Sunday, December 13, 2009
QUANT HEAD PUBLISHING
Would you buy a book written by this woman? Mary Strachan circa 1962
It’s Sunday morning, it’s fifteen below zero, there are inches of new snow (undoing all the kind work of Dale, who shoveled out my driveway last time -- at least I think that’s who it was), the cats are following me around -- not so much for my body heat, though that, too -- but because they are bored out of their tiny skulls, and the gas floor furnace on which our lives depend is faithfully cycling on and off without making much of a dent in the temperature. It has been explained to me that a furnace in the crawl space with ducts going everywhere would be FAR more efficient. Except when there’s no electricity, which can happen here for hours or even days and which is often so “dirty” that it destroys what it’s feeding. I’m thinking about woodstoves.
I’m NOT thinking about the state of my soul or how to make the world a better place, though both surely need reflection and we’re getting close to the solstice, a traditional time for such matters. Instead I’m pondering money. www.alanrinzler.com is a blog about how to do that. It’s by, of course, Alan Rinzler, and purports to tell you how to “publish” by which he means “make money” -- NOT be a better writer or how to write a book worth reading. The blog is actually called “The Book Deal, An Inside Look at Publishing.”
You might also call it “Why high population density is a key to success for writers.” Because books sell via promotion, not quality, and unless you’ve got the oomph to be on Oprah or Charlie Rose, that will probably be local. The exception would be some kind of “gathered” promotion list of addresses, physical or electronic. (Yep, SPAM, but “select” spam.) Also, the personality of the writer -- as it comes across on a screen which is different than the REAL personality of the writer -- will vary in appeal from one region to another. Smart-aleck cosmo girls don’t necessarily sell in Montana and apple-cheeked, wide-waisted women don’t sell in Manhattan. People generally buy books from people like themselves. This is particularly true of acquiring editors, who are rarely people who grew up and are living in small town Montana.
The alternative to “acquisition at first sight” is a quant approach -- quant means quantitative. Evidence. No one who ever went into writing, or rodeo or bronze-casting was ever able to show through figures and graphs that they would succeed. Nevertheless, that’s the hoop. Charlie Russell never thought about it and neither did his marketing pro wife, but the CMR Ad Club Auction crew surely does.
Rinzler: “Since I need approvals from a large team of financial, sales, marketing, and publicity department heads in order to offer a deal for a book, I meet with and persuade more than a dozen people to get their support and commitment to specific numbers.
“Ahead of those meetings, I prepare complex profit and loss spread sheets, based on projected advance book orders, alternative pricing, first printing, formats, and royalty rates, plus tip sheets about the book, the market, key sales points, and most importantly the author platform and track record.
“Then, in large committee rooms sometimes teleconferenced to key outposts around the country, we poll specific sales reps for major national and independent accounts and require a commitment to a specific numbers of estimated sales.
“This is when I hear hard-nosed feedback like, “We can get 2500 copies into Barnes & Noble nationwide if we can guarantee this author will be on the Today show,” and “Borders is hurting, so this might be a skip or maybe 400 copies with enough publicity buzz, or how about a good review,” or “Wal-Mart will take 20,000 of this if we drop the price to $6.95.”
“And this is when publicity and marketing execs ask me, “Show us that DVD again of the author on Dr. Phil, or is it the local PTA, whatever, we want to see how she can do on her feet without a script. Is she authentic? Is she passionate? How big is her blog, her email list? How many copies did Nielsen’s BookScan say she sold of her last book?”
“One by one, around the table and over the live call-in conference lines, everyone makes a conservative estimate. After furious adding and subtracting, the final numbers emerge: Let’s say a total of 54,235 total units projected at $24.95 and an average royalty of 12% retail comes to exactly $162,379.59 first year earnings to the author and that’s my offer: a straight $160K.”
A trivial and cynical book by a person with good quants will sell in Montana. An absolute beaut of a masterpiece by anyone anywhere with no quants will never be published at all unless the author pays for it. Even if you get it into print, it will not sell without promotion. If you are not a publisher, you can either contract a company that knows how to promote books of your kind (there are few-to-none of these in Montana) or you can go out on the advert march yourself or maybe you’ve been hosting a fabulous successful regional TV show for decades so you can cash that in or maybe you’ve been carefully accumulating email and blog lists of people who are nearly guaranteed to buy this book and don’t have qualms about sending spam. Two of my gmail contacts have been pounding away at this for weeks now. (Their names light up on the website when they’re pitching.)
When I was education coordinator for Portland, OR, animal control, I took two approaches to attract media exposure. One was to coat-tail on every animal-related incident in the news, like the lion who got loose. The other was to CREATE an animal-related story, often a funny one, like “seven ways to scoop your dog’s poop without making a total fool of yourself.” An extra strategy was to make sure you were emergency backup for communications people, ready to come on the air if someone didn’t show up or showed up drunk. But I lived blocks away, not eighty miles or more.
Not many people have the double sensibility to write a book with the significant beauty and depth of solstice and then to market it like K-Mart at Christmas. Of those who do, few can afford to live in Manhattan. One of the best things that global warming might achieve is drowning publishing out of Manhattan, so that editors can take a look around at all the OTHER people. Then maybe they’d get out of their quant-heads.