I was surprised to see that C. E. Petit’s normally reliable Scrivener’s Error has, er, fallen into error:
In yet another display of the ignorance of the marketing dorks in the publishing industry (and all too often those who report on it), Reuters reports that Rival Publishers Pray for Harry Potter “Halo” Effect (via the Washington Post Book World). …[T]he article begins by proclaiming that “Rather than envy U.S. Potter publisher Scholastic Corp’s success, industry insiders are grateful that Rowling’s magic touch has fired up interest in children’s books.” Hogwash. Envy is the single emotional reaction shared by virtually all publishing “industry insiders,” even when they won’t admit it, at home-run balls hit by the opposition.I don’t know where Mr. Petit used to work, nor whom he worked with; but the Washington Post Book World’s description is accurate for the industry insiders I’ve been hearing from.
Granted, some of them don’t see why it should be the Harry Potter books that are selling like crazy, as opposed to some other author or series closer to the speaker’s heart. And I’m sure some do feel rather envious, wishing the same had happened to some of their own books. But I have yet to hear them say they wish it hadn’t happened to anyone.
What you have to understand is that all books are, in a sense, an advertisement for other books. Consider:
1. A kid who reads anything, and enjoys it, is likely to read something else. If this keeps happening, reading may well become a habit. This is good. It’s where new readers come from.
2. The same principle holds for adults. The likeliest customer for your newly-published title is someone who recently read and enjoyed a comparable book. So what if that previous book was published by your competitors? It’s selling your book to this reader for you now.
3. The Harry Potter books are introducing children to the idea of going into bookstores and buying books. This is important. It’s not just a matter of selling their parents a book or two of their own when the family comes in to buy the latest Harry Potter for their youngsters, though that’s happening too. It used to be that kids would run into books in paperback wire racks in drugstores and grocery stores, and see all those brightly-colored corrugated displays in the doorways of shopping mall chain bookstores. That’s getting less and less common. Standalone superstores are great, but they only sell books to people who go into bookstores. Like reading itself, we want that to become a habit.
4. The Harry Potter books are accelerating the process whereby young readers learn that dauntingly big thick books just have longer stories in them.
5. I’d have to be stark staring bonkers to object to having hundreds of thousands of young readers each year becoming acquainted with Our Beloved Genre.
I’ll admit, there’s been one feature of the Harry Potter phenomenon I’d just as soon have skipped. Title before last, Scholastic badly underestimated how many copies they were going to need, and had to scramble like crazy to get more made up in order to cover their orders.
The printing and binding plants always have some excess capacity to sell to publishing houses that are running late, or for some other reason have gotten themselves stuck behind the eight ball. Printing operations don’t do this out of kindness. Rush rates start at 200% and go up from there.
But when Scholastic underprinted the Harry Potter before last, the effect was unprecedented. Tor’s head of production sent a memo around saying that for the next six weeks, nothing could be late: Scholastic had sopped up every last bit of excess capacity in the industry. As far as I know, that’s never happened before. Naturally, it happened when I was diving toward the finish line on the worst-jinxed book of my career.
So, having them scarf up all the excess production capacity was something I could have done without. But selling five million hardcovers their first day? No resentment here. It’s not like I had a book coming out that month that would have had parents and children queuing up to buy it at the stroke of midnight.
And one more thing, before I return to Mr. Pettit’s post. I know for certain that Sales & Marketing people have been doing everything they can to work with the whole Harry Potter thing. If that’s the way the tide’s running, you set your nets accordingly.Onward:
Very few “industry insiders” are literature people; those who are generally jump from publisher to publisher every few years. This greatly diminishes their influence over the overall attitude and approach of any given publisher.I can’t match up this model with any industry patterns I’m familiar with. Sales and Marketing has a lower incidence of defrocked English and Medieval Studies majors than Editorial, but in my experience, editors are less likely to move around from house to house. More to the point, almost everyone who works in the industry is a literature-type person. If we weren’t, we’d find work in some other industry that paid better.
Instead, the sales-and-marketing types who actually constitute the vast bulk of “industry insiders”Oh, yeah? Says who?
—as some of my more perceptive colleagues in the editorial department when I was in-house called them, “S&Ms”Those wonderful people who spend their every working day selling my books! Gotta love ‘em.
