Erik Sherman's WriterBiz

A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.

Name: Erik Sherman
Location: Massachusetts, United States

I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental

Monday, September 17, 2007

Story of a Blockbuster

The Wall Street Journal had a story last Friday (which may or may not be available depending on when you look at this and if you have a WSJ.com account) about how Viking used a series of calculated moves to turn "Eat, Pray, Love" into a best seller when it finally came out as a paperback from Penguin, another imprint owned, as is Viking, by Pearson.

If you can get a hold of a copy of the article, it's worth reading to get a sense of how publishers are trying to change their marketing, and how they approach the business. Note this bit:
The vast majority of books face a tough reality. New releases that fail to take off in the first couple of weeks -- when publishers often pay to place copies on stores' front tables -- are relegated to the back shelves.
That sentence alone is worth a wow. Up until now, I thought the usual practice had become a month on the shelves and three months of publicity and marketing. Apparently I've been over-generous. The only way this changes is if the publisher thinks the book has break-out potential.

That means a number of things. One is that platform, which has become a heavy stone crushing the chests of many authors, is becoming every more weighty. And the early reception to the book is critical. "Eat, Pray, Love" got an excerpt in O and a cover article in the NYT Book Review. Here's another reality check:
Each month Penguin publishes 15 to 20 fancy "trade" paperbacks -- high-quality editions that are larger in format and easier to read than their cheaper, mass-market cousins. But it only really lends its weight to one or two.
This is like literary Calvinism, only with clear proof of predestination rather than theological speculation. Penguin, in this case, invested in freestanding store displays and ads, and the marketing person in charge asked everyone in sales and marketing to read the book, so they could effectively convey enthusiasm. And now for the "beautiful author" part, as I mentioned in my writing and literature blog:
Selling Ms. Gilbert, the author, was just as crucial. Unlike many writers who don't like touring and are uncomfortable in front of crowds, Ms. Gilbert has a sunny, upbeat personality that plays well on television and in personal appearances. Notes Ms. Court: "When the writer of a book is attractive, generous, and funny, booksellers end up rooting for her."
Then it was touring, getting book club traction, and so on. Here's another tidbit that tells you how sales work these days in moving from hardback to paperback:
"One of the mantras of publishing economics of the 1970s and early 1980s was that mass-market paperbacks could achieve 10 times the sales of a hardcover," says Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Bertlesmann AG's Random House Inc. Then retailers started discounting hardcover titles, and the smaller, cheaper paperbacks lost ground.
Laurence Kirshbaum, a book agent who heads up LJK Literary Management in New York, estimates that the current ratio between hardcover and paperback sales is one to one -- mostly because so many hardcover books are so steeply discounted. "These days the bulk of the people who are interested in a book buy it in hardcover; that's what makes titles such as 'Eat, Pray, Love' so exceptional," says Mr. Kirshbaum. "They are throwbacks to the days when paperbacks sold huge multiples of the hardcover."
In case this isn't sinking in, most book authors don't have a snowball's chance in hell of mass market success. That means you have to find a different business model, and fast - one that doesn't rely on big publishers and traditional marketing, and one that doesn't leave you trying to eke out a living from a relatively tiny royalty.

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