Departments 4: Sales and Marketing and Publicity

by Richard Grossinger on March 14, 2010

Chapter Sixteen
Departments 4: Sales and Marketing and Publicity

7. Sales and Marketing/Publicity

A. Mark Ouimet

In the spring of 2005 we hired long-time PGW stalwart Mark Ouimet as our director of sales and marketing.  Mark had come to PGW from Stanford University Bookstore, which he had run for thirteen years after graduating from college in 1977.  Originally from Holyoke, Massachusetts, “the wrong side of the tracks,” as he put it, he went to Bishop’s University in Quebec.  About twelve years younger than Lindy and me, he was somewhere loose in Holyoke near the projects where I tutored African-American grade-school students in an Amherst College program in 1965.  I was twenty; he was around eight or nine.  “Already in a gang,” he confessed.

When Mark arrived at PGW, he started as a callow account executive (AE) for a number of different presses, us among them.  Initially we did not have the great rapport with him that not only we but just about every other PGW publisher would come to develop.  At the time, he seemed perfunctorily opposed to many of our projects, usually for the house specialties of lack of commerciality or not enough promotion, and he was breezily blunt about his opinions.  However, as time passed, all of us matured and mellowed, and Lindy and I came to rely on his insight, honesty, unfailing insight, and humor under fire.  He had endlessly good, sane, workable ideas on a number of fronts, from the tweaking of titles and cover art to full-scale publicity plans and seasonal list composition.  He even discussed company structure and general business philosophy with us at length before he ever worked for us.

Mark didn’t remain our AE for long, moving swiftly up the PGW executive ladder through the sales hierarchy, to sales manager, director of marketing, etc., until, at the time that AMS bought the company and Charlie Winton left to run Avalon full-time, Mark was functionally the director of the Show, Executive Vice President of Marketing and certainly the most experienced report to Rich Freese, the guy ultimately hired to be the first CEO after Charlie.  Mark could probably have run PGW back then if he had wanted (he didn’t).  In the minds of most of the publishers he was the company.  But that’s not what he meant to do with his life.

Over his fourteen-year tenure at PGW Mark grew exponentially in knowledge and authority, from a developmental-league recruit who had never worked in publishing outside of retail, to an artist on the trapeze of national and international sales, to a black-belt master of the entire corporate game. Possessed of a signature energy and pure intelligence, he was a charmer, a heart-felt human being, a force of nature, and the consummate salesman as well.  The dictionary definition of “nice guy,” he had evident depth and compassion and, though you might at times wonder who the real Mark was, you never questioned that, when and if you found that guy, the charisma and charm would be grounded in a honest heart.  It was not an act with him, as it is with many salespeople also proficient at it.  I have seen the dull, hollow, sociopathic countenance of the sales hack when the routine suddenly stops: the distracted weariness and sudden vacating of attention and empathy.  But never with Mark.

PGW catered a regular lunch for our company at our triannual seasonal marketing meetings with them.  Not only was our AE present, but most of the other key PGW personnel dropped by to make their appearances at one time or another, including Charlie Winton.  Even after he was promoted, Mark usually appeared at our meetings (optionally) and then hung in for most of them, alert and participatory at a level that showed how much he cared.

At one such event, he noticed as I crumpled a wad of my sandwich wrapper and napkin into a softball-sized ball and eyed a trash container so far across the long room that it was absurd to think I could make the shot, the equivalent of a three-pointer from the opposite foul line.  “Five dollars if you hit that,” he called out.

With a kind of telekinetic precision that sometimes blesses a shot, no doubt inspired as well by Mark’s challenge, I put it right in the center with a delightful double thump.  He took out his wallet and slapped a five-dollar bill in front of me.  I refused with a bashful smile, but he insisted.  “Richard,” he said, “that’s the deal.  You made my day.  Take it.  Don’t ruin the occasion.”

That was Mark, a fount of joyous energy.

Then there was this running jibe between him and Lindy and me.  Every so often, usually when I resisted expenditures for marketing a particular title or blew off conventional marketing wisdom, Mark would tease, “Someday I’m gonna retire and run your company for you and Lindy.  That’s the only way I’m ever going to get the marketing end gong at North Atlantic.”

It was a joke, or was it?

A couple of years after the long arm of AMS reached clumsily into Berkeley in 2002, Mark surprised the PGW community by quitting, explaining that he wanted to explore other career options.  At his farewell party, a lot of love was blown his way.  Employees wept, for he was someone who had mentored many of them at various levels of their development.  Far more than just a good sales and marketing guy, he was a publishing avatar, an inspirational presence—part sage, part empath.

As the crowd was diffusing into the night, I flirtingly asked Mark if he was going to come run our company now.  “You never know,” he said.  “I haven’t made up my mind.  I’m considering lots of things.”  A pause.  “Are you open to it?”

“For sure.”

Charlie Winton himself later floated the same idea, proposing that Mark could be the perfect hire for us.  In fact he invited Lindy and me to the new Avalon offices in Emeryville where, after he sold PGW for his fortune, he passed the banking hours of each day, holding forth as a combination Barney Rosset and Roger Straus.  He want us to hear him out on the topic of Mark Ouimet and North Atlantic Books.  He affirmed his conviction that it would be great for both of us.  When queried about the downside, he said there was none.

Soon thereafter, Mark and I, and then Mark and Lindy, and then the three of us began a marathon of exploratory and then more serious meetings about a possible relationship our company and him.  The position of Director of Sales and Marketing, nonexistent before Sam came (see Chapter Eighteen), remained unfilled after Sam was fired.  We considered the concept not even so much a failure as an ever-lurking catastrophe of increasingly epic proportions: giving too much authority to one person—first “Dave,” then “Sam.”

Conventional wisdom also had it that Mark would move up not down in the commercial publishing world; he would go with a large press or a big distribution player.  No one considered us a possibility for his services, as he was at a higher corporate level than our company and we shouldn’t have been able to provide him with a worthy position at his executive level.

Yet he loved our titles, got along famously with Lindy and me—with everyone else too of course, but there was something special in his relationship with us, hearkening perhaps back to Holyoke mysteries of the sixties.  There were also lifestyle matters.  Mark had married a former PGW employee seven years earlier in 1997 and had fairly recently become a new father in his mid-forties, so he wanted to get out of the high-powered stressful corporate world and go home at five.  And he intended to stay in the Bay Area.  He loved living in Oakland, identifying with the Oakland urban landscape and rooting for Oakland teams—so that eliminated a majority of possible venues and offers from away.  He was considering diverse and glitzy jobs with a number of companies, some in publishing, some not—director of the San Francisco Ballet among the latter—but we were in the running.

Money was an issue, as there was an ineludible gap between PGW executive salaries and North Atlantic’s high-end salaries.  Lindy and I, who were obviously the top of the NAB totem pole, would have been on the low end at PGW.  Plus, even more fundamentally, we had a different, nonprofit ethos about money and salaries.  We had no company history or ideology configured around big salaries and performance bonuses.  Yet in Mark’s and our talks, once we addressed salary directly, we found that we had each already imagined the necessary compromise at exactly the same number.  Any philosophical differences evaporated, as Mark expressed no desire to max himself out..

He took a month to think about it, met with our staff without us to make sure they were equally on board, then took a vacation in Hawaii to meditate on the choice.  I already was pretty sure of the outcome.  He began work, initially part-time, as Lindy and I were leaving for our 2005 sojourn in Maine.

The palpable surprise and resentment, disbelief and shock, in some circles of the Bay Area publishing community, including (and especially) within the offices of PGW, was both surprising and unsurprising (and certainly insulting).  There was jealousy among several presses that he hadn’t chosen them over us.  A few execs at PGW were—“appalled” is not too strong a word—that he would leave their grand castle and close-knit community, to merely troop down the street to a rinky-dink operation like ours.

Under this cloud, his former employment there made him not more but less an effective advocate for North Atlantic/Frog at PGW, as he, to his dismay, soon found out.

B. Basic Do-Nothing Marketing Philosophy Handed Down from Richard

Anyone who spent any time at North Atlantic in the old days would remark that sales and marketing was our weak link (if in fact there was a link to be weak).  One of Mark’s main incentives for coming to our press was best expressed in his own words: “You and Lindy have wonderful editorial vision and one of the best lists around, but your sales and marketing is terrible.  It doesn’t come close to matching the level of the list.”  He saw great untapped potential there—seeds everywhere, lacking fertilizer.

I admit it:  Sales and marketing is my generic and absolute weakness.  I have never liked it or believed in it.  In truth, I have shunned it, fought it, and starved it like an anti-tax Republican trying to put the Government out of business.  It remains the most trenchant vestige of my years running a small literary press.  The credo then (and still to a large degree) was: our job is to publish books of merit, not write Madison Avenue copy.  Our existence was generically anti-marketing.  Our books were to oppose and antidote the epidemic over-marketing of an over-leveraged civilization.  Our whole thrust was away from the capitalist desire machine, not toward feeding it.  We are the children of Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan, not Zig Ziglar.

Some of this distaste for sales and marketing is also embedded in my personality and temperament.  I am an introvert; I hate hype or hoopla.  For instance, I don’t laugh at jokes unless I think they are really funny, even if everyone else in a group does—not out of superiority but because it is impossible for me to fake it. I can barely tell white lies, even when they are called for.

I grew up with a stepfather who ran an advertising agency and had a personality somewhere between Howard Cosell and Larry King.  I also spent a lot of time at my father’s resort where self-promotion was a fact of daily life.  Grossinger’s Hotel and Country Club had mastered the art of getting free publicity, as they invited celebrities to vacation and turned it into news, so the hoopla meter was on 24/12.

Having experienced self-aggrandizement and opportunism cloyingly firsthand throughout my childhood, I was ruined for anything remotely resembling it.  Over my years of growing up, I developed anathema for people tooting their own horns, however gently or modestly in any venue or capacity.  That was lodged so deeply in my personality that I could detect the first nuance of it in myself and shut it down.  My position was and is way extreme, but it shows in the press.

From my opening conversations with Charlie Winton to my temporary deferring to Dave to go at it as he saw fit, I merely tolerated and humored others’ agendas.  Sales and marketing always seemed to me a waste of money, at least at our scale of independent publishing —a mixture of a sham and a self-delusion.  There is just too low a signal-to-noise ratio.  And there’s lots of noise.

Okay if you are introducing a new show on network TV or hawking James Michener or a Porsche, Scarlet Johansson or Nintendo.  But I was never convinced that anything North Atlantic undertook in the realm of marketing or publicity sold any more books than would have been sold if we did nothing—absolutely nothing.  In fact, by the law of averages and the rule of the fates, I tended to believe that “nothing” was probably the better strategy even for sales—Zen, modest, unpushy, hence more deserving of recognition, more subtly eliciting of the flow of invisible energy.

When Dave and his crew on Eighth Street regularly sent out futile review copies to Newsweek and The New York Times, I felt then, I felt before, and I still feel: it was making offerings to a god that doesn’t exist, feeding idols who are truly inert and don’t need to be fed.  Sales and marketing is, in that sense, to me a religion that has tricked twentieth-century humans and particularly publishers, and even more particularly American publishers, into an irrelevant and pricey rat-race of review copies, book tours, and freelance publicists shooting for radio, television, and print.  That’s what Dave fell for, hook, line, and the rest.

There are almost limitless clever ways to disgorge huge gobs of money in publicity, whole industries with songbirds set up to lighten your bank account with promises of success (or warnings of the consequences of not promoting your products).  Their venues include, traditionally, ads in mainstream publications, media appearances, national or regional tours with book signings, and so on.  Some authors expect such booming tactics and are disappointed when we don’t even consider them and won’t indulge.  They feel cheated, as if they didn’t get what the earned for writing a book, for playing the big game, for dazzling the world in print.  Yet they are living in a fantasy world that never really existed, they are not cognizant of the real playing field on which books operate, and they hold only dysfunctional mythologies about the actual parameters of most sales at their level.

For one, the landscape of book-publishing is more bloated now than it was twenty-five years ago.  The book world offers myriad novel opportunities and venues for publishing, distributing, and promoting, but, at the same time, it is controlled at all levels by sterilely commercial interests.  Fewer serious books are published and, correspondingly, more books are conceived as pure products rather than works of art or literature, and then they are sold as novelties and/or extensions of magazines and Reality TV, pop journalism, how-to philosophy, even greeting cards.  The writing of books in such venues is almost incidental to the marketing of a commercial concept, as the so-called products are developed parenthetically simply to have a commodity to sell.  If there were another way to package units of personally-fabricated fame and entertainment value into cash, it would probably replace books—and it already is doing just that, everywhere it can.

These days the profit margins for publishers are also significantly lower: more middlemen, higher discounts across the board, deeper insults to inventory via negligence and damage from movement.  There are ninety percent fewer independent bookstores, and even the chainstores are teetering financially and cutting back on products.  The whole Borders chain just went belly-up.

Belying its glamorous image and frill-laden haberdashery, book- publishing is actually a low-yield business (expensive materials, big and heavy objects for transport and storage, deep inroads by wholesalers, one hundred percent returnability of products, etc.).  Staying afloat in this economic environment requires constant exercise of faithful boundaries and good judgment.

