Publishing, Leaders on the Highway to Craptopia

As many of you know, I have taken over the publicity duties on a certain book that all of you should own at least 14 copies of (Pooper needs shoes--and he is oh-so-very handsome) -- not because I necessarily wanted to, but because the publisher basically forced me (in that it did a whole lot of nothing, and congratulated itself for the things me and Lump did on our own).

I'm guessing this is a common occurrence for many of us (or soon will be). And what is completely astonishing is that every time I call up said publisher to light a fire under its butt it sighs sadly and says, "people just don't read anymore -- there's nothing we can do -- right now, all of our energies are being put into a Da Vinci Code colorforms collection and Bill O'Reilly Gets those Pesky Liberals -- Again!"

Which depresses me on several levels (even those that don't directly affect my pocketbook). Publishing seems incredibly ready to blame any and all of its problems on readers. This strikes me as clear snobbery -- "My God, the Proles don't know what's good for them, Muffy! Throw them another book by Paris Hilton's dog! And Scott Peterson's mailman!" -- and incredibly counterproductive. McDonalds doesn't bitch about people being more health conscious -- it just comes up with a new McSalad Shaker. And then grinds up a chicken and a cow and puts them in the dressing.

As a writer who cares a lot about writing (and who cares a lot about his students, who are often just looking for some guidance, and actually love books when you get them in their hands -- these very same students belonging to a community college Muffy would never willingly set foot in), this worries me. Those in publishing seem to want to return to some halcyon Eisenhower days where they didn't have to compete with Playstation, movies, and Internet porn. But they can't.

And, to sound like the conspiracy theorist, former X-Files junky that I am, the publisher in particular of which I speak is owned by a foreign corporation. I've started wondering if this corporation views the average American as a barely literate cave person whose deepest wish is to eat a cheeseburger while simultaneously taking a crap, watching American Idol, and dreaming of some nice brown nation to bomb the living shit out of. And, considering the last election at least, we haven't done a whole hell of a lot to prove it wrong.

So, What Would El Gordo Do (fashion-colored bracelets available for three easy payments of $5.95 -- absolutely no money will be given to any downtrodden, sick, or poor person, you can count on that!)? Well, how come America doesn't have paperback first editions? I don't have any money, but I love books. My students always go bananas when I put a book on a list that is only in hardcover, and when they have a choice, they go for the paper. If you could get three books for $30, wouldn't you buy and read all three? And then buy even more? As it stands now, a single book will set you back $30, and you can get two CDS, or a discounted Playstation game and four cookies from the cookie place in the mall for that same price. And since a book costs $30, I don't (and can't afford to) take chances on a writer I've never heard of (and I think most people would agree with me).

But publishing won't change their prices or way of publishing books, so they've tried to up the crap calories of what they do publish to tempt our tastebuds. For example, a major publisher's new "tent pole" book for the new season is a book on how to give blowjobs. And another publisher is handing out copies of Paris Hilton's memoir as if it is proud of publishing it. That's pretty freaking pathetic.

So, what do y'all think? Got any ideas? If others are reading this, and we are some sort of Algonquin roundtable of emerging writers (or at least a pack of fairly erudite drunks with computer access), maybe we could actually help change things.


Charlemagne said...

It seems that the quickest solution, yet the hardest to accomplish, is to start a publishing house. I don't know how distribution is worked out, how the printing is done, and where the money comes from. But it has been done in the poetry publishing world. Both Fence books and Verse Press have been able to survive for awhile now and the put out quality books.

It takes awhile, but with quality work it should start getting attention. I think that places like Verse and Fence have been made more viable through their use of the internet and email lists.

SER said...

Good post, El Gordo. This is something I've thought about, partially because I wanted to see if I could make any money out of coming up with a plan to solve the Crisis of Reading, which I could write an entire manifesto about, a key point of which would be the following: the transition in our culture from the active participation required of reading to the more passive participation (at least mentally) in your own entertainment associated with videogames and movies will, ultimately, have broad effects politically. In other words, this broad failure of imagination will have far-reaching consequences. But enough of my manifesto.

