Monday, January 07, 2008

let's talk about success, baby

I can't help it, I have to come back to this again. Sorry, guys. It just never ceases to fascinate me, and I feel like I need to explain why I've been in such a tizzy these last few weeks.

To preface: I got one of my babies--let's call her "Dolores"--off to copy editing yesterday. That's right! She's off my hands. I'm not entirely done with her--the upcoming weeks will be filled with mad revisions; coordinating corrections from the author, copy editor, and typesetter; writing and circing jacket copy and layouts; trying to solicit blurbs from famous people; general other last-touch mayhem.

See "Dolores" is a big deal. She's the project I mentioned a couple of weeks ago--the one that is getting so much buzz that I'm worried about the pressure of having a book take off. For various reasons, she's on a crash schedule, which is unfortunate because it means that neither I nor the author will have the time to go back and forth that we'd really like. Fortunately, the author approaches the platonic ideal of Dream Author and has just been wonderful through this whole grueling process.

Don't get me wrong--I'm so, so, very happy that Dolores is getting the attention she deserves (so many good books don't). And I do of course wish this for all my books. And all of your books. But I just want you to see the musing roads my mind is forced down by all this excitement.

I think I've probably blathered enough about sell-in and sell-through, so I won't bore you with that again. But.

Let's take two examples from my backlist. Two other babies.

The first one--let's call him "Stanley"--was the first book I got to work on in my current job. Stanley was already late in the production phase when I arrived, but I got to handle the little remaining things--copy, author liaising, event organizing, etc. "Stanley" is a terrific book--a real rarity, on an interesting subject, and the author wrote just laugh-out-loud prose, page after page after page.

Reviewers agreed about Stanley. A certain big women's interest magazine ran a full page review that came out two months before the book came out (the timing was unfortunate, we felt at the time, but it was in a "best of summer" full-color spread, and we sure could excerpt the review). Then, a couple of weeks later, a big-lolly print digest with which I am sure you are familiar also ran a full-page extremely laudatory extremely excerptable review. Other smaller venues followed. Our publicity director managed to set up a whole satellite radio tour for the major stations in several major cities, and there was even talk of a certain major late-night TV male personality inviting the author onto his show.

Half a year after the release date, the total number of Stanleys sold through major trade channels? Around 300. Particularly unfortunate given the high print run (which was set in order to accommodate orders from the accounts--this is where that sell-in sell-through equation really burns).

What went wrong? All the stars in the entire world were alligned for Stanley! There have been many theories, and I'll offer a few here to try to explain. I think, honestly, it is some complex combination of the below, but I think you'll have to agree there's also an element of mysticism about all these proceedings.

First, the reviews came a little early. We wouldn't be able to complain--we got major reviews! Major print venues gave us precious space!!--but at the same time, the reveiws didn't help us pull anything together, either. Just bad luck here--we're not sure why stuff landed just a couple of weeks off.

But this was further exacerbated by a printer error. All the materials were submitted on time to the printer, and everything was happy-go-lucky... until, for some reason no one has figured out, the books got shipped to the wrong warehouse, where they languished for two weeks. As a result, the book didn't even hit the stores on time. So the gap between when the reviews ran and when the books hit stores got even larger.

Ok, fine. But who even reads reviews? No one!! Well, not a lot of consumers. So what did it?

Perhaps the subtitle wasn't quite right, and appealed to the wrong audience (or, rather, didn't appeal to the right audience). Perhaps the cover image was too high-concept (or, maybe, too low-brow; you could feasibly complain in either direction about a lot of cover images). Perhaps this is the kind of book that people tend to buy in paperback, but don't really want in hardcover. Perhaps the author generated bad karma for cancelling half the radio tour? Maybe the topic, although interesting and potentially of mainstream appeal, was sabotaged by the fact that it didn't fit neatly into any particular shelf at the major accounts, and thus got lost in half-related shelves?

At any rate, an example that even the best of everything can't be made foolproof.

But on the flip side, let's talk about "Scott," a book that Robert the Publisher bought and which I'm acting as editor for. Scott is a rather comprehensive Tome (with a capital T) on a very small subject. Last spring, Robert acquired rights to Scott. "I fear this book will only sell 100 copies," he said, "but it's too good a book to be bound by those market restrictions. I'm afraid I just can't not publish this book." (Robert is very good about championing things he believes in.)