I will now back off my ideological position to address sales and marketing in its current context at North Atlantic, for it is the diametric opposite of what I have just been mouthing.  Also, this is where I start drawing on Guidelines for Authors’ sales and marketing sections.

C. The Creation of Books in a Sales and Marketing Context

i. The Advance Market

As PGW became a full-fledged distributor, the marketing people there began to enforce the trade-wide concept of spring and fall seasons, but Lindy and I initially saw no sense in that sort of commercialized game and we totally resisted, publishing and delivering our books as they got done.  This stance seemed reasonable to us from a commonsense perspective—prepare the book and then print it; move on to the next book.  But it is decidedly not the way that the publishing industry works.

Books are announced a year or so ahead of their pub date, positioned and advance-sold over that time, and then released to all accounts across the market simultaneously.  This is a longstanding book-trade ritual, developed to break through the inertia created by there being, finally, far more books than buyers.  The cycle is: expectation, pent-up demand, and the status of a release or trigger date.

Sales and marketing begin when a title gets announced, before the book is published or even edited and, in the modern bookselling environment, everything must be published in this sales-and-marketing context to have any chance of success.  The context is fundamental and much more seminal than either the advertising or mere publicity that authors usually get entranced by.   While only some titles are publicized to consumers, every title has to be publicized to retail accounts even to be allowed into the marketplace in serious quantities.

I would like to believe that we mainly publish good books in a serious manner and that they should find their market without promotion or marketing.  Of course, this is true of many books.  Exceptional books can still be published neutrally, without marketing consideration, but even those titles have to carry their own weight entirely, building a reputation and forcing their way through any and every resistant door.  If a book is that good, I suppose it can work, eventually at least, but it takes longer and loses some customers for good.   On the other hand, sometimes, no matter wonderful the book, it falls by the wayside, drowned in the flood of competing entries flooding through retail channels and the Internet.

The additional danger is that it may take a book longer to minimally succeed than the underlying network can maintain it in print or its inventory in a warehouse—so it doesn’t get a chance at all.

Hardcore sales and marketing is far more of a pre– than post-publication event.  The notion of “advance-ness” is the key touchstone for sales in the publishing industry. From a marketing standpoint, the phantom, hypothetical book, with its preliminary markings, is the product.  The actual three-dimensional bound object is an after-thought.  If its forerunner hasn’t been successfully sold, the actual book usually can’t be either.  Everything “happens” before it really happens.  Virtual books enter the system long before the hard copies’ official pub dates, as they are “sold” (to accounts) months before they go to the printer.

Advance-selling is done from a sample cover image and brief description of the book in a catalogue or database during a presentation to a buyer.  Because of the large number of books competing for buyer attention, a sales rep’s  store presentation for any given title may be over and done with in a startling fifteen seconds or less. Buyers mainly try to eliminate books, using the rep’s presentation more to figure out what not to buy than what to order.  Authors usually don’t get that, vanity about one’s own book and its importance is almost innate; they may consider the process indecent to the point of absurd, especially given the amount of care and work they put into their book and the specialness with which they endow their baby, but it’s the way it works and they as well as their publishers have to live with this less-than-respectful attitude; it is the practical reality for all titles in retail feeding chains.  Books are a dime a dozen in the world of sales, and one cranky chainstore buyer at a bad moment can negate half the market and years of an author’s work in the blink of an eye.

Books need retail or Web real estate and exposure even for people to know they exist.  Most titles cannot generate media publicity at a scale affecting sales anywhere close to what sheer buys and placements in stores accomplish. Just about all of the essential marketing of economic import is carried out within the book industry.  Marketing to the consumer is technically not even marketing at all but publicity and is, somewhat paradoxically, less critical than sales into accounts.

Getting advance orders through reps is pretty much the best way for books to be positioned for potential readers to be able to find them and to respond to subsequent publicity or buzz.

Thus, selling a title into stores is more than half the battle, and from the standpoint of the distributor (whether it’s PGW or Random House), it is the main game.

Once Lindy and I grokked the game and decided to play by the rules, we took to announcing our books properly in seasons.  Initially these were just spring and fall, but in the late nineties PGW added a smaller winter season.  It was originally introduced to generate sales activity during a traditionally slack period, but it gradually took on the status of a full season.

Even with our adherence to seasons, we still tended to put out our books on a catch-as-catch-can basis, with most titles missing their designated seasons by weeks or months or even years.  Some also came out very early, before there were orders.  Gradually, though, as the years and their seasons passed, we fell into marching ranks with the other presses.  We came to see that creative or lazy variations were wasteful and ultimately nonproductive.  There is no “one foot in, one foot out” middle ground.  If you are going to announce by seasons, you might as well make their deadlines, as a half-hearted approach gains you neither a state of total unstressed flexibility nor real book-selling success.  You are still pushed by deadlines; it’s just that you’re missing them and getting less from your work.  If one is going to publish at all, it is worth playing by the rules and getting the full benefits.  Otherwise, one loses the bulk of his or her scheduling freedom plus the largesse of those hard-to-get advance sales already in the can.  Books that appear too late to fill the orders before they cancel are pretty much squandered; they have to start out all over again as if out of season or unannounced.

The only alternative is blowing the rules off altogether and playing outside the arena: no deadlines, low expenses, and very few advance sales.

I still don’t agree with the rigid imposition of seasons as a retailing philosophy; I question at heart whether publishing by season with long delays before actual book releases is sane, but I do understand that, as long as it is the law of the land and standard industry practice, it is better to adhere to it strictly than to fight it or have one foot in, one foot out.

Random House now divides the year into three seasons, each representing four months; their extra season is summer not winter. Even with a full-fledged “third” season now in play,[1] fall and spring retain special “big launch” status in the publishing world.

Random House also sets precise sales dates within season, and North Atlantic must target books to arrive a month before that month-and-day for proper release.

Thus, we have traveled the full route from total randomness and improvisation to just about the strictest regimen in the industry.  I have heard that many at PGW scoffed at the idea that North Atlantic could function in the tight Random House system since we couldn’t even adhere to a far less stringent PGW regime—but we adapted because we wanted badly enough to get ourselves up-market.  That ambition transcended the company culture; one is never fully prepared for the next step, so a big leap is often easier than a smaller one insofar as it imposes an immediate cognitive shift on habits and customs.

I find the shoe on the other foot these days as I try to spin the same basic arguments to potential authors and copublishers that Charlie Winton trumpeted incessantly to me twenty-five years ago: If you want a book to make any waves at all, you need to sell it well ahead of time and build toward a launch.  This is true not just of potentially commercial titles but all books.

In becoming overly focused on having their books out early or ASAP, authors sometimes forget about the established web of interrelated links and the consequences of violating it.  They put too much urgency into locking in the absolute next season available, as if sooner is always better than later and the next season is the gold ring.

It is usually overlooked that seasons are consecutive, so a delay often means only the difference of a month or two in publication date (from the latter stages of one season till the opening of the next).  It can actually be a single day, as from April 30 to May 1 of a given year.

On the other hand, when an author insists that his or her book be released without being announced the requisite nine to fourteen months ahead of time and in a season, not only is the title not carried widely in the trade but it can have trouble getting into the system at all.  Lacking the necessary lead time and appropriate system-entry protocol, it is left out of many conduits and facets of the distribution network.  When we end up publishing a book outside of a season, the book trade sometimes does not even recognize its existence.

On the other side of the coin: try delaying by a year an author who arrives at your press with a finished manuscript ready to go (and a market that he or she has been priming for years).  Tell them that, if they sign with North Atlantic, their book will come out no sooner than a year hence and probably not that soon.

It is not a popular message and, if held to, it often spells, “Goodbye, author.”

Sometimes, immediate release is the right thing, and we have to work around the system to make it happen.  This is the case, for instance, when a book is already self-published by the author and selling like hotcakes at the time that we take it under our imprint.  You can’t simply pull the book out of the market and wait a year—no one wants that, not us, of course not the author, and not the distributor either.

For instance, in the case of David Wolfe, the momentum that the whole advance selling mechanism was designed to bring about was already in full swing—David had created pent-up demand; the market did not have to be primed or created.  All that was needed was a more efficient means of getting the book into the sales channels than he was able to provide via his small operation in San Diego.

There are two quite different ways to get a book distributed immediately: straight-to-backlist and as a drop-in.  In “straight to backlist,” the distributor doesn’t attempt to sell the book at all but merely catalogues it and makes it instantly available, relying completely on the market to recognize its source of availability.  The author has to tell his customers, former accounts (if he has those), and potential readers that the book is out and available through North Atlantic and Random House.

If, on the other hand, a title is categorized as a “drop-in, “it can slot right into the ongoing sales season, usually with a month or two of lead time for some advance marketing.  The distributor tries to sell it from a standing start to a limited sector of the market within the existing, actively prosecuted sale season, the rest of the titles in which were formerly announced and choreographed a year or more prior.  It may be un-ideal, but it indicates pragmatism and flexibility in the distribution model and shows recognition of “the moment.” After all, many trends, synergies, and breakouts pass in less than a month, let alone a year.  Hell, they can pass in an afternoon.  There is no reason to forfeit sales merely in order to uphold an obsolete ritual.

Sometimes the only way we avoid losing a commercial author—or, conversely, allow a commercial book to keep its momentum—is to release it as a drop-in.  And in the right cases, as we have seen, it can work like a charm and lead to thousands of advance sales.

We had a happy “drop-in” with David Wolfe’s several titles (Naked Chocolate, Eating for Beauty, and The Sunfood Diet Success System) in 2007 and Eric Segalstad/Josh Hunter’s The 27s: The Great Myth of Rock & Roll, in 2009.  Both succeeded because the books had enough of an existing market and publicity accompaniment to be successfully introduced on the run and engage an already-dynamic situation.

Dropping in is never as effective a method as announcing a book with lead time but, if you take into account lost sales and momentum from pulling an active book out of the market for a year, it can be the correct and strategic choice.  Just as “dropping in” on a friend may sometimes be more spontaneous and successful than a planned visit, so dropping in a book may be the way for that title to succeed.

Other times, though, at both PGW and Random House we have published authors early on their insistence with disappointing to disastrous results.  The author’s “I guarantee you” sales must represent a correct assessment on everyone’s part.  If the sales turn out not to be so guaranteed at all, the author and publisher are forced finally to face the consequences of their unrequited enthusiasm.  For instance, Catherine Silvers, the afore-mentioned Jenny Piccolo character from TV, was so certain that her Happy Days, Healthy Living could be launched spontaneously Hollywood-style that she held us hostage for the promise of an early, out-of-season release, assuming that’s the least a movie and television star should get.  But when her vaunted contacts didn’t come through, the book fell as flat as anyone non-celebrity’s book published unannounced. I’m sure, sadder and wiser now, she wishes that she had done it the civilian way.

ii. Title and Cover

The main ingredients for advance sales and marketing are stuff that is built-in and intrinsic, even old-fashioned—the overall quality of the book as well as its title and its cover.

Yes, good books fail, and bad books succeed.  However, that doesn’t change the fact that the book itself is its own best selling tool.  Its cover and title are its premiere ad—and they’re basically free.

The title should first and foremost be interesting, distinctive, appropriate, and alive.

A good title adds a striking and original quality.  Perhaps our most famous title went ninety percent of the way toward making its book a success: Nothing in This Book is True, But It’s Exactly How Things Are. I don’t think Internal and External Merkabas somehow would have sold half a million books (see Chapter Eight).

A successful title can also simply be low-key definitive: Medical Aromatherapy, Healing with Whole Foods, Buddhist Women on the Edge, Esoteric Anatomy, T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Internal Tradition. It can propose a striking image: A Ghost at Heart’s Edge, Flashing Steel, Wind in the Blood, Blossoms of the Dharma.

Great covers can catch audience’s eye—they pop, to use the industry parlance for eye-grabbing designs.  They can propel an ordinary book to success.  As I mentioned in Chapter Six, Inner Traditions’ nouveau-sci-fi covers make almost all their books successes, even otherwise lackluster ones.

Yet titles (and to a lesser degree, covers) are arenas rife with potential author-publisher strife, mainly because of some common author misunderstandings.

Misunderstanding 1: A title does not have to describe the precise content of the book, or more disastrously, be a little exegesis on the topic.  While a title should have some relevance to a book, it definitely should not try to portray every concept in the book crammed into one inelegant mouthful.  I don’t think that one can just come in and look at a title and fix it by adding more words between the engine and the caboose.  If it were that simple and linear, bestsellers would abound; every book would be a bestseller.

While perhaps victorious at the game of completeness, some titles are so dense as to lose all impact.  The author has lost the forest for the trees.  Overwrought titles don’t even function as descriptive “captions”; they are heard subliminally as over-eager gaffes without a message.

A confident title says little and trusts itself.  An unconfident title betrays insistence while failing to convey that the author is comfortable with the legitimacy of his or her own book.  It sounds amateur to the potential buyer, and it quietly drives readers away.