One thing that I think is a major - and needless - barrier right now is the overly high pricing of audiobooks. Like, I picked up the new David Sedaris book - not a long book, mind you - at a bookstore on my recent road trip, thinking it'd be a great listen. But not for $32, and not for something that can't easily be flipped through in the future if I'm trying to remember one line. Publishing companies are afraid of cannibalizing sales of regular books by lowering the price, but I think they're eliminating a whole group of people who don't have time to read because they're too busy commuting, listening to their iPod, etc. These people could be much more hooked on the activity of reading if they had the chance to listen to stories and books much less expensively. I like what Audible.com is doing, but the major publishing companies need to get their acts together. One of my business-school classmates worked in strategy for a big publishing house (owned by an international company), and he worked specifically on audiobooks for a while and became quite frustrated by the inertia on this particular point.

Pete said...

You're right about prices, though I can't remember the last time I only spent $10 for a new book, paperback or not. I wish! Even the used bookstores around here are pricy, asking as much as $8 for a ratty trade paperback.

Yop make me think of children's books. They're cheap. I've always assumed they're cheap because the publisher understands that they're providing a social service. Kids should read. A lot. It's easier for them to read a lot if their parents can afford to buy them a lot of books.

But why aren't the same values extended to adult readers? They should read too. In fact, one of the reasons why we try to get kids to read is so they'll keep the habit, right?

I used to work in the backroom of a evil-book-chain-multi-cappucino-plex, and according to the bitter drunk who supervised me, it's Oprah's fault. Her book club turned trade paperbacks from a rarity to a must-have mark of legitimacy for a book. I don't know if he was right about the specifics (he also claimed to have screwed a few of the more attractive women working the cafe, so his cred is not above reproach). But when was the last time you saw a mass-market paperback of a literary author who hasn't been dead for at least 75 years?

kclou said...

It's unfair to blame trade paper on Oprah, though I don't doubt that the success of her book club contributed to the transition away from mass market, which, as pete noted, is extinct to all but thrillers, classics, and romances with little exception.

There are some big houses that do trade paper originals. I almost signed with Houghton-Mifflin, and they were going to do a trade paper original of the story collection, which I think makes a lot of sense (especially for stories, which almost never sell). The Mariner line (Peter Orner and Marilynne Robinson are two authors they've done) is designed as a trade paper first press for literary fiction, translations, and non-fiction.

I was talking to a friend at HarperCollins over the weekend, and she was surprised I liked the Mariner line. Apparently, a lot of writers are opposed to not having a hardcover first print. So if we get more love for trade paper at the author level, El Gordo, and successfully translate that to the agent level, I don't think it's impossible to hope that more publishers would consider the Marniner route.

In poetry, of course, trade paper originals are very common. And stories are probably closer to poetry than novels at this point in terms of sales.

dunkeys said...
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dunkeys said...
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TLB said...

The problem with going straight to paper is that libraries won't buy it. Libraries must have hardcovers, and libraries are frankly the first access point for a lot of new authors, since people are less likely to invest in a book, hardcover or paper, of an author they're not familiar with. Colleges and universities are slower to adopt new authors and are frankly not a huge market for the big publishing houses. Penguin Classics brings in almost the same amount of money every year, in other words, so it's not a growth enterprise--it's an academic one.

One of the reasons children's books are so cheap is because the writers aren't paid even remotely close to enough to live on off of writing them. I've made more off a single freelance magazine article than what some authors of children's books make. If you get $2500 for a children's book you've done something really right. Another reason children's books are cheap is that children aren't the ones who buy them--adults do, and adults don't like spending a lot of money for something children may or may not like very much or may outgrow in a hurry. (Look at the prices of kid's clothes, which are so much cheaper than adult clothes.)

