from selling potato chips or running shoes? Can't somebody interview a few bookbuyers and find out why certain books are bestsellers and others aren't?

They could, but they don't. I mean, they really don't. There is no business in the world like publishing. Here's more:

The industry does follow trends to pursue growth, but when it comes to acquisitions, methods have not changed much in hundreds of years, says Al Greco, a professor of marketing at Fordham University.

IT’S the way this business has run since 1640,” he says. That is when 1,700 copies of the Bay Psalm Book were published in the colonies. “It was a gamble, and they guessed right because it sold out of the print run. And ever since then, it has been a crap shoot,” Professor Greco said.

“It’s guesswork,” says Bill Thomas, editor in chief of Doubleday Broadway. “The whole thing is educated guesswork, but guesswork nonetheless. You just try to make sure your upside mistakes make up for your downside mistakes.”

Yet publishers still stubbornly avoid doing even the most basic market research.

Some experts wonder if book publishers might uncover more [successful] books...if they tried harder to find out more about their buyers and what they want.

“The Newspaper Association of America has a staggering amount of data on people who read newspapers. The book business has, basically, nothing,” said Professor Greco. “They’re not going into the marketplace and doing mall intercepts and asking people, as they leave the bookstore, ‘What did you buy? Did you find what you’re looking for? What motivated you to choose that book?’”

An exception is the consumer research gathered by the Romance Writers of America, a writers’ association that publishes a regular market study of romance readers. It reports survey information on, for example, demographics, what respondents are reading, where they are getting the books and how often, and what kind of covers attract them. Romance authors and publicists use the information to create promotional campaigns.

Most publishers, though, continue to gather data on sales and not much else, though past performance is certainly no guarantee of future results, even from the same author.

I've always found the RWA stats interesting but not particularly helpful, as the depth and breadth of the surveys is limited by financial considerations. But at least the romance writers are trying to figure out what people enjoy reading and why. The publishers are doing nothing at all.

Unless gazing into crystal balls counts as market research.


pacatrue said...

That is interesting. I am sure some publishers don't do research because they think of their works as art, and art galleries don't do market research before deciding whether or not Pollock is worth hanging on the wall. However, I suspect that the Time article is correct in that it's mostly just not tradition to do this work and most people don't know how.

I am thinking through art driven industries. Film certainly does market research. Theater, not so much I don't think. Painting, sculpture... probably not. Crafts and design, very possibly do.

I bet a lot of it has to do with how many copies they are trying to sell. My understanding is that most mid-list books sell a few thousand copies and the publisher spends under a hundred thousand printing and promoting it. They then publish stacks of small items. Hollywood, however, puts out a cheap movie for 20 million and needs a hundred thousand people to buy it. It might require a shift in book publishing to similarly only trying to publish a small number of very popular books as opposed to a large number of mildly popular ones.

Laura Vivanco said...

I have the impression that Harlequin is one of the publishers which does do quite a bit of market research. I know I've seen questionnaires at the back of Harlequin M&Bs every once in a while and Juliet Flesch, in her book about Australian romances, mentions that Mills & Boon do reader surveys:

The firm continues to spend considerable time and effort interrogating its readership. Belinda Hobbs, the Australian executive behind the M&B imprint, told Rachel Morris of the Daily Telegraph that 'her secret was listening to the market and reacting accordingly. "We did a lot of market research," she said. (2004: 59)

Flesch goes on to give a brief description of a survey carried out by Australia's M&B in 1998 of a 'random sample of 1800 urban and non-urban women over eighteen years old' (2004: 59) and she also mentions the 'more broad-brush approach [which] is to include surveys in the endpages of the book' (2004: 61). She concludes that 'Torstar's investment in market research of this type challenges Rabine's contention that the publisher ignores the reader' (2004: 61).

I also know that, at least for one UK line, there are regular surveys sent out to readers who've volunteered to fill them in. I signed up when I saw it mentioned at the back of one of the novels that M&B were looking for new readers to do this, and now I get sent a form each month so that I can rate the books in that line and give feedback on them.

Flesch, Juliet, 2004. From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels (Fremantle: Curtin University Books).

Brenda Coulter said...

You're right, Laura; I should have mentioned that notable exception. I was talking about publishers of "general" fiction, not series romance--but since I mentioned Romance Writers of America, I really should have mentioned Harlequin, too.

Now I'm feeling disloyal, especially as Harlequin sent me a nice royalty check earlier this month.

Laura Vivanco said...

Just to add, re Harlequin being an exception and your question 'How is selling books different from selling potato chips or running shoes?', that's precisely what Harlequin Mills & Boon did. Janice Radway observed that Harlequin had

unusual but highly successful marketing strategies.
Those strategies, it should be pointed out, are unusual only because Heisey has applied them to bookselling. In actuality, they are little different from the techniques that have been employed for years in various consumer-product industries. Discounting the traditional wisdom of the publishing business, Heisey set out in 1971 to prove that books could be sold like any other commodity.
(1991: 40)

The downside is that Harlequin get accused of treating novels like soap-powder, and of not valuing art/literary merit. I don't really think that's fair, because I've come across plenty of very good category romances and some really outstanding ones. Also, Harlequin do sometimes take risks that other print publishers won't, for example they've recently printed some Roman-era historicals. They don't always get things right, of course, and in general they do seem more focused on building brand recognition than on promoting individual authors, but they certainly seem willing to try to sell books in a similar way to other consumer products.

Radway, Janice A., 1991. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press).

Brenda Coulter said...

in general they do seem more focused on building brand recognition than on promoting individual authors

Very true. But for the vast majority of Harlequin authors, that's a good thing. Put just my name on the cover of a book, and I'd be happy to sell the 20K copies that would satisfy most midlist authors. But add that Love Inspired logo and I'll sell many times that number of books.

For every author except the very brightest stars in series romance, Harlequin's policy of promoting the brand rather than individual authors helps authors reach a much wider audience than they will ever find on their own. Sure, our royalties are low (in general, 6% of the cover price of the inexpensive little paperbacks), but we sell lots of books. Faced with a choice between selling something expensive (a trade-size book or even a hardcover) to a handful of people or selling something cheap (a mass-market paperback) to a huge audience, I'll take the latter, thanks very much. I like knowing my novels are being read by huge numbers of people--even if those people are buying Love Inspired books rather than "Brenda Coulter" books.

Laura Vivanco said...

For every author except the very brightest stars in series romance, Harlequin's policy of promoting the brand rather than individual authors helps authors reach a much wider audience than they will ever find on their own.

Oh, I agree and I like the way the books are sold in lines. As I've got to know individual lines better I've come to recognise particular authors within each the line, but the 'line' recognition is something that's helped me work out broadly what sort of reading experience to expect (obviously different authors have different 'voices' and I like some better than others but a 'Romance' is not a 'Love Inspired' is not a 'Blaze', which is not a 'Presents' etc).

I was just pointing out that brand/line recognition and the other marketing techniques used by Harlequin are ones which tend to be used by critics of the genre as proof that romances aren't 'real' literature because each work of 'real' literature was written by a genius who produced works which are so original they couldn't be sold as part of a line. I'm not convinced, really. Quite a few of the big names in literature wrote in serialised form and were highly popular, or they wrote for a patron. And the big literary movements like Romanticism could be thought of as big 'lines'.