The subtitle, or sometimes a tag line under the title—or even back-cover copy—are usually much better places for reams of information. I have occasionally teased authors who get attached a particularly long or belabored title that they are trying to write their entire book again on the cover.

Length is not the only pitfall; misplaced concreteness (to borrow a phrase from Alfred North Whitehead) and eccentric precision are related problems, sometimes in concert with length. The Other Way to Get Healing was a recent dubious effort following Transcending Materialism in the Realm of Western Medicine. Green Medicine turned out to be the right title for that book.  The Wild, Subtle Surrender was offered for an alternative view of Western philosophy, but it is confusing as to what the book actually is.  While not zingy enough to rivet attention, it was subtly offputting, as it sounds overefforted, clever to a fault, and studied or forced.  Likewise, Learn to Live Longer: A Doctor’s Guide to Preventing Stress Induced Disease through the Five Elements of Chinese Medicine and Nutrition is too much for a book on Chinese medicine.  “Live Longer” got 80,000 hits on Amazon.  In an attempt to hit a mainstream market, this book would get lost in mass transit and would likely miss all its markets.

In truth, some words have been so overused that they just disappear and have no impact.  No one hears them anymore (or they hear something banal); the cliché triumphs over any actual meaning, for instance: Spirit, Energy, Mind, Body, New, Shaman, Prophecy, Healing, Presence, Love, Success, Warrior.   Tell me some others, and I will add them to the warning queue.  They are “the words that cried wolf.”

Some people try to spot-invent hot titles from existing bestsellers.  Not long ago a packager showed us his candidate: The Kabbalah Code. Years earlier, an author wrote The Aquarian Prophecy. Both of these were fusions of words from mega-selling books.  I have heard that one publisher regularly goes through Bookscan, looking for the bestselling titles to plunder for his books.

A color cover mock-up must be prepared by the book’s designer soon after announcement and well before manuscript submission.  This is for the publisher’s and/or distributor’s catalogue and the sales reps.  Called the cover comp (short, I believe, for composition), it represents the designer’s first effort towards the cover.

Although they are only drafts, most comps do become real covers with no more usually than minor tweaking, as no one wants to pay for multiple covers.   Authors need to understand that a publisher cannot keep preparing comps until they hit on a design that the author likes.  Some designers bill for their comps as actual covers, although most will make limited and merited changes as feedback comes in, without charging for whole new designs.  Those who charge a new cover fee for each design create a real disincentive to road-testing designs with either the author or the distributor.

Despite the relative importance of a good cover, we are not an advertising agency going for “the look” because we cannot afford the luxury of a gallery of potential designs for each book.   Too often authors act as though they are accounts viewing art-department presentations by Madmen.

For parallel reasons of consistency and budget it’s far better to decide on any title changes as early as possible in the process so the designer can have the final title/subtitle on her comp.  This includes the attribution of any prominent foreword or introduction writers.  You don’t want covers constantly tweaked at designer rates or changing looks and names throughout the various marketing networks.

Covers have all the same prerequisites and pitfalls as titles.  They are not literal portrayals of the topic inside.   Sometimes authors want to crowd their book’s cover with multiple discrete items in order to capture everything in the book or at least as much as possible in some fifty square inches.  The result is usually a busy, unattractive muddle.  It is better to use one dynamic image and place it in an impactful design.  A front cover rarely has enough space for a full synopsis or representation of the contents.

Covers can even be off-topic without being “wrong” or somehow irrelevant.

On the other hand, a failure to characterize a book on the cover can sometimes be just as problematic as too literal a portrayal of the content.  A beautiful photograph of a pastoral scene or evocative abstract painting, having nothing to do with the topic, can be wonderful as an emblem and brand-identifier, or it can be useless and a total waste of an opportunity to present the work in its own context in the best light.  A martial-arts book probably needs a fighter or weapon on the cover and, if the author wants a tree or calligraphy, these need to be really special to overcome their variance from the content of the book.

Most celebrity quotes are overrated.  Rarely will someone buy a book because it is blurbed by a famous author, movie star, politician, or the like.  From the standpoint of covering all bases and perfectionism, it is worth trying to get strong recommendations from admired people, but these rarely add more than a tiny increment to the package.  It is probably true that, when wavering on a purchase, a customer might be more inclined to buy a book that someone of intelligence and integrity has gone through the trouble to put his or her imprimatur and signature on, but I doubt whether such blurbs initiate many sales.

I think also that the public has learned to discount endorsements because claims and back-pats have become epidemic.  Many wonderful writers and thinkers (Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, and Larry Dossey in holistic health alone, for instance) have blurbed so many books, often incidental to their actual quality, that they have risked becoming what are thought of in the industry as “blurb whores.”  They are so generous and good-hearted and probably have a hard time saying no, but then their imprimaturs become inflated and, I’m afraid, pieces of pop art in themselves.

By contrast, other authors may refuse to blurb at all on principle and/or because it takes time away from their real work.  Although this can come off hard-ass, I do respect it.  Literary or psychospiritual celebrity should not condemn one to having to be their friends’ and friends’ friends’ blurb machines.  I know this is the case with Don DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Jonathan Lethem, and Stephen Mitchell, and I am sure that it is true of many others also.  They want to write books, not ads.

An oft-overlooked “advance” marketing item of importance is the overall make-up and dynamics of a publisher’s entire seasonal list.  A publisher should try to avoid duplication of concepts and intra-item competition within a list.  Retail buyers at many accounts may be willing to order only one title by a given author or one title on a given topic in a season.  They may not have the retail space for any more than that, especially from a single publisher.

iii. Sales Rep Material

Preparing materials for sales reps is the next most important advance item after finalizing the cover and title.  As noted above, for a book to get placement in stores, it needs to be presented first to various and sundry retail accounts by the distributor’s sales team, so a press’s own editorial and sales and marketing people have to produce lively, original copy and backup material to equip them in this mission.

Information that merely slots a book into a familiar niche without saying how it stands out within its niche is almost useless.  Likewise, hoopla about where the book might be promoted and reviewed is that classic currency which, plus fifteen cents, would get you a ride on the old subway.

Experienced sales reps and marketing people are savvy about exaggerations and bravado; they always discount them.  We tell authors: Give clear, accurate information—what your book is, who you are, who you think the readership is, what your sense of the actual competition is.  Really straightforward.  If there is something to say, just say it, but don’t embellish for prevaricate.  What confirmed promotions do you have in line (media, print, or in person)?  In general, what you will do of potential promotional value after the book is published?  This is the sine qua non world of modern bookselling.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of an advance book-information sheet, other than content description, is its request for comparable titles.  An author or project editor has to figure out what other books sell well in the given category and how the book under present scrutiny book is different from the rest of these.

Comp titles are not just any books;[2] they have to be successful titles, as the goal is to establish the validity of the theme or genre.  But your book has to be unique in some way.  Reps need to have a convincing argument for booksellers who want to know what kind of sales to expect and also why they need this particular book rather than one they are already selling.  It is no help at all when an authors says, as happens all too often: “There is no book like mine in the stores”; after all, the point of the “comparable titles” is to establish worthy predecessors—similar titles with good track records—and then to show how the new title varies from them in a creative, favorable, perhaps evolutionary way.  There is always something comparable.  No author, at least on Earth, can invent an entirely new concept without precedent.

Phrased differently, the author may be one of a kind, but the customers are merely market categories.

iv. Sell-Through and Returns

Despite euphoria over strong advance sales, a prepublication buy from a bookstore, wholesaler, Internet account, and/or book chain does not of course guarantee actual sales, e.g., to an end user.  Sell-through is a whole different ballgame and involves the appeal of a book, either intrinsic or through publicity.  An advance sale is important, but it is still less than half the battle.

Once a book is in the stores it actually has to depart fairly quickly—move, turn, sell through, whatever the parlance.  Otherwise, its coveted slot is peremptorily given to another book—there is always a long waiting list of wannabes.  It becomes not an honored guest but the worst of all intruders in the book business—a return—and is suddenly treated as shoddily as an illegal alien caught in the post-9/11 immigration sting.

Charlie Winton once remarked once, “The shelf life of books is a little bit less than that of bread.” I think it is even worse than that these days.  Unless it sells, it is stale on arrival.  By the time the book is actually published and available in stores, its marketing career is just about over.

If, one way or another, by word of mouth or publicity, enough consumers purchase actual books from the stores for which they were pre-bought, then their slot will be kept, at least for a while, and they will be reordered.  However, if they do not sell (or sell enough), they will not be reordered (even when they run out) and the remaining stock will be returned.  Unfortunately the majority of those books advanced presumptively will (gradually at first and finally in a landslide) be shipped back, to the wholesaler or distributor and then to the publisher, or directly to the publisher if that is the source account, with batches of other unsold titles.  The damaged returns, invariably a fairly high percentage, will end up in gaylords at distributors.  The worm turns quickly in the publishing world.  A proud new book, recently sold to stores, with a spiffy title and design, becomes unwanted debris.  Its moment in the sun is brief.

The final marketing agenda for any book is “sell through”—meaning for the copies that were pre-sold to accounts to be bought by customers and at a rate strong enough to generate fresh sales.  The pipeline created by this flow and its regeneration after sales is the heart of successful publishing and bookselling.  It can lead to a store modeling the book in their computer system such that it is automatically re-purchased when inventory falls to a certain level.

Steady backlist sales are the true lynchpin of successful publishing, much more so than those very returnable advance sales.  Yet the latter is paradoxically often the foundation of the former.  Our entire martial-arts list would never have gotten off the ground if PGW hadn’t gotten them into the chainstores initially by a vibrant sales-repping effort.  The reps got the stores to try them and, once displayed, they proved active and resilient.

Getting books into such long-term models with stores is the gold ring of sales and marketing, though it is worth noting that nowadays online sales have far outstripped brick-and-mortar sales, even taking into account the remaining chainstores.  So one looks for the equivalent in terms of a low number on Amazon, a favorite daily or even hourly recreation of authors who enjoy tracking their algorithms.

A book that sells still generates returns, but it does not become a pariah or an obsolete intruder in the market.

High advance sales can unfortunately portend large returns, even for a successful book, especially if that book’s natural pace tends toward a slow and steady rather than huge or immediate public response.  Only topical, newsworthy, or fad-based books tend to sell immediately in the thousands or tens of thousands, but even those can come and go as fast as spring snow.  Books that explode out the gate are welcome at all publishing houses, of course, but they may be problematic because the press doesn’t know for a long time if they are going to stay sold or continue to sell, and they can budget or spend over-enthusiatically against sales the never come.  There are famous stories of bestsellers that put presses out of business.,

Much of the profit from a big sale may be lost by doing an overly hasty reprint and then finding that the market has been surfeited or dried up, as many a publisher has sadly discovered.  See the old flash-in-the-pan novel Fup or the brief surprise smash When I Am an Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple for textbook cases of bestsellers pretty much wrecking companies by catapulting publishers to investment levels for which they were not prepared.  It obviously doesn’t mean to refuse gift horses or not to appreciate strong-selling titles, just to be aware that they present their own risks and are not the only way to play the game or publish successfully.  Multiple steady sellers usually represent a more confident path to publisher success than a meteoric smash hit.

We actually try not to have our books “over-sold,” meaning hyped by the reps more than their potential customer base can support.  Sales reps tend to like lots of crooked numbers, even artificially boosted ones, and it does wonders for their career score, commission bonuses, and cashflow in circumstances where such things are measured.  Many presses are okay with letting Zeno’s Paradox chase them forever, constantly filling the tank with advance sales that are likely to come back in high percentages.  Whole economies can run on items that are never really sold or paid for.  Publishing can be a Ponzi scheme too in which the pyramid is oversold titles destined to be returned but generating temporary cash.  As long at they are replaced by others at a fast enough rate, the ship can stay afloat.  Many publishers borrow money on advance sales and stay just ahead of the piper.

For us it does little good to have large numbers, for instance, of a niche bodywork book suddenly displayed nationally in bookstores when the book’s readership is more conducive to small, regularly replenished stock.  Large advance sales may kill such bashful titles because the failure to reach store sales targets based on initial “buys” can trigger widespread negative perception among merchants.  And this is true even when a goodly number of books do sell—as long as too high a percentage of the original quantity placed gets returned.

Smaller advance sales conversely can be curiously advantageous.  A book that sells what is shipped store by store (however meager the number, even one, one, one, one….) makes a better impression than a book that regularly has more copies sitting on the shelves, even if the latter sells more copies overall. It can be psychologically effective for stores not to ever have quite enough books on hand and thus to have to keep ordering them fresh than for them to be returning surpluses of advance sales as failures—and then, because of the expense and hassle of returns and the perceived shortfall of expectations, not to want to carry the title any more.  Charlie Winton spoke often of the power of pent-up demand, but it was not until I bought into his overall model that I understood it.  Before that it was just more marketing bullshit in a world made up only of sales, not real things.

Unless we tell our distributor that a particular book is an exception and we seek marketplace saturation (returns be damned!), we prefer that they not hype our books beyond the proximal and most conservative market for them.

Smaller advance orders are ultimately the only effective corrective to the returns problem, since it means fewer returns and fewer damaged books (see below).

