Sunday, December 16, 2007

musings on success

So Ron over at GalleyCat posted this interesting take on what the publishing industry sees as a success last week and I can't get it out of my head.

Ron expresses his surprise at publishing "mogul" Hillel Italie's list of hits and misses of 2007. One of the "misses" was Junot Diaz's [universally praised] The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, apparently because the national sales (computed on a Nielsen tool that manages to account for about 70% of national sell-through) was "only" clocking in at 27,000 copies in the first three months of sales (which you can compare to the universally panned If I Did It, which is apparently clocking in more than 100,000 copies).

So I am surprised by all this. First of all, let me say congratulations to Junot Diaz if he reads this--not only does everyone love his book, but he managed to sell 27,000 copies of a debut novel in hardcover in the first three months of publication!! Junot dear, if you're reading this, I KNOW you have personally touched many people with your writing, and your fiscal success should only be icing on the cake.

But the thing is, I guess, success is always relative. I do have to say that the comparison to If I Did It--or, for that matter, any nonfiction whatsoever--is unfair, since (as you know) I always harp about how nonfiction is so much safer and more lucrative for everyone.

So there are a couple of ways of looking at success. One is whether or not a book meets its expectations. Publishers really have to get themselves all in a dither about books to be able to financially justify some of the advances agents and authors pressure them into throwing down for projects, which means that these publishers have to convince themselves that a book is going to produce a certain amount of revenue in the first year (or two years). We really seriously have to talk ourselves up. We push all our resources into drumming up attention for these high price-tag projects and we gush about them and brainwash ourselves that they will, in fact, sell the millions of copies we need them to. 70% of them don't, of course. 70% of books are a loss.

I don't know if maybe my opinion has been skewed because I work at a small house where expectations are relatively low and success is measured in pleasant surprises. I've worked at large houses, too, though, and I really don't miss the hype that builds around books that cost us huge amounts of money (and I really really don't miss the disappointment and dirt-kicking after the book naturally fails to meet expectations).

I think it's particularly tough right now to publish creatively. There is little ground that hasn't been pretty thoroughly covered by other books already. So the epic buzz that we (publishers) try to create around the big titles often seems to me like throwing energy and tears and sweat and the rest into a black hole. Not that I don't want every ounce of the best for my authors (after all, it's a bestseller for them is the only thing that helps my career!!). I do. But I'm also proud of them for their success even if they don't sell 100,000 copies a year. Even if they don't sell 10,000. Because wide-spread commercial recognition does not necessarily a good book make. I'm proud to be a part of publishing that doesn't need to be bound by the awful, conformist, and extremely conventional rules that tend to bind many commercial successes (and I would never tell Junot Diaz he hadn't performed well enough). This isn't to say that some of our titles don't sell huge numbers--there are super pleasant surprises more often than one might think. But since we don't force ourselves to plan FOR them, there are fewer UNpleasant surprises than it seems like every other company has to suffer.

A tangible example: there's an author on my list who tried for years and years to find a publisher and failed. By the time we got him, he had written a number of books that had no houses. We purchased a number of his properties for very little and we really did our best by him--we got nice packaging, we submitted him for reviews, we took him on a tour. Now his books are really strong backlist titles for us and help sponsor everything else our house does. We get consistent reorders and I think that attention for his books is actually growing as the years go by.

A few years later, a major major imprint at a major major house (think as major as they come) picked up a new book by him. They offered him a huge advance and threw all their money into advertising him and did amazing[ly costly] packaging and marketing. It all looked very nice. Tragedy struck--the book was a serious disappointment. Not only did the advance not earn out, proceeds from the book didn't even manage to cover the advance.

The funny part? The big publisher managed to sell exactly the same number of his new title that we have managed on each of the old titles.

The moral of this story is that all the money in the world doesn't change the market or what people want. And yeah, I know I always bark up the tree of commercial viability and everything like that and I really DO have to follow those rules. But I do also want to say (again) I am proud to be a part of QUALITY publishing and to be able to produce books that I love even if they don't break 100,000.

I hope this doesn't sound like sour grapes. It's not meant to. I just want to perpetuate an understanding of reality that includes success on many different levels.


Church Lady said...

It sounds like you appreciate your job. Which, when you come down to it, is worth more than any check.

I am now looking at smaller houses for my manuscript. I'm not in this for the money. I know that's cliche but it's true. I want to be able to have an editor who will connect with my work and mentor me.

You're lucky to be grounded.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

Your perspective as an editor (and as a thoughtful person) is invaluable. There just aren't that many editors lending themselves to the public discourse.

Charles Gramlich said...

This is one reason I enjoy coming here. I like to read about this sort of thing, and I believe you are completely right. As authors we need to learn to judge our success on many things, not just, or primarily, off the money we make. Lana often laments how few people will pay even small amounts for good art and we talk about how there just isn't that much money to be made in creative endevours. But there are rewards anyway.

Vesper said...

Success is so relative.
A very thoughtful post, Moonrat.

Ello said...

No this is not sour grapes at all. I see this as a really important reality check. Right now I have taken some great feedback I got from agents on my book and I'm going to sit on it until I am ready to revise again (not yet, too soon to be effective). But when I'm ready, I really am thinking of approaching smaller houses for my manuscript instead of agents (although I know that is not the norm) and one of the reasons is exactly as you said here. Like Church, I"m not in it for the money. I'm in it cause I have a nice story that I think some readers out there will like and connect with but I have no illusions of grandeur that it will be some big money making success. I would so much rather be a nice book that can consistently sell for my publisher. Thanks for posting this.

angelle said...

success is subjective. yeah, we gotta be realistic here and realize that money talks, and ultimately for many of the big houses, it's about the copies you sell, etc etc. okay. but i'm glad you feel the way you do, because i'd much rather go with my own measure of success too. esp for fiction writers like me, you know, this whole idea of being published one day and having even one -- JUST ONE! -- copy of your book on a shelf somewhere, independent or not, is a pipedream that so many of us have.