The price of raw paper is also a lot higher than it used to be, but people aren't necessarily willing to spend a lot more for books than they used to. When I worked at Penguin almost ten years ago hardcovers and paperbacks were priced almost the same as they are now, about $23-25 for a hardcover fiction and $13-15 for a trade paperback, so the profit point on book publishing has actually gone down in recent years. And yet, if you go into a Barnes and Noble or Borders, you can't argue that publishers are churning out a huge number of books these days, which is astonishing, given the number of people I know who confess to not reading anything, ever, if given a choice (include most members of my own family; how depressing is that?)

I think what all this boils down to is that much of the work is being left up to us to do. It sucks, but if we want to have careers that last longer than a single book, we're going to have to take matters into our own hands as much as possible. We aren't all going to be Curtis Sittenfelds, with great word of mouth, a cute cover, and fabulous reviews--so we aren't all going to have 100,000 print runs and a great marketing budget. I'm sure she didn't think it would happen for her, either, but luck is luck.

What I'm proposing is a Plan of Action:

What if we started a consortium of PR resources and shared talent? A lot of us have media contacts and skills. We're already breaking into the world of publishing, between Lumpy, Robert, Frances, myself etc. etc. Could we work together to write and mail press releases, make posters, contact bookstores? Would anyone else besides me be willing to donate what time and talent they have to help get the word out about friends' books and book tours? Because I really, really would. Starting now.

I would be willing to work up some press releases for Kerry, complete with names of editors I've worked with at various newspapers and magazines, and put her in touch with a library book club that I know in Illinois. I would also be willing to do the same for Robert on the release of his paperback, or for any of the rest of you.

PJKM, you were a publicity manager, what do you think?

Nate said...

In response to El Gordo's problem, maybe books should be packaged in happy meals. I feel your pain. I just dropped 20 bones on Ashbery's new book... I couldn't resist, and it's actually well worth it, but still, it seems like the market could at least try to cater to its consumer base which, surprise, aren't all tenured profs. One solution, which makes sense for poets and other fringe writers, and in fact has been going on for 400 years: coterie and small press. That's absurd for the mammoth McPublishing houses, but for more intimate communities of writers and readers, it's a perfect solution. James Merrill's first book was self-published (I think). Much of O'Hara's work was published in small museum editions. Virginia Woolf and her hubby Tom ran their own press. Schwitters did everything himself. Then there's Blake. It's not exactly unprecedented. There's only that nagging question of audience...

Brando said...

For novels, unfortunately, going straight to paper is akin to going straight to video. Along with the reasons my smart and charming wife mentioned about libraries, there's also a perception that a book wasn't good enough to go to hardcover. I think it tends to hurt your review possibilities, which hurts your chance at buzz, which then kills sales.

When publishers say people don't read anymore, what they are really saying is, "we don't know what people read anymore and we don't feel like spending money on market research to find out, so we're going to publish a whole bunch of stuff and see what sticks." Plus, the people running the marketing at publishing houses are like marketers anywhere. They have goals to attain to get promoted and get bonuses, they have biases about what they think will succeed and what won't, and they often disagree with editors and authors on what deserves promotion. When you get left out in the cold, it really sucks, and often you can't figure out why they didn't try to sell more copies of your book.

PJKM said...

I agree with Brando: books are not that different from records, my old game, and the "throw shit at walls" strategy seems to prevail in both businesses.

It's not essential to publishing companies that every book is a resounding commercial success, though that would make them very happy: as long as enough new releases make good numbers, the rest on the schedule are there for padding.They're trying to reach sales and profit targets, not save our literary culture.

A break-out hit in fiction, say, may mean two things: that most of their marketing support and attention will go to that hit, in order to drive sales even higher; and that nobody cares too much about turning the 5K sellers on the release schedule into a 10K seller, or a 10K seller into a 20K seller. What's the incentive? There's only so much time and money, and backing something that looks like it's going to be a winner makes much more sense.