I have belabored this point not because it is individually so significant but because it contains within it many lessons about the practicalities and psychology of publishing as they relate to the quite different practicalities and psychology of bookselling.

High returns as a way of life have been a signature legacy of the modern publishing system.  The chains instinctively thought in terms of large, even extravagant buys and the economy of scale that they entailed, and they did not hesitate to invest fresh money in bringing lots of books speculatively into their expanding universe of stores from urban centers to suburban malls to village main streets in order to sample the different clienteles with varying titles.  Their market was so vast and diffuse that they found it productive to test on a trial-and-error basis.

They shipped nonselling titles back out when they were found to be hogging space that a putatively more commercial item could fill—fresh blood always welcome.  This was totally foreign to the mindset of the old-fashioned bookstores with their nooks and crannies of dusty surprises and their acceptance of a steady-state economy.  The remaining retail stores still tend to think of themselves more as literary K-Marts and less as community libraries.  They have become the Wal-Marts of the publishing world.  In fact, they are often just sections of Wal-Mart.

A secondary consequence of this “easy-come, easy-go” mentality over the years is that many books become damaged and unsellable because little care is put into packing up the “losers.”  They come to rest at the bottom of the caste system, as stores often cram and bend them into containers without buffering material.  It was not that long ago after all that retailers were required merely to tear off the cover of a book to prove that it didn’t sell it and that they wouldn’t be able to sell it deceitfully henceforth (thus get their monetary credit from the distributor or publisher); it was an honor system an era that, unlike the present, had a bit of Victorian honor left.  The end fate of the actual “stripped” product was otherwise incidental.

Now, with less mutual trust and more secondary markets, publishers get back the “remains” of the books, ultimately through their distributors—those ubiquitous gaylords and shrouds.   But they are often little better than torn-off covers as far as resale value goes.

The publisher bears most of the fiscal brunt of these so-called shopworn returns, as they have to absorb the books themselves as well as the product cost.  The bookstore will take no responsibility, and the distributor is only responsible for its percentage share and a modest, a very modest, ploy at housekeeping, inventory management, and packing (PGW regularly sent us whole cartons and pallets of returns from other publishers, so it is no wonder that our inventory figures eroded so dramatically—you also have to speculate where our own pallets went).

The publisher is the last in line of custody and must accept and eat damaged books.  The printer actually is the last line, but the printer obviously won’t take books back and bears no responsibility for the content or salability of the products it manufactures; it is an excluded, nonentrepreneurial party, at least in book-trade terms.

Thus, the publisher is stuck with them as the next in line of custody.  Among the various book-industry participants and parties at entrepreneurial risk (stores, distributors, customers), for the publisher the equity value of hurt books is lowest.  If the printer were included, his cost would be the lowest: merely his overrun materials-and-labor expense.

Here is the biggest boondoggle: Stores often ship viable, selling books back simply to get credit to buy other titles without having to lay out more cash.  They purchase their fresh stock on the equity of these returns—their own Ponzi pyramid.  This is particularly disappointing because a book may be selling perfectly okay and the stores invariably damage dozens or hundreds of copies to solve their own temporary credit problem—and then they may simply reorder the books a week or two later.  Obviously gas still doesn’t cost enough.

Authors who think stores are provincial and wrong-headed not to carry their books may become apoplectic when books get returned even though they are selling.  I have had to deal more than once with an author who completely lost it over this issue.  All his effort at writing and hiring a publicist squandered because stores needed credit for something.  I would agree that it was outrageous, but no more so than how banks and other financial institutions conduct business seven days a week.

Returns waste time and freight, reverse formerly positive cashflow, destroy good books, eat up inventory space (as pallets of mixed damaged books collect unsorted in the warehouse), and generate negative royalties.  As noted (see the previous chapter), we sell huge batches of these damaged books to hurt-book dealers, while many publishers ask their distributor to destroy the damaged books, thus keeping them out of the marketplace in any form.  We want our damaged books saved, at very least to use them as review copies and for promotion and to provide a source of inexpensive books for author use and sale to customers who cannot afford the usual cover prices.  Our hurt dealer Ed Mondazzi and we also donate many of these “hurts” to schools, prisons, and libraries.

The fact that stores are wasting ludicrous amounts of resources, sometimes rendering a book temporarily unavailable, permanently reducing the publisher’s usable inventory (by bumptious shelving, packing, and transit damage) to solve their own temporary cashflow problem concerns them not in the least, so far as I can see.  After all, from their viewpoint they feel that they are offering a service in stocking the book at all, and they may rationalize that the terms of the distributor or a wholesaler squeeze them unjustly into paying for books before they are sold.

As each new money crunch heads down the pike from the near horizon, bookstore clerks become like police officers writing tickets on quotas.  The call goes out to staff monitoring inventory—they find the requested number of books somewhere to pull from the shelves and send back for credit, even if they just got there, even if they are selling.

I am reminding of the only slightly amusing incident back in the eighties when our poet-policeman Philip Mahony, frustrated that not more local NYC stores carried his books, began “stealing” them in, leaving unrequested deposits on the poetry shelves.  What he didn’t account for was that the stores turned right around and returned them to PGW for full credit.  I had to ask him to stop.

Speaking as a publisher, I would say that returns are one of the most pernicious problems in the business, and it is unfortunate that the book industry, unlike the clothing or kitchenware industries, lobbied for this retailer-friendly tenet back in the dawn of the industry so that absolute returnability is now built in.  Ideally stores should get rid of overstock with big seasonal markdown sales, just like in fashion.  they should buy books nonreturnably as if these were dinner plates or bikinis and then have glitzy promotional sales to encourage general commerce.  Sales should be final—it would save gas, trees, resources, time, and quantum degrees of global temperature. It is greener not to put energy into pulping perfectly good reading material, created at some cost to the ecosystem and the atmosphere.

In the present format the entire system is eroded by a constant return conduit, as the publishing industry carries the ball and chain of a 30% product-return canal.

Our return rate for North Atlantic generally has been around 15-20%, which is great by industry standards, but it still means that a lot of the inventory that we ship comes back, most of it damaged and not able to be sold again.  In the worst of times our return rate has been as high as 40%; in prosperous times it has been closer to 8%.

For our book-trade return rate to be lower than 12% would mean, by conventional publishing analysis, that we were not taking enough risk.  Common wisdom is that most titles have to be tried out widely, more widely than there is demand, in order to establish which of them will sell and/or break out.  Invariably some do, and some don’t, and the damaged returns of those that don’t become the price of figuring out which are the commercial ones.

This is actually a marketing budget disguised in a print and returned budget, as marketing dollars are sucked and mutated into increased unit costs and reduced margins.

By contrast, books sold to alternative medical offices, alternative grocery stores, bodywork and yoga studios, surf shops, crystal stores, martial-arts dojos, health-food wholesalers, and the like almost never come back in large numbers.  Hopefully these new markets will continue to grow and replace the dwindling cadre of bookstores in an evolving, less wasteful economy.  Almost all of these are sales spurred by interest and demand (as opposed to speculative advance sales directed by commissioned reps into stores).

A new, steady-state retail book trade growing in nontraditional domains is one of the few promising signs for the present publishing industry.  A demand-driven, niche-oriented market will probably not be based on a force-feeding mentality of speculative advance-ordering and sampling, at least not initially.  It is commerce at its simplest and most innocent phase, hence inherently vital and self-sustaining.  I imagine it is how most commerce began, in the mercado and bazaar.

It is also the case that computer-monitored, single-copy and just-in-time ordering have been developing in the book industry, and this had resulted in and will continue to result in less over-purchasing and fewer returns.  A sometimes-unpopular side-effect is that stores are now pre-buying and carrying fewer of each title these days.  Years ago one could count on a modest buy for any credible-sounding title, a few hundred to a thousand copies.  Now the girth of that market has diminished, and the entire sales-repping basis of the book industry is in jeopardy.

The 2011 landscape is now dominated by fewer outlets, more digital products, waves of self-published items sold online, smaller print runs, fewer chainstores (no more Crown or Borders, etc.), whole cities without a single bookstore, specialty and niche marketing.

As noted earlier, Amazon is positioning itself to put the publishers out of business the way that it did the bookstores, offering to convert authors’ files directly into books to be sold on their website, with the cut going solely to the author.  In terms of the quality of information, this will have pretty much the same effect that the replacement of newspapers by blogs and websites has: homogenization, simplification, and elimination or any standards or criteria: a completely relativistic and populist landscape.  But you can’t say that publishers, bookstores, distributors, and the like didn’t ask for it in the way that they treated books and authors anyway.  Their contempt for quality, content, and even rational commerce set the basis for a free-for-all marketplace.  Now those publishers who hope to survive will have to find new ways to provide value to authors.  Otherwise, they might as well just send their files to Amazon and sit back and await their dividends.

All I can say is, “We will see,” but that is the case anyway.

D. Promotion

2011 note: As I proceed further on my edit of this chapter, I find that the divergence between the publishing industry that it describes and the actual present situation of publishing becomes greater and greater.  A very different document would be written from scratch today.  I have done what I can to adapt it, but its view is still somewhere in the late nineties, as it comes from the Guidelines for Authors booklet written then.

Captured by a corporate media outlook, the promotion of even conventional books has become exponentially more expensive than even printing, and most of it is now divorced from the historical publishing industry per se, following more Hollywood-style systems of information dispersal.  Promoting books is a business in which every participant expects to be paid for every piece of the pie in every imaginable way the pie can be sliced—and paid well.

Since most publishers can no longer be effective marketers of their own products, they tend to hire specialized consultants such that publicity in the book world has become a high-stakes lottery, played most successfully by entities with lots of money to risk, and even these are finding the casino less and less fruitful.  For now they keep testing the roulette wheel in hopes that one successful title will pay for fifty unsuccessful ones.  Their goal is a big splash or mass media in some form, to which end they subsidize buzz at a rate that everyone knows cannot be matched, either on the average or in sum, by revenue from actual sales.

This is a major reason why traditional trade publishing is now a failing business, even for large houses, in fact especially for them, as they are the ones who have to spend the most money to compete, the most money to forfeit.  As a group they simply cannot make it back; it is a losing proposition.  No matter who wins an individual round, over time their overall losses continue to mount.  It is like a joke I used to make about the free-agent era in sports: it’s amazing that with all that extra money being spent, no more games are won, no more champions crowned, and the teams records still come out to a collective .500 at the end of every season.

On a number of occasions (more than I am happy admitting) we have spent $5000 or more on promotion for a title because of our own enthusiasm or an author’s pressure and gotten no (zero, nada) recognizable return.  Books that sell in reasonable or high numbers generally sell just about as many books after as before promotions.  Books that don’t sell still don’t sell after promotions, mega or mini.  As this outcome becomes confirmed and reconfirmed by repeated experience, we are less and less receptive to even the most plaintive and insistent petitions of authors and publicity mavens to do this or that infallible, guaranteed-to-succeed promotion.

As I wrote to one persistently aggressive copublisher/author asking for more promotion:

I, like you, have a natural aversion to indulgently throwing money away.  If I thought we could productively promote you at a cost of $100,000 or even $500,000, I’d be all for it because we’d end up, hurray, hurrah!, with more than that at the end of the day.  But for us together to throw away $9000 or $12,000 with very little chance of recovering most of it disturbs me no end.  I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen, but I do want to air this issue with all its unspoken subtexts.  The situation is much more complicated than what is being discussed on the surface, and there are many factors at play.

When I hear you talk—and do listen to me very carefully on this without feeling offended—I  hear the delusional fantasies of many an author we have had.  For being brilliant and successful, you don’t necessarily have immunity to the great American fame mirage.  The truth is: 95% of the time or more authors sell to their level without paying a shilling, and the best that heavy promotion can do is add another percentage point or two–a percentage point or two, not double or even 10%.

You are already selling very well across a range of markets but, despite your quite legitimate and successful attempt at commercialization and broadening of the presentation of your ideas, which will continue to bear fruit, you remain a professional who does not talk or present well in tabloid, pop-cultural terms.  For reasons that are not only not your fault but quite the opposite, that prove your seriousness and authenticity, you are not a good candidate for one of those sound-bite talking heads.  Sad but true.  Happy but true.  We are extremely unlikely to generate publicity at an Oprah level or a Larry King level as you keep proposing, and, short of that, we and you are not going recover a fraction of a publicist’s costs.  And when you start to talk about plane fare, I see the fantasy prevailing over sound judgment or realistic assessment.

There is a long, long waiting list for fame in America.  Get on it if you want, but it’s frankly not your game.   I don’t see you willing or even able to develop a marketable persona or cheapen your presentation.  We have played this game in the past many times with the highest of hopes, as I have told you.  For $50,000 Amy Wallace got one Washington Post review that may or may not have sold five books.  For $15,000 Kumar Frantzis got a few local TV shows.  I could give you a list filling a single-spaced page with investments from $2000 to $50,000, and not one of them returning even 10% of the publicity money.

