Thursday, October 19, 2006

Thursday thoughts

The great American novel Part II

Void magazine has been considering follow-ups to some of the most famous American novels. You might be amused.

At home with Miss Vanesa

The Tindal Street Press is holding a launch for At Home with Miss Vanesa, by E.A. 'Archie' Markham. This book is a collection of Caribbean tales with 'a saucy French twist'.

Actually there are two launches. The London launch is on Friday 20 October, from 6.30 p.m. in the Gallery on the 2nd floor of Foyles bookshop, 113-119 Charing Cross Road. Anyone can go.

The Birmingham launch is on 23 October at Island House, Eastside, Birmingham City Centre. Details from 0121 773 8157 or info@tindalstreet.co.uk.

Thoroughly grumpy

Oh dear, dear me. You may have thought that I was occasionally less than enchanted with the book trade, but I am a warm-hearted ray of sunshine as compared with some.

Take, for instance, Mark Farley, aka Bookseller to the Stars. On Wednesday 11 October he was seriously unimpressed with the Booker Prize, and said so at some length. And a couple of days earlier he was muttering darkly, in a most unrestrained manner, about the use of contacts in getting your book published. Whatever next? And professionals love him (irony) -- see what anonymous editors and agents have to say in the right-hand panel.

One thing I did learn from this blog is that Victoria Hislop is the wife of Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye. How could I have missed knowing that? Victoria's The Island was heavily featured on Richard & Judy's TV show, and rose rapidly to the number one slot on the bestseller charts. It's not a common name, so how come I didn't link up Victoria and Ian? Am I really slow-witted, or what? That's a rhetorical question, by the way. And the proper answer is no, I'm not slow-witted. Just very, very naive.

Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie

The Bookplate Junkie remains just as hooked as ever, but I have recommended The Priory.

Ergo Press

The Ergo Press is an independent publishing house based in rural Northumberland. It was established in January 2006 by Julia and Alan Grint to produce books of fine quality and originality. One can only salute such reckless courage. Makes the average VC look easy.

Latest publication is An Alphabet of Alluring Words, which looks to me as if it might make a good Christmas present for the texters in your family. It's got pictures too.

Charles Clark

Today's Times carries an obituary of publisher Charles Clark. He was chiefly famous, in later years, as the author of the standard UK text book on publishing contracts. Entitled Publishing Agreements, it is now in its sixth edition, though I bought a copy of the fourth edition of 1993.

Clark's book has long been the bible on the legal side of UK publishing. Yet I once found, to my dismay, that when I mentioned the book, casually, to a leading UK literary agent, she had never heard of it. Though doubtless her solicitor had. One hopes.

Waving the magic wand

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal published on article discussing the 'big books' of the early autumn, and why some of them were bought by the public in big numbers and some of them weren't. This link to the article may work (via Galleycat), or then again it may not. The WSJ often requires you to sign in, and frankly I wouldn't bother.

If you do get to read it, however, the WSJ piece constitutes a useful guide to the 'winner-takes-all' mentality, and phenomenon, in modern publishing. Both Jeb Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder and Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale received huge advances for the author and were granted massive publicity budgets. But the latter took off and the former didn't. Why?

The guy who published the Rubenfeld (relative) flop (John Sterling) says that book publishing remains a roll of the dice. 'I still marvel that despite everything we do, we just don't know,' he says.

Now here's the interesting bit. On M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype, there are two discussions of this article. One by guest blogger Jason Pinter (Between the covers, 17 October), and one by M.J. herself (Bad news to die for, 16 October).

In her own take on the matter, M.J. takes issue with John Sterling.

And here’s the killer quote from John Sterling, who published the book: “Mr. Sterling says he agrees that book publishing, for all its planning, remains a roll of the dice. "I still marvel that despite everything we do, we just don't know," he says. "It's the wonderful thing and the agonizing thing about the business."

Readers of this column know how I feel about quotes like this. The industry doesn’t know because it doesn’t spend the money to find out. Sure there will always be some dice throwing involved. But there are a lot of sophisticated methods of marketing that would help the powers who be make smarter, more educated decisions.

For one thing, did you see the ads for The Interpretation of Murder? They were fine. But fine doesn’t cut it. They need to be innovative. You don’t need to market test the book – but market test the ads. See if they will pull or not.

Guesswork as a marketing plan. There's got to be a better solution.

Now, I agree with a lot of that. But the killer quote in the M.J. bit is this: 'The industry doesn’t know because it doesn’t spend the money to find out.'

I think that's the answer, or part of it. The plain fact is, there isn't any money in publishing. Not trade publishing anyway. Wannabe writers and occasional book buyers are dazzled by press reports of the 'huge' sums which are (or so it is claimed) paid to authors. But experienced businessmen who have taken a hard look at trade publishing usually end up weeping tears of laughter.

Book publishing has been described by such men as a barely viable business, with unattractive cash-flow characteristics. It's some years since I worked up the comparisons, but the last time I did, UK trade publishing was about the same size as the market in men's aftershaves or bagged salad. In commercial terms, it's a piddling little business. In many publishing houses the average salary is hardly higher than the starting salary for UK graduates in their first job.

Yes, I dare say there is a lot of marketing ignorance in publishing houses. (That's the result of an almost complete absence of training.) But even if they wanted to do some serious marketing research, my guess is that there just isn't the cash.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

[quote]One thing I did learn from this blog is that Victoria Hislop is the wife of Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye. How could I have missed knowing that? Victoria's The Island was heavily featured on Richard & Judy's TV show, and rose rapidly to the number one slot on the bestseller charts.[/quote]

Surely you are not suggesting that Ian's connections were in some way used to get this book not only past the slush pile but onto TV?

I think you would have to be a liar, a thief or a communist to suggest this...

Anonymous said...

See, could it just be that, on average, the books that sell are just better than the ones that don't sell? Books are like cars: The buyers can test drive before buying. I NEVER buy a book based on a stinkin' ad unless I read 5-10 pages first. In fact, the more glitzy the ad, the less likely I am to buy the book. --Howard Goldowsky

Andrew O'Hara said...

"It's the wonderful thing and the agonizing thing”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

Long yawwwn...

Peter L. Winkler said...

"Yes, I dare say there is a lot of marketing ignorance in publishing houses."

Just as there is a lot of marketing ignorance in every business, because marketing is not a scientific process. If it was, and there were empirically tested principles of marketing, there would never be an unsuccessfull product.

Anonymous said...

In my experince, unsuccessfull products are the result of unimagintive Product Mangers or Project Leaders who spend more time enjoying there salary than earning it...

Dull but true.

In fact there is a risk in launching any product. It can fail for a lot of reasosn; something worldwide happened (earthquake, assination, war breakingout) which has nothing to do with the product and it get swallowed. Or something better might have launched a few days earlier. Or people look at it and see a turkey and steer well clear.

Getting people to buy stuff is really not that hard and if you are lucky enough to avoid the above, then you will be a success. Look at Eats leaves... Dan Brown... any number of Hollywood films that you can't even remember what it was about or who was in it despite the fact that you saw it... All crap products, but all making money.

I think the difference is, the book publishing world is run by a lot of people who are largely out of touch with the real world - as opposed to book shops themselves who live with its dangers day in and day out...

MarkFarley said...

Can I be a liar, a thief and a communist, please?

Anonymous said...

Of course you can Mark... But don't expect anyone to believe you... Including snobby B'list celebs such as Ian Hislop...