Monday, January 24, 2011


Last week I got an email query -- usually it is the writers who query -- from a company that does publicity for authors.  They wanted to know if I would like to pay them to promote my books and they provided lots of creds about dealing with big name publicity outlets on TV and in print.  I asked them if they were prepared to take on an earlier task in the “business flow,” that of publicizing “Orpheus” to agents who would presumably then “sell” it to publishing houses.  In other words, I was asking if they would do what used to be the job of agents, who are now doing (for a percentage of the author’s “take”) what they used to do on salary as editors employed by publishing houses.  
Their answer was “good heavens, no!”  We never got to the part about what it would cost.  They wanted to simply plug into another part of the publishing that used to be done by a publisher.  The most recent “old” business model was:
Research the market to see what’s selling -- much of this through “in-house” reports by the regional salesmen who physically traveled to indie, chain, and academic bookstores to see what the clerks and buyers liked.  (I.e. the bookstore people, NOT editors, were the arbiters for what to write.)
Sort through the slush pile to see what might fit.
Contact the author to see how much they were prepared to force their manuscript into this pattern or “platform,” and also to see how attractive that person might be to an audience or at least on a website.
Edit the book.  (Name of the editor:  Procrustes.)
Print and store copies, estimating as closely as possible what sales might be like so that the number would be neither under or over.
Send out the info to the distributors who would transfer copies to their own warehouses, ready to ship to bookstores when the publicity hit.
Provide publicity:  tours, stories, interviews on the radio, websites.
If there are too many copies, either pulp them or sell them through used book stores -- possibly online -- who specialize in remainders.
At every step, the ordinary aspiring author these days is intended to participate by contributing money, effort, and contacts.  One is asked to provide a marketing plan along with the manuscript, name likely bookstores and local interviewers, accept a percentage of profit  (ALL possible costs are deducted) rather than an advance, actively promote the book (one Montana publisher said quite frankly he would not consider any manuscript the author was not prepared to push to his/her limits), and be available for online chats with book club members, maybe invite people into one’s home for tea or whatever.
This works pretty well for the “mommie writers,” who are writing to a demographic like themselves and quite prepared to be social in a regional sort of way, which works better where there is population density -- though the Internet can substitute for that to some degree.  The days of dumping out or delegating fan mail are over.  The assumption that writers will naturally live in Manhattan where the publishing houses are is no more valid than the assumption that all movie stars will live in Hollywood.  BUT the other regional assumptions -- that people will only read about people like themselves -- is alive and dominant.
So now a writer who wants to sell, who is prepared to accept the idea that “books” are a business, must do market research beforehand (the regional salesmen work by phone and internet now and skip small indie bookstores) and pay for or provide promotion afterwards.  What a lot of writers do is simply declare themselves a publisher, which means learning to format and edit (or contracting it to someone -- publishers used to have in-house people), set aside some storage for the physical books and a table for wrapping and shipping as orders come in, set up a calendar for likely promotion events (don’t overlook auctions, rodeos, swap meets, etc.), and contact the local celebrity and political mongers for interview time.  Maybe buy ads.  In short, design and execute a complex business model.
The big flaw in the pitch this promotion company made to me is that they are very likely to know little or less about the subject matter of my published book, “Bronze Inside and Out,” which is the problem the U of Calgary Press itself has.  The world of Western art is a bubble that operates mostly through major museums, historical societies, and auctions which have become social events.  Even the galleries work through these venues and management people move back and forth through them.  There are a small number of magazines and some websites, but they are set up to handle paintings with a few nods to sculpture and possibly paraphernalia, including guns.  An academic press is unlikely to have contacts in those places.  In addition, this press (at least) operates by securing grants for the cost of publishing.  They are nonprofit.  There is no reason to promote.
Now consider the change that ePublishing makes.  What is the business model?  No one knows.  No more wrestling with warehouses, UPS, or bookstore returns, but how does one maintain ownership of a manuscript?  What’s to keep anyone from downloading all the movie reviews from “prairiemary,” taking the pile (or a disc or a thumb) over to Kinkos to be printed and bound -- maybe fifty copies for friends and neighbors -- and zowie -- they’re “publishing.”  There’s no way to “fence the communion” which was an early Christian strategy for keeping unbelievers out.  (In the end they just gave up and included everyone.  Though the communion rail persists in some churches.)
But that’s the equivalent of a monk writing a copy of a Pauline letter for his monastery.  The Gutenberg Bible was made possible by movable type.  There’s still no one-format-fits-all software that can be read on every device.  Even worse, what must be formatted now includes images, movement, music and links that must be kept in sync.  So far one can’t even keep the font and spacing from being changed by devices, which is why some poets have gone to slashes to indicate line endings.  Format, as an element of the writing, limits distribution to whatever device will preserve it.  The kind of device (Kindle, Nook, iPad, iPhone) has not settled and doesn’t look as though it will for years yet.
The skill set for managing complex e-literature is formidable, demanding a new vocabulary at least, but -- more than that -- a whole new mental framework.  You have to “read” a lot of it before your brain adapts, the same as a print writer must first and foremost read a LOT of print.  Hey!  That’s a pretty good pitch for Orpheus!  And blogs.  And vlogs.  Rewire your brain!

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