When asked by someone for a list of ten pieces of advice for people for a business book on publishing, I continued in my email to this author, my number two was: don’t be deluded into paying for expensive publicity; it never works, and even when it does, it doesn’t sell books, let alone enough to pay for itself.  I think you can talk yourself endlessly into rationalizations that you are different and that your work is important in a different way and resonates potentially more widely because of this or that crisis in the world.  But that doesn’t take into account the fact this is not a culture that rewards or honors authenticity or places authenticity above a jazzed-up sound-bite.  There is no one-to-one map from the very real importance of one’s work and the very real need for that kind of work in the culture to the recognition that a legitimate person is the one doing the work or that the remediation that is needed lies in that person’s writings and teachings.  This is your precise dilemma.

First the topic has to be recognized and admitted accurately, and then the mainstream culture has to recognize that “you da man” rather than an endless line of zippy-sound posers and snake-oil salesmen and saleswomen who are talking about a range of New Age and pop-psychology topics.

Could it work despite everything I just said?  Of course, it could work.  I can’t read the future and I could well be wrong, so I am all for experimenting at a meaningful level and keeping an open mind.  But you are making an assumption about value, recognition, and reward here that is naïve and utopian compared to the very shallow-minded market we are facing.  And the more publicity you do, the shallower is the market and the necessary approach.

I will repeat: I have yet to see an author pay a publicist and get anything close to value.  It is more like buying a lottery ticket and expecting to win, certainly more than it is like what you otherwise live by: honest work, honest information, honest returns.

I am putting time in on this email because there are some important issues here.  We need clear communication between us to get this resolved, and I feel there is a heavy subtext blocking it.  I am perfectly willing to contribute our share to our overall collaboration, but I believe we do a lot of things that are costly and invisible to you, so we don’t necessarily have to contribute this ritual pound of flesh for you to feel you have a good deal with us as a partner.  Throwing our money away along with yours is not even going to satisfy you ultimately, and it is more like cutting off your nose to spite your face than getting real value back.  Just because we are going to bleed too does not even the imaginary score.  You don’t have to compel us to invest huge sums in publicity in order to feel remunerated for your contribution to our relationship.

Money, even when it is coming in happily, is not free and limitless and, if it is spent on something with a 5% chance or less of breaking even, it is not there later to spend on less risky, less high-stakes things with a 90% chance of breaking even.  Because we are doing well with your books in general and because there may be some high-end potential here is no reason to splurge counter to our good judgment and our sound risk/reward analysis.  That kind of thing always ends up being regretted, one way or the other, and it ultimately jeopardizes relationships and good will.  Money is still money, and money lost is still trust betrayed.

So I am trying to communicate this and be on the record as saying unambiguously at the get-go that it is everyone’s belief at North Atlantic that hiring an outside publicist to promote you is a very, very long longshot and that, if we do it, we are doing it to make you happy, not because we believe it is good strategy and will work.  If you continue to require it, we will proceed, but I think it is important that you understand the nature of the tug of war and diplomacy between us here and realize that we are playing a game that could be dangerous and one that we don’t have to play.

As a friend once said of high-stakes anything, if you don’t need it, don’t do it.  I don’t think either of us needs this, as I think your work and outreach will grow exponentially just by the usual careful things.  To repeat, I don’t think trying to get big splashes in the fame arena is going to have an impact on your sales.  The tree will fall in the forest and no one will even know it fell, $9000 later.  Another $9000, another tree.  Frankly I don’t even think appearances on the shows you want like Larry King, in the unlikely event they are garnered, will sell meaningful numbers of books.  You are a very busy man as is and doing valuable things with your time; I would not clutter your life or make unnecessary work by trying to achieve some sort of unlikely superficial fame.

But please understand, at the same time, that I am not trying to be difficult; I just want our discussion to be frank and transparent on both sides.  Then we can agree happily what to do without one party feeling its arm is being twisted or that there is proxy activity and unacknowledged subtext.  Your work is valuable and crucial in today’s world.  We as a press have an ethical commitment as well as a commercial one to get your books to more and more places, and we are going to carry that out regardless.  I just don’t think we are talking candidly yet about this publicist issue, and I am trying to initiate that talk because I think it is better in the long run to air it than let it go underground.  And it is also me playing my role as copublisher in giving hard-earned advice from experience.

This was not well received, this author was not convinced, so the money had to be spent anyway.  It was pretty much lost.  This became a very heated skirmish with almost $15,000 wasted before he sort of backed off, while only peripherally admitting that he was wrong; i.e., he could say that he now saw the game was rigged and he couldn’t win, but he still wanted to find another way to play because he couldn’t believe that stars were not made rather than born, and he wanted to be a made man; he felt he had earned that privilege.

Too many authors still believe somehow that there is a lottery of fame or a ladder of success out there and that they must get on it.  It is somehow left over from a twentieth-century mentality of something in the rough vicinity of Charles Van Doren and Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein being asked for love advice.  It is a fantasy engendered by Oprah and Larry King, and who knows what lies at it deadly heart?

It is important that authors understand that we are a book publisher, not a book marketer.  Where heavy-duty marketing is needed, we must enlist outside firms, and we can only do this in instances where the potential sale generated by marketing will pay its cost, which is essentially never—or where the author bears most or all of the financial burden.

Years ago Peter Beren, the former marketing guy at And/Or Press and Sierra Club Books, a man with rare insight into the business of selling books, provided me a parable that I would put on any list of ten axioms for successful publishing: “Most publishers commit to a publicity plan before they have a baseline to measure it against.  They end up selling 25,000 books and paying $20,000 in publicity for it, and then they tell themselves they got a bargain.  They think they spent $20,000 to sell 25,000 books.  What they don’t realize is that, without publicity, they would have sold 23,500.  They actually spent $20,000 to sell 150 books.”

Unless you know the steady-state baseline sales rate of a book, you cannot quantify the results or even the bare usefulness of any publicity.

Peter also said that we were fortunate that North Atlantic’s sales were mostly demand-driven: “People buy your books because they want them.  You don’t have to promote them to get sales.  That’s unusual in the book business, especially at the scale that you do it.”

That is what I try to tell authors, but it is amazing how often it falls on deaf and stubborn ears.  We can promote till the cows come home, but it won’t sell books.

Good books have to sell themselves, and there has been no reason for us to retreat from this strategy. Our Black Mountain roots and loyalty to the avatars of the Olson tradition sprouted into authors like Cheng Man-Ch’ing, John Upledger, Paul Pitchford, Patricia Cori, Victoria Boutenko, and David Wolfe—primary-source texts, original voices, trail-blazers of consciousness.  We were looking for alchemical documents; we never developed a knack of making products out of derivative materials, hawked off some pretext or from an author’s personal style and charisma.  But that is pretty much what modern book-publishing is.

Because of the nature of our books, they most often do sell themselves and are less susceptible to even the most earnest promotion.  If we commit money to promotion or advertising, we may see sales, but in most cases, as per PBeren’s formula, they are predominantly sales we would have gotten anyway.  Bought sales are, like shale oil, expensive indeed, with the cost of delivery often more than the realized revenue.

I recalled Peter’s comment over the years and used it as a rebuttal against PGW’s constant urging us to spend more money and then more and more and more on promotion.  Usually I held fast; sometimes I gave way, in part because their insistence was unremitting and in part because it was linked to a cleverly (if self-servingly) posited back-up that, if you don’t show that you support your own books, you won’t get any support from the sales reps or the accounts.

That’s what I mean by a sham and a god whom the faithful worship without any sense of whether there is a god at all or their devotion means anything.  I was a hardcore cynic back then: why shouldn’t PGW want us to spend our money to promote our books they were distributing?  It cost them nothing and could only increase their own cut, even if marginally.  And if they stampeded all or most of their distributed presses into needless extra promotion, the cumulative effect would be a lot more cash in hand for them and a better distribution product to sell to some other corporation down the road (welcome, AMS!)—then all the investors could retire wealthy.  That’s what happened.  It didn’t matter if ninety percent of the promotions accomplished little to nothing because a lot of a little was still a lot for them, and the other, lucky ten percent was pure coins jingling in their computers, leveraged into millions of dollars for the investors.

Prove that I lie!

One of my own axioms of publishing is: don’t spend money on publicity, and certainly don’t spend more money than a reasonable sale of books from that publicity can recoup.  And, nota bene, the reimbursement calculation must include the unit printing cost of the books themselves (cost of goods sold), which should be deducted from any sales in calculating the success of a promotion.

My working formula for assessing the potential value of a marketing expenditure over the years was based on the yardstick that a publisher clears about $2 above production costs per front-list book on the average, so a $500 ad has to blast 1000 books into the market to be viable—and even that is a wash (plus whatever author goodwill or ineffable word of mouth it generates).  And the books have to not get returned.

Except in the case of bestselling authors, store appearances likewise generally cost more than they can generate in revenue.  For instance, a $250 in-store event or ad has to sell 500 books to break even.  This is far too high a bar for any book-signing short of Michael Jordan, Paris Hilton, or Rachel Maddow.

Many independent bookstores in their heyday used author signings as a dedicated income stream, and a large portion of those stores were not beyond charging publishers double (or more) their own break-even point.  However merited independent brick-and-mortar bookstores were, independent publishers should not have gotten into the business of subsidizing their struggle for survival against Amazon and the chains.  There was no moral obligation to overpay for book-signings.

We still try to find some point at which a book signing or similar ploy is a recoverable expenditure.  We even are willing to lose a certain amount of money paying fees for events, but there is a limit to how many such losses we can absorb for any one title.

For years North Atlantic/Frog dismayed Charlie and the PGW crew by having no sales and marketing department and no publicist (and being proud of it), but once their own homeboy Mark Ouimet, the sweetest and most persuasive sales and marketing guy in God’s creation, convinced Lindy and me of the need for and value of marketing, and then arrived on our premises three blocks south of headquarters—as noted—he began to build a relevant staff by moving employees from customer service and internships to sales and marketing and hiring new people specifically for his department.

Soon thereafter the seasoned pro Debby Matsumoto arrived from Chronicle Books, as she decided to try something new after twenty years there.  She replaced Olivia, a well-meaning but ineffective Princeton-educated, publicist who came to see the job as inherently futile.  Debby stayed with us only a year before Ten Speed grabbed her.  During her tenure with NAB she had a hard time getting attention from the same publications that feted her as a representative of Chronicle.  “I don’t know why I suddenly caught the plague,” she joked.  The disease was North Atlantic Books, and Ten Speed was its cure.

Debby’s main legacy was her squirrel-feeding, as she liked to bring sacks of walnuts to work and then join other staff on walks.  Squirrels came out of landscape like in a child’s game page of hidden animals.  They knew her energy and rhythm and voice.

I doubt that many of their territories extended the additional eight or ten blocks to her new locale at Ten Speed, though maybe some intrepid squirrels found where the squirrel lady went.  She also had a reputation as a living cat shelter and a shameless feeder of residential raccoons.  I am not being facetious when I say that these are her virtues that I miss, not her publicity.

Allegra Harris, the decidedly non-hippie daughter of hippies (who understood our market well from her parents) arrived during Mark’s tenure as an intern while still a student at Cal.  After she graduated, valedictorian of her English Department, she became Debby’s publicity assistant, and then the publicist and then, as mentioned in Chapter Twelve, manager of sales and marketing, with two publicists, an Internet marketer, and a liaison with Random House under her.  She stayed for about five years before deciding to go to graduate school in business at the University of Chicago, and she was replaced by Janet Levin, a long-time Bay Area marketing pro originally from the Bronx who, being twice Allegra’s age, bought a lot of experience and industry context with her.  Talia Shapiro has generally handled the more conventional and traditional media publicity channels, while Dylan Wooters, followed by Kat Engh, took on Internet and podcast exploration and web and blog outreach.  Now Talia and Kat share the territories more evenly and split their domains by authors and topics.  They have come into their prime as era of print, radio, and TV recedes.

These days, clearly, most of our budget goes into marketing online.  Our alliance with Reality Sandwich and are very much online/print collaborations, meshing books with websites and blending promotional streams for the same authors.  This is the new promotional venue.

E. Book Reviews

The likelihood of a random book review occurring or, if it occurs, significantly increasing a book’s sales was never very high to begin with for our kind of book and has steadily diminished over the years.  Sending out review copies has gone from a major to a minor activity at North Atlantic, and we send out, at most, 35 copies of most titles.

We do make  galleys of a few lead titles these days but that is mainly for the use of Random House sales reps and then, since we have the extras on hand, we send them to media outlets and reviewers.  Almost nothing ever comes of those.  I’d almost scratch “almost,” but there was probably one peep once from somewhere.

Sending out review copies scattershot is not even the best way to get books reviewed.  When we do send out review copies, we try to do follow-up on each one, though of course that is not always feasible.  Still it is the yardstick and hypothetical goal, even if it rarely leads to reviews either.  Fair or not, reviewers review the books they choose to review.

There are some provisos.  Historically we stopped sending free books to publications that never did reviews of our books, even if they kept asking for them, and we did not repeatedly send copies of the same title to the same publication, as this is usually the sign of a free-book hustle by different staff members, the exception being if they request them specifically for an article.

