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June 2009

Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

Mastering the Business of Publishing

by Richard Curtis

Originally published by E-Reads


Great Expectations' Advertising and Publicity

IF THE DISCONTENT of authors could be likened to a pie, the largest slice by far would represent resentment about the failure of publishers to advertise, publicize, and promote their books. Although I'm fairly articulate when it comes to explaining to my clients why publishers do or don't do certain things, I'm all too often at a loss for an answer when they ask me such questions as, "Why would my publisher spend $25,000 to acquire my book and then only $1.25 to advertise it?"Or, "How could they spend $100,000 to advertise that dreadful piece of pornography and not a dime on my book about nuclear disarmament?" Or, "Why is my book the best kept secret since the Manhattan Project?"

We live in a world in which it is universally acknowledged that the most effective way to move merchandise is to hype it to consumers. In the publishing industry, however, most of the product goes un- or under-advertised, and even books that publishing people consider to be heavily pushed are ridiculously underboosted by the standards of most other business enterprises. A few years ago, I handled a book by a leading business executive, and one day I proudly announced to him that his publisher had decided to allocate $75,000 for advertising and publicity for his book. "Great!" he exclaimed. "And how much are they going to spend on the second day?" In his field, $75,000 could be thrown casually into a single-page ad in a magazine. Something is definitely out of whack here. In defense against author complaints, publishers respond that writers cherish unrealistic expectations, that even modest promotional campaigns are too expensive, that many books sell themselves without any publicity whatsoever, that many investments in this sector are unproductive or actually counterproductive, and that authors are not always aware of the efforts their publishers make to promote their books.

I don't think it's unreasonable for authors to hope that their publishers will try to stimulate consumer interest in their books. Nor is it unrealistic to suggest that publishers might benefit as much as authors from the publicizing of their products. But after countless discussions with publishers on this issue (not all conducted sotto voce, you may rightly guess), I have to admit that it is more complicated than we may think. Before you rush to judgment, listen to what your publisher has to say.

  • Some types of books are going to sell whether we push them or not. A great many routine paperbacks sell and sell well with little or no help from their publishers. The reason is that paperback publishers have learned that there is a hard-core audience for romance, science fiction, western, horror, and other genres. These readers will buy just about any book in their favorite category whether it is good, bad, or indifferent. In certain male sectors like action-adventure or traditional cowboy novels, for example, a paperback publisher can anticipate 25,000 guaranteed customers, and he would have to work very hard to sell fewer copies than that.

But, you ask, don't publishers want to sell more than this minimum? You'll be surprised to learn that the answer is: not necessarily. The cost of stimulating sales beyond the minimum support level may not be balanced by the profits. Some publishers are content to take a small profit on each title, rather than risk a loss going for the bigger profit.

Paperback publishers have also discovered that popular authors will naturally separate from the pack as a result of such factors as word of mouth, good reviews, feature stories in the press, and consumer demand in bookstores and other points of purchase—all with little or no money spent to create that demand. When those sales figures begin drifting upward, a wise publisher will consider ways to elevate that author even further. At that point advertising and publicity may come into play. Which leads to a second truism that publishers hold dear:

  • Advertising can't make a book successful; it can only keep it successful. The fate of most books is sealed long before they are released to the public. The critical period is when the sales staff solicits orders from bookstore buyers and distributors. The enthusiasm or lack of it will determine the print run, and if the support is feeble, as likely as not little or nothing will be spent to advertise. Nor will ads necessarily send buyers flocking to the stores, even assuming the publisher feels that ads are a wise investment. If, however, a book meets with high popular demand, publishers may spend money on advertising and publicity to reinforce that demand. A new book by a popular author will probably get advertised, even if it's a lousy book. A new book by an unknown will probably not get advertised, even if it's great. Which leads to the very next rule of thumb, to wit:
  • Very little midlist fiction benefits from heavy investment in advertising and promotion. Publishers are, understandably, reluctant to invest a lot of money to push serious, literary, experimental, and first novels. With hardcover sales projected in the low thousands, and with no guarantee of book club or paperback reprint revenue to underwrite the cost of publishing such midlist books, publishers prefer to let them make their own way on the strength of free advertising such as reviews and feature stories or word-of-mouth praise, or low-cost advertising such as catalogue announcements, publicity releases, or house ads that tout many of the publisher's books at once. As we've seen, though, there is some reason to believe that even if publishers spent heavily on ads for midlist fiction, it wouldn't compel consumers to buy, because the authors' names are not familiar to most of them.

As for promoting the authors themselves, it almost never works for midlist fiction, and for a very simple reason: it is extremely hard to express effectively the virtues of a work of fiction on a radio or television program.