Furthermore, since Scott wouldn't be supporting himself on trade sales, Robert had to set a very high price point. "Hopefully the libraries will buy a few copies," he reasoned. Of course this destroyed any minimally surviving trade potential.


Nope. Scott, the high-priced, tiny-topiced, doorstop tome has sold through his comfy first print run. Sure, he got a nice review that ran in a couple of small scholarly journals, but again, who reads reviews? And that doesn't explain why people in bookstores want to break ALL their buying rules and shell out for him. Bizarre.

But you know what? We did our best by Scott. We gave him a good solid cover and we dutifully sent him out to the various channels. We gave him a catalog page and tooted his praises on our little horns. We tried. I guess trying worked.

What's my point...? I don't know. I guess it's just that we can't ever count our chickens, and that we must do our utmost in every case for every project... just in case. There's no such thing as surefire success, but maybe that extra hour of editing will make it that 2% better it needs to push it over some threshold or another. (Or so says the workaholic in me.) Hence the sleepless paper-pushing weekend.

It was worth it. Just in case.


Jaye Wells said...

As someone who some day hopes to have an editor who believes in my work enough to spend a sleepless weekend editing it, it's nice to see such a creature exists. Not that you're a creature... Well, you're a Moonrat, so I guess you are. I'll stop now.

angelle said...

i'm not sure whether to be encouraged or discouraged by this post.

on the one hand, it says that you might do everything right, all the chips may fall into place... and yet.. nothing.

on the other hand, it says maybe things DON'T have to go right and still something!

eh. i don't know!

the only thing i do know? there's only so much an author can control -- and that's only the work he/she puts into her body of work. give it that 110%. everything else is out of their control.

hmm. that was supposed to make me feel better. in the "rah rah champion!" way because i know i have work ethic. but it suddenly made me feel glum. because i hate that the other stuff is out of my control. and it made the pressure just so much greater for me to NEED to be a really stupendous writer.

but sometimes i read things, and i'm like, man, these writers suck. how did they get on these shelves? and again, i'm not sure if that should make me feel good or bad...

Brian said...

I have a hard time explaining to my authors why there's such a thing as a "too early" review. One of my authors was proud of a TV interview he scored for himself...two months before the book came out. I begged him to ask if they could reschedule it for closer to the book's release date (preferably AFTER it was available in stores) but he was CONVINCED he was "building buzz."

He's still asking me why his book isn't selling well. "After all," he posits, "I did that interview."

I sent him the Elizabeth Royte piece recently. I don't think he found it nearly as funny as I did.

Wayne said...

Whatever the deal, it sounds to me like you're doing a damned good job to help.

Jill Myles said...

Great post! And I think you are right - the stars have to align *just so*.

I find that lately I check how many reviews a book has on Amazon. One or two or three for a mass market book makes me veer away. 50+ makes me sit up and take notice (unless they are all awful).

As an aside, I lost your email and I wanted to send you one after reading this post. :( booo me for being disorganized!

Anissa said...

May the stars align for Dolores so that she may party along with Scott and stear clear of poor Stanley. Or something. I'm confusing myself. What I mean's to great success!

Church Lady said...

I could never be a publicist. All my hair would fall out from stress. There is only so much you can control. I guess that's why everyone likes to see the underdog win.

Great post!

cyn said...

it seems sometimes a book is good on such a lark. like the time is right for it, etc.

i think so much of it has to do with marketing and the author getting out there to sell the book somehow.

i did learn that the agent's
(or the publicist?)
responsibility is to have the books in the bookstores in anticipation of any publicity (radio, tele, review) but it never works out perfectly in the real world, either.

best of luck to your babies, MR!

Ello said...

I wish that one day I can work with an editor like you, MR. You really care and it shows.

One day if you come out of anonymity, I will buy all your babies!

The Anti-Wife said...

I don't envy you your job. I hope Dolores is a smashing success!

Bernita said...

And we make fun of the idea of sheep's entrails...

Maprilynne said...

Very interesting . . . and frightening!

Colorado Writer said...

Scary and fascinating at the same time.

In the end is it about who you know? or is about BUZZ?

Sarah Hina said...

Great insight into this rollercoaster process. Thanks.

I really admire your dedication! I hope that "Dolores" sails. :)

The Trouble With Roy said...

It makes me a nerd, I know, but I love the inside stories you give. And, now, I really like the idea of the books with names. I know they all have titles, but I like to think of my books having their own identities, too.

homeinkabul said...

I love the inside stories too! I've always wanted to own a publishing company...Perhaps when I win the lottery...