The same is true of review copies for professors.  When I taught at the University of Maine in Portland, the department secretary used to ask professors at the beginning of each term for lists of free books they wanted, and then she would write on her letterhead for examination copies.  I got lots of wonderful free books that way, but it never felt right.  I know that this is a famous scam, so I warn our employees against it.  Most publishers now charge for examination copies, and then some of them cancel the invoice if a course order is placed.  There needs to be some resistance and accountability, or everyone would connive ways to get free books.

Back in the early 1980s we got more examination-copy requests for Ecology, Meaning, and Religion than there were books printed.  This is the reductio ad absurdum of the faculty review-copy gambit.

Also in the eighties a number of free-book scam artists, either reviewers or supposed buyers for accounts, used to request books under dozens of different rubrics, with letterheads for each make-believe company or job.  Then they would sell the books to certain complicit stores that either resold them to customers or returned them to wholesalers and distributors for full credit.  Eventually one of these guys was caught and jumped bail and vanished because his theft had reached the level of a significant crime, $50,000 or some such, with jail time in the offing.  All this was written up in Publishers Weekly at the time.

If our authors could view the scene at any major magazine or newspaper, they would understand the dilemma that their book like most books face.  Stacks upon stacks of orphans pile up, many in unopened packages.  Few publications keep logs of these incoming review copies so, when a publicist calls to do follow-up, usually no one at the publication even knows whether a given book has been received or not.  Most books do not get past this outer defense.

Book editors simply cannot deal with hundreds of unsolicited books daily, so most of them are donated to hospitals and prisons or (in less generous circumstances) sold to bookstores.  Since all media are similarly flooded with books for review, there is virtually no chance of getting a random book reviewed, no matter how relevant its topic to the publication involved, unless specific plans have been made in advance for an editor (freelance or on staff) to receive it.

More times than I can count, one publication or other has asked us for a copy of a book that they have discovered on their own and finally decided to send out to a writer for review, unaware that we already submitted a copy with a press release to them months ago.  Their response upon hearing that information, invariably, is that they pay no attention to unsolicited review copies and have no idea what happened to the earlier submission.  If we want the review, they argue, we must send the book again.  So the “first time” is useless, a non-event.  Might as well just wait for a request.

As difficult as it is to get a random book started in the “review” arena, if you do succeed at that, more reviews are often likely to follow.  Media sources tend to review the books that they see other publications reviewing and to ignore unknown titles.  General-interest publications don’t want to be caught not reviewing what are supposedly the “important” books and hot trends of the time, so they fill up their slots with them (see “winner take all” below).  Extremely influential books of ours (such as The Monuments of Mars, The Way of Passion, Healing with Whole Foods, and In Search of the Warrior Spirit) have received meager review attention, yet continued to sell and have influenced the culture and the world over a generation.

I used to joke with authors, especially those who craved reviews insanely and in the most unlikely publications, that we would be better off throwing their books in the dumpster outside our office than mailing them in to, say, The New Yorker or The Washington Post. We would save packing material, postage, and staff time and, by a karmic law —some combination of Murphy’s and its opposite, and perhaps also the magic of sacrificial offerings—the nondirected event of discarding the book might have a paraphysical, acausal influence in its getting reviewed.  In any case, mailing it in randomly and unsolicited to the same places definitely would not succeed.

My point is that it is better for the spirit and soul, and makes more marketing sense, to do something nondiscursive in hopes of creating a review through psychic and telekinetic energy than to keep pounding at a door that doesn’t want to open, merely irritating the people who operate and/or guard it.

One additional unhappy story illustrates the general mood.  For years during her tenure at the helm of the book section of the San Francisco Chronicle the renowned book critic Patricia Holt failed to review a single book of ours nor delegated one to a reviewer, though we had been a significant local press for decades.  Yet she genuflected toward Ten Speed and her darling, North Point.  I dared mention this inequity to her once at a PGW party in the mid-nineties, and she protested, “I would never exclude your books from review.  I made my reputation reviewing presses like yours.  It must be an accident or repeated bad luck.”

My most plaintive and recent grievance that night was that we had just published a really fine literary surfing book by Bruce Jenkins, the lead sports columnist for the Chronicle, her own employer, and that her refusal to review it and general neglect of it, whatever the cause, was embarrassing to both us and Bruce.  He had been specifically told by his editors down the hall that Pat Holt was the single party who was blocking its review.

“I was,” she quickly acknowledged.  “We are a serious book review and we have no space for a trivial topic like surfing.”

Two weeks later, there appeared a review of a silly surfing book published by Ten Speed called The Surfinary.

F. Media and Publicists

Traditionally the basic publicity tools have been radio and TV interviews, ads, reviews, in-store signings, and articles.  Publishers and authors in mercantile societies have always fought for space and time in these media or their equivalents.  As noted ad nauseam, I have found these almost useless for the actual selling of books.  Fortunately the Internet has taken over their role substantially in recent years.

I can say unambiguously that I have never seen a promotion in the form of an ad or a book-signing or a publicity campaign at the independent press level produce anything more than minimal sales, sales that would have happened anyway, nothing approaching their cost, and often they have registered either no blip up at all or, paradoxically, a decline in sales.

The force of general public attitude and collective word of mouth are the equivalent of a hurricane or like the force of gravity as compared to these individual gymnastic stunts.  You can get blips here and there but nothing like what the efforts cost.  Yes, I have seen exceptions, but they are literally, not figuratively, one in five hundred.  In my whole career of publishing, we have only gotten notable sales for one book by spending big money on publicity—Monuments of Mars in the 1980s.  Another author, Bruce Kumar Frantzis, generated around 100,000 in sales from an appearance on the Donahue show, but he appeared with Deepak Chopra, and the network ran the show half a dozen times nationally, plus his appearance came by invitation, not through a publicist.  It was free.  When Kumar subsequently co-hired an expensive publicist with us (his idea), thinking to capitalize further, she produced nothing over an entire year.

An ad in the Sunday New York Times, to pick one very conspicuous and legendary example, is likely to cost as much as the combined print bills for three whole books and to generate actual sales of a few hundred copies at the most.  By Monday the ad is fishwrap or under kitty litter, and in two weeks, it is not worth even the paper it is recycled on.   This is true, in scale, for ads in smaller regional newspapers or magazines.

If we could get back even a dollar in sales for each dollar in publicity, we would do limitless promotion because we would always get our money back while increasing visibility for the author.  Being nonprofit, we do not have to succeed beyond that.  But even succeeding at that pipsqueak level is a pipe dream.  These days, it is generally acknowledged that something like 90% of all promotional money spent does not return even .1%—a tenth of one percent—of its value in sales.

In some cases successful publicity may even stir up interest in an author but not particularly sell his or her book.  It may promote him on the lecture circuit or hawk other products of his.  Many authors deem such support from the publisher their fair due for writing a book and honoring the company with its publication.  But diffuse hoopla that doesn’t sell books is useless to a publisher.  Book sales alone are the fuel that reimburses a publisher for hiring the publicist, and that fills the tank for more publicity.  Publishers exist to make and sell books, not to create media stars or, more accurately, fail repeatedly in trying to create them.

Occasionally authors put up their own bucks to prove us wrong about publicity.  I would have been glad each time to been embarrassed but, sadder and wiser, they have all come to the same conclusion as me—it doesn’t work.

Richard Hoagland with his lost Martian civilization had the right kind of subject: topical, weird, cranky, conspiracy-theory-deuces-wild.  Just because Hoagland went on the air and sold thousands of books per appearance doesn’t mean that anyone can do it, and it certainly didn’t mean that a considerably more educated or accomplished author could do it, as astrophysicist Tom Van Flandern found out when he tried to follow in Dick’s footsteps, figuring he had the better and more authentic rap.  He was too authentic and dry. Hucksters are hucksters are hucksters.  It’s its own talent.  Hoaglands are as rare as faces on Mars.

As discussed in my email to the author wanting publicity above, back in 2004 two prior authors of ours hired expensive publicists and convinced and/or guilt-tripped us to chip in.  They picked time-tested renowned professionals, ones with many prior big-time mainstream hits.  Both authors committed to overall fees in the range of $50,000.  Out of this, one author got a single review in the Washington Post and a book-signing on Cape Cod, and the other author, for her roughly $50,000, got a regional TV show in Wisconsin and an appearance on Coast to Coast that her publicist booked but for which she made the initial contact.

Most publicists charge their full fee whether they elicit a single booking or review—read fine print in the standard publicity contract.  A few, like superstar Mike Danielson in Minneapolis, collect only if they deliver, but have dramatically higher fees.  If you tell Mike you want to get on Oprah or Piers Morgan and nothing else, he will only charge you if he puts you on one of those shows—but maybe it will cost $15,000 per appearance.

At least that’s honest work for honest pay.  Mike also tries creatively to link book promotions to products, notably in the health and nutrition field, such that corporations pay the lion’s share of publicity and marketing fees to put an author on tour or on the air, in whole or in part, as long as he or she works their product, like a homeopathic remedy or live-food bar, into their campaign.

I still believe that, as Peter Beren implied years ago, most sales are demand driven, word of mouth.  After that it’s a “winner take all” society.  Get the big book, and it develops its own momentum and stomps everything.

There is only the most minor difference between The Celestine Prophecy, The Da Vinci Code, Conversations with God, or The Tipping Point, to pick a few success stories, and the next most viable books in those particular categories and markets.  Hundreds of other titles are either nearly as good, as good, or better than these.  But success is not prorated or graded on a sliding scale.  The “winner” takes all.  Society creates a success, puts it on a pedestal, runs it through a People magazine/David Leterman circuit, all but ignoring everything else in its genre and niche.  Winner take all!

Once a book starts selling, everyone wants it, and it doesn’t even matter if people read it; they elect to join the fashion show, ritually purchase it, and then totemically own it.  A bestseller is distinguished by the fact that far more people purchase it than read it or care to read it.  They “own” it and give it as gifts.

The reasons for an “American Idol” victory may often be flukey and almost always are imponderable, but the fact of that cannot be overcome by throwing any amount of money, parade of publicists, or imitations of the path of success at a title.  If a book doesn’t want to sell, it’s not going to sell.  Getting even a single purchase by one customer is like pulling teeth.  It means parting with cherished, often hard-earned money.  What doesn’t want to sell is irreclaimable, no matter how many wondrous things you do or super-publicists you hire.  What sells tends to sell itself, and generally (see many times above) in the same amounts whether promotion is done or not.

With all of our outreach we still cannot guarantee that we can sell any book, only that we will provide it with an opportunity.  In an era of huge commercial values, chain-store statistical claims, high discounts, heavy returns, and the like, I often have to remind the authors that we did not invent this arena and are not responsible for its inequitable rules.  We are merely their liaison to the world that is.

The unfairness begins with the ever-narrowing range of what even gets published these days; it is now based solely, not even on pure salability anymore but on enough superficial buzz to get through the gauntlet of publishing boards and their associated follow-the-leader marketing teams.  The public has even lost a sense of what constitutes a good read or a book product that has real fulfillment and value rather than a cotton-candy or hit-and-run component—“fifteen minutes” of fame and the potential for a quick buck.  That’s the land of books these days.  “Picture the worst you can for the publishing industry,” I have sometimes told serious authors.  “Well, the situation is already about six months ahead of that.”  That was true in 1999 and, for 2o11, I’d say two years further down the drain.

G. Author Expectations

The most difficult partner is an author who has an unrealistic view of the market, of how many books should be selling as compared to how many we are selling.  If we are selling thousands, that author expects tens of thousands; if we are selling tens of thousands, he or she imagines hundreds of thousands or millions.  All it takes is a thought, a desire, a projection, a misunderstanding of the public view.  The real (and realistic) numbers are meaningless, and the position of the decimal point is usually random.  It is all fantasy, tied to nothing.  I remember how upset Bob Frissell was, after breaking through into the tens of thousands of sales, that we weren’t hitting the hundred thousands, but that was because he had no experience in publishing and didn’t understand how rare his 10,000-level success was.  He took what we did for granted and just assumed that we could do much better.  “Why can’t I see as many as Greg Braden?”  As if the energy were automatically transferable.  We have had plenty of authors over the years who have asked, “Why can’t I sell as well as  Bob Frissell?”

Authors project the value and importance that they invest in their own work, often justified in terms of the actual merits of the project but unjustified in terms of the artificial market, and then, if we don’t hit their imaginary numbers, blame us, sometimes accusing us of not supporting the book in they way they assume it deserves or that other authors get.  I’m reminded of a brilliant line that Richard Hoagland’s once said regarding the “face on Mars”: “We tend to attribute unlimited budgets to aliens—but they have budgets too.”  Likewise, authors tend to project onto their books limitless sales and onto their publishers limitless resources without regard for the reality of the universe in which both operate.

Our more intemperate authors routinely talk about selling books by the millions because they read about it happening and consider themselves superior to the fools who accomplished it.  They hear scuttlebutt about The Celestine Prophecy, Tuesdays with Morrie, and other unlikely million sellers, and they know their book is better, so they assume they should sell at worst five or ten percent as many books.  They likewise respond to random accounts of high sales of particular novels or books with movie or topical tie-ins, and they have much the same gut reaction that people buying lottery tickets do.  Hearing about the winners gives them an illusion of how relatively easy it is to become a winner too.  But books are lottery-like in that way: it’s pure winner-take-all.