I used to get calls all the time from artists complaining about what was or wasn't being done for them. The records equivalent of an editor, I guess, is the A&R person, and often artists would be promised the moon by A&R, or at least told how important they were to the label. In reality, we might see their project as something needed to fill a gap in the schedule, or something that worked with other things we were releasing, or something that could guarantee x amount of sales, often a pretty low figure, but enough for us to make the month or the quarter.

Once I believed so strongly in a project that I spent way too much time and money on it. We brought the artists over from Sweden and dragged them around the country. The record sold four times more than the original forecast, but still not enough to justify the work we did or the money we spent. We could have sold the same number of units putting out a back-catalogue compilation that cost an nth of the money spent on marketing this record.Personal passion is all very well, but if you don't reach your profit targets, you're out of a job.

I think in the short-term - rather than set up a publishing house or kidnap Oprah - we should consider working within the system, as TLB suggests. Grassroots marketing is essential for anything out of the mainstream, and that includes most literary new releases. If we can work together to create a break-out market for a book, working every local angle, then a marketing department is much more likely to offer support to build on that in another market.

Sorry this post is so long - you've probably wandered off to other pastures by now.

Charlemagne said...

I think it is interesting that the two poets in the conversation, nate and meself, are the only ones advocating starting a small press to solve the woes. Poets have been dealing with small audiences and runs pretty much forever except in isolated cases. I think that literary fiction writers are going to have to come to the conclusion that the true audience isn't that magnificantly bigger than the audience for poetry, except of course in isolated cases. I think short stories have already suffered this fate. And I think true literary novels are on the same path.

If one was to have ones own press and could make ones own decisions, then we could do publicity ourselves. We could make quite a splash. Yes there wouldn't be much monetary stability. But I think we could gather quite a stable of writers. You know, kind of like a Matator or Sub Pop or Thrill Jockey or Factory of the publishing world.

TLB said...

Of course it would be fab to work like the Woolfs and start our own press on the kitchen table, but I think the reason the fiction writers aren't advocating starting one is because the time involved would leave us no time to write. I know that's always my own first priority. The writing is hard enough to manage even if you do have the time.

The thing is, the big publishers are publishing literary fiction, lots of it. The trick is how do you get your work into the hands of the people who would find it interesting? How are they even supposed to hear about it? They can't buy it if they don't know it's out there. I don't think it's a matter of having trouble getting published as much as having trouble penetrating the collective consciousness once the book is in print. Literary fiction still can make it commercially; God knows Marilynne doesn't write for the money but her publisher clearly got the word out for her. Small bookstores are still crucial for this kind of promotion too--the local bookseller personally putting something into your hands they think you will like.

Also none of us are as wealthy as the Woolfs and can't afford to pour money into this kind of a project only to see it fail. Bummer. But hey if you get one going I will be the first person in line to buy copies. I always buy the book in hardcover if it's someone I know; I think that's the best way to support each other's work.

SER said...

Continuing my ideas about audiobooks, I think that CDs of books (either stories or books sold wholly or in serial) should be sold at places like Starbucks for not very much money. Starbucks' Hear Music has done very well in selling compilations as impulse purchases. Books would have to be sold for less money, since you don't keep listening to them, but I think there's a real opportunity there to catch all the people who don't read. The NEA (or some such governmental org) came out with that depressing study last year that said that 50% of Americans don't even read ONE book (of any type) in a year. And it's getting worse. So the market has to be re-expanded somehow, because just selling more books to the people who are already reading is going to be tough.

I actually think that hardcover books will go away at some point. It's one of the classic forms of price discrimination and is often listed in economics textbooks as a prime example of such - you pay more because, basically, you want the book sooner - that's what they're really selling, more than the actual hardness of the book. (And, in fact, hardcover books are bulky and inconvenient to drag along in airports and on commutes - two times when people like to read.)