  • Star authors, as usual, are exempted from all of the above rules. If midlist fiction is so hard to promote on talk shows, how come best-selling authors show up on them all the time? One reason is that the subjects of their novels may be discussed as if they were nonfiction. While the plot of a novel is impossible to summarize entertainingly and the characters are too complex to capture in a pithy one-liner, there is usually something in the subject itself that serves as an excellent launching pad for stimulating discussion. "Tell us who your drug-crazed starlet heroine is in real life . . ."

Even more significantly, in the world of best-sellers, people are often more interested in the authors than in the books themselves. Best-selling authors are celebrities like movie and sports stars. Publishers who promote them stress the charms of the writer as much as they do the charms of the writer's work. If you'll listen carefully when a star author appears on radio or television, you'll notice how superficially the book itself is discussed. Attention focuses on such questions as: "Where did the idea for your novel come from? Did anything unusual happen to you when you were researching your novel? How much money did you get for your book? Is it true you're: getting married, getting divorced, having a baby, having another baby, buying a yacht, buying a castle, buying a nation?" These are precisely the same questions that might be asked of a film star hyping his or her latest movie.

Best-selling authors are also exceptions to the rule that print advertising can't make books successful. While ads seldom make consumers visit a bookstore to buy a midlist novel, they will attract them in droves to purchase a new novel by Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Janet Dailey, or John Grisham. Why? Because these fans are predisposed to buy the books to begin with.

  • Nonfiction authors are easier to promote than novelists. The subjects of many nonfiction books are, as we've seen, much more appropriate topics of conversation than the themes of novels. Nor must the author enjoy immense celebrity to quality for an invitation to a talk show. An interesting subject about which you feel passionately and speak articulately is often good enough to score a hit on radio or television. Terrific buns, big bazooms, and doe eyes are not necessary to furnish an entertaining fifteen or twenty minute chat about the current state of bioengineering or the destiny of wildlife on Alaska's North Slope.

I don't suppose they do any harm, though.



Brand Names

WHEN I FIRST entered the publishing business early in the 1960s the paperback revolution was in full swing, and among the innovations introduced at the time was the insertion of ads in paperbacks (other than ads for other books on the publishers' lists). Although a number of products were tried out, the ones I most vividly remember were cigarettes. There was debate on both Publishers' Row and Madison Avenue about propriety and economics, and I don't recall that I cared much either way; it was fine with me if people wanted to run ads in books, and fine with me if they didn't. The ads didn't inspire me to buy the product, but few ads do anyway. Nor did I find them a desecration of literature, mainly because the books they ran in were pretty much desecrations of literature already. Still, some authors did not like it, and others worried that the insertion of an ad for Marlboros in The Attack of the Hydrangea People today could lead to one for Desenex Foot Powder in War and Peace tomorrow.

I doubt if such ethical considerations would have prevailed if the economics of carrying advertising in books were sound, but they apparently were not. In addition, the susceptibility of book buyers to such ads was not terribly high. Publishers and advertisers might, given enough time, have overcome these problems had not, the story goes, some publisher run some cigarette ads in a book about the dangers of smoking (the story may be apocryphal, but it's too good to resist). The incident pointed up the dire possibilities, and so it came to pass that many authors and agents demanded specific language in their contracts stipulating that no ads would be run in their books (except, as I said, for other books published by the publisher) without their express consent.

Ads in books are not very cost-effective ways of conveying a sales message. If the average distribution of a run-of-the-mill paperback original is 50,000 copies (it's often less), of which perhaps half will be returned, you're talking about 25,000 exposures of the ad, maybe a few more if the book is circulated beyond the original purchasers. That's not a great many exposures compared to the hundreds of thousands or millions an advertiser can get in national magazines, and its a pittance compared to the effectiveness of advertising on network television. But, you say, doesn't the advertiser pay less to run ads in books than in magazines or on television to compensate for the difference in exposures? He certainly does; so much less, in fact, as to make it scarcely worthwhile for the publisher to sell the space.

There are other problems as well. Despite the commercialization of the publishing industry many publishers do have ethical compunctions about mingling ads with the texts of books, and although they may have few reservations about publishing books depicting human depravity in all its hideous glory, they draw the line at disposable razors and smokeless tobacco. You figure it out. Another problem is consumer resistance to ads in books. While most buyers of literature don't think twice about ads that appear in magazines, they find the same ads discomfiting in books. This may relate to the disposability of magazines; books are to keep, and book buyers may feel that their possessions are contaminated by ads.

The most serious of all objections has nothing to do with cost-effectiveness, ethics, or the proclivities of book buyers. It has to do with the U.S. Postal Service, for running ads in books jeopardizes the cheap rates the post office charges for books shipped via special fourth class. Today, routine shipments of books go this way, as opposed to the more expensive Parcel Post or third class rates, or truck or United Parcel Service. It's a (relatively) inexpensive rate and one that publishers continually lobby postal authorities to maintain. If, however, books begin carrying advertising, they cross the line into the territory occupied by magazines, thus running athwart of the postal authorities eager to collect the higher revenues generated by the mailing of periodical literature. If the profits from such advertising don't offset the higher postal expenses, the publishers will obviously have made an expensive mistake.