That is why I consider it ridiculous when authors say that their book is better than The Celestine Prophecy or these days, better than Eckhart Tolle.  Of course it is.  But as Clint Eastwood would tell you, it’s not about that.

Forget about thousands of copies.  As I just noted above, how about selling one book, getting one person to take cash out of his or her pocket and put down a credit card or credit-card number?  One person!  Each sale is a victory over entropy, over torpor.  To get hundreds or thousands of customers requires major synergy and buzz.  There is no other way.  You can’t drive people into stores by paying publicists and media to contact everyone or plastering the cosmos with ads and media hits.  Readers have to inspire other readers.  Buzz has to generate and regenerate itself.

Most books, even most of those launched with strident hoopla by large commercial publishers, sell a few thousand copies at most.  Five thousand is a huge sale and, at ten thousand, you are in the stratosphere, in company with less than ten percent of all books published.  You can’t just transfer a higher level to yourself from a bestseller any more than you can transfer fame or luck.

H. The O-Word

The O-word used to be a running joke in our office when Oprah was crowning author kings.  It seemed that, no matter the topic of a book or its unlikely mainstream popularity, the author would eventually mention the O-word.  The book could be on an esoteric form of massage, Chinese cooking, a collection of poetry, or spiritual affirmations, but eventually the author would tell you he or she had a way to get on Oprah. Usually it was a connection through a connection through another connection.

I am reminded of the old Groucho Marx show, You Bet Your Life, in which an arbitrary word was chosen at the beginning of each episode, and a weird bird puppet on a string would drop and dangle if and when the contestant spoke that word in the course of ordinary conversation; they would then win an extra prize.

We gave no prize for mentioning Oprah, and no author of ours ever got on her show, at least not after publication of his or her book.  But the premise is just too attractive or accessible.  We all think what we are doing is so important that we will be discovered, and Oprah has become the catch-all symbol for public recognition and literary redemption.  “If only she became aware of my book,” people think, “she would surely recognize its importance, and then I would sell millions of copies.”

This may be the delusional extreme, but there is a scintilla of it, overtly and covertly, in just about every author we publish.  And that is not a bad thing because our authors write books that they feel can change consciousness, and they believe in them.  In our culture the O-word is merely a catch phrase, a symbol for that belief.  Oprah is the secret fairy godmother who will recognize all authors’ true worth.

I. Co-op

One promotion that we have been willing to do is “store co-op,” but it is not so much a promotion as good old-fashioned payola.  It’s down and dirty, but it delivers, as payola should.  The way this proposition works is that a bookstore (or more commonly an entire book chain) agrees to buy a certain number of books and/or put them on a display table or face-out in exchange for the publisher giving them upfront co-op money.  Co-op is expensive—$1500-$7500 is the usual range—and the “buys,” usually 1000-5000 books, are 100% returnable despite the publisher investment.  Yet most of the time, if a store asks a publisher for co-op, it is a deal is worth doing.  With the actual purchase followed by favorable display, usually enough of the books sell through to cover the cost of the co-op plus the books themselves.

Of course, in the old days stores bought books that they thought would sell or that otherwise merited attention by placing them within the merchandizing space according to their perceived value and/or sales potential.  Entry and display were not purchased services; stocking and placement were the raw basics of the bookselling trade.  Retail locales were places of honor, literary or commercial, not purchased entitlements and placements.  A bookstore represented culture and literature and taste not money and kickbacks.

There has always been a thin line across which a review or article becomes an ad and, likewise, where the landscape of a store becomes a p.r. gimmick disguised as a neutral and transparent stocking zone.

Once stores realized that stocking and placement were actually commodities and prime “real estate” that could be auctioned to publishers eager for the exposure and willing to take out their wallets, they changed their tune and put a price, often a hefty one, on them.  Stocking hierarchies within stores became a revenue source rather than just a matter of internal retail organization, chance, or neutral landscaping.  Mere product displays in retail outlets were suddenly treated as ads and billed as such.

Imagine if grocery, hardware, and drug stores did the same—maybe they do.  Look at the revolving ads along the sidelines of sporting events these days.  Even the sides of vehicles and clothing have turned into billboards.  People tattoo their flesh with logos.  Ours is fast becoming the society pictured in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or the Tom Cruise rendition of Philip K. Dick’s short story, Minority Report— and not for the happier.

In addition, some independent bookstores publish little magazines of so-called reviews, always favorable squibs, distributed to their customers, and they charge somewhat more than the costs of these back to the presses through their distributors, at least to the degree that they can get away with it.  Often they do, as lots of these $25 charges fly under the radar.  And usually the reviews are mere reprints of press releases or publishers’ promos and catalogue copy.

Not to be outflanked by their “no love lost between us” competitors, now imposes an equivalent fee, but it is not selling real estate so much as algorithms, which is the same difference in cyberspace.  The algorithm, so far as I understand it, prioritizes items in lists as well as links between books, which function as their own virtual “front-of-the-store table” and “face-out display.”

When Amazon of course began charging co-op for a better website algorithm, their rationale was that it was a fair and equitable attempt to get the same outside revenue stream as Barnes and Borders.  They averred also that they were selling the benefit of their whole complex computer network and customer base, and that’s somewhat true.  After all, millions and perhaps billions of dollars went into building this digital city with its virtual warehouses, and in the capitalist model they are owed a return on their investment just like any pharmaceutical company with its patented recipes.  But they are a bookstore (among other things), so payola it is—money for placement, money for an algorithm, money for linking titles online, money for not burying your books deep in the census of dead and vanity items.

In any case, I believe that payola is a much better buy than any other advertising or media tool available to publishers.

J. Sales and Marketing from a Different Perspective

Here is a section from our booklet Guidelines for Authors on publicity, revised a bit to be still minimally relevant (sorry in advance for the repetition here and in fact throughout this whole chapter).  The trouble BTW with Guidelines back when we wrote and distributed it was: most authors paid no attention to it all.  When asked if they had read it, they not only admitted that they hadn’t but either didn’t know where it was or had already tossed it.  The moral is: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it read.  Here are the sections:

In order for us to plan effectively the marketing of your book in partnership with you, it is a great help if you understand the playing field on which we operate and the parameters of different strategies of promotion.  If these issues aren’t understood and taken to heart, they can result in a kind of let-down, wherein an author ends up saying, “North Atlantic didn’t really promote my book.”  We have had this said roiutinely to us about former publishers by new authors (as if we would somehow be different).  We would like to maintain the “beginner’s mind” relationship of trust and freshness with you that existed when your book was just a manuscript and not have you become jaded by a perceived failure on our part to meet unrealistic goals.  That is why we want to share some of the realities that publishers like us face and the underlying economic situation of the kind of mid-list publishing we do.

Even if a major New York house publishes your book as a mid-list title, they are not going to do any significant promotion of it.  Your title will not be distributed any more effectively than PGW distributes our books—everyone sends the same vintage of sales reps to the same independent stores and chains to talk to buyers who give them the same brief slots of precious time for presentations….

All of our titles are pre-sold from fact sheets and cover comps by PGW in the United States and Canada.  Sometimes the distributor succeeds in getting a large advance sale (2000 or more).  Figures between 500 and 1000 are common.  Remember: a large advance sale is not always a guarantee of success.  After all, advance sales are to wholesalers and stores, not consumers, and can be one-hundred-percent returned.  (For 2011, you can cut those numbers in half—fewer stores; more sluggish cashflow and tighter money; better, quicker, cheaper, shorter-run print technologies.)

If your book is late, these advance sales will begin to cancel month by month.  If your book is six months late or more, there is the risk that all the advance sales will have canceled by the time it is printed.  Thus, your book will have a hard time getting into stores at all….

There are many cost-effective ways of promoting and selling your book, and we encourage and support these and provide our services in helping you collaborate with us on them.  Unfortunately there are many more, flashier ways to spend huge sums of money in publicity (ads in mainstream publications, regional and cross-country tours, publicist-arranged media appearances).  Some authors expect these very visible tactics and are subsequently disappointed when we don’t do them.  Because the books we hear most about are bestsellers, many authors arrive with parallel expectations for their own work.  But even if your book is great, it may be both difficult and impracticallyu expensive to promote it.  The notion that you will get the media blitz and tour of a Danielle Steele or Jeffrey Archer or Michael Crichton, the sort that you see in the press, just because you wrote and published a book is unrealistic.  Yet some authors innocently assume that.

Word of mouth and consistent author outreach are the only guaranteed methods of promotion—the only ones that accrue over time and sell actual books in exponentially expanding networks.  If you give demonstrations, teach, and read from your book on your own steam or can be subsidized by workshops, readings, conferences, etc., you will sell books in much greater numbers than by any concerted promotion campaign that we might enact.  Nothing we do in our office holds a candle to what the author can do in promoting his or her own book.  Successful authors promote themselves, either through their appearances or just by their daily contacts: talking about their book, presenting it in public forums, traveling to different parts of the country, establishing chat rooms on websites, sharing informally with friends and colleagues, keeping their work in the public eye.  Every single contact has viral possibility.

Financing their own tours with sales of books as they go works especially well for some authors of copublished titles.  The author pays little enough for the copies of the book that he or she makes more money than the publisher on every sale.

If you have the temperament and inclination to be an active author, you can think up endless ideas (itinerant or home-based) and keep your book selling.  This is much more productive and efficient than publicity or advertising.

Another way you can help promote your book is by doing follow-up on your review-copy list (where appropriate).  Of course, we don’t want you calling newspapers and magazines at random and asking why they haven’t reviewed you, but you can remind those writers and editors you personally know or have connections with….

Many of our authors in fact don’t realize that most independent bookstores charge money for authors to read and/or sign books.  This is an innovative facet of bookselling in the last twenty-five years.  We try to maintain this fee at under $100 per bookstore (which is usually enough to generate basic publicity for the event).  Since our margin for most first-run books in stores is about $2, we need to sell 50-100 books just to pay back the cost of a signing that costs us $100.  The bookstore, on the other hand, makes its money by selling books at cover price after receiving them at 40%-50% discount, as well as by some of the customers at your reading purchasing other items in the store.  That is why we think that the charge is unfair, but that doesn’t make it go away.

Some stores do not charge for signings.  It is best that you ascertain the store policy on book-signing chargebacks before setting up a signing in your area.  Many authors are unpleasantly surprised to find out that their invitation to sign books at the friendly local store is commodity rather than an honorarium.  The store doesn’t always tell them, assuming that the publisher will just absorb the cost and perhaps the author will never find out.  Of course, copublishers find out, to their chagrin and surprise, when they get charged back half the fee on their earnings statements.

We have to advise you not to run up book-signing co-op bills.  So do ask the manager or event coordinator.  And if the store does charge, it is important to know how much: $50, $200, $350?

Chain bookstores tend not to charge for events.  This is perhaps their fling at community service.  Providing author signings and readings is something that they can do to counter their image as vultures of neighborhoods.  By all means take advantage of offers to sign books for free at your local chain.  There are no strings attached, or the strings are attached elsewhere.  For instance, most chainstores receive handsome additional fees for books to be on a table, on a shelf face-out, or in an end dump.

Both chain and some independent bookstores also charge for book reviews in their free in-store catalogues, so these are not reviews but ads.

Guidelines for Authors Questions frequently asked:

“Why aren’t you putting me on radio and television?   If my book is getting reviewed, why isn’t it selling?”

There is no reliable correlation between publicity and sales.  Publicity that generates sound bites about the author and/or his or her topic may fall into the general cultural din around these issues and not inspire a single book sale.  Publicity that sells books represents only a small percentage of all “successful” publicity.

We have had books reviewed in many major newspapers and magazines and never sold more than 500 copies, lifetime.  We have had books reviewed nowhere and sold 750,000 copies.  We have had many authors appear on one of the bona fide big shows (Donahue, Sonya Live, Good Morning America), sometimes at great expense in publicist outlays, without any discernible increase in sales—and this despite the fact that PGW packed every available conduit with books in support of the appearance.

Realize that even if your book isn’t getting media attention, it doesn’t mean it isn’t selling.  Conversely, it also won’t automatically sell with heavy media attention.

Why are there no ads for my books?

Our experience is that display advertising is not a productive way to sell books.  Perhaps if one had a $50,000 budget per book, enough ads could be run to make a difference, but otherwise the signal-to-noise ratio is miniscule.   We are shooting at moths in the dark.

“My book is not at Bill’s Bookstore.  Why?”

“My book is not at any bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, or Austin, Texas, and those are two of the areas where it should be selling.  Please make sure they are there.”

“Why isn’t my book at my local bookstore?”

“So-and-so bookstore is all sold out and not reordering.”

“No one can order my book in Florida.”

“Bookstores are saying my book is out of print; is it?”

There is little that we as a publisher can do to put specific books in specific stores.  For one, stores don’t want to hear directly from the publisher.  They know that every publisher has a vested interest in having more of their own products in their store, so if Bill of Bill’s Books receives a phone call from North Atlantic, he is liable to be cranky.  “Of course, you want your book in my store,” he tells us, in essence, “but we can’t stock every book of every publisher all the time.”