—make two critical errors. First, they believe that the market for books and literature is a zero-sum game.Forgive me for saying so, but I’ve never known a Sales & Marketing lifer who thought that.
This can readily become a self-fulfilling prophecy when they put out crap in the interest of short-term market share.First, if marketing were the determining factor in publishing, Chung Kuo would have been a bestseller.
Second, people tend to overestimate the amount of genuine crap that gets published. This is because no writer appeals to every taste, and it’s hard to tell a writer who isn’t to your taste from one who isn’t to anyone’s taste. The real test is whether people buy and read the books.
Third, you might (she said, dubiously) pick up some short-term market share from artfully marketing crap, if you did everything just right; but you’d never hold on to it. And why even try? If you had that kind of marketing ability, you could pick up far more market share by applying your know-how to books that aren’t crap. It costs no more to buy good books than to hype bad ones.Fourth, “market share” is not really an issue here. Readers don’t notice publishers. They notice books and authors.
Their second error exacerbates the first. As the Reuters article says, “Fantasy series and serials are the rage and there is no shortage of titles.” This is precisely the problem: imitation as the sincerest form of marketing.Raise your hand if, upon finishing a book you absolutely loved, you’ve said, “Wow, that was great! I’m going to make sure I never read another book like that again!” No? I haven’t either. I wanted another book like the one I’d just finished—only different and original. Reading additional wonderful and wholly original books has only expanded the set of books I wanted another one just like of.
This is not the authors’ fault, particularly given the overwhelming slush piles at the major publishers. It is certainly not Joanne Rowling’s fault! The marketing aspects of imitation extend to putting books in single-category boxes.For “category”, read “we put them where the readers can find them”. It’s more important that the readers be able to locate a book, and recognize it as being approximately what they had in mind, than that the category label on the spine exactly reflect the author’s artistic vision. If we ignored categories entirely, we might get the occasional breakout bestseller—but a lot more books would sell worse than they do now.
This ignores the characteristic most common to longterm successes, both critically and commercially, in publishing: transcendence of publishing “categories.”Sure. Authors who sell enough copies of enough books transcend category. They effectively become their own category. But they get there by passing through a general category first.
Although they’re loath to admit it, a searching examination of publishers’ accounts under GAAP standards reveals something that they subconsciously know: the long-term health of a given publisher depends upon the strength of its backlist (books published more than two publishing seasons ago).I trust we know our own numbers.
That the publishing insiders really have little idea of what they’re doing in categorizing (and hence ghettoizing) books …Nope. That’s wrong, wrong with numbers, wrong over time, wrong in the general, wrong in the particular, and wrong in repeated tests with allowance for variables. We know as much as we can possibly find out about what we’re doing when we categorize books. Discussions of category theory (and practice) are some of the most knowledgeable and arcane conversations I hear in the office.
That’s an author kind of thing to believe, that categorizing books amounts to ghettoizing them. There’s a small nugget of truth in it. There’s no earthly reason why Francine Prose, Patricia Geary, and Tim Powers shouldn’t sell to the same readers. And we still see mainstream types announcing, with no trace of embarrassment, that such-and-such writer or book is too good to be SF.
But these are relatively mild vexations, and it is an error to imagine that, freed from the shackles of categorization, YOUR OWN BOOK would be read by Even! More! Readers!, all of whom WOULD LOVE IT. (That’s not how authors actually think. In a more accurate representation, the words shown here in boldface caps would coruscate with blinding flashes of rainbow light.)
This is approximately like believing that since cover copy and a cover image tell some readers that this is the book they’re looking for, and therefore necessarily tell other readers that it isn’t the book they’re looking for, publishing a book without any cover images or cover copy at all would guarantee it a near-universal readership.Someone’s probably tried that. Sooner or later, the industry tries darned near everything. The ones that sell books, we keep doing.
… shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as so few of them actually read widely and deeply in what they’re publishing.Oh, piffle. If you define “publishing insiders” as “rank Philistines and semi-literates who have with no sense of the genuine value of books”, you’re bound to imagine that terrible things are going on.
Well, terrible things are going on. Just not the ones you’re imagining. And next week we’ll have fixed most of those, and a different set of terrible things will be happening. Also a lot of non-terrible things. And a lot of really good books. Otherwise there’d be no point in doing it.