But with fewer people reading, and with the prestige associated with reading, AND with the cost of hardcover books pricing many of those of us who *do* read (impoverished grad students and writers) out of the market, I think it acually hurts buzz and momentum. That is, it's harder to get a ton of people to buy a particular book if a major portion of them are going to have to wait a year to get the affordable version. By that time, short-attention-span Americans might have forgotten about the book. At the very least, paperbacks should come out sooner. As for prestige, I think it just takes a few bold authors or imprints to make the call to switch to trade paperback, and we'll no longer remember what it was like when books came out first in hardback, just like it's hard to remember what people did before email or fleece. So many things change after much angst, but without that much of a fuss in the end - like tapes to CDs to iTunes.

Publishers could probably still print a "library" run that would allow libraries and people who like the heft of hardcover books better to get that version. If libraries are indeed a major buyer, then economies of scale should still be reached in the printing (and printing technologies have radically improved and cheapened in the past decade, making this much more likely).

Re: the even bigger-picture part of the demand side of the equation, some fancy philanthropist needs to start thinking about how to get people to read again - what kinds of programs there should be to capture children's interest early on, etc. Eggers's 826 Valencia could be a model to replicate nationwide, but there should be more than that, too.

PJKM said...

SER - your audio book sampler is a great idea, though I can see publishers being more keen to promote actual audio books (because the recordings are already made) than simply a range of titles. But it could be done relatively cheaply and could promote several similar titles. We should talk some more about that and see what's already been done.

Charlemagne, you seem to imply that we can only do our own publicity if we calling all the shots, i.e. running our own publishing house. I think even if you're signed with a major publisher, relying on in-house publicists is a big mistake. Spending money - your own or the company's - on independent PR is worth more than twisting their arm to buy a print ad any day. You can't just sign the contract and wait for things to happen. We have to do it ourselves. The solution isn't to reconcile ourselves to a tiny audience: it's to help find/make our own audience. The numbers may not be huge, but selling 15K rather than 5K may be the difference between getting another contact for your next book or getting shunted off the list.

Also, you can have the best publicity in the world, but if people can't fall over the book on an end cap in Barnes and Noble, they'll get distracted and buy something else. Pricing and positioning are key to selling. The advantage in signing with a big company is its distribution network and leverage.(The disadvantage is: they don't really care about you, unless you or the sales figures start making them care.)

Charlemagne said...

Well its good that there is still a market for literary fiction. I hope that it stays that way. There are still a lot of people who think it is good to read, I take what I see on Chicago publice transit as my example.

With the lack of publicity support though (excepting books about Paris Hilton and blow jobs), I hope it is not all smoke and mirrors. The major publishing houses used to carry poetry imprints as a badge of honor (their words exactly) but it just became economically unattractive to them. As a bit of a joke I asked for a meeting slot to talk to an agent at the workshop and was told that none of them would meet with me.

Of course small presses take a huge amount of time to run. And in response to TLB's post, poets need a lot of time to write too, what with the 9 to 5 job and all. Its not just a fiction problem. For example, Robert Hass has books come out about one every ten years. It is pretty vigorous.

Grendel said...

There is a certain Good Person of New York, er, Iowa City, who is known to lurk juuust beyond Earth Goat's shadows. She apparently has an instructive story about rolled-up-sleeves self-promotion and would be a great source of advice on this topic. I wonder if she could be persuaded to materialize, however briefly, and in whatever guise, to edify us with said tale...

TLB said...

Oh I'm not saying poets don't work as hard as fiction writers, but since no one has enough time to write as it is, I can't see how adding a small press to the mix is going to make things better. I've been worked on my novel almost every single day for the past three years (weekends too) and I still don't feel like I had enough time. Teaching made it even worse.

TLB said...

Um, that would be "been working." My mind is turning to mush.

SER said...

I think "been worked" actually conveys the situation pretty well!

PJKM said...

El Gordo - what religious marketing was done for Lumpy's book? (Mailings to Christian stores and talk radio, ads on web sites, interviews with magazines, etc)

El Gordo de Amore said...

My friend Jessica, who was a publicist for many years at Craptopic Publishing, once forwarded Lump an email from The Good Woman of Iowa City with a note attached -- "Learn from this woman!!"