Basically, we can’t inveigh or cajole a bookseller to stock a book.  Books sell by customer demand and by a bookseller liking the book and “handselling” it—mentioning it to customers.

Bookstores are far more receptive to local author and customer requests than to publisher long-distance check-ins.  You are their community.

The way that your book initially gets into any bookstore is by a sales rep from our distributor or some regional or specialty wholesaler showing the store’s buyer an announcement or catalogue listing of the book.  We have been told by reps that bookstore buyers are always presented with far more titles than their budgets will allow them to purchase, so they listen to pitches on books mainly in order to figure out what not to buy.  They are in a negative toggle—knock that one off, knock that one off, knock that one off, until one seizes their undivided attention during its fifteen-second passage.

Right out the gate a store may decide to pass on your book for its own reasons.  They may think they already have enough stock in this subject area.  They may perceive your book as too similar to one that is selling just fine.  Or it may be in a category that the store doesn’t really value.  Independent stores pretty much all have their favorite categories.

While we tend to sell well in chains, local stores in chains vary widely and reflect the taste of their region and manager.

It is paradoxically much easier to get a book into a store before than after it is published.  If the store’s buyer did not pick the book up from a rep, he or she is likely to have spent the full allotted funds for books for the season of your book’s pub date elsewhere, thus will only order your book subsequently because of a review or customer demand.  A buyer might also discover your book in a wholesaler catalogue, read a review, find it on Ingram’s, Bowker’s microfiche, on the Internet, etc.

This shouldn’t stop you from going into a store and trying to interest someone (a buyer is best) in your book and providing the store with information and publicity designed to rekindle or enliven their interest.  Find out if a store knows how to order your book in case there is demand.  If they don’t, you can tell them to contact us, Publishers Group West [now Random House], Ingram, Baker & Taylor, New Leaf, or one of the other regional wholesalers.

When we sell directly from our office, through our website or catalogue or by phone, you make a higher royalty.  Remember this when you plan the marketing of your book.  Encourage people to buy directly from the publisher….  We prefer sales with fewer middlemen but, most of all, we want to make it simple and painless for a store to get the book.   To this end, all of our books are carried by ourselves and [formerly] PGW, and most of them are carried by all other major wholesalers.  It finally doesn’t matter where customers buy them.  No one can control the market at that fine a woof, and it all tends to even out in the end anyway.

The failure of a willing bookstore to be able to get (or keep) your book in stock could indicate an error in the database, the wrong title, the wrong author, the wrong price, the wrong availability date, or the total absence of the book from all their computer-accessible systems.  Ideally none of this should happen.  In reality, though, it does.  Sometimes chainstores reject a book at the national level and it never reaches local store computers, so local branches cannot order the title.  This can be remedied.  Your book, even when rejected by a chain, can subsequently be put on the chain’s computer system.  This is one way that our office can help, even if we can’t directly demand that a bookseller stock your book.  We can work back through the system to have the database corrected or updated.

Do not necessarily believe what you are told at a store level.  A clerk may routinely tell an author or customer that a book is out of print when it just means that he can’t figure out how to get it and doesn’t want to bother figuring it out for a single sale.   Saying it is “out of print” seems so reasonable that it goes unquestioned, but it might set an angry author on his or her publisher.  If you return to the store with correct information about in-print status, you may get a different result.

Sometimes there is a breakdown in the system, so it is good to interrogate it by checking if a book is really unavailable.  Either we or a wholesaler may be temporarily out of stock of your book while it is being reprinted.  We might even delay a print order in the course of waiting for backorders to build up or to see if the book will be returned in sufficient quantity to make a reprint unnecessary.  No publisher likes to reprint and then be hit with hundreds of returned items.  We wait till we get relatively accurate demand numbers, and we don’t risk reprinting books prematurely.

More often than seems fair stores refuse to stock certain books on principle.  What makes an independent bookstore independent is the independent taste (or lack of it) of the owner or buyer.  An arty independent store that carries great literature and art may not even recognize the existence of martial arts past Bruce Lee or alternative health past Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra.

If a buyer decides that books with the word “body” in the title don’t sell (as one store in Marin County did despite having many bodyworkers among its clientele), that is his or her prerogative.

A buyer may have had bad results with books in your subject area.  If a buyer decides she has too many books by white males, that may be outrageous, but it is likewise his or her prerogative.  A bookstore has the right to carry what books they want and we are in no position to change their mind.  Your neighborhood store may decide to be stubborn and not carry your book simply because they can.

I once told a persistent author who kept phoning me and insisting that we had to get her book into a store that refused to carry it, there was only one way.  She asked what it was.  “Hire a hit-man,” I said.

She thought I was joking but, as the gangsters found out a long time ago, this is true.  It is the only sure way.

K. The Paradox of Multiple Editions

The trouble with many aspects of this history, as noted along the way, is that it contains a series of fixed statements about a market that is fluctuating and transforming itself quite rapidly.  Much of the information in this chapter, especially that from Guidelines, is dated or partially dated, as I have had to layer it into the different time frames representing almost three decades.  Even with all that I have said, I would not be giving a clear picture of the present market without addressing the online secondary sale of used copies of books.

And not just “used.”  Virtually any book can now be bought on the cheap instead of at the publisher’s price, even before it is published.  Individuals set themselves up as independent vendors on and offer discounted books in “fine condition” the day after they finish reading them; it’s a game with them.  It’s not only money by mail but fun.

“Used” does not even always mean used.  That is another reason why you can find books used as soon as they are published.  Vendors buy new books at discount and called their merchandise “new and used” as a mere sales tool.

There are numerous devious ways as well to sell books online before they are published: employees actually steal them off printing presses or from publishers’ warehouses and then offer them through their own “shops” on Amazon, and reviewers likewise auction off their pre-pub copies.  All it takes is a few advance or bootleg copies to give the impression of a deluge.  Unfortunately if a book is available at all for a few bucks, then that is its market price until the discounted item disappears online.

It is a wonder that the book market works this out internally and survives the price collapse.  Despite 2011 the used-book, penny-a-book (plus $2.99 freight) markets and free-download and view-inside-the-book online peeps, all this customer-base and price erosion still do not significantly diminish the new book market for the same title in the sense of being a collective game-changer, an astonishing but a fortunate thing in an era of Amazon’s international online yard-sales.  Despite all the opportunistic, price-degrading activity our own new book sales increase every year.  I have no explanation except to be grateful for the enigma, as long as it lasts.  The bottom may fall out tomorrow.  In fact, the book business is conducted now under the shadow of the bottom falling out any day.  Of course, this is true of the entire economy.  But books are more discretionary than soybeans or tin.

I figure too that logically there can’t be myriad used and “good as new” books for sale on Amazon and elsewhere throughout the Internet if there were not plenty of new books being sold to back these up.  Books are not born shopworn or second-hand (not really anyway).  Thus, the secondary bargain market is really secondary and must not be as deep or as broad as it seems.  Yet paradoxically at the same time, it is a cornucopia that never seems to run out.  These two opposite views collide to produce a mysterious but functional dialectic.

Multiple editions do tend to increase rather than decrease one anothers’ sales.  It is not a zero-sum market.  One of the ironies of the publishing business that competing formats spark interest in the book in general (see Chapter Fifteen).

So competition is an imponderable equation.  A book-club edition does not interfere with a trade edition, and the used-book market does not seem to impact the new book market, even in the decades after Amazon’s internationalizing of used-bookselling.  If these editions affected each other in a linear, arithmetic fashion, the publishing business would have collapsed already under the weight of used-book sales of all titles at anywhere from a quarter to a dime or penny per book (yes, plus shipping).

Let’s examine the general movement from independent bookstores to chainstores to price clubs to online selling.  Up through most of the nineties, there was a healthy ecosystem of bookstores of all species and varieties.  In the eighties, chainstores invaded most independent habitats and drove out the majority of old distinctive stores from neighborhoods, rendering them totally extinct in some areas.  Then in the nineties, dinosaur-like price clubs took over shopping centers and drove more independents and even some chain outlets out of business, offering the sort of discount prices on all merchandise, books included, that never used to be available.  Yet some small brick-and-mortar stores adapted to niches and environments and still survived in moderate numbers.

Then the Internet bookstores arrived online and brought an entirely different habitat, a virtual niche—much as hominids imposed their own symbolic and social regime on the Pleistocene world.  The transfer of the meanings and functions of the different habitats and niches into a post-anatomicl semeiological realm—culture—enabled these new primates to replace other mammal and reptile species even in their own niches.

In similar fashion, the Internet has supplanted brick-and-mortar books, driving the majority of the rest of them out of business, in a way that chains and price clubs, competing merely horizontally and by economy of scale, could not.  The Internet rebuilt each type of specialty store even better,  and accessible by everyone everywhere in virtual space.  That’s why Cody’s, Stacey’s, and Shambhala no longer exist in the Bay Area, and they were about as traditional and stable as it gets.

Now the entire traditional model of distribution and marketing is up for grabs, as there are fewer bookstore accounts to service, Amazon having replaced thousands of separate stores with its one mega-store and converting books into the various tiers of a commodities market.  How this will affect future publishing is uncertain.  Amazon had decided to become the publisher too, an all-purpose Lightning Source vanity publisher—so could Google.  Google is already digitalizing millions of public-domain books as an e-publisher and making every book available in its mega-library.  Another harpoon in the publishing industry.

Likewise, it is uncertain how other technologies will change the basic market.  Will e-books take such a bigger market share that they eventually marginalize paper-and-glue books to a few superstar hits, putting printers out of business and favoring new sorts of intellectual-property software firms?  Will the market segue eventually to video streaming of book data, allowing individuals to “make” their own books at local kiosks?  If so, this will put distributors and even Internet stores with their used-book bazaars out of business.  Just as movie theaters were driven down the feeding chain by the Blockbusters chain of video stores, Blockbusters was then superseded by Netflix—but that was only made possible by the light weight, hence cheap packaging and mailing cost of DVDs as opposed to VHS-format videos.  Yet all of them may be rendered extinct by Internet streaming of films.  Our daughter tells us that the day is not far off when a director can make her film without a studio or distributor and simply stream it to customers, cutting out many middlemen and all their beaks.

Right now the book business is in transition, with no certainty as to which way it will go.

L. Marketing Summary

Once upon a time, direct mail was the main focus of both our publicity and sales-and-marketing strategies.  We bulking-mailed our annual catalogues to our own mailing list of customers who had bought our books over twenty-two years and to purchased databases from list brokers from magazines like Yoga Journal, Common Boundary, and New Age or organizations like the Institute of Noetic Sciences or Esalen Institute.  Blending our own names with speculative lists, we got about a 4% return, decent by mailing-list standards and enough to keep doing it.  (We also got nonprofit bulk-mailing rates, which helped keep the cost down.)

However, bulk mailings consumed time, postage, money, and trees (as many unhappy recipients of unsolicited catalogues informed us—“you’re destroying the planet to make ads”).  Fortunately the world moved from paper to electrons.  Yes, paper has electrons in it too, but electrons don’t have paper.

In 2011 we tend to favor email lists, niche websites, Facebook campaigns, blogs, and podcasts, updating our website regularly and making sure our books are on other key sites as per the subject areas.  We are far more concerned with getting a book posted on the Internet in as many venues as possible than sending out review copies or catalogues.  The Internet trumps all the preceding sales methods and is also, predominantly, free.  Possible gigs include emailings (if they can escape being regarded as spam), blogs around subject areas, author websites, and features on our own website.  These sell many more books than ads or radio shows ever did.

Those publishers still spending the big bucks on old ways of marketing are also having the most trouble balancing the bottom line these days, whereas the new methods that have taken over from Generation X on down are the ones that are working.  That is why it is not a bad thing having a post-Generation X marketing team.

North Atlantic’s sales and marketing hangs between two worlds—the conventional world of publicity that never worked and now is going out of fashion and the brave new world of the Internet.  We are trying to rethink our whole marketing model in terms of the present era, shifting away from traditional mailings of review copies, outside publicists, and author appearances which were labor-intensive and/or expensive, and which we barely did anyway, and toward Internet marketing with its many and diverse tiers and viral pathways.  By creating an online community of authors and information and energy, we are attempting to rebuild the publishing model from scratch and create value anew along different parameters.  There is not much value any longer in services already offered by Amazon and others.  The value is in selection, organization of information, synergy, primary sources, and consciousness change.  It is not in a brand or a historical publishing club, though the vestiges of these milieus hang on even as publishing enters an X Games era.

Chapter 17: Crises 1: General Crises | Table of Contents


In that sense, the seasonal pattern has listed back toward the old model of year-round, continuous publishing rather than seasonal bursts, though within a formal matrix of actual seasons and pub dates.
Many distributors want the official comp titles to be only from the publisher’s own list or from other imprints carried by them. That way they know the precise track of the sales history, and they can try to replicate it with the new book. A comp title from outside the system may be closer to the existing book in terms of content, but it does not give as useful information to the distributor for sales purposes.

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