It may well be that the postal obstacle is fatal to any scheme for reviving the idea of running advertising in books. But if we accept the truism that where there's a will there's a way, then we may be able to find creative ways around the problem. First, however, authors have to acknowledge that advertising in books does not necessarily spell the twilight of western culture as we have known it. Perhaps they would have an easier time doing so if they thought there was something in it for themselves.

What's in it for publishers, we all know: money. Advertising defrays costs and enhances profits, worthy goals for any business. But authors do not benefit from advertising revenue, nor do I think many of them feel entitled to do so. But surely, if they consider the rates paid to contributing authors by such ad-rich publications as the New Yorker or Playboy, it should be clear to them that there is a distinct relationship. Without meaning to sound overly cynical, it's easier to imagine authors accepting ads in their books for disposable razors and smokeless tobacco if they're paid advances twice the size of those they're now getting. Maybe the time has come, then, for authors to rethink their hostility to the notion.

It may well be that, for the reasons I've given, it's an unfeasible one. Nevertheless, it does raise a related issue having to do with the relationship between book publishing and other commercial enterprises. You might call it brand-name sponsorship of books, and though our industry is awakening to its potential, there's still a lot of fuzzy thinking in this area.

Our society is heavily dependent on brand names for the selection of consumer goods, and the consumer of books is no different from the consumer of soap powder. Publishers are confronted by a serious problem in this respect, however, because when it comes to selecting books, the "brand name" of the publisher means nothing to the consumer. Oh sure, the average bookbuyer is probably more familiar with the names of Random House, Doubleday, and Simon & Schuster than he is with firms like M. Evans, W. W. Norton, or David Godine, but he does not prefer Random House books to Norton ones. The book buyer has no brand name loyalty, and little brand name recognition: I warrant 90 percent of all readers (except perhaps readers of romances, who seem to know their Silhouettes from their Loveswepts) cannot tell you the names of the publishers of the books they are currently reading, including the one you hold in your hands at this very moment. Readers who loved a recent Putnam book could not care less about Putnam books in general, and if the author moved to Viking, his readers would buy his Viking books as avidly as they bought his Putnam ones.

Readers, as I say, are as brand-name conscious as anybody else, but for them the brand names are favorite authors; authoritative titles, such as M.D., Ph.D., President, or Director; and brand names in other fields of endeavor, such as the New York Times (for, say, cookbooks) or the National Football League (for official player guides and statistical books). As far as the first two classifications are concerned, publishers already do as much as they can to acquire and promote popular authors and titled authorities. But I'm constantly surprised at how little advantage publishers have taken of the availability of brand-name companies to sponsor books—sponsor them, that is, the way product manufacturers sponsor radio and television programs. Yet, almost invariably, such sponsorship has resulted in big sales and often best-sellerdom. It's easy to understand why. The Procter and Gambles, General Foods, and Ford Motor Companies of the world are loaded with money and spend stupendous sums on advertising and promotion. The sums necessary to back a book and put it on the best-seller list are pathetically low compared to what must be spent to achieve consumer acceptance of some new product or model: we're talking about perhaps a hundred thousand dollars or a little more, the cost of one or two magazine ads for soap products or automobiles or cigarettes. For another thing, these companies are in a position to buy books—lots of them, for use as premiums given away or sold at high discount to purchasers of their products.

Many writers who are not names may have wonderful ideas for books and superb expertise to bring to them. They will probably not get very far, however, because good ideas and extensive knowledge are unfortunately not enough to interest publishers in commissioning books. I cannot tell you how many worthy proposals are turned down annually by agents and publishers because the authors lack "credentials." When I see such proposals, I often suggest that the author try to link up with a brand-name company in that field and try to interest the firm in sponsoring his book. The same principle might wed brand-name sponsors to whole lines of books. Cosmetic or fragrance manufacturers could be persuaded to back lines of romance novels, or a jeans manufacturer to lend its name to a line of western novels, for example.

There is gold mine potential in this area known as licensing, and, because it means more work for authors (and possibly lucrative deals for them if authors and their agents play their cards right), far more attention ought to be paid to bringing sponsoring companies onto the publishing scene.

Some purists will attack this notion as another form of subsidy publishing, and that, unquestionably, is what it is. But an industry subsidized by Marlboro cigarettes, Kellogg's corn flakes, and Alpo dog food is still preferable to the present system subsidized by authors.

All the best,

Richard Curtis


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