What about an Earthgoat interview regarding her publicity pushes -- I'm kinda liking that The Goat is posting actual interviews with folks outside the blog.

And, as much as I'd love to be Matador, I don't think we have enough seed money -- it'd be super cool, but maybe not that practical. But, it might be fun to get together and publish special "compilations" -- like the comp CDs that put SubPop and TwinTone on the map -- maybe even a comp with an included audio version (to incorporate SER's idea, and to make it seem that much cooler -- get Chris Offutt to read our work to add that southern gothicism -- or music from Fangboner and Steve Cramp). Hell, we have a press and a lovely and competent operator ready and waiting for us in the Old Capitol Mall. I see it as sort-of a literary journal, but on a work-by-work basis (because most people, including myself, never read literary journals) -- maybe a less often McSweeney's. That way all of us can work together (poets, fiction, nonfiction, etc., etc.).

And the working together for publicity idea is great -- we can totally pool resources. Maybe throw in some money to have an ad in NYTimes with Robert, TLB, Lumpy, etc., all together? Lump and I can work the CNN angle, and a couple other things (independent publicists, lists of hospices and clubs). Should we set aside a databank or file or something? I've got a cabinet. And two attack dogs and an attack baby to guard it. Maybe the former professionals would know how to proceed with this, so our next posting about Rush doesn't serve to distract our putsch.

El Gordo de Amore said...

Another thought -- how come Robert's website isn't linked up to this site? And whoever else has a website?

Any publicity is good.

And Always Be Closing.

Grendel said...

First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you're fired.

Do you mean Gabriella's site? She's hella cute, but I kinda only wanted to link to writing sites. There is Iowa Blog and Metameat.net, but they don't seem to be very current anymore. Others?

I can't wait for the class of 2005's blog. I 'spect its appearance in May/June?

TLB said...

I am also perfectly willing to compile lists of people, media outlets, etc. that we all can pull from for our own use. I have names of good editors at a number of newspapers and magazines, some of which are large circuation. I also like El Gordo's idea of doing a group ad or maybe starting a literary magazine. I did that in college, and though it's also a lot of work it's not as bad as opening a press. We also published New Yorker style cartoons, which was fun, and nonfiction pieces. My first piece in it was about the guy that lived in the local cemetery.

One thing I think that's underutilized by authors is the writing of nonfiction pieces to run in the mainstream media on or near the time of our book's publication (Curtis Sittenfeld's NYTimes essay on literary groupies comes to mind.) Generally most credit lines for this kind of work will include a mention of the novel/collection. I've already talked to Lumpy about this but others can and should do them too. Almost any magazine you pick up has a regular first-person section written by "regular" people and they always need new faces to fill the void. Also it pays pretty well for the amount of work. I did a piece for Self that ran last month and now they're asking me to do more.

Also don't forget to hit up student media outlets like your high school and college newspaper or literary journal and your hometown papers. They love that stuff.

El Gordo de Amore said...


Or the Robert Rosenberg who is a porn star -- I guess that's really up to Rob himself.

Or the Rosenberg who's a hypnotist.

El Gordo de Amore said...

Or this one.


Grendel said...

Uh, yeah, that counts. Done and done.

El Gordo de Amore said...

And here's one for Lump.


PJKM said...

Do you guys know how much print ads in the NYTBR cost? Half a page at the open rate is nearly $22,000. Even a 1/10 ad (ie a complete waste of time) is nearly $5000. If you book an ad through an agency or get a corporate rate based on frequency, it'll come down, but we're still talking about thousands of dollars, not to mention the cost of making the ad.

Nearly ten years ago I was buying 1/3 b/w columns in the New Yorker at a special "books and records" rate of $4000.

Print ads only make sense when a book is beginning to take off OR you have a retail campaign planned (dull old "pricing and positioning again), to which the print ads are driving the customers.

If we can come up with a kitty of several thousand dollars, rather than blow it on one print ad, we're much better off spending it on indie publicity, targeted database mailings (retail and consumer) and some imaginative cross-promotions in key markets.